NIU Production Seeks To Add Layers And Lyricism To Play

Mar 31, 2014

Patricia Skarbinski
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

The NIU School of Theatre and Dance’s current production is Ketty Fring’s 1958 stage adaptation of Thomas Wolfe’s coming-of-age novel “Look Homeward, Angel.”  WNIJ’s Guy Stephens spoke with the show’s director, Patricia Skarbinski.  The School is mounting its productions away from its home in NIU’s Stevens Building this year while the facility undergoes renovation. Skarbinski says that was just one of the challenges of the show.

(Patricia Skarbinski) "The novel has a very sort of poetic, lyrical structure, whereas the play itself has a(n) almost realistic structure. So that collision is something that we’ve been dealing with. And we’ve been trying to bring in the atmosphere of that poetic reality. We’ve been trying to bring that into this objective structure, this sort of harder structure that Ketti Frings wrote, which was popular at the time of the fifties."

"I feel like our esthetics are quite different now, and we like a much more subjective experience when we’re watching theater, sort of more of the inner life to be revealed. So  we’ve tried to do that by bringing in live music  that sort of helps represent some of the inner life. So we have a live bluegrass band, which I am very excited about. They’re absolutely fantastic."

The bluegrass band for "Look Homeward. Angel"
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Guy Stephens: The home for the School of Theatre and Dance is being renovated. And the school has been scattered – Huntley Middle School for the larger productions. How much has that been a factor in putting this together?

"It’s been a big factor putting it together. The Huntley Middle School theater space is quite complicated and it’s a very different theatrical space than anything we had in the Stevens Building. So there was a big learning curve in trying to understand how to bring the intimacy of the theatrical experience in a space that’s quite large and the seating starts quite far away from the stage."

You think you‘ve got something that will work? 

Yeah. I think the band will help a lot because it lives in the liminal space between the audience and the actors. And we’re having the actors cross through the house so they can sort of feel some of the energy the actors are bringing on to the  stage. And we’re also adding in seating into that space so the audience can be physically closer to the state itself.

In front of the stage at Huntley Middle School
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

What are the themes that you want to come out?

"I really wanted to bring out the layeredness of life. It’s very easy to vilify ones parents and say they’re all wrong and they’re oppressing me as a young person, but it’s just not that simple. So that’s one goal I really had with this play, especially with the structure of the play that sometimes tended to flatten out Thomas Wolfe’s experience of the novel, the way he writes all this layeredness into experience in the novel, and I wanted to make sure we brought that in the characterization on stage.  And then, this idea that, if one really is going to become an adult, one has to take responsibility in a real way for one’s actions, and one also needs something to have something to push against.  Because sometimes life is so easy, and in this country particularly. And sometimes if you have nothing to work against, maybe you never quite discover what your true character is. Pain can be a great gift in birth of one’s strength and voice and really, true adulthood."

So, is that what you audience to take away?

"I would love them to be able to identify - I mean, we all have families – go, wow, I, I, yes, me too, me too, it’s not easy for me in those circumstances, there so many forces at play.  So I would like them to identify with the reality of the complexity of the family structure and dysfunction of it, and the humor, the pain, the bittersweetness of life."

The NIU Production runs through April 5 in Huntley Middle School in DeKalb.