This is the second in a series of blog posts about “Our Town,” by Brian Michael Riley.
Visiting the cast and crew of the Powerhouse Players’ Our Town for the first time I find them in the midst of Act One. Tonight is the first time the gang is giving it a go off book. I consider this phase of the process a freefall. It is at this point when the actors are finally connecting to one another eye to eye. It is also the first time that our actors will have to figure out what to do with their hands now that the scripts are gone. (That always sends me into a tizzy.) It is, simply put, a whole new world for all.
This world, Grover’s Corners, is presently framed within a massive, well, frame that outlines the bare back wall of the stage. The wood is not painted yet and I think I almost prefer it that way. Natural wood, simple and elegant in its simplicity. The entire scene design is simplicity at its finest. Two sets of kitchen tables and chairs mirror each other stage left and right. These are also of wood, already stained, and these are the homes of the Gibbs and the Webbs. Their children slowly fall in love atop two ladders that come and go as needed, upstairs windows where George and Emily stargaze and contemplate their futures. Romeo and Juliet, New Hampshire style, 1901.
As the Constable and Mr. Webb discuss the concerns of the Webb boy’s underage smoking, lines are jumbled and called for. The same holds true for every scene tonight.
“Just keep working through it, everybody,” encourages director Julie Bell Petrak. “Everyone’s got their own line issues right now – you’re all at different places and that’s completely normal for where we are.”
For the most part, Julie directs while seated in an aisle seat in about the middle of the theatre. As always, at least for as long as I’ve known her, Julie is dressed in her personal training gear (this is her career during the day). She loves her vests, too. Always a training vest like she’s ready for superhero, reconnaissance action. Soon enough she’s springing down the aisle to fine tune some subtlety of blocking or adjust the handling of a prop. Then back she goes to her seat to run it again, now seeing it exactly as she’s envisioned it. The technique reminds me of a sculptor’s: stepping back for an overall view and then zooming in to smooth the rough edges until the sculpture is ready for unveiling.
The unveiling of Our Town is in a little over a week. Tech day is Sunday. But there is no panic in the air, no frustration or discouragement. Julie maintains a consistent air of compassion and respect – but make no mistake, she can be one tough cookie when she needs to be. “Dick, it’s not a bottle of water, it’s a police baton! It’s heavy, it’s your symbol of authority.” She rushes down to show him how it’s done. This has me laughing under my breath. Julie and Dick, what a team. During Of Mice and Men Dick’s jingling, jangling spurs drove Julie absolutely insane. The thing is, Dick is so thrilled to be a part of these productions that he tries his best to give the director exactly what she wants. All the actors do.
The reason for this is evident by the end of the night when Julie takes a seat on stage and addresses her actors. “Well, you did it! First of all, I want you all to know how thankful I am for the obvious hard work you’re all putting into your lines.” (Let us not forget that all of these folks are volunteers and this sort of acknowledgement, and the applause of the crowds, is good enough pay for them.) Julie then gives notes without a notebook in front of her. It’s all there. She goes out of her way to praise our narrator – still comfortably leaning against his lamp post – who has a massive load of lines and is handling them with great depth and poise. The ensemble applauds in agreement of the effort.
And now we have reached tech Sunday, quite literally, as I rattle through the last of this entry and get myself geared up to visit this wonderful family again. The goal today, as Julie notes, “Is to just plow right through the best we can. What we have here is a beautiful piece of music – and the end all, be all is to get it to play straight through without any skips.”
I have nothing but the utmost faith that by Friday night Our Town will be a number one hit on the charts.