URINETOWN by Mark Hollmann, lyrics by Hollmann and Greg Kotis,

and book by Kotis.

Royall Tyler Theatre, 2014

 

The show is a pastiche of equal parts Brechtian agit-prop theatre and the golden age of Broadway. After initial work analyzing the dramatic structure of a script, I tend to move to visualizing the world of the play. Being very familiar with musical theatre, I initially put considerations of that realm aside and began research on scenic design in the original productions of Brecht, which were heavily influenced by Erwin Piscator’s principles of “montage” in “Epic Theatre.” Truth be told, I hadn’t thought deeply about Brecht and Piscator since graduate school, but I had studied these German artists in depth because of the influences of Brecht and Epic Theater on Chicano/Political Theater of the 1960s, areas I focused on in my graduate work.

 

The Epic Theatre’s focus on socio-political content over Aristotle’s imperative to illicit “pity” and “fear” from audiences, brought me to consider the texture, composition and atmosphere of a theatrical world that would effectively comment on the tropes from which it was born. The elements from Epic theatre that most stuck with me included: large scale projections, architectural levels, and steel structures that spoke to the political themes of labor, resources, and industry. These considerations were the driving forces that influenced scenic design collaboration and led to a large two level steel unit, backgrounded by a huge screen upon which we projected images that suggested the necessary locations in the story. I was also very interested in the 1927 Fritz Lang film “Metropolis” as a metaphor for the corruption of a city. I worked with the projection designer to find images that referenced the style and composition of the Lang film.

 

Costume design choices were driven by the agit-prop theater 1930s time period, and by  references to archetypical Brecht and Blitzstein (i.e. The Cradle Will Rock). I felt the costume design was ultimately one the most fun aspects of the production. A perfect mash up of references to agit prop political theatre and a pastiche on the golden age of Broadway. We also had fun making additional references to Broadway through staging in several of the musical numbers. “Follow Your Heart” included staging from the balcony scene from West Side Story, the Act I finale included a marching segment reminiscent of Les Misérable, and the “Mr. Cladwell” number included a big old fashioned Broadway style kickline.

 

Central to Brecht’s “alienation” theory was the concept that audiences should be intellectually awakened to take social action rather than be anesthetized by the emotions of the characters’ situations in the story, or by a “realistic” acting approach. Yet, in reading first-hand accounts of original Brecht productions, audiences were awakened to social conditions only because they were emotionally moved due to the performances by the actors as characters within the given circumstances. Part of the magic for me in the process of directing is being open to the connection between how research can inform not only design choices but the approach to nuances of the acting style for a production. One of my primary jobs as the director is to identify the style of the work (the play or the musical) and ensure that all choices are in service of that style. The initial historical research on agit prop theater provided a great window of exploration into the acting style approach for Urinetown. I knew on a fundamental level, that although a pastiche, the approach would have to be anchored in a degree of truth for the characters in the play. I aimed for a parallel in the acting style with that of the approach to the design. The design had to comment upon and refer to production tropes of the past, but remain tethered to a core truthful representation of the material world the characters inhabited. In a similar way, the acting approach had to refer to the sheer conviction of political theater, as well as the naiveté of the golden age of musical theater, but it could not be disconnected to a truth for the characters. The actors would have to approach the story with an amplified sense of reality without going “over the top” and without mercilessly “making fun” of the style. I feel that in the end, after MUCH discussion and work with the actors, we found the right balance in our approach.

 

One of the greatest joys of working on the show was choreographing the musical numbers, each of which provided a great opportunity to find a gimmick or signature reference. The responses to several of the musical numbers (“Run River Run” and “Act I finale”) were among the strongest audience responses of any musical numbers I’ve set in my work. (And I didn’t mind that the review in the major Vermont publication attributed the choreography to my assistant!)

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