The ubiquity of technology in today’s society is undeniable. Citizens young and old frequently check their phones for new messages and spend their time indoors watching the latest YouTube video.
It is because of this pervasiveness that Benicia High School drama teacher Christine Mani was influenced to select Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play “Our Town” as the first Panther Production of the 2015-2016 school year. It will have its first show Nov. 6.
“I’ve seen how the use of technology, and cellphones in particular, has affected my students,” she said. “I’ve been teaching here for 17 years, and kids these days are so ingrained in their cellphones that they’re afraid to take chances and think outside the box. They don’t experience life in the way older generations would have. It’s interesting to remind them of what that’s like.”
“Our Town” takes place between 1901 and 1913 in the fictional town of Grover’s Corner, N.H. The play is performed in a metatheatrical style with the main character being the Stage Manager who tells the audience about the town’s history and the lives of its citizens. Among the themes touched upon are death, alcoholism and social justice. “Our Town” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in its first year and has generated numerous adaptations in film, radio, TV and even an opera.
The play traditionally has been performed without a set or props, which Mani says this production will retain to an extent.
“The set is very traditional,” she said. “We actually use chairs for many different reasons. They all have their own character to them. They don’t necessarily match. As minimized as it is, they each take on their own persona.”
Mani also says that instead of having physical props or playing prerecorded sound effects, the props will be done using Foley work, a technique where sound effects are done by hand.
“It’s going to help fill the scene and the ambiance of the scene,” she said.
Mani also says she’s impressed with the cast, who have all shown strong enthusiasm for the play.
“They’re phenomenally talented and they’re deep-thinking,” she said. “They walk in the door, and they ask me questions about the deeper aspects of their characters.”
A standout moment for Mani happened during the callbacks, which occur after the standouts from the auditions are chosen to be determined for the final casting.
“I had a girl literally cry in character at callback, and that was something I’ve never seen in 17 years,” she said. “She was able to get so deep in that character so quickly, understand the nuances of what was going on and and pull herself so deep that she could actually cry on stage at callback. It blew my mind.”
Mani views “Our Town” as a chance for the actors to branch out.
“The students I have tend to go to the goofy side sometimes, and I wanted to give them something that had a little more realism in it and was on the mature side of life,” she said.
Despite the play being written in 1938 and set in the early 20th century, Mani says “Our Town” still has value for today’s society, particularly its portrayal of parent-child relationships and small-town life.
“It’s very parallel to Benicia’s own small-town life,” she said.
Ultimately, Mani hopes that the audience gains the same thing her cast has: an awareness of their own technological overuse.
“I had a student just the other day say ‘I’ve been consciously putting my cellphone down. When I go to pick it up and I have that urge, I have been consciously making that effort to abstain,’” she said. “It is nice to let one’s mind think thoughts. You can actually enjoy life without technology.”
“Our Town” will be performed Friday, Nov. 6 and Saturday, Nov. 7 and Nov.13-14 at 7 p.m. Sunadays, Nov. 8 and 15 at 2 p.m. All performances will be in Performing Arts Building at Benicia High School, located at 1101 Military West. Tickets are $14 for adults and $8 for students with ID and children. For more ticket information, visit BeniciaHighPerformingArts.org.