Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Directing Charles Mee's "bobrauschenbergamerica"

"Something old. 
Something new. 
Something Borrowed. 
Something Red, White, & Blue"

This variation on the old adage about weddings sprang to mind as we endeavored to (re)produce this unique contemporary play here at Hope College.  "bobrauschenbergamerica" is a broad comedy that takes its name from Robert Rauschenberg, the 20th century visual artist who specialized in collage work utilizing found objects and materials.  He famously created a hybrid of painting and sculpture which he called Combines. In "bobrauschenbergamerica", playwright Charles Mee sets out to write a play as if Rauschenberg were the playwright.  In so doing, Mee assembles disparate styles, original and existing texts, music, and dance to create his own theatrical collage.  The unconventional journey provides a roller coaster ride for the senses.  Rather than a direct biographical portrait, the resulting play reflects America and the American spirit which is as diverse and beautiful as collage itself.

Something Old:
The play draws from some very familiar forms including vaudeville, variety shows, and even sketch comedy.  Originally written for and in collaboration with SITI Company led by director Anne Bogart, the play premiered in the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2001.   Their significant contributions in that original collaboration made a lasting impact on the very DNA of the piece.  Additionally, the play incorporates our own collective notions of America including our most nostalgic and idealized versions. On my own part, this has conjured many humble memories of my family  playing baseball in the front yard, playing checkers with my dad, tapping along to Square Dances, or watching Laugh In and Hee Haw on television.  Ultimately, the familiar stories of falling in and out of love, which are woven throughout the play, are probably the oldest element of all.  Everyone shares in this universal experience and Charles Mee gives us the opportunity to find and perhaps laugh at ourselves.  

Something New:
The most obvious new element is that of our exciting young ensemble here at Hope College.  These fresh-faced 21st century actors bring a youthful energy to this playworld.  Together as collaborators, we have have found our own interpretation and offered a new theatrical design supported by a new soundtrack.  These performers have their own way of dancing and ultimately, have brought their own humanity and sense of timing to the party. Furthermore, our 2013 production finds us in a very different context too.  We are now well into our second decade of this century and have just marked a new inauguration after a long and exhausting election year. Much has changed within our country in the dozen years since the play's original premiere.  That production was born during a troubled 2000 election and toured in the aftermath of 9/11.  While the play does not address these issues directly, the ever-complex question of what it is to be an American certainly lingers.  Under our current atmosphere, we have found that these questions resonate in entirely new ways with these new voices.  Indeed, it feels right presenting this exuberant show now at a college called Hope.

Something Borrowed:
In the play, Charles Mee borrows freely from existing texts, Walt Whitman’s poetry, real life characters, popular song and dance along with his own original storylines and situations.  The resulting collision of the old and the new, the familiar and the bizarre is inspired and borrowed from Rauschenberg's aesthetic.

Something Red, White, & Blue:
Here, I had to build upon the old adage because the play is not merely blue in tone.  It is not a drama, but a brightly colored comedy that at times is as bombastic as a 4th of July parade. The driving spirit within it is that of America itself as a vast entity, ever-evolving.  In the hands of Charles Mee's joyful comedy, this pluralism is something worth celebrating. 

Donnie Mather directs & choreographs "bobrauschenbergamerica" at Hope College in Holland, Michigan on Feb. 15-16 and 20-23, 2013. For more information, please visit: 


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