Monday, July 09, 2007

The Little Theater of Geneva

Reg Bird, Mary Lois Adshead in Forty Carats
July 9, 2007

They're all in boxes now, photos of the many plays I worked on in Geneva back in the 1980s. It started as a lark, a Monday evening activity at the American Women's Club, sitting around a table reading plays. After a few months of this, one of our regulars suggested, "It's time to mount a production."

If memory serves me it was Bob Hinely, a personnel guy at the Du Pont company and longtime amateur actor, who made that suggestion. He said, "Reading plays is fun, but if this is going anywhere, we've got to get a stage and put on a show."

He was right. I had been an actress in New York, studied with Peggy Feury and her mentor Lee Strasberg, and had been in plays since I was a teenager in Fairhope. I had worked backstage a little, but what I really wanted to do was direct -- so all the pieces fell in place to get something started. I had been on the board of Geneva's English Drama Society (GEDS), but when I didn't get re-elected to that I decided to produce American plays with the American Women's Club.

We started with an evening of one-acts, which went off pretty well. Then we held auditions and began planning a full-scale production. The play I chose was the old chestnut The Man Who Came To Dinner. It had a cast of 28 people! This was a way to get ourselves known in the American community of Geneva -- I cast the minister at the American Church as a delivery man, and the Vice President of the American Women's Club as a television newscaster. I updated the script ("Hamilton Fish" became "Prince Andrew," "Gertrude Stein" became "Frank Sinatra," that sort of thing). What I didn't know when doing that was that every single celebrity name dropped in the play became a laugh line in the show -- and there were lots of them. Here we see Dorothy Watkins as the actress charming Keith Kentopp as Whiteside.

Jim Buckner, Dorothy Watkins in The Little Foxes
After that first full production, Geneva glowed with a new energy. I heard people talking about the play at cocktail parties, I had a huge crowd audition for the next play, and the Little Theatre was on its way. We did The Little Foxes and Forty Carats that first season. Our mission was to provide American theatre for "the tired businessman and his wife," emphasizing comedies and including 
Reg Bird, Julian Finn In Tribute
one show for the whole family every year. I was going through my boxes of photos in preparing for the move and there it all lived again -- from Mr. Whiteside's "I may vomit" through the real tears from Reg Bird in his monologue in Tribute and the ebullient participation of Julian Finn, an executive at one of the inter-national orgs that make up Geneva's economy. Some people became directors -- Ronnie Cohen, who organized me and often stage-managed. 

Ronnie later directed a first-rate production of Deathtrap in Geneva. We all had great fun.

The Little Theatre changed lives. Reg moved back to Michigan where he and his family produce summer theatre on Torch Lake. Ronnie has written plays and movie scripts. More than that, we offered something unique in Switzerland, and we had as almost many Swiss in the audience as we had Americans. There is nothing quite like the theatre of a country and how it represents everything about that country. We were an outpost of American culture as well as the best of the American attitude that if-you-want-to-do-it, you-can! We made friends and we made memories.

I hope someone looking up Little Theatre of Geneva finds this blog post and adds a comment. Wherever you are, you remember all that we did. It's one project that will live in my memory, and that I'll always be proud of.

3 comments:

Frazier said...

I don't think I ever had more fun working on theater productions than with you in Geneva. Thanks a million for the memories.

Mary Lois said...

It was great having you on board, too! How's California these days?

O'Hear said...

I still act from time to time and whenever I do I think of you. It was a fantastic and exciting time.