‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ explores themes of community in theater

by Sophia Siu | 5/26/16 5:01pm

“Cotton Patch Gospel,” an honors thesis production by Robert Leverett ’16 will be opening on May 28 at the Bentley Theater in the Hopkins Center. The play is ensemble-based and incorporates live bluegrass music and a potluck dinner. The piece explores the concept of theater as a community and the relationship between the actors and the audience.

The play tells the story of a community theater in a rural town in Georgia. The town comes together for an annual production that takes the story of the Gospel and sets it in roughly modern day Georgia.

Andrew Sun ’18, the musical director of the production, said that Leverett took the original one-man play and transformed it into an ensemble production that shifts the focus onto the community.

As the story of the Gospel is told more through a collection of vignettes and tableaus than through a standard linear narrative, Justine Goggin ’18, an actor in the play, noted that the play often feels like an improv show. Goggin plays a high school senior, Madison, who is part of the church community that puts on a production of the Gospel. Throughout the course of the show, Madison takes on the role of Mary, Joseph, Jesus and Satan.

One of Leverett’s honors project goals was to explore various modes of storytelling. In order to avoid having a production that contradicted the playwright’s original intentions, he chose a play with a storyline that is already familiar to many people.

“[Shakespeare and the Bible] in the American canon are so canonized and so firmly entrenched, it is impossible to erase the audience’s relationship to those texts,” Leverett said.

Leverett noted that many of the plays he participated in at Dartmouth were very similar aesthetically. With “Cotton Patch Gospel” Leverett hopes to shift the focus to beyond the text and the plot. Instead, the text will be a starting point for him to play with nontraditional staging and aesthetics.

“I wanted to look at ways of expressing a point or an aesthetic goal or themes extra-textually,” Leverett said. “I wanted the text to serve as a playground of sorts.”

The production focuses on the idea of theater as a communal space — not only between the members of the cast, but between the cast and the audience, as well.

Leverett noted that theater is often thought of as a shared communal lived-experience. In reality, the theater-going experience often falls short.

“Often we’re sitting in a dark room trying not to bother anyone, trying not to be bothered by anyone, facing forward watching the journey of a single character go through this romanticized individual journey,” Leverett said.

In his production, Leverett actively integrates the audience into the show. Rather than simply telling a story to the audience, Leverett wants the audience and the actors to come together.

As “Cotton Patch Gospel” features a Southern community theater, Leverett is able to work beyond the limits of professional theater. The production embraces aspects of community theater, such as liveliness and lack of polish.

“I think that at the end of the day if we’re all having fun together, and we’re having fun with the audience, then I don’t care if someone forgets a line or if a line isn’t as smooth as it could be,” Leverett said. “At the end of the day, I didn’t want a perfectly polished piece with no heart or soul to it.”

Goggin said the production differs from normal ones in that the entire cast collaborates in decision-making and everyone is able to share their own ideas.

“It makes the show almost more special to present because each of us in the cast has such a claim or a stake in the creative process,” Goggin said. “We didn’t just create our own characters, but we created a community in the process.”

The arrangement of the seats in the theater will have a significant impact on the actor-audience relationship.

Leverett plans to add seats for the audience in the pit and on the stage, effectively erasing the boundary between actor and audience.

“We’re really thinking about the audience as a part of the ensemble, as a part of the set and as a part of the space,” Leverett said.

The cast not only breaks the fourth wall, but the show also includes a potluck dinner served to the audience in the middle of the show.

“We wanted it to be a funny show,” Goggin said. “We wanted people to feel like they could be a part of this community and invite them into it, so we spent a lot of time trying to create something that would welcome people in.”

Inspired by the communities he sees forming at Dartmouth, Leverett uses nontraditional aesthetics and staging to explore the theme of community formation and the dynamics and interactions within communities.

Leverett, who hails from Georgia, is also interested exploring the complicated nature of Southern identity, and the power dynamics of race and gender in the South.

“Regionally, something that defines the South is the need to define itself. There is a way in which identity is part of the American identity and also in opposition to the American identity,” Leverett said.

Leverett started acting at the age of six in a community theater as part of a program in his elementary school, and has participated in a various theater programs ever since. He credited the director he had in high school as a major aesthetic influence. Leverett’s decision to experiment aesthetically with actor-audience relationships came from his faculty advisor, Irma Mayorga.

Ultimately, Leverett aims to have a production that is aesthetically rigorous and adventurous, pushing the audience out of their comfort zones while still remaining accessible and fun to watch. The cast and crew agree that it is an opportunity for the audience to be transported away from campus.

“I want this to be a fun release for the audience, where you can step out of the Dartmouth life into something that’s a lot simpler,” Sun said.