wed 22/05/2024

First Person: Ellen McDougall on finding the commonality in the American classic 'Our Town' | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Ellen McDougall on finding the commonality in the American classic 'Our Town'

First Person: Ellen McDougall on finding the commonality in the American classic 'Our Town'

The director explains what drew her to the season-opener this summer at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park

A timeless 'Town': director Ellen McDougall in rehearsalrehearsal photos by Johan Persson

I’ve wanted to direct Thornton Wilder’s Our Town for a long time.

The play is beautifully written and its form feels not only ahead of its time (it was written in 1938), but also extremely powerful for a contemporary audience in an open air theatre.

As you might guess from the title, Our Town tells the story of a community: in the first act we meet everyone in the town from the paperboy to the doctor. But, as well as the people alive at this moment in time within the town, the scope of the play also stretches back into the historic and prehistoric life of its community, and stretches forward to imagine those who will come after this moment in a thousand or two thousand years from now. One of the things that I find so powerful about the play is the fact that  contrary to much of Western literature  this is a story that centres on the enduring communal experience of humans, rather than the singular experience of one protagonist. Politically, I find that very inspiring.

Wilder was very interested in using the power of theatre to bring people together: to make us look at things and consider ideas that we very often might not take the time to see or even notice. I think Wilder understood that as humans we are hard-wired not to look at the things that are perhaps the most important, but the most difficult to look at. He writes in his introduction to the play that it was "an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life". He asks us to think about how many hours and weeks and years we live on this planet, against how often we really ask someone a meaningful question that we want to ask them, or say the thing that we feel the most deeply.

Laura Rogers in rehearsal for 'Our Town' The form of the play does away with the trappings of naturalistic theatre: Wilder famously recommends "no set, no props", and our relationship with the town and its people is guided by a character called the Stage Manager (played by Laura Rogers, pictured above), who addresses us directly from the very start. Wilder felt that by stripping away the ornaments of naturalism, which he finds "comforting" and distracting, we might more honestly access the enduring humanity and emotion in the play. He compares this staging convention to the clarity of Elizabethan and Greek theatre, where there was barely so much as a chair on stage, in comparison to the decorative Victorian box sets that he argues were made for a "new middle class" audience who, in Wilder’s opinion, were fundamentally insecure about their place in the world, and so wanted a correspondingly solace-providing theatre. Making this production in an open air space, in shared light as the sun begins to set and with that magical combination of a huge scale of space whilst still holding an incredible sense of intimacy, is a thrilling prospect.

Francesca Henry in rehearsal for 'Our Town'The play was written 81 years ago, and I’ve been reading a lot of Wilder’s letters from that time. He spent much of the '30s in Europe and saw the rise of the far right around him. In one of the letters, he says that despite how horrific that was to witness, he’d decided that the human race could still be given the benefit of the doubt. To find this deep love for humanity, and especially in that particular context, is extraordinary to me; it is one of the starting points for the show and feels like a very important thought for this moment we are living in. And so, our production has begun with the idea of celebrating the human beings at the centre of it: our company create all the sound effects live, stage the scenes, and all the music is sung a capella: human voices are right at the core of the piece.

Our Town is explicitly about an American community in a very particular time (1901, 1904, and then 1913 – the three acts). While politically, the play occupies a very different time to our own – as the Stage Manager points out, "this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century" - its deepest ideas about community and human connection feel so important right now. One of the most powerful moments from that political angle is when we are told that people who fought and died in the Civil War and for the abolition of slavery did so in the name of "Unity" – "all they knew was the name, friends: the United States of America". At a time when both American and much of our global politics seems to be about putting up walls and reinforcing borders, to be reminded of the notion of unity now feels particularly resonant. (Pictured above: Francesca Henry as Emily Webb)

After living with this play for so many years, four weeks into rehearsals, I still find Our Town incredibly moving.  I’m still discovering what an extraordinarily special and unique piece of writing it is. I hope Our Town will make you laugh; make you cry; it’s about everything. It’s about people; it’s full of generosity  – and of love.



While politically, the play occupies a very different time to our own, its deepest ideas about community and human connection feel so important right now

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters