In the process of working on the upcoming production of The House of the Spirits, director Tracey Erbacher ’13 compiled a list comprised of elements about the play she had no idea how to address.
“It’s a play that’s beautiful, but impossible,” she mused, “so as we worked on it someone had to be constantly referring to the list and checking things off. For example, at one point, a character floats above the stage, with words floating from her skin, and we had to figure out how to translate that to the stage.”
As their senior project, Drama majors Erbacher, Hannah Rubinek ’13, Case Stewart ’13, Julia McGill ’13, and Rex Huxford-Hernandez ’13 will be putting up Caridad Svich’s The House of the Spirits, adapted from a 1982 novel by highly acclaimed Chilean author Isabel Allende, in conjunction with a group of several other Drama major students. This production is sponsored in part by the E.J. Safirstein ’83 Memorial Fund.
The play will be performed tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday at 8:00 PM in the Martel Theater, and explores the brutal history of an unnamed South American country—assumed to be Chile, through four generations of extraordinary women.
The story is told through vague stage directions and mixed media, and although its genre is not easily categorized, its story fits most neatly into the realm of magical realism.
Although the play is distinctly South American, it has universal themes which are not restricted by national culture. Alba, played by Stewart, is being tortured during a coup for her political affiliations, and realizes that she recognizes the voice of her torturer; he is tied to her past, and she goes shifting through the memories of her family to find out what brought her to that room.
“The play is about how the women in the family survive through connections with each other, through the magical house of the spirits,” Erbacher said. She emphasized, “It is not an easy play but it is a really important one. There is violence and torture and rape. We look at these hard things with openness—we let our art deal with them without trying to hide it. But we want to emphasize that the play is like life: luminous in moments and terrible in others.”
Erbacher spearheaded the project when she was studying with Rubinek at the National Theater Institute (NTI) in Spring 2012. “I fell madly in love with the book when I read it as required reading in high school; I made my mom read it, I made my family and friends read it,” she said.
She found out there was a stage adaptation for the play, published in a rough form in a theater journal in San Diego, and was shocked and eager. Erbacher had no idea how such a complex text could be translated to theater, yet because she loved the book so much, wanted to look at the script and possibly tackle the project.
The adaptation was initially written in Spanish, commissioned by Repertorio Español in New York City, where it premiered in 2009 and received the HOLA Award for outstanding achievement in playwriting. The English language version has only been put up two other times, in Washington, DC, and Denver, Colorado, but is the recipient of the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize on the basis of its production at Denver Center Theatre Company in 2010.
Through the literature manager at NTI, Erbacher got the contact information for Svich, after which she was subsequently e-mailed the script.
“I got my hands on the script and it was an amazing adaptation. Even though I didn’t know how I would ever address some of the stage directions, I decided to do it. It’s impossible but that’s what makes it exciting,” she said.
A key reason why she was willing to approach such a complex project was her past experiences with theater at Vassar. Erbacher has been extensively involved in theater here, and is president of Merely Players, a student-run Shakespeare theater group that puts up one or more of his plays every year.
Through Merely Players, Erbacher has directed three plays at Vassar already: The Taming of the Shrew, A Winter’s Tale, and Henry IV, Part 1.
Through these productions, she formed working relationships with many different talented individuals on campus, and knew that if she decided to tackle a project as ambitious as the House of the Spirits, they would be on board.
Rubinek has been in all three of her productions, and from the get-go, she wanted to be involved. She also recruited Yannick Godts ’13 as her set designer, and Eric McMorris ’14 as her lighting designer, both of whom had worked with her before.
“We have a common trust, that I trust them to do their job, they trust me to do mine. This gives everyone a lot of creative space,” Erbacher said.
Before beginning work on the stage, the group spent sixteen hours at the table, talking over how the play would work.
“We call the process of working on this play collaborative hierarchical,” Erbacher noted, “we try to keep the process open, while making sure that someone is responsible for every part of it, especially because the play is so complicated.”
She also emphasized the dedication and involvement of every member of the cast and crew. For example, she mentioned that Stewart worked extensively on language arrangement and spoken word performance. In addition, McGill did a ton of research and learned an entire accent for her role; and cast member Jon Walker ’15 arranged a song for the show overnight.
“What I’ve learned through my various experiences in theater is that you have to work until you can’t anymore and then work more. If I stopped and thought about how complicated this play was, I’d have a nervous breakdown,” Erbacher said, “and I am so grateful to be working on this show collaboratively with such wonderful people, throwing ourselves into a project we all love.”