The Man Behind The "Genius": David Cromer's Our Town

Our Town is a staple of the American theatre, if not the staple. In 1938, playwright Thornton Wilder crafted what has become the most produced play of the 20th century. Now, in an age where theatrical technology can make just about anything in your imagination come to life, why is a simple story about a simple town still in such high demand? In this particular production, it is David Cromer’s unique vision.

Starting out on the Chicago theatre scene, Cromer has worked his way to the top receiving numerous awards as an actor and director, including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant. He has a knack for adapting classic plays to the surroundings of our contemporary time. Instead of overpowering the text with a hard-hitting concept, he enlivens generally dusty scripts with fresh approaches. Above all, he creates an environment for actors to inhabit the text as their own while guiding the audience on a similarly intimate journey.

If a theatregoer has not previously experienced any renditions of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, they are invited to imagine it. Thornton Wilder has purposefully left his characters propless and the stage bare. Stripping down any possibility for a caricatured set of a stuffy time period, the quaint New England town becomes our own. Cromer’s production takes this idea one step further. The actors don’t wear period clothing, but rather are relatively costumeless in what seem like their own street clothes. The audience is bathed in light and serves as the backdrop or scenery while actors travel in and out of the aisles. The audience becomes the town and the actors could be their neighbors. Being so close to the action, Cromer has thrown away the sometimes-alienating feeling of the proscenium stage. With such intimacy, the audience is close enough to read the headlines in the newspaper of the actor sitting next to them.

In addition to stripping away theatrical elements, Cromer has also stripped the dated New England dialect. Cromer encourages his actors to use their own voice. In an interview, Cromer noted, “The second you hear a New England accent it’s like a period costume. You think that person is warm. You think that person is folksy. You think they’re charming. [...] Just talk in your own voice.” By eschewing this final bit of sentimentality, Cromer creates a real town with real people.

In 1938, exposing a bare stage seemed radical to the contemporaries of Thornton Wilder. 74 years later, Cromer is doing the same thing. He is forcing you the audience to create this town on your own, just as Wilder did. Hilton Als from The New Yorker wrote upon seeing the production, “By doing away with the effects, along with the self-important sentimentality that has marked so many productions of Our Town, Cromer provides us with a master class in the fundamental art of make-believe, of transporting the body and the voice and becoming something other than one self.” Each night, the audience experiences its own intimate story while sitting in what could be the middle of Main Street. The strangers on stage become reminiscent of aunts and uncles, sons and daughters, doctors and school teachers. The theatre becomes a different town to every audience member. In stripping the theatricality from the theatre, Cromer has created his own bit of genius: the power of imagination.

- Rebecca Bradshaw

David Cromer in Our Town

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