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Three score and ten or more

Monday, January 03, 2011


I was listening to a PBS fundraiser the other day, where the main thrust of the program was “Hallelujah Broadway.  In the process, three of the singers on the program performed a medley of tunes from the musical “Godspell” and (not for the first time) I was moved to tears.  I have mentioned some of things I did in the theatre earlier.  I am not sure I can be absolutely accurate, but, as either a Director, Scene Designer or actor, I  averaged three to four shows a year from about 1959 to 1988.  From 1988 to 1997 I focused on puppetry and averaged (again) three to four puppet performances a year.

I prided myself that no critic ever said something negative about one of my shows that I didn’t know about, and hadn’t  tried to fix already.

One of my favorite shows was Godspell.l  It was part of our summer theatre program where we did two shows in repertory (on alternate nights) using the same actors in both shows.  For our summer company at that time we gave four high school scholarships for the summer so that the students could get both high school and college credit.  We also opened up the casting to members of the community (pretty common now, but a rare thing in that time.)  The shows were done in arena (theatre in the round) in a temporary theatre that we set up in one of the university dining halls that was not used in the summer.

The two plays selected that year were Godspell, directed by me, and Happy Birthday Wanda June, directed by a guest director brought in for the summer.  Two more different plays would be hard to find.  Godspell is a rock version of the story told in Matthew, in the Bible.  It is, in spite of the Rock background, a very reverent piece, reframing the language and concept, but retaining the meaning of the scripture.  Happy Birthday Wand June deals with two “explorers’  returning to civilization after some years in a South American jungle.  It is told in very strong language and imagery, illustrated best by one of the characters who says “S**t, f**k, Sh*t, F**k, that’s all I hear now.  I used to be scared sh*tless that I would say sh*t in public.”  It deals with sex, violence and has a very cynical view of society.

The actors had some problems shifting back and forth in the two styles at first.  This was further complicated by the fact that Godspell is a musical and –Wanda June is not.  One of the recent graduates from the Music program (who was also a theatre type) rounded up a combo to play for the show, and it was excellent.

In past summer shows the Music Department had adopted our summer musicals as a cooperative project, but had decided  not to do so this summer for some reason that I have now forgotten.  I was philosophical, I had direct choirs and had even conducted the orchestra for one of my past musical shows, so I decided to just go it alone.  I was sitting in my office reading the score, and realizing that the varieties of keys and tempos in this “Rock Opera” were well beyond my capacity to do and still direct the show when there was a knock on my office door.  David Matthews, one of the professors in the music department stood there and said something like “I hear that the department isn’t officially supporting you this summer.  Could you use some help?”  

He will never know how close he came to having his feet kissed by a theatre professor.  His presence opened up many opportunities for innovation that would not otherwise have existed.  He taught the entire score to the entire cast, and while he was doing it, i told the cast if there were any parts  which they wanted to try to do as solos or special numbers they could attempt them in the vocal rehearsals.  In this way I picked all the soloists.  Many of them did not  follow the characters in the original improvised script, but I had a feel that this was the way it was originally done.  The actors for Jesus and John the Baptist were terribly obvious (though I had some real thinking about which would be which).  Each of the others just fit in like puzzle parts, and the performance was, in essence, improvised, then polished by David and myself.

My theme came from the scriptures in the Book of Matthew which were the basis of all the action.  I chose “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, for of such are the Kingdom of Heaven ” (excuse any mistquotation, I don’t happen to have a King James Version at this writing) as I set the play in a playground with a swing set, climbing bars, a couple of big wire spools to serve as platforms and tables.  All of the actors except Jesus and John came to the play as audience members, some with dates.  The theatre was built as an arena with four sides and openings at the corners, and all seats were reserved so that I could place my actors where I wanted them.

The play begins with the offstage sound of a shofar (we were fortunate enough to find a real one, to avoid recorded sound, and an actor who could play it) followed by the wonderful tenor voice of John singing “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  The theme is repeated as he walks around the audience challenging individuals to come to baptism *(For this he carries a large pail of water and a sponge, hardly the river Jordan but it is a musical)  The actors, some reluctantly came out of the audience to have a sponge-full of water splashed over their heads then go to the large trunk at the edge of the stage and select costume items.  There was always some inter action with dates or those sitting near bye.  One of the actors was a tall handsome black man dressed always in a white suit and with a lovely date (selected by him, not by me) and when he stood to come forward she grabbed his hand and protested vocally, but he focused directly on “John”, walked down front ripping off the white suit as he came till he tossed it beside the costume trunk and stood there in boxer shorts selecting his costume.  Her reaction varied.  Some days she sat with arms folded shooting daggers with her eyes through the opening parts of the show, but one night, stomping out through the exit door.  He (and she) almost always got some kind of ovation in the act.  Several nights there were members of the audience who spontaneously joined the show (getting wet at the time) and each night they were steered to items of costume that were not used by the cast, and were drawn gently into some scenes, though most must sat at the edge of the stage and watched. 

I was constantly surprised during rehearsals at the segments that were created by the cast, and by unknown skills the just erupted.  I needed someone to play the recorder, expecting to have it done by the band and faked by cast members by I had two actors who played the recorder very well, and one of them had two really beautiful wooden recorders, one with a high pitch and other low that looked perfect for the show.  They played the music wonderfully.  I had one cast member who was a summer graduate student in education (and I am sure who went to class and got her credits, but I don’t know how or when) who played the guitar very well to accompany one of her own solos and one of the small group numbers. 

Part of the play is to invite the audience to come out on stage to break bread and have wine (in our case, a sparkling grape juice) with the cast, and most days much of the audience took the “blessed” items and chatted softly in fellowship with the cast.  (Who did a lot of hugging as folks came down)

An unexpected result of this came well after the show when the local radio station called me to ask if I wanted “equal time”.  Non-plused , I asked “Equal time for what?”  The radio representative explained that the pastor of one of the Baptist churches in town who had a weekly radio broadcast on their station had brought his youth group to see the play.  He was most disapproving of the Book of Matthew set to rock music and had tried to get his youth gathered together to leave at intermission, but most of them had come down to have “communion” with the cast.   On his radio broadcast he had described Georgia Southern College, it’s theatre program and me specifically as satanically influenced and as the manage of the station described it (He offered me a tape, which I declined) as “The Anti-Christ”.  I declined the offer of equal time since I thought that it would not be useful to emphasize the good pastor’s opinions.

I have to say that though most of my cast was not “religious", as rehearsals commenced, they asked for a moment of silence at the beginning of rehearsal and, as a group, treated the material and the performance with great reverence.  I had thought of this, but since I was at the time, what could be called the lay pastor of the local Mormon church, I carefully avoided anything that might be interpreted as proselytizing or bringing my religion to the group, so I was actually thrilled and pleased, and think it added much to the performance when the cast as a group determined to treat the text and spirit of the play with reverence.  I will always consider this production and particularly the beginning and the “crucifixion” scenes high points of my life, in and out of the theatre. 


At 5:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've heard you tell bits and pieces of this story before, and enjoy learning more of the details. I wish that I'd been here to see the performance.


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