Jeffrey Sweet was once a street musician in New York, teaming up with Melissa Manchester to tell stories in song to whomever would stop to listen. Later, he began a career as a freelance journalist and playwright. Mr. Sweet has said that his own belief in the value of oral folk lore was once re-confirmed by a magazine interview he conducted with Louis L'Amour, the author of popular Westerns. L'Amour had talked of the traditions of storytelling among Native Americans, and he emphasized that the heroic figures of their tales were not merely celebrated for their individual achievements but, rather, the tales were told and re-told as an act of community pride.
For his book Something Wonderful Right Away, a history of The Second City and The Compass Players, Jeffrey Sweet interviewed all of the leading contributors to those two landmark improvisational theatre companies. (The Compass Players, incidentally, resided for a time in Gaslight Square just a few blocks from Saint Louis University.) Mr. Sweet's book explains much about the significance of the genre developed by these companies. Their approach should not be misconstrued as a "daredevil" act, intended to impress the audience with the stunt of performing without a traditional playscript. Each such theatrical event, whether a topical comic skit or an historical tale such as American Enterprise, is instead a venue for artists who are seen not as the voices of an unseen playwright but as members of the community at large who speak for themselves. The performances take advantage of an unlimited menu of theatrical devices and styles, and they move from one to the next at will, in an effort to share various impressions of the story being told. This is why actors play multiple roles in this sort of play and why they also narrate for themselves as they do so.
The script and the score for American Enterprise have been superbly crafted by its author and his co-composer Michael Vitali as an invitation to its presenters to invent their own ways to share their personal impressions of its story. It was important to me, for example, that the roles were assigned to let a little of the offstage personalities of these actors inform each role they played, and to allow each of the actors the challenge of voicing contrasting points of view on the issues at stake. I felt that it was also important that the women in our production were seen to be telling as much of the story as the men in order to appropriately represent our own community; and that the actors themselves should be continually changing the look of the stage from which they speak. Jim Burwinkel, scenic designer, who is himself trained in both theatrical design and architecture, saw an interesting juxaposition in the play between George Pullman's feudal paternalism and the realities of the Industrial Revolution. Jim refined his impressions into a clever medieval / turn-of-the-century hybrid, which the actors could reconfigure to suit various moments in the tale. Costume Designer, Cynda Reed Flores, invented a scheme in which various articles of period clothing could be used by the actors to create quick impressions of the many characters, and Musical Director, Jerry Troxell found ways to adjust the impressive score by Jeffrey Sweet and Michael Vitali to play to the strengths of our cast.
We are indebted to Messrs. Sweet and Vitali both for allowing Saint Louis University to present this play to you prior to its scheduled opening in New York next year, and for the personal encouragement we received from both men to make this production of American Enterprise our own.
Playwright Wallace Shawn begins this evening's play with Lemon's suggestion that Treblinka, the World War II Nazi concentration camp, was apparently admirably organized and efficiently operated to kill the Jews. Shawn then goes on to show us how it is possible that such an approving attitude could be found in our enlightened society, and in doing so he focuses on our culture's seeming lack of compassion and our expedient rationale in defending our "way of life"-even at the expense of killing.
Although this is an incriminating and unpleasant premise, Shawn argues that it is an accurate reflection of our times and that we need to examine the premise and decide for ourselves how accurate it is and what we, not the playwright, intend to do about it.
For a number of years I have looked at this script and reluctantly placed it back on the shelf, being fearful of the extraordinary demands it places on designers, actors, directors, and audience. It now seems to me that in spite of these risks, the history of our country's past few years warrants a production of Shawn's play in our University Theatre.
For those who are interested, Wallace Shawn has written lengthy notes on the content of his play, why he chose to write it, and to write it as he did. These notes are included in the program. We hope that you will find his play and notes as stimulating as we have.
Wayne Loui, November, 1993
The Lucky Spot
Playwright Beth Henley is known for creating extraordinary, memorable characters who dare us to reduce them to easy labels. In her refreshingly original plays, like Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest, her characters have always surprised audiences. The very things they do that we most expect to find sordid are, instead, grotesquely comic, and just when we feel comfortable laughing at them, we are taught much by their courage and their wisdom. It's Christmas Eve, 1934 and The Lucky Spot is intended to be the first "Dime-A-Dance" hall to open in rural Louisiana. It's a place that seems, for a while, to be a gathering of the unluckiest group of characters in Pigeon, Louisiana. Or is it ?
In the theatre, we still insist on saying "Break A Leg" to express our good luck wishes to each other before a performance. Good luck is something we feel we need so desperately that we don't want to jinx ourselves by asking for it. Believing in luck is a form of hope, and hope is something we all need when our lives are visited by more trouble than happiness. But hope for a better future will not neccesarily make a better future. We all fool ourselves into believing that if we have recently suffered a string of losses that, somehow, we are due for our luck to improve. These characters have lost a great deal already, and that's why this place where they will spend their Christmas has been dubbed The Lucky Spot. Are they making themselves magnets for further misfortune by counting on a change of luck ?
Comedies come in many different flavors depending upon the sense of humor of the author and the public for whom that author is writing. Beth Henley's sense of humor is often dark and always contemporary. But Comedies have always been about regenerating hope. In the midst of the Great Depression, her characters are wishing, and they're betting, and, after misfortune remains unabated, they're "dancing on the edge of a cliff." The popular tunes of the Depression era encouraged such dancing and the lyrics spoke of hope - not always hope for luck that would visit us, but hope that we could make better futures for ourselves. We hope we made something good here, and we tried to do it by embracing these characters with great affection. Luckily, the characters find that's the same thing they need to do with each other if they expect to see better times.
- Mark Landis