As Mark Lord planned the Bryn Mawr-Haverford Theater Program’s 2009 fall production, he took into account a factor he hadn’t needed to consider in previous years: a beautifully renovated, state-of-the-art theater facility.
With a greatly expanded stage and all-new lighting and sound equipment, Marjorie Walter Goodhart Theater brings together historic architecture and modern technology. In addition to the new stage, the $19 million facelift brings renovated seating and new restrooms for patrons, new dressing rooms and rehearsal space for performers and a teaching theater and additional classroom space for students.
Goodhart Theater, dedicated in 1928, has always been a stunningly beautiful building, said Lord, who is Bryn Mawr’s director of theater and chair of the Bryn Mawr Arts Program. Now it is also a great working theater, capable of transforming space in myriad ways.
But Lord has chosen to inaugurate Goodhart’s new teaching theater with a text that resolutely resists the illusion of transformation. Peter Handke’s 1968 piece Offending the Audience cleverly and dispassionately dissects the theatrical experience, refusing to transport the audience to a fictional time and place. Its insistence on the here and now makes the play a superb vehicle for exploring and displaying the physical space of the theater.
The Bi-Co production of Handke’s work “asks the audience to think differently about theater—and, in particular, to think differently about this theater,” said Lord’s assistant director, Jessica Rizzo ’11.
As the actors strip their relationship with the audience to its bare essentials, explicitly repudiating the artifice of traditional drama, they show the audience the theater’s machinery and illuminate spaces that are usually concealed. Lord’s staging ultimately takes the actors to the far reaches of the building, revealing almost every corner that is visible from the small stage at the building’s heart.
By design, almost every corner is visible. When the right doors and curtains are opened, the view from the teaching theater extends through the scene shop to the main stage, the auditorium seats, the balcony, and even a bit of the entrance foyer.
Site Specificity and Design
In Philadelphia avant-garde theater circles, Lord is known as a pioneer of site-specific theater, which is often staged in “found spaces” not designed for theatrical productions.
That interest, he recently told students in a directing class, was partly motivated by the constraints imposed by the antiquated theater he found when he began working at Bryn Mawr in 1988. Until its renovation last year, the historic building retained its original utility systems; its stage was very small by contemporary standards, and its narrow proscenium arch often presented staging challenges.
“I said, ‘Let’s not use it as a theater. It’s a great building, so let’s use it as a building,’” Lord said. “I worked often with Hiroshi to figure out how to use the spaces in this building to make events. I usually start with the space itself—I inventory the space and think about what kinds of events are possible in the space, what kinds of impulses I get from the space. Then I ask myself, ‘What are the texts that I care about that might work well in relationship to that space?’”
The renovation of Goodhart, Lord said, hasn’t changed his focus on space. But it has made a difference in his artistic process.
The College’s arts faculty consulted extensively with the architects who handled the renovation, over a period of several years, about its requirements for the building. Consequently, Lord said, “Hiroshi and I were pretty familiar with this space before it even existed. I knew all sorts of things it could do, and for this production I wanted to get to as many of them as I could.
“Offending the Audience was chosen partly because it was friendly to a set of ideas about space,” he explained.
Speeches and Spaces
Sitting in Goodhart’s splendid auditorium, Rizzo drew an analogy between the exploration of language in Handke’s text and the exploration of space in Lord’s staging of it.
“The piece exposes the pure elements of theatrical experience. Its language is clean, it’s stark; it isn’t intended to make itself into something different or refer to something outside itself,” she said.
“Sometimes, that language is ugly—like the insults that are hurled at the audience at the end of the play—or very utilitarian.”
The current production, she said, applies a similar rigor to its examination of the new performance spaces in Goodhart. “For instance, the audience sees the scene shop, which is part of this amazing new complex. There’s nothing beautiful about the scene shop. It’s wonderful, because it allows us to do very practical things that Mark and Hiroshi hadn’t been able to do, but it doesn’t aspire to be beautiful.”
But the play does offer the occasional glimpse of a more poetic kind of language, Rizzo noted. “It provides an opportunity for reflection on language, on what it means to be addressed, on past experiences of plays and theatergoing, that may affect your experiences of plays you will see in the future.”
Similarly, the soaring Gothic-revival architecture of the historic auditorium is visible to the audience through the scene shop, which connects the old stage to the new.
“This space, the grand old traditional theater, is worked into the piece, but we’re looking at the theater topsy-turvy and inside out and from different angles,” Rizzo says. “It really is a space unlike any other.”
Offending the Audience will be presented on Nov. 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, and 21, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are free for Tri-Co students, faculty, and staff and $5 for the general public. Seating is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations are strongly suggested. Visit www.youchuckleheads.com or e-mail email@example.com to reserve a space.
Photos by Paola Nogueras ’84