Published April 5, 2021
Susan Glaspell’s 1916 feminist murder mystery Trifles is the second production of UB Theatre and Dance’s spring 2021 online season, with online performances from April 9 – 11, 2021. Under the direction of Assistant Professor and Associate Chair Dr. Meredith Conti, “Trifles is a character-driven piece that explores how long distances and extreme isolation affect human relationships, as well as the hope that can be found in supportive communities."
When Mr. Wright, a rural Nebraskan farmer, is found strangled in his bed, his wife is jailed as the main suspect. But as the men charged with solving the case descend on the couple’s farmhouse, the men’s wives begin to find evidence of their own. The play which was loosely based on a real murder Glaspell covered as a journalist, and is frequently listed among the best plays of early twentieth-century American theatre. "It may have been first performed in 1916, but ‘Trifles’ feels perfectly crafted to speak to our present moment,” Conti said.
We interviewed Dr. Conti about the one hundred year old play and how it speaks to contemporary audiences.
As the director, what made you want to work with students on this play? And why now?
I've always loved teaching Trifles in my undergraduate courses; it's a small, straightforward play with big, complicated things to say. However, I had never anticipated getting to direct it. Although it's a well-known play in theatre circles and Glaspell is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Trifles is a one-act drama with only five characters. At universities like UB, we tend to produce full-length plays with larger casts. When it became clear that our 2020-2021 production season would need to be fully remote, this play immediately came to my mind as a piece uniquely capable of adapting to the Zoom medium and speaking to the present moment. Trifles takes place in a domestic setting (the farmhouse kitchen of John and Minnie Wright), and so the fact that our actors would be performing in their own living spaces wasn't nearly the drawback it would be for plays with fantastical settings or lots of scene changes. The play's running time is about 25 minutes, a perfect length for a remote theatre experience. But beyond its suitability for remote theatre, I wanted our students and audiences to engage with this beautifully crafted story, one that resonates profoundly with our current, homebound experiences and the national #MeToo reckoning.
Given that Trifles is a work in which the main characters exist in a rural American community 100 years ago, before 24/7 mass media, are there parallels to the isolation that some people, including couples and families, are experiencing during Covid-19? Does that color the performance in any way, or not so much?
Absolutely. In 2020, months into the pandemic, I had been reading news articles about how COVID quarantines were trapping victims of domestic violence and child abuse with their abusers for extended periods of time; it also prevented individuals who were experiencing abuse from accessing the resources they needed to escape or deescalate violent home situations. So while the pandemic lockdowns were and are necessary for our collective health and safety, there are real consequences to this type of continual isolation. Trifles dramatizes the harms of isolation, neglect, and abuse, particularly against the most vulnerable in society, as well as the protective qualities of a strong community. It also acknowledges that women are often at the center of such communities, caring for and supporting others.
On the whole, the female characters in the play-especially Mrs. Wright's neighbors-appear much more insightful and empathetic than the male characters, who are overtly dismissive of the women, and even cruel. Since the work was first performed in 1916 how much do you think the relationship between American men and women has evolved? And did Trifles have an impact on the conversation about the power dynamics in marriages of that time contributing to social changes?
The women of Trifles are incredibly perceptive and empathetic, and the play honors these qualities in a very direct way. With the exception of Mr. Wright, who is spoken of but never seen, the play's men are presented as examples of "good," competent, non-violent men who nevertheless view and treat women as uniformly inferior to themselves. While Trifles makes no mention of women's suffrage, Glaspell's play premiered three years before women in the United States gained the right to vote. It was part of a wave of early feminist plays dealing with the rights of (White) women, though it was less propagandistic than the suffrage plays of this period. It is a piece unambiguously concerned with the wellbeing of women, particularly for those with abusive spouses and no legal protections, but also for all women who are restricted, belittled, silenced, or neglected by an aggressively patriarchal society.
What are some of the unique challenges of staging the show entirely remotely and online? What consideration, if any, was given to aspects like costuming, lighting, and "staging?"
There were a lot of challenges to staging this play remotely. The first big challenge, of course, was fostering a collaborative, trusting, positive rehearsal "room" without being able to share the same physical space. I wasn't able to work in the ways I usually would to build that environment, but this experience pushed me to expand my own toolbox of techniques and revisit methods of creating and collaborating that I hadn't used in awhile. And the students brought so much to the process: flexibility, tenacity, thoughtfulness, curiosity, and humor. Because of the strength of these two casts and our dramaturg, a lot of the difficulties of remote theatre seemed to fade to the background as we established our unique way of working.
As for the staging of the productions, I knew I wanted to avoid having all actors sitting and looking into their cameras at all times. I wanted to distance Trifles from the many Zoom classes, meetings, and performances we have become accustomed to since the pandemic began. So the actors are standing and moving as well as sitting, using both the width and depth of their playing spaces to tell this story. We have also opted to use the cameras as a way of visually reinforcing how the men and women of Trifles listen and communicate differently. The men tend to "perform" their social privilege, talking with each other as if the women aren't in the room, and so we've used the cameras to highlight the men's general indifference to the women. The women, however, pay attention to everything. They are careful listeners and skillful communicators; their words, glances, and gestures are full of meaning. And within the span of 25 minutes they decide to do something fairly radical together, despite having only been acquaintances at the start of the play. In our productions, the cameras have essentially become windows into the hearts and minds of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters; they allow the audience to witness the intimate connection that has developed between these two women, a connection of which the men are largely ignorant.
For a variety of reasons, we've had to be very selective about how we visually and aurally represent the world of the play. We had to work within the limitations of the medium (Zoom), our own living spaces, our budget, health and safety protocols, and the electronic devices through which we were interacting. But within these limitations we found a lot of opportunities to be creative. The actors were instrumental in helping to choose their characters' clothes, establishing their playing spaces, and troubleshooting technical issues with lighting and sound. We were also able to draw on the ideas and expertise of our dramaturg, Riley Dungan, and associate clinical professor of design and technology Dyan Burlingame. In designing and staging Trifles, I'd like to think that we've been both sophisticated and scrappy.
Performances of Trifles will take place on April 9 - 10, 2021 @ 7:30pm, and April 11, 2021 @ 2pm & 7:30pm on showtix4.com. To purchase tickets please visit: https://www.showtix4u.com/events/18238 (Then click on the "+" sign next to "Current Events" to reveal the full list of performances to choose from.)