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Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Skin of Our Teeth celebrates humanity’s resilience

Director Sarah Rodgers talks about the upcoming Studio 58 production of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy

Studio 58, the professional theatre training program at Vancouver’s Langara College, continues its 52nd season with Thorton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy, The Skin of Our Teeth.

Described by Harvard and Oxford-educated teacher and critic, Francis Fergusson, as “a marriage of Plato and Groucho Marx”, Wilder described his own work as “the most ambitious project I had ever approached”.

And for good reason, as it chronicles how George and Maggie Antrobus (married for 5,000 years), their two children, and maid Sabina, narrowly escape one disaster after another, from ancient times to the present.

While it was written in 1942 during the height of World War II, it remains as pertinent today, celebrating humanity’s resilience in the face of climate change, floods, fire, plague and war. Breaking most every established theatrical convention at the time, it is now considered an American theatre classic.

We find out more from director, Sarah Rodgers.

This interview has been edited.

This Pulitzer Prize winning play is a very odd piece. What is going to be your take on it? 

The deeper my research and work goes with this play, the more I understand it and love this piece. This play seems to have even more resonance today.

It is an important and timely message of human endurance and resilience throughout the ages, but as we all try to survive the Trump era and climate change the themes of the play are utterly current. The play speaks for itself beautifully.  I have added some exciting new original touches for this production, but I want to keep that a surprise for you and the audiences.

When working with student actors do you approach rehearsal differently than with seasoned professionals?

I love working with students as it is an opportunity to teach and mentor while directing. I take great care with research and table work and will guide them gently on expectations of a professional rehearsal room. I don’t think I have ever dared to ask a pro what his or her objective is, but I often check in with student actors to help keep their work specific and action driven.

I love sharing stories and anecdotes from my professional career to help guide young actors once they enter the theatre community full time. I am sure many of my cohorts will attest that I love telling stories, so I think Rodgers’ story-time lives in student and pro rehearsal rooms.

What has been a surprising challenge with this production?

Each act is so disparate I feel like I am directing three different plays. I have placed act one in a very surprising, original setting, outside the usual living room, and it has proven to be very thrilling, while at the same time incredibly challenging.

What has been an unexpected discovery or happy accident that revealed itself in rehearsal?

I love live music and decided to use a few of the students to play live, even adding jingles from the period.  Then with the aid of a very inventive actor/musician and the brilliance of Joelysa Pankanea. we now have live Foley as well as music running throughout the show.

Wilder himself cites old musical hall comedies as his inspiration for the play so I think it is wonderfully fitting. My actor literally sat at the drum kit one day and began adding drum rolls and cymbal hits, and we were on our way.

What do you want audiences to walk away with from the experience?

I find this piece to be incredibly moving and tender and poignant, a hope and a reminder that in spite of everything and all obstacles we, the human race, will actually carry on. I think in today’s world this reminder is like a welcome love letter found in a bottle; a sweet message of hope.

My wish is our production fills the audience with hope for their daily lives and the future of the human race, with a few giggles along the way.

The Skin of Our Teeth plays Langara College’s Studio 58 (100 West 49th Ave, Vancouver) from February 1-18. Tickets are available online at Tickets Tonight.

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