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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sunday Feature: Steven Schipper on Gone With The Wind

(photo credit: grajewski-fotograph inc)
On Gumption and Defenses
by Steven Schipper, Artistic Director, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

Here are two items: my remarks to the assembled cast, crew and staff at the “meet and greet” on the first day of Gone With the Wind rehearsal, and two samples of observations made by Dr Michael Eleff, a psychiatrist I consult about each play I direct.  

From GONE WITH THE WIND Opening Remarks
December 7, 2012

Margaret Mitchell said GONE WITH THE WIND is about survival, especially gumption.

For those of you who don’t know what gumption is, if you are here voluntarily, you have gumption.  


It’s an honour to welcome everyone here.  Some of you are new.  Many are returning.  Some I had the pleasure to work with on ROMEO AND JULIET last year.  We set it in modern-day Jerusalem, which went very well.  

Building on that success, and mindful of the boffo box office we did for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and seeing how Gerald has three daughters, I have chosen to keep our production in the 1860’s, also in Georgia, but in Georgia, Russia, in a shtetl.  We are going to call it “GONE WITH THE VIND”. 

Our play began during a conversation between one of our many unsung heroes at MTC, our producer, Laurie Lam, and our playwright, Niki Landau.  They were working on another project and Laurie said, “Wouldn’t it be great for MTC to have another experience like the one we just had with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?”  Niki said, “As a matter of fact, there’s a novel I’ve loved for a long time.”  

That good idea and three dollars will buy you a cup of coffee.  

our strengths are our story, these characters brought vividly and immediately, in terms of proximity, to life

The reason we’re standing here today is because Niki Landau and dramaturg Joanna Falck delivered an inspired stage adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND that would compel any theatre to produce it. 

Thank you to all our design, production and administration teams, for all you’ve done to date that has prepared us so well, and given us this opportunity to work in a safe, creative environment, and create the play as best we can imagine.

And thank you, in advance, for all of your good humour, positive energy, dedication, and artistry as we all bring this adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND to life.  

A key moment in our play’s development occurred in New York, when our set designer, John Lee Beatty, asked me, “If the playwright’s name wasn’t on the first page, would you say it was a Shaw play or a Chekov play?  Would it be Albee or Tennessee Williams?”  I suggested, “None of those.  Ours is an adaptation.”

And before I could apologize, as I’m wont to do, John Lee said, “Aha. I think that’s very helpful.”

And I do think it’s helpful to understand that our strengths are our story, these characters brought vividly and immediately, in terms of proximity, to life.  Our actors are ideal.  For some of you here, your parts were actually written with you in mind; most recently by Niki Landau, but even Margaret Mitchell had you in mind.

Our artistry will include much theatricality, most notably through the use of sound.  We’ll establish an audio vocabulary off the top when Mammy and Young Scarlett are using the basin to wash the mud from Young Scarlett’s hair.  There’ll be no water in the basin, but we’ll hear the splash when Young Scarlett dunks her head under the water.  

We’ll hear the Tarleton dogs and horses waiting nearby.  We’ll hear Gerald’s horse’s hooves when they approach.  And ultimately, when Scarlett and Rhett turn back to look at Atlanta, their buggy seat down centre, they’re looking at the fire we just heard in the auditorium.  

As thrilled as we all are by the potential of this play’s future, we all have to do what’s right to get it right, right now; and all we need to do to make that happen, is to keep on keeping on.   To keep it real, keep our heads focused on the moment.  After all, we are just a theatre company putting on a beautiful play, hoping that the world will love us.

Transcribed from discussion with Dr Michael Eleff, April 2012:

The genius of Gone With the Wind is in the creation of these two incredibly rich characters, and in a sense, everything else – all of the other characters, all of the history, the setting of the story – it’s all kind of window dressing and structure around creating, establishing and maintaining the development and the attraction between Scarlett and Rhett. Like Hamlet, and some other relatively well-known characters like Willie Loman, the capacity to create and present real, rich characters, complex, three-dimensional, believable but also unbelievable, fictionalized characters that leave you thinking, “Wow, she’s really something else, that Scarlett O’Hara, he’s really something else, that Rhett Butler”; not “Oh I know somebody who’s just like her” or “I know someone who’s just like him”. I don’t, particularly, and it isn’t a question of, oh, that’s because they’re completely unrealistic.  Real character, real personality, like biting a gold coin and denting it with your teeth to see if it’s real gold, should and does have an authenticity that you say, that’s a real interesting person. 

The other thing with Scarlett, there’s a distinction made in terms of psychological defenses, between repression and suppression.  Repression, you not only forget it, you forget you forgot it, it’s banished from consciousness.  Suppression is classically taught, by making reference to Scarlett O’Hara, saying,  “I’ll think about that tomorrow”, or when she comes home, and Mama’s dead, she says, “I can’t think about that or I’ll just never stop crying, I won’t think about that”.  And so one of her strengths and skills is the capacity to voluntarily and consciously and deliberately banish something from her own consciousness.  “I won’t think about that, I’ll think about that tomorrow.”  And at the very end of the play, she says three things, really.  First, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”  Second, “I’ll find some way to get him back”, meaning Rhett.  And third, “Tomorrow is another day.”  The capacity to retain optimism at the same time as having the nightmare of starvation that always hangs over her head and her sleep, is part of the richness of the character. 

Gone With The Wind will be at Manitoba Theatre Centre January 10-February 2

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