Learning to be human

Through movement and placement, Butler’s theater department and its chair William Fisher create a performance rife with deception, class tension and mistrust. 

William Fisher absentmindedly flicks his dark-rimmed glasses behind his desk.

“I don’t think theater is plays,’” he says. “Theater exists, and plays are a part of theater.”

Since becoming the chair of Butler’s theater department last year, Fisher has directed two productions: “Small Lives, Big Dreams” and now “Tartuffe,” which opens on Friday.

He has brought to the Jordan College of Fine Arts a philosophy of directing that emphasizes the natural tendencies of actors, creating productions that present life truths in a real way.

Specifically, Fisher concentrates on movement.

“There’s no better way to lie than through words,” he said.  “The body doesn’t lie.”

Fisher’s approach to theater was developed before coming to Butler.  He lived and studied in France, concentrating on movement theater.

During rehearsals, Fisher concentrates on the spatial relationships of the actors.

At times he moves them closer together or farther apart or demonstrates a particular gesture that convey the emotions of
the characters.

Concerns like, “Is it OK if I cross the stage here? I feel stuck,” are taken very seriously.

In a rehearsal for “Tartuffe” last week, one scene was performed over and over again. The actors each came in with a well-developed character and sense of the scene, and Fisher brought his keen direction.

By the end, the actors were moving more fluidly and believably with the spoken lines flowing naturally in context with the actions and reactions of the actors.

Junior theater major Lauren Batson, who is the stage manager for “Tartuffe,” said that she is learning a lot from Fisher’s directing style.

“The actors have this opportunity to play around with their character and explore new ideas,” Batson said.  “Professor Fisher also does a great job of asking us, as students, lots of questions. It becomes a collaborative process instead of the director simply telling everyone what to do.”

Fisher said that he encourages students to take an equal responsibility in the craft of the production, a process called ensemble creation.

He said he wishes the students would take even more freedom in the development of the characters and the show. The one thing he doesn’t like actors to say is: “What do you want here?”

Shane Tarplee, a junior theater major who is playing the role of Tartuffe in the production, said he has really benefitted from this approach.

“‘Tartuffe” has been a great experience that feels more professional than any school show I have ever done,” he said. “I feel like I am respected and treated as a professional.”

“Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur” is the story of a wealthy land-owning family that falls for the false guise of Tartuffe, a fraud who claims complete piousness while hiding more sinister motives.

“Tartuffe” is a challenging play. It is challenging for the actors, who must memorize lines and lines of rhyming couplets and present them naturally.

The play is also challenging for the audience since the story deals with deception, class issues and the ease with which trust can be manipulated and extorted.

The Butler theater department has a history of not shirking from challenging material, and Fisher said he would not have it any other way.

For him, a play needs to pose hard questions and be forward-looking.

“Theater is about learning how to be human or to be better at being human,” Fisher said.

For this reason Fisher said he does not feel compelled to present a play exactly as it was written or to follow convention in production. Making a play current is an important part of directing, though he said this does not exclusively involve taking the play out of the period in which it is set.

Fisher’s “Tartuffe” is set in modern times, but he said the play resonates at other time periods in history as well, namely post-Depression America and Huey Long’s Louisiana, the character Tartuffe not-so-subtly resembles a southern evangelical in Butler’s production.

The period chosen, Fisher said, is not an exact parallel. It is meant to highlight the class differences between the poor and wealthy that plague our society and also hints at possible wars that have taken place before the play begins.

Fisher’s unique naturalistic direction and willingness to break theater codes, coupled with the professional and enthusiastic team of actors, student managers and professors, make “Tartuffe” a must-see.

Batson said she would love for more students to come to the Butler Theater’s productions.

“The entire department works so incredibly hard to complete every aspect and detail of the show, and we would love to share our creations with everyone,” she said.

“Tartuffe” opens on Friday in the Butler Theater at Lilly Hall, and will run for two weekends.

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