Stage One
Leeds University Campus

[email protected]
24/10/2012 - 27/10/2012

Production of Sylvia stage@leeds 24th-27th OctoberThis week, the semester’s theatre season is kicking off with A.R Gurney’s hilarious (if somewhat bizarre) production of Sylvia. Presented by Leeds University Theatre Group, past productions have had the New York Daily News herald it as “one of the most involving, beautiful, funny, touching and profound plays” ever seen. To see what all the fuss was about, I popped along to one of the group’s rehearsals to experience its quirks for myself.

Sylvia follows the story of Kate and Greg, who are experiencing the banalities of marriage and middle-age in the New York of the 90s. Their routine is suddenly interrupted with the introduction of Sylvia - part Labrador, part French Poodle - and a total reinvention of the ménage-a-trois.  This new character introduction allows the play to comment on the sense of loss and longing that seems to come all too familiarly with age (it’s a bit like how American Beauty might have played out, had Lester owned a dog). Bored and repressed, Greg laments the abstract nature of modern life and the “sense of disillusionment of late 20th century capitalism”. He finds, however, a new lease of life in Sylvia – something he’s convinced feels “more essential” than his job or the kids’ University fees - to Kate’s utter dismay.

However, this does not undermine the play’s mirthful comedic value; the fact that the eponymous character is canine allows for some truly innovative and absurd humour. Dog owners will witness their own pets’ idiosyncrasies somehow perfectly reflected in Sylvia’s actions, every tiny expression exploited for its novel and candid humour.

The production will be the Theatre Group’s debut for both its director, English and Theatre Studies student Caitlin Pinner, and its producer, Theatre and Performance student Tori Burgess. I had the chance to speak to them about the play and and how others might be inspired to get involved.

Sylvia is a relatively unknown play – how would you describe it?

Tori: It’s about a husband and wife who are at that stage of life when the kids have flown the nest and they’re stuck in a bit of a rut. Whereas the wife, Kate, has her career going for her, her husband, Greg, is stuck in a 9-5 job he hates. When this stray dog, Sylvia, appears, she lights up his life and he completely falls in love with her – but his wife absolutely hates her.

Caitlin: The two films we often compare it to are Marley and Me and - this may seem odd, but – American Beauty. Although Sylvia’s firstly a comedy, there’s also this really serious underlying theme of Greg and this midlife crisis he’s facing.

What made you choose it as a production?

Caitlin: It’s always been hard in Theatre Group for girls to get the roles – there are a lot of girls in the group and almost hardly any guys. Most of the plays that people propose often have male lead roles and so the numbers don’t really work together. I wanted to do one that had a really strong female lead role for once and when I read Sylvia it seemed perfect – she’s such a strong character but she’s also very funny, which is rare for a female lead.

How does the play balance its brand of comedy with its more serious core ideas?

Tori: It’s definitely got elements of dark humour in it. We also decided to keep things quite abstract: the set, the music… Music’s also a big part and we really wanted a good soundtrack to the play – we also frequently juxtaposed it with the action. A happy scene may be followed by quite a sad piece of music, for example.

Caitlin: Our set designer chose a cityscape for the background and so the whole play shifts with this idea of inside versus outside. The apartment floor filters out into a park (we ordered 400 artificial leaves for this!), so although the set is one big space the park and apartment seem to merge together. We kept it really quirky. Studio One in [email protected] is absolutely huge, so it was hard - we wanted this really intimate feeling in the apartment but we also wanted this sort of empty, vast space that would suit a midlife crisis and that feeling of not knowing where to go.

The play’s main character is a dog – how did you approach this? Did it present any challenges?

Caitlin: We were unsure of how to approach it; there have been lots of variations in past productions. In some, Sylvia walks on all floors, yet in the text she speaks and seems very real. So when Ellie [Taylor] - who plays her - auditioned, it was as though we’d been waiting for her to show us exactly how to do it all along! We were very open to how people interpreted the character and what they gave us - we ended up having lots of strange ideas about how to turn a dog into a human! At the beginning we asked the actors to do some character work and to build up a story behind their part; Ellie came up with the idea that as a stray, she’d been bitten on the ear by another dog and so when she’s performing, if she ever has a twitch or a scratch, it would be at that ear. With something like this story the needs to appear real and believable.

Tori: My dog is such a ridiculous character so I wrote a list of all of the little things he does, details like the awkward face he does when he’s in trouble. So, even though it’s not scripted, we could Ellie to perform them so that people who do have dogs would recognise and immediately identify with her.

There seems to be a lot of tension between Kate and the dog - does the fact that Slyiva is played by a woman add to that?

Caitlin: It is sort of an odd love-triangle! Adam [Button, who plays Greg] said it felt weird because she’s supposed to be a dog - but she gets more real as the play goes on. At one point she’s in a nice black dress, and there’s this odd relationship between the three of them. We’ve always said to the actors there’s this fine line between Sylvia being a human and being a dog. There’s some excellent scenes between Ellie and Molly [Blake, who depicts Kate] and you can just see the tension come out straight away. There’s a brilliant bit where they’re both on the floor having an argument – and you realise that actually they both look like dogs.

Would you recommend anyone else giving Theatre Group a go? How might they get involved?

Tori: Absolutely. Even if it’s just coming along to an audition, you get to meet people and I’d have never ended up producing this if I hadn’t gone along. Anyone can do it if you’re willing to work hard. You don’t even have to be a Leeds University student! There are so many opportunities – even extra things that aren’t directly to do with the society but that we may have heard about.

Caitlin: The main thing is obviously to join Theatre Group – it’s the biggest and oldest performance society in the union. In my first year I acted in a play and now they’re the people I’m living with – you make really close friends and learn so much. Theatre Group are now also doing a new shadowing scheme– we have three people shadowing us at the moment who come along and sit in on our meetings and rehearsals to see how it’s all done. We want to encourage people to  get involved!

Sylvia will run from 24th-27th October at [email protected] Tickets are £6.50 for students/£8.50 for adults and are available at www.leedstickets.com

Image: courtesy of  [email protected]

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