When I was an undergrad, I wrote poetry. My undergraduate thesis in the Honors Program was a collection of poetry, and I took quite a few creative writing classes. I also used to go to open mic readings at the Urban Stampede and around campus, reading this poetry. For anyone who might read this who ever went to a reading that featured my earliest work, I offer my deepest and sincerest apologies. I am slightly horrified that I stood in public and read some of the abysmal poetry that I created in those early days. Now I’m not saying that I ended my undergraduate career as Walt Whitman or anything, but I feel that eventually I became an ok poet who had a better grasp of language and flow for my efforts. I haven’t written poetry for quite some time but I do still enjoy fiddling around with words, though now most of them are of the four-letter variety. The point is, I struggled with the work, I battled through it, and I became a better writer for it.
Seeing the UND Theatre student production CRUSH(ED), I’m reminded of just how important that focus on your craft can be. The show was inconsistent and a bit of a mess, sometimes downright confusing, though there were occasional bright spots. It was also very clear that the entire cast and crew (which, according to the program, numbered somewhere close to three dozen in total) were committed to the show, and they gave so much energy to the opening night production. Enthusiasm, however, wasn’t enough to save the show from what was clearly its weakest link: the material. And what the material was lacking was a strong “red pen in hand” editorial vision, a get-in-and-get-your-hands-dirty focus on the craft of writing.
There were certainly bright spots. Frank Sikich provided two musical pieces, an overture and a finale. It was clear that Sikich is no newcomer to composing. The finale especially was well-constructed, and allowed the large cast to work together to create a generally pleasant, if sometimes shaky, layering of harmonies. It was material that had clearly seen some time and attention. Jackie O’Neil’s choreography was lovely to watch: a group dance to a Dropkick Murphys song was a little messy, a little naughty, and a lot of fun; the other two numbers were more poetic and though the duet dance to Mumford & Sons’ “White Blank Page” felt a little like a rehash of “Gravity” from the recent reboot of My Generation, they were presented with style and grace. In terms of the acting, most of the cast did quite well bringing life to what they had to work with. There were some lovely moments, but it was hard for any of the performances to completely break away from the material.
Ahh, the material. This is where all of that talk about poetry at the beginning comes into play. Most of the material presented in CRUSH(ED) was original work, and most of it felt like it was still in the early drafting stages. There were ideas, but they needed revision and refinement to make them come together with the acting/singing. The show was dripping with angst; every cliché about broken hearts and “How am I supposed to live without you?” was uncomfortably on display with no sense of irony or reflexivity, no counterpoint to lift the plodding scenes out of general self-pity. A couple were downright confusing: one in particular featured a woman who died after 12 years of marriage, and her grieving husband. The details of the relationship are convoluted, as are the setting and relationships of the characters. In particular, there is a young woman who shows up and offers to help the man forget (presumably by offering her love in return), but we don’t know who she is or where she is coming into the scene from. Later it is revealed that the scene seems to be taking place at a family Christmas celebration. So, are they cousins? Where did she come from and why is she at their family Christmas trying to seduce a drunken widower? It is mentioned that the couple was married for 12 years, but none of the stories the husband tells reflect the depth that would come from a relationship of that duration; in fact, except for that particular detail, most of the man’s dialogue and actions suggest that he is much younger, and that the relationship is much newer. A brother is introduced, but he does little to contrast the widower or provide character variety. He just comes on in a sort of quasi-philosophical drunken haze, not offering any real wisdom and usually just confirming for the widower that he is as deep as he thinks he is (though to the audience, he clearly is not).
A cutting from Other Desert Cities,one of only a couple non-original pieces in the production, featured some of the strongest acting in the show, but was also a bit perplexing. The lengthy scene was cut down with all the best efforts to retain identifying details about the situation and the characters, but Emily Wirkus’ character was left without any real introduction. As family relationships are established (a mother and father and their adult daughter who has written a book about their family, specifically about her brother who has committed a bombing) but Wirkus’ place in the scene is never adequately explained. Is she a grandparent? A family friend? And why does she have such an atrocious case of bedhead? I had to Wikipedia the play to find out that she is actually the mother’s sister, fresh out of a stint in rehab. I guess that explains the bedhead.
These sorts of problems are found throughout the material in CRUSH(ED), and they are the sorts of problems that can only be dealt with by focusing on the craft of writing. Revision, rewriting, rethinking – all of these are key to the writing process, and I would have expected an educational theatre program to ask that of their students. If this had been presented as a sort of student showcase at the end of the semester, it would be easier to be more forgiving but this show was part of the regular season. Though a completely student-centered production is an admirable goal, there needed to be more structure around how to make that production a reality. The students should have had the same level of work and focus on the writing and workshopping of their original material as the acting students have when prepping for a show. That this would be part of an educational theatre program seems obvious: letting the students craft a unique and original production is a wonderful opportunity, but how much of that opportunity is wasted if the students don’t have the proper tools they need to make their efforts truly successful?
In the end, it felt to me like the students were just stretched too thin: so much time and money and resources went into remounting the production of My Generation that CRUSH(ED) unfortunately ends up feeling like a bit of an afterthought. The cast and crew are to be commended on the spirit and energy that they brought to the production; in the right circumstances, all of that potential could be harnessed for a truly great production. It’s just going to take a bit more work to get there.