A Living Theatre

by Brandt Roberts (Commonweal Resident Ensemble Member)

vaudevilleOnce upon a time, there were theatres and opera houses in nearly every small community in this wide country of ours. Vaudeville shows, symphonies, magic acts, acrobats, circuses and touring companies gave the teeming masses a balm to contend with life’s travails. Live entertainment was the rage and had been for centuries. These performances gave men and women an escape, an entrance into the world of their imagination where they could view humanity in its heightened form: distilled to its essence.

But those days came to an end. Thomas Edison invented a way to capture life in celluloid. No more would a performance exist solely on the stage. Now stories could be confined to film for the world to see at its leisure. It became cheaper to ship cans of celluloid than to ship train cars of actors. And so the live performance halls were converted into cinemas.

cansIt was the age of Hollywood. Movie stars graced the silver screen and millions of viewers across the country idolized these monochromatic giants. Edison’s little contraption had unwittingly changed the face of theatre. No more could plays be performed as naturally or realistically as the public demanded. Film was able to capture the real world far better than any stage set. The audience had become accustomed to their new viewfinder world.

So the stage was set for Avant-garde, Surrealism, Absurdism, and many other “isms.” Theatre became an experimental playground, more so than it had ever been in its three thousand year history. It had to reinvent itself.

Over the years, people have professed to me that theatre is dying—from within the profession and from without. With the advent of film, television, radio, YouTube, iPhones and the like, how does the modest theatrical performance stand a chance in our world of mass media? The answer—easily. Within the phrase “theatre is dying,” there is the implication that it is something that is alive, something that can die. Film, on the other hand, is already “lifeless.” Trapped within celluloid, the film La Voyage Dans La Lune will be the same today as when it was released in 1902; only the audience has changed. When people say that theatre is dying, they are referring to popularity and not vital signs. But is theatre truly out of fashion?

In the southern region of America, there does seem to be a decline. A few years ago, I toured the northern part of our country with a theatre company. Within these small towns in the north, old vaudeville houses and single screen cinemas, which were closed due to the onslaught of multiplex theatres, had been renovated into live performance spaces. So why not renovate old theatres in the south? Well, the demographic in the south has a hard time supporting a theatre because generally speaking, they are not live theatregoers. Some of this has to do with income. A lot of the areas in the north that have renovated theatres also have a wealthy demographic with a philanthropic soft spot for the arts.

A Commonweal audienceSo why do we need theatre? We have film, TV and the Internet. And besides, theatre isn’t financially practical. We need it for one very strong reason: human beings are social creatures. We thrive on human interaction. If a baby is raised in isolation it will develop severe social and mental disabilities. The same can be said of an isolated society. Besides the audience breathing together, you have the actors on stage breathing with each other, but also breathing with the audience. The audience affects the action on stage. They are active participants in the experience, not passive bystanders. They are not isolated but intimate.

When you have a conversation with someone, you want that person to respond to you. Think about live performances as a conversation. It is an organic experience. The performance you see will never be seen again! Differences in the actors, audience, temperature, weather, politics and region all have an effect on the product. It is alive. A performance is born and dies every single night.

So, why do we need theatre in a small town? Because the residents of an area know what stories need to be told to their community. No one else will tell the tales that need to be told. It is a theatre’s job to build worlds that are only open to a few. Isn’t it great to share a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with other people in your community?

Brandt Roberts

Brandt Roberts

Arts foster this in our children and our children’s children. Art is the foundation of a successful culture and as long as there are humans who will listen to a story, there will be theatre. Theatre doesn’t need a set or a stage, elaborate lighting or costumes. It doesn’t need a camera, electricity, a computer or a satellite. It just needs a storyteller and an audience. The only difference between a story and a play is when the storyteller becomes a character. It is odd to admit it, but we all act. Each and every day you play a different character: a wife/husband, a carpenter, a teacher, a father/mother, a child, a doctor, an athlete and a lawyer… the list is infinite. You may say these are just social roles, but do you not behave differently depending upon these roles? And are not the characters in a play called “roles” for a reason? As Sir Laurence Olivier said, “Surely we have always acted; it is an instinct inherent in all of us. Some of us are better at it than others, but we all do it.”

Theatre cannot die. It is a part of who we are.

If I Live To Be 100

Compiled by Jeremy van Meter


Courtesy of Paul Mobley

The actors currently onstage in our version of Pride’s Crossing are nowhere near turning the age of 100. Many of those same actors do, however, portray characters that are quite close to reaching that milestone. Statistics tell us that as time passes, we human beings are living longer and that our expectations of reaching the century mark should be higher. It’s a question that few of us truly stop to consider, “what if I live to be 100?” I’ve asked Pride’s Crossing cast members Hal Cropp, Ben Gorman, and Adrienne Sweeney to recount their own process of building a character in their 90’s. As a 47-year-old currently playing a man in his mid-90’s, I have also contributed.

Also—be sure to click the link at the bottom of this page for a portrait study of centenarians courtesy of Slate.com and photographer Paul Mobley. You will be pleasantly surprised!

Hal CroppHal Cropp: One of the most amazing things I’ve discovered in bringing Wheels Wheelock to life is how much he hangs on to the events of his youth. While it doesn’t make me feel wonderful to say it out loud, Wheels has grown into someone who has hung on to the real and/or perceived slights in his relationship with his wife Pinky. He bristles whenever she reminisces about past loves, be they Chandler Coffin or Alfred Nightengale. I can only hope that, should I reach Wheels’ age, I am able to release whatever slights I might still be carrying and truly live in the moment.

Ben Gorman

Ben Gorman: As I tried to create my version of Pinky Wheelock, I found myself assuming postures and taking on affectations of which I can’t quite be sure the source! Am I “making them up” from whole cloth, or accessing memories of observations made over a lifetime of interacting with my fellow human beings? I do trust my instincts and ideas, so I can only hope they produce a veracity in performance that the audience can observe—once they get past the jarring fact that a man, without benefit of makeup and only suggestions of costume, is playing an old woman, that is! I’ve decided that Pinky has a sunny disposition and that she’s a very positive person. And her physicality—at about 90 years of age—includes a few basic characteristics: a very curved-forward spinal stoop (which is quite uncomfortable to portray for extended periods!), a sort of retracted left arm—bent at the elbow, hand to the chest. Overall, there is a slight delay in her reactions to events—not so much as to delay the pacing the director needed for the scenes Pinky is in, but enough to suggest the slower reactions of advanced age. And with her impish sense of humor (she does a striptease after all!), she’s a joy to play.

Adrienne SweeneyAdrienne Sweeney: The most notable part of this process for me has been meeting with women in their 90’s. The thing that I have come away with, the thing that has really hit me, is the need to let senior adults live their own lives and make their own decisions for as long as realistically possible; to not rob a person of their autonomy just because they hit a certain age. Every single person I have met and talked with is so unique—had their own lives and styles of being in the world. That’s the biggest thing I’ll take away from this process…to really embrace each and every person as the individual they are. Also—if I live to be 90 I am quite sure I’ll be as ornery, stubborn, fiercely loyal and loving as Mabel. I sure hope so!

Jeremy van MeterJeremy van Meter: My only living grandparent, Dorothy Van Meter, turned 94 this year. One of the characters I portray in Pride’s Crossing is Chandler Coffin. At the beginning of the play, his age is defined as a “few years older” than Mabel who is 90. I have chosen that age to be 94. Other than some mental fragility, my Granny Van Meter has no physical ailments. Through the creation of Chandler, I have made the full realization that reaching 100-years-old does not relegate one to one’s bed. My Chandler at 94, is only “slightly” older than the Chandler of 30-years ago—perhaps a bit slower and more stooped over. There is a vibrancy to him that, as I look forward to my own advancing life, I am planning on and hoping to embrace and cultivate.

If I Live To Be 100

Pride’s Crossing with its delightful and multi-layered characters is onstage now at the Commonweal through November 13. Please come and share some time with us!

Fun For All

by Stela Burdt, Commonweal Resident Ensemble Member

SB_FBThis summer I had two of the greatest honors an artist could ask for; one was portraying Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir and the other was bringing my own child to a full length theatrical performance for the first time in his life.

When we first chose Souvenir, I fell in love with the idea of an off-pitch singer who was absolutely indomitable in her desire to be a successful opera diva, but I didn’t know just how special the relationship between Cosme and Florence was until we first performed it for audiences. It wasn’t only Madame Flo’s child-like belief in herself that moved people, but also the true, loving friendship that developed between Florence and her long-time accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Despite all the off-key notes and tense moments, their friendship stood the test of time and deepened into a true partnership. If only we could all be so lucky as to have a friendship as strong as theirs, the world, I believe, would be a much better place.

While I was having fun collaborating on Souvenir, my husband, Scott Dixon, was working on The Three Musketeers. At home, our young son of five and a half years, was absolutely smitten by the idea that his dad was learning swordplay. Scott and I showed Kieran, whom we call Little Bear, a couple of movie versions of The Three Musketeers, and read him bits from an abridged version of the novel, to help prepare him for seeing the show live on stage. When it came time to bring him to the theatre, he’d already memorized the names of all three Musketeers and D’Artagnan (he even says it with a French accent!).

LB Sword ShieldAt first, I was anxious about how Little Bear would react. He’s very outgoing and I was nervous he would talk too much during the show. We came with two of his friends, and they all insisted we sit in the front row. My stomach was in knots. Little Bear, however, was completely engaged. Did he wiggle around? Yup, and he even moved seats to crawl into my lap. He whispered into my ear fairly often, sometimes to ask a question about what he was seeing, but often to report who was a bad guy and who was a good guy. The big moment came right before the end of Act One. The Musketeers say the traditional “All For One”, and Sabine responds with “And One for All!” HOWEVER, in the pause between the men speaking and her response, Little Bear enthusiastically jumped right in and yelled “AND ONE FOR ALL!” Callie, who portrays Sabine, waited a moment, then finished the act by saying her line. The entire cast was on stage, holding their expressions as best they could, though their twinkling eyes clearly showed they were about to crack up at Little Bear’s expression of love for the Musketeers.

CookieSo we’ve had a fun summer at our house. Little Bear has also seen Souvenir and on occasion he would mention “that show where you are the funny singing lady, Mommy.” When we wrapped up our production recently, I realized this was probably the show I have had the hardest time saying goodbye to in my entire acting career. I think this was the first one that spoke so deeply to me because of how deeply it impacted our audiences, even younger children. Following one performance, I was given a homemade cookie baked by a young girl in the audience. She said to me, “well, you just did something really nice for me by putting on such a great show so I thought I’d do something nice for you.” I did not want those special times to end. But as Madame Flo says “If only the music could go on forever, Cosme. But of course it can’t. Of course it has to end.” And so it did, until I realized the music would go on, just in a way I never expected it to.

Last week, as he was practicing his piano, Little Bear asked me to come stand near him. “Mommy, I’m doing Souvenir so you be the funny singing lady.” I was gob-smacked. He wanted to play Souvenir, not be a musketeer today?! I took a breath, and began to sing. Florence took the stage once more, in her very own living room, with her very own son. I sang off-key for him, and when the song was done he insisted I talk like the funny lady, and so we got ready to head off to school with me talking with my Madame Flo mid-Atlantic accent.

And so we continue to make Art. And it changes us and moves us. And it changes and moves the people—even the youngest among us—who listen to us too.