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Behind the Scenes

Posted On November 08, 2017 | 11:52 am | by lainw | Permalink
A Reading of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” in the Gardens

On Monday, June 13, the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens became a main stage as actors from the D.C. area offered a stunning and lively reading of Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia.

The gardens, last used as a performance space during a 2010 production put on by the Byzantine Studies department, were an ideal setting for Arcadia. The play, a tragicomedy that explores modern ideas in the context of the past, is centered around an English estate. One plot line tells the story of its nineteenth-century inhabitants, focusing on a young girl’s relationship with her tutor and with her family. The present, a twentieth-century storyline, acts as a foil for the earlier plot, tracing concerns of contemporary academia, including poetry, science, mathematics, and philosophy, back to these characters. It is a work that resonates with arts admirers and science enthusiasts alike, perfect for bringing together communities with a wide variety of academic interests.

The idea of staging the play in the gardens came from a discussion between Tyler fellow John Davis and Emily Townley, a local actress who would become the producer—and one of the stars—of Arcadia in the gardens. Townley and Davis spent two months putting together the reading.

“They call it a reading that is ‘lightly staged,’” Davis said. “They were reading from scripts, but there was a director who gave them direction on where to stand, when to enter, to actually make it more dynamic.”

Arcadia 2 Local actors Thomas Keegan as Septimus and Erin Weaver as Thomasina read a scene in the Fountain Terrace.

The dynamism of the performance extended to the setting, as Arcadia’s main stage separated itself into the Fountain Terrace, the Lovers’ Lane Pool, and the Orangery. The actors and audience moved from space to space as the production progressed. Davis and Townley, seeking to emulate the play’s original English country estate backdrop, chose these parts of the gardens strategically. Townley opened the play on the Fountain Terrace, utilizing its balconies and staircases to introduce the characters. From there, the scene transitioned into the Lovers’ Lane Pool. The amphitheater layout of the pool, which had been drained for cleaning, served its purpose as an area designed for entertainment. As the sun went down, the play moved to the well-lit Orangery for its final scenes.

At the play’s end, “the enclosed nature of the Orangery provided a level of intimacy that was especially appropriate for the changes in narrative and tone,” noted Kaja Tally-Schumacher, a student attending the Garden and Landscape Studies summer school. “The transition from very open spaces to such an intimate and small space really heightened emotion and the sense of community between the audience members and the actors.”

Arcadia 3 Kimberly Gilbert as Hannah and Jonathan D. Martin as Valentine read a scene in the Lovers’ Lane Pool. 

For Tally-Schumacher and other summer school students, the play evoked the themes they have explored in the two-week course, such as the origins and cultural practices of gardens and design landscaping. “The history of gardens is integral to the setting and plot of the play,” added Thalia Allington-Wood.

Similarly, Davis mentioned the inclusion of theories about order and chaos in nature that are studied by the students and elaborated on in Arcadia, specifically through the effects of staging. The temporality between acts, coupled with the unchanging nature of the play’s props and setup, also related to discussions on the memory of place and the passage of time within gardens. However, many noted that one of the greatest consequences of staging the play in the gardens was the intimacy experienced by the audience in such a setting.

“I was very happy that that’s the way it turned out,” he said. “Just because we were that close and just because there wasn’t the separation between a stage and an area for an audience, I think it became intimate . . . just by the way that it was done. And it was good in that way. I hadn’t planned it but it worked out very, very well.”