Story by Jennifer Clary
Although it was nearly 12 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 Sept. 21-22, is the collaboration between composer Andre Previn and the 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 Eric Prince.
The story, set in the still repressive post-Cold-War period of the 1970s and ’80s, concerns 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 diagnosed schizophrenic, also called Ivanov, who believes to have an orchestra under his command. 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 Kenney at CSU, but was selected to coincide with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Monfort 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.
“It’s a very simple point that he’s making,” Prince says of 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, Kenney also reflected on the retaliation 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 its cues is as timely now as it was when it was created.”
Satirical play with a political touch
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, 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 a world-famous conductor.” Of course, there is no orchestra outside of his head, but the audience sees what the prisoner is imagining.
Two directors collaborate
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,” says Prince. “It’s very special!”
Although there are essentially two directors, each has their own responsibilities, Prince says of 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!”
Everyone is part of the cast
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 is nostalgic. “The rest of the building wasn’t even open – it was in bricks and plaster and being built.” With the impending 10-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.
Community donors and support
“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 the professor than ever before. To put additional context around that statement, Prince tells two stories and reflects on a favorite song.
A longtime friendship leads to partnership
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.
Play imitates real-life
The second story involves a reaction to the 2005 production of EGBDF at the UCA. 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 brother.”
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!”
Where to see it
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 hardly anyone is arguing about it.
On Thursday, Sept. 21, at 6:30 p.m., Prince and Kenney will give a pre-show discussion as part of a College of Liberal Arts initiative to expand awareness of issues related to diversity, inclusion and free speech.
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 ticket office in the UCA lobby Monday through Friday, 3:30-5:30 p.m. and one hour prior to performances, by phone at (970) 491-ARTS (2787), or online.