Rob Gander is the chair of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Speech Communication and Theater Department. He directed Nevada Repertory Company’s latest production, Ubu the King, which is being presented at UNR’s Redfield Proscenium Theatre through Oct. 11. For tickets or more information, call 784-4278 or visit www.unr.edu/arts.
Tell me about Ubu the King.
Ubu the King! It is a farce about power. It was originally performed in 1896. It was written by a guy named Alfred Jarry … He started off writing it as a spoof of a science teacher that he didn’t like. He started writing it as a kid, then later on realized that there was this sort of parallel between instructors who have a lot of power over you and world leaders who have a lot of power over you and don’t necessarily make the decisions that you’d like. So he started expanding it—he originally wrote it for puppets, and then he started expanding it and writing it for the theater.
And there’s a sort of famous story about it. Opening night, there were small riots in the theater because of the nonsensical, nonlinear nature of the writing and also because of the foul language. So people in the theater were sort of shaking their fists back and forth at the actors, and finally, the lead actor, who was playing Ubu, did a jig and settled everybody down. They kept going with the show, and 15 minutes later another little mini riot breaks out. The whole show was kind of that way. It’s kind of an infamous show.
How are y’all going to stage it? What are you doing unique with it?
What’s unique about what we’re doing is that we’re going to try to follow the original intent, but not the original text. So we’re at an interesting point where we’ve just had a transition of power from one president to another, so Ubu takes over as the king …
Are you going to call him “Ubama”?
[Laughs.] No, but we do use the term “Ubu Ghraib,” and there is a small section where the crowd can chant “Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” So you’re right on track.
The original dialogue is being reworked by the cast and myself. For instance, [at one recent performance] there were references to Roman Polanski being arrested. Part of the show is improvised.
How does that work?
Basically I have to give over power to the actors, and they watch the news every day, and if there’s something worth noting it ends up on the show. There’s a sort of spine that we follow, but the actors have freedom to do other things in certain sections of the story.
And it’s sort of a requirement of the cast to keep up on current news?
It is. And that’s easy for some of them, and for some of them it’s become like a homework assignment, to have to read the paper and watch the news and occasionally get on the internet.
I was familiar with the play because of the [Ohio art-punk] band Pere Ubu, who I think take their name from the play, right?
That’s right. … They took their name based on the nonsensical nature of the script, and Jarry’s desire not to let art necessarily be pretty.