Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth serves as a mammoth of a play, covering time between the ice age to the post-apocalyptic future. Creating this hilarious, poignant, and heart-warming look at the spirit of human resilience is a massive challenge. With a huge cast, and a need for flexible design, Constellation Theatre Company has risen to the challenge and produced this, quite literally, timeless classic.
I spoke with director Mary Hall Surface, Sound Designer Justin Schmitz, and actors Tonya Beckman, Lilian Oben, and Jenna Berk to understand the joys and challenges of presenting this particular work.
How do you manage to tie together the play’s biblical, prehistoric, period, and modern timbres and settings?
Mary Hall Surface: Well, that’s the fun of it! As a director, you must embrace Wilder’s desire for us see our choices and actions against the broadest possible canvas of all humanity throughout all time. Every choice the characters make grows out of all that they are: not just from an immediate moment between two seemingly “everyday” people, but from their thousands of years of existence – from the timeless roles they play and from how those roles play them. It’s not easy being an archetype! You must imagine a world in which time is measured in multiple ways, and every action and image is both truthful and filled with symbolism beyond the everyday.
What are some of the the challenges of a show of this scope and scale?
Mary Hall: You must find a physical and aural design vocabulary that will communicate the mythic scope of the story while rooting it in a real place. And, of course, we are working in a space (Source Theatre) that is much smaller than the typical venue for a show of this scale.
We’ve discovered some highly theatrical solutions and have invested much of our focus on actor-centered solutions to creating biblical floods and encroaching icebergs. Indeed, the performance style (which is one of the hardest things to get right about this play) is one that embraces the inherent farce without exaggeration, comment or kitsch. The richness of this comedy, for me, grows out of accepting the givens of Wilder’s delightfully crafted world and playing them for truth.
What are some relevant themes and ideas?
Mary Hall: This play is remarkably timeless and timely. Wilder wrote it as much of the world was tumbling into the political and social chaos of the Second World War. It was a time of existential uncertainty. Wilder said the play comes alive best “under conditions of crisis,” hence my proposing this play to be done in this moment to Constellation Theatre. Wilder asks us: How do we respond to evil? What does resilience truly look like? How do we rebuild when so much seems destroyed? What bonds us to one another? How will the show go on, because it must go on.
What’s been the most fun part about working on this show?
Mary Hall: We have an extraordinary company of actors and designers who have really risen to the challenges of the complexities of the play. Our rich conversations about the play have been big fun for a myth-Jungian-nerd like me. And we’ve especially enjoyed the fun of the meta-theatrical framework of the play, discovering anew the power of theatre as a public forum — as an open and vibrant invitation to a community to imagine together.
How did you go about building this complex and eccentric world?
Justin Schmitz: For the sound world of this play, Mary Hall and I sat down quite a few times to listen to music samples together and to have conversations about the innermost core of the play. We truly picked apart what Thornton Wilder is trying to say throughout the piece, and how sound and music can help to enhance those moments.
What are some influences you brought in with you to the process?
Justin: Influences that have been beneficial in this process have been a sense of wonder and family. A core identity of family ties has been extremely critical in the story telling of this process, it’s helped to identify a great deal of the design element of sound.
So actors, who do you play, and what’s something you like about the character?
Tonya Beckman: I play Sabina. She’s sort of a maid/Lilith figure, and that’s been fascinating to discover. And because the play has so many meta-theatrical moments, I also get to pop out of the role and talk to the audience as an Actor, who lives somewhere in between Sabina and the real me. She’s funny, sweet, strong, temperamental, sexy, irritable, saucy, optimistic and pessimistic almost simultaneously, and I’m not sure I’ve ever played someone quite so complicated. It’s been great fun to learn who she is.
Lilian Oben: I play one of three Muse refugees and the Fortune Teller. I like the Muse character’s connectedness to her sisters; they seem connected in a metaphysical way. For the Fortune Teller, I like her forward-moving energy and agelessness. She’s feels as young and as old as life itself.
Jenna Berk: I play the Stage Manager, as well as a refugee and majorette. I love my main character, the Stage Manager, because she’s competent, no-nonsense, and rolls with the punches. In other words, your typical stage manager!
What have been some of the challenges?
Lilian: From an actor’s perspective, I think one general challenge of any production of this play is probably embracing the plethora of theatrical styles inherent in the writing and committing to them fully, whether it’s moment by moment or even act by act.
Tonya: The size. The play is a beast. Not just the cast size, [12 plus 4 understudies] but the size of the story. It’s contemporary while also spanning millennia; it’s about the beginning of the world as well as the apocalypse, and it asks all sorts of questions that I’m sometimes not even totally aware of. I try to remember that my job is not to answer the large questions of the play, but to step onstage, meet my scene partners and react to them in the most visceral way possible. The rest I leave up to the director – and the audience.
Jenna: There are a lot of technical aspects to this production that make it stunning to experience but are definitely a lot of work to perfect. There are also a ton of quick changes for everyone, as well as a long trek from stage left to stage right. And then there’s the challenge of balancing the truth of your character’s circumstances with the larger philosophical point that Wilder is making, as well as those moments that break the fourth wall. There’s a lot to juggle.
What’s been one of your favorite moments in the show, or in the rehearsal process?
Jenna: The wonderful thing about this play is that the moments that stick out to me in the show will shift from week to week, depending on what’s going on in the world or in my life. When I was auditioning, I was really struck by the lines about what makes a good leader and how a leader influences the population. Now, I’m always listening out for Sabina’s thoughts on people who claim they don’t want to be loved. It’s all so thought-provoking.
Tonya: For me, it’s how wildly relevant it is. The play was written in the early 1940s, but feels like it could have been written yesterday. There are certain lines that seem like they MUST be inspired by current events. One of the other actors has a line in which she says, “Judges can’t save us now,” and that always gives me chills.
Lilian: Hearing Mary Hall’s directorial comments from the first rehearsal is up there; her approach to the production, her overview of the timeliness and timelessness of the play’s themes, and just the sheer depth of knowledge and passion she brings to this production is grounding and inspiring.
And then generally speaking, every time I connect a dot, or hear a line spoken by someone in a scene that suddenly makes sense – whether it’s in relation to another character or just something that further illuminates the meaning of a moment or even the play itself, is a great moment.
What’s something about this show that you hope will resonate with audiences?
Lilian: The power we all have as individuals and humans to be better and an appreciation of the individual and communal sacrifice that moving forward often requires.
Jenna: I hope that audiences will be struck by Wilder’s overall optimism in the face of desperate circumstances. Our political and social structures can seem insurmountable, but humanity has been through apocalyptic conditions before and we have always risen to the challenge and fought to make the world a better, more just place.
Tonya: Our capacity as humans to always rebuild, to begin again. History is full of examples, and I think this play wants us to walk away having been reminded that creating the world we want to live in is not only within our power, but is our duty.
Mary Hall: I hope audiences will embrace Wilder’s deep belief in the resilience of the human spirit. While life may be a comedy-tragedy-farce-absurd, we do not wander blindly as we attempt to make meaning. Our drive to know, to invent, to bond, and to love are the indestructible signposts that guide and propel humanity forward. We are not merely cycling through destruction and rebuilding; we are spiraling, however slowly, toward our aspirational selves and world. And I hope that the meta-theatrical framework of the play will encourage audiences who, after participating imaginatively and literally in the play, to see themselves as actors. I hope when they leave the theatre, they will feel empowered to push back against the darkness and imagine new worlds. That’s a big hope, I know, but that’s why I do what I do.