The Skin of Our Teeth Returns to the Berkshire Theater Group
A conversation with Tappan Wilder, Berkshire Theater Group Artistic Director and CEO, Kate Maguire, and David Auburn, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright & director of The Berkshire Theatre Group’s THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH
Edited by Jim Knable
TW: Kate, could you tell us how you decided to do The Skin of Our Teeth?
KM: It was actually David Auburn who suggested Skin of Our Teeth. David has been directing classics from the American theatre for us for a number of years—he has a real knack for this kind of work and actors adore working with him. I feel really fortunate to have him with us this year working on this play. And like Thornton Wilder, he’s won a Pulitzer Prize. He’s really smart!
TW: David, can you fill us in on your first encounter with Thornton and The Skin of Our Teeth?
DA: For some reason, one of my earliest encounters with Wilder was reading Theophilus North. It’s sort of a funny entry point, but I think I read it as a teenager and really loved it. I read The Bridge [of San Luis Rey]. I read all of the novels at a certain point. I was almost more familiar with the novels than the plays until a little bit later.
TW: That means you must know Heaven’s My Destination.
DA: I love Heaven’s My Destination! I wish that were a film. It should be adapted.
TW: That plays very much into Skin of Our Teeth, but people don’t usually make the connection, you see--George Brush who is trying to do good all the time and Mr. Antrobus. They’re kissing cousins, I think.
Kate, do you know Thornton Wilder’s novels?
KM: I know The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Ides of March, and Theophilus North. I don’t know The Eighth Day or The Woman of Andros, which looks very interesting.
TW: Well, that’s the novel that Our Town springs from. It’s a meditative, quiet novel about a Hetaira on an obscure Greek Island before the time of Christ. It’s said to contain some of the most beautiful language in the 20th century and people who read it get turned into writers.
KM: I’m going to get this book! My mother was Greek, I should know this book!
TW: Sometimes directors carry The Skin of Our Teeth around in their heads for a long time, but they just don’t know how to mount it because it is such a large production. Were you ever at all reluctant to take this on, David? Is it one of those plays that’s scary?
DA: I’m excited to do plays that I don’t quite understand how to do. I’ve done a number of plays where I’ve thought, “I really don’t understand how this play works. How does it work on stage? How does one pull it off? I don’t understand the stage-craft necessary to mount this,” and it’s only by doing it that you figure out some of these really large-scale, ambitious works. I felt daunted and not certain as to how to do it, but also was desperate to try it. And we are figuring it out. It’s been an enormous amount of fun, both to understand the play and to see how it can be realized.
I have never seen a production of The Skin of Our Teeth. The one I’m directing will be the first one I’ve ever seen, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I felt I could come to it without any preconceptions about how it needed to be done.
I saw a production of Pullman Car Hiawatha in Chicago, done by a small store-front theatre company and that had a real impact on me. I’ve thought a lot about that production as I’ve been working on this one, because Wilder tried out so many motifs in that play and then scaled them up for Skin of Our Teeth.
TW: We’re deep into breathing a lot of interest and life into his one acts so hearing you say that just makes me purr like a kitten!
DA: I love all of the one acts, and Pullman Car in particular. It really is kind of a primer on how to do Skin of Our Teeth.
TW: You’re absolutely right. I’m fond of saying that those one act plays were kind of a kitchen, as it were. If you take those one act plays starting in 1931 and the Skin of Our Teeth in 1943, that’s the great bread basket of my uncle’s life as a dramatist.
Have you seen The Skin of Our Teeth before, Kate?
KM: I’ve never seen a production of it before, either, which is another reason I’m so excited!
TW: Did anybody say, “This is the craziest idea, we should not do this play?”
KM: No one said we shouldn’t do it. But certainly I heard a few say, “What? Are you crazy?!” Because the play is about, as you know, generation after generation of humanity and civilization. It’s got a lot of big thoughts because that’s what Thornton Wilder did so well. But I think it’s perfect for the times we’re living in. The actors that we have are so excited about working on this play as well.
DA: You know what’s come up a lot in the rehearsals? A quote from Wilder that says that this play is most potent in a time of crisis. The play was written during World War II and it’s about mankind coming through or not coming through crisis. Everyone in the rehearsal room has responded to that quote in a very visceral way. I think everyone can feel—because of the current political situation, because of climate change—I think the looming existential questions that are at the heart of the play are very present for everyone who is doing it right now. We all feel that we’re doing something that is very relevant and that doesn’t cut against the joyousness and playfulness and the humor of the play, but rather deepens all of those things. They’re not in conflict. The more you lean into the existential questions in the play, the funnier it is. The more playful and joyful and scary it is. It all fits together very beautifully.
TW: The humor in it is very real. Are you familiar with the play he gave up to do this? He gave up adapting The Beaux’ Stratagem for Cheryl Crawford. It’s humor, you see? In the same period he gave an infamous speech to hundreds of attendees at the MLMA at Boston at which he talked about how he was sick of most contemporary drama and what he really liked was a good burlesque show. And then he wrote this play!
DA: It’s a good description because parts of the play—and I’ve never staged a musical—parts of the play feel like I’m staging a musical. There are these interludes and there are opportunities for music and for dance and for movement and for knock-about comedy. It’s all in the mix—it’s just a delightful show to work on.
KM: There was an article recently in the NY Times about comedians who had lived into their early 90’s. When the question was posed, “What keeps you alive?” They said, “We’re constantly telling jokes and we’re constantly laughing.” I have that quote posted on my office door.
As you can imagine, in the middle of the summer, it’s organized chaos here with so many productions. So when people walk into my office, there’s the NY Times article that reminds us of the importance of humor. Especially in the times that we’re living when it seems as if our feet aren’t on the ground any more. It’s a period where we’re getting tossed all over the place, I think, and those of us who can hold on and find our balance will be the ones who maybe continue to thrive or continue to believe that the glass is half full as opposed to half empty. Which is another reason why I love this play.
TW: Do summer audiences differ in any way from winter audiences in what they expect of the theatre? For a long period down through the years, Skin of Our Teeth was often associated with summer theatre. Thornton was fond of saying that he didn’t mind seeing three thousand people in an open air summer theatre. Five hundred would leave after the first act and five hundred would leave after the second act, and there’d still be 2000 people left at the curtain!
KM: The Berkshires is a cultural destination. We’re very fortunate to have been around for 91 years. Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood have been here for a very long time as well. So people travel to us in the summer time for culture, for the arts. Those are the same people who are filling theatres in New York City and in Boston, and I don’t feel like they’re looking for a light summer fare. I think they’re looking for an artistic experience, a cultural experience when they come to the Berkshires. And that’s exciting. That’s an exciting audience to be speaking to.
DA: I’ve directed a lot of productions here at Berkshire Theatre Group, but Kate is always keen to find productions that are adventuresome, but also that have some connection to this theatre. And Wilder, as you know, performed this play on this stage in 1948. This will be the first time the play has been done here since it was produced in 1966 starring Anne Bancroft. I wasn’t sure she’d be able to put the resources together to do it because it’s so large, but we are doing it with a full company and a company playing the conveners and the other extras, so it’ll be quite a lavish production.
TW: It’s not inexpensive to produce this play, right?
KM: Our Board of Trustees has said that.
TW: I’ll bet they did!
KM: And I said, “Don’t you worry, we’re going to sell a lot of tickets!”
TW: Did they say we’ve heard that before?
KM: They said, “Oh, we’ve heard that before Kate,” and I said, “Don’t worry, I mean it this time!”
Our theatre actually has a large audience that continues to grow. We’ve had 91 years to entice people to join us. They love the playhouse and they know that Thornton Wilder played the Stage Manager on that stage. They have an affection for Thornton Wilder and from what I’ve heard from our audiences, they are excited to see this play that, like me, many of them have never had the opportunity to see on stage.
DA: It’s actually a relatively small theatre—it’s beautiful but it doesn’t have a lot of technical resources, so we’re figuring out how to do it with a lot of actors, but not a lot of scenery, and without much in the way of technical sophistication. But that turns out to be really good for this play, because it is a play that’s very self-conscious of the fact that it is taking place in a theatre so having the wires exposed works really well for the playhouse that we’re in. We’re leaning into that and continually playing with the distinction between the play that’s being put on and the people who are putting it on and the reality of a production. It’s all very fun.
TW: Tell me—how’s Henry Antrobus doing? Sometimes it’s hard for modern man to see evil that way. He’s Cain, of course.
DA: That’s a great question. It’s sort of true of all of the characters. How do you do these characters who are both real people and archetypes? They are symbolic figures from mythology or history, but they’re also responding to the particular situation that they’re in, the way that a contemporary person would.
We have a wonderful young actor, Marcus Gladney, playing Henry. He has a background in classical theatre, which is really helpful. He mentioned Iago today, which I thought was really interesting. I think perhaps he’s drawing on some of that, especially for the end of the play—the sort of motiveless, or intrinsically malign force. It’s not a psychological kind of evil. It’s primal. He’s locating the roots of that in these archetypes from literature like Iago, as well as Cain. I think he’s on the right track.
TW: Any big challenges that have surprised you with any other characters?
DA: Harriet Harris who is playing Mrs. Antrobus has had a lot of questions about the fact that it seems as if she’s ping-ponging between mental states. Mrs. Antrobus makes these very abrupt shifts, she feels, in terms of mood, intensity, and decision-making . We were having an interesting talk about it today. I was saying that I see her as more consistent than that. I see Mrs. Antrobus as fierce in defense of her family and a kind of pit-bull when she sees the family being threatened. She’s sort of indomitable in moving things forward when no one else can. And those things seem to be pretty consistent with me. Even though she deploys a lot of tactics in shifting between those things, she’s quite straightforward. It’s an interesting performance challenge—how do you capture her consistency while still doing justice to the peaks and valleys of what’s happening to the character.
TW: We had a special panel recently in New York on Wilder and Women. I’m frankly trying to start a kind of multi-year attention to that because I think his women—Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker, Harriet in Pullman Car Hiawatha, for example —are extraordinary women. And Mrs. Antrobus’ timeless and timely bottle speech in this play is very much at the center of this. It works beautifully. It really does work. My uncle took women seriously and that was unusual at the time. He liked and respected women. This play, I think speaks to that.
DA: Very much so. That’s funny that you say that because the other day we were working on her convention speech at the beginning of Act II and Harriet was worried that that it seemed like she was making a kind of reactionary speech. And I was like, “No it’s the opposite! It’s a feminist speech!” It uses the language of the suffragettes and it’s all about her power over her own fate and her family’s fate. The women in the play are fantastic.
Mr. Antrobus loses hope several times in the play and collapses and it’s up to Mrs. Antrobus to try to pick him up. She’s the one who has to pick up the pieces every time.
TW: We are particularly interested in the way Thornton Wilder, unlike Hemingway and Fitzgerald and others who could be tough on women, was deeply interested in their strengths.
KM: They’re not victims at all. They’re strong characters who have a certain vision and are leading us towards something in his plays. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I so love Thornton Wilder’s work. Mrs. Antrobus is so wise. And the Fortune Teller! It’s a woman telling us these things. And of course wonderful Sabina, she’s extraordinary, right?
TW: She’s a piece of work.
KM: She is a piece of work. But she’s another eye into that world, always winking at us as she’s taking us through.
DA: Sabina, Mrs. A and the Fortune Teller are just this great triumvirate of characters.
TW: You know, I always wanted to be the Fortune Teller and steal the play! Never had that opportunity.
KM: Now that I know that, Tappy, I can definitely spread the word! I’m sorry we didn’t know that before!
TW: Well, we’re very grateful you’re doing this very brave play and we track it with some interest because it is a demanding piece of work .
KM: I think that the audience is in for a great night. And I have complete faith that David will treat your uncle’s play with great care.
DA: The play has been opening itself up to us nicely. Solutions have been presenting themselves for things that I thought would be really difficult.
TW: Thank you so much, David and Kate. Good luck with the show. Give everyone my best wishes.