Our Town: As much as things change, they always stay the same

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Bob Frazer talks about his company's production of Thornton Wilder's classic.

By: Tessa Perkins

First published in The Peak.

Sitting at a picnic table beside the main stage tent at Bard on the Beach, Bob Frazer explains that Thornton Wilder and Shakespeare have one very important thing in common: they wrote plays about human emotions.

“One of the great things about Shakespeare, and why I firmly believe he gets done over and over again, is that he doesn’t deal with his time period, he doesn’t deal with what’s going on, he deals with human emotions. Our Town may take place between 1901 and 1913, but that’s not the point. The point is that it deals with human emotions and human truth.”

As his summer acting in Equivocation and Cymbeline at Bard on the Beach comes to a close, Frazer’s company, Osimous Theatre, has started rehearsing their production of Our Town. The play has been around since 1938 and is still so popular that it is staged daily somewhere in the world. It hasn’t been done professionally in Vancouver in over 20 years, and Frazer said he thinks this has to do with the play’s unfortunate reputation as a play reserved for high school drama class or community theatre.

“It’s unfortunate because the core of the story is something you can’t really understand when you’re in grade 10 or 11. There’s a reputation that goes with the play that it’s hokey and sentimental,” said Frazer, “but it’s much deeper than that. It’s one of the most beautiful plays ever written. It’s sad because if you do it with people who understand that life is slipping away from them, it’s going to have more resonance — and that resonance is going to carry over into an audience.”

Osimous Theatre will immerse the audience in this play in a unique way, as they plan to perform it in a church with flexible seating arrangements. “The audience isn’t seated in normal seats. In fact, they come to the show and we say ‘hey where do you want to sit? What do you want to sit on — do you want to sit on that couch? Ok let’s move it over here.’” They will arrange the seating based on where audience members want to sit, and the seven-member cast, playing multiple characters, will play through, among, and in between them, allowing for a new perspective on a traditional play. 

Our Town will likely make you look at the theatre and the world around you in a new way.

Audience members will also have a chance to say a line or two in the play. As people enter, explained Frazer, they will choose a few audience members and ask them if they’re willing to say a line. “There’s a couple of lines from the audience in the play, and just at the moment they’re supposed to say it we’ll just shove them a cue card and they’ll say the line. They don’t know what they’re saying until they read it.”

The two intermissions will also provide some unexpected changes to the traditional theatre experience. “We’re moving the sets throughout the intermission, so when you come back your seat won’t be in the same place.” Suddenly you’ll be looking a different way and have a different perspective. “It will be fun, I hope people can find their seats again,” laughed Frazer.

Depending on where they’re seated, audience members may be so immersed in the action that they essentially become part of the set. “At the end, the audience may find themselves sitting in a place they were sitting the whole time and realize that it actually becomes a set piece. What we are trying to do is just allow people to fall into the play without forcing them into the play.”

In a similar way, the unassuming plot, or lack of plot, draws people in before they realize it. “The funny thing about this play is that there’s no real conflict, no real story arc. The first act is called ‘A Day in the Life,’ and it’s just these people, and yet within these people who are complicated and complex, you recognize your life.”

This is the beauty of what Wilder is doing in Our Town. “He’s showing us life, and then all of a sudden by the end of it you find yourself involved in these characters — and it’s not that you’re involved in their life — but what you find is that your life has suddenly become intertwined with their lives.”

A major theme of the play is time slipping away, as well as the idea that our lives are very similar in terms of the everyday things we all experience. “One of the things Thornton Wilder talks a lot about is numbers. He uses the words millions, hundreds, thousands, etc, and he’s trying to show you that our lives are always the same. You’ve done the same things that I’ve done and our ancestors have done and the next generations will do the exact same things,” said Frazer.

“They’ll all get married, they’ll all live and die, they’ll all go through love and hate — it’s the same thing. They’ll cook breakfast; they’ll eat lunch, see the sun set, and he says that’s ok; that’s what life is. Don’t expect it to be anything more than that.” He is trying to illustrate that while your life is unique, it has been done millions of times before.

This theme resonates with people of any generation, and as Frazer explained, we all go through a period of distraction where we’re not seeing those everyday moments and not really noticing our lives as they pass by. “Back in the 80s when I was a teenager, it was all about hair bands, and partying, and ACDC, and it was just a frivolous time. And you realized, wow I wasted so much time doing that. Today everyone’s texting everybody — they don’t look up and see the world — but we were on our walkmans; we were playing Atari. It was totally the same, yet so different. It’s not relevant to any one time because it’s relevant to all time.”

It’s relevant to all time, and also relevant to all places. The play is set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners with many references to Massachusetts and the provinces above New York, but Frazer explained that there was no need to set the play in Vancouver or change these references. “It’s a universal play. It’s profound in the sense that it’s about life, and that life exists anywhere. It doesn’t just exist in Massachusetts or Grover’s Corners or New York; it exists here as well.” The only updates to the play are things like the pocket watch that is now an iphone and their modern clothing. 

Our Town will likely make you look at the theatre and the world around you in a new way. One of the most famous lines in the play occurs when the protagonist Emily asks the stage manager, “Do human beings ever really realize life while they live it, every, every minute?” He replies, “No, maybe the poets and saints, but no, nobody does.”

“I think that’s what the audience gets from it — they fall in love with people they recognize or themselves and then they walk away going ‘am I seeing life?,’” explained Frazer. Perhaps audiences will pay more attention to life’s little moments that Wilder is talking about. “He’s talking about the everyday things — the smell of bacon, or the sound of your mother’s voice, or your dad’s smell — his aftershave, whatever that is. That’s what Thornton Wilder is saying that we miss all the time, and that’s why it’s profound because once you understand that you start to see the world differently.”

As he’s working with his company to mount this play, Frazer said that one line from Wilder’s prologue has stuck with him: “All you need for the climax of Our Town is five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”

Our Town will be presented by Osimous Theatre September 30 to October 18 at the First Christian Reformed Church. For more info visit osimous.com.

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