“What is the name of someone I love?” My fingers hovered over my keyboard as I paused.
I went to see Pony World’s “Not / Our Town” (written and directed by Brendan Healy) for the last-minute, extra Nov. 30 performance, tacked on due to just how sold out the run was. The two others I went with made us a royal flush of familiarity with the American theater standard “Our Town”: one had read it during their upbringing as a theater maker, one had read it the night before the show and I’d never touched it. I vaguely knew there was a sad monologue about a dead daughter, but that was it, and from the show’s reputation of being a dry, boring standard … I wanted nothing to do with it. When I saw “Not / Our Town” selling out, I decided now would be a good time to figure out if the hype for the original play could stand its ground.
Here is one definition of “Our Town”: “Our Town” is a play written by Thornton Wilder in 1938 that has since received a Pulitzer and a Tony. This acclaim has brought it to Broadway, to community theaters nationwide and to the silver screen, in each painting pictures of both daily life and the human life cycle in a charmingly subversive way for the time.
Here is another definition: “Our Town” creates the theatrical equivalent of masses of wet wipes clogging up the sewers. Living playwrights would like to have a word.
“Our Town” is known throughout nearly every level of theater in the United States — nearly every day, a high school in the country puts it on. “Not / Our Town,” in comparison, has been produced once. Each night, at 12th Avenue Arts in Capitol Hill, as the lobby filled and the house opened, the audience was given choices on how the show would be performed. Props or no props? Should the dance break be old-fashioned or modern? (There’s a dance break?!) What if “Our Town” felt like a mystery or like a different playwright wrote it?
Throughout the performance, there is an honest and half-completed attempt to perform “Our Town.” This is the utmost wish of Mark Fullerton, who performed with such trembling honesty that when later he transitioned to sit with the audience, he felt welcomed and understood as a watcher. On the other end of the spectrum is Amber Walker, who plays his daughter. Amber has been fed a steady diet of “Our Town” her entire life. Her father produced it every year, had her perform in it several times and, through this relationship, fostered in her a seething hatred for anything to do with the show.
When the initial debate started, Amber immediately called out how sexist, outdated and bor-ing “Our Town” was. I felt called to cheer and clap. “Not / Our Town” came out at the beginning of what I sourly call “Dickens Season” in theater. The more reimaginings, rewritings, new visions, old visions and just whatevers of “A Christmas Carol” go on, the less I want to do anything with it.
Like Amber, I’m not about tradition. I love new plays, experimental plays and plays that might or might not work. Going into “Not / Our Town,” the questions on my mind were: Is this just giving “Our Town” free press? What are the goals of “Not / Our Town”? Is this even going to work on someone who didn’t really give a fuck about “Our Town” to begin with?
One of the answers that “Not / Our Town” offers is this: “Our Town” is produced because it is still producible. Its iterations are a defense of its longevity.
“Our Town” as originally written requires very little to create: The props deemed necessary by the script are very few, so everything else is, dramaturgically speaking, extra credit. It’s written in recent English about an American town that could feasibly be picked up and put down again in a wide variety of places and look right at home. There’s more than enough room for diversity in the ensemble, and the script offers roles for multiple generations of actors. As a well-known show, “Our Town” invites theater regulars and fair-weather patrons alike.
“Not / Our Town,” alternatively, required a showing of the ensemble’s best. Flexibility to roll with the top-of-show votes demonstrated a tremendous amount of practice and playfulness between the actors. Anchoring performances included Agastya Kohli, Sophia Franzella and Alanah Pascual, who each played “Our Town” characters in addition to being their real selves in a generously vulnerable show. Depending on what the audience chose before the show, the level of props involved went anywhere from none at all to dozens of red ping pong balls cascading suddenly yet silently from the ceiling. Now this, according to my “Our Town”-resistant perspective, was theater, and the play that’s dominated American playhouses for nearly a century no longer deserved the label.
I find myself increasingly sick of the cornerstones of The Holy Indomitable Western Theater Canon, tired of how they dominate my analysis, fearful of how they eat up space that living, local, underrepresented playwrights yearn to fill, and the slime of it all drove me to alter the way I make, view and interact with theater for 365 days, starting Jan. 1, 2023.
Here’s my big secret, aired fresh for you all: I’m quitting Shakespeare for a year. No reading, watching, auditioning or performing. No reimaginings, no based-on stories, no queer remixes or modern tellings no matter how cool, fresh or relevant I think they are. One year without Bill in my back pocket.
When I touched down at “Not / Our Town,” I expected to be affirmed and energized to kick this project off, wrapped up with a “See, we can retire ‘Our Town,’ so what else can we move on from?” bow. I had an entire document typed up with clauses and rules and self-defense ready to go at the click of a POST! button literally the next day. When I came home, I sat myself beneath my wall of playbills from this year’s Seattle theater and asked if, by cutting Shakespeare out for even just a year, I would sever the connection with my community and lose more than I gain.
On the surface, what this challenge has meant for me so far is turning down job opportunities, putting off my plans to see “Fat Ham” on Broadway and raising concern among peers, which all in a way fed my flame of ambition. Until I stepped into the theater at 12th Avenue Arts, I felt myself to be this rising champion of reading new work and immersing myself in small, local theater that cried for visibility. But now, I see elucidated a truer intention of my challenge from the way “Not / Our Town” touched me. When Amber experienced the loss of her father, following argument after argument for her entire adolescence, the bridge to her expression was through Emily’s famously haunting monologue original to “Our Town” to reach out to her parents and grieve her mistakes.
Thus, I allow myself to know the way that Shakespeare has influenced me, and I will take this next year (still “Shakeless in Seattle”) to confront that influence in a way much gentler than originally envisioned. I’ll plunge into the deep end in January, but, in the tides of finding what fits into Bill’s old spot from which he’ll be taking a sabbatical, I’ll ask myself: What new words could I use to shape my theatrical art when I remove one of theater’s greatest definers from my practice? What is it about the practice that, in fact, defines me?
Here is one definition of “Not / Our Town”: It’s a necessary conversation with theater about why we make what we do.
Put your definition here:
“What is the name of someone I love?” asked the last question of the preshow survey. The previous questions hadn’t been about us. My friend and I took a breath and wrote each other’s names.
W. Barnett Marcus is an actor and playwright living in Seattle who can be found on Twitter @waldenbarnett.
Read more of the Dec. 21-27, 2022 issue.