Monday, July 27, 2009

Dramaturg’s Diary: Countdown to The Orphans' Home Cycle

Kirsten Bowen is Signature Theatre Company's Literary Associate, and the Signature dramaturg for The Orphans' Home Cycle

I have been Signature’s Literary Associate for three years now and throughout that time have managed to always delegate the writing for Signature’s blog to a series of willing interns, whom I reasoned were more digitally in touch than I was anyway. So it seems fitting that I come out of hiding and make my blog debut by chronicling the world premiere of Horton Foote’s nine-play The Orphans’ Home Cycle, an epic event that will encompass Signature’s entire 2009-2010 Season beginning in November.

Grand events like this– a world premiere of nine plays spanning nearly thirty years with a cast of 22 actors playing over sixty roles – are rare, and everyone who will be involved in the undertaking, from the actors in the rehearsal room to the staffs in the administrative and box offices, will have the opportunity to be a part of something quite special and unusual. What’s more, Horton Foote was a beloved friend and colleague of Signature Theatre Company and our producing partner, Hartford Stage, and these plays tell the deeply personal story of the founding of his family. It’s extremely gratifying to not only be presenting works that tell a rich and compelling story, but also celebrate Horton’s history and legacy.

Horton Foote began writing The Orphans’ Home Cycle in the 1970s as nine separate plays to honor his late parents, Albert Horton Foote and Hallie Brooks Foote, basing the central character of the cycle, Horace Robedaux, on his father. The cycle begins in 1902 and takes us from Horace’s childhood in and around the fictional town of Harrison, Texas (Harrison, where many of his plays are set, is based on Horton’s hometown of Wharton, Texas), into his adulthood when he has established his own family and had his first son, a character based on Horton himself.

Many of the Orphans’ plays have been fully produced at other theatres, and almost half, Convicts, Lily Dale, Courtship, Valentine’s Day, and 1918, have been produced on television or as feature films. Two, Roots in a Parched Ground and Cousins, have never been produced in any medium. Horton had always wanted to see all nine plays presented together as a complete cycle. Two years ago that dream came to fruition when Michael Wilson, Artistic Director of Connecticut’s Hartford Stage and a frequent collaborator of Horton’s, approached him about paring them down into nine one-acts which would be presented together in three parts. Signature officially joined the project as co-producer in January 2009.

Over the course of the season, I and several others will be bringing you behind-the-scenes updates on the journey of bringing this monumental work to the stage. Right now casting is underway, design meetings are happening, and much reading and research on Horton and turn of the century Eastern Texas has been happening in Signature’s artistic office. This point in the process has been a long time coming for all of us – some have waited six months to get started, some two and a half years, and Horton waited for over thirty. We still have a long way to go until first preview but we’re well on our way.

Welcome to The Orphans’ Home Cycle

ADDENDUM: I have recently been reminded that Roots in a Parched Ground, the first play of the cycle, was originally a teleplay entitled The Night of the Storm, and was produced by the “Du Pont Show of the Month” in 1961. Horton’s original title for it was A Golden String (from a William Blake poem), which the producers rejected as too ambiguous. They did like the second title, Roots in a Parched Ground (from a William Carlos Williams poem), but the advertising agency disliked it, and so they all compromised on The Night of the Storm, which, according to Horton, “None of us liked very much.” The play was subsequently published as Roots in a Parched Ground. Apologies for the oversight and no offense intended towards “Du Pont Show of the Month” producer David Susskind, Night of the Storm director Daniel Petrie, and actors Julie Harris, E.G. Marshall, Mildred Dunnock, Mark Connelly, Fritz Weaver, and Jo Van Fleet.

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