Interview with Daina Robins, director of THE GLASS MENAGERIE

The Hope College Theatre Department opened our first mainstage production of 2018, “The Glass Menagerie”, this past weekend! The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams tells the story of the Wingfield family. Recalled through the eyes of Tom, the memory play shares the story of his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura. As a young girl, Amanda was a fêted debutante with a life of comfort and admiration. Amanda now worries especially about the future of her daughter. As an extremely shy 23-year-old, Laura has yet to find a suitor. Instead, she spends most of her time quietly arranging her glass animals. Tom is a writer who feels trapped in a dead-end warehouse job and dreams of a more adventurous life. As each escapes into a personal “glass menagerie” the play provides a glimpse into a family that is desperate to break free of the burdens of its past and present.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Daina Robins, the director of the production as well as the Chair of the Theatre Department, and ask her a few questions about the process.

Daina: I never really thought about directing it. Actually, Rich Perez, [associate professor of theatre at Hope] mentioned it, so I can give him credit for planting the idea. Frankly, it had to do with anticipating that he was going to be casting a large number of women in his production this semester. Partly, it was choosing something that I thought would give three undergraduate students a role that comes by once in your lifetime. Of course, this is the case with a lot of plays, but most of them are not as great [as “The Glass Menagerie”]. To have the experience working on such a classic play allows you to appreciate what a lyrical, musical, and tender writer that Williams is. I’ve seen productions of it, there are film productions of it, but working on it allows you to know it in a deeper way. I think a lot of undergraduate students don’t know the play, and a lot of the people in our audience haven’t seen it. And, we haven’t had Jean [Bahle, adjunct assistant professor of theatre at Hope and also playing the role of Amanda] act for us for a number of years…not since 2004, when we did a production of The Golden Ladder in the studio theatre. I’ve directed her a number of times, and I thought it would be a lovely role for her. The students really have a chance to learn from her, and I didn’t feel I was taking a role away from a female student because, between the student-directed productions and Rich’s devised piece, I felt there were enough opportunities for the women who were ready for it. So it’s a lot of balancing what you think the department wants and needs, what we can design, and it’s a beautiful play that again I don’t think many Hope students have seen.

Daina: Well, I joke that I’m Jean’s evil twin sister. I met Jean when I first came to Grand Rapids, before I even got the job at Hope. She is such a kind, gentle person, and I’m not [laughs]. But we’ve always kind of really gotten along, and I think we appreciate each other and recognize some kind of simpatico both personality wise and artistically. She’s incredibly easy to direct, because she’s such an open, generous actor. She is used to working with people who are learning, and she’s ahead of the game. She’s a wonderful actor, and she raises the play for everyone else, and she does it in this generous way, you never feel like she’s impatient with others. She’s a sensitive, insightful, and incredibly humble person.

Jean Bahle, playing Amanda Wingfield in THE GLASS MENAGERIE

Daina: There’s a whole history surrounding the play, and I think on one hand we’re honoring that. I think sometimes Amanda gets a raw deal. I really empathize with her…she is alone, she’s raised these children on her own, it’s coming out of the Depression…she makes total sense to me. Yes, she has wonderful memories of her youth…but I don’t even blame her for that. I have a lot of sympathy for Amanda, and I think she’s often cast as the domineering mother and I don’t think that’s what she is. Jean as an actor has an incredible ability to complicate or humanize characters that someone else might just put in a “mean” category. I think her portrayal of Amanda also helps us see the humanity of her. And I think the play also tries to help us see that everybody is special in some way, and it’s up to us to find that in each other, rather than just saying ‘well, this person doesn’t fit in.’ Yes, Laura doesn’t fit in, but Tom doesn’t fit in either…so in some ways, as we all struggle to fit in we sometimes take away those edges of ourselves, the things that make us unique. Rather, let’s see every person as an individual, and find what they’re about.

Junior Shanley Smith and sophomore Jacob Starr in THE GLASS MENAGERIE

Remaining performances of The Glass Menagerie will be Thursday-Saturday, February 22-24 at 7:30 p.m in the DeWitt Center main theatre.

The Ghostlight Project

On January 19th, 2017, theatres across the country gathered together in a national movement called The Ghostlight Project. In the theatre, the ghostlight is used as a marker of safety when the theatre is “dark”. While it is a symbolic tradition, the ghostlight also serves a real function of security. The essence of the movement is to mark theatres as safe havens from any kind of discrimination.

At 5:30pm, the Hope College Theatre Department gathered in solidarity with many theatres across our timezone. As a community, the department pledged to create a space of inclusion, participation, and compassion.

Hope students delivered prepared speeches provided by the ghostlight project at the Hope ceremony. “Like a ghostlight, the light we create tonight will represent our commitment to safeguard-it will symbolize a safe harbor for our values and for any among us who find ourselves targeted because of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, ability, age, gender identity, sexual identity or dissident action in the coming years,” said junior, Akia Smith.

“And our lights will symbolize hope-a belief that through our actions change is possible,” added sophomore Jose Angulo. Jose then led a countdown as students in the department all turned on their own lights to create “a huge ghostlight” as a community.

The project gathered a total of 728 participating institutions and theatres nationwide. Each theatre was given the opportunity to make their own pledge. Hope Theatre made the following statement:

Hope Theatre pledges to be a place of safety, a place of inclusion, and a place where dialogue can flourish. A place where ALL are welcome.

To honor this commitment and to share our light for others to see, we’ve chosen this single light which will remain lit in our lobby for the remainder of the academic year.

Directing I

      Every fall, a number of students from various disciplines within the Theatre Department step off the stage and out of the wings to take on a new role- director. The Directing I class primarily focuses on how to interpret a text, collaborate with artists from all realms, lead a rehearsal process, and combine all of these skills to put together a 10-minute play. 

The class is taught by faculty member, Richard Perez, who began his career in the theatre as an actor. Perez says he discovered his passion for directing, “…more by chance. Other actor friends who needed somebody to look at, maybe a monologue, or a scene they’re working on, I would look at it for them. They would come back and say, ‘hey, you kind of know what you’re doing’ and I always enjoyed it. I also always enjoyed being in the classroom, and I knew being a teacher would be my long term goal, but I wanted to be the best actor and theatre person I could be before I came to that.”

While being novice directors, the students found that their backgrounds in theatre have given them a better idea of their personal expectations. “I like to think of the director as the hub of communication for a production,” says junior Victoria Ward. “They have to be able to speak all of the languages necessary to bring everyone together successfully, so for me having backgrounds in acting, lighting and stage managing means that I can speak their language better to help convey the designer’s idea. It also helps me when I’m thinking about aspects like blocking. How will the lighting, costumes and set influence my actors? What should I be asking of my stage manager, knowing what their job entails?” The directing class also discovered that their particular emphasis of study has given them a certain focus for their work in direction. Senior Nils Fritjofson says, “Coming from a primarily technical background has definitely caused me to focus more on the practical side of directing; so I think more about scheduling, how people are entering, where props are going, and the location of scenic elements, than most people.”

Before jumping into directing their own productions, the students had the opportunity to work with the Acting I class. They were each assigned two Acting I students and a scene to direct. Victoria Ward says, “I was very excited because I thought I was going to feel similarly to when my friends and I would work on monologues before auditions, and I was very wrong. All of a sudden I felt like a new parent with this child to raise.” While this was an entirely different experience for the Directing I class, Perez says that at this point in the process they usually realize that, “They know more than they think do. Everything you’ve experienced as an actor, that comes back to mind, and you have to trust your instincts. I think it takes a long time to do that, as any creative person knows, but more often than not I think we have really good instincts and we have to pay attention to them.” Ward explains that she gained more confidence in herself as a director as the rehearsals continued. “Once I established how I wanted to go about the process and started working with them and asking them the big questions so that they could be the ones to make the decisions, I think we all felt more comfortable.”

Having finished working with the Acting I class, the students are now tackling their 10-minute plays, which they have already chosen. Perez urges his students to find a work that really speaks to them. “If they just think it’s funny or it’s cute or it’s intense, and if it’s not really something that they feel they can uniquely tell, then why do it?” The students of course all have different things they looked for when choosing their piece. Nils Fritjofson says, “I was looking for a scene with an interesting and unusual premise, that would still be relevant to an audience our age. Scripted, the piece that I chose, follows a young couple struggling with life’s meaning after discovering a script of their entire day on their nightstand.”

After the students selected their plays, the next step in their storytelling experience was casting.  Perez tells his class that the most important thing to look for while casting is, “…actors who take direction well. You may have an actor who comes in and auditions really well but then you get into the rehearsal process and they’re pretty much stuck in that place, which certainly doesn’t serve the piece. It’s important to really work with them to see if they can listen.” Perez also urges his students to look for actors who have chemistry with each other, and who know how to be good scene partners.

Directing I is truly a unique course for theatre majors, as it is often the area of theatre that students have the least experience in. Through the process, Fritjofson says he has learned that, “…directing a scene is a journey that the director and actors go on together, and one that involves a lot of trial and error. Discoveries are shared experiences. Establishing an open space where failure is okay and ideas are encouraged allows for discoveries to occur more often and more naturally.”

Performances for the 10-minute plays will take place this Monday, November 21st and Tuesday, November 22nd at 7:00pm in the DeWitt studio theatre. Both performances are free of charge.