STAGE Magazine Interviews Director Ellen Wilson Dilks: OUR TOWN at PCS

by Jack Shaw

Why did you choose OUR TOWN for Players Club of Swarthmore? Is it a particular favorite of yours? Why?

The play is a favorite of mine—I’ve crossed paths with it three times, the most recent being in 2000 when I had the great pleasure of playing Mrs. Gibbs at Hedgerow under the direction of Tom Teti. I re-read it about 9 months ago, as we were discussing plays to produce at PCS for the 2011-12 Season, and it struck me how truly timely it remains today.

Richard Paci (Editor Webb) and Bailey Lynn Shaw (Emily Webb) in OUR TOWN at Players Club of Swarthmore, opening September 16, 2011.

What’s it about and why should we see it?

OUR TOWN tells the story of life in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire at the turn of the 20th Century. We go from 1901 to 1913—with a flashback to 1899. The central arc is the love story of George Gibbs and Emily Webb. Through them, Thornton Wilder explores everyday life and how we so easily fail to appreciate the simple things. Life is important—value every moment. We should rejoice in the good and learn from the bad.

Let’s talk about auditions for a minute. You have a vision for how you see the play, like OUR TOWN, and at the audition you are looking for a particular mix. How do you find the right mix?

Every director will tell you that getting that perfect alchemy of actors, staff and material is a total crap shoot. You just go with your gut instincts as to which folks will give you what you want—or whom you think you can mold into what you want. We were very fortunate to get a cast of really talented and dedicated actors who love this play. The fact that several of us have worked together before helps; that’s what makes repertory companies so effective—the artists develop a shorthand because they are so tuned into each other’s work style.

I’m always interested in how a director decides to audition a show. Can you give us a short version of your philosophy on auditioning?

After being treated like a piece of meat a number of times, I vowed to always respect the performers who audition for me. They are sharing their talent; there is no need to assault their dignity. I think the fact that I have been an actor for many years helps—I know how nerve-wracking the audition process is. I do my best to make it as painless as possible—and fun, too. The fact that a number of actors have come back to work with me two and three times is a huge compliment. I am humbled by that.

To get back to OUR TOWN, you chose a five-minute monologue and call backs of readings from the script. Is this the way you audition all dramas or all plays, or was this method specific to OUR TOWN? Can you give some examples?

A number of years ago a very talented director I am friends with, Dennis Bloh, introduced me to the monologue idea at the initial auditions and I’ve done it that way ever since. It serves a dual purpose. For one thing, you get to see the actor fully prepared, which gives you a better idea of their performance abilities—let’s face it, some very good actors do not read well. The other thing is that their choice of a monologue reveals a lot about them. Actors don’t realize that—some of them make horrible choices. And you can tell the ones who just pulled something out of a monologue book without really knowing the entire play. You need to know the context of the monologue—and the story around it—to fully understand and perform it. And you also need to tailor your monologue to the piece you’re auditioning for. A good actor has 3 or 4 monologues up their sleeves. We let each performer go through their piece once and then we’ll throw some random idea at them and ask them to do a portion of the piece again. It shows us how well they follow direction. We also ask the gang wrangling things in the waiting area about various auditionees. How they treat the staff and fellow actors tells you a lot, too. A lot of things factor in when directors are deciding who to cast. Talent, who meshes well with whom, diva attitudes…all kinds of stuff.

Tell us about the significance of OUR TOWN, and why you think it deserves a place in theatre history?

At the time it was written, its approach was very innovative. A play without scenery and props was an oddity at that point in theatre practices. And having a character break the fourth wall was uncommon at the time, too. The piece is very aware it’s a play—and it shows the audience all the bells and whistles, as it were. Wilder went back to the basics of drama with his approach and drew heavily on Greek theatre and Shakespeare. OUR TOWN boils things down to the text and its message. And it’s a very important message: (as the playwright himself wrote in an intro to the published version) “OUR TOWN is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation of conditions of life after death. It is an attempt to find a value above all price for smaller events in our daily life…I have set a small village against the largest dimensions of time and place.”

Does it have value today? Or is it strictly a history play? Essentially, why do it?

It very much has value today! Wilder wrote the play in 1937 when America was still in the grips of the Great Depression. And there were rumblings coming from Germany that were looking like we’d be dragged into another World War. Americans were scared—and worried about their future. Wilder’s story of a simpler time gave them comfort and hope. Given the many uncertainties on our planet today, OUR TOWN remains an important, vibrant piece of theatre. It has continually been produced around the world since its premiere in 1938 because it has such a wonderful message.

Tell us about your cast. We know you are delighted, but name names and tell us about them.

Our cast is amazing—their level of commitment to this project is awesome. Everyone comes to rehearsal prepared and ready to work—which is a dream for a director. No one is using rehearsal time to learn their lines. They are there to explore the play and make their characters as rich and as true as possible. This allows my A.D. Rose Azrael and I to really delve into things and create. They all are so into making this a great production and telling the story that they’ve inspired us to really give them the environment that’s open and they feel free to invent. It has been a wonderful collaborative effort. And we are trying very hard to honor Wilder’s intent: to tell a global story using the residents of Grover’s Corners.

Leading the company is former radio and TV announcer “Harvey in the Morning” as “The Stage Manager,” the viewer’s guide to the town and its denizens. It’s a dream come true to have him in this role. The audience needs to feel completely at home with the character and Harvey does that instantly. As “George” and “Emily,” we have Rich Deaver and Bailey Shaw. Rich is finishing up his communications degree at Temple and plans to pursue a radio career; Bailey just graduated from Arcadia and is a Teaching artist at Cheltenham Center for the Performing Arts. They have great chemistry together and have created a wonderful dynamic for their characters. Their parents will be portrayed by Ed Gretz and Jennifer Wolfe as “the Gibbses,” and Richard Paci and Kathy Quinn as “the Webbs.” Kathy and Richard played a couple in my production of Almost, Maine—so it’s been fun reuniting them. And Ed and Jen bring tons of experience to the table. We’ve also got several Young People’s Theatre Workshop students, including Rebecca Buxbaum, who plays George’s kid sister “Rebecca,” and Liam Shaffer who plays “Wally Webb.” Shaffer’s grandmother, Marge, is a long-time PCS stage hand who will be running props for the production. (The play is written to have the bulk of the props pantomimed, but there are a few things that need to be organized and placed for the actors to retrieve easily.) Joining them will be Gerry Alexander (making his PCS debut) as “Howie Newsome,” the local milkman, Mike Murphy as “Simon Stimson,” the troubled choirmaster, Anne Allen (in her Mainstage debut) as town busybody “Mrs. Soames,” J. Randahl Williams as Emily’s cousin “Sam Craig” and Greg Pronko as “Joe Stoddard” the town’s undertaker. Both Ken Wilson (no relation, by the way) and Dylan Harrington will be taking on dual roles. Harrington, who’s a student at Strath Haven HS, will play “Joe and Si Crowell,” the local paperboys. Wilder scripted the play for one actor to portray both brothers; but we’re taking a little departure from the script by having Ken play both “Professor Willard” (who gives the audience some history of the town) and “Constable Warren.” Rounding out the ensemble are Ann Bacharach, Liam MacDonna and Rachel Kelly as assorted townsfolk.

Anything else you want to tell us?

Yes—two things: Grover’s Corners is a community, so PCS wanted to do a community project. We have decided on a food drive to benefit PhilAbundance. Any patron bringing a non-perishable food item to a performance will receive $1.00 off their ticket price. Bring 5 items and get a half-price ticket! It’s a win-win for everybody! Secondly, since OUR TOWN is on the curriculum of many schools, we have scheduled two 10AM student performances. The first one will be on Friday, Sept. 23rd and the second is Friday, Sept. 30th. We are compiling a digital study guide to aide in the students’ understanding of the play and if their schedule permits, the cast will happily engage in a discussion afterwards. There are still several seats available, so any educators interested in bringing their classes to a performance can contact me at

by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Ellen Wilson Dilks
The Players Club of Swarthmore
614 Fairview Road (just off route 320)
Swarthmore, PA

Performances are as follows: Sept. 16, 17, 22, 23, 24, 29, 30 & Oct. 1 @ 8pm Sept. 18 & 25 @ 2pm

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