Arts and Entertainment | Theater

SoA theater collaboration puts modern twist on Joan of Arc

The story of Joan of Arc has certainly withstood the test of time—six centuries, to be specific—but what relevance does the story of the valiant, defiant young woman who heard saints’ voices, and ultimately became a saint herself, have in today’s world? That is the very question that renowned vocal coach and School of the Arts theater arts professor Kristin Linklater, Philadelphia-based director and dramaturg Rebecca Wright, and the ’13 SoA theater MFA candidates hope to answer through their collaboration, “Joan of Arc: Voices in the Fire.”

The piece, directed by Linklater and Wright, reinvigorates Joan’s story, seamlessly weaving together movement and dance, excerpts from plays by Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller, George Bernard Shaw, and original material about contemporary politics and religion.

“Joan: Voices in the Fire” will be performed from Nov. 8 to 10 and from Nov. 12 to 17 at the Riverside Theatre. Admission is free with a student ID. Linklater and Wright sat down with Spectator to answer a few questions about their upcoming performances.

In what ways did you draw inspiration from past Joan plays?

Kristin Linklater: “We’ve chosen excerpts and we’ve used them as structural through-lines as interpreted by these playwrights [Shakespeare, Schiller, Shaw, Anderson, Anouilh, Brecht]. They’re extracted pieces that served a purpose.”
Rebecca Wright: “The piece functions as a collage of sorts, to create our own portrait of Joan.”

What was the primary catalyst that led to the conception of a Joan for the 21st century?

KL: “We always try to find interesting material for thesis pieces, which are an important part of the graduate students’ journey. At the same time, it’s difficult to find a play to give good roles to 17 actors. When it came to the decision to direct, I looked in my imagination. Joan served many purposes. I wanted to examine her story from the point of view of the 21st century. There are plenty of acting opportunities. There are 10 Joans, many priests, who serve as trial lawyers, and from [Jean] Anouilh’s play, there’s Joan’s father and the hangman. The actor playing the hangman was inspired to write a monologue of his own. How do you make a piece of theatre? Becky was invaluable. It’s her field of expertise.”
RW: “I kind of came on board after it was conceived to have 10 Joans and an ensemble. What’s exciting is that we really do draw and have drawn from a lot of the performers. The whole piece has come from and is driven by the ensemble.”

What were the biggest challenges you encountered in making this production come alive on the stage?

RW: “There was a hurricane right before we came into tech.”
KL: “It was an act of God and Mother Nature. What we’ve found exciting to work on is that it’s very physically demanding. Actors had to do physical exercises because there are stepping dances and ritualistic features.”
RW: “I hesitate also to call it challenging. One different, thrilling thing is that the actors have to change between storytelling modes quickly. Also, we began on the first day without a script. The starting point was more nebulous and personal. It was more rigorous thinking about the piece in a different way.”
KL: “It’s 100 percent an ensemble piece.”

Could you describe the process of collaborating with the SoA students?

KL: “I’ve been teaching this group for the past two years. I’m the voice and Shakespeare teacher. It’s the first time I’ve taken a group through to the thesis. Becky came from outside.”
RW: “It’s a great way to work. I met them [the students] on the first day.”

Is “Joan” the most research-intensive project you have been involved in with SoA students?

RW: “It’s a very intensive actor training program, based in classical training.”
KL: “The kind of work students do in actors’ training always involves a great deal of research. An actor does as much reading as a Ph.D. student to understand a particular text. They [the students] were very well equipped for historical and theological research.”
RW: “The work that I do is very research-heavy. It was great to come in and have the students keen to do it [research] as part of the process.”

What motivated you to look at Joan’s story from a modern perspective?

KL: “That was the purpose from the beginning: ‘What would Joan of Arc do with the major issues today?’ Could she do it? Could any saint do it? Who are our saints? Has social media taken over the voices from God? I think that our audiences are going to be stimulated, entertained, and engaged by the kinds of arguments and examples we put on stage in pursuing that question.”
RW: “It’s safe to say we didn’t find answers so much as a connection with the fact that Joan of Arc is really compelling.”
KL: Leave those [answers] for the audience to decide. I think this show will appeal 100 percent to the student populations of Barnard and Columbia. It’s huge fun, intellectually challenging, and thoroughly engaging. You will not be bored for one minute. There is dancing, jokes, deeply serious discussion—something for everybody.”

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