Tickets: 651.291.7005

Posts Tagged Lennie

On the Road to Empathy

George (Michael Paul Levin) and Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak)
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Months ago, I had a troubling conversation with a retired literature teacher. She had taught John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to high school students in Billings, Montana, during the late 1970s. What she remembered most was how difficult it was to draw any sense of empathy, much less sympathy, from her students for the migrant workers in the novel. Her students had considered them “a bunch of losers,” with the main characters, George and Lennie, as “the biggest losers.”

Last week I made it a point to watch Park Square Theatre’s production of Of Mice and Men during a student matinee rather than an evening or weekend show for general audiences. I attended with two school groups–a large non-diverse and a smaller diverse group. With my assigned seat on the right side, I was embedded with the smaller group; and due to the close, intimate space of the Boss Thrust Stage, I had an excellent view of the larger group.

What I witnessed was a fairly rapt student audience for that morning’s performance, with a student on my side even shushing fellow students for whispering during a particularly intense scene. And the whispering students had actually been talking about the play! Theatre-wide, students unconsciously leaned toward the actors, drawn into the key moments: What will happen to Candy’s dog? Curley’s wife? George and Lennie’s dream? Lennie himself? This was theatre at its best, when the connection between audience and actors creates the synergy for a powerful mutual experience.

Jane Froiland in a rehearsal for Of Mice and Men
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

At intermission, many students stayed in their seats to read the cast backgrounds rather than check out the concession counter or take their break in the lobby. I spoke to several to gauge their reactions: No one liked how Curley, the bullying son of the migrant workers’ boss, treated people. Some felt especially bad for the plight of the aging and disabled Candy. Others connected to the concept of dreamers hoping and trying to create better lives. With all that’s been happening in our nation’s social and political climate, it was heartening to witness young audience members relating to the play and its characters.

What I had already discovered through numerous interviews with actors as a blogger is the crucial role that theatre has played in their own personal development as much more empathetic human beings. Actors must perpetually step into someone else’s shoes to understand and become their characters. That’s certainly been true for Vincent Hannam, who plays and dislikes Curley, but had to ponder how Curley became so mean. As Jane Froiland, who plays Curley’s wife, put it in our conversation, “Theatre makes you a better person.” Theatre has the capacity to foster empathy in those on and off stage. Now that’s a powerful medium.

Of Mice and Men is on stage through Saturday, December 16. Tickets and information here.

 

Cynthia Jones-Taylor as Dotty, and Jasmine Hughes as daughter Averie
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Park Square Theatre’s production of DOT is also a strong example of that power. As you watch family and friends in the play struggle to come to terms with matriarch Dotty’s steady decline from Alzheimer’s disease and reassess their own lives over the holiday season, you may recognize yourself or someone you know in those characters. The hilarity–and seriousness–lies in the knowledge that these people are also us in their messy humanness. And before the ending of DOT, we all get to step into Dotty’s shoes (no more said to prevent a spoiler).

In interviewing cast members of DOT, I’d mindfully asked how they’d personally perceived their characters before and during rehearsals. This question often brings interesting insights as to how one views people then readjusts those views as our understanding of them evolves. This happens for actors in the rehearsal room but is also very true to life in how we all relate to each other. Follow the DOT blog posts to find out how the actors responded!

As we navigate the holiday season into a new year, may we keep traveling the road towards empathy to create a more humane and hopeful world for all. Let’s keep journeying together. I look forward to seeing you at Park Square Theatre!

 

Tickets and information on DOT here

Did You Know? (Fun Facts About “Of Mice and Men”)

 

The Of Mice and Men cast
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Of Mice and Men was John Steinbeck’s first attempt at writing a novel-play (a novel that could also function as a script). It has six scenes in groups of two chapters each, producing three acts.

* * *

Michael Paul Levin (George) and E. J. Subkoviak (Lennie)

Something That Happened was Steinbeck’s original title for Of Mice and Men. He chose that title to mean that the events in the book were simply “something that happened” for which nobody could be blamed. However, he changed the title to Of Mice and Men after reading Robert Burn’s poem To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Next with a Plow, which describes the plowman’s regret for accidentally destroying a mouse’s home. The title was specifically inspired by these lines: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft a -gley, And lea’v us nought for grief and pain,/For promised joy.”

* * *

 Steinbeck’s dog, Max, ate an early draft of Of Mice and Men.

* * *

 

A scene from Of Mice and Men; Patrick as Candy is seated next to Boo, the pit bull who plays Candy’s dog.

In high school, Steinbeck once worked as a ranch hand; and while in college, he also worked on neighboring farms (especially Spreckels Sugar Ranch) which relied on the cheap labor of migrant workers. He’d obviously drawn from his work experiences for Of Mice and Men. For instance, this is what he cited as his inspiration for Lennie in an interview with The New York Times in 1937: “I was a bindlestiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times I saw him do it. We couldn’t stop him until it was too late.”

* * *

Mice and Men appears on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century. Reasons cited for its banning throughout the years: promoting euthanasia, condoning racial slurs, being anti-business, containing profanity and using vulgar and offensive language. Of Mice and Men has been challenged over 50 times since its publication in 1936, but many of the bans and restrictions have been lifted. In fact, it is often required reading in high schools in America, Australia, Ireland, Britain, New Zealand and Canada.

* * *

An American metalcore band based in Orange County, California, named itself Of Mice and Men. It was founded by former band members Austin Carlile (vocalist) and Jaxin Hall (bassist) in 2009. In explaining the band’s name, Austin said, “You make plans, and they get screwed up. [Jaxin Hall] and I both had plans for life, and they both got screwed up, so now we’re making the most of what we can.”

Jaxin added, “The main theme of [Of Mice and Men] is the American Dream . . . and being self-sufficient . . . . So this was to be our self-sufficient thing that we could live off and make our own and achieve this dream.”

 

Just three evening performances left:  Thursday, December 16, Friday, December 17 and Saturday, December 16, all at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and more information here.

 

Sources: Wikipedia.com and Cliffsnotes.com

Photos: All photos of scenes from Park Square Theatre’s Of Mice and Men taken by Petronella J. Ytsma

Jane Froiland Defines Her Role

 

In last season’s The Realistic Jones on Park Square Theatre’s Boss Thrust Stage, Jane Froiland had a tricky part as a fear-filled young woman named Pony Jones who could have simply come off as being overly fragile and spacey. Instead, Jane smartly mined Pony’s vulnerabilities to make her into a complex woman who was arguably the wisest character in the play.

The Realistic Joneses (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

From November 9 to December 16, Jane returns to the Boss Stage in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to portray Curley’s wife, a young woman married to the cruel and possessive son of a wealthy ranch owner. Just as with Pony, her character could be in danger of appearing two-dimensional, but you can once again bet that won’t happen under Jane’s watch.

Jane Froiland plays Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

 

In Of Mice and Men, Curley’s wife is perpetually defined by the men around her. She is without a name, always just called “Curley’s wife” as if he owns her. The men fault her for being a temptress, referring to her as “that bitch,” “a piece of jail bait,” “that goddamn tart” and “a tramp” because of the way she looks and dresses. Jane, however, humanizes her character and recognizes her predicament as indicative of the slut-shaming that’s still prevalent in our society.

“Curley’s wife is young and beautiful so seen as dangerous,” Jane said. “She’s isolated and lonely without anyone to talk to; she’s really just trying to be nice and friendly like she says. But whatever she says is never heard. I heard her, though, and I hope that other women and men hear her.”

Jane Froiland as Curley’s wife and E. J. Subkoviak as Lennie (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Jane is extremely aware that she’s the lone female in Of Mice and Men and particularly mindful of her impact on young people coming to see the student matinees.

“I feel the responsibility as a woman to portray women with great empathy and authenticity,” Jane continued. “If I can tell a story very well and authentically, then the audience members can see themselves in my character and perhaps feel understood.”

Tickets and more information HERE

 

NOTE: Be sure to also catch Jane’s performances in Park Square Theatre’s The Diary of Anne Frank on April 19, 22, 26 & 28, 2018.

E. J. Subkoviak on Playing Lennie in “Of Mice and Men”

This season, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men returns to Park Square Theatre as a new production on the intimate Andy Boss Thrust Stage with limited performances for general audience from November 9 to December 16. Of Mice and Men will also be seen by school groups during student matinees.

Playing the large but childlike Lennie, who is highly dependent on his fellow migrant worker friend George due to a mental disability, is E. J. Subkoviak. Here is E. J. to tell us more about himself and his role in Of Mice and Men.

When did you first play Lennie, and what was your relationship with Steinbeck’s novel before being cast as Lennie?

Like a lot of people, Of Mice and Men was one of the first books I read in high school, and it was certainly one I never forgot, especially after reading the Cliff’s Notes. I was often asked, based on my height and basic size (exact numbers available through the costume shop), if I had ever played Lennie; and it wasn’t until about eight years ago, when Park Square was in need of a new one, that I got to play him for the first time. This will be my fourth time playing Lennie at this same theater, so I haven’t shrunk much.

George (Michael Paul Levin) and Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What’s the biggest challenge for you in playing Lennie?

A two-show day, maybe? Honestly, the character is so deeply in my blood now that it feels so easy to bring out. Maybe the first time I did it, it was somewhat of a challenge to figure out, based on each scene, what exactly his mind is doing and how it works in general; but it was all a real labor of love.

Apart from that, playing Lennie, as much as I love it and had been waiting to do it so long, is not much different of an approach than playing anything else as a character actor. The real hard part, at least in the primary story of Of Mice and Men, I’d say, is George, as is the case in most buddy stories where you have a straight man and some manner of an eccentric. The straight man rarely ever gets as much credit or attention (poor Dick Smothers), but he has a hell of a job to do in the whole relationship. And we’re blessed to have my longtime friend Michael Paul Levin in the role as he, as the father of such a child, was able to recognize in the script evidence of autism in Lennie. (The whole notion of autism, and even the word, didn’t exist back in John Steinbeck’s day.) This helped answer some of those questions about his mind and how it works even more and was of great benefit to us all. And, of course, playing out this story as a man with an autistic son is a great emotional challenge for him, and he deserves a medal for it.

What may change in your approach as a result of being on the Boss Thrust rather than the Proscenium stage with this season’s production?

The tricky part will be staging it in the thrust format of the stage with audience on three different sides, but our director, Annie Enneking, is a pro and is smartly considering and playing with these sightlines.

The good news is that the smaller space heightens the intimacy of these scenes, so the personal relationships and the danger and intensity of the piece become more magnified.

It also means less makeup for us. That’s always a relief.

E. J. (center) and other cast members in an early rehearsal in the Boss Rehearsal Hall.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What do you want audiences to take away from their experience of seeing Of Mice and Men? Is it different for an adult versus student audience?

I would say the basic idea of empathy, which seems to be fading fast away at this particular time in our history (just read any internet “comment” section). This is a play about mostly outcasts–outcasts trapped in a cold, harsh world and how they survive. Chances are everyone personally identifies with one or more of these outcasts, I think; and that has made this story so relatable for so long. (Even the character of Curley’s wife was fleshed out much more by Steinbeck for the play version, at the request of the play’s producer at the time.)

Achieving that empathy can be more of a challenge for a younger audience, as we’ve discovered in the past. Young people will often laugh at inappropriate times in a tragic story like this, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they find it funny; it’s often just a nervous reaction to a tense situation. (Lennie does this, too.)

How did you end up becoming an actor?

A hastily thought-out deal with the dark lord Lucifer that I’ll always regret.

Actually, my parents insisted I do something other than watch TV one summer when I was about 13, so I joined this acting troupe that traveled from park to park in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and performed fairy tales, melodramas, and other family plays. Somehow, I caught the bug. Along with the mosquitoes in my mouth.

E. J. as Nero Wolfe, with Derek Dirlam as Archie Goodwin in Might as Well Be Dead
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What have been some of your favorite roles, and what other characters do you hope to play someday?

Of course, playing the corpulent crime-fighter Nero Wolfe for Park Square has been a great honor and a fulfillment of my childhood dream of being a detective. It is flattering to be recognized by members of the Nero Wolfe “cult” when I am out and about. (As it has been explained to me: Sherlock Holmes is Star Trek; Nero Wolfe is Doctor Who. I’m very, very cool with that.)

There are a lot of roles I did in college that I’d love to replay as a (bigger) adult: Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jonathan Brewster (the Boris Karloff role) in Arsenic and Old Lace, the ghost of John Barrymore in I Hate Hamlet and Owen the evil Klansman in The Foreigner, a true comic villain for the times we live in.

Speaking of that, and since I spent all of 2016 not acting but watching the news and getting depressed like so many of us, I have been looking for more projects I could do that deal with civil rights and other issues that are so much on our minds these days. Fortunately, Of Mice and Men qualifies in many ways, and I’m glad to be doing it again now.

Twelve evening performances through December 16. Tickets and more info at http://parksquaretheatre.org/box-office/shows/2017-18/of-mice-and-men/

 

 

 

 

    tagline-color

Theatre News for you!

Sign up to get the latest Park Square news