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Day thirty-six – Filling the void Part 4

December 9, 2017

As busy as I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to cast and stage Inherit the Wind, the panto must go on.

A suggestion had been made by Ginny, one of the board members, that it would be good to do something a bit different this winter. Her idea – accepted by the board – was to perform three short pantos (averaging between twenty to thirty minutes) with musical numbers by some of the island’s talented singers between the plays. Ginny had written one of the pantos herself. My friend Jean agreed to direct the second panto and I was going to direct the third. This would, I thought, give me some directing experience before I undertook the mammoth task of Inherit the Wind.

Of course this plan assumed that we could actually find enough people to cast all three pantos. And of course we couldn’t. Mine was set aside so I could take a role in Jean’s. After the auditions there was a bit of arm wrestling between the remaining two directors to see who would bag Aleksandra, a young woman, new to the island who could sing like an angel.

Jean won and she was cast as Snow Flake, which meant we could add some songs to make the panto longer. There were still some roles to be cast. Jean strong armed her friend Paul, who’d been in previous plays, but never before done a panto. I strong armed Nick, who claimed to hate pantos (having taken his sons to at least two a year throughout their childhoods), but reluctantly agreed when I told him that, as the Narrator, he didn’t have to learn any lines, but could have the script with him on stage.

I helped Jean pick some songs and write some extra lines to the show, including two local political lines for my character, the evil stepmother’s maid:

“Here I am at Castle Doom, the pulp mill smell in every room. And now to earn some extra cash, she wants to burn Vancouver’s trash.”

“I’d like to check up on the lass, but BC Ferries stole my pass.” (Earlier that week, BC Ferries had put the kybosh on pensioners travelling free from Monday to Thursday.)

2013 Short Pants

Aleks, third from left, beside me. (Yes, I got the pink wig that year.) Tall Paul dead centre, Nick beside him, hiding behind Santa.

I am probably biased, but I do believe our panto was the best thing about that year’s show.

I was having a cup of tea with Paul and Nick in the green room before the Sunday matinee when Nick turned to me and said, “Goddamn you. This has been a lot of fun. I’d do it again. I might even be willing to play the dame.” Paul, too, had had a lot of fun.

When the cast and crew feedback came back to the board after the show, one of the young lads involved complained that there had been a lot of swearing and bad language in the green room during rehearsals. Oops. That would be Paul and Nick and me. Busted.

And while all the panto rehearsals  were going on, I was spending a large chunk of my days getting ready to mount a production of Inherit The Wind. As it happens, I kept quite a detailed journal during this time, so I am taking much of what follows from that.

September

Garry and I get together for a chat about how this will work. He makes it clear that he understands that I am the director and will have final say. He will participate as a member of the ensemble. Good to hear, but also good to hear that he will always be willing to share his expertise (especially as this is going to be my first outing as a director). But we also recognise that he is bound to have opinions, which he says he will share after, not during rehearsals. I tell him we made need to establish a hand signal, in case, in his excitement and enthusiasm, he forgets to keep it zipped at rehearsals.

The challenge still feels overwhelming. I’ve decided there’s nothing else for it. I’m going to have to retype the whole damn play, so I can figure out what can go, how I can amalgamate characters with few lines and whether or not this is actually doable.

The problem of the male/female imbalance in roles is easy to address. In 1925, when the Scopes trial took place (and in 1955, when the play was originally staged ), it would have been uncommon for mayors and judges and district attorneys to be female. But we’re talking about “Not too long ago”, as the authors state. If Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman have taught us nothing else, it is that wallowing in ignorance is not a strictly male preserve. So I can easily make several of the male characters female.

Oh, look! I can also amalgamate a few characters. I’m down to 20, which still sounds huge, but more than half have very few lines indeed. Yes! This can be done.

October

A great meeting with Garry.

We start with the picnic scene, which is impossible to stage in our tiny venue. I’ve reduced it to a tray of lemonade. Oh, that’s a good idea, he says.

He starts paging through the original script, flagging other potential problems, all of which I’ve already addressed.

Eventually I look at him and ask if he’s actually read the revised script I’ve emailed to him. Somewhat sheepishly he admits that he hates reading things on the computer screen and has yet to print it out.

“I see,” I say, staring at him.

“You got me,” he says and we both laugh.

And that, of course, is why it was such a great meeting. Everything the professional director has clocked as a staging problem has already been spotted and fixed by me. Which actually suggests that I have a natural aptitude for directing. Hurrah!

Next step getting scenes sorted for the auditions in early December.

Auditions

Always a bit of a crap shoot. Directors do their best to get the word out, to make sure all the members of the theatre group – and the general population – know that there is an opportunity to take a role in an exciting new production. (Inherit the Wind? How could anyone not want to be in it?)

The allotted time arrives and – and, well, not much of anything sometimes. The same people who complain if there isn’t an open audition process fail to turn up when there is one.

Well, not yesterday. No, sirree.

A few of the men from Mark and Garry’s acting classes turned up, as did Victor Anthony, a professional musician and occasional actor who hails originally from Tennessee. At one point he lived within 50 miles of Dayton, the location of the Scopes trial. He’s even been to see the courthouse.

With my two male leads in place, my biggest concern has been finding the right person to play Reverend Brown, the local fire and brimstone preacher. As soon as Victor started reading the role I wanted to get up, walk across the room and kiss him. (Obviously this would have been inappropriate, so I didn’t, but the urge was there. I do, however, lean over towards Catherin, my producer, and whisper, “I think I’ve just had an audition orgasm.”) He was born to play this role and is going to be fantastic.

After the auditions, Victor gave us some fascinating background on Dayton, which he says is still the most backward place in Tennessee. The key, he said, to Tennessee passing a law forbidding the teaching of evolution, was racism. The good people of Dayton considered the white man (and presumably woman) to be a species apart from and above all others. Therefore Darwin must be wrong, because white men could not in any way be related to black men. End of. Obvious when you think about it, but unless you’ve lived in the midst of this mindset (still apparently current in Dayton), you simply cannot fathom it.

Young Alex read well and Alisa read as beautifully as I knew she would. So, I have my Bert and Rachel. I have my Reverend Brown. I have my judge and my mayor. I have my radio reporter. I still need Mrs. Brady and Mrs. Krebs and a few townspeople, but there is another round of auditions on Tuesday. These roles will be filled.  

Oh, my god, this show is going to be amazing.

First read through

This is it! The first company meeting.

I still need a reporter/photographer, but I’ve got a Mrs. Krebs (Lesley – even though she is going to be away throughout February, she’s an old hand and will be line-perfect on her return) and a Mrs. Blair (Victor’s wife Joelle). As for the purveyor of Eskimo pies, I’m hoping one of the front of house volunteers will agree.

What the hell? Why is my throat closing up? Why is my nose running? Why do I ache all over? No, no, no, no! I can’t get sick. Not today of all days. I can’t cancel the company meeting, not at this late stage. Oh, for fucksake.

Drag myself out to the car and down to the village. Nancy, Joyce and Cec are already there waiting. I unlock the door and start hacking. Message received loud and clear: I am sick as a dog. (Why dogs? Do they get sicker than other animals? Why not sick as a cow? Sick as an elephant? Who knows?)

Cast members begin to arrive. I don’t need to warn people not to sit next to me. They are steering well clear.

I begin by explaining (hack, hack, hack) the inspiration for staging the play (the homophobia of the previous summer, my conversation with Mark, reading the play and realising the number of levels on which it still resonates today – not least the Harper government’s war on science).

I also ask the cast to give some thought before rehearsals begin to their back story. Their characters all had lives before Bert got arrested and Brady came to town. How did a woman get elected mayor? Was the reverend always so fire and brimstone or did his preaching get more intense after the departure of his wife? How did Tammy Davenport become the district attorney at such a young age? And a woman to boot. How do all the townspeople feel about Bert Cates? Et cetera.

A lively discussion ensues of what others have found in the play. Jamie in particular (who is playing the judge) has given it a lot of thought.

We start reading the play. By the end of Act One I am D-O-N-E. I simply cannot go on. Everyone understands. We break for the night and I head home for bed.

As awful as I still feel, the cast’s enthusiasm about the project does make me feel a bit better.

First rehearsal

In typical community theatre mode, we’ve had the read through, so now it’s time to get moving.

For the first proper rehearsal, we do the two crowd scenes – the Brady meet and greet and the prayer meeting.

I am starting to love first time actors. Not only has John agreed to play both Esterbrook (the role in which he was cast) and Platt, but now Lawrence has agreed to play both Elijah and the Reuters reporter, and Charlie has agreed to play Sillers and the photographer. (When agreeing to do so, Charlie asked if this meant double pay. I said yes, two times nothing, which means he an Lawrence are now making twice as much as me.)

Victor reports that Joelle has come down with a virus and cannot get out of bed, so Catherine agrees to read Mrs. Blair’s lines.

Before we start the rehearsal, I ask everyone to gather in the back room. I position Victor by the door and tell them Reverend Brown has just finished his sermon. Everyone who has attended the service will now file out and have a brief post-service chat. Let’s see if work on the back stories has been done. It seems it has.

The rehearsal makes it clear how much of a challenge blocking these two scenes will be with people entering from the back up both aisles.

Victor, predictably, knocks everyone’s socks off with his sermon at the prayer meeting.

God, this is going to be good.

The journal peters out at that point, as all my time was consumed with the job of directing. The wonderful thing about this particular production is that the play and its message meant so much to everyone involved. All the actors threw their heart and soul into it.

Somewhat predictably, I suppose, Garry and I nearly did come to blows at one rehearsal, much to the dismay of the rest of the cast. I finally called for a five minute break and went outside to have a smoke. He followed me outside, intent on continuing the argument, but somehow during those five minutes we managed to get back on track.

Victor was an absolute godsend. He knew these townspeople and he knew this fire and brimstone preacher. I remember one rehearsal when I got the rest of the cast to sit down, as if they were in church and asked Victor to describe a prayer meeting. As he (and others have) put it: Church ain’t over until the snakes are back in the bag. He explained the rock star role of preachers in small southern towns. He had nothing but contempt for all of them. And he put all that contempt into Reverend Brown, transforming him into evil incarnate. He truly was a wonder to behold on that stage.

So were Garry and Mark. So was everyone, from the lead actors to the newbies who’d agreed to take on multiple small roles.

A tremendous buzz was building on the island about the show and, with a maximum of 50 seats available for each of the four performances, advance tickets were selling fast. On the morning of opening night, I had to post this warning on our Facebook page.

sold out

As excited as I was about opening night, I was also a bit sad. It was the third anniversary of Mike’s sudden death. Knowing that, if he’d still been alive, I might never have joined the theatre company, didn’t stop me wishing he could be here to see what I knew would be my triumph. The only person in the company who’d actually known Mike was Garry. Before the show started I went in the green room and asked Garry to give me a hug, explaining the anniversary. He did and he told me Mike would have been incredibly proud of me.

2014 inherit the wind

Four sold out shows. Four well deserved standing ovations. After the final performance one of the audience members, a retired drama teacher, came up to me and said he’d seen the play on Broadway twice and he’d seen the film. In his opinion this was the best production he’d ever seen. And, yes, that made me very happy indeed. With the exception of nearly coming to blows with Garry at that one rehearsal, everything about this production from start to finish made me happy. It was an utterly thrilling experience.

ITW cast

Nothing, however, made me happier than the grin on Cec’s face (back row, far left). Cec had never acted before and with great trepidation took on a larger role than he wanted, that of the court bailiff. He played the role beautifully and had a blast doing it. He was hooked and I’ve been lucky enough to work with him several times since.

Okay, that’s it for today. Places to go, people to see. More anon.

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