blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts

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Director’s Commentary
by Gail Dartez

I loved Jacqueline Goldfinger’s The Arsonists upon first reading. The beauty and precision in the dialogue. The spare use of words that, nevertheless, conveys the universe of emotions between father and daughter. The “inch wide and a mile deep” style of storytelling.

I adore plays written by playwrights who adore language. Jacqueline Goldfinger clearly adores language. The lyrical quality of Goldfinger’s verse was immediately evident, and it was thrilling to be presented with the opportunity to direct a contemporary verse play after having just recently directed Sophocles’s Antigone. Goldfinger’s writing is firmly grounded in that ancient tradition yet boldly goes beyond any assumptions we may have about the form. So while the play felt familiar, like “Momma’s coat” that “M” wears, at the same time it presented itself as something wonderfully strange and new. It was magical and otherworldly and full of heart and blood and fire, and I couldn’t wait to let it teach me all it knew about storytelling.

As I dove deeper into the text, I could not finish the play without tears. When I accepted the role of director I did not expect that eight months later I would enter the preproduction process having witnessed the death of both my husband’s parents in the four months prior. This intimate experience with death and letting go, and the ever-present feelings of not wanting to let go, could not help but inform my process. Death had plowed through my life and The Arsonists would be planted in the rows created there.

At the first table read, the actors, stage manager, and myself were all weeping. Here is one of the lovely and hard challenges presented by this play: We want to feel all the feels! We want to show the audience the complete depth of sorrow, anger, love and loss! But what must be discovered, if you are wise (or if you have the good fortune to have wise collaborators as I did), is that to be successful in the playing of the glorious passion and emotion in the story of The Arsonists there must be a kind of detachment in the work. As interpreters of this beautiful play, the entire creative team must find, and be comfortable with, nonattachment to that great and terrible story of death and letting go. It must be simply done. Unadorned.

I don’t know for sure, but it may be like the work of an arsonist: Make a fuse. Light it. Walk away.

There is help along the way. The path for telling this story is clearly laid out for you in Goldfinger’s dialogue: the words are the only words you need. What I mean is, they need little from you for them to do the work of their storytelling. However, if you paraphrase, there goes the story. So, mind the verse. Be precise in its execution. Mind the punctuation. Mind the “dots.”

Regarding verse and ancient traditions, Aristotle would heap praise on the dialogue in The Arsonists—praise on the music and the rhythm inherent in the structure of the verse created by Jacqueline Goldfinger. I offer simple advice to the actor: the people of north Florida live in that dialogue; open your mouth and let it live there. And then stay out of the way. And, I repeat, mind the punctuation. Every comma, period, and elipsis is your friend.

As a director, I am forever grateful for what The Arsonists taught me about storytelling. Thank you, Jacqueline.  

Gail Dartez is an actor, director, and theater arts educator. She has taught classes for Big Idea Theatre, California Musical Theatre, the Young Professionals Conservatory at the Sacramento Theatre Company, and the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. She earned an MFA in acting from the Yale School of Drama and is a member of the Actors Equity Association. Dartez is an adjunct professor of theater at Cosumnes River College.

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