Post-show discussion – Saturday, July 29

The cast of Spinning into Butter returned to the stage a few minutes after the show had ended last night, sitting down to talk to the audience for the first time. I sat on stage with them, perched on the corner of Dean Daniels’s desk, and we had a great conversation with twenty or so audience members who were able to stick around the theatre late on a Saturday night.

The discussion began with a woman sitting in the back row asking how we select a playwright each season – I spent a few minutes talking about the artistic committee we created a few years ago to focus on that process, a rotating group of four ensemble members who take recommendations from the rest of the ensemble (and audiences) as they read an enormous amount of plays before presenting the full ensemble with a short list of four playwrights. Once we’ve got that list narrowed down, we read their plays, get into some good debates, and ultimately have a good old-fashioned democratic vote.

After all the actors had reemerged from the dressing room the conversation shifted to the play itself and the issues raised in the script. The first question to the cast was about the title of the play – a few audience members were interested in the literal and metaphorical function of that phrase, spinning into butter. It comes from The Story of Little Black Sambo, a children’s book written in the late nineteenth century by Helen Bannerman. In the play, Burton Strauss brings up the story of Little Black Sambo to compare their situation to the plot of the children’s story, where a group of tigers that had threatened Sambo end up spinning themselves into butter while fighting over his clothes (in Strauss’s opinion, Simon Brick has whipped the Belmont College administrators into a similar frenzy). There was also an interesting discussion last night about the transformative quality of butter itself, and how that metaphor relates to the transformation of the characters in the play.

The discussion then turned to the subplot of Patrick Chibas, the Nuyorican student who Sarah Daniels convinces to identify himself as Hispanic for the sake of a scholarship application. Unlike Simon, Patrick actually appears onstage, and his character has a voice here that Simon does not, bringing an interesting perspective to the issues of ethnicity and identity. Several people were interested in the fact that Patrick is able to tell his side of the story in this play, while Simon is not (a few people actually voiced the opinion that Simon can’t appear onstage, because this story is really about how the adminstration deals with him as an issue, rather than on a personal level).

One audience member mentioned a piece that aired recently on WBEZ, which noted Sarah’s relationship with her alcoholic mother. We discussed how this minor plot point affected Sarah’s character in general, and her ability to confront some of the uglier aspects of her personal views.

A couple who identified themselves as social workers were interested in our take on producing this play and presenting it to audiences that are predominantly caucasian – does this play inspire discussion that will help move us towards a “solution” to racism, or is this, as Sarah describes the forum that takes place in the play, “a collective sigh of white guilt?” (For more on the makeup of Eclipse’s audiences, and Chicago theatres and audiences in general, check out this week’s issue of Time Out Chicago; the cover story asks the question, “Why is Chicago theater so white – and how can we fix it?”)

We finished the discussion with a few questions about what it’s like to have the opportunity to work with playwrights in general and Rebecca Giman in particular – Rebecca has been wonderfully generous with her time and energy and support, and her level of involvement throughout this season has been an honor and a great help for all of us as artists.

There’s a lot that I’m skimming over here – it was a long and complex discussion, and it would be easy to keep writing for hours, but this has already become a much longer post than I anticipated. I’ll end here for now, but I encourage anyone reading this to leave a comment to explore these issues further, ask questions that I haven’t mentioned, and suggest topics for future discussions. The next post-show discussion is coming up in a few hours after our Sunday matinee – click on “discussion schedule” above for the full schedule.

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2 Responses

  1. “Several people were interested in the fact that Patrick is able to tell his side of the story in this play, while Simon is not (a few people actually voiced the opinion that Simon can’t appear onstage, because this story is really about how the adminstration deals with him as an issue, rather than on a personal level).”

    Is it typically viewed that the story is primarily about Simon or at least about dealing with him on a personal level?

    I tend to lean towards the view that the play is largely about how the administration and Sarah in particular deal with the situation on a large scale.

    Simon never appears, obviously, so how can the play be about dealing with him on a personal level? We don’t know anything about him!

    The play clearly lends itself towards being about how Sarah and the administration deal with him ‘as an issue’ because they never deal with him on a personal level, with the exception of Sarah. (which is a whole new post)

    I personally enjoy the fact that Simon never appears it creates a better focus on the administration. Forcing the “white folks” to perhaps do some self-reflection, (also refered to as white guilt, which I have to slightly disagree with) instead of feeling sorry for Simon.

  2. Sadie-

    I agree – I think it’s important that Simon not appear on stage. He is, in the eyes of the onstage characters, an issue that needs to be dealt with. Sarah criticizes Ross at one point for dehumanizing people by making them the subject of a lecture, by objectifying them – either in a positive or negative light – and I think that that’s also a comment on the way the school responds to Simon (at least until the moment that Sarah reaches out on a very personal level, but, as you said, that’s a whole new post).

    I think this play is mostly about self-examination (or, more accurately, the lack of self-examination) within people who think they’ve “solved” the problem of racism. It’s also about the dehumanizing effects of an administrative system that defines everyone’s identity according to convenient categories.

    We don’t get Simon’s personal story here, and I think it would be a very different play if we did. I’m interested in hearing the response of other audience members (or non-audience members; if you’re reading this before seeing the show by all means get involved in the discussion now) to Rebecca Gilman’s choice to leave Simon offstage.

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