DIRECTOR'S NOTES

Every Theatre Arts major is given the opportunity to undertake a senior thesis project in acting, directing, playwriting, design, or dramaturgy/criticism in their senior year, which serves as the creative and intellectual capstone to their years of study in the major. If the student's area of concentration involves performance, the senior thesis project will focus on the creation of a significant piece of artistic work; the work of art (i.e. the theatrical performance) is not the thesis itself, but constitutes one small but important component of a body of research culminating in a major piece of writing. Each year an experienced faculty director selects a play that provides a thesis role for the senior majors concentrating in acting. Senior acting thesis projects in past years have included productions of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.

Miss Julie was selected to provide thesis roles for two of this year's senior majors, Joanna Goldman and Riaz Patel. Why did I select Miss Julie? Certainly not because I expected to spend a relaxing and upbeat period of time in rehearsal in the company of August Strindberg--a writer known for injecting his private anxieties, paranoias, and reprehensible sexual politics into his novels, essays, letters, and plays. But the play does provide two extraordinary roles that I knew would stretch these particular young actors to the frontiers of their talents and, usefully, beyond. And Miss Julie offered an even greater opportunity for myself, the actors, the staff, and audiences alike. For the play in performance, I discovered, can be made to be about the work of the actor--both what the actor does, and how the actor does it. The play (as we perform it) speaks to questions of character, motivation, personality, psychology and behavior in ways that the actors have incorporated into their process of doing their work as actors. Furthermore, the artistic event that you witness tonight embodies the process that we collectively employed to bring the event into existence.

Strindberg used the "Author's Preface" to the published edition of the play as a manifesto for a new type of psychologized drama, calling for two sets of innovations. In the Preface, he talks about making the scenery for the play as palpably "realistic" as possible. And he calls for a new view of dramatic character. Indeed, he dismisses the idea of "character" altogether as an outmoded literary system whereby fictional personages are constructed around quirks and catch-phrases, and are believed to act according to an exact correspondence between simplistic biographical causes and predetermined behavioral effects. Strindberg calls for something more complex: "My `souls,'" he writes, choosing to use a different word for character, "are conglomerates of past and present cultural phases, bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, pieces torn from fine clothes and become rags, patched together as is the human soul."

After reading the play countless times and teaching the play over a dozen times during my 16 years at Penn, I never completely saw the connection between Strindberg's twin concerns for realistic stage conventions and for new definitions of dramatic character. And I thought I understood what Strindberg was saying about "souls": that behavior is caused not by single but by multiple determinants. As Strindberg writes in his Preface, "I have motivated Miss Julie's tragic fate by a great number of circumstances: her mother's primary instincts, her father raising her incorrectly, her own nature, and the influence of her fianc on her weak and degenerate brain. Also, more particularly: the festive atmosphere of midsummer night, her father's absence, her monthly indisposition, her preoccupation with animals, the provocative effect of the dancing, the magical midsummer twilight, the powerfully aphrodisiac influence of flowers, and, finally, the chance that drives the couple together into a room alone--plus the boldness of the aroused man."

Now that I have worked on the play in performance, though, I understand Strindberg's concept of character in a different way than I did for all these years; and I now do see a connection between Strindberg's assertions about dramatic character and the stage environment. For our purposes, Strindberg is not merely saying that character and behavior are complexly, rather than monolithically, determined; rather, he's saying that character and behavior are not determined at all. People are who they are for complex reasons; but what they do they do because of the particular circumstances in which they find themselves, that affect--in that moment and in that moment only--what they want or need, how they respond to stimuli and provocation, what thoughts they think, and what path of action they choose to take. The physical world of the characters (which Strindberg wanted to be represented on stage so realistically) is merely one material part of the particular circumstances of any given moment.

The rehearsals for this production of Miss Julie were an experiment in whether character could be "built" by the actors in accordance with this notion of character and dramatic action. From the outset, the actors were instructed to forsake some of the traditional tools of their trade: they were forbidden to construct a "biography" of the character, to write or to improvise scenes from their characters' childhoods, etc. We never asked "What type of person is this who would do these things?" or "What made this person this way?" Rather, we created in the rehearsal room a specific set of physical conditions and a specific set of physical tasks for each small unit of stage action; the actors were then invited to find the stimulus for their actions in the physical world and in one another, and to decide upon their course of action solely according to what they feel in the moment. Any feeling that they genuinely feel and any action they take (using the words of Strindberg's text) based on these feelings is acceptable, whether or not it is the same feeling or action as the previous rehearsal, or the same feeling or action as a few moments earlier in the play. If the actors are able to navigate the emotions and actions of the play with complete conviction, from the first lines of the script to the final curtain, then they will have succeeded in "creating" their characters, out of the fiber of their own emotions and imaginations.

As you will see in the performance, we have devised a method of performance that replicates the rules of our rehearsal explorations. The physical world of the stage and the physical tasks assigned to the actors are not within the control of the actors playing Miss Julie, Jean, or Kristine; the other performers on stage are free to shape the stage and to assign the actors physical tasks as they please, in ways that differ from one performance to the next. And the principal actors are free to move about their world, to interact with one another, and to take action, according to what they feel in that particular moment, without regard to what they have previously rehearsed or even what they did at last night's performance.

Through this approach, we have discovered that Miss Julie is not about characters who are doomed to a fate determined by their peculiar temperaments and upbringings. Rather, the play shows us two people who move inexorably forward to their respective fates through actions they take under the influence of a sequence of circumstances at once random and of their mutual making. Miss Julie and Jean are repeatedly forced to make choices. Even if the choices they are forced to make are choices for which there are, in that moment, no viable alternatives, they are nevertheless choices, for which they must ultimately take responsibility, and pay a very high price.

Which Miss Julie and which Jean you will see performed tonight--of all the Miss Julies and Jeans I have seen Joanna and Riaz create in rehearsal--is impossible to predict; perhaps they will be ones that I, too, have never seen before. But I can guarantee that these characters will be as complex, as contradictory, as inconsistent, as intelligent, and as emotionally vulnerable--in short, as human--as the actors who play them.