U.Va. Drama Department Celebrates the Circus

March 13, 2012 — George Brant's drama "Elephant's Graveyard," opening March 21 at Culbreth Theatre, will serve as the centerpiece of the University of Virginia's four-day celebration of the art of the American circus – and the career of circus expert LaVahn Hoh, a drama professor in the College of Arts & Sciences.

"Elephant's Graveyard" is the story of the collision between a struggling circus and a tiny Tennessee town in 1916, and how it resulted in the only known lynching of an elephant. The play combines historical fact and legend to tell the true and tragic tale, using first-person narrative to relay the perspectives of the circus folk and townspeople alike and capture their thirst for spectacle, violence and revenge. "Elephant's Graveyard," directed by Richard Warner, will be presented at 8 p.m. on March 21 through March 24.

"One of the truly fascinating things about this play is you have these two points of view," Warner said. "You have the circus, and their love and enthusiasm for Mary, this elephant, who is the star of their show. And you have the town, which has such great enthusiasm for the circus coming to town only to see this horrific event happen, which in turn creates an even bigger spectacle."

The "group tell" format, Warner said, makes the story even more compelling. "You have these 15 people on stage, and they are telling it together. The one thing I really admire about the play is that there are no images whatsoever of Mary. It is all in the imagination of the audience. It's the simple power of everything that is defining in theater. So the bottom line is, it's about storytelling, much like the radio dramas that our grandparents or great grandparents grew up with as they imagined these stories that actors brought to life."

The play will be combined with a series of lectures and special events that will highlight the Drama Department's unique academic focus on the American circus, shared for more than four decades by author and circus historian LaVahn Hoh.

"LaVahn is the reason I got involved in this play," Warner said. "LaVahn's passion and enthusiasm for the circus is truly remarkable, and he has taught me, and so many others, the importance of an event like the circus in the American tradition and culture."

Hoh has put together and will participate in a number of special panels over the course of the show's run, Warner said, including post-performance discussions on the first three nights.

"As this is a fairly short play, I see these discussions as a sort of second act," he said. "So I went to LaVahn and said, 'Let's bring your friends in!'"

Those friends include Janet M. Davis, a scholar, author of "Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top" and professor of American studies at the University of Texas, Austin, who will join U.Va.'s professor of theater history John Frick and Hoh for a discussion on "American Culture, Society and the Circus" following the opening night performance.

The following night will feature a discussion on "The Art of Clowning," in which Hoh and Davis will be joined by Steve Smith, former director of the famed Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and of the Big Apple Circus.

Friday's post-show event will feature the Keenan Lecture by playwright Brant and a question-and-answer session with Brant, Davis and Hoh.

The circus celebration wraps up March 24 with a 4 p.m. performance by the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. Founded in 1995, the New York-based company is dedicated to the celebration of circus arts, and tours with a combination of custom performances and themed shows that showcase genres ranging from circus to sideshows, Wild West shows, vaudeville and beyond.

Tickets for the play are $14 ($12 for seniors and U.Va. faculty, staff and alumni association members; $8 for students). Tickets for the circus performance are $10 ($5 for students and children. They are available online, by calling 434-924-3376, or in person on weekdays from noon to 5 p.m. at the U.Va. Arts Box Office in the lobby of the Culbreth Theatre building.

The 2011-12 U.Va. Drama Department season continues next month with Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," which comes to the Culbreth Theatre from April 19-21 and April 25-28 at 8 p.m. and April 29 at 2 p.m.

Free parking for all performances is available at the Culbreth Road Parking Garage, located alongside the theaters.