Thirteen different perspectives. Thirteen separate rooms. One story. California School of the Arts-San Gabriel Valley’s (CSArts-SGV) Acting Conservatory took on the challenge of creating a low-budget production they could be proud of. Their solution was a unique approach to George Brant’s play, “Elephant’s Graveyard.”
As opposed to the original intended setup with the entire cast onstage, audience members pieced the story together from various monologues given by actors stationed in classrooms around campus that had been transformed into intimately simple but effective sets.
Inspired by true events, “Elephant’s Graveyard” tells the story of Mary, a five-ton elephant traveling with Sparks Circus and her tragic death sentence after killing a trainer in 1916. Weaving a compelling story of the relationship between animals and humanity, Brant places emphasis on the emotions and stories of those involved. While the townspeople chanted for blood to bring justice to the “crime” committed by Mary in their passionate monologues, circus members shared their regrets over the event, explaining their connection with Mary, and how they came to find that working with her was an honor built upon mutual trust.
“This piece is about bias, both that we come to a story with and how we are influenced by what we hear, by whom we hear it, and in what order the ‘facts’ are presented to us. This piece is also an opportunity for students to produce their own world and have an intimate experience with an audience during a piece that is alive and ever changing,” Chair of Theatre Jay Wallace said.
As the audience went from room to room to hear the various sides of the story, the unique setup allowed them to also come to discover their own perspective on the issues reflected within the play.
“Being in such a close range and watching them made me connect with them more and [feel] I was actually a part of the town or circus,” Katia Choi, an audience member reflects. “When I came in [for] the second night, I started having my own perspective of who the characters really were and what their perspective of the situation was.”
“I learned that the best performances you can have will come when you are acting less and being more natural. I hope that the audience took away the fact that there are always different perspectives when it comes to [any] show,” actress Lily Annino agreed.
Each character had a unique story to offer: a story of remorse and regret, a story of pride and righteousness, a story of horror and a desire for revenge.
With the actors mere feet away from their audience, delivering each line to us, we learned to sympathize and understand. Even as animal lovers who sympathized heavily with the trainer and her regret over not protesting against the event that could have prevented it all, we were also able to understand the townspeople’s horror and the engineer’s pride at being able to have the means to kill Mary.
Even though many of us ultimately did not agree with Mary’s fate, we were able to understand the pressure the circus was under, and the reasons behind their decision. We were able to hear every voice as that of an individual and realize that each story is really a combination of many others.
“The effect I hope is left on the audience is that I hope they travel home arguing or discussing the story with their friends and families. Each character has a different point of view of the event surrounding Mary. I feel that the order in which you watch the show can change how you feel, [and] a lot of the roles [were] double cast, so an actor’s take on the point of view can also influence your conclusions,” director Amanda Zarr said. “I hope the audience will recognize the cruelty and entitlement one can feel over other humans, animals and narratives and be more open to facts than quick emotional responses.”
At the end of our journey through the circus and the events, we all left with a different story in our minds. Depending on the order in which we heard the stories and their personal beliefs, each of us walked away understanding not only what the public saw of the event when it happened in 1916. We walked away with the ability to sympathize with both the circus members that were forced to adhere to the townspeople’s wishes to kill Mary, the townspeople’s desire for blood, and a deeper understanding on the relationships between humans and animals.
Oftentimes, it is easy to regard theater as only a means of entertainment, but “Elephant’s Graveyard” was a powerful reminder that the arts not only entertain, but also to help us understand and connect with different perspectives.