Season Wrap-up, Part 1
Our season is drawing to a close. Our final show, Prelude to a Kiss, closed on May 10th, and the last major event of the year, our Young Playwrights Festival, took place on May 20th, but the season officially ends for us on June 30th, the end of our fiscal year.
So, as we're getting near the end of our 15th season, I thought I might take a few blogs to reflect on what has been an exceptionally challenging and ultimately rewarding year. What follows are three postings: the first looks at the artistic achievements of the season, the second addresses the business side of making theatre, and the third contains my reflections about the interpersonal aspects of my work. Granted, these categories tend to spill into one another, but it seems like the best way to order my observations.
Here we go!
The Plays We Made
In his op-ed piece in the New York Times on May 28th, Nicholas Kristoff quotes a psychology professor, one Jonathon Haidt, as saying: "Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart."
The editorial was about how liberals and conservatives might find common ground, but the quote reminded me of what we're trying to do with our work here at Vermont Stage. I've always felt that by choosing plays that remind us that what we have in common is greater than what separates us, our work has the potential to bring people together. I've also felt that while I do look for plays that are intellectually engaging, what usually hooks me is the overall emotional impact of the play. If a play speaks to my heart, it'll probably get me thinking, too. And all the shows this season did both for me.
I don't think we've ever done a show at Vermont Stage that had such a wide range of response from the audience. On one end of the spectrum, there were the people who came back to see the play a second time, and for whom the show was truly a life-altering experience. At the same time, there were folks who called the show "vile" and wondered to me how I could have been so misguided in my choice.
Now, I'm not the most thick-skinned person around, so there's no denying that I was a little shaken by some of the criticism, but on the other hand, it was kind of interesting to see how a show could elicit such myriad opinions. And I was equally intrigued by the fact that it ended up being our 4th best-attended show ever (after To Kill a Mockingbird, Midwives, and The Foreigner).
I loved what the actors brought to this piece. I will tell you that it was a very challenging show for all of them, and the rehearsals got pretty emotional sometimes, but ultimately it was a deeply satisfying experience for all involved. As for my own response, I will acknowledge that the structure of the play could be challenging, but the end, where Lisa finally gained a deeper understanding of her relationship with her mother, got me every time. Family dynamics...well, you know.
When I dreamed up Winter Tales back in 2005, I hoped that it might become a local holiday tradition of sorts, but I didn't know what that would actually mean. That is, I didn't really think about the fact that I would have to create a new show each year, almost from scratch. Yes, there's been some recycling, and yes, other folks do most of the writing, but the work of bringing all the pieces together in just the right combination is what makes each Winter Tales so daunting, and ultimately so rewarding.
I won't go into detail about this year's show except to say that I truly enjoyed spending a week performing with all of those wonderful folks, from old friends like Patti Casey and Paul Schnabel and Larry Gleason, to relative newcomers like Pete Sutherland and Chris Caswell and the delightful Liz Gilbert. Oh, and my wife, Kathryn - she's swell, too.
And I am deeply gratified that this has become a tradition for so many members of our community. And I love that, at its heart, it's just simple storytelling.
What a lovely play.
To be honest, this was the play I was the most concerned about. On paper it's actually a very challenging script - so many scenes, so many time and place shifts, so many differing narrative voices. And I wondered if people would be scared off by the subject matter - just the word "Rwanda" in the title has so many dark resonances.
Fortunately, I hit the jackpot when it came to my choice of artists. Chris directed the play with great sensitivity and great clarity. Jenny created a set (in a heretofore unused configuration of FlynnSpace) that helped define exactly where we were in any one of the 36 scenes. John's lighting subtly underscored and supported the strong emotions of the piece. Joel's sound design highlighted both the pedestrian and exotic nature of the stories being told.
And the actors. In the less flashy, but still challenging role, Larry Gleason created a character of great warmth and wisdom, even while struggling with all kinds of internal conflict and self-doubt. And Afton Williamson, in what I think can be fairly called a tour-de-force performance, brought so much depth and pure life-force to our little stage. I have never been more moved than I was by her portrayal of Juliette.
The audience response was overwhelming, with many people saying this was one of the best shows they had ever seen at Vermont Stage. The whole experience was deeply gratifying.
(Update on Afton: A few weeks after she left Vermont, she was cast in her first Broadway show, the recent revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone. As I predicted when she was here, I think we have a star in the making.)
As hard as it was to make the decision to give up the full production and replace it with a staged reading, I could not have been more pleased with the results. Again, we were very fortunate to have found Andre Montgomery, an excellent actor who was willing to come to Vermont, and with only two days of rehearsal treat us to what was, in effect, a full-fledged performance of a two hour long, one-man show.
I have to tell you, I was actually a bit surprised by how Andre decided to interpret the role. When I read it, I pictured Alonzo Fields as having a very formal, somewhat reserved personality, and that's what I saw from most of the actors, including Andre, at the auditions. However, when Andre got here and started exploring all the various layers of the character, he found so much humor and playfulness and spontaneity. The formality was there when he was interacting with the presidents, but Andre showed us the private side of Alonzo Fields in ways I never would have imagined, and he charmed us all by doing so.
This is a play I've wanted to do for ages, ever since I saw it on Broadway nearly twenty years ago. I fell in love with the magic of it, and the mystery, and over the years, especially since I got married, I've been deeply moved by what it has to say about what makes love last.
I was thrilled when my cast started to come together - all the wonderful local actors, most of whom I had work with before, and then having the wonderful Malachy McCourt join us, and the last minute discovery of Craig Maravich - it all seemed to be so serendipitous, much like the play itself.
The rehearsals were a true joy. The whole process just felt effortless. The actors seemed to instinctively grasp the nature of their characters with relatively little guidance from me, and they embraced the minimalist set (so wonderfully designed by Jenny Fulton) and the staging that went with it. By the time we opened, I was quite pleased with what we had created.
Early audiences seemed to be having fun, and the first round of reviews was quite positive. I felt like we were going to end the season with a truly successful production.
Then the Seven Days review came out at the beginning of the second week, and it was one of the harshest we had ever received. I'm fully aware that such things come with the territory, and yet I am far from inured to the pain of such public lambastings.
What made it worse was that the reviewer was voicing an opinion that, I was starting to learn, was shared by a reasonable percentage of the audience: while many of the performances, and indeed the overall production was fine, the script just wasn't compelling enough for most people.
The day after the review came out, we learned, an hour before curtain, that Malachy had broken his leg. You know the rest of the story: I went on with a script for that show and the rest of the weekend; by the following week, I had learned the lines and I did the part as well as I could, given that I'm some 25 years too young to play this role.
And yet. Despite the rough review, despite the broken leg, despite the modest attendance that last week, I ultimately felt blessed to have done this show. There were people for whom the play was quite moving and magical and meaningful, just as it had been for me, all those years ago. I received overwhelming support and encouragement from my fellow cast members when I took over for Malachy, and there were more than a few audience members who came back to see the play again, just to catch my performance. I know that Vermont Stage, and I personally, have a new and loyal friend in Malachy McCourt, who is a delightful soul indeed. And I know that every other actor in the show would say that this had been an extremely positive experience for them.
Of course I want every show to be universally loved and overwhelmingly attended. But even more than that, I want to provide a positive experience for the artists. The former is highly unlikely, and furthermore, something over which I have no control; the latter, I will continue to do my best to achieve. On both fronts this season, I think we did just fine.