What to Say When the Show is Serious and Sad and the Story Must Be Told by Barbara Biddison
How does a person go about encouraging someone to see a show that is more likely to make us cry than smile. How do I tell people about the full run, in rehearsal, that I saw last night? How do I describe a stageful of actors who face the audience, speak to the audience,
and are still obviously together as a crowd, who as individuals have witnessed the same event? How do I say, "You must see Elephant's Graveyard" because..
Because I don't think HG has produced a drama this serious and this meaningful since LARAMIE PROJECT. Because it gives actors (mostly men) an opportunity to take on real and different male characters. Because the play itself, the drama based on a real-life happening, is worth exploring. Because our actors and our audiences deserve challenging theatre. Because just last year HG produced INTO THE BREECHES which gave actresses the opportunity to explore female characters. And this one and that one are by the same playwright, George Brant.
Because, as much as we all like to smile and laugh and "feel good," we also all have challenges in our lives, and sadness. And we just need to sometimes "get away from it all." And sometimes the hard facts and the grief-laden story can actually take us away from ourselves for a while.
There's another thing that this play does. It lets us see something that really happened. It lets us see our own HG actors immerse themselves in this story, this play, this real-life experience. They are quite good, these actors, but they don't always have a character like the one they play here and bring to life here. At which point I must say that the actresses, though few in this particular play, are also believeable in their roles which are not at all like their personal selves.
[Note: There will be "talkbacks" after the show for all five performances. Actors and tech folks and musicians, and director Thomas Putnam. They'll all be there to talk and to answer questions and to explore ideas. Audience members will be given a few moments to come back to reality, to get a refreshment, and then to return to the theatre. It's an opportunity to ask questions, make comments, listen to others, and process what we've just experienced. Personally, I love talkbacks. Those who participate usually do, too. All are invited to "talk back."]
The HG Treble Choir offers a delightful afternoon of music on Sunday, October 1, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Pearl Street, Wellsboro. The HG Treble Choir consists of singers in grades 5-8 from all over Tioga County.
The concert will feature guest soloist Carter Route, a music major at Mansfield University. Mr. Route wowed audiences in his dynamic performance as the title character in MU's Phantom of the Opera this past spring. Route will also be the tenor soloist in this December's MESSIAH: Community Sing on December 10. Route joins with the HG Treble Choir for “Close Every Door” and “Any Dream Will Do”, two songs from the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat . He will also join them for “Gloria Tibi” from Leonard Bernstein's MASS.
HG Treble Choir will sing such songs as “A Place in the Choir” a rousing, fun song made famous by Celtic Thunder.They will also sing “Hold Fast to Dreams” a new setting of poet Langston Hughes' words: “Hold fast to dreams For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird That cannot fly.” One of the themes the choir is exploring this year is Water, with such songs as “Afton Water” a melodic Scottish Folk Song with words by Robert Burns, as well as “Bring Me Little Water, Silvy” attributed to Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and accompanied solely by local musician Anne Acker on upright bass.
The concert will also feature the HG Choir TOO, a training choir for singers in grades 2-4. They will sing the haunting “Manx Lullaby.”
Considering Elephant's Graveyard
by Sean Bartlett
My career with HG so far is book-ended by Laramie Project and Elephant’s Graveyard. The two shows have many similarities and many possibilities for introspection as both an individual and as a member of a broader society. Both offer us a mirror that promises redemption if we look deeply and honestly.
That we are, this time, enacting an event from 1916 and can find so many parallels with contemporary society is a testament to the playwright's ability to encapsulate human nature as well as a depressing commentary on how long it takes our society to move beyond the baser nature of our existence.
What is justice? What is redemption? When should we respect the boundaries of community and when should we accept technology as it moves us beyond our prior limitations?
To say that my character struggles with this would be disingenuous, but he does present aspects of this struggle and clearly represents the need for defined rules and the perception of justice. The play itself, and the other characters, represent the bounds of true justice, even if my character is not able to look beyond his own limitations to perceive the broader reality. But, isn’t that an essential necessity for any consideration of justice? Don’t we need to be able to crawl inside the skin of each individual in order to see the truth of a situation? Theater is a great medium for exploring that, and this play does that in spades.
While we weave wonderfully from the sinner and the saint of womanhood to the complexities of the abused, yet loving, jester who serves as a reminder of how many seek redemption by oppressing those with the most sensitive natures. We sympathize with the trainer who embodies the capacity for love and question the ringmaster and tour manager as they are able to purely present capitalism with all its warts. We weave through many of the different aspects of humanity and are faced with bracing clarity how our limited perceptual boundaries inhibit our capacity for redemption.
Maybe we would all be better if we ate more peanuts. That, too, becomes clear once you see the play.
The One I'm Working On by Thomas Putnam
Sometimes someone will ask me what my favorite production has been to direct. I typically answer “The one I'm working on.” It's the one I'm immersed in. The one I'm talking to and through and about. Indeed, some plays intrigue me more than others for a variety of reasons, but most usually due to a fascinating story told in a highly theatrical way. Underneath the Lintel, Of Mice and Men, Every Brilliant Thing, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Elephant Man come to mind. The current one is on this list.
Elephant's Graveyard is a tough pill to swallow. I was eager to direct it, but it sure scared me in terms of how to present it. There's no actual dialogue (except for about 10 lines between the Marshall and the Preacher); the rest consists of 13 people speaking to the audience, telling the story through their eyes. It could be disastrous, but therein lies the challenge.
Where to place the actors on the stage, somehow making their proximity to other characters and the audience relevant? Finding the rising and falling action of the story line. Exploring the tempo of those various actions. Where to use sound effects created by the percussionist and guitarist? How to make this tragic story relevant to us today?
Of course it all started with who to cast in each role. We lucked out, again. These actors have worked hard and have been eager to engage in the exploration of this story. Each one has been more than willing to accept direction and, in turn, to bring their own sense of their character to life.
The process is stimulating and fun, and meaningful and well worth the effort. Now, how to market this show so that we can share the result of this effort. Hope you can join us next week.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Elephant's Graveyard by George Brant
When we produced the play The Laramie Project years ago, we decided to have “talkbacks” following the performances. It was a challenging play in terms of subject matter and theme, and we wanted to offer an opportunity for audience members to work through what they had just experienced. The playwright Moises Kauffman stressed that he and his creative team had purposed to simply “further the national dialogue” and we embraced that concept. We've offered talk backs for a number of plays that we felt warranted such an opportunity. Recently those plays have included Grand Horizons and Every Brilliant Thing. Based on the participation in those talks, we've found them to be very helpful and welcomed.
Typically, following the close of the play, we offer a few minutes for audience members to either leave the space and/or to get some refreshments in the lobby and then return to the theatre. I usually offer a few background comments about the play and then ask a few questions. We're not so interested in comments about the acting or the production itself, but more about the script and the response to the whole experience. From that point, a lively conversation occurs.
Many times people have told me they talk about a play on the ride home or the next morning at breakfast or throughout the ensuing days. Sometimes a play is so impactful that a person simply needs to let it sink in; they just haven't had time to formulate a response to what they have just experienced. We all bring to the theatre a wide variety of life experiences and plays hit us all differently. These talkbacks are simply an opportunity for those who'd like some time to process the experience. Many times people stay but say nothing, and just allow comments from other audience members to help them navigate the response time.
No doubt about it, this play hits hard, and we hope in a very meaningful way. Our rehearsal times include a great deal of time talking about the various themes and the way the playwright presents those themes. The style of writing is often beautifully poetic and helps to us to be able to handle the difficult subject matter. We talk about each of the characters and their relation to the event. I love this kind of rehearsal process with a script that welcomes and almost demands hearty and honest dialogue.
We encourage folks to stay for the talk back. Nothing is expected of those who stay except respect for other's ideas and responses. They can leave whenever they wish. The talkbacks generally last 15 minutes, though some have lasted longer, but, again, people can leave whenever they wish. We look forward to sharing this remarkable play with you…and to talk about it.
THE WOMEN'S PROJECT AND THE READ-AROUND by Barbara Biddison
The most recent happening for HGWP took place in the Warehouse Gallery with 10 women and one man seated at tables placed in a sorta-square circle. We read three short plays to each other. We call that kind of exercise a read-around. It is a non-threatening way to get a group of people familiar with or entertained by short plays and/or funny or serious dramatic bits. This time we were reading three short plays that will be produced by Women's Project under the broad title of Holiday Shorts & Sweets.
It's one thing to read a play (whatever its length or mood)) to yourself and it's quite another to hear it read aloud. For one thing, it may not seem very funny when read silently, but when read aloud with listeners' laughter we may be hee-hawing right along with everyone. And if the writers are amongst the audience non-writers, there's another whole benefit. Expectations may change. Changes may happen. Things that weren't intended to be funny may be tweaked. Characters may come across "wrong." Drama may be more emotionally involving than intended. And so forth.
So on to specific observations (in two of the to-be-produced short plays) that came to me as I listened.
"The I-Hate-the-Holodays Support Group'' (Judith Sornberger) reads well to one's self and even better when read aloud. There are 6 characters (two of them are male) and the four females have different characteristics as well as ages from 20-30 to 60-70. As I listened I
realized how important it is for actors to help the audience keep track of who's who during a really short play. The lines for each reveal "who they are" but the read-around helped the listeners add to characters identity. Therein lies the drama and the Humor!!!! We have to remember who's who.
"The Christmas Tamalada" (Yolie Canales) turns out to be one very very traditional Christmas preparation with lots of laughs. The three older sisters in their 60s gather at one home to make tamales. A daughter (30s) and a son (20s) show up and the preparation of this once-a-year event begins. There are a lot of memories and laughs and general family talk throughout. This play really comes to life as it gets off the page and onto the stage. It is funny and loud, and it's clear that the dialogue needs to be overlapping lines with really happy good humor..
All this comes about for me just by sitting there in a read-around. Nobody got up out of a chair while reading. Readers simply brought the plays to life for us. A fine two hours for read-arounds.
THE ELEPHANT'S GRAVEYARD meets THE LARAMIE PROJECT by Barbara Biddison
The Hamilton-Gibson journey from 2009 to 2023 has been rich and varied, and for me full of everything. And here I am watching a few Elephant's Graveyard rehearsals and thinking about 2009 when we produced, on alternating dates, Our Town and The Laramie Project. Most of us were in both shows about 14 years ago, which was as close to anything like repertory theatre as any of us would ever get.. And Laramie is a true most powerful, heart-wrenching play in which the gay Matt Shepherd is found bleeding on a wire fence. I played the bartender mother of the police woman who found him there and rescued
his bleeding body. And this mother waited with her daughter to learn the results of the lab tests which would reveal whether this police woman had contracted AIDS from the bleeding Matt Shepherd. It still brings tears to my eyes, and I value that emotional experience.
Just a note on audience reaction to Laramie Project. We had theatre friends from out-of-town visiting, and they saw the play. Toward the end of the play there is a candle-lit procession on stage. All the actors get and carry real candles lit with real flame. When we and our guests got home and talked about the show, they, as audience members, said with honesty and passion, "We thought we were going to get candles too." It was that real. Audience reaction to the play was very rewarding for those of us who played those parts, and many audience members stayed for talk-backs after the shows. I remember the gay couple who explained why they couldn't stay for the talk-back after the matinee--they needed to go home and feed their children supper.
So, back to The Elephant's Graveyard. It is sometimes funny, and it is, for most people, powerfully moving. And I, for one, sometimes cry. Hamilton-Gibson doesn't do much of this sort of thing, but when we do it is rich and thoughtful. And I sometimes smile too. In the
last rehearsal that I attended I appreciated the scripted addition of the drums. Haven't heard the expected guitar yet, but I no doubt will the next time around. There are references that our audiences will relate to, such as, in discussion about the elephant "Right on Main
Street. Our Main Street," because we actually have a Main Street here in Wellsboro and can imagine what that would be like. You will hear the crowd chant "MARY...MARY MARY" and feel a part of that crowd.. As I sit there I literally go between wanting to chant with the crowd
on stage to just sitting and taking it all in. The crowd shouts "Kill it! Kill it!!! and I no longer want to shout with them.
I still have not seen this play from beginning to end in one sitting. As the play opens the townspeople are milling about in their ordinary clothes. That's the first day. As the second day begins we realize that townspeople have changed clothes, "dressed up" to go to the
circus. The telling of this story includes the worlds of the circus and the town and the railroad. It is a powerful story that I will remember as long and as well as I have Laramie Project. Except that I was part of the Laramie Project cast, and I'm not in this one, this
Elephant's Graveyard. It's called a vicarious experience.
Elephant's Graveyard in Rehearsal by Barbara Biddison
I was encouraged to sit in on an early rehearsal of this extraordinary
play. I had read it a couple times, so I knew what was coming. I
was also very familiar with George Brant the playwright, who wrote
Into the Breeches which HG produced last year. It's really soon to
catch a rehearsal, but I was very interested in how it sounded and
looked at this point.. It's a large cast, almost all male. Two
females last night, and they held their own quite well. thank you.
Some cast members were still holding a script, but most had lines
pretty well memorized. All had a handle on their characters.. It was
amazingly well done "to page 41 tonight," as Thomas Putnam the
director announced when they began.
Ten individuals on stage at first, And they "come-and-go,
"come-and-go" as the town gathers. As the rehearsal progressed I was
struck by the very strong "feeling" that "something" was going to
happen. Well, you might say, don't you always expect "something" to
happen in a play. Yes, you do, but this was different. And I don't
know how the cast did it. How they conveyed that "something is going
to happen" feeling. For an instant I might think it's because the
circus is coming to town. But then I realized that it was more than
that, and that I would just wait, and watch, and listen. And that is
what the audience will do as they hear lines like, "an elephant is an
elephant " and much later "an elephant is an investment."
Another observation, and I think this has to do with casting. With so
many male voices, it might be hard for the audience to keep track of
who is speaking when many are on stage at the same time and they're
not wearing name tags! "Now is that the tour manager or the marshall
or the engineer?" Well, fortunately the Tour Manager (Gerard Doran)
and the Marshall (Sean Bartlett) and the Engineer (Herb Johnson) have
very different-sounding voices, which helps a whole lot.. And they,
like other cast members, have a very solid presence on stage.
I hope to see another rehearsal or two before this play opens on
September 22, about five weeks from now. Stay tuned......
WHAT A WEEKEND THAT WAS! by Barbara Biddison
Whole bunches of us had this plan to go see BROADWAY UNDER THE STARS
on Saturday evening at the Stony Fork Creek Campground. Hamilton-
Gibson had done this last year about this time. Everybody loved it
out there with great individual and group performances and good food
and a very pleasant evening. Children welcome to run around. But by
early Friday evening this year, about 24 hours before the scheduled
performance, it was pretty clear that the weather was not going to
cooperate.with our plan, and that no one would want to sit in a lawn
chair in pouring rain with probably some lightning thrown in!
And then the notifications about the change kicked in. Change all the
Stony Fork information that had gone out!!! The facebooks and the
websites and the signs in yards and word-of-mouth plans to share rides
and telephone calls to those HG knew had planned to go. The Wellsboro
High School was generously made available. and all the performers and
the food sellers and the ticket sellers got notified too and figured
out how to adjust to the new location. Well, these are theatre people
after all, and they are used to adapting to all sorts of things, and a
stranger who entered the high school auditorium would never have
known that this show should have been outdoors at a campground!!
And what a wonderful show it was. Kacy Hagan was director for this
event that involved putting it all together--songs and dance and
rehearsals and all the performers and volunteers and sponsors. And
the program lists about 20 "special thanks" to individuals who helped
in specific ways. We heard/saw selections from over a dozen favorite
musicals, some as solos and others as group numbers. During
intermission as well as before and after the show there was FOOD in
the school hall right outside the auditorium.
Last year and this year, we all were treated to the most wonderful
assortment of talent!! Performers came from right here in Wellsboro
as well as from surrounding communities. And I know I was grateful
when a storm DID hit close enough to showtime --- we would have had to
cancel at the last minute---and we changed the date because THE SHOW
MUST GO ON !.......as they say.
But that was not the end of the treats for the weekend, The Gmeiner
hosted a tribute to Alice Mickey on Sunday afternoon. The place was
full of her art --we were amazed at the number of pieces hanging--they
filled the walls of the Gallery. Both of Alice's daughters were there
for the full time of the reception, and Ann gave the artist's talk
that usually opens a show. I had no idea how prolific Alice Mickey
was!! But I have some personal
knowledge of the kind of influence she had on art students. When she
taught in the Don Gill school, my older son was in her class Today,
decades later, he says she's the reason he's an artist now.
I remember going into that school in the days when a parent could walk
in the main entrance and go down the hall to Alice's room. (I'd bring
her things like scraps of fabric and other "artsy bits and pieces"
because she liked that.) She would greet me, and if a student tugged
at her sleeve, she'd say something like."Not now, Johnny, I'm talking
to Mrs. Biddison." She taught manners, too
And. Sunday's reception shows how highly regarded and fondly
remembered she still is.. .
During the "Downtime" About Singing by Barbara Biddison
What do HG people do when they're not in a play, or not reading new plays, or not painting the stage floor? When they have so-called "spare time." One option is to spend a few hours helping to prepare the HG newsletter for mailing, which I just did during the past two days. And now I have read the opening article in that newsletter about the Treble Choir, and I am so moved to be reminded of my own first choir experience beginning when I was about 15. The HG Treble Choir offers the same kind of experience as I found in my McAllen High School A Cappella Choir directed by an extraordinary man, Bev Henson.. I always mention that we met and sang before classes in the morning because so many football players wanted to sing and football practice was after school. You have to love it to be willing to warm up and
start singing at 7:30 in the morning!
So, this Bev Henson put together an a cappella choir, singing without accompaniment, in a mixed up fashion on the risers. He said that if you could hear the other parts you would stay on pitch . I might be singing my 2nd soprano part with an alto to my right, a tenor to my left and a 1st soprano next to a baritone behind me. We memorized--did not hold music in concert. There was nothing temperamental about this man. We all loved singing under his direction (just hands, no baton), and we all worked diligently to learn the music. And, by the way, when we walked into the high school music room, he was always at the piano playing whatever struck his fancy that day.
We had regular school concerts, and we traveled. I especially remember a trip into Mexico where we stayed with families (Mc Allen is on the border) and sang for their local audiences. Again all music was memorized.
When we were on a bus on the road he insisted that we dress well, claiming that the group's behavior was affected by our clothing choices of dresses for girls and dress shirts with slacks for boys. No one complained---it was just "expected" for all. He also expected that we would welcome a challenge, and he produced Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS just a few years after its 1951 first performance anywhere,, casting all of it with high school kids. I played Amahl and the girl who lived across the street from me played the mother. (I kept the rough cane/walking stick for this crippled shepherd boy for years after.)
Though I never studied to be a professional musician, and, in fact, do not really "read music," I often learn a part before others because I can tell if notes go up or down, and I can count for rhythm, and I listen carefully and pay close attention. I think I learned long ago the "concepts about music" such as melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, and performance practice that Thomas mentions in his newsletter choir piece. And, as I think back on my initial exposure to music, I realize that my appreciation for the joy and beauty of choral performance lasts for me at least until now. I began singing with Wellsboro Womens Chorus in 1982, and so far, at 80-something, I'm still singing with WWC today.. For me it has been truly "a lifelong relationship with music." Thank you, Bev Henson. Thank you, Thomas, for reminding me of the gift of music throughout our lives.
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