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Release date:
Feb. 12, 2002
Contact: Deb Hammacher, Associate Director: 404-727-0644 or dhammac@emory.edu

The American Family Takes Center Stage for Emory Symposium

How the American family has been portrayed on stage throughout the 20th century has led to myths of what family life was like during that time. The evolution of that mythology will be explored at Emory University Feb. 24 – 27 through "Staging the American Family: A Symposium on the Evolution of the Idea of Family in 20th Century Drama," a series of events sponsored by Theater Emory and the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL Center).

Events include lectures from noted experts in the field, the performance of scenes from plays written during each decade of the 20th century, and a panel discussion featuring Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang.

In conjunction with the symposium, a production of "Ah, Wilderness!," the 1910 classic by Eugene O’Neill set near the turn of the 20th century, launches the investigation into stage portrayals of American family. The play, directed by John Ammerman, opens Feb. 15 and runs through March 2.

All events will be held in the Mary Gray Munroe Theater, Dobbs University Center, 605 Asbury Circle, on the Emory campus. Tickets for "Ah, Wilderness!" are $15; $7.50 for Emory students. All other events are free and open to the public. For information or tickets to "Ah, Wilderness!" call the Arts at Emory box office at 404-727-5050. For more information on the symposium, call the MARIAL Center at 404-727-3440.

Theater Emory and the MARIAL Center collaborated on the symposium out of a shared interest in exploring myths and realities of the American family, says Vincent Murphy, Theater Emory artistic producing director. Murphy’s interest was sparked by Theater Emory’s 1995 premiere of Steve Murray’s "Mileage" which dissected American family life in a post-AIDS environment. Murphy contacted several leading playwrights, including Hwang and Tony Kushner, for suggestions of plays from each decade where the life of the family was vital.

"Our choices will only sample the thousands of plays devoted to the American family," says Murphy. "Rather than focus on one class, race, religion, region or single notion of a nuclear family, we searched for a play and then a scene that best represented the values and concerns of the decade. The selections provide a multifaceted view of the family as it evolves."

Working with Theater Emory provided an opportunity to explore "one of the arenas of mythmaking about the American family – the theater," says Bradd Shore, Emory anthropologist and director of the MARIAL Center. "One way that myths surface and perpetuate is through public representations we get of ourselves as families. We have a lot of machinery in modern life that pumps out mythic images of family, including literature, television, film and advertising."

Rutgers University historian John Gillis will deliver the keynote lecture, "Our Imagined Families: The Myths and Rituals We Live By" at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24. Gillis is a noted historian of the family who has written several books, including the most recent, "A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual and the Quest for Family Values." He argues that we all live in two families: The family we interact with every day, and the idealized, mythic model that our culture provides. "Gillis will set the stage by stepping back and showing us the historical origins of the modern idea of family," says Shore.

One scene each from such plays as "A Death of Salesman" by Arthur Miller, "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" by Edward Albee and "How I Learned to Drive" by Paula Vogel will be performed during "The American Family on Stage: A Decade-by-Decade Look at the Evolution of the Family" at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25.

Princeton scholar Michael Goldman, professor emeritus of English, will offer a critic’s context for these scenes of family life—which will be re-staged in some fashion from the previous evening—during a lecture at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26. One of the most distinguished voices in American dramatic criticism, Goldman’s work has been nominated for the National Book Award. He has twice received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

The symposium concludes with a panel discussion on "Myth America: Diverse Arenas of Mythmaking on the American Family" at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27. The panel includes Gillis; Goldman; advertising executive and idea man Joey Reiman, founder and CEO of BrightHouse; and Hwang, a 1988 Tony Award-winner at age 30 for his gender-bending Broadway smash "M. Butterfly." The panel will be moderated by Michael Evenden, associate professor and chair of Emory’s Department of Theater Studies.

The MARIAL Center is one of six Sloan Centers on Working Families, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program on Dual-Career Middle Class Working Families. The Emory center focuses its research on the functions and significance of ritual and myth in dual wage-earner, middle-class families in the American South, with the aim of understanding how family cultures are produced and reproduced under conditions of modern working life. For more information, see www.emory.edu/college/MARIAL/index.html.

The symposium "Staging the American Family" runs from Feb. 24 through Feb. 27 and will take place in the Mary Gray Munroe Theater in the Dobbs University Center, 605 Asbury Circle. All events are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted. For information or tickets for "Ah, Wilderness!" call the Arts at Emory box office at 404-727-5050. For more information on the symposium, call the MARIAL Center, at 404-727-3440. Following is a complete list of symposium activities:

Feb. 15 through March 2
"Ah, Wilderness!" a coming-of-age comedy by Eugene O’Neill, directed by John Ammerman. $15; $7.50 for Emory students with i.d.
3 p.m. Feb. 17, Feb. 24, March 2
7:30 p.m. Feb. 15
8 p.m. Feb. 16, Feb. 21-23, Feb. 28, March 1-2

Sunday, Feb. 24
Keynote Lecture. "Our Imagined Families: The Myths and Rituals We Live By," by John Gillis, Rutgers University history professor and author of "A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual and the Quest for Family Values." 7:30 p.m.

Monday, Feb. 25
Performance. "The American Family on Stage: A Decade-by-Decade Look at the Evolution of the Family." Actors will read a short scene from 10 plays chosen to exemplify the American family throughout the 20th century. The plays include: "Ah, Wilderness!" by Eugene O’Neill; "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone" by August Wilson; "The Silver Cord" by Sidney Howard; "Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams; "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller; "A Raisin in the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry; "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" by Edward Albee, "Curse of the Starving Class" by Sam Shepherd; "The Dining Room" by A.R. Guerney; and "How I Learned to Drive" by Paula Vogel. 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday, Feb. 26
Lecture. "A Critical Look at the American Family in the Theater" by Michael Goldman, professor emeritus of English at Princeton University, who will talk about the scenes performed the day before. After his remarks, the audience will see some of the scenes deconstructed, rearranged and improvised. 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, Feb. 27
Panel Discussion. "Myth America: Diverse Arenas of Mythmaking on the American Family." Moderated by Michael Evenden, associate professor and chair of Emory’s Department of Theater Studies. Participants include John Gillis, Michael Goldman, Joey Reiman and David Henry Hwang. The panel will discuss mythic images of the family in arenas such as popular culture, television and advertising.

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