THE MAY QUEEN CHRONICLES: SO MUCH CAN HAPPEN IN A "POD" by Barbara Biddison
Last night I saw a dress rehearsal. Just five people and 4 desks and 4 chairs and all kinds of "stuff" kept my rapt attention for an hour and a half. These three women and two men are so real and so clueless sometimes that I laughed out loud, and so different in character, and so troubled at other times, that I cried. In the opening scene Dave is moving about and Mike is drunk, and normally drunk isn't funny in my world, but he's funny And his desk is so cluttered with garbage from the food he brings in to eat that there is no desk surface to be seen. And then there's Gail, older than the others, dressed in crazy beautiful "work clothes" and blessed with the ability to give a massage in the office. Then in comes the tiny irritating, insecure, loud office manager with a new sullen, quiet "temp" who it turns out is not as much of a stranger to the others as we had thought. So we watch all of them try to sort things out. Who IS this woman?
This play is for me the kind of treat that I don't usually have as a long-long-time audience member. I've been going to plays since my late teens. I've been going to HG plays for its 30-some years of existence. For much of that HG time I've been on Artistic Planning, and that means that I have probably read every play here before I see it. Usually I just love to see the stage come to life. What I have read becomes real, pretty much as I hoped for and pretty much as I had expected. Well, this one is different. I read it. OK. But this play comes to life on stage in a way that I could never have imagined. This play goes from reading a "not-my-all-time-favorate-play" to an " I really want to see it again, maybe twice again" play. Seriously. The acting is really good. But more than that, This play must be seen and heard live. Yes, live and on stage.
I drilled lines with a couple of the actors. We talked some about what was going on there. I was familiar with the words, but no play is just about words. Good plays are about people and emotions and life happenings. We have to pay attention when we see this play. Dialogue is clever and meaty and often funny. The long monologues are works of art thanks to the playwright and the character who speaks. And their timing is just so good. Ah, yes,. Who is Jen Nash?
A CERTAIN FOUR-LETTER WORD by Thomas Putnam
There was a moment in the long, wonderful process preparing the one-man play UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL that is vivid in my memory, even though it was way back in 2008. We were rehearsing in what is now called the Deane Center, and was then the empty shell of the Davis Furniture building. We had fashioned a little theatre on the lower level and built a bit of a stage. At one point during the rehearsal, Bill Scott—who had designed and was running tech—loudly and passionately burst out with a few words. One of them was a four-letter word. He said there....there is the central issue in this whole story; it all boils down to this one word.
In the process of preparing this play THE MAY QUEEN, there is that same one-word issue. It is here, in this one word that sets the path for at least two of the characters in the play, and thus affecting all of them as their lives intersect in this dreary office pod.
There are a number of four-letter words in this script, most of them quite crude. But in the midst of these other words, is this one. It is only mentioned in one long passage spoken by Mike (Vincent Nance) toward the end of the play. (And btw, it is not “love.”) It all boils down to this one word. Listen for it.
The People (We Think) We Know by Thomas Putnam
There's a Robert Frost poem, can't remember the title but I remember studying it once. In it is the image of a number of cords that are connected to the the speaker of the poem. My memory may be mixed up, but I do remember such a poem and that image has stayed with me for decades. How much is our personhood shaped by those with whom we have connections? How important are such persons in our lives in determining who are are or will become? These are questions I've pondered as we work through the process of bringing Molly Smith Metzler's insightful play to the stage.
Five characters make up the cast of THE MAY QUEEN, but I've been struck with how many other people are mentioned—by name—in the story. I get the feeling Metzler is nudging us to ask those questions in the first paragraph. There are two very distinct time periods in the play: the one of the action of the play—March-ish around 2014. The other time period is 15 years previous when three of the characters were high school students. The questions being urged to ask include are we the same person we were in high school? How much are we shaped by events that occurred 15 years previous? Can people change? Do people change? Add to these questions about events the numerous people mentioned and we're doing a lot of questioning!
Besides the characters we see and hear on stage—Jen Jen Nash, Mike Petracca, Gail Gillespie, David Lund, and Nicole (no last name)--there are a host of other people referenced. Jen's parents, Mike's mother and brother Jeff, Gail's husband Ron and daughter Sadie and son Tate, Dave's mother, a former employee “Uncle Carl,” a local gossip Mrs. Fisher, a former classmate Jason Hoyt, Gail's drinking friends Greg and Darla, high school boys Bobby DeLeo, Ricardo Ferarro, Joey Plunkett. T.J. Manling, MaVar Tinzley, Seth Breckman, Luke Guyman, Shane Boman Todd Zook, Jacob Markowitz, and high school girls Kelly Vance, LaQeisha Parker, Candace Darch, Kyla Clausi. There's even more than one reference to the character Russell Crowe played in A Beautiful Mind. These cannot be present, by name, without those questions about how much the people in our lives shape us.
I have recently come in contact with people I haven't seen for decades, and I realized that the people I know now have no clue about the various sets of people from various eras of my life. Current people think they know me. But, looking back at the different groups of people that I was connected to throughout my life, I'm thinking—as does Jen Nash in the play—they really don't.
MAY QUEEN CHRONICLES: And Sometimes You Weep by Thomas Putnam
Sometime this last winter, I read a discussion about the nature of catharsis in Greek tragedy. To the Greeks, theatre can arouse feelings connected with recognized problems by presenting these on the stage, thus allowing the audience to relive them passively and, because of their non-real presentation as drama, also to resolve them. I had been aware of this, but the article focused on who the audience was at the time the Greeks were writing and performing tragedies. The Greeks were immersed in war. The writers and actors and audience were immersed in war. Theatre afforded an opportunity to help deal with the real-life horrors of war by seeing someone else live through them.
Aristotle believed that an audience's ability to feel the same emotions as those displayed by actors onstage is an integral part of the experience of watching theater, and that through this experience, audiences can learn to better regulate their emotions in real life. An audience is far more likely to have a cathartic experience if they form a strong attachment to, or identification with, the characters.
THE MAY QUEEN could by no stretch be labeled a tragedy. I believe, however, that some of the issues we are dealing with today, having lived through two years of having so much of our comfortable lives stripped away, and not knowing how to cope with the unfamiliar mental state we are left in, are very present in this play. I offer the possibility that audiences may very well experience catharsis as they connect with these characters and the problems they are working through.
Thankfully there is much humor in the play which helps us through the difficult times. The play takes place in an office, a far cry from the horrors of the war that the Greeks—or Ukranians—have to face. But in the stifling four walls of this office pod, five humans connect and disconnect and struggle and challenge and laugh...and sometimes weep.
MAY QUEEN CHRONICLES: PUTTING DOWN THE SCRIPT by Barbara Biddison
So, here we go with memorizing THE MAY QUEEN. There comes a time in the rehearsal process when the director tells the cast, "OK, put down your script." Before that the actors have drilled their lines and worked at memorizing them. Then, still with script in hand, actors head for the stage and the director blocks their movement. Furniture appears, and props find their uses, and the show begins to come alive. And by this time, by some miracle, actors are supposed to have memorized their lines, and the director's voice says it's time to put down the script. Well, it's not quite that neat and simple sometimes, but that is the process. And I was privileged to sit watching the rehearsal for THE MAY QUEEN when those words were uttered by the director, and, they were followed by the director's statement that he wouldn't be giving them lines and they should just keep going as best they could. So they did just that.
This is a play with only five characters and with dialogue that goes "here/there/this way/that way" as it moves along. And I decided to "put down" my observer's script also. I wanted to know if I would catch all the bits of the story that are tossed out and that fill in the story. I did! I was, for instance, interested in how we learn about someone called "Jeff" early on and whether that knowledge stays with us when we hear Jeff's name much later in the play. I was satisfied. So, that led me to thinking about how this play is sometimes advertised as "not recommended for children." I think it's true that this is an adult story. Teens would understand it as well as mature adults would, but young kids don't have the life experience necessary to appreciate it. Teens and adults who stay with it will be rewarded with the emotional impact of how the story unfolds.
A few treats for this play. You'll see actors you've seen before in other HG shows, and you'll admire actors that are new to our stage. And you'll enjoy the theatre setup with audience on both sides. And, though you won't see him, you'll be pleased to know that a young man is running sound for the show, the same one who ran sound for the last show...and he sings too!! Seems like there's just no end to HG opportunities. .
MAY QUEEN CHRONICLES: LAYER BY LAYER by Thomas Putnam
Have you ever stripped wallpaper from a wall? Or refinished a piece of wooden furniture? It's great fun to see what patterns or colors were chosen by former residents of the room. One piece of furniture I stripped had three different colors of paint in addition to a stain. Taking away the layers, one at a time, to reveal the essence. I've been thinking of this image as I've worked through the process of production for our upcoming show THE MAY QUEEN.
The comedy/drama is constructed much like a detective story. We're given a slight bit of information but rather than confirming anything, that bit simply makes us more curious. Sometimes, in fact, we don't even realize it is a clue to something we may discover later. But one bit at a time we discover much about each of the five characters in the story. Four of the characters have known each other in some capacity in the past...and they think they know the person. But, oh, what back-stories we discover as layer after layer is peeled back.
There are some very funny bits in this story and it's a good thing, because we just might not be able to handle some of the revelations. Playwright Molly Smith Metzler knows us, and has a keen sense of what we can handle and just when we need comic breath before we plunge headlong into new discoveries. It's good writing, and good theatre.
The power of story. If someone were to ask me what this play is about there might be a tendency to give some basic facts in a few sentences...or one long run-on. But I can't do that; it would not be the story with all its power. No, I'm resisting the urge, and am urging you to experience the story with all its nuance and careful peeling back of layer upon layer.
I DREAM A WORLD
I DREAM A WORLD by Thomas Putnam
I had a rehearsal on Monday, and one on Tuesday afternoon, with kids who sing with the HG choral program. It's been a challenging two years to get to this place. We have not had a spring concert in two years. A core group of singers aged-out of the program. Covid seemed to try to drain the blood out of what we are trying to offer. Monday and Tuesday were the last two rehearsals before our annual spring concert; and those two rehearsals were so full of joy that I almost—almost—was able to forget what these last two years have done.
The youth choir with kids in grades 9-12 began meeting again in September, masked and physically distant. A small group. The concert choir with kids in grades 5-8 returned with only 8 kids. (We once had 36 kids in this group.) The training choir with kids in grades 2-4 had no kids and then our conductor had a car accident so we didn't try to meet all fall.
I opened up the youth choir to alumni and a few were able to join us for the year. Going into the MLK concert (which was rescheduled until the end of February due to Covid and a storm) we had a small, but solid group. Then, for a variety of reasons one by one the numbers again declined. Things are different. Commitment seems tenuous. Focus is hazy. Plan-making is sketchy. There's a lack...or a lessening...of some of the richness and fullness of life
But the HG Youth Choir sang a song at the delayed MLK Concert in February called “I Dream a World.” Words are by Langston Hughes. I dream a world where... Sometimes it even seems impossible to dream again. But the choir sang a song and we reveled in the dream.
Then we were invited to sing at the Wellsboro Men's Chorus 75th Birthday. I hesitated to accept the invitation: some kids were going to be away on that date, illness was making its rounds, a few singers just drifted away. But the HG Youth Choir learned a song, a welcome song from the Maori tradition in New Zealand, and we reveled in the welcome. We joined with five other choirs to sing and we reveled in the sound of voices singing.
Our spring concert is this Sunday. It's Mother's Day and some may stay away because of those celebrations, but it was one of the few days that our singers were not involved with any school activities. Our first spring concert after having to miss two. And we're singing “I Dream a World.” And we're singing “We Are Not Alone.” And “Lift Up Your Voice and Sing” and “Kyrie Eleison” and “Dona Nobis Pacem” and “Because All Men Are Brothers” and “Sing Me to Heaven” and more. And we're singing...and hoping...and reveling in the dream.
And So May Begins...
And So May Begins by Thomas Putnam
In less than three weeks we're offering a play that is an enigma. There are moments that are very funny. There are just as many moments that take you by surprise, that startle you, that confuse you, that cause you to say “whoa, time out.” I've seen some shows on tv described as “dramedy”, that combination of drama with comic moments or that comedy with serious moments. This is a tough one to describe.
But I start by simply saying that I really like this play. I saw it first a few years ago at the Geva Theatre in Rochester and I knew when it was over that I wanted to direct it. After reading it I was even more convinced. Now with this cast, I'm even more convinced. And after our first full run-through yesterday, I'm yet more convinced. I like the play; and I like the process.
This cast of five includes two people who have never been in an HG production; in fact they have not been in any production since they were in high school. Another has been in only one ten-minute play with HG, and again, nothing since high school. Two have been in HG shows.
So with this relatively new-ish cast, it has been a challenge to work through memorization techniques, the blocking process, on-stage psychology, ensemble work. It has been meaningful to begin crawling around in the characters' skins as we connect various facts about each that are dropped from time to time. Exploring possible backstories is always fun and energizing. Three of the characters are just over 30; one is early 20s, one 40s. Two are living with parents; two are living with mothers; one is a mother living with a 20s daughter.
I'm finding directing the play to be incredibly engaging. And, have I mentioned that it's a tough one to describe?
OH, THE SOUND OF MUSIC
OH, THE SOUND OF MUSIC by Barbara Biddison
It has been a long time since Wellsboro Women's Chorus and Wellsboro Men's Chorus all sang together in our practice room. The "it brings tears to your eyes" and "joy to your heart" sound is back! The last two chorus practices have overlapped for about 15 or 20 minutes. We are joining voices for a few songs. I have been especially moved by "One
Voice," which, of course. begins with a solo baritone and moves on to the end where "Everyone will sing! We will sing." And by the time we get to the end , all the men and women in the room are singing. It is powerful. And then I look at the director Christina Simonis's face as she takes us all to the end of this song, and she is so "there," so moved by the sound of music in this simple practice room. It moves me deeply too every time.
The concert that we are preparing for will be at the high school on Saturday night, April 30th. The guys are celebrating 75 years of being the Wellsboro Men's Chorus. At the moment I can't call up the date of the Women's Chorus beginning, but I know that I have been singing with them since 1982. The "surround sound" is not new to me. The men, and women have joined voices at many an "after-glo" following a concert and in front of the Arcadia toward the end of a long Dickens Day where we always conclude together with "Let There Be Peace On Earth" and we link arms with each other and a street full of visitors.
There are so many stories here. Our long-time and faithful directors, and our very long-time accompanists, and the trips, and the uniforms, and the scholarships that we give to encourage the younger singers. And the April 30th concert will also feature other choruses and choirs of varying affiliations and ages.. At a joint rehearsal a couple weeks ago, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by the press. As I looked up from my music I would find Natalie Kennedy pointing her camera at one singer or another as she danced around the room on a mission to capture it all. The April 21 Wellsboro Gazette carries photos and stories galore. This is a celebration of our love of music.
[Note: The Hamilton-Gibson Youth Choir is singing at the celebration this Saturday; along with the WAHS Men's Choir and the Butler Middle School Boys, plus one or two out-of-town male choruses.]
"I LOVE THE THEATER.. EXCUSE ME, DEAR? I LOVE A GOOD PLAY." by Barbara Biddison
Yes, Winifred loves the theatre and she loves a good play. Lucky her, she's a character in the play INTO THE BREECHES! Her husband isn't quite on board yet, but before he knows it she's going to be talking about "rounding out the cast." So here's what happened with this play that Hamilton-Gibson is currently producing. After the first week the audiences were echoing Winifred and talking about loving a good play! I was there opening Friday night, and it was grand to be in that totally involved, often laughing, sometimes silent, always attentive, audience. The word spread, as words do in this community. They had to bring in another row of chairs for the Sunday matinee.
Now everybody wants to see this play! This Friday and Saturday, April 8 and 9, were already scheduled, and we have added another matinee on the 10th! Lest you think that you have heard enough about war right now and wonder if World War ll, a play set in 1942, is what we need, I'll tell you what it does for me and many others who have seen this play. It shows me the resilience of those left at home. It gives me so much to laugh at without ever minimizing the challenges. It introduces me to characters that I love, the people left behind when the men go to fight the war. The first auditionee, the one who cheerfully rides her bicycle everywhere (saving gas for her husband's tank) keeps us loving her and laughing until.....until she has something to say. And Ida, the costume designer, sits quietly in her designated corner until she, too, has something to say. Well. it's a play, so we expect them all to have something to say, but you will listen carefully when these people talk. You will listen to them, for they have something to tell you.
I have watched this cast dig in and prepare themselves in every imaginable way. They researched appropriate clothing, and then they figured out how to change costume in about thirty seconds (more than once) during a performance. They researched 1940s hair styles for women and then made their own hair do that. They played roles that might be uncomfortable for their gender or the color of their skin. They learned a bit about sword fighting. They truly walk around in someone else's skin. And the audience can tell that, and that's why it's so funny and so moving and so engaging. It has been quite a journey to get here!