February 19, 2013

FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS Features an Original Score

By Barbara Jwanouskos (MFA 

Wednesday, February 20th, marks the opening of FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS, an opera by experimental writer Gertrude Stein and directed by John Wells Fellow Michelle Sutherland (MFA ’14). Stein was known for her use of stream of consciousness writing, her emphasis on rhythm, and her ability to have fun with language, which were all to evoke what she called the “excitingness of pure being”. Instead of using the opera score written by Virgil Thomson, Sutherland and her cast created an original score that features all American forms of music.

I had a chance to speak with Sutherland to learn more about her experience transforming FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS to the stage as well as Gertrude Stein’s life as an artist.

BJ: Could you tell me about FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS? What drew you to this text?
MS: A rarely reported fact: Gertrude Stein was born in Pittsburgh. I have been searching for a way to understand theatre in terms other than conflict. Conflict is the seed of contemporary American theatre and in order to find a way around it, I had to search for a text that was also searching for the same. Gertrude Stein's FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS offers no plot, no action, no character, and no conflict. There is no beginning, middle, and end. It is repetitive, and it is very difficult to decipher. But Stein says that this is what life is. There is no beginning, middle, and end to in life. There is certainly no beginning, middle, and end to a person. And so, Stein does not ask for these things to be on the stage. She does not ask the actor to bring to life a dead thing, she offers something already alive. Mysterious, hard to read, playful, and generous, FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS is not about conflict, but rather it is a celebration of life. And importantly, it is a celebration of the Artist's life.

BJ: How is this piece relevant now?
MS: Stein says that the Saint's relationship to God is the same as the Artist's relationship to the work of Art. The work of the artists is systematically undervalued in our culture and the power of this work is that it reveals the artist as someone who is not only extremely hardworking at their craft, but also deeply committed to the act of offering his and her craft to others. This work is about the brave generosity of the artist on the stage and we celebrate this commitment and generosity in our joyful production.

BJ: What has been the most exciting or challenging thing about working on FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS?
MS: The most exciting thing about this work has been the process. Stein was searching for the sound of American spoken language in her work and we continue the search in our production by using only American genres of music as the basis for creating the musical score. Yes, the actors created all the music in this production in the rehearsal room. Imagine a room full of seven men creating music out of a Gertrude Stein text. Our rehearsal room was unruly, very difficult to be in at times, and very exciting.

BJ: Why should people come out to see this production?
MS: Gertrude Stein's act of creation is a private act, but she understood that Four Saints needed another artist for the work to be full realized. She pointedly asks for a performer in the title of the opera, FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS: AN OPERA TO BE SUNG and our joyful production celebrates the performers.

Four Saints in Three Acts runs February 20-22 in the Helen Wayne Rauh Theatre (Purnell Center for the Arts).

Show times are:
February 20th @ 8 PM
February 21st @ 8 PM
February 22nd @ 4 PM and @8 PM