The Austin Chronicle

Going Over the Top and Other Outrageous Behaviors: Being melodramatic – on purpose

By Barry Pineo, August 31, 2007, Arts

If you ever get the chance to speak with Karen Hastings, you should jump all over it. An actress, director, writer, producer, and teacher from Topeka, Kan., Hastings specializes in old-style theatre like melodrama and vaudeville. She recently arrived in Round Rock to direct a production of Dale Easton's The Drunkard, a comedic melodrama, at Sam Bass Community Theatre. "I worked for Dale in my youth, which was back before the Earth's crust started cooling," says Hastings. "And so did Frank Benge, who is very well associated with Sam Bass. Frank called and wanted to know if Sam Bass could do The Drunkard." In a rather unusual move, Easton, before he died, left The Drunkard to Hastings as a sort of legacy. Easton had a very specific way of presenting the show, utilizing a very broad, over-the-top, melodramatic style prevalent in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In order to preserve the style, Easton enlisted Hastings.

Fortunately for a couple dozen lucky souls in the Austin area, Austinites can hear all about it from the lady herself, as Hastings is not only directing The Drunkard but offering a master class in old acting styles, which she calls Going Over the Top and Other Outrageous Behaviors. "Basically there are two styles of melodrama," says Hastings. "There's serious melodrama, like East Lynne and Two Orphans. And there's comedic melodrama, like the kind you would find in Toby Tolliver shows. Toby is the wise fool. You can trace his roots back to commedia and Shakespeare. He is ancient, but he emerged from American folk theatre, from tent theatre. He's the country bumpkin fool who always comes up with the answers, and you can glimpse his legacy in more modern plays, such as Oklahoma!"

In addition to offering a history of and practical experience in melodrama style, Hastings also will offer instruction in vaudeville. "Vaudeville came out of the English music hall, but it's strictly American, like jazz. It's influenced by so many immigrants, Irish and Russian and Jewish. Bert Lahr's son once saw a marvelous vaudeville tape of his father and was so embarrassed, because the style seemed so frivolous. Then it occurred to him that frivolity is always a society's refusal to suffer. And that's what those vaudevillians did. Most of them came from places where they had personally suffered, and this fantastic, crazy, zany – there's a term from commedia, this 'zaniness' – it's like when Zorba the Greek dances. No matter how much he hurts, if he dances, it's a refusal to give in to it."

Like I said, if you ever get a chance to speak with Karen Hastings, you should jump on it. And you really should, because only 24 lucky souls will get the chance to take the leap this time around.

The master class Going Over the Top and Other Outrageous Behaviors will be offered Saturday, Sept. 1, and Saturday, Sept. 8, 10am-5:30pm, at Sam Bass Theatre, 600 N. Lee in Round Rock. Cost: $100. Class limited to 12 students per session.

The Drunkard runs Sept. 21-Oct. 13, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 2pm, at Sam Bass Theatre, 600 N. Lee in Round Rock. For more information, call 512/244-0440 or visit

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