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Ellen McDougall Ellen McDougall during rehersals for Our Town. Photo by Johan Persson

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An American Town in London
Director Ellen McDougall tells us about her staging of Thornton Wilder's Our Town at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Published on May 20, 2019
Buy Tickets: Our Town at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (to June 8)

Thank you for your time Ellen! How did you become involved as Director of the Regent's Open Air Theatre's upcoming staging of Thornton Wilder's Our Town?

My pleasure! I’ve wanted to direct this play for a really long time and the I think the opportunity to do so at Regent’s Park is a really really special one. Thornton Wilder describes the play in his introduction as being ‘the life of a village mapped against the life of the stars’ – so when I was asked what I wanted to direct at this beautiful venue, Our Town seemed a pretty perfect play for the magical space here.

How do you first approach working on a production like Our Town?

The play was written in 1938 and I’ve been reading a lot of Wilder’s letters that he wrote at the same time. He spent much of the '30s in Europe – and saw the rise of the far right around him. In one of the letters he says that despite how horrific that was, he said he’d decided that the human race could still be given the benefit of the doubt. To find that deep love for humanity, and especially in that context, is kind of extraordinary – and was one of the starting points for the show. It centres the life of a community – and puts human beings at the centre of it. So we’ve started from that idea in developing the production.

Our Town

Wilder is one of the great American playwrights and Our Town is one of the great American plays - as Director, how do you approach works which have such strong national connections like this?

Making a production of this play at this particular political moment obviously has a strong resonance. It’s explicitly about an American community, and also its history as a nation. For me, one of the most powerful moments from that political angle is when we are told that people who fought and died in the civil war did so in the name of ‘Unity’ – ‘all they knew was the name, friends – the United States of America’. At a time when both American and much of global politics seems to be swinging to the right, putting up walls and reinforcing borders, to be reminded of the notion of unity feels particularly powerful.

What does the play mean to you, and what important aspects of the story did you want to bring to the foreground?

I think it’s an incredibly special and unique piece of writing. Thornton Wilder himself says in the introduction, the play is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life. For me that’s the incredibly important thing about this play, this isn’t a play about a war, or a massive historical event, or a really intense dramatic moment, it’s about the everyday and about people who otherwise wouldn’t be in a play or wouldn’t be written about in a play, and it’s about celebrating them and their lives. And in turn, asking us to recognise the value in the simple fact of being alive.

The other important thing for me is this notion of a play about a community. So many Western plays seem to me to centre on the singular experience of a protagonist – and to be asked to imagine ourselves as part of a collective feels really important at the moment, and I find it intensely moving because of that.

I've read that Wilder once said Our Town "should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness - simply, dryly, and sincerely" - how do you as Director negotiate with the writer's view on their work?

It’s very helpful to have these sorts of notes – especially as Wilder isn’t alive to have a conversation with! There’s a reading of the play that could tip into sentimentality, because of the fact that the story is so emotionally charged, and I think Wilder wrote that to caution against falling into that trap. In fact, the play is both incredibly dark as well as intensely joyful as a piece of work.

You also recently worked on another American play in London, The Wolves - is there something distinct about an American theatrical voice?

Our Town is a much more well known – even seminal text – in American theatre, than it is in the UK. Interestingly, both The Wolves and Our Town depict a group and investigate the idea of the collective – The Wolves is about a female football team.

How do you approach staging a play like this in an open air environment? Does this have any advantages or negatives for Our Town in particular?

There’s a simplicity and honesty to the gesture of Our Town as a play. There is a character called the Stage Manager who introduces the play and moves the story along, offering ideas and questions along the way. They talk directly to the audience, and there’s a sense that it is a company of actors telling a story together. The space at Regent's Park feels perfect for that – it’s a very inclusive, live space.

What do you hope attendants to the play take away from the experience?

I hope it'll make you laugh; and it’ll make you cry. It’s a play about people and it’s full of a love of humanity. Sharing this story under the stars I hope it will make audiences think about what might be the most important thing in their lives.

‘Our Town’ is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from Thursday 16 May to Saturday 8 June – openairtheatre.com

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