Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Dec 4, 2013
03:36 PM
Stage Write

Once Upon a December Dreary: Three Surprising Things About 'An Evening With Poe'


Shannon Davis (right) gained a different view of Edgar Allen Poe through staging his works.

One of the greatest things about live local theater is its power to surprise us, to defy our expectations and shake our sense of what we think we know. That said, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to have at least a little sense of what you’re getting into when the lights go down. With that in mind, Stage Write spoke to Shannon Davis and Noah Jeffries, two of the UW–Madison theater MFA students who’ll be part of University’s Theatre’s An Evening With Poe, a series of vignettes based on the poems and short stories of Edgar Allen Poe.

Think you know Poe? Not so fast, bro.  

1. The show’s not all doom and gloom.

Most of us—the English majors and Halloween enthusiasts, anyway—associate Edgar Allen Poe with horror ("The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Fall of the House of Usher," etc.) or despair and madness ("The Raven," "The Bells").  That’s true, but as the students in the collaborative class that spawned this show learned, Poe’s far, far deeper than that. The students spent the semester immersing themselves in Poe’s complete works and ended up both shaken and stirred by the experience.

“Not all his pieces are about death,” says Shannon Davis, a second-year MFA student who did her undergrad work at UW–Whitewater, and who, among other things, appears as Lenore in the vignette focusing on “The Raven” and narrates Poe’s “The Gold-Bug.”  “They’re more about loneliness, and that was surprising to us. There’s an artistic beauty to the darkness.”

Jeffries, a Madison native also working on an MFA, agrees. “I was surprised by the discovery of how holistic a human experience the works of Poe actually reflect.”

2. Not just role reversal, but role expansion

Anyone who’s been part of a theater production knows that participants are often called upon to wear many hats; with this show, it was an up-front requirement.  

“Every one of us that you’ll see on stage has been part of the staging, blocking and directing,” says Jeffries. “Many of us have taken on roles we aren’t here to study.” For instance, Jeffries’s academic focus is acting, but for this show, he served as the director for three of the vignettes and also handled dramaturg duties. Lighting designers did costumes and set designers served as stage managers.   

“All along, we were encouraged to stop thinking of this as a night of vignettes, but as a whole show,” says Jeffries.

3. Is it a poetry reading? Um, no.

If you’re imagining a night of students dramatically reading “Annabel Lee,” you may want to adjust your expectations. An Evening with Poe will actually feature a mix of more traditional-style stagings of Poe’s prose and unusual interpretations of his poetry.

“It’s never just a person standing in front of an audience reciting poetry or prose,” says Jeffries. “There’s always something going on.”

The show’s actually a pretty complex affair, with two hundred light cues and copious costume changes. It’s marked/framed by four stanzas from Poe’s “The Bells,” each of which serves as a sort of marker for the night. Quoth the raven: Sounds pretty cool.  

An Evening With Poe debuts tonight and runs through Sunday, December 8 in the Hemsley Theater in Vilas Hall. For more information visit theatre.wisc.edu.

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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