A chat with the director for the upcoming show “Orlando”

Silks hang languidly from the beams above Strider Theater and pool in varying shades of cream about the stage. Actors mill about donning Elizabethan ruffs and corsets. Assistant Theater and Dance Professor Todd Coulter jumps up on stage and calls for everyone to circle up. “It’s going to be a good, long schlep today,” he says as he runs the actors and actresses through a warm-up exercise. “Look out for each other, take care of each other, and get ready for act 1, scene 6!”

Coulter is directing Orlando, a play by Sarah Ruhl, based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name. In it, the title character migrates not only through space and time as he lives through three centuries of history, but also within himself as he explores his sexuality and gender. Between rehearsals, Coulter answered some questions about the upcoming performance.

What was your inspiration for selecting this play to perform?

I wanted to work on a performance that was created by either a queer artist or a female artist. The combination of Sarah Ruhl and Virginia Woolf fit both criteria. While I don’t think the character of Orlando is Trans, there are huge challenges to gender identity and determinism in the play that I find important and challenging. Female playwrights are very under produced across the country and while Ruhl is one of the more popular playwrights, I think it is important to produce and bring voices to Colby that exist beyond a straight/dead/white male point of view.

Would you give a brief synopsis of the plot?

I don’t think anyone could succinctly describe the plot of Orlando. But let’s try… a person named Orlando begins life as a young man in Elizabethan England in his 30s he becomes a woman and lives throughout time as a woman, but nothing about her has changed. She was a man and now she is a woman.

Who is in the company?

There are seven students working on various elements of design from projections to scenery, and eight students in the acting ensemble.

What’s your approach to staging/ set?

I don’t really have a single way of staging a play. For this production we approached the play via Moment Work.

Moment Work is a way of creating work developed by Tectonic Theatre Project in New York that allows all the elements of production to have equal footing and voice in research and rehearsal … [It] seeks to allow all elements to carry poetic and narrative meaning. What this means for us in Orlando is the use of many movement scores.

Would you speak a bit about the playwright and her approach to theater?

Sarah Ruhl is a wildly imaginative playwright whose worlds range from contemporary society to Greek mythology and chamber musicals. She has been a Pulitzer finalist several times and was awarded a MacArthur genius grant. Some tend to talk about her work in terms of surrealism, and there certainly are fantastic elements in her dramaturgy but I love her work for its humanity and possibility. There is no one way to respond to her plays.

I’ve had the opportunity to read some of the play myself and the storytelling is a bit untraditional. Would you explain that style and your approach to it?

I think Orlando may feel untraditional only because character and plot are not necessarily the driving elements of the play. For us (the Company), the play hinges on the idea of fluidity foiling fixity. Nothing ever has to be static or monolithic in that way. Virginia Woolf’s novel does something similar. Woolf wrote it as a bit of a clever joke on form. She is constantly interrupting the flow of what she calls a biography to comment on the action of the subject (Orlando) and to talk about her role as a biographer. Ruhl incorporates this same sense of awareness and playfulness in her script.

What sort of experience should a potential theatergoer expect?

Oh, this is a tricky one. I am not a director who hopes for a homogenous response for an audience, so it’s difficult to say what to expect. Expect to be in a world where identity is not constant, where humor is allowed, and where time flows freely.

How have you made this play your own?

The use of choreographic tactics to stage a play is not typical, so I am very grateful to the entire company and my colleagues for committing to a process that is not typical and has pushed us into different territory.

Orlando will run from Nov. 13 to Nov. 15 in Runnals Theater as part of the Humanities Departments’ Migration theme. Tickets can be reserved by visiting the Theater and Dance page on Colby’s website.

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