“Gertrude Stein SAINTS!” at the New York International Fringe Festival at the Ellen Stewart Theatre – La MaMa (Closed Wednesday August 14, 2013)

Based on the Text by Gertrude Stein
Music written by the Ensemble at Carnegie Mellon University
Directed by Michelle Sutherland
Reviewed by David Roberts, Joseph Verlezza, and the Ensemble at Carnegie Mellon University
Theatre Reviews Limited

[The Prelude: Joseph and I believe that the thing we call theatre – from idea to performance to review and beyond – is a collaborative process. No one entity in that process is more important than another. Writers, directors, casts, creative teams, critics, audiences are all accountable to preserve the core of the dramatic process and are accountable to one another. This is our first collaborative review and we believe it should be a model for the critical process. Let us know what you believe and what you think, and what you feel about our belief.]

The Fugue: Joseph and I asked the cast to determine how they would approach their work as critics: what was important to evaluate? What should the audience expect? For a full one-and-one-half hours we listened, we responded, we queried, we answered, we laughed, and we connected. It was difficult for us to separate from these talented, dedicated, honest, lovely human beings. In the “Riffs” movement, the speakers will be The Director (D), The Cast (C), and The Critics (D/J).

The Riffs (with thanks to Leonard Bernstein):

D/J: What are the parameters for evaluating your work on “Gertrude Stein: SAINTS!” (Hereafter, “GS”)? As critics, what do you look for in your performance as an ensemble and as a member of the ensemble? Were you successful in each area you identify? Are there areas where there is room for growth?

C: We want to evaluate the process of “GS” itself. We believe we were successful in bringing together two separate casts: the all-male production of “Four Saints in Three Acts” at Carnegie Mellon University in February of 2013 and the all-female cast performing selections from “Saints and Singing.” After we studied Gertrude Stein’s dense text, it became the backbone of the new production. We worked collaboratively on all the choreography and song-writing. The process was completely egalitarian.

C: As we worked on the piece, we wanted to make sure it was inviting to the audience. The libretto is dense text and it might not be accessible to everyone in the audience. We did not want to come across as being condescending or pretentious. As we worked together, we discovered that we became more loyal to the idea of Gertrude Stein’s text than to the text itself. We stayed true to the text but focusing on being true to the idea helped us make the piece more accessible to ourselves and therefore more accessible to others.

C: As an ensemble we wanted to evaluate whether we stuck to our original vision and to our intention as established by our director Michelle and we believe we were successful here. We were under a great time constraint to bring together the two productions so there was a need to stay focused and move forward together with a single vision.

C: You (D/J) asked if we felt connected to one another and you felt that sometimes we were not. Interesting question. We have not been together long as a cast; however, we do feel we are becoming more connected to one another on stage. This has been a joyful experience for us and as we let each moment inform us, we become more connected. Obviously, the audience will benefit more from the piece if we are able to convincingly share how we connect. Our connection to one another is determined by both the process and to time and we will focus on how our characters connect to one another in significant ways. Michelle has helped us understand that we have reached a good place vertically and now we need to work horizontally and being connected is part of that process.

C: Obviously we would review our work in the traditional areas of acting, singing, and dancing. We wrote the music to all of the songs and choreographed all movement and dances and worked collaboratively with Michelle on all of the staging. The design of the show is centered on singing and dancing. This has been a very personal experience for each of us and we love the way the process has gone. The piece is amorphous and fluid and allows us to use all of our craft to make it accessible to the audience. And it is a challenge every time we step onto the stage. Jacob sets the pitch of the piece in his opening acapella number – last night we were singing really high the whole night!

D/J: We have one final question. What about Gertrude Stein’s text? Was it important that you understand the text? Is it important that the audience understands the text? Where is Gertrude Stein in your production and in your performances?

C: Our work has, in many respects, been all about searching for Gertrude Stein. Our relationship to the text is essential – the words are gorgeous. But, as Michelle helped us understand, we are the word of the play. That is Stein’s intent. And our singing is the action but we could not do what we do without the text and our idea about the text. We experience the text from different lenses: Jimmy, for example, sees it as a parable. If we have done our work well, and we believe we have, we ask the audience every performance, “Are you coming with us on this journey?”

[The Postlude: Joseph feels the performance “is like a stranger’s smile: you see it, do not know who or what it is but it greets you, pulls you close inviting you to a warm safe place, providing comfort and a reason to celebrate life, humanity, and America.” David feels the actors, the saints “are inviting a response from someone, some thing: from Gertrude, from Saint Therese perhaps. Is anyone out there who can affirm our dancing and singing? We search for a ‘well done, good and faithful servant!’”]