BWW Interviews: Back to the Exam Books for Mad Cows's THE HISTORY BOYS
As schools are opening their doors and welcoming students back, class at the Mad Cow Theatre Company is also back in session with a production of Alan Bennett's 2005 Tony Winning Play, THE HISTORY BOYS. My review on the production, running through September 7th, will be up soon. In the meantime, I was able to interview some of the cast members. Instead of your basic interview with straightforward questions, I kept with the spirit of Bennett's scholastic play by passing out the blue books with three open-ended questions about some of the themes from the play. Although these answers will not be graded, I am sure if Irwin took a glance at them he would not be regarding them as "abysmally dull".
BWW: At the end of Act One, in one of my favorite moments, Hector tells Posner, "The best moments in reading are when you come across something- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things- which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours." Has there been a piece of art, song lyric, novel, quote, film, poem, etc. that has affected you so much that when you heard this passage it resonated?
Matthew Lipscomb (Scripps): There is a song by the Avett Brothers entitled "Salvation Song." In it, the boys sing the lyrics, "We came to break the bad, we came to cheer the sad, we came to leave behind the world a better way." When I heard these lyrics for the first time, it's as someone had written down my life motto on a Post-it note and stuck it to my forehead. I'm sure it will remain my life goal and favorite song lyric forever.
AJ Nickell (Akthar): Yes. I think everyone can say yes to that question. Growing up, there have been many books, poems, songs, movies, etc. that have affected me and allowed me to acknowledge the hands outstretched to me. In Steve Martin's BORN STANDING UP, Martin talks about when he discovered that comedy evolves. That was just one of many moments in that particular book. Of course the difference is Steve Martin is still alive. (And thankfully so)
[Hector's line] is one of my favorite lines in the play. I agree with it wholeheartedly. That line is also a moment in reading for me that I had thought particular to me. I've always regarded reading as important because of that very notion Alan Bennett writes about in this play.
Sean Michael Flynn (Rudge): During a very rough time in my life I stumbled upon the Haruki Murakami's Orwellian novel (how appropriate haha!) 1Q84 - novel that challenges the reader to immerse themselves in an alternate reality, face what could be real, and what is actually really there. The discussions and themes of fate and serendipity spoke volumes to me. They were themes I often thought about and truly believed in. To have this magical storyteller utilize these thoughts in his remarkable tale left me speechless. Making it all the more real to me that we are all destined for something great and that chance meetings are fated and we will one day see that person again.
Jeffrey Todd Parrott (Posner): All my life I have had a very strong, visceral connection to music. I listen to all genres, but two of my favorites are bluegrass and musical theatre. In high school, I discovered a show that married the two. Adam Guettel's FLOYD COLLINS. I fell in love with the heart breaking true story and the transcendent musical score. The show culminates in a song in which the main character is faced with his inevitable death and asks God what Heaven is like. It questions the possibilities of fate and fear, destiny and despair, but above all: hope. Something about the heartache in the verse spoke to me then and now and echoes my thoughts to the universe of "Why?" "How?" and "What is my purpose in life?" The song resolves with the realization that despite the unanswered questions and stress of anything "unknown", the universe hears you, and its magical vastness and immensity alone can reaffirm a faith in ourselves. I was lucky enough to be a part of a production of FLOYD COLLINS early on in my acting career and it is to this day one of my most treasured theatrical experiences.
Philip Nolen (Hector): When I read Hermann Hesse's book STEPPENWOLF, I remember being amazed by the early chapters, which describe the alienation and loneliness felt by the protagonist. It was as if Hesse had been listening to my thoughts, and had written them down. Hesse perfectly articulated my own struggles, in a way I never could.
BWW: In the 80's, Hector's style is professionally considered to be original, and unorthodox. Jumping forward three and a half decades, do you believe Hector's 'cultivation vs. education' approach, "I count examinations, even for Oxford and Cambridge, as the enemy of education." to now be revolutionary?
Matthew Lipscomb (Scripps): As a product of standardized testing, I can appreciate both approaches to teaching. Those moments of cultivation within the classroom, while deviating from the "standards," were always special to me- they are the moments I remember when recalling school. As humans I believe we are hard-wired to pass on important life lessons, to make each other better people; in that sense, I do not believe his approach is revolutionary. It is a part of our human condition.
AJ Nickell (Akthar): Yes, especially in Florida and the United States, where standardized tests are what teachers feel compelled to follow. Learning isn't the goal so much as meeting basic criteria so students can graduate.
Sean Michael Flynn (Rudge): In my private school education we were taught in the way of 'cultivation vs. education'. We were taught to memorize and utilize poetry and literature. I find Hector's way of teaching more effective. However, in today's society we are so caught up with having our students drilled in standardized testing [that it results in] leaving behind the joys of learning and allowing art and literature to reach us in any deep sense. I think Irwin's journalistic approach to history and education is immersive but lacks passion and honesty.
Jeffrey Todd Parrott (Posner): I find it not only to be revolutionary, but in some aspects, more revolutionary than in the context of this play. Growing up in an education system of standardized testing at a very early age instilled in me and my fellow classmates a sense of 'product over process' that endured throughout high school. The constant need to alter and change curriculum core standards from state to state is also a clear indicator to me that we still haven't quite figured out what IS an education. Cultivation is crucial to showing that there are more things to learn about life and living, which cannot be quantified by any examination. I now support the thinking of Mark Twain on this matter: "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."
Philip Nolen (Hector): I think Hector's attitude is populist, rather than revolutionary, to the modern educator. In our era, teachers are slaves to standardized tests here in the United States (the much-despised FCAT leaps to mind), allowing no latitude for whim, random curiosity, or intellectual playfulness, in the classroom. All teachers must "teach to the test," or risk financial consequences for themselves and their schools. Education policy is perfectly represented by the Headmaster, who expresses frustration that he has no measuring tool (i.e., an exam) to assess how effective Hector's methods are. Most teachers agree with Hector; most administrators, and members of the national education-policy-setting establishment, do not.
BWW: Lockwood informs Irwin that Hector instructs the boys to learn one book off heart regardless of its literary quality. Is there a book, play, or movie that you can recite by rote? (Have fun with this one!)
Matthew Lipscomb (Scripps): I like to perform all the parts of FORREST GUMP. I'm sure I know most of the lines in that movie. On rare occasions I have been asked to sing through the score of WICKED...I should start charging admission.
AJ Nickell (Akthar): There is not! But if I were to commit a book, play, or movie to memory, it would have to be of high quality to me. Memory is precious.
Sean Michael Flynn (Rudge): The movies I can recite by rote are as follows: CLUELESS, MEAN GIRLS (duh!) LABYRINTH, oh and GREASE 2. The books: PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, CATCHER IN THE RYE, THE GREAT GATSBY, 1Q84, poems of Edgar Allen Poe, and Shakespeare's Sonnets. The plays: August: OSAGE COUNTY, TITUS ANDRONICUS, SPEECH & DEBATE, DOG SEES GOD, MACBETH, R+J, HAMLET.
Philip Nolen (Hector): I know an astonishing amount of Gilbert and Sullivan music by heart.
For more information on THE HISTORY BOYS visit Mad Cow Theater's website for tickets and showtimes. THE HISTORY BOYS plays through September 7th with performances on Thursdays through Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:30pm, and Monday September 1st at 7pm.