On Thursday, Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m., Eric Prince, director, and Wes Kenney, conductor, will give a pre-show discussion as part of a College of Liberal Arts-wide initiative to expand awareness of issues of diversity, inclusion, and free speech. We hope you'll join us!
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'
But I'll know my song well before I start singin'
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall
Although it was nearly twelve years ago that the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance performed Every Good Boy Deserves Favor by Tom Stoppard, it is just as relevant today, and perhaps even more.
The collaboration between CSU Theatre and the University Symphony Orchestra University, with performances on Sept. 21-22, is the brilliant effort between composer Andre Previn and the fecund playwright Tom Stoppard. Not often produced due to the challenge of staging a play requiring a full orchestra, the production is conducted by Maestro Wes Kenney and directed by Dr. Eric Prince.
The story, set in the still repressive post-Cold-War period of the 1970s and 80s, concerns dissident Alexander Ivanov; imprisoned in a Soviet mental hospital, he will not be released until admitting that his statements against the government were caused by a (non-existent) mental disorder. The play satirizes the Soviet practice of treating political dissidence as mental illness.
In the hospital/asylum, he shares a cell with a genuinely disturbed schizophrenic, also called Ivanov, who believes to have an orchestra under his command. and its title will be recognized as the classic mnemonic used by music students to remember the notes on the lines of the treble clef.
CSU Theatre Professor Eric Prince is not one to live in the past, but as he talks about the upcoming production, he inserts notable recollections that make the reprise of the unique play more poignant.
The original presentation at the university was not only a celebration of the opening of the Griffin Concert Hall and the arrival of Maestro Kenney at CSU, but was selected to coincide with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Montfort Lecture at Colorado State University in April of 2005. The former Soviet leader, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War, spoke passionately about putting “the priorities of all mankind” above those of individual nations (Montfort Excellence Fund website).
“It’s a very simple point that he’s making,” says Prince about Stoppard’s short, modest narrative about freedom. “Many courageous dissenters were held in terrible conditions and some died. Stoppard’s point, and I agree, is that It is a human right to dissent and have a different opinion than your government. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t patriotic. Having Mr. Gorbachev on-campus at the time was momentous.”
When asked about the upcoming production, Maestro Kenney also reflected on the reprisal in the context of Gorbachev’s visit "The world has changed dramatically since our last production 12 years ago and perhaps not always for the better. Mikhail Gorbachev was speaking on our campus at that time, a figure whose profound impact on the world order I suspect has been forgotten by many. Still the opportunity to once again collaborate with my colleague Eric Prince is one that I welcome. As this thoughtful piece that was born out of an oppressed society shows us, history tends to repeat. Thus it should be no surprise that the circumstances by which this play takes it cues is as timely now as it was when it was created."
Even with the serious message and political overtones, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (EGBDF) is wonderfully entertaining and funny. Prince describes the satire as short and tight, incredibly gripping, and very witty. “It’s so brilliant,” says Prince brightly. “The fun and games start with the two prisoners having the same name and one imagining that he is world-famous conductor.” Of course, there is no orchestra outside of his head, but the audience sees what the prisoner is imagining.
The play cleverly combines theatre and music much differently than musical theatre, or a play with accompaniment. “This is a unique coming together of orchestra and actors, and there isn’t any other production like it. Plus, Wes Kenney is an amazing conductor,” exclaims Prince. “It’s very special!”
Although there are essentially two directors, each has their own responsibilities describes Prince about the rehearsal process. “You know, Wes just concentrates on the music…we both worry about our own art forms and it all joins together.”
With the orchestra and actors rehearsing separately, the moment the two groups finally come together is memorable for everyone. “When we came together last time, the actors just couldn’t believe it,” recalls Prince. “It sent shivers up their spines to be surrounded by 80 musicians, so close and all around – wow, was it powerful and exciting!”
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of staging EGBDF is that the orchestra and its conductor are not only musicians, but are considered part of the cast. “You never forget that the orchestra is there,” explains Prince. “But the actors have to ignore the orchestra – no spoilers, that is all part of the fun of watching this!”
In looking back at photos from the 2005 production, Prince feels nostalgic. “The rest of building wasn’t even open – it was in bricks and plaster and being built.” With the impending ten-year anniversary of the University Center for the Arts opening in its entirety, Prince and Kenney are excited about the reprise as there is much to celebrate and much to remember about a facility that is a delight and a privilege to have.
“We mustn’t forget that the orchestra didn’t have its own stage until 2005, and theatre’s space in Johnson Hall was originally a ballroom and the acoustics were difficult.” Prince is proud of how far the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance has come since those days. “The production value and the standards of what we do are immeasurably better and stronger,” he states. “The new students won’t know the difference – artistically, we’re so much stronger – they’ll just think it’s great!"
“There has been a lot of generosity from the community and donors. This was an abandoned building, and it came together as a really important space to the community,” Prince adds.
And although Prince is observing the school’s accomplishments, the irony of the play’s relevancy looms larger for professor than ever before. To put additional context around that statement, Prince tells two stories and reflects on a favorite song.
Prince met playwright Tom Stoppard at the University of Leeds in 2007 on the occasion of Harold Pinter receiving an honorary doctorate from the institution. Close friends, Pinter and Stoppard are regarded as the most satirical and political writers of the 20th century from British theatre.
As a component of the conference, Stoppard directed the Belarus Free Theatre in one of Pinter’s works. At the time, two of their actors were under house arrest in Belarus, and, like in EGBDF, they were dissidents, using theatre to argue against attempts by Russia to reclaim post-Soviet free states. As a continual activist and promoter of eastern European freedom, Stoppard was promoting a special campaign on the two actors’ behalf.
Prince, who was at the conference to present a paper, happened to meet Stoppard on the way to Belarus Free Theatre’s presentation. “We were walking down a lane together to the performance and I mentioned having done Every Good Boy to him. He was chain smoking all the way down the road and it felt nice just to tell him about it.”
When the two got to the theatre, they found that Pinter had been delayed, and Stoppard asked Prince to “hold down the fort” by introducing the actors and conducting a talk back. “Luckily a translator was present because the actors didn’t speak English. I was improvising and asking questions from the company and the audience about this volatile situation and it became a highly-charged discussion.” Prince felt honored to be asked to do this by the author who has spent his life dedicated to human rights.
The second story recalls a reaction to the 2005 production of EGBDF at the UCA. Dr. Prince received a letter from a group of Russian women conveying how the events in the play were all too real to them. “One of the women…her kids were on their way to school and they were stopped by the secret police and taken off the street and interrogated,” Prince recalls. “Another lost her husband and one her bother.” Prince was so “knocked out” by the letter that he met with them and will never forget when they shared that they had left Russia because America was “a place of freedom, a place to escape, and a place to dream.”
In recalling these incidents, Prince becomes adamant. “If we don’t respect human rights, we are on a dark slope where our freedoms can be taken forever. Not every generation in America knows this type of fear.”
Prince interjects a line from Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song that remains impactful to him. “And I’ll tell it, and think it, and speak it, and breathe it…” As a young man, Dylan was inspired at the time of the Cuban Missile crisis to write this famous song of warning, about missiles falling down like rain. “Even now with North Korea's actions in the news, it remains a song of chilling prescience. So much of the news, in its own gentle way, warns us of the dangers of going down the wrong path and taking away rights. That’s why this play still remains relevant and critical.”
Prince shakes his head and wonders if he should have gone there, but finds joy in thinking about the play itself. “The protagonist is steadfast, and Stoppard plays an amusing and witty joke that I won’t give away, but the audience will find it wonderful. It will be a special evening, especially for anyone who loves orchestral music or drama, with an incredible surprise!”
It seems Every Good Boy Deserves Favor is one of those rare creatures: a purely entertaining and artistic evening where the politics are so gently and ironically integrated that no one is arguing about it!
Tickets for the performance are no charge for Full-fee paying CSU students, $3 for youth (under 18), and $12 for seniors (62+), and $14 for adults. Tickets are available at the University Center for the Arts (UCA) ticket office in the UCA lobby Monday through Friday, 3:30-5:30 p.m. and 60 minutes prior to performances, by phone at (970) 491-ARTS (2787), or online at www.CSUArtsTickets.com.