Interview: Luke Harlan, director of The Skin of Our Teeth at The Yale School of Drama
What kind of theatre excites you?
Theatrical theater. It seems obvious or funny, but so many playwrights today are writing for television and trying to put that on stage. I am excited by theater that uses its medium to the full extent, that is full of magic, and community, and collaboration, and that can only be created live in a shared space with artists and audience. I love theater that mixes genre and style, that is bold and risky, that pushes the boundaries of form, and reveals new layers of understanding.
What was your first encounter with this play?
I first read The Skin of Our Teeth in my undergrad, I think, around 2003. I vividly remember finishing the play, putting down the script, and thinking that was the weirdest thing I had ever read. But, almost by instinct, I picked the play up and read it again. I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t understand anything, but I knew that it was an incredible piece of art.
It’s funny, the only things I remembered from the play, before picking it up again last year, was a dinosaur, a wall of ice, a weather signal, a deck chair, and an unruly actress. My mind never let go of those images, and it was such an amazing experience getting to create that world and share it with an audience.
Why Wilder? Why now?
Wow, I can’t think of a more important time for this play, or for Wilder in general. Specifically with this play, Wilder himself said “It mostly comes alive under conditions of crisis.” We are in a condition of crisis the likes of which Wilder could not have imagined. It’s still insane to think that he wrote this play before the Bomb was dropped. His vision of the Ice Age and the Flood I’m sure had nothing to do with climate change, but it sure does now. As a cast we read Pope Francis’s speech to Congress out loud and I was shocked at how his message is re-iterating Wilder’s. I think this play can teach us how to live as a community and work together to move forward, which is a message that will never go out of style.
Wilder is often described as a ‘cosmic’ writer. How do you see your production of THE SKIN in context of the cosmos?
I love this aspect of Wilder’s work, and I agree. He has a knack for taking the smallest quotidian moment of life and expanding that out to become universal and, yes, cosmic. Take one of the most powerful moments of the play, when in Act 2 Mrs. Antrobus, after searching for Henry and calling his name, finally yells “CAIN” into the void and he immediately appears next to her with a simple “Here I am, mama.” This seemingly small event, a mother calling to her son, becomes every mother calling out to her son, choosing to accept and embrace the REAL name, the true person, a moment when Maggie “goes Greek”, as I would say to the actress in my production, a heartbreaking moment that resonates on so many levels. I also wanted to take this idea farther in this production, so I actually crafted a moment, in the final scene of the play, when the audience was asked to take out their cell phones and turn on the lights to create a sea of stars in the audience, which ended up being the light source for the final image of the play. It was beautiful and I hope Wilder would have approved.
CLICK HERE to read the program notes and to see photos from the Yale School of Drama production of The Skin of Our Teeth.
Luke Harlan in The Skin of Our Teeth, Yale School of Drama. Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2015.