AMERRYCAN Theatre, Yorkshire’s American theatre company, are staging the York premiere of “the greatest American play” from Tuesday (11/7/2023) to Saturday.
Thornton Wilder’s still hard-hitting Pulitzer Prize winner Our Town will be presented by an American and British cast of 18 in an immersive makeover at Theatre@41, Monkgate.
“If you are ready for serious, life-affirming theatre, this play is for you,” says Texas-born producer and founding artistic director Bryan Bounds. “An enduring American treasure and one of the greatest plays of world theatre, Our Town is as radical now as at its premiere in 1938.
“Wilder’s portrait of life, love and death, set in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, a fictional New England town at the start of the 20th century, could happen just as easily in Pocklington.”
Eighty-five years after it shook the theatrical world, Our Town remains among the most performed plays in the United States and is considered to be the “greatest American play ever written” by Edward Albee, David Mamet and many other playwrights, while writer and theatre administrator Howard Sherman deems it to be “America’s first Shakespearean play”.
Wilder’s story follows the romance and marriage of Emily Webb (Emily Belcher) and George Gibbs (Frankie Bounds), and through them, he reveals the hidden mysteries behind the smallest details of everyday life.
“Given the advent of our digital age and its impact on our lives, now more than ever we need theatre to give us a stark experience that reminds us about the beauty of being alive, connecting with other people,” says Bryan. “This play seems so simple and yet it reminds us how fragile life can be and the need to celebrate each moment.”
Assessing what makes Our Town such a significant American work, actor, playwright and acting practitioner Bryan says: “At its debut in 1938, the play exploded the idea of what theatre was and what it could do. It’s still performed every week around the world because it goes against what [director] Peter Brook called ‘deadly theatre’ (i.e. soothing the audience into forgetting about life).
“This play is what he termed ‘holy theatre’, which shakes the audience up and reminds us what it is to be alive and how we can live life better.”
For all its ubiquity elsewhere, why has Our Town never been performed in York, Bryan? “It’s quite a gamble. It’s a very challenging, ambitious play for a theatre company to put on because it doesn’t fit into a neat category,” he says.
“It seems like it ought to be hokey and sentimental, but Edward Albee called it ‘one of the toughest plays ever written’, because in its story of Emily and George it pulls no punches. It’s ‘theatre for the mind’ and that takes an audience a while to sniff around the edges and book their ticket.”
Bryan first read Wilder’s play in high school, like many American teenagers. “But because I hadn’t experienced much of life, I admired its Pirandello influences but put it aside. But life made me keep pulling it back and exploring, so I saw several performances and each one changed my perceptions of life a little bit more,” he says.
“My wife Deirdre was in tears at the end of a production that we saw in London some years ago. That’s when I knew York needed to experience it.”
Bryan runs Amerrycan Theatre from Huby, near Otley, in West Yorkshire. “I moved to Leeds in 1999 after falling in love with a Scouser while I was living in New York City (cue the violins!), and once I got over the culture shock, I saw that there were very few theatre companies producing great, niche works of American theatre – and few Yorkshire actors were getting the chance to sink their teeth into really delicious roles,” he says.
“So we put on Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and did very well at the Edinburgh Fringe with my play My Name Is Bill: An Afternoon With An Alcoholic.
“For Our Town, the cast is mostly made up of actors from Yorkshire – they’ve loved learning the accent – plus American actors, including Thomas Miller, a local cyber security genius from Illinois, and myself.”
In the Amerrycan Theatre pipeline for 2024 are Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winner Three Tall Women and Eugene O’Neill’s “towering masterpiece” The Iceman Cometh. “For that one, we’ll be transforming Theatre@41 into a seedy New York saloon from 1912,” says Bryan.
First up, Our Town. “Be prepared to laugh and cry with every emotion in between in. The cast promises to make the trip to Grover’s Corners a moving experience that’s immersive, tough, funny, heart-wrenching and uplifting,” the director concludes.
Amerrycan Theatre in Our Town, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, July 11 to July 15, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Amerrycan Theatre’s cast for Our Town
The Stage Manager: RORY MULVIHILL
Dr Frank Gibbs: THOMAS MILLER
Howie Newsome: PATRICK GREGAN
Mrs Julia Gibbs: JULIET WATERS
Mrs Myrtle Webb: JESS MURRAY
George Gibbs: FRANKIE BOUNDS
Rebecca Gibbs: CHARLOTTE HEWITSON
Emily Webb: EMILY BELCHER
Wally Webb: HARRISON TURNER-HAZEL
Mr Charles Webb: ANDREW ISHERWOOD
Simon Stimson: CRAIG KIRBY
Mrs Louella Soames: NATALIE SMEATON
Constable Bill Warren: DAMIAN M O’CONNOR
Joe Stoddard: BRYAN BOUNDS
Producer & director: BRYAN BOUNDS
Stage manager: EMMA POMFRETT
Dramaturg: AMY TONES
Music director: SAM JOHNSON
Lighting designer: DUNCAN HANDS
Amerrycan Theatre: the back story
BASED in Huby, West Yorkshire, “Britain’s American theatre company” is devoted to showcasing the vitality of American drama in intimate productions.
From classics to contemporary drama, they stage American works seldom seen in Yorkshire and take productions to the Edinburgh Fringe, across Europe and the United States of America.
Our Town in 2023: Thoughts from Amerrycan Theatre dramaturg Amy Tones
“EIGHTY-FIVE years ago, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town debuted and was unanimously selected to receive the Pulitzer Prize for American Drama. Today, it continues to be one of the most produced American plays in the world.
“It has been said that there is at least one performance of Our Town on a stage every day some place in the world. How does this play continue to engage audiences from so many diverse backgrounds?
“The Stage Manager will tell you in minute detail, Our Town, Grover’s Corners, is a microcosm of life. From its opening moments, the play presents life, from birth to death, throwing together the mundane with the spectacular, in a simple examination of what it all means.
“The story unfolds on a bare stage with a few pieces of scenery and pantomimed props. When the play opened, this was a novel experience. Audience members would have been used to a play trying to mirror life, with a clear problem to be solved.
“What they got was a Stage Manager who conducts the actors through their moments and breaks the fourth wall to point out the minutia that won’t fit on the stage, continually reminding the audience that they are in a theatre, adjacent to reality, but separated. Instead of a clear conflict, they are invited to contemplate all the moments that make up life, from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
“From the beginning, as Dr Gibbs returns home from delivering twins – new life – the Stage Manager talks of Gibbs’s death and legacy. Life and death, hand in hand. We’re given the space to contemplate the importance of the everyday actions of living along with the elevated moments that burn bright in our memories.
“Some have said it is the simplicity of the staging that drives the popularity of this play in a budget-conscious world. Others point out that its popularity in high school and college theatres stems from the training it offers young performers in communicating clearly despite the absence of things.
“Critics of the play assign it to the role of a ‘museum piece’, with nostalgia masking more important discussions of gender inequality, bigotry, or alcoholism that could have been addressed. While there may be some bit of validity to these arguments, they could not possibly account for its ongoing place of honour in theatrical canon.
“The meta-theatricality of the play forces us to focus not on what we see to understand, but on what we perceive. Our minds fill in what is not there based on our experiences. Watching the motions of breakfast being prepared without actual pans or food allows us to recall the sounds, smells, and tastes of our memories. Two ladders can become bedrooms in neighbouring houses on a moonlit night, distracting us from what we should be doing.
“The actors demonstrate their craft, while constantly reminding us that they are actors, and this is a play. Even the points that the critics wish had been addressed remind us this is not a museum, separated from our reality by time and place, but a place with which we can connect.
“At its heart, Our Town puts life on display from birth to death, with all of the wonderful, terrible moments in between, and invites all of us to experience them, reflect on them, and value them in our life and every life.”