Historicizing SISTER ACT
Theatre is an art that embarks on the task of telling a story. More often than not it’s someone else’s story – a true story.
Now, the story of a night club singer joining a convent isn’t necessarily a true story, but the setting and issues at hand in the production depict a truth. It is important that we as the storytellers do the production justice by producing it with historical accuracy. The amount of research that is done on a single production is mind blowing: historical research on the society, culture, dress, and setting, while also understanding the themes of the original production in order to maintain the integrity of the playwright, all while interweaving your own themes and creativity.
Some productions are lucky enough to have a production dramaturg – someone designated to the compilation of information on the production – to benefit the rest of the crew and cast. This task takes a crazy amount of focus and accuracy. I have personal experience as a production dramaturg for my college’s production of Sweeney Todd, and it was an experience that, although challenging, I have fallen in love with. When I found out I would be helping with Sister Act, I immediately thought of the potential for a show that took place in the disco era. Dance, music, clothing…it was a whole new world that I would get to watch unfold onstage.
South Philly, 1977. Correctly representing the disco age as a whole will make it feel real and give the audience some fun. But the underlying theme of poverty and rehabilitation in a community is still a very important aspect of the show. It can be easily overshadowed by the glitz and glamour, but that’s why doing historical research is so important. Everything a playwright does is a very conscious decision, such as placing a church that needed reformation in a city that needed reformation. The nuns are sitting in a city of needy people, but are worried to leave their convent with the fear of being pulled into the world. People will come to see Sister Act for the music and glitter, but will hopefully leave with a deeper sense of the production.
The work to make it, well, work? Immense. Books, the internet, first-hand accounts, movies from the period, documentaries…or in director Brandon Thomsen’s case? Pinterest and Google Images. The internet is a wonderful thing that has helped shape the way we learn, and sites like Pinterest or Google Images help give visual inspiration. In our production you will see set pieces and costuming inspired by these pictures. Photos of Donna Summer, Pope John Paul II, even police stations in the 70s; this all is used to prepare for an accurate depiction of the production’s time period.
So why is dramaturgy important? For a long time, those in the live performance industry did a very bad job when it came to the representation of different people and cultures. Stereotypical portrayals of peoples were shown in vaudville minstrel shows, often offensively using blackface or placing cultures in positions in which they do not belong. We now see how important it is as an artistic community to represent those in our story accurately. Dramaturgy didn’t singlehandedly wipe out stereotyping and offensive performances, but there is now a single job dedicated to informing the director and company, cast and crew, of things that can end up changing the meaning of a production. Everyone who comes to a live theatre production can connect on some level to the setting or the characters or the story itself. Our job is to tell stories, and we must to tell them accurately. If we don’t do it correctly, we shouldn’t do it at all.
Learn more about the show…
“Remembering Donna Summer -.” Http://www.tmz.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2016.