THEN...AND THEN...AND NOW... By Thomas Putnam
Remember Peter, Paul and Mary? Folk singers, social activists, tight harmonies? They sang a song that was a bit different from their usual songs (and yes they did have a wide variety of styles.) The tune was by Bach. The words were 1960s Tom Glazer. Our HG Youth Choir is singing it in 2022. That's three different eras of engagement. You may have read Barbara Biddison's blog about three different eras of costuming involved in our play INTO THE BREECHES. I'm looking at this song also through the lens of our our experience with this extraordinary play.
“Because all me are brothers, Wherever men may be,
And women all are sisters Forever proud and free.
No tyrant shall defeat us; No nation strike us down.
And all who toil shall greet us The whole wide world around”
Okay...doesn't that just ring a little close to home at the moment. There's a tyrant ruthlessly taking over a country. We're witnessing men and women standing against this tyrant. In the play there is a tyrant taking over a country and more in 1942. And the play is about producing a play that was written in the late 1500s about a war in the 1300s. There are layers and layers and eras and eras at play here: in the play, in the song, in our lives. Can we even remotely realize the connection?
“My brothers and my sisters Forever hand in hand;
Where chimes the bell of Freedom, There is my native land.
My brother's fears are my fears; Yellow, white, or brown;
My sister's tears are my tears, The whole wide world around”
The connections just keep revealing themselves. The play beautifully explores race relations in the 40s. It's painful at times to realize the historical racism of the time. Did you know that the blood of a person of color was not accepted for the war effort? I won't even begin to explore the racism that is still so painfully present in our legislative system...and elsewhere.
“Let ev'ry voice be thunder; Let ev'ry heart be strong.
Until all tyrants perish Our work shall not be done.
Let not our mem'ries fail us, The lost years shall be found,
Let slav'ry's chains be broken the whole wide world around.”
Powerful song. Bach in early 1700s, Tom Glazer and PP&M in 1960s, HG Choir and Ukraine in 2022. Powerful play. Henry V 1300s, Shakespeare 1600, setting of play 1942, HG production and Ukraine in 2022. We are not alone. We are not alone. We are not alone. “Let not our memories fail us.”
THE COSTUME QUEST by Barbara Biddison
Our HG Community Theatre used to have what we called a "costume warehouse." It was right across the road from the The Wellsboro House. We had to move out of that building some years ago, and now the building itself is gone...raised, I guess you call it. My memories remain though and have resurfaced as we costume BREECHES, set in 1942 with some scenes featuring Shakespeare's kings and queens and a quirky Falstaff. We are dressing for two very different historical periods right now, and here I am in 2022 looking back on a 2007 touring children's show called ONCE UPON A SHOE. I had been cast as Mother Goose, and we toured offering something like 15 shows in 2 counties. And we were in costume.
I didn't happen to have a Mother Goose outfit in my closet, so Thomas Putnam took me to the costume warehouse. I walked into this huge warehouse and saw what appeared to me like acres of carefully organized costumes. Everything from kingly garb to skimpy dresses, and shoes, and hats, and jewelry, and all sizes of ordinary period dress. There wasn't a Mother Goose section, but we found a couple possibilities and I tried them on. I walked around in each dress as Thomas cast his artistic eye on the options. He proclaimed one of them to be "perfect," as I recall, and that was that. I remember feeling so special.. I was relatively new at this community theatre business. I had been in undergraduate productions and in MU's tent theatre, and I had worn costumes for sure, but this was different. Never before had the director taken me to a costume warehouse and let me try the possibilities for my character.
I hope our cast of 8 for BREECHES is feeling special too. We have dresses, and "costume costumes," and uniforms, and even a fat suit. They are coming back from a costume hunt as I write this, and I'm off to see what they found!
TALKING NONSENSE ABOUT SALARIES FOR ACTRESSES By Barbara Biddison
So, it's 1942 and we're in the midst of the second world war, and all the men have gone. The director's wife, untested so far, has taken on the scheduled production of Shakespeare's HENRIAD (Henry the Fourth and Fifth combined), and the local women are going to take on the male roles. It occurs to the theatre group's Diva, that the men have always been paid for their acting, and now that the women are playing male roles they should be paid too. Of course, the too-old-for-war Mr. Snow, who controls the money, does not see it that way, until . . . .
Gradually the younger left-behind-women gather up the courage to audition. And when they are cast, they must deal with learning lines as well as knitting Victory Socks and organizing scrap metal drives and finding child care while they wait for letters from their husbands who are "over there." And Celeste, the Diva, continues to claim her role as Julliet (to, one presumes, a much younger Romeo) as justification for playing the younger Henry V instead of playing his older father Henry IV. But there's a guy who isn't "over there" and he's the Stage Manager who has to deal with questions about that. And the clever costume designer who may or may not end up on stage as well.
So many stories in this one play. It takes all of us into the breeches of one kind or another. What a journey it is! It opens in the Warehouse Theatre in a month. As Assistant I'm privileged to watch it grow, and to read certain parts when an actor cannot make a rehearsal. I'm getting to know these people who lived in a world quite different from ours now, but in many ways the same.
THE JUNGLE OF THE JUNGLE BOOK by Thomas Putnam
We typically offer our Winter Theatre Arts Camps in January and early February. I typically don't direct the first mainstage production of the year so that I can devote the time and energy needed for the camps. This year we didn't offer our camps (one in Blossburg and one in Elkland) due to...well, to what we are blaming everything on these past two years.
About five weeks ago, we spoke with NTSD about offering the camp sometime in March. YES, was the response. I was hesitant due to being in full rehearsals for INTO THE BREECHES and beginning rehearsals for THE MAY QUEEN and helping to work on the MLK concert and two other small concerts the HG Youth Choir was doing. But...YES...let's do it for the kids.
First, registration/auditions in all three NTSD elementary schools. There was a mix-up with the information sheets being delivered to every child in grades 4-10 and the registration forms. Fewer kids showed up. (Sometimes we have 70 or 80 kids.) We ended up with 39.
Monday rehearsal. Assigned roles, read through the script. Sang some of the songs. Everyone catches on to THE BARE NECESSITIES. It's catchy. Learn your lines. Stay healthy. See you Wednesday. (We skip Tuesdays so I can have rehearsals with the HG Children's Choir.)
Wednesday arrives and it's a very snowy day. School is let out early; cancel the camp. See you Thursday. Thank goodness for Thursday; but the weather report is really snowy for Saturday, so let's have a longer rehearsal on Friday. Thank goodness there is a half day on Friday so we rehearsed for a bit over three hours. See you Monday.
I come down with whopping cold on Friday night and am in bed all weekend. Monday comes and I know I can't conduct the camp. Thank goodness for Janelle Davis who is working with us again this year. She'll take the camp. All goes well. See you Wednesday.
Thank goodness, I'm better. Good rehearsal, but we've realized we don't have enough elephant costumes and what about those vultures and writing up the curtain speech, and what about those few kids who weren't present? Thank goodness Alan Weed could stay late to help me create at least a feel for a jungle. (Did I mention that the auditorium is now being used as a classroom, so there is lots of equipment on and off the stage?)
Thursday. Where did the kids get all their energy? The leads all nail their lines and take direction really, really well. Real troupers. Some of the jungle chorus don't seem to be singing. Drill some of the words. Work out the bows. Run the whole thing two times? Or did we just run it once and work on specifics. Clarify that the performance times are at 7:00 on Friday and Saturday. Make sure you wash your camp tee shirts. All your costume in your box? Any questions. See you Friday night for the performance.
A few prop things to fix on Friday. Get the word out to the public that 30+ kids have devoted a lot of energy and love into creating something very cool; the public really should come out and affirm these kids.
I realize that we didn't have behavioral issues this year. Some of the kids have been with camps for a few years. (One girl who is in 10th grade has been with us since third grade, I think.) Others are brand new and barely talk above a whisper. These kids have been great to work with. They are all real troupers.
Won't you take the time to encourage these kids by checking our their creation? It's been a jungle of a process, but a glorious one.
FROM SHREW TO CHICAGO by Barbara Biddison
Sounds like a song, "From Shrew to Chicago zisboombah." Well, after the past few days I feel like clapping and singing a happy song. First a trip to see a granddaughter in her first play. And our first time away from home in two years. Then back home to head for the Deane and a Saturday performance of SHREW in the Coolidge Theatre. Theatre-in-the round is something I have grown to appreciate. For one thing, as an audience member I feel like I am right there in the middle of the action. And, in this case, I thought that director Clare Ritter had blocked the movement of the actors so I could see them all from where I sat. And I could hear them too. And I could watch them interact with each other. It is a much more "immediate" audience experience. There's nothing like being involved with characters that came initially from Shakespeare's pen and have been cleverly embellished by a modern director. And there's nothing like an encircled playing area that includes the audience in it all.
I also was interested in the more modern treatment of language in SHREW. I've seen and heard a lot of Shakespeare, at least since I was about 17. I can understand the language as he wrote it, and I get the story, but I am well aware that some others are not so fortunate. SHREW removed that barrier and gave us words that all could understand, and, in addition, the actors were good at projecting and having movement emphasize thought! I would hope that audience members, previously convinced that they could not understand Shakespeare, would now be ready to head for Stratford, Ontario, and see professional actors present Shakespeare.
Then, unable to go for more than a day without theatre we headed for CHICAGO. Well, not the actual city, the musical by that name. This very ambitious choice of the " teen edition" was admirably produced by the Cowanesque Valley Drama Club.under the direction of Dave Wert. (He's back! After a few years in the Marines and then at a totally different kind of school, he's back.) And, oh my, what a high school production this was. There was an on-stage orchestra, in front of which the action took place. There was a lot of action. These high school actors, the leads and the ensemble, were rehearsed to perfection. They sang, they danced, and they performed intricate movements together for a couple hours. If a dozen of them were to pick up their chair and put it down with an audible tap, they executed this movement with confidence and absolute unity. Oh what a treat it was to see these high school students perform like this and obviously have a great time knowing how good they were. Theatre is alive and well in rural northern Pennsylvania.
RACISTS DON'T DO THEATRE by Thomas Putnam
Racists don't do theatre. It's simply too much for them. Is this a politically incorrect thing to say? Actually I don't care much if it is politically incorrect, but I am concerned if it is morally wrong. It's just that I am ready to have auditions for our Spring production of Molly Metzler's THE MAY QUEEN and for once it would be a dream to have a fully racially-mixed cast. This is Black History Month, and we are celebrating MLK's vision/mission this Sunday (after being re-scheduled from January 15.) MLK had a dream, and I don't think that mine is too far off from his, certainly smaller in scope but actually a demonstration of that dream.
There are only five people in this cast: two men and three women. Any of these characters could be played by any race. Of course, that could be said of any play, but this one which takes place in an insurance office could very well be filled with people of any and all races.
We've never had this in an HG production. One might argue that this is not surprising since Tioga County is hugely populated by white residents. But certainly not everyone in Tioga County (or within driving distance for rehearsals and performances) is white. We rarely have people who are not white auditioning for roles in plays. Why is that? We have had people drive from Elmira and Corning and near Williamsport and nearly to Bath and Coudersport and Troy.
I want to make sure that Hamilton-Gibson Productions is a place where people of all races feel welcomed and safe. Theatre tells some powerful stories and some of those stories are ones that racists just might not tolerate. Theatre has the potential to transform, to change, to enlighten, to convict, to broaden. A racist can't handle that kind of change.
The auditions are February 23 at 6:30; February 25 at 6;30 and February 27 at 1:00 all at the Deane Center, upstairs, Main Street in Wellsboro. Later on Feburary 27 we host a choral celebration on the last Sunday of Black History Month of the life and vision of MLK at the Wellsboro High School. We welcome all races to audition for this play, The May Queen. I have a dream that this cast will be multi-racial. Spread the good news.
BRUSH UP YOUR SHAKESPEARE by Thomas Putnam
Do you know the song from the musical KISS ME KATE called “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”? It's a fun song that incorporates a whole lot of titles from the Bard's list of 36 (or 37...or 38...or...) plays. The musical, itself includes a play within a play, in this case Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. It's a clever weaving of the basic SHREW story as the characters in the musical almost parallel the characters in SHREW. I've been thinking a lot about Shakespeare lately for a number of reasons.
First, HG is opening a version of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW on March 3. (Don't miss the opening night reception following the performance on Thursday!) It's the story through and through re-told in “modern” English. If you've had trouble in the past with iambic pentameter, try this production out. Though we miss the poetry, we get all the humor and plot situation that has intrigued audiences for over 400 years. It's in the Coolidge with re-configured seating...and you get to see real-life couple Natalie and Titus Himmelberger duking it out.
I'm also thinking about Shakespeare because the following play is the comedy INTO THE BREECHES which tells the story of a community theatre that decides to produce Shakespeare's HENRY IV and HENRY V without any males to play the roles! They are all off fighting in WWII. The play by George Brant wonderfully weaves in much of the glorious language of these two plays as the cast of women rehearse for the Henriad. We're in rehearsals for this one which opens April 1.
And I'm thinking about Shakespeare because our summer theatre arts camp for kids is SHAKIN' UP SHAKESPEARE. We'll be jumping into all sorts of things Shakespeare...and we'll be singing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”!
Shakespeare is funny.
Clare made that comment in rehearsal recently in an appreciative response.
In rehearsing for Shrew, we find ourselves laughing, much of the time.
While I greatly appreciate the original language of most of Shakespeare’s writing, this show uses a modernization of the script. While some of the music of the words may be lost, the meaning is much more accessible, as is the humor. The actors are finding innumerable ways to accentuate the implicit tenderness, belligerence, and funny bone tickling that the bard bestowed upon us.
Clare and Linda have been working on this show for years, and now that they chose to include us in the process, they are deftly guiding us to find ways to both enhance the presentation as well as overcome our tendency to play to the audience downstage. This is theater in the round, and we have to learn to move (a lot) and to to be expressive with our bodies and the backs of our heads as well as our faces and voices. Cheating takes on a whole different meaning (the theatrical kind people …. ok … there’s a little bawdy humor too, but … ), and audiences can truly have a different experience every time they come – especially if they don’t sit in the same seats.
I love the period in a production when people are starting to get comfortable with their characters and lines because then the hidden interactions are discovered. Things are tried, and experiences evolve, and the best stuff gets kept for the performances. Given what I’ve seen so far, Shrew will pull at a lot of emotional strings – including the funny bone. That’s because...
Shakespeare is funny.
A little over three weeks from opening, the cast was getting ready to rehearse Act 5, Scene 2, described by director Clare Ritter as "the big hoo-haw conclusion." As I arrived, the cast was "coming and going," to the Deane upon arrival, then to the Warehouse for "head shots" with Bruce Dart, then back to the Deane for rehearsal in the Coolidge Theatre. Here and there actors tried on a costume piece. I asked Clare about the time period "historically" for costumes and all, and she said something like, "Well, the audience will certainly know that the costumes are not current dress." And I'll add, audiences familiar with Shakespeare will know that this tale is being retold. And all will relax and sit back and have an enriching good time. It's not the SHREW you saw in Stratford. It's this one.
It has a cast of about 15, twice as many men as women [see earlier blog inquiring about where the men are—now we know where some of them are]. And it has some younger folk in the cast.. They arrived from HG high-school-age choir practice just as I was leaving. I know most of these people and have seen them in other shows, and it is always fun, and enriching and empowering, to see them do something quite different. And the Petruhcio/Katherine leads are played by real-life couple, Natalie and Titus. I saw Natalie to chat a bit as she was going home, and she spoke of Kate as witty and clever and her own person (which is how I saw her in this rehearsal, and wanted to confirm with the actress herself). Audiences will love this interaction I think, between this man and this woman, and will find it believable.
As all were through running this scene a couple times, Clare made a few director comments including how the feeling of "reacting and interacting" among all was developing so well. And then to the practical advice (requirement) about what shoes to wear: quiet soles and low heels because the loud sound of footsteps carries so clearly in that theatre! One guy asked if his red shoes would be okay; I didn't hear the answer.
Aside from the show itself, which promises to be delightful/engaging/inspiring, I came away feeling very happy about the relationships of the actors off stage. My experience is that HG people get along nicely, and that they often actually create new friendships. So, it's no surprise to me, but I just love what I saw when people were off-stage or leaving. I don't know how well they knew each other before SHREW, but I liked what I saw last night. I have felt that too.