The press releases from StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance were a bit daunting. Wordy and, well, dramatic, this organization seemed awfully keen on itself. The word “acclaimed” was sprinkled liberally throughout, in reference to company members and previous performances. StreetSigns was everywhere: in Chatham County, doing an “oral history project.” In the streets of Chapel Hill, with “Close to Magic,” a fanciful parade co-produced by a Chicago-based troupe, The Midnight Circus. On the UNC campus, launching a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. It seemed as though this company had sprung up out of nowhere and was preparing to take over the world, starting with Chapel Hill.
This called for a little detective work. Attendance at a performance of The Seagull was in order. The Morehead Lounge at UNC’s Graham Memorial Hall is a rather unorthodox setting for a play. Audience members sit in any of a number of chairs and cushy sofas except for the most central ones–only the actors get to sit in those. This puts the audience in the parlor in which most of the action occurs, although the first two acts of the play, as written, actually take place outdoors on the grounds of a large estate. Thus, we lose some of the original context, the awareness that we are observing turn-of-the-century Russian aristocracy at leisure. It takes awhile to orient ourselves to the setting, but the work is engaging and the staging ultimately effective.
StreetSigns Artistic Director Derek Goldman, who also directed the play, says that the hardest thing about the production was figuring out a space. “It was when I walked into the Morehead Lounge and thought, ‘what if we had it in here’ that the project began to coalesce,” he explains with puppy-dog-like enthusiasm. So who is Goldman, and where did he come from? StreetSigns, although in the area only since August, had been active in Chicago for seven years, doing 25 productions and winning a number of local theater awards. Goldman taught performance-related courses at several Chicago-area universities. Last year he was offered a position on the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty. “At first, I wasn’t going to take it,” Goldman relates. “But when I visited, I was seduced by and impressed with the emergent culture. We felt there was a real hunger we could sense for people who weren’t doing performance, but could use performance.”
Goldman explains that StreetSigns has a strong commitment to community-based work, ergo “Close to Magic” and the Chatham County project. But why The Seagull? “Something about the grace and effortlessness of the play–it celebrates our human foibles, our weaknesses,” Goldman says. Of the connection between this play and his other projects, he adds: “I’m interested in pieces that say something about what theater is. There’s a lot we can say and express, through taking on those plays, about the community.”
The production itself is mostly quite good, the performances are mostly excellent, and the play itself is, of course, enthralling. Bridgett Ane Lawrence, visiting from New York, shines as Nina, the star-struck young aspiring actress who makes a tragic choice. The tortured young Kostya, an aspiring writer who is madly in love with Nina, is played passionately by recent Duke grad Roman Pearah. Regional stage veteran Miki Whittles Shelton turns in a vibrant and commanding performance as Irina, the narcissistic celebrity actress and not-so-successful mother to Kostya. The male supporting cast is, across the board, wonderful.
The show’s weak links lie in the miscasting of Jodi Kanter as Masha, and Lynn Johnson as Paulina. Both women seem to be wandering about acting in a roomful of people who are just being themselves. As Masha, neurotic daughter of the manager of the farm where the action takes place, Kanter goes over the top, her performance bordering on hysteria. Johnson, in what could have been a delightful bit of non-traditional casting (she is African American in an otherwise white cast), falls flat, unbelievable as Paulina, Masha’s mother and the jilted ex-lover of Irina’s man.
The costuming, too, is distracting. Most cast members are attired quite appropriately in period clothing. Paulina, however, turns up in various unflattering present-day outfits and Masha wears the same vintage dress throughout the play. Lovely, yes, but doesn’t she own anything else? Fortunately, these problems, distressing as they are, don’t detract too badly from the overall impact of the show. Goldman makes creative use of the space; although a few too many scenes set the actors on opposite sides of the room, one actor’s back turned to the other, overall, the cast navigates around the audience with a natural and easy flow of movement.
The Seagull, it turns out, was a last-minute replacement for a production of The Sound and the Fury, which Goldman adapted. “It was running into problems,” explains Goldman. “We didn’t start with The Seagull until March.” This may explain some of the production’s flaws. It also furthers the image of StreetSigns as a company that thinks on its feet. StreetSigns has dual tracks. One is committed to performance: adaptations of literature, poetry, and the like to theater pieces, and performing classics. The other is the Institute, creating community-based works, developing curricula with local schools and collaborating with local organizations.
Many of The Seagull‘s cast members were part of StreetSigns in Chicago, and relocated with Goldman. Director of Development Whittles Shelton is also the wife of executive director and associate artistic director Brad Shelton. Lynn Johnson heads up the Institute, the arm of StreetSigns that puts together educational projects. Peter Carpenter, who portrays the playwright Trigorin, is the company’s resident choreographer, and Kanter is dramaturg. For most of them, staffing StreetSigns is now their day job. “It was a big shift, Goldman states. “In Chicago, we weren’t institutionalized. Nobody took a salary.” Meeting payroll the first year, he says, is a challenge. But a number of organizations have taken an interest in StreetSigns, and the group is surviving on grants and donations.
Goldman now teaches performance studies in the communication studies department at UNC. Part of the deal, explains Shelton, was that UNC would help StreetSigns out. The university gives the company rehearsal and performance space, and Madeline Grumet, dean of UNC’s School of Education, has been very active in working with StreetSigns to develop curricula for elementary schools, and in envisioning what Goldman says would be “an arts and education center of some kind.”
Both courses that Goldman is currently teaching are connected to StreetSigns projects. The ongoing oral history project, with the Chatham County Center for Public Service, explores the many changes the county is experiencing and how they are impacting the area. “The development, the demographics are changing,” Shelton points out. “There’s a huge Hispanic influx. Pittsboro, which was always small and insulated, is being infiltrated by people from RTP.” One of Goldman’s aims with community-based projects is to get non-actors involved, and Chatham County residents are obliging.
The other project is a co-production with Steppenwolf, a Chicago theater group that claims many well-known alumni–John Malkovich, Gary Sinese and David Mamet, to name a few. A Boston native fascinated by the lore of the South, Goldman met with people from the Center for the Study of the American South to help create a piece that examines the mythology of the North and the South. “I’m interested in what was the dream of the North, the actual meaning of ‘North’ and ‘South’, and in the current ‘reverse migration,’” says Goldman. “Freed slaves headed north for a better life, now large numbers of African Americans are returning to the South, to their heritage.” Goldman wants to include lots of “multiethnic folks,” and plans to do performances of this piece in a number of Southern venues beginning next spring–he’s already laid plans for performances in Mississippi and Memphis. On Steppenwolf’s end, performances will take place in Chicago and thereabouts as well.
Goldman and his cohorts have their fingers in many pies. Maybe their press-release writer waxes a bit hyperbolic, but certainly the company brings a welcome enthusiasm and innovation to the Triangle theater scene. Excited about using performance and theater as tools to convey and teach non-performance related subjects, Goldman feels that StreetSigns’ commitment to community involvement is an integral part of the company’s identity. “But,” he emphasizes, “we are also committed to doing top-notch productions, not just outreach.” Then there is the touring component. Goldman is working on putting together a production of a new translation of The Oresteia, by Alan Shapiro, a local poet and writer on staff at UNC. Goldman is already in the midst of negotiations to bring it to the Middle East. With the energy and stamina that the organization exhibits, no doubt it’ll happen. Just one more step in the work of taking over the world.