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Welcome to the Arden Theatre Company blog, where we share behind-the-scenes stories and current happenings with you. You will hear from the Arden staff as well as actors and other visiting artists, and we hope to hear from you, too. If you have an idea for a topic, please post a comment about it. We can't wait to hear what you think!

By Matt Ocks, discount Manager of Institutional Giving

June 30th is the end of the fiscal year here at Arden Theatre Company, and the development department is in the midst of a mini-phone campaign to encourage former supporters to renew their contributions in time for us to make goal for the season.  As an added incentive, any increase they make over last year’s gift counts towards the Hamilton Family Foundation Challenge (audiences who have seen Sunday in the Park are already familiar with this challenge, as it’s mentioned nightly in a post-show speech by Jeff Coon).  If we raise $50,000 in new or increased gifts by June 30th, the Foundation will match that with an additional $50,000 for Children’s Theatre and our outreach program, Arden for All.

One of the questions I get asked the most by audience members when I talk about donations is why, after they already spent money on tickets, they need to contribute to the theatre as well?  And of course, the answer is – they don’t.  But if they can, by gum, they should!  Right?  As a theatre-maker reared mainly on Broadway shows, I struggle with this issue a lot.  After all, on Broadway, when a show doesn’t sell, it closes.  And if we think of the theatre as a business, than the idea that we should have to buy tickets and be asked to make donations does seem silly.

But perhaps the theatre is something else.  True.  It has many of the same qualities as a business – it employs a variety of highly trained craftsmen; those craftsmen create a product; that product is sold to the community.  And yet, by virtue of the transformative potential of what we produce – transformative for us and our audiences – we theatre-makers are by and large not in it for the profits.  But if theatre’s not just a business, what else is it?

When William Penn wrote his plan for the layout of Philadelphia, he insisted upon five public squares that would be open to everyone.   As far as he was concerned, we all had a right to spend time in these “havens of respite in a busy world.”  And if we’re all allowed to sit on a bench in Rittenhouse Square, throw pennies in the fountain at Logan Circle, or cut through the City Hall courtyard on our way to Market or Broad – shouldn’t we all be able to see Sunday in the Park at the Arden?  Is that show not also a haven of respite in our busy world – a world even busier, I might add, than the one Billy Penn was talking about?

Theatre is a commodity, but it is also every citizen’s right.  And until more people in our field start to position it that way, the argument that those who can afford to ought to both buy their tickets and contribute will not hold very much water.  At least, that’s what I think.

We did boffo business this season at the Arden.  We’re humbled by the thought that 100,000 ticket-holders passed through our doors.   If one third of those people contributed $10 on top of admission, we would already be above our individual giving goal for the season.

I put this argument forth not to be contrary or to make anyone who might have bought but not contributed feel guilty.  I’m merely a professional fundraiser who constantly calls in to question the need for my services.   Because, you see, a part of me still thinks theatre is just a business.  Even when I know it’s as essential to my life as relaxing in a park on…er…Sunday.

This is a complicated issue.  And I’m only talking about individuals.  I could write a whole treatise on whether or not the country’s government ought to be supporting the work of its artists.  But if summer is a time for reflection, I can’t think of a better topic theatre-wise to reflect upon.  So by all means, tell us what you think.  I’m sure there is more to be said here.

By Matt Ocks, Manager of Institutional Giving

We had great response to the post about “bed-time” stories to adapt a few weeks ago.  Having conducted some research into the titles suggested, I can now report the following:

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs:  Though this classic picture book about edible precipitation has recently been adapted into both a CGI film and a video game for PlayStation, it does not appear to have been adapted for the stage just yet.  Hmm.  Has the potential to be really fun for the person whose job it is to drop things from the catwalks.

Caps for Sale: According to a Google search, this play was adapted for something called Toddler Theatre at a place called Wild Horse Children’s Theatre in Carson City, Nevada.  I cannot find any info on the rights to performing this adaptation, and as this is theatre for toddlers, it might not have been a full production anyway.  I think this is a great idea, and I have a lot of actor friends who born to play monkeys.

The Boxcar Children:  Done!  Arden Children’s Theatre performed an adaptation of this book in our 2002/03 season.  It received 2 Barrymore nominations.

Go, Dog.  Go!:  This book was also already done for Arden Children’s Theatre in 2008, and it was nominated for 3 Barrymores.

Amelia Bedelia:  Various writers seem to have attempted musical versions of this series over the years but nothing recent.  Books are still being written (the most recent title came out in 2009), so the literal-minded maid is probably still known to kids.  If someone with a flair for comedy took a stab at this, it might provide a real showcase role for a talented comedienne.

A Wrinkle in Time:  This one’s a favorite of mine – and apparently a lot of other theatre folk too. An adaptation by John Glore was just recently produced at South Coast Rep.  (Glore’s other adaptations include The Stinky Cheese Man that we did in 2006).  Check out this link for more info on this production.

And that’s all I’ve got for now.  I’ll report back next week on some of the other titles suggested.  A few of them were new to me, so I am eager to learn more about them.  If anything, I’ve got some titles to add to my own personal reading list.

On a related note, members of our staff spent the weekend in DC at the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices Festival, where The Flea and the Professor, an Arden commission for Children’s Theatre, was workshopped alongside other new plays for kids.  This show is based on a story by the late, great Hans Christian Andersen, and it makes me think of another question for you all, even as I am still working on answering the first:

If you could adapt any FAIRY TALE, FOLK TALE, or FABLE into a kids’ play, which would it be?

By Matt Ocks, Manager of Institutional Giving

The Arden was founded by artists with a penchant for literary adaptation, >cheap and though our evening subscription series has diversified considerably since the late 1980s (read: Sondheim musicals, works from the canon by Arthur Miller and Thornton Wilder, new American plays by Michael Hollinger, David Davalos et al), our devotion to the printed word can still be seen most consistently in our Children’s Theatre programming.

Think of your favorite Arden Children’s Theatre show of the past 5 years. Chances are it shares a title with a book you read when you were a kid (important exceptions to this rule include the original show The Dinosaur Musical, as well as Sleeping Beauty, which is of course based on a beloved fairy tale). My favorite is The BFG. Not only was it a great show with exemplary performances and eye-popping staging, it was based on a book I had the great pleasure of reading when I was 9.

The act of producing Children’s Theatre is very much akin to the act of reading a bed-time story to your favorite kid or grand-kid, niece, nephew, cousin, etc. Don’t you often have the desire to choose a book you loved when you were their age, even if said kid doesn’t ask for it? I’m pretty sure my mom always got more out of reading The Little Engine That Could then I did. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a very inspiring story, and I found it very encouraging. But Mom had more life experience, more memories of the book than I did, and it resonated with her more deeply. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get choked up in the same way when I read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (a book whose passages resound in my mind to this day) with my own kid.

The reason I bring this up is: If Children’s Theatre offers grown ups the chance to introduce kids to the books they loved in a new and exciting format…what great books haven’t we done yet?

To put it another way: If you had the chance to read a bed-time story to 12,500 kids (the number who very well may see our If You Give a Mouse a Cookie), what old book from your childhood would you take off the shelf and adapt for them?

In my case, in addition to the aforementioned Chekhovian masterpiece of futility by Judith Viorst, I would pick The Wizard, the Fairy and the Magic Chicken, a purposefully stupid tale I made my mother read to me constantly when I was little and which, according to amazon.com, is now – most distressingly – out of print.

Let us know the kids’ book you would want to adapt, and we’ll try and let you know if someone’s beaten you to it, or if the chance to bring it to the stage still abounds.

By Matt Ocks, Manager of Institutional Giving

Today may be the start of baseball season here at home, but last Sunday was the end of an era for all of us at Arden Theatre Company.  Snow White Diner, a greasy spooned fixture of our Old City neighborhood, shut down for good after serving countless cheap and well-buttered meals to our casts, crews and staff.

And while the Arden’s Blog exists mainly to communicate with you – our readers – about the more nitty gritty details of running a non-profit theatre, from season planning with Ed to rehearsals with Evan, it seems only fitting that one of us should write about the lunch place that is no more.

I had a meal at Snow White on my first day of work at the Arden in 2006.  The plays, comics and books I have read there during the solitude of many a 3 PM lunch break include The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl, Watchmen by Alan Moore, Don Quixote,, The Satanic Verses, The Good German, The Boys of Summer, and, yes, Bruce Graham’s Something Intangible (There may be no better place to read a Bruce Graham play than at a joint like Snow White, over a cup of pasty spit pea soup with croutons and a greasy, grilled tuna melt sandwich).  My own first play, Cheesesteak Latkes, is even set in a diner like Snow White, that doesn’t stay open past 7, and hardly has any specials.

I’ve talked over a basket of fries with Arden stars like Michael Doherty, ordered fountain sodas with the Caroline, or Change strike crew, and inhaled greasy, toasted bread with other folks on our staff – the ultimate rejuvenating cure for an Arden opening night hangover.

Over the years I’ve voiced many complaints about Snow White.  “They oughtta stay open later!”  “They oughtta have liverwurst more!”  “What’s with those Styrofoam cups, hanh?!!”

But it was never the kvetching of a cranky curmudgeon who wanted the place to close.  It was the gentle critique of an attentive baseball coach who wants his team to do better.

Now that Snow White really is closed, and another trendy bar is about to open, I cannot help but wonder:  When things are looking grim on a 10-out-of-12 day, or the Inquirer review was bad, or the grant we sent in got rejected, where can we get puffy French toast, or a cup of some thick minestrone, or the honest-to-God world’s best coffee at a time when we really need it?

Because everyone who knows may go to Melrose, but everyone who works here went there.

So long, then, Snow White Diner.  I’ll be smelling greasy spoons in my dreams…

By Matt Ocks, >decease Manager of Institutional Giving

The Arden’s production of Romeo and Juliet runs for just 2 more weeks, >medicine and I, medicine for one, will be a bit sadder than usual to see this one end.  In my spare time, you see, I’m a playwright (or, rather, I try to be), and one of the things that draws me to the Arden is the company’s commitment to actually producing new plays.  But I wasn’t inspired to become a writer by the work of my contemporaries, or even writers a bit older than me.  Or even really old guys like Edward Albee (who I hope doesn’t read this blog.)  I was inspired, first and foremost, by Shakespeare.  (Well actually Chekhov and then Shakespeare, but the Terry Nolen production of Uncle Vanya I’ve been waiting for since I got here is, sadly, still not on the horizon, so we’ll just keep this part in parentheses).

The first Shakespeare play I read was Merchant of Venice. By accident.  I found it in a shoebox filled with my mom’s dusty college paperbacks and opened it when I was around 10 without realizing that it wasn’t a novel.  It was so good I read it anyway.  Then I read Midsummer Night’s Dream, mainly because I had seen a cartoon version of it on TV with Mr. Magoo as Puck, and I wanted to experience the original text.  Then in high school came comedies (As You Like It, The Tempest), tragedies (Hamlet, the Scottish play), and histories (Henry IV Parts 1 and 2). In college I even played Jacques in As You Like It, one of my favorite Shakespearean roles (and in many ways the precursor to another one of my favorite characters from literature, Eyeore).  I managed to deliver one of the most famous lines ever written – “All the word’s a stage” – without any self-consciousness.  I played my objective.  I made it organic.  (I also sometimes forgot what came after it). 

Romeo and Juliet is actually not one of my personal favorite Shakespeare plays.  As a writer, I can appreciate that it has essentially a perfect structure.  The language is – of course – remarkable.  The nuances of the characters make them remain – after all this time – incredibly convincing.  And yet I still think the play is over-done to the point that so much of it has become too cliché to ever be exciting in performance.

Which is why the surprises in the Arden production are so exciting.  I don’t want to write about all of them.  If you haven’t seen this production yet, get over here and see for yourself – new interpretations of the supporting roles, the director’s smart use of cutting and splicing (And purists of the world remember: Shakespeare himself liked to revise his texts!)

One thing I can write about – or, rather, really, really want to write about – is our balcony scene.  Prior to watching our production, the lingering memory in my mind was all hokey romantic platitudes and tight tights.  Our Romeo’s style is a bit more hipster-chic (pretty sure I saw him shopping at Retrospect one day when he wasn’t too busy sulking), but that’s just scratching the surface of what surprised me in our production.

My pal Evan and his co-star Mahira help make clear the constant shifts in address Shakespeare has given them.  Sometimes Romeo and Juliet are talking to each other.  Sometimes they are talking to themselves.  Sometimes they are talking to the audience.  It’s the sort of thing that only works in theatre.  In film or TV, such constant shifting is jarring.  And it highlights, in my opinion, the intelligence of these two characters, who are, in essence, each involved in 3 separate, simultaneous conversations.  It also highlights theatrically the awkwardness of youthful courtship, where you often regret on the inside what you just said to the other person outside.  And I defy anyone to write in the comments section that they cannot relate to that.

In my own writing (of plays, not grants), I often explore the relationships characters can have simultaneously with each other, the audience, and with their own psyches.  It helps make my plays funnier (I hope) and, though not more realistic, in my mind, more real.  I was encouraged to see that Shakespeare was doing the same thing.  Experienced former English Lit major that I am, I had forgotten that he put so much of my kinda writing in there.

It’s kind of like going for a long time without listening to the Beatles, then playing a song or two like “Love Me Do” and immediately remembering:  “Oh, yeah.  Every musician that came after is essentially just kidding, right?”  Watching Evan and Mah play that great scene – so surprising, so fresh, and so timely – reminded me that for all us post-Shakespeare playwrights, no matter how good we may ever get, in many ways we’re kind of just kidding.

And kudos to Shakespeare, because even though I walk out of the Haas Stage still knowing that, his work remains truly inspiring.

By Matt Ocks, >treatment Manager of Institutional Giving

At the Arden we’re having conversations about how best to engage you – the audience – in new work.  (You may not know it, but you are experiencing one of our methods right now, just by reading this blog entry.  To paraphrase Dirty Harry – You’ve got to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel engaged?  Well do ya?)  Anyway…

I’m a lifelong theatre buff, thanks in large part to my mother’s perhaps odd decision to take me to Into the Woods on Broadway when I was 5 (Turns out the whole thing is about sex and death.  Who’d a thunk it?).  Having now worked in development and stage management, not to mention as a writer, actor, assistant director, house manager, curtain speech giver, coffee fetcher, and teaching artist — I can honestly say that a lot of the things that first dazzled me about the theatre – like the giant head and the fake white cow – have now been demystified.

And as I listen to my colleagues debate ways to make the theatrical process more transparent, I tend to get anxious.  Isn’t part of the joy of being an audience member not knowing how we did it?  Are we depriving people of the mystery and intrigue of theatre by revealing too many of our secrets?

Arden Children’s Theatre is a great example. As many of you know, each show ends with a Q and A session where kids get to ask the actors how they did things in the show.  It’s inspiring to see so many kids with their hands raised.  But I think about when I was a kid.  I would come home after seeing a play and spend hours trying to figure out how they had achieved various effects.  I had construction paper and crayons and action figures and models.  Going to plays sparked my imagination.  If I had seen through the smoke and mirrors then, I might not be such a theatre guy now.

Or maybe I was just weird as a kid.

Strike that.

I was weird.

And the truth – as Ed Sobel pointed out to me not too long ago – is that a more informed audience is a more passionate audience.  To illustrate his point, Ed spoke about art museums.  A person gets more out of the experience of going to an exhibit if he/she took an art history course in college or a drawing course when they were a kid.

Having given this some serious thought, I would make the same point in another way.  If you’re watching a baseball game, and you’ve never played baseball or you have no idea about the rules of the game, it’s probably going to be a pretty boring experience.  But if you’re an informed fan – if you can tell the difference between a knuckle ball and a curve ball, a fast ball and a slider – you’re gonna find even the most uneventful pitchers’ duel more interesting.

The great thing about baseball is everybody’s an expert.  Those of us who watch the game know all about Chase Utley’s batting stance, Placido Polanco’s throwing arm (let’s hope he’s still got it!), and Jimmy Rollins’ stealing ability.  When the Phillies make a trade that many of us disagree with (Ahem.  Cliff Lee), we can talk about why this was a mistake intelligently.  Because we are informed.

Which brings me to my next point.  You see, dear readers, I, Matt Ocks, have finally figured out the best way to keep you, me, all of us engaged by the theatre:

Sportscasters.

Okay.  Not actual sportscasters.  But people who serve the same role in our field that Cris Collinsworth and Mary Carillo serve in the Olympics.  They keep us informed about how athletes prepare for each event, what they are going to be judged on, and – later  – how well they did.  If it wasn’t for this kind of coverage, I’m not sure how much I would have gotten out of curling the other night.

And I think maybe it does need to work the same way in theatre.  To appreciate – even to criticize – acting, for instance, you should know about how much work goes into crafting a performance; you should know what an objective is, what specificity does, etc.  The same goes for writing, designing and directing.  If you guys all knew as much about the process as we do, you’d be better judges not only of whether or not you like a play, but why you like or don’t like it.  In the same way that you can only get excited about Roy Halladay joiing the team if you understand the art of pitching and what it means for the Phillies to have him.  And how incredible it would have been to have him and Cliff Lee and…oh, never mind.

One final point about sportscasters:  I purposely chose Cris and Mary as my examples over, say, Al Michaels and Bob Costas, because they are not only sportscasters but people who played professional sports.  I don’t think that our “theatrecasters” can only be dramaturgs and arts journalists – people whose job it is to communicate what we do to the public.  I think actors, writers, directors and designers should also play a part in analyzing the work of their peers, giving the “play by play” so to speak.  After all, no one else knows better what it’s like to put everything on the line, on stage, in front of a dark room full of strangers.  No one else is better equipped to judge failure, success and everything in between.

At least in my opinion.  Others may (and probably do) disagree.  I also wonder – if you do agree with me – if you have any thoughts on how active and former theatre artists could play a larger role in “covering” theatre the way Scott Hamilton covers figure skating.

I welcome any response you may have to this in the comments section.

And that includes commiserating over the loss of Cliff Lee.  Did Ruben Amaro watch the world series?!!

Sheesh.

By Matt Ocks, Manager of Institutional Giving

This past weekend may have been Super Bowl Sunday, treat but the week started with PTI Monday for all of us in the Philadelphia theatre community.

PTI is short for Philadelphia Theatre Initiative, a grant program made possible by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the University of the Arts. Every year the Arden and other companies in town submit in depth proposals for funding of projects of the highest artistic caliber.

The Arden’s past PTI projects include some of our finest work (in my opinion): Assassins, Candide and my personal favorite Arden show, Caroline, or Change. This year PTI is helping us to make Sunday in the Park with George a reality. That show has a pretty famous number called “Putting it Together” in which George remarks, “art isn’t easy.”

Having worked in professional theatre for 4 years, I can honestly say George is right.

And he’s also wrong.

At the end of a reading we held last week, I went up to talk to an actor who happens to be a pal of mine. I asked about what shows he was working on these days. I remarked that he must be tired, as he has a lot on his plate. “Eh,” he said to me. “Beats working for a living.”

Actors, designers, grant writers. We do all work very hard, often for meager pay, on projects we have a deep personal connection to, the success or failure of which hinges upon the opinion of a select group of others who probably don’t feel as connected to what we’re working on as we do. (We rehearse each play 52 hours a week for a month after all. Audiences are with it a few hours, tops).

But in spite of the blood, sweat and egos, theatre people are pretty lucky. We get to work on things we are passionate about. We get to use our imaginations every day. And if we’re in rehearsal or production, we don’t have to show up on Monday.

When Stephen Sondheim wrote that lyric – “art isn’t easy” – back in the early 1980s, he couldn’t have known how prophetic it was. Funding for the arts was getting scarce then, but nation-wide it’s even worse now. We lost a generation of audiences because of cutbacks on arts programs in schools. The budget for the NEA was nearly cut in half in 1996. This year, due to the state of the economy…well, that’s beating a dead horse, isn’t it?

Besides, in Philadelphia, we theatre people are – dare I repeat myself – lucky. Thanks to grant programs like PTI, we can still take risks and advance our company.

The process is, of course, highly competitive. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first deadline this year fell between the Super Bowl and the start of the Olympics.

In the art of making art, PTI pushes theatre folk to truly go for the gold.

By Matt Ocks, >medical Manager of Institutional Giving

This morning I attended an information session at the offices of the Independence Foundation here in Philadelphia. The Foundation is about to launch a new funding initiative that will encourage the theatre companies in our town to create new play development programs, very much in the spirit of our own Independence Foundation New Play Showcase, the program that brought you Opus and Something Intangible.

“New Play Development” has become something of a buzz term in the funding community. Developing new work has helped our company leverage increased national support. That support, in turn, is helping us bring new writers to Philadelphia. Of the three playwrights most recently commissioned by the Arden, only one has had his work produced here in the last couple seasons (That would be Jordan Harrison, whose Kid Simple was put on by Azuka). We get to help Jordan develop his first piece for kids. A workshop of The Flea and the Professor, his hip and witty adaptation of a little known Hans Christian Anderson story is happening this week.

Someone at the meeting today told us to think of these new grants as “risk money.” In other words, money we can use to play with, experiment. The folks at Independence are not as interested in results (though, of course, they hope our work leads to actual productions!). What they’re interested in most of all, I think, is supporting the process by which we develop work, whatever that may be.

Often times, when people ask what I do at the Arden, I say, “I’m kind of a producer” rather then go into the gritty details of what it means to work in development. But saying that word – “Producer”- often conjures up, for me at least, images of Zero Mostel cavorting with little old ladies. (Thanks a lot, Mel Brooks).

I’m sure my bosses at the Arden don’t think of themselves as latter day Max Bialystocks. Nor do I. And I’m glad we don’t have to resort to the same degrading measures in order to get new plays on their feet. I’m especially glad to work in Philly, where the philanthropic community is so attuned to the needs of our producers. It’s a rare thing indeed to find a foundation willing to grant us money so we can go off and play.

If only Bialystock and Bloom had had it so easy…

By Matt Ocks, mind Manager of Institutional Giving

My boss Terry just asked me to pull a quote from Alan “History Boys” Bennett, and it got me to thinking.

But first off, here’s the quote:

“…theatre is often at its most absorbing when it’s school.”

The History Boys, of course, is set in a school in northern England. During the run of Peter Pan, a whole bunch of us Ardenites got to visit actual students in actual schools thanks to Arden for All, the theatre’s educational outreach program. Blue Door, which opens next Wednesday, is not set in a school, but it is the second play in the season to feature a teacher in turmoil.

And maybe this is a stretch, but even our recently closed Rabbit Hole with its scenes of intergenerational connection, could be viewed as a play about teaching. In my favorite scene, when Becca and her mother Nan clean out Becca’s son’s room, Nan teaches Becca a lot about what to expect from her grief in the coming years.

Romeo and Juliet has student/teacher-ish relationships as well, such as Romeo and Friar Lawrence and Juliet and her Nurse. The main character in Sunday in the Park with George gets frustrated because the people he cares about don’t fully grasp his art. Who knows? Maybe if George was a better teacher, he and Dot wouldn’t have to – ahem – “move on.”

The interweaving of school and theatre is especially important to me. I help put on plays, but my mom is a school librarian. Storytelling – whether on stage or in the classroom – is the family trade.

I’m often struck by how much our rehearsal hall resembles a classroom. Dramaturgs come in to share historical background with the actors. A director shares a personal story to make a challenging passage in a play more relatable.

Teachers also make great protagonists for plays. Hector and Mrs. Lintott are mightily compelling. I know from talking to my pals Frank X and Maureen Torsney-Weir that they are also very satisfying to play. I’ll bet playing Lewis – the math professor in Blue Door – is equally satisfying, and not just because the guy doing it, Johnnie Hobbs Jr., is a teacher himself at the University of the Arts.

David Howey, who played the Headmaster in The History Boys, also teaches acting at the University of the Arts. One of the joys of assistant directing that play was watching him work with several of his current and former students. I have no doubt that he is a great instructor at school, but at the Arden he taught by example.

Teachers tend to be colorful characters in life and in plays, and the connections between theatre and school are deep and varied. I’m loving the responses to my colleague Ed Sobel’s entry about season planning for next year. I’m also loving this season because it’s all about the art of teaching.

As people continue to chime in with play suggestions, can anyone recommend other plays about teachers? Even if our Artistic Department doesn’t program them next year, this particular blogger would love to add them to his syllabus.

By Matt Ocks, Manager of Institutional Giving

“Write what you know” is an old adage in the theatre, and it’s probably the reason so many of our country’s worthy playwrights excel at writing stories about their family. Tennessee Williams gave us the Wingfields in The Glass Menagerie; Eugene O’Neill the Tyrones in Long Days Journey Into Night; and our own Bruce Graham the Burks in his first great play, Burkie. I’ve never met Tanya Barfield, the acclaimed author of Blue Door, currently in rehearsals for a January opening here at the Arden, but if I do get the chance, the first think I’ll ask her is how she wrote such a darn good play about people she doesn’t know.

The main character’s dilemma in Blue Door, you see, is that he has no real understanding of the history of his own family. And his lack of understanding may cost him his wife and his integrity, not to mention a good night’s sleep. Yet Lewis’ problem – and Barfield’s by extension – is a common one for African Americans. Whereas Williams, O’Neil and Graham would have had enough information to write not only about themselves but about their parents, grandparents, and even great-great-grandparents, Barfield may have been hard-pressed to find actual historical information about her own ancestors to draw upon in creating Simon and Jesse, the ghosts of Lewis’ lineage who visit him in this play.

Alex Haley believed he was descended from the slave Kunta Kinte, but in spite of years of copious research and travel, he still had to posit Roots, the ostensible history of his own family, as a work of imagination. Today’s scientists have made giant leaps forward in the study of genealogy that might have helped Haley with his research. But anyone looking to DNA testing for answers still needs historical evidence to help pinpoint the origins of their family tree. (For more on the challenges – and successes – African Americans are now having in combining science and history in the search for their lineage, check out this link to African American Lives, a program that aired on PBS in 2006 and was hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

My family is Jewish, and I am only three generations removed from life in Teplick, a shtetl (or small village) in the Ukraine. My great-aunt had the foresight to record the histories of her older sisters before they passed away, and I now have a written document chronicling their immigration to Brooklyn and later Philadelphia (reading it is kind of like watching Fiddler on the Roof without songs). It’s a great thing to have, but it still only takes me back as far as 1900. My roommate’s mother (of English descent) once told me she had papers documenting her family’s arrival in Virginia when it was still a colony. She can trace her roots back past the 1700s.

As much as any of us may know about our family, there will always be things we can’t know. Yet the desire to seek out one’s roots appears to be universal, and it’s a driving force behind Blue Door. It’s also a testament to Barfield’s prowess as a playwright that she could write what she knows by writing what she doesn’t know.

Which kind of makes me wonder – if you’ll excuse the digression – how did the other Arden playwright of the moment, J. M. Barrie, write the geography of Neverland if he didn’t really know it? Hmmm…

©2009 Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. For tickets, call 215.922.1122.
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