Dan Roeder, Theatre Studies and English
“'Terms of Art': Interpreting Mamet's Oleanna for the Stage”
When David Mamet's Oleanna debuted in 1992, reviewers immediately contextualized the play as a response to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual harassment scandal. The play was widely seen as a polemic against notions of political correctness in academia, and past productions have provoked notoriously misogynistic reactions from its audiences, with many critics labeling the play as inherently anti-feminist. My research attempted to challenge these perceptions. While directing the play, I have used script analysis skills, rehearsal techniques and the manipulation of promotional material to create a production that subverts anti-feminist insinuations and focuses on the power of language and the dangers of corrupt or inefficient pedagogy.
What academic background did you have before you started your research?
Since coming to UMBC, my primary interests have been in dramaturgy and political theatre. While I am a Theatre and English major, I feel as though my work between the two majors is ultimately geared towards a sociological understanding of the world around me so that I can interpret it on stage as honestly and effectively as possible. The courses that made my work on this play possible are Script Analysis and Modern Theatre 1: Social Protest. Script Analysis taught me the analytical strategies necessary in interpreting a script as a blueprint for theatrical performance and drawing organic conclusions about the play independent of impressions of past productions. Modern Theatre 1 taught me how to use my knowledge of Script Analysis to identify the dominant ideologies behind the playwright's rhetorical strategies so that I can either enhance or subvert them with my production choices.
Was this your first independent research project?
I had the opportunity to write and direct a play for my Humanities Scholars seminar, New Orleans Sounds… Creole last spring, which was produced through TheatreCOM. My research for that project centered upon interpreting New Orleans for the stage, which led me to interview director Emily Mann about New Orleans' influence on her work for the recent Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.
How did you find the research opportunity?
I had read Oleanna for the first time in high school and immediately put it on my shortlist of shows to direct in the future. I'd fallen in love with the rhythms of the language and the balance of power between the two characters. Over winter break, I was developing directorial proposals for local companies when I realized that I could simply ask the Theatre Council of Majors if they could produce Oleanna that semester. I was very lucky that it worked out!
What was the hardest part about your research?
The hardest part was balancing our schedules. Due to school and rehearsal space conflicts, we only had time for four weeks of rehearsals (10 hours of official rehearsal time a week, on average). The average show, especially at the collegiate level, has a much longer rehearsal schedule, so we had to condense our work effectively.
How did you learn what you needed to know to be successful in this project?
As I was developing my proposal, I made sure to spend time studying scholarly discourse on the play so that I could see how audiences have responded to it in the past. After reading about critiques of perceived anti-feminism within the text, I made an effort to return to the feminist texts I had explored in Modern Theater 1 to help me to subvert such perceptions from within the script.
Who did you work with on this project?
My core production team comprised of my two actors, Jonathan Jacobs and Erin Patterson, and our Stage Managers, CiCi Grady and Grace Davenport. The fight choreography was developed by the Theatre Department's technical director, Cristian Bell, and our lighting consultant was Billy D'Eugenio. Publicity for the show was developed by Serafina Donahue and Mike Woodard.
What was the most unexpected thing?
There was a snow-less "snow-day" the day before our first performance- as we had been running behind schedule, it was an entirely unexpected and very welcome opportunity to make substantial progress on the show before opening.
What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
For undergraduate theatre students, I recommend working on as many shows as possible; the more challenging, the better. Also, it helps to look into theatre workshops that build upon your knowledge of your areas of interest (puppetry, devising, Commedia, specific craft techniques). Plan your schedule so that there's no time when you aren't engaging your craft- don't be afraid to test your limits and don't be afraid to fail.
What are you doing next for research?
I'm currently serving as a dramaturg for the Theatre Department's production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I'm also gearing up to Study Abroad in Leicester England this fall, where I hope to develop a research project centering around new play development. I'm also looking for my next project to direct; hopefully I'll find a supportive venue soon!