Why do I do it? I asked myself this question many times during the last few months while rehearsing a new play for a decidedly short run in Milford, PA. The play, “Four Score and Seven,” was written by a theatre buddy of mine, John Klemeyer. We once played opposite each other as the murderous brother/sister, husband/wife team in Ira Levin’s thriller “Veronica’s Room” on another way-off-Broadway stage in the Catskills. So that was one reason in favor of the dozens of car trips between Narrowsburg, NY and Milford and New York City to rehearsals and finally, performances.
Another, better reason was the script my friend John sent me last winter while I was getting ready to pack up 30 years of living and move into an uncertain future. The language flowed so easily from the page to my voice it felt like I had written it myself. I signed on immediately. It would be one thing I could count on for the next few months.
After a few informal readings an ensemble formed, hand-picked by the author and comprised of local amateur and semi-professional actors he knew and respected. We had one thing in common—we knew the playwright. It soon became clear we needed something else. We needed a director.
A play is not just written; it comes to life on the stage, first with actors, then with an audience. Before that it lives in the writer’s imagination. He hears every line the way he wrote it. Once, in a rehearsal, a fellow actor noted that John knew every word in the script and I added, “and every ellipsis.” But what actors need, after a script, is a relationship to each other. That is what a good director can help develop.
My friend Penelope Morgan-Lohr shrinks from center stage as a rule, but I knew her well enough to know she can mount a production with spit and greasepaint, and she understands actors. I asked her to consider spending all her free time directing an unfamiliar cast for an unknown playwright. To her credit, she tried to palm the job off to her sister but I wouldn’t let her. Soon, she morphed from shrinking violet to carnivorous orchid and helped us bring a sheaf of paper to vibrant life on the stage.
This is mostly the theatre I know—the shoestring budget, unpaid actors, volunteer stage managers and community stages. It’s a kind of magic trick that can bring together all those compromised elements to make a worthwhile piece of theatre. Everyone involved has another life that sustains them (some just barely). We all travel great distances, often late at night on country roads studded with deer and give up weekends of leisure to study lines and rehearse.
“Four Score and Seven” presented other challenges. Its subject is the end of life and how families cope. Along the way it brings up the politics of health care and every other controversial subject of modern life. During the rehearsal period one cast member lost his mother, another’s father had a medical crisis, the playwright’s good friend and business partner died, and I endured a perplexing and frustrating medical journey that eerily mirrored my characters’.
Experts say keeping your mind nimble as you age is vital. Doing crossword puzzles has nothing on committing 50 pages of dialogue to memory. Let’s say it’s not my strong point. Somehow, with the fear of humiliation motivating me, I made it, but I kept myself and my cast members guessing until the final dress rehearsal. Yet I never felt reproached by any of them. There were no prima donnas in this ensemble—only hard-working people who happen to have the talent and drive to make original theatre come to life for an audience of their peers. I guess that’s why I do it.