“Stone and Sparrow” inspired by history, song

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Photo by Alana Thyng.

“Stone and Sparrow,” a senior project in Theater Studies for Laurel Durning-Hammond ’14, is premiering on Thursday at the Whitney Humanities Center. The original student-written musical follows the life of a family that decides to move to a coal mining town right before the Great Depression, and it is being staged in conjunction with a Theater Studies seminar entirely devoted to the production of the project — a first for Yale’s Theater Studies department. As the show heads into its last week of rehearsal, the News sat down with Hammond to discuss her experience creating and working on the play.

Q. Could you tell me a little bit more about the project’s conception?

A. Alex Ratner ’14 and I conceived the project at the beginning of junior year. He’s [doing the] music and I’m the book, although we developed the story together. It’s going up as a production seminar through the Shen Curriculum in Theater Studies. [Theater Studies lecturer] Annette Jolles, who is on the faculty, but does a lot of directing and development of new works in New York, is teaching the course and directing the piece. She’s been advising Alex and me throughout the whole writing process. CQ

Q. Tell me about the course. Is it typical for a student-written work to be taught in a seminar?

A. Everyone in the cast is enrolled in the course, [which examines] the historical context of the piece. It takes place in 1929-1930 Kentucky. [The course] also examines the process of what it is to develop a new work and workshop it. To my understanding, this is the first time a student-written original work is involved in a production seminar directed by a faculty member. CQ

Q. Why did you choose to write about this time period?

A. Our way in was that Alex and I both really love Appalachian folk music — the types of harmonies. The musical world was our way in first. Alex is an American Studies major; I love American history. We were both really drawn to that time period. We did a lot of reading of oral histories from people of that time and we found it very compelling.

Q. What is the play about?

A. Without giving too much away, it’s about this family that decides to make this big move from their family homestead to a coal mining town — going from totally self-sustaining agriculture to being part of this cash economy. Then the depression hits … and then [it’s] bad. It also follows the different characters’ interpersonal relationships and particularly the main character Orlena’s development. Also, there’s a love triangle.

Q. What do audiences have to look forward to?

A. One thing that I think is so amazing about the Yale theater scene is the amount of new work happening. There are so many musicals this semester, which is amazing. Within that track, this is a brand new piece of theater with a seven-person cast. The sets are really exciting, the orchestra is really exciting — we’re all rearing to go. One thing I love about the theater scene is how we’re encouraged to have agency and make projects happen and so the opportunity to work on and develop this show with Alex and Annette and this whole crew of really smart actors, and then to get to be in it also and work with Annette as a director, has been mind-blowing.

Q. How do you think present-day audiences will relate to the time period of the play?

A. As in most theater pieces that take place in a certain time period, the time period is extremely important. I think most musical theater at the end of the day is about relationships within interesting contexts. This story is definitely about what happened to these people in Appalachia, it’s definitely about the injustices that happened. But it’s also very much about what it’s like to be growing up and trying to deal with negotiating pressures from your family versus what you want to do, and making a mess of things as far as being in love, and figuring out who you are and what you want to do. It happens in this context, and it’s informed by [it].

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