What we heard from you about House of Gold:
What did House of Gold accomplish? It was Helen Hayes recommended; American University assigned one of their classes to write a paper about the play; a group of students from Virginia’s Governor’s School for the Arts told us it “gave them hope” for American theatre’s future; it drew visitors from Yale Repertory Theatre, the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, and the National Arts Centre of Canada; and three weeks into its run, the play was still generating buzz in the press (inspiring such articles as TBD’s “Portrayals of JonBenét Ramsey that are weirder than Woolly Mammoth’s House of Gold” and an article on “racial stunt casting” in City Paper). The guest speakers at our discussions included Natalie Hopkinson of The Root, Ann Friedman of The American Prospect, and James Fitzgerald, a criminal profiler and forensic linguist who gave our patrons a slideshow presentation about the FBI analysis of the Ramsey ransom note.
Most importantly, it kept DC talking: we had more substantive conversations with our patrons than we’d had since Clybourne Park. And whereas the dialogue around Clybourne almost exclusively focused on the themes of that (fairly realistic) play, the dialogue around House of Gold mainly focused on its unconventional style. Hearing directly from our patrons about the impact of our artistic choices helps us test our assumptions and refine our skills as theatre artists. We think we have a pretty good understanding of how to produce a conventional play—now we’re interested in learning how to produce the next wave in theatrical innovation.
Here are three of the big insights that your questions illuminated:
Why wasn’t it more clear?
Many patrons mentioned that the play frustrated their expectations about a clear plot and character development. To me, this suggests two things. First, that in the theatre—unlike in film, music videos, and dance—we expect events to unfold with a realistic logic. We expect characters to match our ideas of realistic behavior; and we expect their actions to unfold in an order that matches our realistic sense of time. “Realism” appeared as a theatrical style in the late nineteenth century; since then, Expressionism, Absurdism, Post-Modernism, and other styles have followed. But the vast majority of American theatre still recalls the realism of the turn of the last century, and many contemporary playwrights still write excellent plays in this style. However, Woolly Mammoth’s mission is to explore the new frontiers of theatrical innovation. Indeed, this is the reason many patrons say they find our work exciting and unique.
So perhaps we at Woolly can do a more thorough job of communicating with our patrons about the style that each of our plays explores. For example, we rely on movie trailers to set up the tone of a film. Some people love the deeply unrealistic and mind-bending movies of David Lynch; but if you expect a logical and clear story, you’ll certainly be disappointed. Woolly provides emails, blogs, podcasts, and playbill notes to build context for our plays. But we can always do more to communicate with our patrons about how far each of our plays departs from realism, and why.
What light did it shed on the mystery?
We’ve had hundreds of conversations with patrons about the themes they perceive in House of Gold. I’ve heard several eloquent interpretations: the play shows that we all hide behind facades; that we project our own desires and expectations onto each other; that we’re simultaneously drawn to and repelled by famous crimes; and that crimes become famous precisely because we create a hungry audience for them. But I’ve also heard patrons press us about whether House of Gold contributes new insight into the (still unsolved) Ramsey case. Most folks recognize that the play is not a whodunit. But Woolly audiences are sharp, and they demand big intellectual arguments from most of our plays.
Personally, I find this script rich with powerful ideas. To me, House of Gold suggests that—even if one unknown individual is responsible for this crime—the adult world bears collective responsibility for child exploitation. At the end of the play, the woman sends a weeping JonBenét out to the pageant in a stained dress. The woman says, “This is the thing they want to see.” And she’s right: we’re fascinated by the violation and ruin of this little girl—if she had grown up happily, we wouldn’t bother to watch. Even more tragically, the play suggests that we adults have allowed child exploitation to thrive to such an extent that we’re not real adults at all. Perhaps, as JonBenét says, “Grownups are like unicorns. There’s no such thing.” It’s a provocative and uncomfortable notion, although one might argue that it’s not new.
Ultimately, I think the most innovative question that House of Gold asks is “What if?” What if a young murder victim could look back on the world that destroyed her? What might she see? What might she say? And what might have been added to her short life if she’d had a true friend? The purely fictional invention of Jasper—and all that he suggests about appearance, honesty, and self-esteem—is the play’s most creative element.
I believe these ideas are fresh and compelling, and maybe other people perceived different ones. And maybe there were other ways of staging the play that could’ve drawn them out with more impact. As we look back on the production with our writer, director, and designers, we’ll be considering all of these questions.
Why didn’t the ages and races of the actors match the characters?
Speaking of Jasper, the third most common question we heard from patrons was about age, race, and casting. Greg Moss’ script only specifies the age and race of Jasper and the Apollonian Boys who bully him—the other characters may be cast any way the director chooses. Jasper, of course, appropriates the persona of an African American man. The other kids point out that he’s a young white boy, but he clings to his mask as a way to escape the indignities of his lonely suburban childhood. By casting an adult African American actress as JonBenét, director Sarah Benson introduced several new layers of meaning to the play. First, she made it immediately clear that this is not a realistic portrait of the Ramsey case, but rather a set of imaginative musings made from a critical distance. Second, she creates a complex subtext to the scenes in which JonBenét and Jasper discuss appearance: at one point, she says to him, “I don’t talk the way I look? Well, neither do you.”
Many patrons were fascinated by these complex conceptual layers. But a few pressed us to pin down the way they should interpret these choices: were they supposed to believe that the actress playing JonBenét was six years old? That she was white? What age and race should they assign to Jasper? How much should age and race affect the way we judged their behavior? I believe the play’s excitement lies in these very questions, and I hesitate to prescribe a “right” way of answering them. It is this self-awareness—the act of asking, “why do I see this person this way?”—that the play seeks to provoke.
We here at Woolly Mammoth are immensely grateful to have patrons who engage with us on this level. Your questions have challenged us to be rigorous about our artistic choices. And you’ve given this play a rich life by testing and sharing its ideas. In discussions, online, in bars and in the newspapers, you’ve folded them into the cultural discourse of our city. That tells us that House of Gold has made an impression on the way our community experiences art. That’s a vital step in the ongoing experiment that is Woolly Mammoth. I’d consider it a small but important success.
~Miriam Weisfeld, Production Dramaturg and Director of Artistic Development