“Into the Breach,” the first play commissioned exclusively for the Carrboro ArtsCenter, debuted on Friday October 10th.
Jeri Lynn Schulke, Artistic Director of the ArtsCenter Stage and producer of the play, said she was looking for a play about World War 1 to fit a season centering on the war’s bicentennial. She came across the story of boys playing at war in a production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” before they were sent off to fight for real in World War 1.
The ArtsCenter usually runs established plays or picks up original work playwrights send to them, she said. But nothing was catching her eye.
She said surveys of ArtsCenters patrons showed a desire for original work. So she commissioned playwright Ian Bowater to make her “Henry V” idea into a reality.
“He’s British, and he’s written a few screenplays about World War I, so I knew he was versed in that time period,” Schulke said. “He loved the idea.”
Schulke recruited another England native to direct “Into the Breach.” Gregor McElvogue, who works for IBM in Raleigh primarily but also runs his own theater company called Common Wealth Endeavors, said he was flattered to be asked to direct “Into the Breach.”
“The number of credits I have for acting outnumber my directing credits,” he said.
But coming from England gives him a different perspective on the play’s themes, he said.
It’s difficult for Americans, 100 years removed for the war, to understand and remember its impact on the countries more intimately affected, he said.
“It’s very clear when you’re actually in the U.K., it’s easy to see how devastating this war was. There’s war memorials and cemeteries everywhere you go,” he said. “I think this play helps bring that message home and allows us to reflect on the toll more recent wars have had and how they touched our society and what our opinions about that might look like today.”
While the writer and director brought a British perspective, American actors saw relevance in the play’s themes as well.
Jeb Brinkley plays one of the young soldiers named Verity Major, a character he describes as the most “naive, jingoist, patriotic” of the cast.He said though the play is set in Britain, its themes are applicable to the United States today.
“Our country is going through an identity crisis right now where we feel like we’re the world police and spread ourselves too thin,” he said. “While this is a play about the British army, they were going through a similar place and time in their journey.”
But despite some heavy themes, the play isn’t entirely bleak.
“It’s got war scenes and explores sounds and effects, singing and dancing. There’s a lot of material in the play. Something in it for everyone,” said McElvogue.
He said there’s also humor, and some of it is subtle. One of his favorite memories of working on the play occurred during one of their last rehearsals when an actor finally got a joke he’d been reading for months.
“It’s funny how he’s heard that line so many times and just then got the joke,” said McElvogue.
He says he has enjoyed working with the intimate cast of six and the staff at the ArtsCenter.
“They do amazing things on limited budgets,” he said. “It’s a great institution for Carrboro and everyone who is a citizen of Carrboro should be very proud they have it.”
Brinkley, who works for the ArtsCenter, agreed.
“When you have a small ensemble and allows you got deeper with the work, and we all got to a do a little bit of editing and sort of working with the script in a more malleable fashion than a normal play since it’s the first production.”
Schulke said she’s open to commissioning more plays in the future if “Into the Breach” proves a success.
Audience member Robert Bruce, who will act in another World War I play later in the season, said he enjoyed the music and singing in the play, which lightened difficult subject matter.
Dana Williams, who worked on lighting for the play but had yet to see the whole show, said she was impressed with the overall effect.
Erin Moore said she thought the play was a good way to celebrate World War 1’s bicentennial.
“Into the Breach” was the first in a series of plays about World War I. The series will continue with “All is Calm” in December and “Oh, What a Lovely War!” in May. Tickets are available from the Carrboro ArtsCenter website or box office.