If you go
What: “Our Town”
When: This weekend’s performances are sold out; 8 p.m. Tuesday to Dec. 14 and 2 p.m. Dec. 15
Where: IPFW Studio Theatre, 2101 Coliseum Blvd. E.
Admission: $20 adults; $18 seniors, faculty, staff, alumni; $10 college students with ID; $5 IPFW students, high school students and ages 17 and younger; $16 groups of 10 or more; go to www.ipfw.edu or call 481-6555
It has been more than 30 years since actor Dan Butler was an IPFW student working on his craft in the intimate Studio Theatre on campus.
But he had a feeling that it was time to return to the versatile all-black room when he decided to bring a new vision of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, “Our Town,” to IPFW’s theater season this year.
“I loved the play, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to come back to the old space and have a combination of students and alums – some of whom haven’t acted in 30 years,” he says. “It was one of those things where I had the compelling to do it, and sometimes there’s no complete logic to do something. It was just the compelling. I needed to honor that.”
Perhaps it was the nostalgia or the opportunity to direct one of the most well-known pieces of theater with a contemporary twist, but Butler, a Fort Wayne native, says the motives have morphed since he and his husband, Richard Waterhouse, decided to co-direct the play. The two will premiere the show today in front of a sold-out audience.
Butler, whose TV and film experience includes his breakout role as Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe on “Frasier” and more recently the film “Crazy, Stupid Love,” says his initial vision has taken a new shape as he works with a cast of actors who are community members, IPFW faculty and students and acting peers.
“The span of the ages really is enriching to everyone. We have been doing some exercises where it’s about storytelling and how we honor storytelling,” he says a few weeks before opening night.
“Since getting back here, it’s almost like having a dream and having someone interpret the dream, and you go, ‘Oh, this is why I am doing this.’ The puzzle starts fitting the pieces together.”
Considered a treasured piece for American theater, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Our Town” compacts the complex philosophies of human existence into the ordinary lives of the townspeople in Grover’s Corners, N.H.
“What I love about Thornton Wilder is that he had questions,” Butler says. “I just read this wonderful biography about him, and he really wrestled with themes like, ‘How do you live in such a weird scenario knowing that you’re going to die?’ ”
Although the original play was set in 1901, Butler’s vision has been inspired by a more contemporary outlook that takes the story offstage. Inspired by a 2009 off-Broadway production, Butler’s take will be more of an interactive experience as the audience becomes the townspeople. With the audience encircling the black box theater, actors will perform throughout the room.
“It just reinvigorated this piece. It was this great experience; it was as if I hadn’t seen it before,” Butler says. “I wanted the opportunity to take it on as an actor back here, and I wanted to share the experience I had in the theater with the townspeople here.”
Butler will also star in the play as a character known as the Stage Manager. He will guide the audience through the story, which he says is an extension of what he does behind the scenes when it comes to the direction of the show.
“My main acting partner is the audience itself. It’s exciting because that means it changes every night,” he says. “It’s about the present – you’re seeing it now, and it will never, ever be the same. It’s a great parallel to what ‘Our Town’ is about because that’s what you do as an actor – just be present in this moment and have faith that your work will form foundation when you need it.”
Waterhouse, an acting teacher for 15 years, will play the role of Dr. Gibbs. Although Butler says the two can lock horns, the process of directing the play has been a positive collaboration.
“The vision of the piece is mine, and he tries to find ways to serve that,” Butler says. “We just come together on discovering what we want to work with. The first time we did the workshop when we first came here, we had no idea how we were going to work together.
“I think we were pleasantly surprised that we’re a good tag team – one of us can take the back seat while the other one is running this leg of the relay race.”
From a buzzing cellphone to an arbitrary bathroom break, there are a substantial number of variables that could take place when inviting audiences to break down that invisible “fourth wall.” Butler says he and Waterhouse have encouraged the cast of actors to “get messy” and perform in the present because no one, not even Butler, knows what shape the vision will take once audiences enter “Our Town.”
“I love that it’s back in the space that we used to do theater,” he says. “I love that it’s all around you, and you are part of it. We have our members, but we invited you to be a part of it tonight.”