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October 14, 2011

TimeLine Company Members David Parkes and Janet Ulrich Brooks are negotiators John Honeyman and Anya Botvinnik in "A Walk in the Woods," now playing at Theater Wit through Nov. 20, 2011.

TimeLine’s 15th season opener A Walk in the Woods — the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play by Lee Blessing that first premiered on Broadway in 1988 and has been revived, with a twist, by director Nick Bowling — has been playing for a few weeks.

You can read the official critical response at our website, but with so many of you already having seen the show — and six more weekends to encourage others to check it out — we want to hear what you thought of the production! What was your response to the gender switch (making the Russian negotiator a woman, rather than a man as originally written)? Did the play make you feel a greater sense of futility, or of hope, about our ability to work with international adversaries? How about personal adversaries? Do you feel the play is dated? Have you been Googling information about nuclear weaponry in the world today? What conversations have you had with your friends and family since seeing the show? We want to hear it all!

Responses, reviews, comments or questions are welcome below (please review our guidelines before diving in). We look forward to the conversation!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. John Sterling permalink
    October 19, 2011 11:50 am

    Had the pleasure of watching A Walk in the Woods with a number of friends on October 1st. Mr. Parkes and Ms. Ulrich Brooks are spectacular in their respective roles. The play does a great job of highlighting some of the absurdities associated with the arms race, mutually assured destruction, media expectations of diplomats and negotiators, and politics in general. While not necessarily an overt comedy, the play generates enormous laughs.

    The technical side was great as well – the combination of Mr. Bembridge’s set/lighting and Mr. Tutaj’s projections were amazing.

    The only disappointment – and I’m not sure this can be “fixed” at Theatre Wit – was the need to push a limited lobby display off to a corner of the theater. The lobby experience at TimeLine has become a wonderful and much anticipated bonus of seeing TimeLine productions – looking forward to experiencing that for Pitman Painters and other shows later this season.

    Cheers!

  2. Steve Duke permalink
    October 24, 2011 10:53 am

    This play feels perfectly timely, despite being more than 20 years old. While the setting is Soviet-US strategic arms talks in the ’80s, as with all durable plays the themes are much broader and will resonate 10 or 20 years from now as well as they do today.

    Both actors are superb, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Janet Ulrich Brooks during the entire play. She can convey so much with the slightest change in facial expression.

    It’s a captivating evening of theater. You shouldn’t miss it.

  3. October 24, 2011 4:35 pm

    What follows is a very long post that I made on my own blog after seeing “A Walk In The Woods.” The production is one of the most provocative pieces of theater I have seen in some time, as you may be able to discern from the following:

    A Walk In the Woods; The Green Table

    Some Thoughts on Diplomacy and Art

    Death Comes in Threes

    Three things have recently converged on my mind that remind me of the grave danger we face every day by submitting our fate to the hands of “leaders.” First, I saw TimeLine Theatre’s magnificent production of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods playing now through Novermber 20th at Theater Wit. That experience reminded me of a ballet I saw several years ago at a Joffrey Ballet of Chicago performance. German Choreographer Curt Jooss’s The Green Table portrays the futility of negotiation and the triumph of death over sanity and humanism. Finally, I have been viewing a Teaching Company DVD entitled Transformational Leadership: How Leaders change Teams, Companies and Organizations.

    Diplomacy vs. Negotiation

    Certainly the production of A Walk in the Woods by TimeLine Theatre Company is what started me thinking about all of this. This is a two-character play, mostly dialog that takes place in an unchanging wooded setting populated only by stylized trees and foliage augmented by projected images and a single bench. U.S. negotiator John Honeyman is played by David Parkes and Soviet negotiator Anya Botvinnik is handled by Janet Ulrich Brooks. Both actors turn in spectacular and convincing performances. Parkes’ portrayal of the somewhat inexperienced and idealistic American is convincing; Brooks’ portrayal of Botvinnik is equally convincing and comes complete with a Russian dialect that never misses a beat for the entire production.

    Honeyman, the American, keeps insisting that the two are “negotiating” and not engaged in “diplomacy.” A quick look at a dictionary will reveal that there is a substantial difference between the two words. Most dictionaries lead us to believe that diplomacy is the art of relationships that are treated with sensitivity, friendship and respect while negotiation is an attempt to reach an agreement between parties with an almost adversarial connotation. The Russian, Botvinnik, repeatedly uses the word diplomacy only to be corrected by the American who insists that they are in reality negotiating. This difference presents a telling attitude on the part of each of the pair.

    At intermission my mind drifted toward what I know about conflict resolution and how one of the most important parts of any conflict resolution is the discovery of common goals and objectives. These shared objectives can become the basis for real ongoing conversation that ultimately results in a lasting resolution to seemingly intractable differences. Witness for example, the difficulties facing several major orchestras at this point in history. Recently, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and currently the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Louisville Orchestra face desperate financial situations. Given the adversarial relationship that exists between musicians and the governing boards and management it should come as no surprise that these “negotiations” are proceeding with more venom than shared values and objectives. While these adversarial proceedings suit the agendas of some critics and bloggers (what fun it must be to fan the flames of controversy in order to have something to blog about tomorrow) it does little to begin to repair the damage that has been done by decades of American-style labor relations. The “negotiations” take place; both sides feel as though they have given more than they have received; both sides grudgingly agree to a settlement with a firm resolve that “next time, I’ll get even.” Where is the diplomacy? Where is the sensitivity? Where is the understanding? Where are the shared values and objectives?

    Ultimately, Botvinnik, the Soviet negotiator, triumphs in her attempt to introduce diplomacy into her relationship with the American Honeyman. Eventually, they discover their shared values and objectives. Will this discovery between two people impact the future of mankind? In point of historical fact there are many who will assert that the real events surrounding the fictional realization if A Walk in the Woods did in fact send a signal to the world that the United States and Soviet Union were at last serious about arms control. The conclusion of the play finds Honeyman and Botvinnik reaching agreement on a suggestion for a treaty, just as historical fact records. It must next be accepted by their respective governments.

    Negotiate; Make War; Bury the Wounded; Negotiate

    Kurt Jooss’s ballet, The Green Table, is so named because of the custom of conducting negotiations across a table covered with green felt. The dancers portray the negotiators. The grotesque and stylized movements of the negotiators are exaggerated by the masques worn by the dancers as they trade thrusts and parries across the negotiating table. Eventually, the negotiators draw pistols and fire them, signaling the declaration of war and the beginning of hostilities. There follows a number of sections such as The Farewell, as soldiers bid their family adieu as they leave for battle; The Battle and The Partisan depict the war itself; loneliness and misery is shown by The Refugees; The Brothel shows us the emptiness of “entertaining the troops”; finally, The Aftermath presents the psychologically wounded survivors. The ballet concludes with a repeat of the opening scene of “The Gentlemen in Black” around the negotiating table. Throughout the ballet the dancer that portrays Death emerges triumphant and the Profiteer rakes in his monetary rewards for the sufferings of others.

    This is admittedly a severely cynical view of negotiating but given the origins of the piece, the Weimar Republic of Germany in 1932, it represents one artist’s concerns over the course being taken by his own country. From that concern he extrapolates the general futility of negotiating and the cyclical nature of the negotiating process: negotiate, make war, bury the wounded, negotiate again.

    The similarities between A Walk in the Woods and The Green Table are unmistakable as are the similarities among A Walk in the Woods, The Green Table and some current labor negotiations at prominent American Orchestras. All three share the same themes of mistrust, lack of understanding, a failure to find common ground and a willingness to view the entire process as a zero-sum game. Well, perhaps Honeyman and Botvinnik eventually begin to see the futility of negotiation toward the end of their walks.

    Leadership: An Incomplete View

    I am interested in leadership because I am involved in nonprofit management. Although not unique to nonprofits, it is an especially important consideration given the nature of the nonprofit organization that lacks the profit motive as an instrument of inspiration and that depends instead on abstract notions of mission and leadership. The Teaching Company has always published material that I have found both informative and valuable, so I ordered Transformational Leadership: How Leaders Change Teams, Companies, and Organizations. I have only viewed the first three of the twenty-four half-hour lectures. The course has already proved to be both informative and valuable. Very early in the course Professor Michael A. Roberto, the course’s instructor, makes it plain that there is no correlation between character traits and our ability to predict success as a leader. Rather, it is skills and competencies that are the most valuable predictors of success as a leader. Despite this fact, investigated and researched many times by scholars who all arrive independently at the same conclusion, you will find countless internet websites alleging to counsel individuals on how to advance their career by developing certain “character traits.” There is absolutely no evidence to support any of this emphasis on things like “passion,” “an optimistic attitude” or “self-confidence.” Yet we continue to use these obsolete and disproved notions in our evaluation of others.

    Ultimately, this course will examine the success of a “leader” as a combination of factors such as context and the implementation of a team leadership approach that really involves a group of individuals and not just the single “Lone Ranger” hero of the organization. In the long run, skills and competencies that can be learned and perfected are what determine the success of a leader.

    The implications for this are enormous. As A Walk in the Woods portrays the agreement developed by Honeyman and Botvinnik was presented to their respective governments. But was the decision to accept or reject the agreement made by a single individual? Was there instead some sort of team effort that ultimately determined the course of strategic arms negotiations? The Green Table on the other hand treats leadership as though it didn’t exist and as though it were simply “fate” and a poorly conceived system of negotiations that results in the inevitable cycle of death and destruction faced by mankind. What about negotiations between symphony musicians and their governing boards? Is it really the absence of strong leadership—leadership that is skilled and competent—that results in the confrontational nature of contract negotiations?

    These are complex issues that occur in a variety of contexts ranging from the truly horrific, such as nuclear holocaust at the national level, to the way you try to reason with your teenaged son or daughter who clearly entertains different standards of behavior than you do.

    TimeLine; Time Out

    TimeLine Theatre Company’s Board President Cindy Giacchetti makes the following observation:

    A TimeLine play is not just 120 minutes in a dark theater. It is the conversation you have with others, or even with yourself, hours and sometimes days after the applause ends.

    Ms. Giacchetti never claims that TimeLine will provide answers and indeed, in this case it has only provided a means for my own further explorations of leadership, diplomacy and negotiations.

    Mission accomplished.

  4. Bill Flaherty permalink
    November 4, 2011 4:04 pm

    There seems to be two movements in the plot. One is in the relationship between the two characters –are they going to become friends? Dramaticly It is a simple, interpersonal question because there are only two characters on the stage. I believe that many Americans believe that two intelligent and well intentioned individuals can solve any problem, no matter how serious. And the play shows the two characters gradually becoming friends and arriving at an agreed upon plan..However, they also represent the off stage governments of the United States and the Soviet Union who are spoken of as mutually sinister and not wanting a solution. What early on is portrayed as political cynacisim turns out to be a predetermined, immutable obstacle. The two characters end up sitting as friends (good for plays and tourism) but without any realistic hope for human survival (bad for adults, their children and the audience).

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