Collaborative 'Acts'

by Tom Lee

Based on a notorious real-life incident that occurred at Harvard more than 90 years ago, the play Unnatural Acts opens tonight in New York as the final production of Classic Stage Company's 2010-11 season. According to CSC, it is "inspired by events that occurred at Harvard University in the spring of 1920, when a student's suicide sparked a campus-wide investigation by a panel of administrators who convened to investigate, expose and ultimately expel a group of homosexual students."

Unnatural Acts was conceived and directed by Tony Speciale, and created and performed by members of the Plastic Theatre, who include Jess Burkle '06. On the eve of the show's opening, Harvard Arts Beat checked in with Burkle, whose extensive Harvard theater credits included roles in the Loeb Ex productions Alice in Wonderland (2006), Caligula and Hedda Gabler (both 2004,) and in Lulu on the Loeb Drama Center mainstage (2005); as well as directing Rhinoceros (2005) and The Maids (2006) in the Ex and Knock: Or the Triumph of Medicine (2005) on the mainstage.

How does it feel to be making your Off Broadway debut?

I'm desperately trying not to think of it—just another day at the office! It's a great opportunity to be seen at a reputable venue where Oscar- and Tony-winning actors have performed. So, I would sum up my feelings as alternating between thrilled and terrified.

Credit for Unnatural Acts is attributed to 15 co-authors who are members of The Plastic Theatre. What is The Plastic Theatre, and how exactly has the play been created collaboratively?

The Plastic Theater was a name given to the 15 people who signed up for the adventure of creating a theatrical work based upon this incident. It was largely actors—with a director, a dramaturg, and some others—who learned this story inside-out. Then, we spent a year improvising based upon the source material. When we felt like we were on to something, we would try to capture it on paper. After Classic Stage Company said they wanted to produce it, a smaller group of us went about the business of crafting a polished scripted that could stand the test of time and allow the story to be staged all around the world.

Would you characterize the play as a docudrama, similar to another gay-themed play, The Laramie Project, created by Moisés Kaufman and The Tectonic Theater Project?

I'm sure the marketing department might, but I would disagree. Paramount for me in the process was telling an engaging, vibrant story—not simply resting on the source material and the story for forward momentum. Early on, the creators agreed that it would not only be untrue but arrogant for us to declare that we had discovered "the truth" behind this story—after all, our source material is in fragments based upon the hastily handwritten notes of those responsible. Our responsibility as artists was to make this play, this story, connect with a modern audience and have something relevant to say. The play is not a series of interlocking monologues, or a museum piece that you observe and think "this is an important story, I should enjoy this"; it is a narrative, a journey, an experience, a story well-told.

As an alum, do you feel you have a particular responsibility to bring to light this darker chapter of Harvard history, and perhaps restore the reputations of the students affected by the scandal?

Quite the opposite, actually. My experience at Harvard was so wonderful and important that I felt the need to be the counterweight in the room; I stand by the position that we use Harvard as a lens to comment on society, not the specific target. The poetry I found in the story was not "Look at what Harvard did," it was "Even Harvard, the most enlightened institution in the country, was blind to their own ignorance." There is something very powerful in that.

You’re also a founding member of art.party.theater.company, which creates and performs new work using a collaborative process. Do you ever feel like you just want to hunker down in a turret and write the Great American Play? Or do you genuinely prefer being in a "creative cluster"?

Personally, I have trouble working in the clusters. It took great, generous artists like Mary Birnbaum ['05, Artistic Director of art.party.theater.company] and Tony Speciale to show me what can be gained by teamwork. The advantage being that when one works as a team there is little chance that all the members will share a creative blind spot; as a result, all parts of the theatrical experience receive the attention and detail they deserve. It's a double-edge sword, of course, with strongly opinionated people arguing "the right way" to do something, but generally those debates make the work better. Tyrannical art is so 20th century.

Unnatural Acts runs through July 10 at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th St. Tickets and information: 866.811.4111 or 212.352.3101.

[Caption: Jess Burkle '06]