(Literally) Behind the Scenes of Tartuffe–Part 1

Ricky Wayne as the title character in the new American Stage adaptation of Molière's Tartuffe. PHOTO: Joey Clay Photography
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Part One: Why Choose to Adapt a 350-Year-Old Play for the Election Season?

Before a set can be designed and the actors are cast, a play must be chosen.

Typically, the artistic director of a theater chooses plays for the season around a year in advance.

American Stage Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte chose her first season on the job with a theme for 2016-17: In Search of…America.

Often, theaters with a budget that can manage it, will hire a playwright occasionally to create an original script or adaptation. Gularte had worked with Caisley at her previous venue workplace, Capital Stage Company in Sacramento before leaving for St. Petersburg. His play, Winter, premiered at the theater in 2015 for the Playwrights Revolution Festival.

While it may seem odd at first blush, that a French classic by Molière would fit in with this theme, Tartuffe wound up becoming uncannily perfect as a farce during a farcical Presidential election season.

Gularte, who selected the comedic romp in December 2015, says she was intrigued by the prospect of producing this 350-year old play about hypocrisy and demagoguery at the close of America’s 2016 election season.

The fact that the play’s titular buffoon bears some hubris-scented, religious right-pandering resemblance to a certain U.S. Presidential candidate was purely coincidental, a happy accident that’s now providing comic relief to theatergoers.

“Back then, I could not have imagined that real-life events would take on the level of absurdity we’ve witnessed over the past year,”

Gularte explains in a play program insert…. I’ve watched with stupefaction as the candidates, their supporters and their detractors, the pundits and the media have all created a spectacle that has surpassed any fictional farce we sought to depict.

“… Tartuffe is not Trump. He is not Clinton. He does not represent a particular political party or platform. Tartuffe, in all of its absurdity, silliness and, yes, its rhetoric, is not about a single individual or ideal. It’s about all of us: our steadfast and often headstrong attachments to our positions and our candidates, our selective reasoning and our flawed rationalizing as we search in vain, for an American idol to save us from ourselves and lead us toward a brighter future.”

The director of the American Stage's new adaptation of Tartuffe Brendan Ragan.

The director of the American Stage’s new adaptation of Tartuffe Brendan Ragan.

Brendan Ragan, an award-winning local actor and director who helped found Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre, says he was particularly impressed with how well playwright Robert Caisley’s “retained the DNA of Moliere’s 1664 farce.”

Caisley conceived American Stage’s Tartuffe as a contemporary adaptation, and American Stage has introduced a multimedia component — a flat screen TV provides breaking news reports throughout the show — but Caisley says he consciously didn’t change plot points and even retained those famous couplets at the end of scenes.

“The story has stayed very much intact but updated to include circumstances and other details, but its relationship issues are still very relevant today,” Ragan added.

When interviewed by phone, Caisley an accomplished and award-winning writer across genres, shared the differences between creating prose and plays.

“The difference between playwriting and prose fiction is that the latter exists in the imagination of reader,” Caisley said. “Plays unfold in real time.”


Robert Caisley, the playwright behind the new adaptation of Tartuffe.

For this reason, the playwright said he spends time observing the audience when each of his plays is first staged.

“I try to hear where they are restless,” he says. “I’m entirely sensitive to what the audience is reacting to, when they are rustling in their seats or coughing.”

Caisley also emphasizes the urgency of making a play that works: It’s a time investment from your readers. It takes them out of their routines.

“You can bump into somebody reading a book on the plane or bus,” he explained. “They’re not going out of their way to read. With a play, around 200 people a night are leaving their homes to go to another location to experience your story.”

“You’re asking them to do something and must promise them that it’s more interesting than what they would have done instead of going to your play. It’s a huge responsibility.”

For Caisley, writing plays became a natural progression. The child of professional actors, he grew up in the theater and has been an actor as long as he can remember.

Instead of hiring babysitters, his parents brought him to rehearsals. One of his earliest experiences involved a rundown of Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes. His father collapsed in a dramatic scene and he was convinced he dad had died.

“From then on I was hooked on the live experience,” he effused. “The theater world is my home; I had found my tribe.”

Fast-forward to Tartuffe — Caisley insists he was not trying to parallel real events but admitted to peppering some references (such as a smashed blackberry and a “nasty woman” dig) for laughs.

(Literally) Behind the Scenes of Tartuffe--Part 2
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