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.
WCT’s new 2013 / 2014 season opens September 20 – and it promises to be one of our best seasons yet. It’s truly the best entertainment value in Westport at $80 for a five-play subscription (single tickets are only $20, $18 for the Thursday performance and $2 discounts for senior citizens).
With much fanfare:
The Prisoner of Second Avenue by Neil Simon
Directed by Lester Colodny
September 20 – October 5, 2013
“Full of humor and intelligence. Fine fun.”- New York Post
“Creates an atmosphere of casual cataclysm, an everyday urban purgatory of copelessness from which laughter seems to be released like vapor from the city’s manholes.”- Time
Mel Edison is an executive who gets laid off from his high-end Manhattan firm. His wife Edna takes a job to tide them over, then she too is sacked. Air pollution is killing his plants, the walls of his apartment are paper-thin, he’s robbed, his psychiatrist dies… and when things can’t seem to get worse, Mel has a nervous breakdown – and it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. Starring Jeff Pliskin, Deborah Burke, Frederic Tisch, Ruth Anne Baumgartner, Jacquie Carlsen, and Maureen Cummings.
We are so pleased to have longtime WCT director Lester Colodny at the helm of this play near and dear to his heart – it is a subject matter he knows very, very well. Lester’s Westport Community Theatre credits span decades, including last year’s season opener “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” – but he is known nationwide as an Emmy-Award-winning writer, producer and director from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was a co-creator of “The Munsters” and worked on television classics such as “Get Smart,” “My Favorite Martian” and “Beetle Bailey.” In the early 70s, he co-wrote a Broadway play, “Fun City” with Joan Rivers. Later, he went into work in advertising for famed casino chain owner Steve Wynn, winning several CLIOs for his work for the company. To finish out his career, he worked in the eighties for a well-known billionaire New York real estate tycoon. Lester spent his early career working with some of the biggest names in show business, including Frank Sinatra, Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers, Florence Henderson, Cary Grant and many more. He was writer, producer and director of “The Baja Marimba Band” for which he won his Emmy. He was a writer on “The Today Show” with original host Dave Garroway, when the show was live and mistakes on the set were broadcast nationally. It was Lester who was ordered to get three barrels of monkeys to be opened live on television at the bequest of Garroway. The results were an instant classic and make up the first chapter of his autobiography, “A Funny Thing Happened,” released summer of 2010.
Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge
by Christopher Durang
Directed by Tom Rushen
November 29 – December 15, 2013
If you think you just don’t want to sit through one more production of A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker… mark your calendars for this comedic masterpiece that has become a holiday season staple of theatres across the country. In this sendup of A Christmas Carol, Gladys Cratchit is an angry, stressed-out woman who is sick of Tiny Time, hates her twenty other children, and wants to get drunk and jump off Lnodn Bridge. She meets up with the sassy Ghost of Christmas Past and Ebenezer Scrooge and the plot morphs into parodies of Oliver Twist, The Gift of the Magi and It’s a Wonderful Life. And to make matters worse, Scrooge and Mrs. Bob seem to be kindred souls falling in love. With a dénouement that is two parts Touched by an Angel and one part The Queen of Mean, Scrooge’s tale of redemption and gentle grace is placed squarely on its head.
“A rollicking parody… Splendid.” — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Fiendishly funny…never disappoints. Wild it most certainly is, without apologies. Send-ups are often immersed in venom, but this one wears an ear-to-ear smile.” — Observer-Reporters
Director Tom Rushen is well known to WCT audiences for past productions including Sabrina and The Importance of Being Earnest, staged readings – and the friendly face you saw in the Box Office during the 2012 / 2013 season. He has directed several plays for Eastbound Theatre in Milford including The Comet of St. Loomis, Lobby Hero, Brooklyn Boy and The Complete History of America (abridged), and is the producer of annual summer one-act play festival jointly produced with Westport Community Theatre. Tom has also directed a number of short plays in the area for SquareWrights (Skeleton Boy, Unintelligent Design, Intervention) and Temple Players (Soldiers of the Lord, An Answer to Their Prayers) as well as productions at other area theatres.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Directed by Richard Mancini
February 7 – 23, 2014
A secret to no one, Arthur Miller’s classic tale of the witchcraft purge in old Salem is both a gripping historical play and a timely parable of contemporary society – the McCarthy hearings. This powerful combination makes The Crucible extremely timely in 2013 – even if you feel you know it well, it’s time to pay it another visit… The story focuses upon a farmer, his wife, and a young servant-girl who maliciously accuses the wife of witchcraft. The farmer brings the girl to court to admit the lie – and it is here that the monstrous course of biogtry and deceit has terrifying consequences. Featuring popular Fairfield County actors Mark Frattaroli and Lucy Babbit.
“Powerful drama…” — New York Times
Director Richard Mancini returns to the WCT stage where his numerous credits include last December’s hit “Old Time Radio Christmas” ETC staged reading, The Woman in Black, The Women, Orson’s Shadow and Broadway Bound among others. Both actor and director, Richard has directed numerous productions at theatres throughout Fairfield County.
Souvenir by Stephen Temperley
Director Ruth Anne Baumgartner
April 11 – 27, 2014
Wealthy eccentric Florence Foster Jenkins suffered under the delusion that she was a great coloratura soprano – when she was, in fact, incapable of producing two consecutive notes in tune. Nevertheless, she gave recitals in the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton hotel, and mobs of fans packed her recitals, stuffing handkerchiefs in their mouths to stifle their laughter. The climax of Florence Foster Jenkins’ career was a single concert at Carnegie Hall in 1944…. Actress Priscilla Squires (last seen at WCT in the memorable Master Class) returns to WCT as the irrepresible Jenkins.
“There aren’t many theatrical experiences as good as ‘Souvenir’” — Boston Globe
“…an unexpectedly gentle and affecting comedy.” – New York Times
Ruth Anne Baumgartner (Director) directed WCT productions of Mr Pim Passes By in April of 2013, The Seafarer in December of 2011, and a staged reading of The Seafarer for WCT’s ETC program two years earlier; she directed the Connecticut première of Conor McPherson’s The Weir in 2001 with Town Players of Newtown. For WCT she has also directed productions of Ice Glen, The Glass Menagerie, Spinning Into Butter, and Measure for Measure, as well as several other staged readings. As a director she specializes in 16th-century, other classic, and contemporary drama. She has worked with Town Players of Newtown (most recently the critically acclaimed production of A Picasso, The Retreat from Moscow, The Turn of the Screw, She Stoops to Conquer, Murderers, and The Merry Wives of Windsor); Putney Players (A Perfect Ganesh, “The Fifteen-Minute Hamlet”); Eastbound Theatre (Brilliant Traces); the Rainbow Theatre in Stamford (Equity, The Duck Variations); and, with Rob Pawlikowski, Newtown High School (The Madwoman of Chaillot). She occasionally acts, and will be seen in WCT’s season opener The Prisoner of Second Avenue; prior to that, she appeared in WCT’s Angel Street. She has appeared locally with Town Players (Newtown) and Putney Players (Stratford), portraying three mothers (one a tuba player), two aunts, a Polish cook, a very high priestess, and a lusty widow, and in staged readings for Square One at the Stratford Library. Films include the studio release Of Arms and Altars, student film A Work of Art, and independent film Doing Agatha, in which she plays a middle-aged actress playing a British matron. She is currently serving on the WCT Board of Directors as Editor of The Prompter and President; she is also on the Board of Directors of Town Players of Newtown. A member of the English departments of Fairfield and Central Connecticut State universities, she is also editor of Vanguard (the quarterly newsletter of the Connecticut Conference, American Association of University Professors). For eighteen years she was artistic director of Bare Bones Theater at the Pequot Library, and continues to be active with the library’s annual book sale. Her undergraduate degree, in English literature, is from Dickinson; her graduate degree, also in English literature, from the University of Rochester. At Dickinson she performed and worked backstage with Mermaid Players, under the late David R. Brubaker and Marj Brubaker; she also had two seasons as a local jobber with the summer stock theater Allenberry Playhouse, on the Straw Hat circuit.
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Mat Young
June 6 – 22, 2013
We close next season with Arcadia, one of the must-see plays produced in the 1990s – many feel it defines the era of playwrighting. Arcadia moves back and forth between 1809 and the present at the elegant estate owned by the Coverly family. In 1809, thirteen year-old Lady Thomasina and her tutor delve into intellectual and romantic issues. Present day scenes depict the Coverly descendants and scholars who are researching a possible scandal at the estate in 1809 involving Lord Byron. This brilliant play explores the nature of truth and time, the difference between classical and romantic temperaments, and the disruptive influence of sex on our lives.
“Pure entertainment for the heart, mind, soul… it is a work shot through with fun, passion and yes, genius.” — The New York Post
“‘Arcadia,’ the play generally regarded as Stoppard’s masterpiece… sparkles – time is magically, heartbreakingly suspended…” – National Post
Director Mat Young is the Artistic Director and founder of Dessert 1st Productions, as well as a director and actor. Mat is also the Host of The Process Podcast, which can be downloaded on iTunes under the same name. Most recently he gave a memorable performance as James Reston in WCT’s 2012 / 2013 season closer Frost / Nixon; he was also seen as Gaston in Piccaso at Lapin Agile (Eastbound Theatre). Last summer Mat appeared as Malvolio in Dessert 1st Production of Twelfth Night (co-produced by WCT as a special summer production). As a director, Mat is most proud of his work with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Jeffery Hatcher (Wilton Playshop), Hamlet (WHS), Romeo and Juliet (WSSP), Taming of the Shrew (WHS) Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me (Eastbound), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (WSSP), Picasso at Lapin Agile (BHS), Into the Woods (WHS), Guy and Dolls (WHS), Drood (WHS & WSSP), The Complete Works William Shakespeare (Abridged) (WCT). As a writer, Mat has penned Mary Potter and the Race to Nowhere, Musical the Musical, True Twilight Diaries and Suddenly There Came a Tapping. As an actor, some of his favorite roles include: Matt The Complete Works William Shakespeare (Abridged) (Dessert 1st), Aaronow in Glengarry Glen Ross (NHTC) Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Pound Ridge), Sir Toby in Twelfth Night (GSC), Bottom in A Midsummer Nights Dream (NHTC), Matt Friedman in Talley’s Folly (RWU), Aldo in The Italian American Reconciliation (RWU), Jeff in Lobby Hero (Eastbound), Henry 6th in Henry VI Part Three (Marymount Theatre), and Swifty in Words Words Words (Wilton Playshop), where he met his wife. A graduate of The New Actor’s Workshop, he studied under the minds of George Morrison the schools founder, and former theatre department head at Suny Purchase, and film and theater director Mike Nichols. In addition, Mat studied Volia Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theatre with her son Paul Sills, co-founder of The Second City comedy troupe, and creator and original director of the Broadway show Storytheater. Mat had founded three different comedy improvisation troupes; Rhode Island’s Who is Winston Churchill?!, Manhattan’s Hypothetical Playground and Connecticut’s Space Pockets. He has also performed in the films Bullet in the Brain by David Von Acken and A Chubby Kid, which he wrote and was the first project of Dessert 1st Productions.
It’s wrong to call a production like The Seafarer a “fleeting joy” except in the most literal sense, but this week that’s the sense I’m experiencing. Sunday was our last performance.
What makes the performing arts so special, of course, is the very thing that makes their joys ephemeral. They are real at the moment of performance, and they are about the moment of performance. In that moment, the script and the actors’ embodiment of the characters and the place and time created by the set and costumes and the mood created by the lighting coalesce with each other and with the particular energies of the people sitting in the seats, the audience, to make truth, reality, passion…to make theater. (I have played in orchestras and sung in choirs, and have been part of the audience of dance performances, and I know the same can be said of those experiences too, all the performing arts—but here I’m speaking specifically of theater. The others will have to speak for themselves.)
That’s why every performance is different, to a greater or lesser extent, from every other performance. The energies are different; different moments emerge more brightly or resonate more deeply as a consequence. Every performance is itself; after every performance, we say “Wow, that was exciting,” or “Act 2 just flew tonight,” or “I’ve never seen that look in your eyes before,” or “let’s keep that new gesture.” There were people who came to see our production of The Seafarer three or four times, and remarked on the different textures of the various performances.
The production as a whole is ephemeral, too, alas. Whether it’s a term production in a community or repertory theater, or a show that will run for as many performances as there are ticket sales, it will eventually come to an end. The intense world of the play, the passionate collaboration of the actors, will dissolve. The set will come down. The props and costumes will be cleaned, sorted, and stored. There is a kind of post partum depression that hits me at the end of a show. All this focused energy, all this purposeful activity, all this love, become a page that is turned. I step out of the theater and feel as though I’m stepping off an unexpected curb: Oh! Where am I?
Some actors will roll into another production almost immediately (our Mr. Lockhart, Will Jeffries, has already begun to prepare for his upcoming role in Death of a Salesman although it is several months distant); others will move back into their ordinary lives and try to catch up on various domestic or work projects that were put on hold for the duration of the show (I’ll grade some back papers and prepare to administer final exams, and think about trying to clean the house, for example). The family and friends we portrayed, the house they lived in, all vanish.
We held our closing party on the set, in the home of Richard and Sharky Harkin, where the poker games and the family arguments and the moments of despair and redemption had taken place. It felt like home. And then we packed our makeup kits and party leftovers and gifts…and drove off in the directions of our actual homes. There will never be this experience again. But there will be other experiences.
At the end of every production I’ve ever been part of, I think, well, this is one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had. At the end of this one, though, I can say that I am certain this has been one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had—possibly the most wonderful. I’m so grateful to everyone involved, and to Conor McPherson, that this could happen. Could have happened.
I don’t care how many theories are put forward about the “person who REALLY wrote Shakespeare’s plays”: they’re all a bunch of hooey. Only someone for whom the theater was the most intense part of his life could have written those plays. Only someone who knew the joy and pain of the ephemeral, living theater could have written this:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind.…
As I noted in my blog on auditions, I always say I cast “to ensemble.” That means I cast to get good combinations onstage, not to get a collection of shiny individual actors. One of the categories in the SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) Awards is “best ensemble,” meaning best cast as a whole, and I think that’s a category that should be included for all awards.
The world of a play is just that: a world. The set is the physical expression of that world; the costumes reveal the time, place, and socioeconomic class of the world; the lights create its day, night, and shifting shadows. The sounds are its sounds, and the actors create its people. Some of those people may be loners or egotists, but the actors mustn’t be. After all, the characters in a play know each other in that world, have relationships, have reactions, have histories separately and together. A good ensemble cast communicates that collective reality to the audience and thereby makes the experience of the play real, credible, substantial.
I do what I can to foster a strong sense of ensemble (French, after all, for “together”) in every cast I work with. We talk together about the play, about the scenes, about the characters, about the relationships, about the emotional and narrative arc. We relax together as ourselves before and after rehearsals when time permits. The more the actors bring to this endeavor, the more interesting the rehearsals are, at least for me, and the more genuine the performance ultimately is.
I have always been fortunate in my casts. Perhaps the fact that I choose serious or otherwise significant plays draws serious and intelligent actors, people who are more interested in the work than in the social life offstage. Not that they’re not “fun” people; but my college theater director, David Brubaker, used to begin the first rehearsal of a play with this: “If you’ve come here to have a good time, please leave now. We won’t have a good time until the second performance. Before that, we work; and if we don’t work, we’ll never have a good time.” This is a good message for college students who aren’t theater majors: don’t horse around. But it’s the truth too, I do believe—except that working hard together on a worthwhile project is its own kind of fun. The process is fun, intellectually, emotionally, artistically, personally. Those are the kinds of actors I get, the ones who value that kind of fun.
I’ve worked with a lot of effective ensembles, but I have to say that the ensemble of The Seafarer is one of the very best. They respect, like, and support one another. They work out ideas together and show them to me. They give my ideas their serious effort. At rehearsals they seem both easy and intense with one another. And they all love this play and its world.
A lot of audience members have spoken with me after the show and specifically mentioned the actors as an ensemble. They’re drawn into the play because the actors so fully inhabit it as the people they embody. They express the characters’ relationships, affections, grudges, dependencies just as fully as they portray them as individuals. They’re alive up there all the time, expressing with subtle glances as well as larger gestures the characters’ inner lives, inner narratives, bonds. I’m crazy about them.
I hope everyone in the world sees this show. I think it’s very good. The script is strong; the story is compelling and real; the craftsmanship in the lighting, set, costumes, props, and backstage management is smooth, and so good it seems to just be.
And the ensemble, superb.
This is theater.
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.