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Julian Wiles, Founder and Producing Artistic Director
Marybeth Clark, Associate Artistic Director

February 26, 2009

Background On Author Harper Lee

Filed under: Back Stage Blog — julianw @ 3:18 pm

To Kill A Mockingbird was the first and only novel published by Alabama native Nelle Harper Lee.  The story is set in Maycomb, Alabama, a fictionalized version of Lee’s own hometown of Monroeville.  It tells of a young girl coming of age in the rural south while confronting issues of race, class, and gender that are first raised when her lawyer father agrees to represent a black man accused of assaulting a white woman.  Lee’s own father was a lawyer, and admittedly the model for the character of Atticus Finch in the book.  Scout’s childhood friend Dill was also drawn from the author’s personal experience—she grew up living next door to a young Truman Capote!  While Lee’s relationship with Capote soured in their adult years when he took to drinking and refused to dispel a rumor that he had helped Lee write To Kill A Mockingbird, they were close friends when Capote spent his childhood summers with his aunt and uncle in Monroeville.

     Lee built her writing skills while working for literary and humor magazines at Huntington College and the University of Alabama, while pursuing a degree in law like her father and older sister.  One term short of finishing her studies, Lee quit school and moved to New York to focus on her writing.  Her friend Capote eventually introduced her to an agent there, and she spent a number of years toiling over what would become To Kill A Mockingbird while working desk jobs or surviving on her friends’ generosity and faith in her writing skills.  A famous anecdote expresses the frustration Lee often felt with her work during this period.  Supposedly, she once tossed the unfinished manuscript out into the snow, and her editor sent her out to retrieve it.

Published in 1960 to wide acclaim, To Kill A Mockingbird became an instant best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.  The iconic story was quickly made into a Hollywood film that garnered its own buzz.  Starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, it won three Oscars that year, including a best adapted screenplay award for Horton Foote.  It was adapted for the stage in the 1980’s.  Harper Lee’s hometown puts on a huge production of it each summer though the author herself has never attended the play.  In Monroeville, the central trial scenes are performed in the county courthouse.  There, blacks and whites are segregated as they would have been under Jim Crow laws, and white male jurors (the only citizens eligible when the story took place) are chosen from the audience.

     The fame that came along with the success of her novel unsettled Nelle Harper Lee, and after a few years of granting interviews, she retired from public life to focus on her writing again.  She has only published a few essays over the last forty-five years, and prefers to live quietly in her hometown of Monroeville, where locals protect her from the prying eyes of journalists and her legions of fans.

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(The Cast of To Kill A Mockingbird

February 25, 2009

Reflections On To Kill A Mockingbird by Director Julian Wiles

Filed under: Back Stage Blog — julianw @ 8:48 pm

      I was eight years old when To Kill A Mockingbird was published, also about the age of Scout, Jem and Dill.   I remember stacks and stacks of Harper Lee’s classic in the book section of Belks department store in Columbia.  Back then, Belks had a book section and a candy section and the two were next to each other which is why I probably noticed To Kill A Mockingbird.  I remember wondering what this book was about and why it was a best seller.

When I got older and read this story for the first time, I realized that part of its power is in its truth and how well-drawn its characters are—and I would know.   I grew up in a southern community, not very different from Maycomb, Alabama.  I knew practically everyone in my community, black and white, and they knew my family and me.  Like Jem, I thought these were the best people in the world, and they were (and are), but we lived under the cloud of age-old prejudice passed down from generation to generation.  And in those days, in the early 1960’s, we still lived in an age of segregation, one that many of us were only beginning to question.  On another trip to Columbia, I remember lines and lines of quiet, orderly black protesters standing in line at the ticket booths of every movie theatre on Main Street.  There was one on every block in those days.  The protesters asked for seats in the downstairs white-only section and were turned away time after time.   I thought this a curiosity, but like many others my age, thought no deeper.

I remember watching the March on Washington in a hardware store where Dr. King’s “I have a dream speech” was displayed on dozens of TV’s for sale.  Most of all, I remember the white men.  Friends of my father gathered around watching in silence.  In that silence I think I realized for the first time that the times were indeed changing.

In my teens, I remember the Orangeburg massacre only 15 miles away from my house where three students were killed and 27 others wounded when they protested the segregation in a bowling alley on the edge of their all black campus at South Carolina State.  I remember the newspaper headline “All Hell Breaks Loose”.  And I remember the fear that gripped our community.

I remember the first black students who came to my high school in eighth grade, only a handful because in the “freedom of choice”  option,  black students could only attend white schools “If there was room” and not much room had been made for them.  I would really get to know only one of them in four years, only because he reached out to me.

But there was, indeed, an awakening taking place.  It was not swift and it was often unpleasant, but along the way there were people like Harper Lee that prodded us, and the South she loves so much, to look around and right the wrongs around us.  Like many young Southerners I realized that the strife was not just in Birmingham or Montgomery or Memphis, but right here in my own back yard.

A flood of these memories and emotions filled my thoughts when I first directed To Kill A Mockingbird in 1987, and I realized once again how Harper Lee had told this moving story so truthfully, and with such compassion.  As I remember, it was a powerful production with packed houses.  Three other productions followed and, in each, I watched as race relations continued to improve in our country.  But never would I have imagined that when I began to direct this show once more, an African-American would be President of the United States.  But as I look back, I realize that Barack’s journey up those steps to take his oath of office was a path made possible by many small steps traveled by others—Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Dr. King, people like Harper Lee, and most of all by thousands and thousands of others whose names we’ll never know but whose actions literally changed the world.

Does this mean To Kill A Mockingbird is now out of date?  No, for To Kill A Mockingbird was never just about race, it was about our common humanity, our human prejudice against those different from us whether it be their social status, the color of their skin, their religion or even a bias against people who wish to be left alone.   Atticus tells Scout, “You never really know a person until you walk in their shoes.”  That means, we all have a lot of shoes to try on and many more steps to take.   We are most fortunate to have Harper Lee show us the way.

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(Charleston Stage Resident Actor Sarah Claire Smith as Mayella Ewell and Christopher Gay as Tom Robinson) 

 

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(David Hallatt as Judge Taylor and David Ardrey as Bob Ewell) 

February 16, 2009

Playing the Role of Arthur “Boo” Radley By Resident Actor Andy McCain

Filed under: Back Stage Blog — julianw @ 3:46 pm

When our Stage Manager, the delightful Bessie Edwards, called me into her office a few days before the read through of Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird, she pointed at me and said, Boo! I then told her,  “Bessie, it’s mid December, Halloween is over!” She then ups me by saying, “No, you’re going to be our Boo!” I was astonished! I had originally been assigned to be in the ensemble, but to take on a role once played by Robert Duvall, his first movie gig ever, sign me up!

I first read To Kill A Mockingbird freshman year of high school.  Back then I was emotionally touched during the trial scene and by the character of Boo Radley. I carefully studied the dialogue of the play and the novel over the next couple of weeks after I heard of the change in my role. I focused on Jem and Scout’s descriptions of Boo in the book and the history of the Radley family. To be the hero (aside from Atticus Finch (Vic Clark) in this play is just a dream to me. Altering my physical movement to stiff arms, slanted shoulders, a tilted head and a crooked right foot, I am enjoying the transformation into Mr. Arthur Radley. Typically, I am very use to portraying characters who show outlandish physical gestures on stage, and to bring down the physical comedy and adapt to barely lifting a finger while still creating powerful moments onstage has been a great challenge to pursue.  

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(Resident Actor Andy McCain as Arthur “Boo” Radley) 

February 11, 2009

Playing the Role of Scout by Susanne McDonald

Filed under: Back Stage Blog — julianw @ 5:54 pm

Ever since I was little, I have dreamed of being an actor.  And that dream is slowly but surely coming true!  Since this is my first role, I thought it would be easy because I love to act. But it wasn’t as easy as I thought – it got harder and harder until I learned my lines.  Now, I am very excited for all of the upcoming performances.  I didn’t expect to get the role of Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” – – in fact, I didn’t know who she was until I read the book.   The character is unlike me in a couple of ways: she wears overalls, for one thing; I wear shorts.  And she’s really brave (I’m not saying that I’m not brave. . . just not that brave).  I have learned so much working with all of my fellow actors, have made some new friends, and have had a lot of fun. I hope you enjoy the play!

 

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(Charleston Stage Theatre School students Suzanne McDonald as Scout and Sam Cass as Jem) 

February 10, 2009

Playing the Role of Atticus Finch by Victor Clark

Filed under: Back Stage Blog — julianw @ 2:58 pm

Atticus Finch is a role that I have long dreamed of playing. One of the plusses, I guess you could say of middle age, meant that I was now old enough to play him!  So when the season was announced, I put my hat in the ring for the part and I was fortunate enough to get the role.  Preparing for the role has been fun, exhilirating, at times stressful and always rewarding.  I have drawn on my experiences raising my own daughters and also growing up in a small southern town, Shelbyville, TN., in the 1960’s.  While integration, for the most part, had taken place in the schools by then, I can still remember the impact it had on my elementary school.  I can also remember the “colored section” in the old movie theater up on the square in downtown Shelbyville.  That had also pretty much gone by the wayside thank goodness during my early formative years, but the entrance to the stairs leading up to the colored section was still there.Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a pretty laid back kind of guy which is one of the characteristics of Atticus, but he also needs to have some fire in him to persuade the jury of Tom’s innocence.  My main challenge has been to clearly represent a multi-faceted human being capable of rearing two children in a loving but responsible way as well as face the challenges of defending Tom Robinson, which could not have been an easy task in 1935 Maycomb, Alabama!

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(Victor Clark as Atticus Finch) 

February 8, 2009

To Kill A Mockingbird: First Dress

Filed under: Back Stage Blog — julianw @ 3:38 pm

Saturday we had our first dress rehearsal for To Kill A Mockingbird at Memminger Auditorium.  This followed over 6 hours of technical rehearsals where we added lights, sound effects and rehearsed scene shifts.  (The play has 5 settings:  The Finch front porch and yard, the town jail, the Courthouse square, Atticus’s office and of course the courtroom which is pictured below.

Resident Costumer Barbara Young has outdone herself on the more than 3 dozen period costumes for the show.  Barbara has recreated 1935 Maycomb, Alabama with period costumes ranging from overalls to ladies hats and gloves to three piece men’s suits to period bloomers and union suits.

Set designer Stefanie Christensen’s original backdrop of the Maycomb County Courthouse is seen in the background.

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February 5, 2009

The Maycomb County Courthouse Backdrop Takes Shape

Filed under: Back Stage Blog — julianw @ 1:19 pm

At the center of many southern towns stands the county courthouse,  often the most majestic structure in the county.  It’s often the town’s major landmark and a symbol of pride.  So when Charleston Stage’s resident scenic designer Stefanie Christensen and I began talking about To Kill A Mockingbird, we thought it would be a perfect touch to put the Maycomb County courthouse (the fictional setting for To Kill A Mockingbird) at the center of our set.  Fortunately, Stefanie is a talented scenic artist, that’s her below working on the courthouse backdrop she’s creating for To Kill A Mockingbird.  Though not finished, it’s quite majestic, standing over 30 feet tall. Some might be surprised to learn that all of our sets here at Charleston Stage are unique and original and built right here in Charleston.  When we get the script for a show we don’t get set designs and we don’t copy designs from other productions.  This allows us to use our imagination to create something new and exciting for every production and I think for To Kill A Mockingbird, you’ll see that Stefanie and her technical staff  have created something very evocative of a southern small town.  Julian Wiles, Director

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February 4, 2009

Mockingbird Designer’s Runthru

Filed under: Back Stage Blog — julianw @ 10:54 pm

Last night was the Designer’s Runthru of To Kill A Mockingbird.    This is where the set, lighting, sound and costume designers can have a look at the show and insure that their elements all fit in. For instance we added music, crickets, dogs barking and telephone rings last night, all sound effects that not only enhance the show but help the actors as well.   Designer runs have become even more important for our shows at Memminger Auditorium where the audience sits on three sides.   We have to be sure that every element can be seen from every seat.Last night was also the first runthru completely off book (with all lines memorized.)   Many people think learning the lines is what acting is all about but in reality, while learning lines is a challenge and a lot of work, it’s only the first step.  Most of the character work happens after the lines are learned and we’re looking forward to this week’s rehearsals where we can work in more detail on each character.  Harper Lee has given us an entire town of  delightful characters— lawyers, busybodies, judges, recluses, young old, rich poor and its fun to explore this story with them each night.   

February 2, 2009

Rock Hudson As Atticus?

Filed under: Back Stage Blog — julianw @ 4:35 pm

That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?  But according to author Charles Shields, Rock Hudson, because of his star power, was under serious consideration to play the part of Atticus Finch in the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird.  Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (a wonderful biography of Nelle Harper Lee) provides many insights into the writing of To Kill A Mockingbird.  Atticus Finch, the lawyer at the center of the novel, was based on Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was appointed to defend two black men accused of murder about the time Harper Lee was 10 years old.  After he lost the case, he never took another criminal case.  A.C. Lee’s love of the law, however certainly influenced his daughters.  His eldest daughter Alice became one of the few women lawyers in Alabama in 1943 and Nelle followed Alice to law school, but Nelle left law school just one semester shy of her degree.  Nelle had decided to move to New York to pursue a writing career, an unprecedented move for a young woman from a small Southern town, but then Nelle Harper was no ordinary young woman.  Nelle took with her her memories of childhood—a mad dog that terrified the town, a neighbor who shot at a prowler in his collard patch, and especially of her father.  All of these became elements of what would become To Kill A Mockingbird.  Mr. Lee was a prominent member of the community and served as editor of the local paper—a man known to be thoughtful and fair, traits amplifed in the new novel his daughter began writing, a novel she at first entitled “Atticus”.  When the movie rights were sold,  Nelle Lee thought of Spencer Tracy for the part.  Tracy was approached, but in the meantime the director and producer offered the role to Gregory Peck who jumped at the role.  Most consider Peck’s portrayal of Atticus his best role and indeed he won the Oscar for Best Actor.  We have a distinguished Charleston actor in the role of Atticus, Victor Clark.  Last spring he showed us his comic skills playing more than a dozen roles in the acclaimed Greater Tuna.  But Atticus is a character with wit and wisdom, and Vic in many ways is perfect for this role.  Like A. C. Lee the model for Atticus,  Vic has two daughters of his own, and his experiences as a father will no doubt be reflected in his portrayal of this rich and powerful character.

Truman Capote and To Kill A Mockingbird

Filed under: Back Stage Blog — julianw @ 4:28 pm

The young Truman Capote was the model for Scout’s friend Dill in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.  Capote, a child from a broken home, was often pawned off on his relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, especially in the summers.  Nelle Harper Lee lived just down the street and she and Truman became fast friends and their exploits became the basis for many of the childhood scenes in To Kill A Mockingbird.  Capote and Harper Lee remained friends when they both moved to NY to pursue writing careers.  Capote’s took off first through short stories, and when asked by the New Yorker to cover a murder trial in Nebraska, Harper Lee joined Truman in journeying to Nebraska to conduct interviews about the horrible murder of a farm family.  This would become Capote’s most celebrated work, In Cold Blood.  Over the years there have been rumors that Capote may have written part or all of To Kill A Mockingbird.  It does resemble some of his short stories. Lee admits he read the novel and made suggestions for cuts, but most scholars agree that all of To Kill A Mockingbird belongs to Harper Lee and Capote had no hand in it.  If anything, it was Harper Lee’s assistance on Capote’s In Cold Blood that deserves credit.  Lee accompanied Capote on three trips to Nebraska,  prepared over 150 pages of notes and assisted Capote with several drafts over the four year’s of In Cold Blood’s development, and yet Capote made no mention of her contribution to this classic work.  

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