Thursday, August 17, 2006

Theatres I Have Known

August 17

Years ago I lived in Geneva and was active in a very dynamic group known as the American Women's Club. Not limited to American Women (but limited to women) the club encouraged new activities and boasted several thousand women with lots going for them. I decided to start a little playreading group to meet at the clubroom at 7 P.M. on Monday evenings.

We welcomed men, in fact we needed them if we were going to read plays of any consequence. We were able to find a number of American men who had been active in little theatre groups in the States and relished the idea of getting together with other theatre fans. This activity continued for about six months, and then the men said to me, "If you want to keep this group going, you're going to have to put on a play. It's nice to read plays around a table, but it only makes us want to be in a real production."

Having been involved in amateur theatre years before, I and I alone knew what we were in for. It would mean building sets and finding storage, ditto for costumes and props; finding venues for productions (and I was already in the Geneva English Drama Society, which I knew had trouble booking theatre space even though it had been running some 20-odd years). It would mean planning a season and finding actors for all the parts. It would mean finding directors and technical people for stagecraft, costumes, properties, lighting, sound, publicity, and so forth. We had a few actors but nothing else. Besides, we were in a foreign country, with hidden laws and a different language.

So of course I did it. I took charge of the first project, which I decided should be a tested American comedy with a big cast, so we could interest a lot of people. The play I chose was Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came To Dinner, an old chestnut that might not be remembered, but would make people laugh. (I was right it wasn't remembered -- Americans stopped us on the street to ask, "Are you really going to find a Negro for the Sidney Poitier role?")

We held auditions and lots of surprises turned up. We were able to assemble the cast from the international group who were in Geneva at the time. A delightful Swiss German lady with a strong Swedish husband turned up -- he wanted to work backstage and she would love a little part if one were available. I cast her as the maid, and she was outstanding. Why not have a maid with a slight accent? People turned up who seemed to fit the roles in the play. The wife of the head of the Du Pont Company was an accomplished amateur actress, a glamorous redhead who relished the role of the wickedly funny Lorraine, a Broadway actress with designs on every available man. I was able to get her husband to do a walk-on at the end of the show, and he recruited his number two to walk on with him. (This brought down the house when the audience was full of Du Pont executives and their wives.) An American advertising executive had had professional theatre experience in the distant past, and he took the role of "Banjo," a thinly disguised Harpo Marx, and played it to the hilt.

After that the American theatre group was on its way. The next show was The Little Foxes starring our Du Pont lady as Regina, and then I and the advertising guy did a turn in Forty Carats, surrounded, of course, by a large cast, lots of technical people, and a set built by the Swedish husband. It was on-the-job training at its best. We broke from the American Women's Club because our group contained lots of men, and became The Little Theater of Geneva, a play on words in a way, aping the prestigious Grand Theatre de Genève.

Years later, back in Alabama, I decided to get back into the theatre. I started an Equity company I called The Jubilee Fish Theater, for reasons I'll explain someday. There were auditions in Montgomery among actors at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival -- where I obtained the services of John Preston and Steven David Martin, among others, and in New York where I often worked with a delightful Broadway-Danny-Rose type agent to secure some wonderful talent. The expense was a problem, and finally I saw that a professional theatre here was not going to make money -- and my daughter produced my first grandson -- and it was time to get out. We had survived for seven seasons, and I did some work I was quite proud of.

After that it became an occasional turn as a director or actress with Theatre 98, the local amateur group. I'm thinking about getting more involved in the near future. One of my good friends on the board of the Marietta Johnson School with me is a director, technical guy, and sometime actor, who has tossed the idea out about starting a new theatre. And I have a new friend, once a dancer with the Martha Graham Troupe, who wants me to do two-woman show with her.

This morning I have all the Samuel French and Dramatists' Play Service catalogues out again. I'll let you know when I make a decision. But I suspect you know what it'll be. The question is, when?


aristophanes said...

Now, that sounds like something interesting. I know of another actress who may be inclined to participate, and a designer/director/tech guy for sure. The ad campaign and performance schedule is critical, too, considering the other small theater in town. What is the name of the show? It sounds exciting.
Lets 'tread the boards' and make offering to Dionysus.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Volunteers already! We're still in the script-perusal phase, but we'd love to have participants from the ancient Greek civilization...welcome aboard.