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November 7, 2011

World-renowned Georges Lavaudant directs Our Town at Stanford

"Why don't we do something in America?" the famous French director asked Stanford's Jean-Marie Apostolidès over dinner in Paris. So Georges Lavaudant came to Stanford to direct "Our Town."

By Cynthia Haven

Director Georges Lavaudant says the production is "built on a different conception of what theater is." (Photo: Stanford Drama Department)

It's been called the greatest American play ever written, but Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer-prize-winning Our Town is too often treated like a hoary old chestnut, the staple of high school drama departments.

The renowned French director Georges Lavaudant, in collaboration with Stanford French professor Jean-Marie Apostolidès, will put a new twist on the familiar tale. The Stanford Drama Department's Our Town will be performed at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, through Saturday, Nov. 12, in the Pigott Theater.

"We've never invited a theater director of this stature to produce a show at Stanford," said Apostolidès. This month alone, he said, Lavaudant, most recently director of the Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, has engagements at the Louvre and the Paris Opera.

The collaborative Stanford gig was born of their friendship. The two were having a long dinner in Paris, talking about the possibility of working together on a production. Lavaudant asked, "Why don't we do something in America?" Apostolidès replied that the only venue he could offer was at Stanford, working with student performers.

"He said, 'Let's do it,'" said Apostolidès. "I thought he was only drunk. Of course he was drunk, but he said it again when he was sober."

"Ultimately, we did it. I'm very proud of it," he said. Apostolidès, who has been Lavaudant's "dramaturge and assistant – a little bit more than that," said he is pleased to participate in making "something strong for Stanford."

Our Town is more a mystery play than merely a familiar chunk of Americana. It illuminates our casual waste of time, our preoccupation with the trivial, and the eternity that underlies our least utterances – all through the psychological scrim of a Norman Rockwell painting.

On the surface, at least, what play could be more American?

Apostolidès agreed that he thought so, too – in the past. "But now I'm convinced that something different can happen. I would not see this production as totally America – it's the middle of nowhere. I'm convinced this production brings out things that are in the play and that haven't been seen before."

At a rehearsal, Lavaudant is a restless, dominating presence, attentive and intense. Frowning slightly as he listens, he instructs the cast in a mixture of French and English. When he lapses into French, a student rushes in to provide a quick translation.

"Our production will sever the connection with a precise history as well as realism. It is built on a different conception of what theater is," Ladauvant said on the website of the French Consulate in San Francisco.

He intends his production "to enhance the poetic dimension of the play in order to reveal its universal dimensions." He added modestly, "We hope that our audience will be willing to follow us on our iconoclastic path."

According to Apostolidès, "He wants constantly to do new things. It's an atmosphere of excess, trying to get the best out of everyone, and himself. He expects people to go beyond their limits. It's worth it, because you have the feeling you are working with a genius."

Michael Taymor, a Palo Alto pediatrician – and brother of Broadway director and choreographer Julie Taymor – has composed music for the production, which will include songs and dances. Dancer Aleta Hayes, a lecturer in the Drama Department, is the choreographer.

In Act III, the dead of the play's mythical city, Grover's Corners, are consigned not to heaven or hell or purgatory, but instead a grim, yet luminous, waiting, waiting . . . for what?

Wilder had been a student of the Greek and Roman classics, and his afterworld is akin to the Greeks', where the dead are shadows of their former selves, reflecting on their lives. What kind of world was Wilder trying to create?

"What is amazing is that he wrote the third act when he was in Switzerland," said Apostolidès, where Wilder was immersed in Marx and Nietzsche. "Yet it's not there at all." Such is the world of Wilder – a world of the mind as much as of observation.

"Nothing is true in this play. It's the Great Depression, but there are no money problems. No black people, no social struggle, no desire, no sex," said Apostolidès.

"It's beautiful, and totally bathed in ideology. It's a beautiful vision of America that has never existed."

Yet the Soviet Union stopped a 1946 production of Our Town in the Russian sector of occupied Berlin, claiming the drama was too depressing and might inspire a wave of suicides.

Elsewhere, it has left audiences rapt with the wonder of the everyday.

Maybe Nietzsche, who wrote The Birth of Tragedy, found his way into Wilder's Our Town after all. Nobody famous ever came out of Grover's Corners, Wilder writes in the play.

"Can we create tragedy with people who are not very remarkable?" asked Apostolidès. "It's a challenge, and Thornton Wilder does it."

Tickets $5-$15 on sale now at http://drama.stanford.edu

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Contact

Jean-Marie Apostolidès, French Department: (650) 424-0370, aposto@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650-721-6965), dstober@stanford.edu

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