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Barnard, Columbia Alumni Collaborate to Bring Gertrude Stein's Works to the Stage

By Kristin Sterling

Stacey McMath, Jessica Brater and Natalie Robin, lighting director

As undergraduate theatre students at Barnard, Jessica Brater (BC'00) and Stacey McMath (BC'01, SOA'04), along with their classmates, received hands-on training as producers, directors, designers and stage managers through the academic program as well as their extracurricular affiliations with organizations such as King's Crown, Late Night Theatre and Columbia Musical Society.

After graduation a group of 12 Barnard and Columbia alumni realized that they had developed strong collaborative relationships and shared a common bond -- wanting to explore new forms of theatre. Recognizing that their comprehensive training at Barnard and Columbia equipped them to run their own theatre company, the group officially came together as Polybe + Seats, a name inspired by a Gertrude Stein play. The company has been performing Stein's work in productions throughout the city.

In June Polybe + Seats staged a reading of Stein's "Look and Long" with music. The reading, directed by Brater, was performed in the Dixon Place's 4th Annual Festival of New Musical Works for Theater at the Makor-Steinhardt Center.

While she was working on this project, Brater came across another Stein play, "Three Sisters who are not Sisters," which she found to be a good match stylistically for "Look and Long." They combined these two short plays into a new production, "Two in Two," which Polybe + Seats performed earlier this month as part of the HERE American Living Room Festival.

Brater also discovered that these plays were originally published together with a third play, "In a Garden." She and her colleagues decided to take the three plays and combine them with another work of Stein's, "Lucretia Borgia."

" 'Lucretia Borgia' and the trio of plays shed light on each other because some of the same themes are addressed with drastically different styles and structures," explains Brater, who recently completed her first year teaching in the Barnard Theatre Department. "By juxtaposing Stein's different approaches to form we have been able to look at the themes and stories from rather unusual angles. We have also used juicy details from our research on the historical character of Lucretia Borgia to further fill in the dots to connect the plays into one project."

What has come of Brater's research is a new production, "Careful of Eights," which runs at the Beckman Theatre on W. 54th Street, August 6-17.

The production is ultimately 5 short plays. The trio - "In a Garden," "Look and Long" and "Three Sisters who are not Sisters" -- are bookended with two different productions of "Lucretia Borgia."

"In order to direct Gertrude Stein plays you have to find the narrative for yourself," says McMath. "In our production the character Lucretia Borgia leaves her own play and participates in the three other plays, interacting with the other characters. When the play "Lucretia Borgia" is performed at the end, her character has changed dramatically from her experiences in the other plays."

Why did they take such an unusual approach?

It is often difficult to understand what is happening in Stein's plays, concede Brater and McMath.

"Our goal is to make Stein's work as clear and beautiful as possible," says Brater. "We set something up on stage so people can attach a narrative to it. We provide the clues so that in a way the audience has the ability to choose their own adventure. The music provides the frame and creates the environment for this to happen."

"Careful of Eights" encourages complex listening and an openness to new ideas, they say. They want the audience to walk away with different impressions of the story and spark conversation about what they saw and felt.

"Careful of Eights" runs at the Beckman Theatre, 314 W. 54th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues) from August 6 through 17. For additional information and tickets, call 212-714-8042.

Published: Aug 07, 2003
Last modified: Aug 06, 2003

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