FREE to the public! No reservations necessary.
Westport Community Theatre is presenting an original workshop production of a new play, Rise and Fall, by noted media personality and former Westport resident, Eric Burns. Rise and Fall takes place on March 10th at 8 p.m. The one-night staged reading is part of WCT’s ETC staged reading series.
The March 10 reading is free to the public and includes a talk-back with Burns after the play, along with a dessert reception. It utilizes the talents of two directors new to WCT, Rachel Babcock and Lori Holm, and is produced by WCT board member and Westporter Cindy Hartog. The cast includes Westport residents Deanna Hartog, Danielle Hartog, and Ann Kinner, as well as Damian Long, Jeff Pliskin, and Cooper Ramsey.
Eric Burns, a well-known American author, media critic and former broadcast journalist, has won major awards in three different genres of writing. As an NBC correspondent in the 70s and 80s, he was named one of the best writers in the history of broadcast news by the Washington Journalism Review. A few years later, he won an Emmy for media criticism and his first play, Mid-Strut, won the prestigious Eudora Welty Emerging Playwrights Award.
His most recent book, Someone to Watch Over Me: A Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Tortured Father Who Shaped Her Life, soon to arrive in bookstores, has already received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar, was named one of the best non-fiction books of 2015 and two of his earlier volumes won the highest award possible for academic press books, being named the “Best of the Best” by the American Library Association.
Burns’ Rise and Fall is the unusual tale of the marriage between Jake and Suzanne Hollander, two successful, literate people who, at Suzanne’s insistence, end their union after thirty-five years. Some scenes break the time barrier and include the young, newly wed versions of the Hollanders, subtly planting the seeds of their eventual dissolution as they revel in love, lust and parenthood. The young Suzanne and Jake also meet the older versions of themselves, and, at times in the play, Jake, a historian, addresses his students (the audience) directly about events of the past, subtly managing to introduce scenes about his marital woes.
Rise and Fall also cleverly becomes a play within a book. The Hollander’s son Robby, having slammed against the wall of writer’s block after a highly regarded first book of his own, decides to tell the story of his parents’ break up, writing a book called Rise and Fall as the break-up unfolds on stage. The seriousness of the plot, which includes a tragic surprise at the end of each act, is leavened by a number of laughs that defuse the tension.
We look forward to having you join us!
With The Crucible closing in one more week, I’m turning my attention to the play I’ll be directing, Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir. It’s a new kind of show for me, but one that has already grown very close to my heart.
All my life I’ve toyed with the dream of becoming a professional singer—the latest iteration is blues, crooning in a dim club, my chiffon scarf floating behind me, my pianist and I communicating constantly, eye-to-delighted-eye. My sister and I used to make up operas (and languages!) and perform them dramatically to the bathroom mirror. As a child and as a teenager I sang in church choirs; in high school, college, and graduate school I was a member of numerous singing ensembles. The gift of a guitar gave me hours of solitary delight composing and singing. I was a soloist in church and school programs. I was selected to be part of the New Jersey Opera Festival, a state-wide high school project, one year. In other words, I could sing. Correction: I CAN sing, and I love to sing.
But really, I think everyone can sing. And I think everyone should.
In grad school I had a friend who was completely tone-deaf as far as producing notes went, but a real lover of music…. In those folky days, just about every get-together eventually wound up with the guitars coming out and everybody singing; and when Michael sang, his head moved up and down in perfect pitch. Of course back in his growing-up years he had been one of the many kids kindly advised by the chorus director to “just move your lips, dear” so that the harmony of the tonally able would be unimpaired. But I loved hearing him sing “O Danny Boy”—his heart was in his voice, and his face was blissful. Isn’t that what music is for?
So Souvenir is about such a person. She wasn’t tone-deaf, but she was definitely tone-impaired; and the operatic coloratura she believed poured from her was actually watery in quality and accuracy. But she had money, and influential friends who encouraged her. And so she became a performer, donating the proceeds of her concerts to charity. From small private musical evenings to larger performances for invited audiences, she had the encouragement and accolades of her friends. And somewhere along the line there she acquired a piano accompanist who entered the partnership for the salary and stayed out of respect, admiration, protectiveness, and a kind of love. A record company invited her to make recordings. Her crowning achievement was a sold-out recital in Carnegie Hall.
Whenever she performed, what she heard was cheers and sobs of appreciation; what it was was stifled laughter, muffled laughter, screams of laughter. Her Carnegie Hall concert sold out, all 2000 seats, in two hours, and they all came to laugh.
This was Florence Foster Jenkins. Her accompanist was Cosme McMoon. Stephen Temperley has written what he calls “A Fantasia on the Career of Florence Foster Jenkins,” and I get to direct it; and I dedicate it to the proposition that everyone should sing.
The wonderful actress and singer Priscilla Squiers plays FFJ; actor, singer, and pianist Greg Chrzczon plays Cosme. The play is full of music, and the two cast members have been working on that part of it since January. Last week we began blocking the scenes and developing the characters.
We open the second weekend of April. The audience will laugh—the play invites it—but they will also come to understand, we and the playwright hope, a remarkable partnership and a voyage into the heart of music. At this moment in February, to quote Milton out of context, the world is all before us.
That’s one of my niece’s sayings. For many years in her childhood and early teens she spent a week to ten days with me in the summer, helping to get my summer show up. She learned to sew hems and buttons, to paint textures, to sponge paint on, to take rehearsal notes, to be “on book” for the actors, and to hold my hand when the amount of work remaining seemed impossible to fit into the tiny amount of time remaining. On opening night she’d smile and say, “It’s a theater miracle!”
The community theater “model” depends heavily on the work of volunteers, and thus depends heavily on the existence of a supply of volunteers. In the late ‘forties, ‘fifties, and ‘sixties, when community theater was in its heyday in the U.S., whole families participated in productions, with daddy on the building crew, the kids helping to manage the stage or run the lights, mommy in the cast…or daddy in the cast, mommy working on costumes, the kids doing gofer work…or any other of a large number of variations. Of course the company would also include retired professionals, college grads with extracurricular theater experience, and people new in town wanting to get involved in the life of the community.
Nowadays we’re looking at a different picture. If the kids have time left over from the organized activities designed to get them into a good college, they want a paying job. Mommy and daddy might also need to use their “extra” time to make some extra money, or their employers may expect more than 40 hours’ work a week from them. College grads and youngish adults who enjoy acting may be doing paid work as film extras or trying to break into professional theater. On top of that, there are more community theaters, at least in this part of Connecticut, than there used to be, so the people with time and energy to volunteer are hot commodities, with companies competing for their help.
That’s why so many community theaters find themselves scrambling for personnel, especially backstage personnel, when production time rolls around. Good designers and crews are hard to find.
I was lucky with The Seafarer to have a truly great set designer, Al Kulcsar. He’s done a lot of sets for shows of mine, and they are always genuine places of habitation for the characters in the play, inviting art works for the audience, and good working environments for the actors. He himself also acts (he’s in The Seafarer!) and directs, so he knows what the needs of a cast and a show are. I also was fortunate to have an offer from Jeff Klein to design lights. Jeff is both experienced and in demand, but what I prize most are his artistic eye and collaborative grace. He was inspired by one of the moments in the play to design a special lighting effect that deepens the emotion and effectiveness of the scene in a way that we could not have otherwise accomplished. And I had a wonderful costumer, in the person of Al’s sister, Mary Kulcsar. We’ve done more shows together than I can count, and it’s always a good experience. Rob Pawlikowski, also in the cast, collected and created necessary sound effects, something he is good at and enjoys. My young neighbor Gregory was also helping me at rehearsals, following the script for the actors and helping to deal with props.
Late in the process Joan Lasprogato stepped in to serve as producer for the show. I often work in tandem with my producer, because I like some of the tasks myself, but it’s great to have somebody good to oversee the whole endeavor, support the cast and me, supplement my efforts in the Props department, and sometimes just be there with a cheerful resourcefulness.
But ten days out, there we were. No Stage Manager. No one to execute Sound and Light cues. No one to run props during the show. Needless to say, those people are really important!
Cindy Hartog, who’s on the WCT Board, contacted me to say she could run props for some of the performances and her husband Marc could run lights and sound for those same performances. She also gave me the name of someone who might be able to do lights and sound for the rehearsals and other performances, Kristian Correa. Paul Lenhart came in and loaded the Sound cues and merged them with the Light cues Jeff had written so that everything could be run from one board, by one operator. Ray Stephens came in for some extra help with the board. Cindy also sent me Rachel Rothman Cohen to fill in on Props at the dress/technical rehearsals. And I woke up in the middle of the night just a few days before opening and exclaimed, “Ward Whipple!” Ward has acted in a few shows with me, and I’ve known him for many years. He had asked, when auditions were being held for The Seafarer, if there was anything I needed help with. Aha. I flew down to the computer and sent him an e-mail. He had never done backstage work before, but he said he’d give it a try. As it turns out, he seems to be a natural Props master, and he was able to fill almost all the gaps in the schedule. And then…we got Bethany Schalow. She was another “find” of Cindy’s. She has a solid theater education, good experience managing stage, and a calm and efficient demeanor. Best of all, she was available for most of our performances, plus our tech rehearsals.
So scant days before opening, I had nobody backstage, and now I have a competent and cooperative crew doing as wonderful a job backstage as my actors are doing onstage. The program had to be printed before many of these people materialized, so I wanted to be sure to celebrate them here.
Believe me, it’s a Theater Miracle.
P.S. Opening weekend went smoothly, with three fine performances presented to enthusiastic audiences and me thrilled in the shadows. Seven performances remain. I really think this is a production not to be missed.
Always before we hold the publicity shoot I feel somewhat resentful that I’m going to be more or less sacrificing a rehearsal for the sake of some photos. But then on the night, I realize that with the right photographer and with proper preparation by all involved, the shoot can actually push the production forward in important ways.
Our set designer, Al Kulcsar, expedited part of the set, and I did a partial set-dressing (a job I love and always grab for myself) so the photos would be in a setting.
Mary Kulcsar had already been working with the actors on costumes, trying on various possibilities, talking about the characters’ personalities and histories with the actors and with me (wearing director’s hat); so we knew everyone would look good.
Our photographer, Michael Stanley, who’s been photographing my shows since back in the days when he was in some of them, has a wonderful eye and a lot of patience. I planned a number of shots and knew he would supplement with ideas of his own.
And on the night, as the actors came down from the dressing room in costume and took positions in the scene moments we had decided on, the characters began to take on body in a more substantial way than we had yet achieved in regular rehearsals. Playing the photo moments, amplifying the brief relevant script passage with ad-libbed conversation, the actors settled comfortably into the roles they are playing, and I could see the whole play take a giant step closer to the moment when it can be offered as reality to an audience.
Today I looked at the photos. What I saw was a world peopled not so much by my actors as by Richard, Sharky, Ivan, Nicky, and Mr. Lockhart. They are real: I have the pictures.
The next production at WCT, Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, opens Thanksgiving weekend and runs three weekends—appropriately, since the play is set on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
. One of the most suspenseful and important phases of the production is now behind us: auditions.
. I’ve auditioned for roles myself, and I find them harrowing. Surely that’s partly because I audition rarely, take roles rarely, and therefore feel somewhat awkward on a stage. I look around and see actors more experienced, more at ease, and more likely to get cast than I, and lose my nerve. I also have some vision alignment problems that mean I have to keep my nose directly in a script to see it, and I know the director would occasionally like to see my face…. Well, because of my own “issues” as an auditioner, as a director I do try to put auditioners at ease, and give them the same chance at a role I would like to be given if I were in their place. And then sometimes I wonder if the auditioners are more relaxed than I am.
. There’s so much riding on the audition. WHO plays a role has so much influence on HOW it can be played. This is true both for the individual role and for the overall ensemble and the world they can create. I always tell auditioners that I cast to ensemble: that is, how good an actor is individually and “qua actor,” so to speak, is only part of what I’m trying to find out in an audition. How good he or she is for the role, how compatible his or her potential is with my own vision for the play, and how well he or she will complement the rest of the cast and the development of the scenes—these are crucial considerations. Actors tend to feel that if they don’t get a role it’s because the director thought somebody else was a better actor. While that may be so, much more significant is whether somebody else seems better for the role and a better fit with the other actors being chosen for the cast.
. I directed the Connecticut première of McPherson’s The Weir, and I think he really speaks to me. I have since directed staged readings of several other of his plays, including The Seafarer. I saw the production of this play directed by McPherson himself in New York, but I also see this play very clearly in my own mind, and the members of the staged-reading cast confirmed my love for it and my ideas about its direction.
. So when I went into auditions for the production of this play, I was hoping to see some of the actors who had been in the reading. For this play I didn’t pre-cast anyone, but I did make sure that people I was interested in would be auditioning, and I also had some possible choices “pencilled in.” David Brubaker, my brilliant and beloved director back in college, said often that a director who had no casting possibilities in mind had no business choosing a play to begin with, and I agree with him. I was interested in all the actors who auditioned, and their potential for this play, and I did my best to give everyone a fair hearing; but for several of the roles, new auditioners did have candidates to “beat.”
. Most of the actors who auditioned came prepared for the evening, having read all or part of the play, having seen a production of it possibly, having read the audition notice carefully. One of the auditioners had decided only at the last minute to come, though, and since he had not prepared the required Irish accent he chose not to try it. That was a shame, because accents are necessary for this play, and I couldn’t make a casting decision based on the possibility that he could do a good one. Note to anyone auditioning for anyone: come ready to do what the audition announcement has suggested is necessary.
. In the end, I wound up casting three of the five actors who had been in the staged reading of the play with me. To say the other two were also actors I’d worked with before would be somewhat misleading, because most of the auditioners were actors I’d worked with before. Actually three of the actors cast had been in my production of The Weir back in 2001, as well. For a play this intimate, this demanding, and this substantial, I was unlikely to cast someone whose work I didn’t know. I did that once many years ago and nearly destroyed the show: in fact, I had to dismiss the actor from the cast just two days before we opened because he was nowhere near ready to do the part in front of an audience and, in the lead role as he was, would have brought the entire play crashing down. (Another actor went on with a script and was infinitely better. I wish I had had the courage to make the change sooner, for the sake of the other actors who had gamely been trying to develop their scenes with no help from the lead.)
. The offer of a role is the beginning of an adventure that has to be buoyed by mutual courage, mutual work, and mutual trust. I’m confident that I have a cast where that will be the case.
. We’ve had the read-through that begins the rehearsal process, and I enjoyed the camaraderie among the actors, the wonderful interplay of their voices, and McPherson’s natural, funny, painful, beautiful dialogue. I can’t wait to start rehearsals in earnest.