Preview: Dublin-based director answers 11th-hour call to direct ‘Our Class’

Our Class Cast - photo by Larry Roberts, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Many curious eyes will be on the first production of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre’s season, and not just because “Our Class” is inspired by a fact-based piece of Holocaust-era horror. The play was chosen and cast by company co-founder Andrew Paul, who was to direct before he was fired last month as producing artistic director of the company.

The board of directors installed Alan Stanford in his place, but he was busy directing a play for Point Park’s Conservatory Theater. With a month to go before opening night, Mr. Stanford placed a call to Ireland and recruited Connecticut native Aoife Spillane-Hinks, who had been his associate director for a revival of “Jane Eyre” at the Gate Theatre in Dublin.

The month has gone by in a whirlwind for Ms. Spillane-Hinks, who said she has been untouched by any behind-the-scenes politics and has been able to concentrate on the task at hand, bringing the production of Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s work to the stage.

“I had at that time and continue to have very little information, which is probably a blessing,” Ms. Spillane-Hinks said at her base camp, The Coffee Tree in Shadyside. “I was asked if I would take this on with all of these elements already in place. I read the script and said, whatever other jobs I was up for at the time, I still have to do this.”

This is her first job in the United States. After graduating from Harvard in 2006, she attended the National University of Ireland, Galway, and has been working in theater ever since, currently as co-artistic director of Then This Theatre Company

The first week after accepting the job with PICT, she was still in the process of opening “Broken Promise Land,” a play at Dublin’s Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan’s, which received a four-star review in The Irish Times. There was tech and rehearsal by day and Skype-ing at night before she finally arrived at PICT on March 11.

“Our Class” is based on the Jan Gross book “Neighbors,” an account of a massacre of Jewish villagers by fellow residents of a Polish town in 1941, after Nazis followed Soviets as occupiers. The play does not mention a specific town but instead concentrates on five Jewish and five Catholic characters, following them from schoolchildren through the choices that take them from “What do I want to be when I grow up?” to murderers, victims and survivors.

The director is finding her way through the difficult material with a young cast, who during her first few days in Pittsburgh she invited to stop by her “office,” the coffee shop where she was telling the story.

“It’s been an extraordinary experience walking into a project and seeing the kind of welcome and generous collaboration I’ve received from PICT, from the production and design team and the cast, and really Pittsburgh itself. I’ve never been here before, and it’s been this blessed month of living here and working here and getting to know these extraordinary people and young cast — Jimmy Mason and Katya Stepanova are still in CMU! It’s been extraordinary seeing young people with such gifts and intelligence and commitment. That’s an amazing spark to the process.”

Ms. Spillane-Hinks looks like a co-ed herself, with long flowing curls that she constantly pulls back off her face as she talks about the weight of history that’s must be borne by a play such as “Our Class.”

“My father is an historian, and a couple of weeks ago, he had gotten to read the play and we were talking about it. One of the questions I posed to the cast and the design team is, why is this not a piece of journalism? Why is this not a documentary? What does this do that’s different? Talking with my father and history, he said, Maybe this is the best way to do this; make it really contingent that it’s about individuals pulled in these specific ways rather than a large swath of a population.”

We meet the characters during their first lesson, in the same wooden chairs that will serve them throughout the play. They give their names and they say what they want to be when they grow up.

“Going on from there, I often ask the actors, where is it that your character draws the line?” Ms. Spillane-Hinks says. For example, Zocha (Caroline Shannon) knows early on that she has been contracted to marry an older farmer. Zygmut (Jonathan Visser), who as a boy was beaten and watched his mother be abused by his father, is sent down a likely path.

The classroom is a key to the characters’ relationships as they grow from typical kids to making their way in a world that is crumbling around them. Another key element is the songs they share, and music for PICT’s production is provided by Douglas Levine and klezmer specialist Susanne Ortner-Roberts.

“This is a very humane play. It’s humane to the characters and humane to the audience,” she says. “The fact that it relentlessly returns to the classroom, to the songs of childhood, means that as we are being told these stories that are so disturbing, they are being broken up in very poetic way. … The piece never excuses or justifies the horrible events that take place throughout. What it does is to allow us to relate to the people as humans, even when they commit egregious acts. The music takes us back to the fundamental humanity of everyone.”

The director notes that she walked into a situation that already had in place “three wonderful foundations”: the text, the cast and the creative team. She quickly discovered that it was also a flexible team when it came to changing on the fly.

“I was blown away by their ability,” she says. “When Gianni [Downs, the scenic designer] and I talked about the piece, we kept talking about Slobodzianek’s insistence about focusing on the classroom. If you could create a place where these characters could come back and tell their story, it would be the schoolroom, so the set is very much based on schoolrooms and schoolyards.”

After a couple of previews, the play opens on Saturday night, and Ms. Spillane-Hinks regrets that she must leave the next day. She will have a short time in Connecticut to visit family before flying back to Ireland, where she is co-curator and co-producer of the TEXT|messages Shakespeare project, in which eight directors get the chance to tackle 160 lines of a Shakespeare play.

Early on in the conversation, on a sunny day in Shadyside, she had compared directing “Our Class” to another play in her repertoire.

“There are so many layers, it’s like Shakespeare in that way,” says the woman who directed “Hamlet” for Ireland’s Second Age Theatre Company in 2011. “There’s poetry, there’s history, there’s politics, there’s all these different things with which Slobodzianek is grappling. As much as you can sit with Hamlet and look at it forensically and look at the structure, until you hear it from the mouths and see it in the bodies of actors, it’s not complete. This process of discovery we’ve undergone in the past few weeks is completely reliant on one another. … This is not one person’s story. In the same way, it could never be one person’s project.”

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.
First Published April 11, 2013 12:00 am