I just spent a glorious week with The Wharf Rats in Salem! Four nights of play-readings and conversations that attest to the fact that theater is alive, and well, and Crossing Borders north of Boston. Let me try to reconstruct a sort of "diary" of the experience which I didn't get a chance to write day-by-day because the train that got me there for an 8:00 p m curtain left Boston at 6:45, and there was no train after final curtain till 11:26. All I could do when I got home about 1 a m was fall into bed and think glowing thoughts about my memories. Let's see what I remember:
Tuesday, 19 January:
Leaving home too late to do any errands, I put money in my purse and got an early train to Salem intent on finding The Hawthorne Hotel where readings were to be held. At the end of the train station I was again astonished to find that the beautiful map of Salem is Upside Down! I mean, there I stood looking across a superhighway and up Washington Street, only to discover that the "You Are HERE" spot is at the TOP of the map, with Washington Street heading DOWN the map! And since I am either LisDexIc or a "reformed Lefty" and congenitally convinced that all maps lie, I had to stand on my head to psych out the very short, easy route. I do think the Salem Better-Business Bureau ought to look into this matter...
Turns out the Hawthorne Hotel has a comfortable, cozy eatery attached called the Tavern on The green, which served me a well-cooked slab of succulent sea-bass, with a Manhattan before and white wine with, and allowed me to linger over coffee till the house opened at seven. I always bring a book.
For a second straight year, The Wharf Rats trawled the Internet for new, unproduced plays in their "Crossing Borders" contest. Last year I missed their readings of finalists but got to see their full production of the winning script "Familily" in the summer. This year they received 110 scripts, mostly over the Internet --- from Australia, Canada, the USA, and Iceland --- then they winnowed down to seven. For three nights they did staged-readings of two plays a night, followed by a reading of the first act of the winner, which they will do full-out next summer.
This was a sort of "locals night" because both playwrights were from Massachusetts. Robert R. Lehan (pronounced LEEun, as he kept reminding people) lives way out west near the Berkshires, while Georgette Beck has become an actress-in-residence somewhere between the Wharf Rats in Salem and the Mugford Players in Marblehead. Both plays relied on pieces of music as cues to memory.
Lehan's enigmatic one-act "Plaisir d'Amour" put two old people --- Sam (John Fogle) and Jeanine (Georgette Beck) --- in a room together. The woman insists that the song, which she sings in English translation, was their favorite because it was playing the night he proposed. He insists that, though he wanted to, he never married, but the song has a note or two in common with one he remembers. Eventually, he sings what he remembers (the same song, but in French), and She cannot recall it. They resolve their confrontation agreeing to talk again tomorrow. (I said it was enigmantic, didn't I!!!)
Robert Lehan in conversation admitted he is a tinkerer, who might even revise a line or two after hearing audience responses to this reading. He's a retired theater-educator with a lot of fire left for the stage, and his "The Waiting Room" was published and continues to be produced.
Georgette Beck was the narrator-reader of her own monolog-plus-illustrative-scenes "Claire de Lune". Chris Hanson read the part of Grayson, a piano student (hence the title) and life-long friend since the two were schoolgirls together. James Butterfield took all the male voices in this reminiscence of recurring episodes in parallel lives. Beck's ear for ironic juxtapositions and real-life anomalies, plus the impeccable timing of her own bitingly droll lines embellished the bittersweet memory-play.
After the show I set off into the night, reflecting that weather advisers didn't really lie when suggesting that temperatures might be above freezing "except in outlying districts" while I tramped the streets of night-time Salem hoping in vain for an open Dunkin Donuts. Eventually I ended up in the Lyceum Bar & Grille sucking down a hot Irish Coffee before trekking down to the station where the last train to Clarksvi... I mean to Boston was, of course, fashionably late.
Wednesday, 20 January:
The 6:45 got me to Salem half an hour later, in time to snarf up some of the cheese and crackers in the hall. The Hawthorne Hotel's ballroom is a tall, high-ceilinged rectangle, and so I tried each night to sit as close as I could to the two-level stage, with a flat-black backdrop, on which music-stands held scripts for the readings, at which the actors sat or stood. "Actors" is the proper term, for though they admitted to only two rehearsals per show, these were eloquent, shaped readings of ther scripts that indicated the potentials of each.
This night Gabriel Lanci's "The Resurrection Play" was first up. Gabe is an active member of The Playwrights' Platform in Boston, and he picked a solidly inflamatory subject for his one-act: the death penalty. A woman whose child has been capriciously murdered walks into a group demanding to tell the story of first her hatred of the convicted murderer, then eventual compassionate confrontation with him, and the feeling of freedom her reconcilliation produced. Three other parents deprived of their children by murder argue with the woman, with at least one shaken but as yet unresolved at final curtain.
Conversations later with Lanci revealed staging-details that couldn't be clear in a reading.. He intended the protagonist to break into a party, at which the other speakers would at first seem just audience-members. That detail added to the possible impact of the show in my mind.
Next up was Chicagoan Jamie Pachino's "Famous for Fifteen Years" --- which, if the unread stage-directions were followed, would probably be a multi-media film like-a-look. The play skips around time between 1969 and 1984, following denizens of something very much like Andy Warhol's celebrity-factory, both in their heyday as celebrities and their eclipse. Lynda Newton, who played "Holly Grail" directed a reading that emphasized both the catty competitions and then immature aging of these glitterati. Laney Roberts read the part of "Venus Envy" --- one of the few, who had all been "famous for being young", to mature. Michael Siering's "Mustang" --- the group's source for hard drugs --- metamorphosed into a serious journalist in this era-leaping script.
In conversations, I realized that Ms. Pachino's idea of a full production involved projections, television screens, and lightning costume- and setting-changes that might be possible only on film. My own feeling was that a lot of that technical crap could be junked if a crafty director decided to do this as a real stage-play, with area-lights instead of boob-tubes to get across the ambiance. Certainly the characters would stand solidly on even an unencumbered stage.
But I am a strange old man.
I decided to huddle in a corner of the Tavern on The Green with me book and an Irish Coffee after the show, realizing only as I left that many of the Wharf Rats had clustered themselves about the bar.
Thursday, 21 January:
Tonight was truly border-crossing night. Sondra Learn came all the way from Canada's Burlington, Ontario, to attend the reading of her "Secrets" while the first comedy on the bill "Typecast" was written by an Australian named Tim Rockk.
A note in the program that Sondra Learn had the idea for her play "come to her while busy stage managing a mainstage production at the Burlington Little Theatre" made me think Tim Rockk's backstage send-up was hers. Rockk had a little-theatre cast bitterly bickering over their production of a mystery melodrama, insults and wounds and backbiting rampant on every side. Each portrait was exaggerated, but anyone who has worked with a community theatre would recognize every one of them.
Actually, Sondra Learn's "Secrets" turned out to be a situation-farce, with a bored lawyer's wife secretly dabbling in theater, intricate misunderstandings, suspicions of infidelities both flaring and fanned, before a resolution that included confirmation of her pregnancy with twins. The single set called for a screen so that various of the characters could evesdrop unobserved from time to time --- a feature calling for intricate mime during the bare-stage reading.
Learn's experience in theater allowed her insights into staging that several of the playwrights on the program ignored. She admitted that she attempts to write single-set plays to minimize technical problems for small theatrical groups ... having tried to surmount them in the past. She obviously works hard until a play finally gells, and then moves on. She has a full-length play out to readers hoping for feedback at present. "Secrets" was chosen for a Western Ontario annual summer minifest, for which six small theatres each produced the identical play in their own unique ways and brought the results to a week-end that included presentation of all six plus workshop-critiques of interpretations. What a learning-experience that must have been for the groups, and for the playwright!
After the performances, I again stepped from the ballroom into the Tavern, to find my quiet, cozy little corner occupied by a three-guitars-with-amplifier singing ensemble that had the remaining Wharf Rats clustered about the bar, where I was encouraged to join them. And I had a ball...
Among others I got to know Georgette Beck, a born character-actress still doing theater classes and one-woman shows whose enthusiasm for the Wharf Rats and for all theater everywhere was exhilarating. People whose faces I knew but whose names I wouldn't know without a program kept dropping n and out of the general conversation in a way I think must have been the same in Sam Johnson's greenrooms or Will Shaxpy's Mermaid Tavern, and the real fire in the grate added its own particular outward glow to the inward warmth.
Friday, 23 January:
The winner of their Crossing Borders competition was by Dori Appel, now in Ashland, Oregon, who was born in Chicago but spent a long time in Boston. In fact Boston is the setting for "Mother, Tree, Cat" --- a play examining the reasons why a child prodigy would give up painting after high school, yet teach art for a living; why writers would instead become translators of other people's fiction out of Russian, why a rabbi would instead start working full-time in a bagel factory. This was only act one, so everyone will have to wait for the Wharf Rats' full production before that other shoe will drop.
The one thing sure, though, is that this is an excellent play that explodes into life. Georgette Beck and Betty Lautner played two "life-long companions" --- a Jew and a Catholic, each with their own flippantly honest sense of guilt --- inseparable auties to their supposedly wayward niece finally visiting home in Boston without a family funeral to attend. Laney Roberts played this ex-painter, and Dave Rich the ex-rabbi, with Karen Johnson bopping in as a recipe-obsessed next-door neighbor.
Krista Cowan directed this carefully shaped reading, seeing to it the bubbling wit of all the family lore never obscured the still-rankling conflicts simmering underneath. She caught the subtle hints that connect up, the bite of the banter, and the love that holds these characters together while it also forces them to fight. I can't wait for this summer's production!
Then the stage was quickly reset as a blues-group backing a dynamite lady whose name I couldn't remember started the music and dance part of the evening. In a few moments it became a sort of "battle of the amps" with the five in the Ballroom undoubtedly blowing the three next door in the Tavern right out onto the street with thier electronic rhythms.
Everything seemed too loud to me --- certainly too loud for any conversation --- but by no means unpleasant. Despite the electric guitar and the synthesizer, the electric base, and the big round mike attached to the bell of the saxophone, this was the same sort of free-flowing jazz improvisation that I grooved to all through college. I learned long ago that big, loud, amplified sound isolates everyone inside their eardrums, and I sat there grooving on the jazz and meditating on the evening. I thought it odd to watch the saxophonist's animated playing stage-right yet hear the buzz and blare of the notes bursting from the stage-left speaker, and closed my eyes to concentrate on the backing and filling the electric piano and the horn put in behind the passion of the singer. People probably thought I had fallen asleep.
But I hadn't. I was watching the physical interplay of the musicians and the musical interplay of their instruments, and watching dancers, each one or each pair with a unique individual style moving over the musical surf. I watched people whose interplay as actors was mirrored in their interplay as dancers. I thought about the trust and respect and yes even love these actors and techies and directors all exhibited for one another, admiring all the pieces of the mosaic every one contributed. Like the dancers fitting themselves to one another, like the musicians each intent on making everyone else sound good, the Wharf Rats made theater by giving themselves, confidently, trustingly, to one another.
When the hard-driving group finally took a break I tried to thank and to compliment people I admired, and felt a one of the group even though the only part I can play is as audience. I heard people saying "You gave me a good review once" and peppered people with questions about what they'd be doing next that I might attend, or how they approached their parts. I was listening to Georgette Beck's answer to some questions about the history of theater in Salem/Marblehead when a glance at my watch said it was 11:15 and I had to tear myself away. "Oh dear, I hope I didn't make you miss your train!" she exclaimed, and I mumbled "No, but I'd be delighted if you had!"
I floated down to the tracks and past that upside-down map through a haze of glorious memories leaving behind more friends than I had ever thought possible.
I had a lovely time this past week in Salem.
I usually do.