“First Lady” in time for 75th Anniversary

Pfender, Joe

The LU theatre arts department’s “First Lady,” which runs this Thursday through Sunday in Cloak Theatre, will be one of the central events marking the department’s 75th anniversary. Established in 1930 by Samuel Cloak, the Lawrence theatre program was one of the first few in the country to stand alone as a department. At that time, most study of theater took place in the context of a broader humanities-based college. The specific layout of the Cloak Theatre – a box with three sides open to the audience – was also relatively unique.
With the significance of the anniversary in mind, Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts Kathy Privatt decided to direct a play from the 1930s: “First Lady,” written in 1935 by George Kaufman and Katharine Dayton. The play has a comedic structure, but while there are traces of political and social commentary within the script, Privatt said that she “wouldn’t really call it a satire.” The tight dialogue and strong structure establish the piece as relatively light entertainment and as a predecessor of contemporary sitcom scripts. The concise wit and fast pace of the dialogue in “First Lady” are unquestionably the forerunners of modern-day comedy, but without the studio audience laugh track or the same cultural context.
The 70-year cultural divide between “First Lady” and modern works, while adding to the character of the play, has also made the production significantly more difficult in some ways. The self-presentation that was expected of people in that time and place is the single biggest aspect on which Privatt has coached students. To the knowledgeable professor, that “flamboyant Hollywood style” is essential to a convincing performance on many levels, from costuming to posture to speech.
Closely related to this challenge was the presence of different nationalities in the script which, based on ethnicity, could not be appropriately filled by Lawrence student actors. In the end, Privatt conducted what was effectively ‘color-blind’ casting, and employed another Hollywood convention: make-up that gives the impression of a certain nationality without sincerely trying to imitate it.
Along with the production, there will be several related presentations on display outside the theater by students from the visual arts, history and economics departments. On Saturday night, alumni of the LU theatre arts department will be returning to watch the production, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the theater, and to recognize the 100th anniversary of Cloak’s birth.
The show is at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 3 p.m. on Sunday.