Kirsten Bowen is Signature Theatre Company's Literary Associate, and the Signature dramaturg for The Orphans' Home Cycle
Well, when I last posted a “diary entry,” the crack dramaturgy teams of Signature and Hartford were hard at work researching the world of The Orphans’ Home Cycle. Since then, we table-worked and work-shopped all nine plays over the course of three weeks, leading up to a “marathon” reading of all nine plays that brought the entire staffs of Hartford and Signature together (a day which Orphans’ actor Bryce Pinkham reported on in his diary and which was also photographed). Following the marathon reading, which marked the official start date of rehearsals, director Michael Wilson began the complicated process of staging the plays, working sequentially from the first play, Roots in a Parched to Ground, to the last, The Death of Papa.
Meanwhile, back at Signature we’ve been supporting the process by researching questions from the rehearsal room (if Claire is sending a wire at four o’clock in the morning, would she send it from home or would she have to leave the house?) as well as preparing for when we take over hosting the cycle. For me, this includes assembling material for Signature’s elaborate dramaturgical lobby displays, writing and editing our quarterly newsletter, Signature Edition, and for the interns, crafting the three-part video that will honor Horton Foote and run on the television in the Peter Norton Space’s lobby throughout the season.
Periodically throughout the summer various members of the Signature staff and I have been leaving New York very early in the morning, either via train or ZipCar, to attend rehearsals in Hartford. I was most often in rehearsal during the first three weeks when the company was still reading the plays around the table and making initial investigations into the world and their characters. In addition to asking practical questions such as which neighborhood of Houston do Horace’s mother and sister live in, and how were lawyers educated in the late nineteenth century, Michael impressed into the actors the key themes Horton explored in all of his work, and which re-surface throughout The Orphans’ Home Cycle: the search for home and identity, how some people actively choose to remember while others choose to forget, and what makes some of us survivors and thrivers and others doomed to failure and disappointment?
Many of these characters are based on Horton Foote’s family – not only do his father and mother have alter-egos, but so do his grandparents, great-grandparents, and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins, some of whom have morphed into a character representing a combination of several people (for example, Brother Vaughn, one of Bryce Pinkham’s characters, is a composite of three of Horton’s uncles). Although many events within the cycle did not happen in real life, and these characters were created to stand on their own, separate from their real-life counterparts, we do a lot of digging into Horton’s family history in order to find a model for these people’s histories. His memoir, Farewell, is an invaluable resource, but even more helpful is Horton’s daughter, actor Hallie Foote. Hallie has appeared in the majority of her father’s plays over the past thirty years and is known as the premiere interpreter of his work. Of everyone in the room Hallie’s involvement in The Orphans’ Home Cycle goes back the furthest – not only did she witness her father write them when she was a teenager (and help type the scripts), she created the key role of Elizabeth Vaughn when the plays were first produced on stage at New York’s HB Playwrights’ Foundation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in their film adaptations in the 1980s. Now Hallie will play Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Vaughn, among other roles. In addition, since Horton’s passing Hallie has taken on the stewardship of his work and continues to collaborate closely with Michael on bringing the cycle to life.
Another challenge we faced during those early weeks was working on the plays out of sequence. We began with Lily Dale, the third play of the cycle, and for the most part jumped around, working our way towards the larger cast plays as more actors joined us throughout the three-week workshop period. While it was incredibly beneficial to be able to focus in-depth on one play at a time, it was tricky exploring these characters whose journeys had begun several plays ago. We couldn’t help but reference plays that we had not discussed yet, with characters (and actors) whom we hadn’t met.
What’s interesting however, is that although Horton wrote the basis for the first play, Roots in a Parched Ground, in the early 1960s, a decade later when he set out to write The Orphans’ Home Cycle as a whole he also wrote them out of sequence, beginning with 1918 (which is the seventh play and will begin Part Three of our cycle) and ending with The Widow Claire, the fourth play in the sequence (which is the first play of our Part Two: The Story of a Marriage). But despite the fact that Horton didn’t write them in order, all nine plays still follow a very lucid and consistent journey as events and themes of one play reverberate in another, sometimes three plays later. Recently, on a trip to Hartford to watch a run-through of Parts One and Two, I interviewed Michael for Signature Edition, and he commented on the cycle’s seemingly seamless ebb and flow, “Now that we’re at the point in the process when we’re beginning to put the plays together, we’re seeing characters an hour later in another act referring to an event that happened a couple of years ago. Those echoes, both thematically and emotionally, are very, very moving. It’s mind boggling how he created that, especially the way he wrote them out of order. It’s almost like he was a vessel, like he was channeling some kind of divine epic story that was coming though him onto the page.”