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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 Ryan Prendergast, Arden Professional Apprentice

In the second act of The Whipping Man as Caleb and John prepare for their Passover seder, the elder slave Simon (Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.) announces that Abraham Lincoln is dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. He recalls the experience of meeting Lincoln only a few days before on the streets Richmond after the Union army occupied the city on April 4: “I walked out to him. And I stopped right in front of him. And he stopped. And we looked at each other… I bowed… Only thing I could think to do… [and] he bowed back… Only thing he could think to do I guess.”

Hearing these words in the play took me back to a sunny September morning when I stood on the sidewalk outside Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. It was the culmination of whole summer’s Lincoln pilgrimage. My mother is a huge fan of the Doris Kearns Goodwin bestseller Team of Rivals and that summer my family did it all: the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, the solemn Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery. Standing in the burial room with Lincoln’s body just below our feet was a surreal experience, only equaled by a visit to the colossus Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Ford’s Theatre was now the only stop left.

Ford’s Theatre is still an active venue, restored to its 19th century splendor. (The Lincoln box forever remains unoccupied out of respect.) The theatre was closed for rehearsals the day of my visit but the basement museum beckoned. Here the displays meticulously recreate Lincoln’s activities that day and offer an impressive array of artifacts, from the suit he wore to Ford’s Theater that fateful evening (his famous top hat rests a few blocks away at the Smithsonian) to the Derringer pistol used by John Wilkes Booth, and most ominously, a pillow stained with Lincoln’s blood.

Every single piece was important and significant, but something seemed to be missing. Here were the real things he wore and touched, but Lincoln still seemed a phantom of the past, close but somehow just beyond reach. Where was the conduit for this Lincoln of the past for us today? Hearing Johnnie Hobbs was the final spark. I saw Lincoln in his famous stovepipe hat bow to Simon on the charred streets of Richmond. He was real for me because he was real for Simon. None of the faded burial curtains or plaster masks seemed significant until that moment.

It’s really easy for a “history play” to become a “history lecture.” It’s a rarity when a figure from history steps out from the dusty pages and becomes something tangible, worthy of the apostrophe: “Father Abraham… there’s your Moses…”

 

By Leigh Goldenberg, Marketing and PR Manager

On Tuesday, November 15, members of the Arden’s Sylvan Society joined members of the National Museum of American Jewish History at the museum for an event inspired by our production of The Whipping Man. We noshed and had a glass of wine on the museum’s third floor, with a gorgeous view overlooking Independence National Historical  Park. Then, our Associate Artistic Director Ed Sobel led a discussion about American Jews during the Civil War with Rabbi Lance Sussman, from Congregation Keneseth Israel.

While the initial reaction to the premise of The Whipping Man (A Jewish Confederate Solider? With slaves who are practicing Jews, too?) might seem improbable or imagined, Rabbi Sussman gave us an overview of the time period that enforced playwright Matthew Lopez’s premise.  In the 1800s, a small percentage of Americans were Jewish, yet those Jews lived in various parts of the country, primarily in urban centers. And like all Americans, Jews were divided when it came to slavery, aligning with their neighbors and political affiliations rather than their religion. So yes, there were Jewish slaveholders and Jewish officers in the Confederate Army, just like Caleb DeLeon in our play.

The Whipping Man both celebrates and challenges tenets of the Jewish faith, which Rabbi Sussman addressed as well. Simon’s assertions about asking questions and wrestling with God have direct biblical ties. And while Judaism in no way encourages the treatment the DeLeon family gave to John, the Jewish people have a history (like people of most backgrounds) of using violence when in a position of power. Rabbi Sussman got a chuckle from the crowd when sharing this saying: Jews are just like anyone else. Except more so.

After the conversation, we were able to tour the museum’s permanent collection, which takes us through the history of Jews in America, beginning in 1654. The Civil War section features stories, documents, and artifacts that reflect the story from The Whipping Man. (I even spotted a reference to a DeLeon just across from a Confederate uniform that looks like Cody’s costume in the play!)

We are grateful to have such a rich and relevant resource in the NMAJH, just a few blocks from the Arden. If you’ve seen The Whipping Man, you’ll no doubt find value in viewing the collection. And if you’ve already been to the museum, or are intrigued about this period in America’s history, we welcome you to see The Whipping Man. You can even book a tour at the museum with tickets to the show! Get details on that package by calling 215.923.3811 x. 141

Now tell us, how does this play and time in history challenge or enforce your ideas?

By Christopher Colucci, Sound Designer for The Whipping Man

If I were, for some strange reason, asked the question “do you think there is a possibility that you will ever attend a Civil War reenactment in your lifetime?” I would have surely answered emphatically NO. I also never thought that I would have a reason to buy and to play an Autoharp; an instrument which I associated primarily with elementary school music classrooms. And I never imagined that my summer reading list would include books about African-Americans living in Richmond, Virginia in 1865; who happened to be both former slaves and Jewish. My work as the Sound Designer for the Arden Theater’s production of The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez (running through December 18th) gave me the opportunity to do all of these things.

One of my favorite parts about working in the theater is the opportunity it gives me to explore new ideas, new stories, and even new sounds that I might otherwise never get to experience; and so soon as I knew that I would be working on The Whipping Man I began to look for information that would help me to better understand the world of the play. In a script note, playwright Matthew Lopez recommends a book that influenced him in his writing; 1865: The Month That Saved America, by Jay Winik; which I bought, and in it read that according to ear-witnesses (a sound designer’s favorite kind!) to the battle of Richmond, where an estimated 100,000 shells were fired, the war sounded like “a flock of blackbirds with blazing tails beating out in a gale” and “a metallic storm.” An earsplitting roar to be sure. These details suggested to me that it might be interesting to begin our story with some of the terrifying sounds which precede Caleb’s entrance at the beginning of the play.

It occurred to me, too, that the impact of this battle cacophony might be stronger if it was preceded by a serene Civil War-era song. I discovered a recording of “All Quiet on the Potomac Tonight” (Click here to listen) which was originally published as a poem in Harper’s Weekly in 1861. The gentle, almost pastoral music belies the tragic story in the lyric, whose first verse ends with a beautifully melodic phrase about the death rattle of a soldier dying in the field. Terrifying battle sounds juxtaposed with peaceful music seemed like the perfect way to begin.

But how was I going to get the authentic Civil War battle sounds that were needed for the play? There are many, multi-terabyte sound effect libraries available to the film and theater designer which cover a mind-boggling diversity of sound needs – but none of them were able to give me the authenticity and specificity that I felt we needed. My solution came by surprise on a beautiful summer day in August; I just happened to be biking in the New Hope area when I came upon a sign saying that there would be a Civil War battle reenactment across the river in Lambertville, New Jersey that very afternoon.

Here’s a little sound designer secret – we always carry a recorder wherever we go. I had mine that day, and as a result in one afternoon I was able to gather all the artillery shots, all the cannon explosions, all the battlefield music and chatter; in short, all the authentic atmosphere I could have ever dreamed of. I also was able to take lots of pictures of the event which were then shared with the rest of the design team (at the bottom of this post) Thanks to all the men and women who participated in that Civil War Living History Weekend – you made our show that much better!

The Whipping Man has a number of scene transitions where different set pieces are added, taken away, or simply moved around on the set. This sometimes takes time; music and sound is a good way to help move things along, support the story, and to keep an audience fully engaged. I was looking for a music that would evoke the diverse cultures and identities that exist alongside one another in such a unique way in the world of this play. For example, there is a significant tradition of Civil War-era “folk” music; as well as the themes of African-American and Jewish cultural identity in conflict and in concert with each other. I was interested in making music that would, subtlety, conjure each of these threads in the play. So, for our design I chose to include the folky sound of an Autoharp, the deep and beautifully resonant voice of local actor, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, to add a touch of the traditional Spiritual, and to complete the trio, a clarinet. How and where we used these elements changed many times over the course of making this production, but what remains for the audience, I hope, is a sense of the unity and coherence of both the themes in the play and of our design choices.

Working on The Whipping Man gave me the opportunity to enlarge my understanding of world, as well as to deepen my empathy for my fellow human beings. Come to the Arden and have an experience for yourself! We hope you enjoy The Whipping Man.

After closing August: Osage County on Sunday, the Arden opened The Whipping Man this Wednesday, November 2nd. Members of the Sylvan Society celebrated at a pre-show reception at Revolution House (formerly the Snow White Diner!) at Second and Market Streets, with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Terry Nolen and Amy Murphy toasted the opening night and congratulated director Matt Pfeiffer on a terrific production.

After the performance, guests enjoyed a post-show reception in the Arden lobby provided by 12th Street Catering and Hatboro Beverages.

Here are photos from the evening!

By Leigh Goldenberg, >health Marketing and Public Relations Manager

Each spring since I’ve lived on my own, >health I’ve hosted a Passover Seder for friends and family. My hosting involves the cleaning, setting the table, and leading the pre-dinner service. My mom does all the cooking. We find it to be a fair division of labor for a holiday that encourages relaxing (and drinking four glasses of wine.)

If a Seder is not familiar to you, here’s a quick explanation. (You can find more extensive information in the Curriculum Connections for The Whipping Man) Seder is the ceremonial meal during which we retell the story of the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Moses and the Pharoah are the main characters, and plot twists include ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Seder translates as “order,” so most every Seder follows the same steps, each with meaning and symbolism attached. Many of these symbols reflect the springtime occurrence of the holiday, focusing on rebirth in a way that will certainly be familiar to those that celebrate Easter. (In fact, Jesus’ Last Supper was most likely a Seder, and Easter is the only Christian holiday that corresponds to the lunar calendar as all Jewish holidays do.)

Just like having Christmas in July, you can imagine it would be odd to have Passover on the wrong time of year, at the start of autumn when everything begins to die and hibernate. Yet, we are opening The Whipping Man this week and none of the actors who have a Seder on stage each night had been to one before. Hosting an October Seder felt necessary. The script walks the actors (and in turn the audience) through many of the steps and symbols, just like a Haggadah (the book we use on Passover).

My mom happily baked two kinds of kugel, a brisket, her famous matzah ball soup, and allowed my dad to make a plate of gefilte fish. My parents, husband, brother, and fellow member of the Arden marketing staff Ryan Klink sat around the table alongside the three actors in the cast (Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., James Ijames, and Cody Nickell) as well as Director Matt Pfeiffer, Stage Manager Stephanie Cook, and Assistant Director Eric Wunsch (the lone member of the team who grew up with Passover).  The Goldenbergs were excited to share one of our favorite traditions with the artists that bring it to life on stage.

My family’s Seder might be more casual than some, but we follow all the steps and then infuse off-key singing, props for the ten plagues, and allow time for plenty of discussion. I always look forward to the connections my dad makes between the holiday and whatever is on our minds. The Whipping Man was ripe for this commentary, as the connections between the African American slaves and the Hebrew story we retell each year are numerous. At this special Seder, he pointed out that Passover, like most holidays, can be taken as a metaphor, having the Hebrews stand in for really any group of people that do not experience true freedom. My dad also pointed out one of his favorite things about Judaism in general, with Moses as a prime example: Jews argue with God. We don’t just accept and listen, we question and argue back.

A week later, as I watched The Whipping Man with its very first audience, my dad’s words were almost repeated verbatim by Johnnie’s character Simon. Simon’s pride in being Jewish was so similar to my father’s and his desire to host a Passover Seder in any given circumstance echoed my mother’s. Cody’s character Caleb and James’ character John, both Jewish men around my age, question their faith and aim to reconcile it with the other aspects of their life in a way that was also extremely familiar to me personally (not to mention anyone that saw My Name Is Asher Lev).

Like any favorite holiday, I could write pages on the stories and connections. But what I’m really interested in at each Passover when we invite friends to their first Seder, just like at any play when we invite our first audience, is the conversation. What connections do you see in your own life to this story of Jews? Of newly freed slaves? Of Americans looking to reconcile their religion, their politics and their family?

I know this is a discussion I can’t wait to have with my family once they’ve seen the play. And again at our next Seder in the spring.

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