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Puppets share stage with people in Olney Theatre’s ‘Our Town’

Wedding of George and Emily copyGeorge (left) and Emily (right) – William Vaughan and Cindy De La Cruz – stand with Jon Hudson Odom as the Stage Manager in Olney Theatre Center’s production of "Our Town." COURTESY PHOTO  The creative mind works in unexpected ways.

When Aaron Posner was staging “Measure for Measure” at the Folger Theatre in 2004 – a production that incorporated puppets – he pointed out to their designer Aaron Cromie that his creations looked “lively and human” during rehearsals but “so dead” during a break.

Posner made a mental leap, that should he direct Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” puppets would represent the dead people in the third act.

From there Posner went on to the idea of using puppets more extensively, as he is currently doing as the director of the Olney Theatre Center’s production of “Our Town.” 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is widely performed, and for good reason, in Posner’s view.

“It is so popular because it’s so good,” he said. “It gets to the core questions. Any writer who does that receives the artistic jackpot.”

“Our Town” tells the story of the fictional small town of Grover's Corners between 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its citizens. The author set the play in the actual theater performing it. The actors mime, rather than use props, and ladders replace scenery. The central character, called the Stage Manager, addresses the audience directly, fields questions, and fills in some of the roles.

While not altering the script, the director made other changes. Wilder wrote “Our Town” with over 20 characters. In the Posner version, seven actors form the “core” of the story: the young lovers, their parents, and the Stage Manager.

Sharing the stage with those seven human characters are Bunraku-style puppets, which the actors manipulate for the other roles, puppets designed by Cromie.

Posner insisted he is “not trying to change the play’s message. I am following the lead of the playwright himself. He eliminated scenery not to be clever, but so that audiences would listen to his words in a new way.”

After a while, Posner said, Wilder’s theatrical changes became what’s expected. “We want people to hear what the playwright said, not in a better way, but a fresh way.”

The humans and puppets are less homogenous than in the original New Hampshire town. “I wanted the puppets to echo the same kind of diversity as the cast,” the director said.

Cast diversity starts with the Stage Manager, as Jon Hudson Odom is biracial. However, Posner commented, “Jon is an actor of such depth and truth that he’s the first person I thought of for the role.”

Hudson Odom recalled the time that he and Posner worked together at the New Harmony Project, a writers’ residence, doing readings.

“I played characters of different ages, types, and styles, and I guess Aaron thought my skills go hand-in-hand with his conception for ‘Our Town,’” said Hudson Odom.

Not to mention that the actor has performed with puppets, partly at Imagination Stage. “They’re like doing mask work – an extension of our inner lives,” he said.

With all his acting experience – including five previous stints at Olney and appearances in many other theaters – Hudson Odom is at ease on stage. However, the actor did name one challenge: on the eve of the play’s preview, his “scene partner” still hadn’t shown up, meaning the audience, which the Stage Manager “feeds off. So every performance is absolutely different,” the actor said.

Posner shares that perception. “Wilder tells the truth – about difficult times, about being a parent,” he said. “He wrote a masterwork. If I saw ‘Our Town’ now, and then six months later could see it in different circumstances, I would, because every production is different. It’s a seminal and deeply influential play in my own work as playwright and director.”

“Our Town” is currently playing through Nov. 12 at Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney. For information, visit: www.olneytheatre.org

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