The Purpose of Playing

Arguably the greatest thing to ever happen to the American theatre community was the rise of the nonprofit and regional theatre movement in the 1960’s. It allowed theatre artists to use a new tool, the non-profit designation, as a way to harness and develop the financial support of patrons in a way that had never before happened. Instead of a lame and dwindling system of vaudeville houses, tired touring repertory companies and a Broadway monopoly on quality, the regional theatre movement replaced the old guard with a philosophy of patronage that would support a spirit of dramatic experimentation among playwrights, directors, ensemble companies and even theatre architecture. The now-venerable pioneers of this movement include the Guthrie, Steppenwolf, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Goodman and La Jolla, just to name a handful. But the movement has continued to grow to include hundreds of Shakespeare festivals, summer stock companies, storefront ensemble theatres and even more specific projects like Mixed Blood, Cornerstone and Minnesota Children’s Theatre, who bring the arts to specific underserved communities. The American Theatre has done its best work in the past 50 years.

It’s easy to look at these large, stable theatre companies that now enjoy a multi-million dollar endowment, state-of-the-art facilities and world-reknowned actors, designers and directors, and see how they can commit resources to developing new plays and playwrights. Of course they should do these things; they can certainly afford it. But what is harder to remember is that they made that committment long before they had reputation or financial security. The artists who founded these companies were hungry twentysomethings who were searching for great stories to tell and new ways to tell them, and they routinely risked everything to put a play they believed in before the public. This deep-rooted committment to the artform as risen to an institutional level and forms the basic philosophy of how these companies operate.

It’s hard to be a small, young theatre company. It’s hard to find the balance between keeping the lights on in our office and keeping the lights on in our hearts and minds. How can you justify presenting a new, unknown play when you can barely pay yourself a living wage? Is it selling out to present a popular show so that you can afford to buy a new piece of equipment in order to be able to expand the dramatic range of the company? Is it naive to think that great theatre, by itself, is enough to build a thriving, committed company?

It’s a delicate dance and it’s one I dance every day. And every so often an opportunity comes along that allows me to shamelessly follow my heart. I firmly believe that the social function of theatre is to reflect a community back upon itself, to show us who we are, filtered by the artist’s lens. And for a small, nonprofit regional theatre that means engaging in an ongoing conversation with that finite group of patrons that we serve.

The tenth season is the perfect excuse to commission a new play, and what better way to embody the ideals of our company than by reaching out into our community, finding the stories that make us who we are and putting those stories onstage. We are about three months into the submission process for the “Hometown” -Anonymous project and the range of what has been sent in has been breathtaking: funny, inspirational, educational, devastating, shocking…the list of adjectives goes on and on. And we still have another three months to go before we reach the submission deadline.

If you live in Princeton or any of the surrounding communities, please send us your stories. There are no rules, nothing is off limits. And next summer, we will have the privilege to see the best that the regional theatre model has to offer: a new play that is a direct reflection of the society that created it.

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“The Event” or The Most Humbling 36 Hours I’ve Spent in a Theatre

My job as the artistic director of the festival, at its most basic function, is to run around putting out fires (the irony of that metaphor will become apparant shortly). During any given summer day, five to ten emergencies of varying levels of urgency pop up, ranging from foul weather to sick actors. Occasionally, something really big comes along, such as the set of Henry IV being blown away by a tornado or my leading tenor being hospitalized for kidney stones. For the most part, I’ve grown accustomed to the constant stream of challenges and there’s not much that really ruffles my feathers. In fact, I enjoy meeting each challenge with a team of talented creatives. It’s exhilerating.

One of our ongoing challenges for the past couple years has been to find a way to replace our 50 year old, leaky roof. And now that we have a plan in place to raise the funds necessary to do the fixes, we decided to replace the section of the roof over the theatre before the summer and the rest of the roof in the fall. So, on a hot, 90-something degree day in the middle of reliable drought, we tore the roof off the Grace Theatre. And of course, as Murphy’s Law would dictate, the one and only rainstorm to hit Princeton in at least 2 months came tearing through town that night and dropped a few hundred gallons of water onto the festival stage, where our production of The Marvelous Wonderettes had a finished set, and opening night was less than a week away.

When the rain started, I was in rehearsal in the basement of the Prouty building and one of the festival’s costume designers came running over to gently tell us “The theatre is flooding.” Now, when someone tells you that, you tend to assume that there at least a little hyperbole involved. But when three more people came into the rehearsal room in the next few minutes to insist that “No, really, Dexter…the theatre is flooding!”, I started to get very, very scared, left the rehearsal and hurried over to the Grace.

Sunday, 7am (10 hours after the storm)

If there is a sight that no theatre producer should ever have to see, it’s the sight of a torrential downpour in the sacred space of your artistic home. Soggy ceiling tiles, insulation, water… all crashing down onto the beautiful, lovingly-built set of Wonderettes, making the gym floor warp and splinter. Every container that could hold water in the building was enlisted to catch the…pardon the term…tempest.

Luckily, I have a staff and crew who are not only prescient, but completely on their game. They acted quickly to save tens of thousands of dollars of lighting and sound equipment, pianos and theatre seats by either moving them into the covered portion of the building or covering items with tarps. But as the storm died away in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 17th, one certainly remained. We were in deep trouble.

The first and most pressing problem was the hundreds of people who held tickets to a show that needed to start technical rehearsals in 2 days for an opening in 5 days, on what was currently a mountain of watery mush.

The second, and more insidious problem was the clear danger of what the water damage might continue to do to our building if we didn’t get it out immediately.

What followed was the most amazing act of unity and teamwork that I’ve ever seen in all my years in the theatre.

Yes, that’s daylight.

I called a meeting of the staff and crew together at 7am on Sunday morning, about 10 hours after the water had started pouring onto the stage. We crafted a plan for that day, not knowing where we might end up but willing to give it a try. We moved the rehearsal for the cast of Wonderettes to the Prouty building for the day, refusing to let the girls see the huge amount of damage that had been done to their set, and we set to work with shovels and mops.

Throughout that entire day,  the water continued to drip on us and about once every hour another heavy chunk of ceiling would cave in. But we just kept shoveling. When the acting company arrived to start the day’s rehearsal, I sat down with them to tell them what was happening. They asked if there was anything they could do, and I told them that if they wanted to help, we would welcome their hands that night after rehearsal.

At 10pm, every single member of the acting company showed up at the theatre, grabbed a broom, a shovel, a sponge or a mop and worked alongside every single member of the staff and crew to clean up the theatre, remove damaged, wet tiles and insulation from the ceiling and start the process of rebuilding the Wonderettes set.

 

15 hours into the cleanup process, the entire faux-gym floor of the Wonderettes set had been torn up, wiped down, dried out and reinstalled. Several thousand pounds of wet insulation and ceiling material had been removed from the building and replacement ceiling material had been painted and was ready for installation.

Throughout the first day, I was on the phone with just about everyone, trying to find out everything I could about what I was facing. A patron recommended that I contact Dan Ziegler of Ziegler and Sons to see if he might be willing to let us use his industrial blowers and dehumidifiers to dry out the building. That was probably the single smartest phone call I could have made. Within three hours, Mr. Ziegler showed up with a truckload of water abatement equipment and removed over 100 gallons of water from the building overnight. During a moment when we were at our most vulnerable, Dan Ziegler didn’t hesistate to come to our aid. I will never be able to repay his generosity.

By Monday morning, we were facing a far different story. We had a clean-ish stage, we were on our way to being dry, the debris had been cleared and the new roof had been laid, protecting us from further damage. Over the course of the day, we patched the holes in the theatre ceiling, rehung our lighting instruments and tested them to make sure everything was still functional and allowed Dan Zeigler’s equipment to take another huge step towards drying our the building. The Grace as starting to look less like a war zone and more like a theatre again.

Tuesday, 1pm (36 hours after the storm)

By the third day, Tuesday the 19th, the moisture levels in the theatre had come down out of the danger zone and we spent the morning mopping and scrubbing the floors and walls, removing all the remaining marks of what we were now calling “The Event.” At 1pm, 36 hours after the damage had been done, the cast of the Wonderettes walked back onto their stage for their scheduled technical rehearsal, without ever having to witness the devastation.

No one can quite believe what we did what we did. The roofers who walked into the building the morning after the storm came back a couple days later to see how things were coming along. Their jaws hit the floor. Dan Zeigler kept marveling at how fast the crew was working.

Personally, I’ve never seen a group of near-strangers, who’d only known each other for a week or so, work so hard to give their fellow company members such a precious gift: The Marvelous Wonderettes never had to fear for their show. We, all of us, had their backs, no matter what the cost.

With everything that I have, I want to say thank you to the cast and crew of the Festival 56 2012 season, who, in every way, and in this way specifically, make the festival possible.

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Once Upon A Prom… (by Lauran Stanis, director of The Marvelous Wonderettes)

(Over the next few weeks, I will be featuring several guest posts from the directors of some of this season’s plays. This weeks post is by the director/choreographer of The Marvelous Wonderettes, Lauran Stanis! The Marvelous Wonderettes opens in exactly one month!  –Dexter)

PROM…

There is something so magical about your high school prom.  You dream about how perfect it will be, you plan every detail, the anticipation of the event, and all of the wonderful memories you will make!  Because, after all, Prom is the single most wonderful night of your entire life!  Right?!?!

I have had the pleasure of teaching dance at the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre for that past two years.  In April, just after Spring Break, my students become ridiculously distracted.  All of their energy and efforts are focused around finding the perfect dress, the perfect date and planning the perfect evening.  They are so consumed with this one night that nothing else seems important.  Naturally, drama ensues as the guy who will most probably win Prom Prince asks a Sophomore, 2 best friends are in love with the same dress, someone gets grounded 3 weeks before the big event, or what if it rains?!?!?  I love hearing them tell me stories, gush about their date, show me pictures and get their fake nails for the first time.  It makes my heart smile and takes me back to my prom memories.

My Senior Prom was very exciting!  I went with my High School boyfriend, John, and my best friend Rebecca and her boyfriend, Stefan.  We had dinner at THE MANSION, the nicest restaurant in Dallas and danced the night away at South Fork Ranch.  (Yes, my Prom was where the famous TV series DALLAS was filmed.)  This was also the night I heard the infamous “Thong Song” for the first time on the dance floor.  I was mortified!!!  The weather was perfect, hundreds of pictures were taken, my hair fell out from dancing too much, and it was altogether a lovely night.  I didn’t think life could get any sweeter!  Now, 12 years later, when I look back on my Senior Prom the two things I remember most are; my best friend Rebecca and the music.  I remember none of the drama (although I am sure there was plenty), not much about my date (but as pictures suggest I was totally smitten) and none of those silly details I know I stressed myself out over even seem to matter.  I remember Rebecca & dancing to the music.

While my stroll down memory lane is sweet, you are probably wondering how this fits into FESTIVAL 56’s Summer Season…

I have the pleasure of directing and choreographing THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES, a musical comedy with book by Roger Bean.  Act One takes place on Springfield High School’s 1958 senior prom night where four best friends (who are all nominated for Prom Queen) are the evening’s entertainment.  Act 1 follows these girls as they experience their Prom and all of the dramatics they encounter while entertaining the crowd with pop favorites from the time- including; Mr. Sandman, Lollipop, Stupid Cupid, Lucky Lips and many more.  Act Two is their 10 year reunion (1968) and the WONDERETTES are back to entertain their classmates again with songs including- Leader of the Pack, RESPECT, Rescue Me, It’s My Party, and so many more.  THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES is truly about celebrating friendship, life changes, growth and love thru music.  The audience has the pleasure of being entertained by four beautiful women singing classic 50’s & 60’s songs, sharing hopes and dreams as big as their crinoline skirts!  With over 20 classic hits this is a must-take trip down memory lane.

I had the pleasure of meeting with our WONDERETTES, and they truly are wonderful!  Emelie Faith Thompson is sweet and kind unlike her role of Cindy Lou, the prettiest girl in school who knows she will be crowned Queen of Our Dreams!  Laurie Elizabeth Gardner is quirky and spunky and will be an awesome Suzy.  Jamie Thiessen will bring great life to the class clown BJ, more formally known as Betty Jean.   Rounding out our WONDERETTES is Festival alum Jillian Prefach returning to play the controlled over-achiever, Missy.  Although these ladies just met, I can tell they will be wonderful friends and tell the story of THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES as if they themselves have been besties since high school!

Working on this show has brought back many memories I often don’t think about these days.   I became quickly nostalgic for my days as a teenager and deeply invested in sharing the WONDERETTES story.   I now no longer believe Prom was the single most important night of my life, and I didn’t attend my 10 year reunion, Rebecca is still my best friend.  Prom Night’s, Boyfriends, drama- all temporary.  But a good friendship is the stuff musicals are made of!  Music and friendship are enduring.

Please join us this summer for THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES and go back in time to that special night and allow yourself to get lost in good memories, good music and a truly fun night at the theatre!  Who knows… you might also get to see pictures of some of your favorite Festivalites as they were on their prom night!

 

 

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Meet The Plays: A Panel Discussion

The Marvelous Wonderettes

Back before the first season of Festival 56, I sat down and sketched out a document that served as a blueprint for how the festival would be structured and what the various elements would be. It included an early draft of my “rep hybrid” production schedule that allows the festival to produce in three venues simultaneously while maintaining the production qualities that define the festival. It included free Shakespeare and late night cabarets and many more of the pillars that are a valuable part of the festival now, nine years later. It also included a  series of free workshops and low-cost programs that would engage our patrons on a more educational level. Two of these programs, Basic Bill: Shakespeare Made Easy and Beginning Stages: New Play Development Series are still a part of the festival each year, although they have morphed a bit into something new.

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

In early seasons, and even as recently as 2010, we’ve occasionally held short seminars on everything from ballroom dancing to a panel discussion on the arts. This last seminar, which I called “The State of the Art” was my favorite, although we abandoned it after season three. It involved a group of artists and individuals from different backgrounds discussing and debating varous topics relating to the arts in a loosely structured environment. What I loved about it was how it illustrated so clearly just how many different philosophies and approaches to artistry and, more specifically, theatre there are.

 

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps

The reasons we had to let go of this wonderful, free little program were rooted in the astounding success and rapid growth of the festival; we just didn’t have enough time to do everything well and we were forced to keep ourselves focused on our primary mission: presenting great plays. But it left me more than a little sad that we lost The State of the Art, and I’ve always held on to the hope that we would eventually find a time and place to revive it.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel

So imagine how excited I was when the Princeton Public Library and the Illinois Theatre Conservatory came up with the idea of presenting a series of free panel discussions at the library each Wednesday evening in June at 6:30pm to discuss the plots, themes and major topics of our summer series of plays! Finally, a chance to recapture what was lost when we stopped presenting The State of the Art. A chance for the artists to come together and talk about the issues, themes and motivations that compelled them to create the theatre that we will experience.

Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor

It’s worth noting that the position the Princeton Public Library now enjoys in our community has fundamentally shifted over the past 3 or so years. Due in large part to the ambitious programming and forward-thinking of Grant Lynch, the library’s executive director, the libarary’s coffee shop-trendy new digs have become a vibrant cultural and social focal point of the town. And now Festival 56 will work with both the library and the ITC to present a stimulating and informative presentation that will give you some insight to our slate of plays.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None
a stage adaptation of Ten Little Indians

There will be four evenings, during which we will examine one or two plays with a qualified panel presenting their views. Stay tuned and keep an eye out in the paper for a list of the guest panelists. I would list them here, but since the list is not yet complete, I don’t to spoil the surprise. Rest assured, it’s filled with fascinating people who have lots to say about the questions and topics that will be posed.

Wednesday, June 6 at 6:30: The Marvelous Wonderettes and Lend Me a Tenor: Classic and Early Rock/Pop Music of the 1950’s and ’60s and Classic American Farce Comedy.

Wednesday, June 13 at 6:30pm: William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Magic, Science and Literature are on the menu as we delve into the festival’s steampunk-themed island fantasy.

Wednesday, June 20 at 6:30pm: Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: Mystery Writing and Stage Adaptations of films and novels.

Wednesday, June 27 at 6:30pm: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel and Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret: Two iconic songwriting duos take on the complexities of Redemption and Temptation.

Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret

This panel discussion series is a great way to get inside of the plays and make you feel a little superior to the person sitting next to you at the performance when you lean over and say “Did you know…?” I hope you will join us!

An Update: We are a mere two weeks away from the Season Preview Cabaret, where you will get a sneak peek at the music of the season and some of the talent. That weekend also marks the arrival of the staff and crew who will set to work on the sets and costumes for the first round of shows. Look for the Shakespeare in the Park set to pop up within the month!

 

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Any Port in a Storm

It has now been 8 years since we last presented one of Shakespeare’s “fairy” plays. Our last outing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also happened to be our first outing: the very first play of the very first festival. So it’s been a while since we have gone over to the magical side of the Bard, and we have come a long way artistically as a company. I could not be more excited to see what we will be able to do with this production.

First, some background, excerpted from Wikipedia:

The Tempest is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1610–11. It is set on a remote island, where Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place, using illusion and skillful manipulation. The  tempest brings to the island Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio and his companion, Alonso, King of Naples. There, his machinations bring about the revelation of Antonio’s deceitful nature, the redemption of Alonso, and the marriage of Miranda to Alonso’s son, Ferdinand.

The Tempest did not attract a significant amount of attention before the closing of the theatres in 1642, and only attained popularity after the Restoration. It is now considered to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest works. It has been adapted numerous times in a variety of styles and formats: at least 46 operas, numerous orchestral works and hundreds of songs in addition to poems, novels, paintings, television shows and films, including the most recent version by Julie Taymor starring Helen Mirren as Prospera.

Hmmm, the question here is how much information do I want to give away before the season begins? I will try a delicate balancing act. Suffice to say that this play involves an exotic magical island, a shipwreck, a deformed monster and a mischievous spirit, a powerful magician and his duplicitous brother. Not to mention young lovers, bumbling buffoons and a masque. This play will be  fantastical visual treat for everyone!

One of our more powerful personas from last season, Sarah Smith, will be taking on the role of Prospero, the marooned magician, and the character will be reconceived as the Prospera, as has become increasingly common in recent years. As we have begun to talk about what kind of magic we want Prospera to wield, we have taken our cues from the text, which contracts Sycorax’s sorcery as earthy and evil, whereas Prospera’s is based in rational science (a concept that was just beginning to take root in the early 17th century and was still co-mingled with the occult in the minds of the layperson). Therefore, I don’t think I will be giving too much away by saying that you should look for quasi-scientific potions and herbs along with things more fantasical.

Margaret Leighton as Ariel, 1952

The spirit, Ariel (played by newcomer Claire Buchignani), is Prospera’s lackey, henchman and magical slave, who willingly serves the magician after being freed by Prospera from a tree that the evil witch Sycorax had trapped Ariel in. Ariel is the engine of the play, meddling in everything from the shipwreck to the path that the entourage takes across the island. More than a little reminiscent of Puck and his servitude to Oberon in Midsummer, Ariel and Prospera’s relationship is complicated by Ariel’s desire to be free. Deciding how to visually represent Ariel’s bondage and eventually, freedom, is an important part of the play.

The other visual treat in the play will be Caliban, the twisted spawn of Sycorax, who, after trying to rape Miranda, is forced into servitude by Prospera. Caliban has been depicted and interpreted in literally thousands of different ways through the centuries, from a half-fish, half-human monster to simply a crude native of the island. Rest assured that this character, as played by Justin Ostergard, will not disappoint.

Schedule Tweaks

It’s worth noting that I’ve made a couple small changes to the Shakespeare in the Park performance schedule this year. I have listened to feedback from many patrons saying that they wished there could be a few more opportunities to see the play in the daytime. So, to give everyone the best opportunity to see what is sure to be a visual treat, I have scheduled not one but THREE matinees into the season. The first (July 1), second (July 4) and final (Aug 1) performances of The Tempest will all be 2pm matinees. The other 7 performances will be 7:30pm.

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There Ain’t Much Merry in this Go ‘Round

Odds and Ends…

So, here we are at the start of a new season. It’s time to dig into the shows of the season, learn a little something about their history and perhaps shed a bit of light onto what they may look like when you come see them at the festival this summer. Just to give you a little time check, the box office opens at the end of this month (check the website www.festival56.com for dates and times), actors and staff arrive in Princeton to start working on the season in just 60 days, and the first show will open a scant 2 weeks later. The season is upon us!

The good news is, we have our cast and crew all lined up for the season, and what a mightly talented bunch they are. Keep an eye on the Facebook feed to meet them and find out what roles they will be playing. I will keep rolling out new faces in the coming weeks. Kudos to my lovely wife, Laura, for doing such a wonderful job in finding our new company of artists!

In other news, you will see that we recently made a change to the season lineup. We are very excited to be presenting The Marvelous Wonderettes, a sharp 1950’s and 60’s pop revue featuring a all-girl singing group bringing back oodles of nostalgia for those who grew up during those years. I will have more information about “Wonderettes” in a future post a few weeks down the line. But now, our feature presentation…

There Ain’t Much Merry in this Go ‘Round

Carousel is the second stage musical by the team of composer Richard Rodgers and writer/lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II. The work premiered in 1945 and was adapted from Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, transplanting its Budapest setting to the Maine coastline. It is usually considered the darkest and most tragic of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s works.

 

 

The story revolves around a carousel barker, Billy Bigelow, whose romance with millworker Julie Jordan comes at the price of both their jobs. He attempts a robbery to provide for Julie and their unborn child, but when it goes wrong, he has a chance to make things right. A secondary plot line deals with Julie’s best friend, Carrie Pipperidge, and her romance with ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow. The show includes the well-known songs “If I Loved You”, “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Richard Rodgers later wrote that Carousel was his favorite among all his musicals.

The play opened for tryouts in New Haven, Connecticut on March 22, 1945. The first act was well-received; the second act was not. The staff immediately sat down for a two-hour conference. Five scenes, half a ballet and two songs were cut from the show as the result.

John Fearnley commented, “Now I see why these people have hits. I never witnessed anything so brisk and brave in my life.”

De Mille said of this conference, “not three minutes had been wasted pleading for something cherished. Nor was there any idle joking. … We cut and cut and cut and then we went to bed.”

I have to say, that upon my first reading of Carousel, I was confounded. Invariably, my experience with the R&H canon has been that it is full of, as my friend Jason Simon loves to say “love stories under difficult circumstances.” Why then, does this rather unlikable man, who sinks so low as to hit his wife, become the centerpiece of the play, and why does Julie all but disappear from the play in Act II? Why are these people so unhappy?

Then I had a flash of insight: Carousel is not a love story, although a love story is an important part of the tale. Carousel is so special, and different from all of their other work because it is a stark, transformative tale of redemption and self-discovery. And not in some warm and fuzzy, paper-thin way…but filled with a pain and yearning and sense of failure that we can all connect with. No wonder this was Rodgers favorite piece. Rightly so.

Carousel also has a lot in common, in my mind, with Romeo and Juliet. While most people over-romanticize Romeo & Juliet, I see the play as a teenage emotional train wreck, the end result of which could have been avoided if either of the lovers had, at any moment along the way, done something, anything reasonable. Instead, in true 15-year-old fashion, they sacrifice themselves, quite literally, on the alter of burning passion.

Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan share that same impulse, both getting fired from their jobs rather than leave a promising first date. Much of the tragedy that follows can be assigned to this teenage penchant for following the heart over a cliff.

 

It must be said, though, that R&H did brighten the ending of their adaptation from the source material, Liliom, which is rather nihilistic when compared to the hopeful, promising future that is hinted at during the final scene of Carousel.
 

The Ballet

I think the ballet deserves its own space, don’t you? After all, this is not some quaint, frilly three minutes of jetees that you might find in other musicals from this period. This ballet has some pretty hefty story-telling woven through it. In the original production, and in the film, the ballet was choreographed by Agnes de Mille. As originally written, de Mille’s ballet lasted an hour and fifteen minutes! In out of town tryouts, the second act finished at 1:30 a.m.

It began with Billy looking down from heaven at his wife in labor, with the village women gathered for a “birthing”. The ballet involved every character in the play, some of whom spoke lines of dialogue, and contained a number of subplots. The focus was on Louise, who at first almost soars in her dance, expressing the innocence of childhood. She is teased and mocked by her schoolmates, then becomes attracted to the rough carnival people, who symbolize Billy’s world. A youth from the carnival attempts to seduce Louise, but he decides she is more girl than woman, and leaves her. At the end, the performers form a huge carousel with their bodies.

By the time the show opened on Broadway, de Mille’s ballet was down to forty minutes. The 1993 revival of the show cut the ballet down even further to a still formidable 13 minutes in length.

Rest assured, our version of the ballet will be neither 75 nor 40 minutes long. We are currently considering just what length is ideal for the story that we need to tell. You’ll have to come see the show to see and appreciate what we decide. I assure you, Lauran will impress you.

Having spent considerable time with this play now, I am in love with its characters. Rodgers and Hammerstein were masters of humanity, and were able to transend the archtypes of the genre to create fascinating shades of grey in their heroes and villians. Billy Bigelow is a wonderful anti-hero, violent but remorseful, lovestruck but proud, ambitious but lazy…the kind of guy you can never really understand, but can spend a revelatory night at the theatre trying to.

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Little Ones and the Bard

When parents bring their little ones to see one of our outdoor performances of the annual Shakespeare play (this year’s offering will be The Tempest directed by our very own Jim Brigman, by the way), they usually do so with the understanding that within the hour the child’s attention will start to wander as they are inundated by too much heavy poetry, and that they will most likely have to leave at intermission or that the child will wander off and entertain themselves while the parents continue to indulge their literary side.

The reality tends to be exactly the opposite. The first two rows of almost every performance are filled with kids sitting rapt in their parents laps, sometimes standing on them to get a better view if they are stuck farther back. The average age of these budding bard-o-philes is something like 8. These kids will not move a muscle for a full three hours (except for ice cream at intermission) until Juliet wakes to find her Romeo beside her. Only after the last lover is finally dead do they start looking around. The parents, on the other hand, while trained much more effectively to sit still for longer periods of time, have a much more difficult time enjoying the play, and tell me frequently that it’s the third or fourth performance that they have attended that they enjoyed the most. Obviously, I’m referring here to the average theatre-goer, not the couple who has the Complete Works in a place of honor on their mantle or bookshelf.

It is a wise father that knows his own child   -The Merchant of Venice

Parents are often stunned and impressed by how unexpectedly refined their young one is. But I have a theory to explain this seeming paradox, and although I think its pretty solid, I must admit that it is based soley on my own observation and logic.

The average person has a vocabulary of between 12,000 and 20,000 words, depending on their education level. Shakespeare had a vocabulary of over 66,000 words, about half of which he used on a regular basis. So, basically, even when Will was slumming it, he had about twice the vocab of the average person. Add in 400 years of static and we are talking about a relatively small percentage of Shakespeare’s vocabulary that we are familiar and comfortable with.

Our common, day to day, conversational speech that we use to order meals, say hello on the street, gossip on the phone and generally navigate the world, consists of about 8,000 words. And we have limited ourselves to these words for years on end, so much so that when we hear words that are outside of our comfort zone, it takes a moment to process. Imagine if someone dropped the word “nubile” into a regular conversation. We might know very well what it means, but a flag would go up in our heads and we would notice it. So then, imagine someone throwing out “wherefore.” Our brains go on strike and start telling us “THIS IS WRONG! THIS IS NOT ENGLISH! YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS!” when it’s entirely possible that we do, in fact, understand it.

Young people, on the other hand, do not have that problem. They do not have a set vocabulary. They are learning new words constantly and live in a world where they cannot understand many of the words that are spoken to them. In order to communicate effectively in their world, they must observe body language, interpret tone of voice and inflection and infer meaning from context. In terms of vocabulary to a child, there is no experiencial difference between Shakespeare and Wicked. They are fully capable of enjoying the pratfalls, the impassioned speeches and the swordplay without understanding each and every word. The next time you come to the park (for a performance of The Tempest), try to open your mind and experience the play with the eyes, and especially the ears, of a child.

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