Springsteen play explores pitfalls of the American Dream

The+cast+of+%E2%80%9CWhen+the+Promise+was+Broken%E2%80%9D+rehearses+in+Yulman+Theatre.+Courtesy+of+Patsy+Culbert.
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Springsteen play explores pitfalls of the American Dream

The cast of “When the Promise was Broken” rehearses in Yulman Theatre. Courtesy of Patsy Culbert.

The cast of “When the Promise was Broken” rehearses in Yulman Theatre. Courtesy of Patsy Culbert.

The cast of “When the Promise was Broken” rehearses in Yulman Theatre. Courtesy of Patsy Culbert.

The cast of “When the Promise was Broken” rehearses in Yulman Theatre. Courtesy of Patsy Culbert.

Katherine Arnold, Contributing Writer

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Brought to you by the Union College Theatre Company, “When the Promise was Broken” is a collection of short plays inspired by Bruce Springsteen songs, each written by different American playwrights. Together they flow seamlessly into an evening that shines light on the pursuit of the American Dream and its inevitable pitfalls. Contributing Writer Katherine Arnold ‘22 sat down with Union’s very own Patricia Culbert, director of “When the Promise was Broken”.

Q: To start off, would you mind elaborating on the structure and content of this show?

Patricia Culbert: There are thirteen plays in the whole collection, and the collection was put together by a woman at the University of Western Michigan, Joan Harrington, who also edited the individual pieces. Essentially, a couple of plays were written which were inspired by Springsteen songs and they wanted to put more in a collection.

So word spread in the playwright community and they got a bunch of submissions. There’s such a mix of playwrights too which is fun. One of the playwrights we have in the play is Steven Dietz, who is a very well-known American contemporary playwright who has written tons of stuff on Broadway. There are also a couple of playwrights who are just grad students.

Q: You mentioned earlier how there were thirteen plays in the original ensemble, but that your production has nine. Is there a reason why you chose those nine plays in particular?

Culbert: There were a few reasons for why I chose some of the plays. I also was looking for about ninety minutes worth of material. A couple of the plays are between four and six minutes long, and then a few that are between ten and twenty minutes, so there’s a variety. How to order them is also not the way they ordered it in here.

Q: How did you figure out the best order in which to put the plays?

Culbert: It took awhile for me to figure out how to mix and match them. There are a couple of very heavy pieces that are kind of dark. And there are a couple of lighter pieces so I didn’t want to do all the light pieces and all the dark pieces, I wanted to mix it up a little bit. Once we were in rehearsal I was able to see that this one was able to flow into that one. And I had cast it so almost every actor is in two pieces. I also had to coordinate scenic pieces, like there are two that have a car in them, so I wanted to switch them so the audience could clearly see that we are in different pieces.

Q: Do you think since this ensemble, in particular, is inspired by music that it adds something different to any other ensemble piece that you’ve been a part of?

Culbert: Well we’ve all become Springsteen fans through it. We just have. We listen to his music all the way through rehearsals. The students kind of complain that I’m not playing enough of his music. I use snatches of his music in the transitions between each piece and the changing of the scenic elements.

Q: Have you ever directed an ensemble piece before this one?

Culbert: Oh, I’ve done lots of ensemble work here and I love it. However, this one was more directed because the ensemble has different roles to play, and I had to stage nine separate pieces. However, we did unify the scenic elements into the design of a Rust Belt America, which is a lot of what Bruce Springsteen’s songs are writing about. Sort of the broken promises [of that life]. In fact, one of his songs, “The Promise”, carries that line, “when the promise was broken”. That’s where the title of the collection comes from….[I]t’s an umbrella idea because all the plays in some way deal with an America — a society and a culture in which promises have been broken. Whether those promises are of a relationship that will last forever, or of solid working life with a middle class income, or the promise of faithfulness in marriage, or the promise of rising through the ranks of your corporation, the promise of always having a job, the promise of war and not having a ruined life after war….in some way someone’s promise is broken in each one of these plays. And that’s the umbrella idea: working class American life. So our scenic designer was working with this idea of Rust Belt America and the broken-down warehouses.

Q: I’m glad you brought that up because you could say that Schenectady is in the Rust Belt, so do you think that’s one of the reasons why this play is so important for Union students to see?

Culbert: Absolutely. To have a cultural awareness to what it has been like to live through depressing times in a community like Schenectady or all over New Jersey or Pennsylvania is important. Some of those troubled times are in the past and some of them are still going on today. Schenectady has gone through it in the past twenty or thirty years and is beginning to come out of it, but a lot of the inspiration that the scenic designers got were from taking photographs all around Schenectady…to bring that sensibility that there continues to be tough life for many Americans to a very privileged college community is a good thing.