Combining short, dramatic scenes, haunting musical pieces and darkly comic puppetry, “Poe Pieces,” which ran Feb. 8 through 16, formed a theatrical anthology of Edgar Allen Poe’s work that gave audience members a look into Poe’s often disturbing creativity. Interpretations of Poe’s various literary works, including “Mask of the Red Death,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Raven,” came to life on stage as actors, student musicians and theater technicians presented their work.
“Poe Pieces” was a devised play, which means that unlike a traditional play, actors did not start with a script on which to base their performance. Instead, students spent the four weeks of interim in a theater course where they assembled the performance from the ground up. This type of “workshopped show” allows actors to become more involved with the piece because they have a hand in its creation.
Assistant Professor of Theater Jeanne Willcoxon led the project and has past experience in devised-theater production.
Various elements of Poe’s life and works came together during the show’s creation, providing audience members with a multifaceted look at the author’s work. Actors and other students working with the performance began by reading several of Poe’s poems, short stories, letters and biographies. Along with Poe’s work, students studied Sigmund Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” which defines “the uncanny” as something familiar, yet strange, an experience that produces an eerie feeling of uneasiness. By holding this essay in the background while assembling the different elements of the performance, students lent the play a dark, off-putting mood that fit Poe’s melancholic style.
After reading through Poe’s short stories, poems and letters, students began interpreting the pieces for theater. The students formed small groups and were all assigned the same piece of Poe’s literature. Despite having the same literary work, each group focused on a different element of theatrical production. For example, when the students worked with the poem “To My Mother,” one group concentrated on text, another on movement and another on sound. Focusing the students on different theatrical elements encouraged them to completely dissect each piece and understand how to effectively communicate Poe’s emotion throughout the entire scene.
After working in groups, the students came together and discussed each element. Willcoxon reminded the students that each theatrical performance has a variety of elements, and she prompted the students to layer them. Because the groups worked separately from each other, their interpretations would occasionally conflict.
During this process, which lasted for a few days in January, students strove to understand Poe’s purpose in each work and asked themselves what they wanted to convey to the audience. This intense focus on each piece eventually allowed students to successfully layer the different elements into a cohesive production.
Once students established which pieces they liked and began interpreting them for the stage, they tied the stories and poems together into a loose plotline of Poe’s life, using letters and biographical information. They incorporated Poe’s mournful love for the various women he had lost in his life and details about his psychological instability. Students got the information partially from a biography. However, recognizing the biography’s potential bias, they also used the letters Poe had composed himself, including letters to his wife, his friends and the letter he wrote before a failed attempt at taking his own life. Because the letters came directly from Poe, students were able to integrate Poe’s voice directly into the performance.
Isaac Rysdahl ’14, an actor in “Poe Pieces,” appreciated the opportunity to devise a play because it allowed him to connect to the work in ways that other performances had not.
“It was a great experience for the actors to be involved with the creative process,” Rysdahl said. “There is a certain sense of vulnerability that is necessary when trying to create a piece because you have to be willing to try things and know they’re going to fail. We failed many times during the creative process, but I think we succeeded in coming up with a great cohesive piece.”
According to Rysdahl, the creation of “Poe Pieces” was a wholly collaborative effort. Although the end goal was to create a single theatrical performance, the unique creative process behind “Poe Pieces” provided a valuable experience for every student involved.