Wanamaker’s Pusuit: Field Trip

March 21, 2011

By Dan Plehal, Assistant Director, Wanamaker’s Pursuit

 Think back to grade school. Remember how much excitement there was surrounding those much-anticipated field trips? Or how fun it was to get out of the building and experience something so cool and different that you almost forgot you were learning? Well that isn’t just for kids – – sometimes actors get to take field trips too!

 By the way, I’m Dan, the Assistant Director of Wanamaker’s Pursuit.  Wanamaker’s (as we call it for short) is a wonderful fictitious story built around a lot of facts. It follows the journey of Nathan Wanamaker, a made-up heir of the Wanamaker’s Department Store, as he visits Paris in 1911. His goal is to bring back the latest fashions for the store and ends up befriending the likes of Gertrude and Leo Stein, Paul Poiret and his wife Denise and even Pablo Picasso.

 Art plays a major role in the play, which discusses several specific paintings by turn-of-the-century artists. Luckily for us, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has an impressive collection of similar paintings.  Naturally, in the name of research, a trip to the museum was in order!

 Last Thursday we had the pleasure of spending an entire rehearsal day at the museum! We started our tour in the north wing of the museum, which contained European art beginning in 1850. We were surrounded by timeless works by Monet, Manet and Cezanne.

 As we walked farther down the hall and closer to the twentieth century, we passed several Renoir and Matisse Portraits, both of which make appearances in the play.  We reached a large atrium, which housed a giant Cezanne called “The Large Bathers.” It was fascinating to see such a colossal work and be able to clearly identify techniques that are discussed in the Wanamaker’s script.  Catharine Slusar and David Bardeen (who plays Gertrude and Leo Stein) could occasionally be heard discussing which paintings their characters may have had in their collection.

 The hallway turned and so did the century, leading us into the 1900s and the reign of Picasso.  Suddenly we could see and feel a drastic change in the state of art. We saw first hand how artists moved away from the techniques and styles of the previous centuries, choosing instead to explore the abstract and create the modern.

 This shift to modernism in painting is representative of a larger evolution in art, fashion, and society that took place at the same time, and conveniently is a central theme in Wanamaker’s.

 Next we were in for a real treat: the museum staff had set up a small private display just for us! We donned researcher badges and entered the Hamilton Center for Costumes and Textiles.   Kristina Haughland, the supervising curator had brought out a few pieces that could not have been more relevant to our production.

 A central part of Nathan Wanamaker’s journey is his attempt to purchase the latest clothing from revolutionary fashion designer Paul Poiret.  As we sat at a long conference table, Kristina unveiled three dresses from the time period; one of them had been based off of Poiret’s style, while the other two were authentic dresses designed by Poiret himself!

 The cast poured over the dresses inspecting every ribbon-formed rose and beaded pattern. Particularly interested were Wilbur Henry who plays Poiret and Genevieve Perrier who plays Poiret’s wife and model, Denise.

 Saturated with first-hand experiences and a new appreciation for the art (both paintings and fashion) that is so integral to our play, we retired to the house of actress Catharine Slusar who plays Gertrude Stein. In true style of the salons Stein was famous for hosting, we sipped wine, ate French cheese, and discussed the amazing art we had witnessed that day. It had been a full day of research and fun – a field trip that has already brought new appreciation and life to our rehearsal process!

If you’re interested in art, fashion or Paris, you are sure to love Wanamaker’s Pursuit!  You could even make a field trip out of it!  Wanamaker’s is on stage at the Arden from March 31 through May 22.

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