Agnes Under the Big Top: Borderlands Director, Barclay Goldsmith, reflects on his experience.

Posted on April 12, 2012


A few weeks ago, we shared with you a guest post from Mixed Blood Resident artist, Aditi Kapil, and her journey with Agnes Under the Big Top, a tall tale. The show, which was selected by NEA New Play Development Program for the 2009 Distinguished New Play Development Project. As mentioned in Aditi’s post, Agnes was produced at three different theaters as part of NNPN‘s rolling world premiere.

Barclay Goldsmith, producing director at Borderlands Theater in Arizona, shares his experience with the production at Borderlands:

Agnes Under the Big Top was produced by Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona with the support of the National New Play Network Continued Life Fund and the Rolling World Premier Program. The play followed productions at Mixed Blood Theater and Long Wharf Theater and ran from February 11 through February 26 for 13 performances at Zuzi’s Theater, 738 North 5th Avenue. Barclay Goldsmith, Borderlands producing director, directed.

The play was selected because not only  for the quality of the play  but because it added to our continued exploration of the theme of immigration…a theme we have embraced for the last ten years with commissions and new play development as part of the Border Playwrights Project and the U.S./Mexico Program. Agnes  explored brief moments In the  lives of  5 immigrants from Bulgaria, Liberia and India. This play was different for us because these were new characters not seen on or stage before.

This global perspective rather than a perspective from our own Mexico/U.S. Border presented us with new challenges. We have a very small subscription base and a loyal non-subscription following that was used to plays about the Latino/Mexican experience but would they come see this play? Unlike Minneapolis and Long Wharf (which is close to New York) we do not readily have available actors from a wide background in terms of culture and ethnicity. Our audience did change and was somewhat smaller we think because of the change in the central characters seen on the stage.  This is likely to be expected when a theater suddenly changes course away from its standard  fare and while Borderlands is somewhat eclectic in its seasonal offerings, Agnes might have been just too much of a shift without careful outreach. One hopes that universality can speak across the cultural  divides of one community to the next but it does not always do this. Aditi offered to make Agnes a Latina and we pondered this but in the end we decided to keep Agnes Liberian and I am glad we did. We were much more successful in the issue of casting and we were aided by one of our partners,  Ishkashitaa Refugee Harvesting Network which helped us identify a young man from Nepal who had acted in a U.N. Refugee Camp for many years and was now living in Tucson. We also found other actors that tackled the Bulgarian language with relish and took on the other challenging roles.  We are deeply indebted to Ishkashitaa and others who contacted the refugee organizations locally and helped bring in new audiences even though the overall attendance was down.

There are many wonderful intrinsic qualities to this play. It examines the lives of legal immigrants within a time frame allowing them  to reflect on the success or not of their journey. The reflection is not so much on economic opportunities won or lost, but on the personal narratives that are used to measure ones happiness.  In our  culture where so many  yardsticks are based on economics, this play is a welcome change. We all take a leap some time in our lives, a leap that the Bulgarian Circus Master expounds on, and sometimes we head towards the trampoline and in mid air we stop and reflect. We can’t go back and maybe we don’t want to go forward. This is truly a fascinating play and it received very, very good reviews and I know our audiences and I know when they respond positively and they did to this play. Good work  Aditi and good work Jack Ruehler of Mixed Blood and Eric Ting of Long Wharf. To work on this project has been one of my highlights as a director.