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Tappan Wilder Skypes with Fairfield Ludlowe Drama Students

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The late playwright Thornton Wilder once said, “I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” For their fall show, the Drama Club students of Fairfield Ludlowe High School tackled two plays by Thornton Wilder: “The Long Christmas Dinner” and “Pullman Car Hiawatha”, both of which are one-acts. The shows present a particular challenge because the characters leap through time and space. The “Long Christmas Dinner” surrounds a family, the Bayards, as they grow, change, and eventually die, over the course of nine decades of Christmas dinners. When characters are born, they enter through one portal, and as they die they exit through another portal on the opposite side of the stage. “Pullman Car Hiawatha” is similar in its fantastical disregard for physics. The narrative of this act lies in the hands of a fourth-wall-breaking Stage Manager, who reveals the thoughts of passengers and later expanding outside the train, revealing, entities such as the sound of the Earth.

The main challenges for both productions stem from this otherworldly feature of them- it is a reality, but not the way audiences are accustomed to seeing reality. This prompted the play’s director, Ms. Frances Kondziela, to set up a question-and-answer Skype meeting with Tappan Wilder, the nephew of Thornton Wilder, who wrote these acts. Tappan Wilder serves as the literary executive and manager of Thornton Wilder’s intellectual property, as well as that of his uncle’s brother and sisters, since 1995. Wilder travels the country and speaks about his uncle’s life and works. On October 24th, shortly after waking up in California, the Ludlowe Drama Club students connected with him via Skype.

His advice centered on one main concept: time. He said, “My uncle loves to situate characters” in both time and space. Time is a theme very central to both plays, and Thornton Wilder managed to write realistic characters that are able to play with the physics binding the world together. While “The Long Christmas Dinner” plays with time and the aging of its main characters, “Pullman Car Hiawatha” personifies towns, hours, planets, and even the weather, “crescendo-ing” to the death of a central character. Tappan Wilder called these two shows, “two of the most famous one-act plays”, and they were published in the same volume as other classics, such as “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden.” These plays were created because of a movement stirring in the 1920s, in the aftermath of World War I. Drama schools were founded all over the country, and the market for short plays was expanding. Thornton Wilder had always wanted to write for theater, and he used the new market to create his widely successful experiments. His volume sold out, and his six plays have since been performed “all over the country,” as his nephew said.

Perhaps what makes performing these plays so special is the idea that they were written because of drama students. Perhaps, it is because of the universal messages- as Tappan Wilder said, “everyone goes through loss.” The beauty of both plays is the ability of the characters to survive despite being beaten down by time. “There is conflict between people,” Tappan Wilder shared with our students, and being high schoolers, they may understand it more than most. Wilder’s best advice might have been to just enjoy “a wonderful experience” and “relish the absolute craziness” with these two deeply moving plays.

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Tappan Wilder Skypes with Fairfield Ludlowe Drama Students