Decision to produce controversial play based on desire to tell its story



As Katurian asks his brother, Michal, in Martin McDonagh’s 2010 script, “Why The Pillowman?”

Students who turned out to see the first Augustana College Theatrical Society (ACTS) production of the year may also be wondering why the show was selected.

The Pillowman is a black comedy that leans so heavily on drama that an audience may rule “comedy” maliciously deceptive. The story unfolds with a writer, Katurian, being interrogated by detectives about his stories, most of which are dark and twisted and feature children being maimed and killed in a variety of circumstances, including the crucifixion of a six-year-old girl.

And, as audiences from the three performances Oct 3-5 are well aware, the ACTS production enacted all of these stories, though the script only demands two stories be played out.

Director Katelynn Kenney chose to bring all seven to life in her vision for the show. She progressed the storytelling methods from silhouette to acting through a screen to having the stories fully played out.

But why would a company of artists pursue such a controversial piece in the first place, especially at a Lutheran college?

The answer begins with what ACTS is. In addition to Augustana College Theatre Company productions, which are performed on the Edith Mortenson Center main stage in conjunction with the theatre department, ACTS is a student-led, student-centered group that produces shows in the Mary Harum Hart Acting Studio.

Under the guidance of a seven-student board of directors and a faculty advisor, the shows are chosen, directed, performed and designed by students. ACTS has done this since 2009. The group exists to provide additional theatrical opportunities to the Augustana community.

The Pillowman provides this opportunity.

I first heard of the show during the spring of my freshman year, in a meeting with Patrick Hicks, English department head and writer-in-residence. While discussing ACTS, Hicks threw out, “What I’d really love to see you guys do is The Pillowman.”

Over the next year, I learned more about the play before I got my hands on a copy with Hicks’ help last spring.

My first impression told me not to propose it. Despite being an exciting challenge, the dark humor didn’t jump off the page at me, and the content was so downbeat it was almost perverse. Not to mention the obstacle posed by the “Little Jesus” story.

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. It kept at me, and the more I thought about the questions it raised, the more the value of those questions asserted itself. The worth of what McDonagh provoked couldn’t just apply to me, either.

I proposed the show, and while the initial reactions were skeptical, in the end we decided it was the right fit for ACTS in this fall’s slot.

Beyond working with time constraints and logistics, The Pillowman is the type of script that would never be produced on the main stage. It’s edgy, in-your-face style doesn’t mesh with the work usually seen there.

Beyond being just another opportunity from the department’s season, The Pillowman represented an opportunity impossible without ACTS.

Furthermore, the story raises important questions about why we tell stories and what the value of stories is. The through-line of the play, in Kenney’s vision, was the need of people to have their stories passed on. But do we all deserve to have our story survive?

That type of question is what McDonagh’s script tackles in such iconoclast style that the effect is jarring, but vital to a society that seeks to grow and learn about why we do the things we do. The humor I found stale on the page came alive when given voice, and the dark content brought powerful ideas to a focal point.

Why do we tell stories? What will our story be?

As for ACTS and The Pillowman, the story we sought to tell was one that was wickedly humorous and abrasive in a way that will stay with you, forcing you to give thought to the themes at play in a show that wasn’t always easy to watch.

Of course, the story told might be “those are the people who staged a little girl getting crucified.” But if that’s the case, the audience has missed the spirit of the play. We hope the story challenged people to really think, and we hope that is the story told of us.