Emeritus professor Marie Borroff — alias “Old Sh**ty Meg” — tried to sell her body to Stefano Theodoli-Braschi ’07. Professors Toni Dorfman and Stefanie Markovits spit on Daniel Hammond ’05. Faculty members David Bromwich and Traugott Lawler then debated the fate of Markovits, who was condemned to hang.
Fortunately for the English Department, it was all in the name of theater.
Borroff, Dorfman, Markovits and other members of the English and theater studies faculty assumed the roles of convicts and officers for the English Department’s annual staged reading at the Yale Center for British Art Wednesday night. The cast of “Our Country’s Good” included nine faculty members, a graduate student and five undergraduates. The mix of students and faculty overlooked their classroom hierarchy to create a successful show, furthering an English Department tradition of producing a little-known British or Irish play to accompany an exhibit in the British Art Center.
The tradition was started by English and theater studies professor Murray Biggs in 1996. Biggs, the reading’s director, said the idea of faculty members reading the play was conceived in part to strengthen the professors’ public speaking skills.
“English faculty cannot be expected to be actors,” he said. “[The play is] a way to develop skills that could be useful in lecturing.”
Hammond, who has acted in the reading for two years, said most of the English professors were strangers to the theater.
“They’re really good at being English professors,” he said. “But a lot of them don’t have acting experience.”
But the skill of this year’s faculty actors was noted by some undergraduates who participated in the reading. David Friedlander ’05, a theater studies major, said although some needed coaching, all of the actors in the reading were “pretty good.”
English professor Christopher Miller said acting is not so far from teaching, as both demand some theatrics to draw in an audience.
“I guess you could say professors are frustrated actors,” he said. “When you’re teaching in a classroom or lecturing, you’re indulging some sort of theatrical flair.”
But Miller said he did struggle with his role, which Biggs envisioned as a brute or a bully. Miller had to simulate cries of pain while his character was beaten off-stage, an action he said he thought would be difficult until Biggs gave him a leather glove as a prop.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, how do I do moans?'” Miller said. “But they don’t call them props for nothing. It’s amazing how easy it is to do a cry of pain when you get a nice good smack on the back of your hand.”
Several actors in Biggs’ cast cited his participation as director and casting agent as integral to the program. Biggs has controlled the show since before Miller’s arrival at Yale seven years ago, Miller said. Without Biggs, Miller added, the show might not exist.
But Biggs was modest about his participation.
“Partly by accident, I suppose, I’ve been the one who’s directed each of the readings,” he said.
This year, the chosen play was better-known than earlier productions, but Biggs said he chose “Our Country’s Good” despite its greater notoriety because it was particularly suited to the current exhibit at the British Art Center, “William Hodges, 1744-1797: The Art of Exploration.”
Timberlake Wertenberger’s play relates the true story of the first convict settlement in Australia, where British criminals were sent as an alternative to jail in 1788. An officer at the settlement, Second Lt. Ralph Clark, played by Theodoli-Braschi in the reading, arranges for the convicts to put on a production of “The Recruiting Officer” by George Farquhar. The introduction of theater to the colony lets the residents of the colony overcome their identities as “convict” or “officer” and creates a real community.
The play was a challenge for Biggs to cast because of its unusually large cast. After cutting eight of the original 22 characters in Wertenberger’s play and compressing two characters into one, he eventually had 15 roles to cast for the production.
“Although these readings are normally done exclusively by Yale faculty, we have occasionally brought in others,” Biggs said.
Because he is dealing with faculty members, Biggs said he doesn’t audition for the reading.
“It would be slightly condescending, I think, to audition faculty,” he said. “So I have to go on my knowledge of them personally, and my intuition.”
Miller said he thinks Biggs has “very definite ideas” about who he wants to play each part when he casts the play.
And when Biggs makes casting decisions, they carry a great deal of weight with the English faculty. For Wednesday’s performance, Biggs managed to lure Borroff, who is retired, and Miller, who is on sabbatical and living in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to join his cast.
Biggs said Borroff has played a role in the readings two or three times since her retirement. In her single scene in “Our Country’s Good,” Borroff played an elderly convict who tries to prostitute herself and several other female convicts to an officer.
“Part of the fun of this is being able to cast very dignified faculty in the role of convicts,” Biggs said.
Biggs also chose the undergraduates who were given parts in the reading. He said he knew many of them as “well-known campus readers and actors,” as well as students in his classes.
The student actors said the common effort of performing in the reading obscured the distinction between faculty and students, with some exceptions.
“Having to boss around my DUS is an interesting experience,” said Friedlander, whose very assertive convict harassed Dorfman’s character.
Hammond said he thought the undergraduates’ participation in the performance would increase the show’s audience.
“It’s easier to get people to come see undergraduates than to see professors,” he said.
But Bill Schmedlin ’05 said he came to the reading not to see his peers perform, but for his past professors — Markovits and James Kearney.
“I thought it might be [weird] at first, but everyone performed so well I just got caught up in the acting itself,” Schmedlin said.