Peter Allen famously sang about how “everything old is new again” and warned us not to “throw the past away.” And thanks to visionary director Mathew Green, the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company’s latest production of Our Town offers us a retelling of Wilder’s classic that honors the play’s storied past while exploring its relevance for today’s audience.
From the moment I saw the first social media post about CUTC’s Our Town, I was excited, curious, and full of questions. This week, Mathew Green graciously offered to respond to some of those questions in the interview that follows. I hope our discussion will inspire you to take advantage of this opportunity to revisit Our Town this weekend at the Parkland College Theatre.
Smile Politely: What inspired you to take on a production of Our Town?
Mathew Green: I’ve loved the ideas at play in Our Town since the first time I read it, many years ago. And when the opportunity arose to direct with CUTC, I immediately thought of this because it’s such a good fit for a community theatre group.
SP: Wilder called Our Town his favorite out of all his works, but famously complained that directors often got it wrong. He insisted that it “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness–simply, dryly, and sincerely. What approach or vision has inspired your direction?
Green: I emphatically agree with Mr. Wilder on this. I think there’s a tendency to over-sentimentalize the play that robs it of its point. One of the discoveries made in the play is that we don’t see how wonderful life is until it’s too late. With that in mind, our production treats everyday life as just that.
SP: What does Our Town have to teach us today?
Green: I think sometimes the message of Our Town is misconstrued. Instead of focusing on how much we should appreciate our lives and our loved ones, I think people put too much of the emphasis on the “simpler times” aspect of it. I’m not very interested in that. I don’t think times were simpler. I don’t look back on the past – especially a homogenized Anglo-Saxon Protestant past or the pretense of one – as being in any way preferable to today. I think families are families and struggles are struggles. There are still universal themes to be found.
SP: When we think of meta-theatrical plays (plays within plays) we often think of Our Town, with the character of the Stage Manager breaking the fourth wall and the characters often using mime rather than props. As a director, how did you approach a staging technique which, at its time was groundbreaking and revolutionary, but has become a form of irony in both live drama and film?
Green: I would like to think that Wilder’s meta-theatrical approach is still effective, and I’ve taken it pretty literally. To this extent, we’ve tried to make the Stage Manager less of a narrator and more of an actual stage manager. Being married to a very skilled stage manager, I know there’s more to it than just informing the audience. We have taken Wilder’s in-text references to the play as a play very seriously. We’ve tried never to lose completely the idea that you’re watching actors play parts.
SP: Our Town is “about” many things, one being life in a small community. Does a community production of the play allow you to explore that layer more deeply?
Green: I said in a Facebook post recently that, to me, the show epitomizes the idea of “community theatre” – in the best way possible. We have a cast that is diverse in pretty much every way, including in terms of experience. We have students, veteran local actors, and people who are taking their first stab at acting. And I think we’re all the better for it. We’ve had to come together and work as a team to tell this story, and everyone rose to the task.
SP: What else can our readers expect from this production? How do you make this story new to today’s audience?
Green: I’m always looking for the best way to tell a story. With Our Town, I get to explore my favorite kind of theatre, which is minimalism. I love plays and musicals that bowl you over with elaborate sets and pyrotechnics, and some plays really shine with that kind of treatment; but for me, there’s nothing more compelling than a table, a couple of chairs, and actors who are committed to telling you a great story. It’s thrilling how much beauty you can get out of such simple elements.
SP: What’s next for you?
Green: Since we did The Crucible for Parkland College Theatre back in the fall of 2017, Yen Vi and I have worked on seven shows with very little air between them. So there’s a little vacation coming up. I know we’re working on Peter and the Starcatcher for Parkland next fall. Until then… we’ll see what summer brings.
Top image and rehearsal photos from The Champaign Urbana Theatre Company