The late great American author John Steinbeck was a founding member of what sadly has become a feeding tradition known as Muckraking journalism – a discipline that sought to expose atrocities involving the exploitation of workers forced to perform arduous and soul crushing labor for minimal wages in abject conditions that was most brilliantly rendered in his groundbreaking work The Grapes of Wrath.
Of Mice and Men is a novella that Steinbeck published in 1937 that tells the tale of George Milton and Lenny Small – two displaced migrant ranch workers who move from place to place in California in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression.
Based upon Steinbeck's own experiences as a bindlestill in the 1920s, the title is taken from Robert Burns' poem 'To a Mouse, which read: The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.'
Throughout the story – which in many ways works as a modern American table – Steinbeck emphasizes dreams and aspirations towards independence to be one's own boss, to have a homestead, and most importantly to be somebody.
Steinbeck wrote in a 1938 journal entry: In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a basic theme. Try to understand man. If you understand each other, you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man never leads to hate and nearly always to love.
From March 24 - 26th and 31-April 2nd the Pit & Balcony Theatre Company will bring their own translation of this immortal clasic to life. Under the guidance of first time Pit director William Kircher, recently The Review sat down to discuss some of the themes and challenges involved with rendering the nuances of this great American classic to the regional stage. Tickets are available by phone at 989–754–6587 or visiting PitandBalconytheater.com.
Review: What is it about ‘Of Mice & Men’ that you feel distinguishes it in the lexicon of contemporary American theatre?
Bill Kircher: Of Mice and Men is a very well written piece and presents many issues that are still relevant today as when the play was first staged 80 years ago back in 1937. It is basically a story of 2 migrant workers/friends struggling to achieve the ‘American Dream’ by owning their own piece of land. Adding to that issues such as racism, segregation, and isolationism allows the audience to reflect where we were as a country back in 1937 to where we are today. It holds up well as opposed to other shows in the American theatre.
Review: What is the most challenging component involved with directing this play and bringing it to fruition?
Kircher: This is the first show I will have directed at Pit and Balcony. All community theatre groups tend to have their own rules and guidelines for their directors and learning to deal with these for each group can be most challenging. At Pit and Balcony, they don’t use producers as I have experienced with other groups. While the Board of Directors take care of the budget and financing, the director is expected to find their own tech team for lights, sound, set designer and props. Since I am not from this area, and usually let my producer worry about this, I found this most challenging. In today’s community theatre, people do not volunteer as much for tech positions either. People are busier going to school or working - again trying to achieve their own ‘American Dream’.
Review: Tell me about the cast – who are the key roles being performed by and what strengths do the actors bring to these roles?
Kircher: Pit and Balcony audiences will recognize Kale Schafer as one of the leads, George Milton. Kale is a hard working actor, who is aware of the time and commitment it takes to do the multi-faceted character of George. Chris Gouin is taking on his first part and lead, Lenny Small, at the Pit. He is also hard working and can be seen hours at the theatre before rehearsal going over his part. The part of Candy is taken on by Ron Fournier, an actor from the Clio area. This very experienced actor is constantly working on his character, fine tuning and building. The character of Crooks is portrayed by Kevin Kendricks. He is a very strong actor and will have the audience entranced by his performance. Pit and Balcony’s own, Amy Spadafore is the only female in the show. She is constantly working to develop a very complex character. The other actors include Jo-el Gonzalez, Jerry Gwisdala, Matt Kehoe, Isaiah Powell and Howard Dean. We also included an instrumentalist, Ken ‘Pops’ Jones to help develop the mood of the show; and I would be remiss not to mention our Australian sheepdog, Sheldon. This whole cast is very hard working, having not only to be there 5 days a week, but at least 3 hours a day. This play just demands it. I am very proud of them all.
Review: Are there any themes or elements within the script that you are trying to emphasize and bring out to the audience as a director.
Kircher: One of the elements or themes that Steinbeck presents in this story is that of racism. It is seen how the characters treat Crooks, the black stable hand and the language they use. Language is a very strong component in trying to convey ideas and this production has kept in all the wording to help set the mood. A few years ago, I directed another show, August: Osage County by Tracy Letts and was wondering how the very strong language would play with the audience. Some of the Board members of the community theatre did not want to do the show because of it, but the result was it made the play stronger and the audience became more involved. The playwrights, at least the good ones, really are aware of this and know how to use it. Steinbeck is also a master. Some productions take out this racist language, which I n my opinion, takes out a hard hitting element. I think Pit and Balcony should get a lot of credit for allowing this production to be kept true.
Review: Feel free to add any thoughts or comments on any topic that I may not have touched upon.
Kircher: I feel that for a production to succeed, it should leave the audience thinking and affect them in some way. How far we have come from the racism and segregation of the 1930s, or have we actually succeeded in people achieving the ‘American Dream’ easier? I do not attempt to answer any of these questions through this production, but I do hope not only our audiences, but society as a whole, will unite again and work together to find these solutions. Art is only one communication tool and can be a strong one if used in the right way.
16th November, 2023