It's important to William Fisher, Theatre Department chair at Butler University since 2010, that theater in some way be connected to the present day. That connection might be accomplished by staging productions ripped from the headlines or drawn from oral histories. Or by tweaking workhorses to bring out modern resonances.
For instance, Butler's production of Tartuffe, directed by Fisher and premiering this week, is set in present-day America, somewhere in the Bible Belt, rather than in 17th-century France, as Moliere originally had it. The original verse structure remains — translated from French, to English, of course — so students have the chance to dig in on staged poetry that isn't Shakespeare. But such a change in scenery can bring out universal themes: the credulity of those who want to believe (i.e. Orgon's faith in the demagogic Tartuffe); the difficulties involved in intervention (Orgon's family can't pull the wool from his eyes until it's much too late).
Tartuffe isn't all that's on Fisher's mind these days. He's interested in putting together projects that don't fit the rubric of a traditional theater season: “The production imperative to make Tartuffe ready for an audience, squeezed into a limited amount of time, is kind of like a pressure cooker in a lot of ways. But you don't want to cook everything in a pressure cooker; some things need to simmer for a longer time, or need other ingredients to be added at later dates.”
The Christel DeHaan Visiting International Theatre Artist program is a good example of a longer-simmering project. Last year, Indian educator Kunju Vasudevan directed students in a production incorporating the classical dance and drama of his homeland; an artist from Bali is scheduled to teach in 2012.
“To have a 10-week residency of an artist from another country or culture is a big deal,” Fisher says. “It's extremely fortunate because then something in some depth can take place for the students. Whether that's manifest completely in a production is kind of beside the point; it's about doing something different. Ten weeks of rigorous, focused training is a rare privilege.”
But alongside what Fisher describes as “fancier, sexier, exotic and far-reaching relationships and alliances,” he hopes to engage the theater department and its students with the community — or communities, as it were. He points to last year's one-time reading of The Exonerated, which dramatizes the true stories of six wrongfully convicted Americans once on Death Row. A collaboration between students and the Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre, “It was an opportunity to present a work that deals with real, difficult issues in our culture, that brings together people from the theater profession in town, who we don't often get to interact with directly, and people in town who we don't perceive as our usual community of audience. This was a huge success, so much so that we had to scramble to make a video feed possible to show it in other rooms of the JCFA, because we didn't have enough seats for people who came.”
A similar project is in the works for the 2012-13 school year — a multi-night reading of Seven, a collection of short plays by seven women playwrights, each about women surviving difficulties in different corners of the world (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Guatemala, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Russia).
Meanwhile, the season marches on; the next and final stop for this school year is a Lorca play, The Love of Don Perlimplin for Belisa in the Garden. And Fisher continues to focus on building his department's strong foundation of presenting formally experimental, engaging work that has, at times, rivaled that of some professional companies in town. The educational imperative remains foremost, of course.
“The thing most important for me is that students become self-sufficient, self-motivated, and that they take into their own hands, not only the ability, but the necessity to invest themselves in what their doing and to make the work they feel is important, that has purpose, that has point of view, an idea, and that poses hard questions to themselves and therefore the outside world,” Fisher sums up.