Playwright Bertolt Brecht suggested that Mann ist Mann, his 1926 play about a dock worker who is transformed into a robotic killer in British-occupied India, could be transplanted to any generation and any conflict. (The play was also produced during the Vietnam conflict by an off-Broadway avant-garde company, The Living Theatre.) Fordham’s latest mainstage production of the play, under the direction of Colin McKenna (FCLC ’98), brings the dark satire about war’s dehumanizing effects to the forefront again—this time using the conflict in Iraq.
The production, which runs through March 3 in the Pope Auditorium, Lowenstein Center, Lincoln Center campus, marks the directorial debut at Fordham for McKenna, who credits the late Lawrence Sacharow, former director of the Department of Theatre and Visual Arts, with helping make it happen.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Larry,” said McKenna, who was named a 2006 Playwriting Fellow by the Dramatists Guild of America and is the first alumnus to direct a mainstage production. “He was an absolute mentor to me. Artistically, I found him as an inspiration throughout my whole career. And he was very supportive all along.” McKenna said he and the student cast will dedicate the Fordham performances to Sacharow.
Now it is McKenna in the role of mentor, as he directs a cast of students in the production, the third in a series of four mainstage plays produced during the school year. McKenna said that Fordham’s program has grown in leaps and bounds since he studied here nearly 10 years ago.
“From an undergraduate perspective, I think Fordham has the best acting program in New York City right now,” he said. “The students are very talented and professional. They have great access to teachers, and they get a taste of all the acting styles and methods, as well as how to work sets, work box office—all aspects of theater. The program is building an intelligent, flexible actor.”
The student actors perform the play on a sparsely decorated stage, sometimes switching roles up to four times, McKenna said. All of the costume changes are done onstage, and the actors sing original music written for the show and do their own sound effects. They create what he calls “a free-for-all . . . an artifice of theatre, an atmosphere that Brecht would have liked very much.”
“Brecht really doesn’t sweat the historical details of a story, but he wants you to think intellectually about the play,” said McKenna. “He called this his alienation effect—that you never forget you are watching a play. We definitely embrace that in this production.”
Since graduating from Fordham, McKenna has never stopped doing theater, often collaborating with Push Productions, a collective of former Fordham students that he met while in school, to create plays in small downtown theaters. He has also worked “every crummy job” while earning a graduate degree from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, in order to continue to be able to write plays. His feels he has experienced some valuable life lessons since he left school, ones he can share with current Fordham students facing that rough post-graduation road of the fine artist.
“It’s a harsh world,” he said. “Not enough theatre is happening out there, and people aren’t going to listen to you when you are young. You have to work harder than everybody else to get ahead.”
For McKenna, hard work has paid off. Besides receiving the playwriting fellowship, his new play, The Secret Agenda of Trees, will be making its Off-Broadway premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre later this spring.
“I never had an idea in 1994 when I came to Fordham that I’d still be coming back here in 2007,” said McKenna. “But I feel most comfortable here.”
By Janet Sassi