History and place as inspiration: Theatre 4 stages new plays at The Institute Library

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From left: Jane Tamarkin, Doron Ben-Atar. (Photo courtesy of the artist) Rebecka Jones, M.J. Kaufman (Photo by Kate Tarker) and Mariah Sage. Additional photos courtesy of Theatre 4.

The Institute Library this month will host the premieres of two new plays, each of which was inspired by the library’s rich history and/or its place in contemporary society. The productions are being presented as part of Theatre 4’s “Acting Out” series, which for five years has been a vehicle through which the company stages new, short site-specific works by playwrights with ties to the local community.

This year, Theatre 4 is presenting works by M.J. Kaufman, who graduated in May from the Yale School of Drama, and Doron Ben-Atar, a New Haven resident who teaches history at Fordham University. Each has worked previously with Theatre 4: Kaufman wrote Your Living Room is Full of Ghosts for the company’s residency at IKEA earlier this year, and Ben-Atar created The Worst Man for Theatre 4’s 2011 “Acting Out” program, which was staged at The Study at Yale.

About choosing The Institute Library for its latest “Acting Out” program, Mariah Sage, one of the company’s founders, said, “We’ve always been on the hunt for new venues that would intrigue people.”

The Institute Library offers no shortage of that. In September, Sage, her Theatre 4 co-founders Rebecka Jones and Jane Tamarkin, Kaufman, and David Pilot and Josh Matteo — two actors who’ll be performing in the plays by Kaufman and Ben Atar — gathered at the library to learn a bit about its history from the organization’s executive director, Will Baker.

Founded in 1826 as the Young Apprentices’ Literary Association — “an educational society dedicated to the ‘mutual assistance in the attainment of useful knowledge,’” as described on the library’s website – the organization hosted such influential public figures as Frederick Douglass, Charles Dickens, Anna Dickinson, Henry Ward Beecher, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, before becoming less relevant over time. Since becoming its director in 2011, Baker has sought to revitalize the organization and re-establish its role as an important cultural resource in the City of New Haven.

Baker, it’s worth mentioning, is himself tied to the organization’s history. He’s distantly related to William Borden, who served as the organization’s librarian in the late 19th century and created for the organization a unique cataloging system, and to William’s more famous cousin Lizzie.

While in March 2012, the library hosted performances of Beckett’s Catastrophe, which was produced by the Young Mechanics Theatre Ensemble under the direction of James Leaf, Baker was reluctant at first to host theatrical performances at the library this fall. The pitch from Theatre 4, though, was too good to turn down. The idea of site-specific work being created for performances at The Institute Library, he said, was “very appealing.”

He’s also aware that such events engage the organization’s institutional memory. Sage, who’s been a member of the library for a few years, said that Baker “couldn’t have been more gracious and enthusiastic about the project” from the time it was pitched to him.

The above-mentioned gathering was Kaufman’s first visit to The Institute Library. Of particular interest to him are the “fringe” groups the library welcomed in its early history and Borden’s cataloging system. Kaufman also talked about exploring the fact that technology has so dramatically changed the role and function of libraries in contemporary society.

For Theatre 4’s “Acting Out” program at The Institute Library, Kaufman was commissioned to write two 20-minute plays, each of which is staged in a different part of the library’s second-floor space. And while he declined to talk about his work while it was being created, Kaufman did say that he’d set one of the plays in a specific historical moment.

As a professor of American history, Ben-Atar is very familiar with the inception of organizations like The Institute Library, and with the struggles they face to adapt in modern times.

“If done right,” Ben-Atar pointed out about Theatre 4’s “Acting Out” program, “it’s supposed to give the audience a sense that what’s happening in front of them is happening in front of them in that place.”

Despite his historical expertise, Ben-Atar said in September that his 10-minute play at The Institute Library would take place in the present – “at the place, at the moment, with the audience, with the characters.”

The brevity of the work, he said, puts a “premium on action – dramatic action – and movement in the piece.” He described the parameters of creating work for Theatre 4’s “Acting Out” series – the site-specific location, the work’s duration, and a predetermined cast – as a godsend.

Ben-Atar said one of the virtues of Theatre 4’s approach to theatrical production is that “it’s very much handson… creating a dynamic of interaction. …That’s what theater has that nothing else has.”

For detailed information about Theatre 4 and its “Acting Out” series, which is scheduled to take place Nov. 6-8 at The Institute Library, visit T4CT.org.

Article by David Brensilver, Editor of The Arts Paper

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