Fahrenheit 451 Director Sharon Ott: Part Two – The Play and Beyond

The Fahrenheit 451 set in progress

Here’s the conclusion of my talk with Fahrenheit 451 director Sharon Ott. Fahrenheit 451 is onstage at Round House Theatre Bethesda from September 7 – October 9, 2011.

 JACQUELINE LAWTON: Written in 1953 and set in an unspecified time in the future, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a brilliant and riveting cult classic. It is at once poetic and frightening in its portrayal of an overly-medicated, government-controlled, media-obsessed society. This is an America where firemen burn books, free-thought is banned, learning is stunted, conversations are monitored, and indifference is the only emotion anyone seems to feel. Why does story remain so relevant still today? What lessons do audiences today have to learn from the actions and consequences of these characters?
We’re not burning books (yet), but almost everything else that Bradbury imagined as science fiction more than 50 years ago has become true. There is so much in what the characters say that absolutely leaps off the page. It was a clarion call in the 50’s, it’s an absolute alarm bell now. Bradbury’s story has Firemen burning books as part of its narrative, but it’s really about a culture that has forgotten how to think. They’ve forgotten how to think because they’re saturated with media, over-medicated, don’t read anymore, can’t form independent opinions…sound familiar??

JL: After witnessing a woman burn alive with her books, Montag begins to question the “why” of her actions. He ponders, “There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.” It is at this moment that Montag begins to break free from his paralytic state of indifference. It is a painful and lengthy process, but a necessary one for him in order to break free to independent thought. As a director, how do you approach such a beautiful, evocative, and painful moment with an actor?
One of the real surprises for me in directing this piece was to discover the truly poetic quality of Bradbury’s writing. I direct a lot of Shakespeare, and teach Shakespeare and other classical writers, so I’m thrilled when a contemporary writer can “launch” his language out of a naturalistic framework and move into the poetic. I started to think of Bradbury as a more Jacobean writer, kind of a John Webster. He has a dark sense of humor that I think we’ve been able to capture in the piece, and a beautiful poetic sense, like Webster. Bradbury’s writing demands that attention to verbal detail. This isn’t just casual speech. Montag is a phenomenal character. He’s a sort of Adam, in a way. Through the course of the story, he is re-born as a thinking, feeling, human being.  It is, indeed, a painful process, but a beautiful one, I think. Through Montag, Bradbury gives us some hope for the species.

JL: This production of Fahrenheit 451 is spectacular! How did you decide on the multimedia concept?
The various media components were part of my idea for the production from the beginning. When Bradbury wrote the adaptation in the 70’s, none of what we do in this production would have been possible. I guess you could have had the filmed section, but not projected in the way we do it, or blended with other media elements in the way we do it. I had always had it in my mind that the Hound could be an animated character — even though I really knew nothing about animation before I started this project. Since The Forest section in the book is such a change, I had thought it would be interesting to use film for that section…and it’s a way to add 10 more characters to the ones onstage! We also use film when the Hound tracks down one of its victims. The motion media sections are there to give us a sense of the crazy over saturated media environment that Mildred lives in.

JL: Do you feel that the multimedia elements deepen the experience of the play more than a traditional set would?
There is a lot of media in the show. However, it’s all there in service to Bradbury’s story. I get kind of sick of seeing Broadway shows now where media is used in an indiscriminate fashion — just throwing a bunch of TV monitors up onstage with random imagery. My interest was to use media as part of the narrative, really integrate the elements into the story itself. It’s not there as “visual noise”, but, hopefully, to help move forward the narrative.

JL: What were some of the challenges you faced in bringing the technical elements together?
As for challenges…yikes! I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it was to put the first production together. It took me two years just to do the groundwork for the thing. However, that was part of the challenge.

JL: If there is one thing you want audiences to walk away knowing or thinking about after experiencing this production of Fahrenheit 451, what would that be?
Hmmm…I would never want to reduce a great work of art, which I think Fahrenheit 451 is, to a single thought, but I guess it would be…Start thinking, start reading, don’t stop feeling…the forces of darkness may be closer than you know.

JL: What’s next for you as a director?
I directed The Tempest in June for Georgia Shakespeare, and then had just a little bit of time off before this production of Fahrenheit 451, so I’m actually going to enjoy teaching for a while! I do have two productions I’m looking forward to doing at the Savannah College of Art and Design with the students — John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, and Karin Coonrod’s “performative text” of two Flannery O’Connor short stories, Greenleaf and Everything That Rises Must Converge. I’m really excited about the O’Connor short stories.  As you may know, she was born in Savannah, and lived her adult life in Milledgeville, not too far away. These are both fantastic stories and I can’t wait to delve into Flannery’s strange, dark, humorous, and startling world. Looks like I’m also going out to Seattle again in the spring to work with Maestro Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony on the opera Bluebeard’s Castle with sets by Dale Chihuly as well. After that, we’ll see what comes up!

- Jacqueline Lawton

Jacqueline Lawton is a member of Round House Theatre’s Artists’ Roundtable

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