At the heart of “Children’s Hour” is a discussion of womanhood, queerness and the nature of rumors. Each scene features high emotions and a chorus of whispering gossip. The 1934 ensemble play, written by Lillian Hellman, was chosen to be one of two Repertory Term productions. The play is directed by theatre professor Elizabeth Carlin Metz and will open tonight at 7:30 in Harbach Theatre. The final show will run on March 1.
Senior Shannon Mindlin is sure she’ll be in a mess of tears by closing night. The camaraderie, growth and creativity the term has fostered for her as an actress in “Children’s Hour” is something she’ll always think about after she’s graduated.
“We all work so well together. We were different people at the beginning [of the term] and now we’re a clump of people. We’ve all bonded [through Children’s Hour] … I’m just gonna be crying during spring break once it’s all over,” Mindlin said.
Mindlin has a strong emotional connection to the play. As someone who identifies as pansexual, she was thrilled to be part of a production that deals with the societal perception of queer identity.
“I love that the play deals with identity seriously and it’s not just like a thing to point at and be like ‘Look at this gay character, look at how diverse we’re being,” Mindlin said. “I hope we get to a stage where diversity and non-binary is seen [as normal].”
In the play an angered student named Mary accuses the two headmistresses of her all-girl school, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, of having a sexual affair. The accusation spreads throughout the school and surrounding town. The lives of the two women are thrown into disarray as they face the stigma of queerness. As an update to the play, Metz had the characters of the play all interact with one another on social media. Characters will be seen whipping out their phones to tweet, text and post selfies.
For senior and fellow actor Van Johnson, the social media aspect of the play was intriguing. Johnson is one of the actors in both He points to the update as commentary on how gossip and rumors spread so easily for millenials and for members of a small community.
“I’m not from a small town, but coming to Galesburg, I’ve met a lot of people who are. So I can see how a rumor like that could spread like wildfire,” Johnson said. “At Knox, gossips spread around here and you really can’t have secrets. In the play that’s what happens … in that [era] a rumor like that would cause a [ruckus].”
Freshman Iris Berto, another actor in Children’s Hour, points out that even in today’s time being gay or queer isn’t fully accepted. They recalled hearing about a teacher that had to leave their job after being outed as gay in a small town community.
“It still happens today. I’m not gonna get political, but it happens,” Berto said.
When Mindlin posted on Facebook about their pansexual identity, she got a call from her parents asking her if she thought that was the best idea. At first Mindlin was hurt, but realized her parents were worried that future employers would look at her post and make judgements about her.
“I put that post on private, because I don’t want to have to think did I not get that job because someone disliked my identity?” Mindlin said.
Another twist Metz added to the material gave Berto a personal connection to the play. Berto has been experimenting with their gender identity, and in “Children’s Hour” actors and actresses alike are asked to play female and male identifying characters.
“It was really cool, they have me in [masculine] makeup and in a vest for one of the scenes,” Berto said.
Johnson, who identifies as male but plays a woman for most of the show, did have some difficulty expressing a female identity in the beginning of the term.
“I was confused at first on how to do that since I’m playing an old actress but now when I’m [on stage] you can catch that feminine energy I think,” Johnson said.
One of the oddities of Knox’s “Children’s Hour” production is that the actors also switch off between characters. For example in some scenes Mindlin is playing one of the headmistresses, but in others the character is played by a male-identifying actor or a different female-identifying actress.
Johnson believes this update was positive, as the cast had to use teamwork in order for the transitions between the actors to be seamless. It also helped them bond and grow together as a cast.
“It was natural that we grow close and I think we [found] better connections with the person that was playing the same character as [us]. We got inside each other’s heads,” Johnson said. “They’re all different interpretations, but it’s the same character so that’s what makes it interesting to watch on stage.”
Check out senior Peter Rule showing the costume designs for “The Children’s Hour”: