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Howard Sherman on His New Book: Another Day’s Begun

Kathleen Eddy • FeatureMay 2021 • May 12, 2021

This story can be read below or in our May 2021 digitial edition

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a seemingly ubiquitous play since its 1938 debut, is the very worthy, and surprisingly long overdue, subject of Howard Sherman’s recently released book, Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century. This wonderfully insightful book with its thoroughly original approach to looking at this complex play is actually the first such work devoted specifically Our Town. And it certainly sets a high watermark for any future such books. Another Day’s Begun brings the reader inside the themes of its subject in as singular a manner, though via a very different path, as its subject itself.  

Sherman, an arts administrator, free speech advocate, and theater journalist, as well as Stage Directions’ contributing editor, leverages his well-honed interview skills to share with readers the thoughts of artists who have been involved in productions at various theatrical levels in the past twenty years. Their experiences as presented in Another Day’s Begun compellingly bring focus to the complexities continued relevance of the play today. Our Town’s impact on directors, performers, designers, audiences, and communities is strikingly varied, often uniquely personal, and yet universally shared and understood. We spoke with Sherman about his achievement and its creation.

You’ve taken such a unique and wonderful approach to exploring of the resonance of the play in your book. It is a compelling read getting to experience the nuances of the play through the interviews of those who have been involved in various productions of the play. Tell us a bit about the idea of doing the book and deciding to structure it as you have. 

My motivation was on a couple of tracks. One was that I had had a couple of really deeply emotional responses to Our Town, both David Cromer’s production and to the production at Sing Sing directed by Kate Powers. Those really changed my perspective on the play and I can say both of those experiences were very profound for me. Then I went looking, thinking there must be lots of books on Our Town. When I didn’t really find any, I called the Wilder family office and asked if there were any Our Town focused books. I was told ‘no, the focus has always been on Wilder’. The thing is, Wilder’s an incredibly important artist and also a very prolific artist—in drama, in fiction, and in nonfiction. He was extraordinary, but as a result, Our Town is, I know this sounds strange to say, merely one achievement in a life of many achievements. I wanted to turn it around. I figured the Wilder books exist there was no need for a new Wilder book. I really wanted to focus simply on this single work, just on Our Town and finding that something like that didn’t really exist outside of academic critique and analysis, that said to me I had a good idea.

I also knew that nobody would be terribly interested in several hundred pages of me analyzing Our Town, so I decided to stay consistent with how I have always interviewed people for articles, for podcasts, as the way to do the book. I’m infinitely more interested in letting people hear the voices of the artists than hearing from me. With the exception of a handful of chapters, just to give some context, there’s no me in this book. It’s really about giving voice to the people who have spent time with the play. I think that gives insight into the play that I don’t know is ever achieved just by reading it over and over, or even seeing it over and over, because there’s nothing like the experience that a director; that actors; that designers have when they work on the play. In this case, since the author has been gone for a number of years, you can’t ask what his intentions were, but I could ask people who’ve been involved in it.

I’ve never written a book before, so I’m the first to say that I went into this not knowing at all what the final form of the book would be. I knew that I wanted to focus on about a dozen productions. I wanted to look at productions in the last 20 years and I knew that there were certain productions that struck me as givens. I could not ignore the last Broadway production. I could not ignore David Cromer’s production. There was no way I was not going to include the Sing Sing production, which was very important to me and an extraordinary experience. I also feel very strongly about the work of Deaf West Theatre and the fact that they had done it. So there were a handful that I was really determined were going to be there. But beyond those, I literally had several chapters as to be determined when I did the pitch to the editor. Before I got the book contract, I learned about the pair of productions down in Baton Rouge. I had to go see them before any contract was signed. 

I remember I walked out after something like six hours of interviews on Saturday in Baton Rouge and suddenly stopped by the call board backstage. I thought ‘what have I done? How am I going to do this?’ I realized that if all I did was talk to people about their experience of the play and what they learned from the play, I was going to have 12 chapters of people saying, ‘do any human beings ever realize life while they live it every day.’ Because this is not a play that hides what it wants you to hear. Rather it is about how it gets you to hear it. If every interview led to that the message being in every chapter, it would be very boring. I decided first that I wouldn’t make any value judgement on the productions whatsoever. Each chapter would need to find the story of each production. Why was the production being done? 

If you’re seeing a production that’s done in a maximum security prison, you have your story beyond the production. For the Broadway production, that chapter, the story is really about Paul Newman returning to the stage and his last stage performance. Yes, it’s about Our Town, but that chapter ended up being crafted as a tribute to Paul, and to a large degree, Joanne [Woodward]. It is about how they came together and made this play happen. This production happened in response to 9/11. The Royal Exchange Theatre’s production was explicitly done in response to the arena bombing in Manchester, England and how that affected that community. Why that artistic director wanted this play in that community. The story of how it was programmed and produced from the bombing to the first performance in four months. The guiding spirit for the book became what is the story beyond the story. Each chapter, each production I asked ‘What are the unique aspects of this production?’ I’m sure I could have picked 12 different productions, completely different from these I have chosen and had an interesting book, and then 12 other productions beyond those, and so on and always had an interesting book.

You write in the book that there are elements that seem immutable, no matter how they are embodied. Tell me some of those elements, that you found, were immutable when you started putting all these interviews together.

Birth, family, love, death. While pared back, Wilder’s portrayal of day-to-day life gives us all of those. The play starts with Doc Gibbs coming back from having delivered twins, but the stage manager has also already told us when Doc Gibbs dies, even before we have met him. There is birth to death. The play starts in the morning and it ends at night. It’s about cycles. Certainly the life cycle is part of it, the cycle seen through two families. Two families that are not identical families. They are not families without tragedy and without pain. What people tend to remember most about Our Town is the sort of sweet bucolic but it is all there; love and loss. 

It looks at very fundamental things that cross many societies, and as a result, allows the play to speak to people across many societies. Part of what I hope the book does in writing about it in the 21st century, looking at productions in the 21st century is to say, ‘why does this play still matter? What are the elements?’ I’m not there as the author to say it matters and you’re wrong if you don’t think so, but simply to show some ways that the play has been done and perhaps prompt people to think of even additional approaches; to take that closer look, because ultimately you don’t know a great deal about anybody in this play. Everyone brings something to the play themselves. You’re not looking at scenery. It can be done, and has been, with people in just street clothes. The play is spare and it requires the audience to project. They have to imagine, and then they can project themselves onto it as well, rather than being caught up in the specifics of a tied down portrayal of a place or of a time. 

Wilder was very smart with that and I think that’s part of why it continues to resonate because even though the script has some specificity to the overall message, it’s not about any particular place or time. He even goes back into ancient history talking about the records of Babylon and then he projects into the future talking about the materials being put in the cornerstone of the new bank. Wondering what should be in there so that “people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us.“ We hear Rebecca tell about an address that goes from someone’s farm all the way to the mind of God. This play is so expansive. If an audience member focuses, or a director focuses, only on the details of life in Grover’s Corners, instead of thinking about the play as in service of these larger messages, I think that’s where they can go awry. 

The other place people can go awry is the idea that this play is some kind of homage to the past that we’ve lost and we need to recapture. That’s not actually in the play. In fact, Wilder makes a point of showing us that things are changing in this community. They may be incremental, but it’s not a perfect community. Not everybody’s happy and not everybody’s in the same economic class. So there’s a lot of things that get lost in nostalgia and to make this play about nostalgia is, I think, a great disservice to Thornton Wilder.

Was there an unexpected discovery, or surprise, you found about the play or about how people approach the play?

The book dispels the belief that everybody knows this play; everybody has seen this play; everybody’s done this play. Yes, there are people who read it or did it at high school or saw high school production of it. But there are just as many people who told me they didn’t know anything about this play until they were called to come in and read for it. And there are a lot of people who don’t know the play but who have decided what this play is. So, the idea that everybody knows it and everybody’s seen it just isn’t true. Yes, it’s been widely done. There’s no question. It’s a very widely done play, but even though I have had a copy of the play from the time I was a teenager, I don’t remember ever having read it. During high school or college, I never encountered a production of it. I didn’t see the play till I was 26 years old. And even then I thought it was fine, but it didn’t grab me. I only came to appreciate the play later, thanks to David Cromer and thanks to Kate Powers and their respective productions. 

I think everybody comes to this play in different ways. I think the more directors find different ways to do Our Town, whether it’s having the Stage Manager be a woman or a person of color; or the production in Miami in the book where the Gibbs were a Black family and the Webbs were a Latinx family. That changes how we perceive the play without changing a word and without in any way violating the spirit of what Wilder was going for. But the prisms through which we watch this play are different to each production when the director asks who is our Stage Manager, who is our Emily, who are the people in Our Town? Even characters who don’t have a lot of dialogue can be utterly fascinating. Simon Stimson, the choir master who drinks. I saw a lot of different ways of playing him. None of which played him as a simple drunk. 

So, to your question were there discoveries or surprises, I found while doing the book? Every conversation I had, there was at least one surprise because someone had discovered something in the play that no one had mentioned to me previously. That’s what kept it really interesting right up to the end. You know, you would think after the 60th, 70th, 80th person that I’d have heard what there is to hear. Absolutely not. People had different takes, different perceptions, different responses, and that’s what made it so incredibly interesting. Those men at Sing Sing have an appreciation of this play that I think few of us can ever understand because of their circumstances. Certainly not that I wish anyone into those circumstances and I’m delighted that four out of the five men that I interviewed for the book are now out of Sing Sing. The fifth man will be out in about a year. But they perceive the world, or not being in the world, so differently and so what this play meant to them and their circumstances is different from others I interviewed, and from each other even. Every single person who was involved in a production of this play, whatever their circumstances, whatever their experience, they are all artists, and every opinion was valid.

One of the many choices I made about the book was I don’t have biographies of anybody. I just wanted to let people talk and put everybody on the exact same footing. I hope I treated each interview equally and respectfully, because to me the greatest danger was, I didn’t want to force people to any particular way of thinking about Our Town. And as I said, everybody’s interview surprised me because with every conversation, and it didn’t matter whether they were professional or amateur, people saw backstories that they created for their characters in varied and widely different ways. Everybody gets to the same message, but it’s the journey that they each take that’s so interesting. There are moments where I intentionally put oppositional perceptions back to back. Someone says, ‘it’s absolutely not this’ and the next person says, ‘Oh, it is this.’ They’re both valid and I appreciate that. 

That was another one of those many choices I needed to make, the order of the chapters. I wrote each chapter on its own, then that was the puzzle. What order should they go in? I decided it shouldn’t be chronological. Every single chapter of this book really can be read separately so you can dip in and out of it. I wanted to start with the Cromer production because that is the most recent production that was probably seen by the most people and it has influenced so many other productions because of what he achieved in the last moments of act three. I knew once I assembled the Sing Sing chapter that nothing could possibly follow it. That’s the moment where, as they say, it was time to get off the stage. I knew that was the ending. 

Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century by Howard Sherman is published by Methuen Drama and is available from multiple booksellers. Learn more about the book and purchasing outlets, as well as explore a wealth of associated resources, including an Our Town playlist, at www.hesherman.com/anotherdaysbegun.  

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