HPS’s upcoming fall production is the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning drama, August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. The plot focuses on the dysfunctional Weston family, and opens with Beverly Weston hiring a caregiver for his drug addicted wife, Violet. The plot thickens when, days later, Beverly’s disappearance brings the Westons together, for a dark yet humorous reunion filled with buried secrets.
The play deals with many controversial topics including alcoholism and drug addiction, suicide, divorce, and infidelity, to name a few. Due to these provocative themes director Mike Larochelle had to strongly consider whether HPS was prepared to take on such an edgy show, and whether the Hawken community was able to handle it. Larochelle says of the play “I’m going out of my way to make sure everyone understands that this is an adult piece with adult language. I don’t want to catch anyone off guard and ruin the experience for the cast, crew or audience.”
I sat down with Head of Upper School Ms. Kim Samson to understand how and why she came to the decision to approve August: Osage County as this year’s fall play. When asked how she decided to approve the play, Ms. Samson said “While I considered myself a consultant in the process of picking the play it was not ultimately my final decision. The director [Mr. Mike Larochelle] and department chair of the arts department [Ms. Denise Buckley] are better equipped to know what HPS is ready for and what our community is ready for. We’ve talked at length about the challenges of this play and how the community is prepared to face these challenges.”
The timing of Hawken’s choice coincides nicely with the release of the upcoming Hollywood film version. The blockbuster is directed by John Wells who has previously focused his directorial work in television (including ER, The West Wing, and Shameless). August: Osage County is set to have an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Abigail Breslin, Cris Cooper and Ewan McGreggor. The movie is scheduled for release on Christmas Day and will be an interesting comparison to Hawken’s interpretation of the drama. I spoke with Larochelle about his choice behind the show, and his opinions on the piece.
PS: Why is this show considered controversial?
ML: When the show premiered in 2007 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2008, it was considered edgy but not controversial. I believe it is being viewed as controversial at Hawken simply because we are doing it in a high school environment with a teen cast. Some people are concerned about students performing adult experiences that they can’t possibly relate to as teens.
PS: What made you choose a controversial show?
ML: I didn’t set out to pick a controversial piece. But I think the subject matter and language in [the play] is there for a simple reason – because it’s real. Granted, the Weston family is dealing with a lot of demons (more than any real family should ever have to), but they are real demons that an American audience in 2013 can relate to. Almost everyone who sees it knows someone who struggles with one of the issues presented onstage. If even one person walks away from the show with a clearer picture of what not to do when faced with a real-life challenge, than we’ve done our jobs.
PS: Have you edited or changed the show from the original script to downplay some of the more provocative topics in August: Osage County?
ML: Downplaying the “more provocative topics” would defeat the purpose of doing the show, so we are performing the play as written. There may be a few profanities that I decide to alter, simply because snickering teens in the audience could ruin the flow of the scene. But other than that, we are honoring the author’s work and vision. After all, who are we to try and improve on a Pulitzer Prize winning play!
PS: Are you worried about how the Hawken community will receive such a controversial piece?
ML: I firmly believe that if I am up front about the subject matter, people can make an educated decision for themselves and their families. Anyone who is concerned about the subject matter should simply not buy a ticket, and then join us in December and February for the upcoming musicals.
While HPS has dealt with adult themes in past, Larochelle says that August: Osage County “has much more adult language and subject matter than anything we’ve done over the last five years”. Larochelle says his only other issue with a play choice occurred with Rumours which contained profanities that people were unprepared for. The Hawken community was prepared for the controversy of Rent, which dealt with heterosexuality, homosexuality, and AIDS, and there were no complaints. Larochelle hopes that with the public’s awareness of the adult topics in the play no conflicts will ensue.
He also mentioned that many things we do at Hawken could be regarded as controversial but are rather acceptable: language in popular and contemporary music, profanities used by teens in everyday life, and the themes of many of Hawken’s school books (i.e. The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, Antigone, Middlesex). These books deal with murder, incest, alcoholism, violence, rape, and adultery, which are many of the themes in August: Osage County. Despite this, these books are not considered controversial and are read in high schools throughout the country.
Larochelle feels that if you go into August: Osage County with a rational outlook you will find that many of the “controversial” aspects are experienced in daily life, just not all at the same time and within one family. Larochelle concluded that “I believe… Hawken is a very liberal community, open-minded and willing to embrace challenging material rather than avoid it. The play deals with real issues… August: Osage County is a cautionary tale about families and how bad it can get if we don’t take care of each other.”