The expressionless man holding a pitchfork next to his stoic wife of Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic" is a familiar sight. Couples from Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy to Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie have reenacted it. This weekend, the painting moves to a new medium: the theater.
Along with his theater company Beau Jest, Associate Professor of Theater Davis Robinson directed and stars in "American Gothic" a never-performed one-act play by Tennessee Williams. This play opened yesterday and will run through Sunday, September 26 as a part of the annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Provincetown, Mass.
Last year, Robinson and Beau Jest were asked to premiere another Tennessee Williams one-act, "The Remarkable Rooming House Of Madame Le Monde," at the festival. The performance was a success: the group won the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) Award for Outstanding Ensemble Production.
Beau Jest returns to the festival this year with "American Gothic," Williams' imagined world of the couple from Wood's painting. The company worked on the play over the summer after receiving the manuscript from Festival curator David Kaplan.
"There was a dry, ironic sensibility to the writing, and the idea of using the paintings of Grant Wood to reinforce the power of the writing came to us almost immediately," said Robinson. "There's something wonderful about being guided by Williams—he has a specific grasp of language that leads to wonderful dialogue and characters."
"American Gothic" tells the story of a Midwestern couple who receive a surprise visit from their gangster son and his girlfriend, resulting in familial tensions and a dramatic finale. Williams wrote the play while in college in the 1930s, but the one-act was lost in archives until recently.
"There's something special to being the first people who have heard or seen this play," said Robinson. "In a way you're part of theater history. There's a responsibility we feel to do Tennessee justice and give it as much heart and intellect as possible."
This weekend's performance will take place on the porch of a Victorian house in Provincetown similar to the one in the painting, making the premiere unique and intimate. Robinson and company tried to adhere to both Williams' body of work and Wood's imagery.
"You look at the painting, the style and the color, and that's what guides your acting choices," said Robinson. "Williams tried to find a kind of language for the couple that echoes the hard, clean, flat lines in the painting."
"American Gothic" is a Bowdoin affair: the wardrobe was put together by College's Costume Shop Manager Julie McMurry, and the play stars Robinson, Robin Smith '05 and Kathleen Lewis '10.
"Both Robin and Kathleen are wonderful to work with," said Robinson. "There is nothing more rewarding than to work with students in college for four years and then to reap the benefits of that work by being on stage with them as peers, collaborators, and fellow artists."
Robinson has worked with plenty of students since joining Bowdoin faculty in 1999. He teaches theater courses from Comedy and Improvisation to Acting Shakespeare. This semester, he is teaching Directing and will be directing the fall musical, "A Little Night Music" by Stephen Sondheim.
An inspiring high school drama teacher piqued Robinson's interest in physical theater and ensemble work.
"I am particularly interested in people developing their original voice with a strong connection to their body," said Robinson.
Robinson honed his craft both locally and abroad. He has spent many summers at the Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris, Maine. This experience led him to the Paris, France, where he studied at the theater school of Jacques LeCoq, one of the most influential innovators of physical theater. Robinson received his B.A. from Hampshire College and his M.F.A. from Boston University.
While teaching at Emerson College and working in the Boston theater scene, Robinson decided to form Beau Jest in 1984.
"I was interested in starting my own company after having spent a few years on the road working with other ensembles," said Robinson. "I knew I could find a core group of like-minded people to work with."
Beau Jest focuses on physical theater and is known for its imaginative staging, puppetry, and original music choices. One of the group's most well known performances was its adaptation of "Krazy Kat", a popular comic strip in the 1920s and '30s. Beau Jest's 2007 presentation of "The Seven Samurai," based on the Akira Kurosawa film, caught the attention of the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, and the partnership was born.
Robinson is honored by his company's role in this weekend's festival.
"People are coming from around the country to celebrate the work of Tennessee and to see a play by him that is being seen by people for the very first time," said Robinson. "Doing plays like this helps fill in gaps in the writer's work and expands people's understanding of the breadth of Mr. Williams."
As a successful director, actor, company leader and professor, Robinson offers this advice to students interested in pursuing theater.
"Get as much out of all of the wonderful resources on this campus as you can," he said. "Pick the brains of the teachers, the staff, and your fellow students. Engage in awe-inspiring projects. Learn as much as you can in as many areas as you can, so that by the time you graduate, you know what you want to do in this world, and you have the tools at your fingertips that you need to do it."