Thesis, theatre, acting


In 1985, Christopher Durang created a master work titled The Marriage of Bette and Boo which was described by The New Yorker as a "brimming cornucopia of brilliant lines." Frank Rich of the New York Times called it "so speedy and chipper that it could almost be mistaken for a Bob Fosse musical." Douglas Watt of the New York Daily News referred to it as a "farcical study of a disastrous marriage, marked by still births, insanity in the family and divorce." These critical responses indicate the necessity to maintain the complexity of the character of Soot without allowing her to fall into the easy stereotypes that trap many artists. The play's focus on alcoholism, spousal abuse, and cancer make it difficult to reconcile the very serious circumstances with the overtly comical reactions created in the play. My challenge in portraying the character of Soot is to resolve these issues. I focused on the teaching of Konstantin Stanislavski as interpreted by Sonia Moore of the American Center for Stanislavski Theatre Art to navigate this challenge. Ms. Moore asserts: "Only after the actor has studied the play, the events, and the given circumstances will he be able to select the actions which will involve his emotions and other inner experiences." With this in mind, I began by studying the script and the playwright for clues about the given circumstances within the world of the play. "You're the dumbest white woman alive" is a line from the play used to describe Soot. This line of dialogue has been used in the past to justify stereotypical performances of this character which mask the complexity of a woman who has been seriously hurt by the man she loves. These types of simplified characterizations are flat and do not take into account the inner and outer forces that make Soot who she is. Olympia Dukakis played Soot at the Public/Newman Theatre in New York City in an Obie award-winning performance. She is quoted as saying, "This is a very forgiving play." Durang later agreed with this assessment saying, "I remember thinking that that sounded right." He further added that The Marriage of Bette and Boo is "based on my parents, it's more emotionally close to me than some of my more surreal plays...I like the balance of the comic and the sad. It should play as funny, but you should care about the characters and feel sad for them." Durang also confides that his own father was an alcoholic and that "in life, my mother lost three [children in childbirth]." Since the play, however humorous, is based on real events in the life of the playwright and his family, it is reasonable to search for playable and understandable motives for the character's action through research of real life given circumstances. To this end, I have been researching the behavior rationalizations inherent in the social interactions of alcoholic families. This has led me to discover a possible explanation for Soot's unusual responses to unpleasant comments and situations. The eGetgoing Online Addiction Treatment Alcohol and Drug Rehab Counseling web page explains that family members often choose enabling behavior to cope with the destructive choices of the alcoholic. Enablers "may have their own system of denial that is fed by the lies and deceptions." Further, it states, "We can think of denial as a way of telling the truth about a small part of reality as if it were all of reality." In this way, Soot is employing a rational tactic to cope with an irrational existence. I believe further research will also identify denial associated with personal tragedy. These understandable and human connections will provide me with the basis of my beginning explorations of this achingly beautiful and sympathetic woman because, as Sonia Moore states, "A person's psychological and physical behavior is subject to the external influence of his environment." Soot's environment includes the time period of the piece and is complicated by the memory play nature of the script, but it adds context for Soot's behavior as a subservient 1950's housewife who feels as if she has very little control over her own world. According to Elaine Tyler May in her book Homeward Bound, "If a woman was not satisfied being a homemaker she was supposed to keep that information hush-hush and go about her daily activities as though nothing was wrong." This information provides further justification and adds strength to the logic of Soot's actions as she deals with the dysfunctional world of her family. The work I have done researching Soot's motivations appears to be relevant to the execution of the play. I may now begin to apply that research to the creation of Soot. The role of Soot provides a wonderful opportunity to develop and grow as a performer. A thesis role needs to supply the MFA candidate with significant challenges. This role has already provided huge opportunities to connect my research skills with my stage work. I believe the role of Soot will force me to push myself and apply all the skills and training I have received during my studies in order to do justice to the richness of the character.


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Graduation Date



Shafer, John


Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.)


College of Arts and Humanities



Degree Program









Release Date

November 2011

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Masters Thesis (Open Access)