Storytelling Takes Center Stage in The New Electric Ballroom


Yvette Chen

(From left) College junior Annie Winneg as Breda, College junior Lillian White as Ada, double-degree fifth-year Andrew Groble as Patsy and College sophomore Jourdan Lewanda as Clara in ‘The New Electric Ballroom.’ The play explored the power of stories in our lives.

Paris Gravley, Staff Writer

With three jaded Irish wom­en and a pungent fishmonger engaged in a bizarrely cyclical plot, it was unclear how Enda Walsh’s play The New Electric Ballroom was ever going to re­late to an audience of Oberlin College students. At first, it didn’t. Yet as director and Col­lege senior Zachary Weinberg noted, something about the play is hard to shake — but what is it?

The play revolves around old­er sisters Breda, played by Col­lege junior Annie Winneg, and Clara, played by College sopho­more Jourdan Lewanda, retell­ing their experiences at the New Electric Ballroom to their much younger sister Ada, played by College junior Lillian White. What exactly the New Electric Ballroom was remained unstat­ed, but it could be surmised that it was a dance hall Breda and Clara frequented in their youth. As they recount their tales, the audience learns along with Ada one of the pessimistic realities of womanhood, that of subjec­tion to the false promise of male companionship.

Fishmonger Patsy, played by double-degree fifth-year An­drew Groble, is the only male character present. He first acts as comic relief, interrupting the darker narratives with his up­beat gossip. In one of the final turns of the play, Ada falls for Patsy, the hope for the couple’s fresh love igniting newfound optimism in Breda and Clara. But their hope is short-lived: Patsy leaves Ada just as quickly as he had promised eternal love. For the sisters, this repeats a New Electric Ballroom narra­tive, just without the ballroom.

The play’s structure is similar to that of a jazz ensemble: The common thread of the plot pro­vides opportunities for the indi­vidual sisters to “solo,” stepping onto a wooden dais at the front of the larger stage to recount their stories. These moments were punctuated with lighting, purposeful background mu­sic and costume changes, all of which successfully created a mini-set without leaving the larger one. When the actors mounted this wooden stage, the audience went right with them down memory lane, straight to the New Electric Ballroom. Even outside of the scenes in the ballroom, the setting’s ingenu­ity was surprising and, perhaps appropriately, smelly. For exam­ple, to emphasize the lingering sadness Patsy evokes in his fi­nal scene, a fish was gutted on­stage, fanning the smell of raw fish into the theater.

Nonetheless, the details of the actual narrative were much harder to grasp than the set changes. How old were the sis­ters? Why did Clara seem so much younger than Breda, when she was theoretically at least twice as old? Why were these women repeating these stories over and over again? And, more importantly, what was at stake for them? As an audience, why should we care about these re­petitive narratives about the New Electric Ballroom?

As Weinberg noted in the program, it seemed a meaning­less battle to fight the age is­sue. The student actors, them­selves only a few years past their teens, played 60-year-old women as well as the women’s teenaged counterparts in flash­backs. The decision to ignore the matter of age, however, only created confusion, especially with Clara and Ada. Patsy, too, was caught in this age confu­sion — was he nearing sixty, like Clara and Breda, or closer to Ada’s age? This matter be­came all the more crucial when he and Ada fell in love.

The repetition of the narra­tives helped hold together the play, even as some of the more basic details remained unclear. The stories acted as pillars for the other scenes, standing out as the stronger moments of the play for both acting and narra­tive clarity. However, there were times when these anecdotes didn’t generate enough intrigue to keep the audience engaged. The answers to why we should care about these women and their sto­ries weren’t presented explicitly; instead, they seemed to be hint­ed at with certain lines, such as, “Stamped by story are we,” “People are talkers” and “No such thing as the idle word.” The already confus­ing plot, with its odd repetition and lack of characterization, distracted the audience from understanding the subtler motivation for these micro-narratives contained within The New Electric Ballroom’s larger tale. When the play concluded, the mood was depressed and direc­tionless, without the obvious de­mand for introspection common in more resonant works of art.

But despite the problems with age, clarity, the cyclical narrative structure and intrigue, The New Electric Ballroom is hard to shake. Why? How?

Though its stories fall un­der a broad definition of trau­ma, The New Electric Ballroom exemplifies one reason why narratives of trauma, and all narration, are important. By in­cluding Clara, Breda and even­tually Ada’s stories within a larger one, the play illuminated the role of smaller stories in our lives. Clara and Breda have been telling the same story to their younger sister for her entire life — without saying so explicitly, we see how they want her to learn from their own mistakes. Ada, even after hearing these stories over and over again, in­evitably does exactly what her sisters hoped she wouldn’t, ex­periencing similar heartbreak and disappointment.

What does this tell us about the role of narrating trauma in our own lives? Several things: first, that retelling the same story to ourselves, over and over again, does not advance our ability to understand or over­come it; second, that telling the story to others does not mean that they will automatically un­derstand it; and third, that if we don’t look critically, continu­ously and creatively at the sto­ries told to us and the stories we tell ourselves, we are destined to make the same mistakes the Claras and Bredas in our lives have already made.

In this way, The New Electric Ballroom was incredibly impact­ful and relevant to Oberlin stu­dents. What does Oberlin College ask of us, anyway, if not to think critically about the pluralistic narratives that surround us?