Deconstructing ‘Endgame’: Northampton’s Serious Play! receives grant to develop production of Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play

Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2014
The Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET) has awarded a $2,000 grant to Northampton’s Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble for the development of its “Endgame Exploration Project,” a three-company collaborative project with Pilgrim Theatre of Ashfield and Sandglass Theater of Putney, Vermont, which will combine physical theater with puppetry in a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame.”

NET is a national coalition of ensemble-based theaters, actors and supporters, based in Los Angeles, that aims to sustain ensemble theater, encourage collaboration and build knowledge among its members, according to the organization’s website.

During the project, the companies will delve into Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” combining each theater’s individual methodologies and areas of expertise. Both Serious Play! and Pilgrim Theatre focus extensively on physically-based theater exploration, such as movement and voice, whereas Sandglass Theater combines puppetry with visual imagery.

“Ensemble Theater is not only just sharing training techniques, but what we think will engage today’s audience and attract people back to the live moments,” said Sheryl Stoodley, artistic director of Serious Play!.

The project is in the initial stages, Stoodley said in a recent phone interview. Continued work and a search for further funding is underway.

“(The NET grant) was not a grant to produce ‘Endgame,’ Stoodley said. “It was a grant to develop an artist vocabulary and a process to work together collaboratively.”

The companies worked together three times a week in June to share approaches and painstakingly dissect and examine Beckett’s complex script.

“Endgame” is a one-act play set in a bare room, which serves as a shelter for the four characters during some sort of unknown apocalyptic disaster. In the room are Hamm and his servant Clov, along with Hamm’s father Nagg, and his mother Nell, who live in trash bins.

Published in 1957, the play is regarded as one of Beckett’s most important works. Written in French, Beckett translated it into English himself. Best known for his play “Waiting for Godot,” Beckett is one of the great names of Theater of the Absurd, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

“I had read “Endgame” in college, and knew that it was poetic and extremely well written, but it just didn’t hit me,” Stoodley said. “I reread it three years ago, and it just totally connected with me.” It was then, Stoodley added, that she knew she wanted to explore the play further.

“I just said, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and started thinking about how to do it and who to do it with,” she said.

That same year, Stoodley met Ines Zeller Bass and Eric Bass of Sandglass Theater at the Ko Festival of Performance on the Amherst College campus. They discussed Stoodley’s idea and decided to collaborate on the project, along with Kim Mancuso and Kermit Dunkelberg of Pilgrim Theater, who Stoodley knew from working together at the Boston Center for the Arts.

“They were very interested, so we’ve been planning for quite a while,” she said.

Stoodley said the group has not altered Beckett’s text, which she called “beautifully poetic.” However, instead of live actors, puppets will play the characters of Nagg and Nell.

“The exploration was ... can that work as vision for this piece? And if it works, how does it affect the other two actors in the piece?” Stoodley said.

Because Beckett wrote the play during the Cold War, she added, many thought it was about a nuclear holocaust taking place outside of the room. Stoodley, however, said she is looking at the work as being about a dying man’s hallucinations.

At the end of June, the three companies invited an audience of 40 artists and puppeteers from the Pioneer Valley to give feedback on their raw adaptation, and to ask if the project was worth pursuing.

“We got an overwhelming, ‘Yes, you should proceed in culminating this play,’ ” Stoodley said.

However, she added that in order to proceed with the project, the group has to begin fundraising.

In addition to grant writing, the companies are considering using funding websites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo to raise money for their project — something Stoodley said they have never done before.

If all goes well, Stoodley hopes to begin touring the production next spring or summer.

For information about Serious Play!, visit www.seriousplay.org.