Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Summer Shards


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What just happened?

It seems like four minutes ago when I packed up the rumbling, rambling 2005 Sentra with the broken side-view mirror and aimed it at Northampton and New Century Theatre where I was about to direct LEND ME A TENOR.  Now it’s a week past the non-waiver deadline and I’ve director not only TENOR but also GUYS AND DOLLS with the Greater Lowell Music Theatre. 

And…wait, let me check—yes, it’s true—the Red Sox are in first place.  Clearly this can’t last.  I mean, they were PICKED for last by pundits in the contiguous 48 and beyond, and yet…well, it can’t last.  Right?  Right.  Good.  I feel better now.

I had directed LEND ME A TENOR a number of years ago at the Lyric Stage in Boston and it was one of the great experiences of my life.  So I went into this second TENOR, not with apprehension, but rather with a sense of “Well, that can’t happen again, so just enjoy the ride and hope for the best.”  Well, it did happen again, mainly because, as I’ve espoused so often to anybody who will listen, “Directing is Casting.”  And my second TENOR, like my first TENOR, boasted a cast from, if not Heaven, from at least very, very high up in the acting stratosphere.  Okay, Heaven.  I won’t name names because I am far too lazy, but my New Century cast grabbed Ken Ludwig’s bull by the theatrical horns and, with precision, clarity and comic instincts worthy of Phil Silvers (my hero), delivered a knockout punch.  Directing is very, very overrated.  The best directing is done in the casting session.  I am a good caster.

Before GUYS AND DOLLS, I traveled back to Noho to participate in the eastern Memorial Service for my recently-deceased pal and onstage collaborator, Phil Kilbourne.  It proved to be a wonderful evening with many old friends in attendance, and some brilliantly executed tributes during the ceremony.  Phil would have loved it.  Plus, I got to sing one of Phil’s favorite tunes, “Goodness, Gracious Me” with the inimitable Sandra Blaney.  And, yes, I looked up “inimitable” and, yes, it works here.

I co-founded New Century with Sam Rush and have co-founded The Greater Lowell Music Theatre with Lee Grande and Phyllis George. Now, with Managing Director Donna White on board, and the enthusiastic backing of Paul Marion, Marty Meehan and lots of folks at UMass Lowell, we are a fully-functioning theatre.  Seems the only way I can get work is to start a theatre and work there.  Whatever.  GUYS AND DOLLS was our third show, and first full-scale (almost) production.  I say (almost) because we are not able as yet to bombard the audience with flying set pieces and turntables and all those nutty things those rich Broadway folks can do.  But we told the story by putting onstage some fantastic performers (see my casting riff above) and telling the Loesser/Burrows/Swerling/Runyon tale with what I hope was perceived as aplomb.  You can see a song from the show HERE:

GLMT will be back.  You can find our web site HERE.

If you want to play along, either as a performer, or in some kind of backstage capacity, or if you’d like to make a donation…let me know via the web site.

Okay, that's it for now...Wait, let me check…yes, they’re still in first place.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE NEW YEAR'S EVE FOR "AULD LANG SYNE"

The Stockbridge Theatre at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH is what high school auditoriums dream of becoming when they grow up.  It sits on the sprawling campus of what I thought was a private school but which I learned is...Derry's public high school.  I'm not sure they hold assemblies in Stockbridge because it's designated as a "theatre," and perhaps it's used exclusively for performance-oriented presentations.  But if it IS used for assemblies, then they'd be smart to stop using the word "assemblies" and substitute it with something like "assemblages," "synods" or "coronations."  It is very...grand. 

I was in the Stockbridge Theatre on Saturday night, January 26, attending the New Hampshire Theater Awards presentation.  (I'm going to stop here and tell you that I am spelling "theater" and "theatre" without thought as to which is proper in which case.  I don't have time for that today.  It's pronounced the same way either way, so...go with it.)  My new play, AULD LANG SYNE, was up for a number of awards as a result of the very fine production staged last June by Gus Kaikkonen and the Peterborough Players.  I'm not big on awards until I'm nominated for one.  Then I'm an awards junkie.  Not only was AULD nominated all over the place, I was also nominated ALONE in the professional category as "Best Original Playwright."  This meant, it seemed, that I could go to the awards ceremony KNOWING I WAS GOING TO WIN, taking all the pressure off.  Well, that's what it would have meant had I been anybody else but me.  Since I am nobody else but me, however, I spent the three weeks between the announcement of my nomination and the awards ceremony trying to figure out a way they could keep me from getting the trophy.  I thought there might be some deeply footnoted rule that allowed the adjudicators to withhold the award if it deemed nobody was worthy of it.  You're laughing.  (Well, some of you are.)  But I was only half-kidding when I mentioned this concern to people.  Try to write plays for a living and see how confident you get.

Okay, I'm typing way too much, so I'll get to the meat of the matter.

The show, a very elaborate affair, began ten minutes late, but when it did it flowed pretty smoothly.  Scott Severance, the host and writer of the script, kept things moving briskly and the various sketches and songs peppered into the performance were pleasant and well-delivered.  There were many awards, and the focus of the evening, to be truthful, was on the Community Theatre and Youth Theatre awards.  The Professionals were a quieter crew but, at least from my standpoint, we were as involved as the other folks as the awards were dispensed.

After AULD lost a couple of design awards, I started to sweat again, thinking that my writer's nightmare of being nominated alone and not winning was going to come to fruition.  But then Kathy Manfre, who played "Mary" so beautifully in AULD LANG SYNE, was announced as Best Actress.  Then the fabulous Gordon Clapp, Emmy-winner from NYPD BLUE and "Joe" in my play, also won.  Gordon was in LA and I texted him about his and Kathy's victory.  He responded immediately and asked "Are we gonna sweep?"  Next, it was my turn and, thankfully, the award as "Best Original Playwright" was handed to me, and in my speech I was able to thank the two actors who were just honored with awards of their own.  As I made my way back to my seat with my little statuette (a plastic New Hampshire) in my hand, I listened as Gus Kaikkonen was named Best Director, also for AULD LANG SYNE.  About twenty minutes later, after a delightful medley from BATBOY from one of the local theatres, AULD LANG SYNE was announced as Best Professional Production.

So....nice.

When you're a playwright/director, as I am, it's always a bit frightening handing your brand new work over to a director who is not you.  Gus Kaikkonen insisted that I sit in and contribute to all the rehearsals in Peterborough, and was most generous with his suggestions and his art.  Kathy and Gordon loved the play, and it showed.  Gordon, in fact, ad-libbed a couple of lines in rehearsal that are now in the script.  Good actors do that.  I love good actors.  And these two actors are very, very good.

It was about four below zero when I got back to my Sentra, my award and Gordon's award in my mitts.  But I did not mind the cold.

I often wonder why I do what I do.

Nights like the one I experienced on Saturday help me to remember.

Now...all I have to do is find a producer to take this on the road....

 Kathy Manfre and Gordon Clapp in AULD LANG SYNE
by Jack Neary
produced by Peterborough Players
directed by Gus Kaikkonen

Thursday, January 3, 2013

So my new thing is watching old television series in their entirety.  No, I don't have that kind of time, but when it gets too stormy to run in hilly Derry, I get on the stationery bike and watch these shows.  Thus far, over the past few years, I've watched all of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, I LOVE LUCY (except the hour-long Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour shows), F-TROOP (yes, F Troop), THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (Bilko, You'll Never Get Rich, whatever you choose to call it) and...drum roll, please, AMOS N' ANDY.

So let me get that one out of the way immediately, because I know it's by far the most controversial on the list and I know I ought to be ashamed of myself for enjoying it as much as I did.

But I did.

Hounded immediately by the NAACP upon its 1951 debut, the series echoed the wildly successful radio series of the same name written and performed by the characters' creators, Freeman Gosden ('Amos') and Charles Correll ('Andy').  Initially, Gosden and Correll were going to provide the voices for newly-cast African American actors in the TV series, but eventually sanity prevailed and the actors were allowed to speak their own dialogue.  Thank God.

Controversy swirled and the series was cancelled after 78 episodes.  It re-appeared in syndication for a while, but then protests re-emerged and, again, it went away.  The series has never found its way to legitimate videotape or DVD distribution, but bootleg DVDs of 72 of the 78 episodes can be located if you look for them.  I did look.  And I found them.

And here's what I found:

I laughed.  A lot.  Just as I laugh at any well-written, well-performed situation comedy.  The plot line rarely varied, but the plot line of Kingfish getting himself in a mess of trouble, involving his friend Andy to make things worse, and Amos helping them both to see the light at the end, provided a platform for good comedy throughout the episodes I saw.  Add a whiny wife and ball-busting mother-in-law for the Kingfish (who oversaw the worthless activities of the Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge), and you have the basis for hours of hearty laughter.

So the writing was good.  If I am correct, the show was written often by the team who eventually ended up writing LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, which was ALSO a very well-written show, regardless of how much abuse Barbara Billingsley has taken over the years for wearing high heels in the kitchen.

But I save my wildest accolades for the actors.  These actors who deserve far, far, far more recognition for what they brought to early TV than they have received.

Tim Moore, who played the conniving, bombastic Kingfish, was a master of working the camera for comic effect.  Spencer Williams, who I believe went on to be a film director after the series, played Andy's blissful ignorance blissfully.  (No, NAACP, Andy wasn't stupid because he was black, he was stupid because he was STUPID.  List the stupid white sitcom characters in your head and stop when you get to 100.  There'll still be more.)  Alvin Childress was the sane and intelligent Amos, whose performance in the Christmas episode is sweet, charming and memorable.  The ladies--Ernestine Wade and Amanda Randolph (her sister, Lillian, was the maid in WONDERFUL LIFE) are perfectly cast foils for Moore, and exude honesty and professionalism in every scene they play.  The closest thing to a negative stereotype is the character of Lightnin', played by Nick Stewart (who also billed himself sometimes as Nick O'Demus--whatever).  There's no getting around the fact that the writers used this lazy character to get laughs from his slowness, and they would never get away with that today.  Maybe they shouldn't have gotten away with that back then, either.  But they did.  Until the show was cancelled.  So maybe they didn't.

Finally, though, I want to throw my Red Sox cap in the air for an actor named Johnny Lee, who played the ambulance chasing lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun.  The commitment this actor made to bringing the comic writing and his character to life is epic in this series.  I'm not sure what else this man did in show business after this series (although he earlier did voice one of the lead characters in another no-longer-available piece of material, Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH), but he electrifies the screen every time he appears in this series.  I didn't know who the hell he was, and I should have.  He is that good.

So...sue me.  I liked the AMOS AND ANDY television series, and I do wish the actors from the show were more fondly remembered.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Last year on this date in this blog, I proclaimed I would blog daily throughout 2012.

That was the last blog entry I made in 2012.

I'm not quite sure how that happened, although I'm pretty sure that once it got to be, like, April or May, when I became aware that I hadn't written anything, it turned into something of a challenge to me to remain blog-free to the end of the year.  I know this is warped, but...somehow...I feel I have accomplished something by doing...or not doing...this.

I was busy.  I'll give me that.  In 2012, I directed middle school kids in ALICE IN WONDERLAND; directed middle school and high school kids in ALADDIN; adapted and co-directed THE THREE LITTLE PIGS for 20 kids; directed an entire family of four in THE DRAMATURG, which I wrote for the Boston Theater Marathon; directed high school kids in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING; directed more middle school kids in SEUSSICAL; directed two adults, Anne Scurria and Barry Press,  in my new play AULD LANG SYNE at New Century Theatre; traveled to Virginia to see a terrific production of my play THE PORCH, directed by my friend Sara Gomez at the Winchester Little Theatre; directed about 70 adults in THE MUSIC MAN IN CONCERT for the new Greater Lowell Music Theatre, which I co-founded with Lee Grande and Phyllis George and produced in conjunction with Paul Marion and UMass Lowell; visited the Hovey Players' wonderful production of THE PORCH; adapted and directed THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE for 20 more kids; directed more high school kids in four short plays in the fall, and more middle school kids in my LUNCH MONEY.  And somewhere in the middle of all that I served as playwright at the Peterborough Players who produced AULD LANG SYNE, featuring Gordon Clapp and Kathy Manfre, directed by Gus Kaikkonen.  I also think I wrote two one-minute plays for the Boston One-Minute Play Festival.  I re-launched the new STAGEADAPTATIONS web site and published THE BIG SNORE, CINDERELLA, LUNCH MONEY, NIGHT OF THE BULLY and THE PORCH.  And I put a great deal of energy into working, on spec, with a friend, on the book of a musical based on material by one of the late, great Broadway composer-lyricists of all time.  I submitted this draft for consideration just before Christmas.

So I forgot to blog.  Too many kids to direct.

This year, no promises.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

So it's January 1, 2012. I plan to blog daily, 366 times this year.

Okay, to quote William Goldman via Dustin Hoffman in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, that's total bullshit, but at least I haven't missed the first day. I don't have a good feeling about writing tomorrow, but you never know.

Anyway, this time of year invariably takes me back to a period in my life which I recall warmly. Well, mostly warmly. There was that horrible five minutes which I've been meaning to discuss for the past 33 years, but the experience was, generally speaking, a pleasant one. I was playing a snowflake in SCROOGE AND MARLEY, which I believe is Israel Horovitz's excellent adaptation of that Christmas show everybody complains about doing but always does. 1979, I think it was. I was a child. The production was being staged at what was called back then Theatre By The Sea in Portsmouth,NH. By "snowflake" I mean I was one of those non-Equity people who played a businessman in scene one, a caroler in scene two, a Fezziwig reveler in scene three, and on and on, costume change by costume change, throughout the show, for probably 45 bucks a week. Wait. That's a little high for a non-Union actor in New Hampshire in 1979. Let's say 40. I was making about five bucks a costume change.

But I had a nice time. I was reacquainted with an old friend from the Garrett Players in Lawrence. We car pooled and it was fun, except on the day he decided to show me how he could get through the Portsmouth toll booth on 95 without paying. That was frightening. But he was a good guy and it was fun to work with him again. I made some new friends among the other snowflakes, and got to sing a little harmony in scene two. Working in theatre at Christmastime, doing Dickens. What's to complain about, really?

Well, there's that five minutes I mentioned above.

So it's dress rehearsal day. A long one. Probably 10 hours out of 12. We had gone through tech the day before, but it was a mammoth show and the dress wasn't running as smoothly as it should the day before opening. But it was nothing out of the ordinary. Anybody who works in theatre knows that dress rehearsals of technically difficult shows have their ups and downs. But you stop and go and fix things and eventually you open and run and get paid and go home. Show biz.

So it's somewhere in the middle of the second act. Probably the scene change into Dick's living room, or whoever the hell owned the living room Scrooge visits in the Present. No, not Dick. The Nephew. Yeah. Dick's from the Fezziwig scene. Snowflake Senility. Anyway, it's a big scene change and a lot of the actors are involved in it. I am not. I had been, during tech the day before, but the stage manager, who had me moving a chair from one spot to another, made a change during the final run of the tech and gave the chair move to one of the Equity actors. No biggie. It was just easier for that guy than it was for me in terms of where we were on the stage.

Well, we get to this change in dress and it's a train wreck. Nothing works. The stage manager, who is a very tall, bearded, unkempt individual who looked like he took tickets at Woodstock, screams HOLD!!!! So we held. He yelled loudly. It was our best option. He started to fix the change.

Well, that's not really true. What he did was he proceeded to tell us how we screwed up the change. "Jack, you were supposed to move the chair from left to right! Come on, for Christ's sake!"

"Uh...Bill (wild guess, could have been Bob. Or Mike. Or Asshole. I'll call him Bill.)...you changed that yesterday. Peter is moving the chair."

"You are moving the chair."

I was concerned that Peter wouldn't register this conversation, so I wanted to keep things correct and avoid another train wreck." "No, Bill, you changed the move from me to Peter yesterday..."

"I'm looking at my book where is says, 'Jack moves the chair.' Do you have a book? Do you have that written in your book?"

"You told me to..."

"DO YOU HAVE THE STAGE DIRECTION WRITTEN IN YOUR FUCKING BOOK, JACK????"

"No."

'THEN MOVE THE FUCKING CHAIR AND SHUT THE FUCK UP!"

In my entire theatre life, before that time or since that time, I have never heard a stage manager talk that way to an actor. It was the most humiliating, embarrassing, and WRONG thing I've ever experienced in a rehearsal. And I've been in a lot of rehearsals. So we ran the scene change again. When it came time for me to move the chair, I went to the chair and reached for it. At the same time, the Equity actor who had been assigned to move the chair after the move had been taken from me, waved me off and moved the chair himself. He also moved it on opening night. And he moved it for every performance of our three-week run. Every performance. All I want to say here is that, if anybody ever runs into Asshole, or Bill, please tell him that I was in place, poised, prepared to move that chair for every performance, but never did, because the actor he had assigned to make the move, did it himself. But I was there. Every time.

I hope, Bill, that you stopped playing a stage manager soon after that show, because you were not then a stage manager, and I doubt seriously you'd ever be a stage manager. Not a real stage manager. Let me put it this way--every time I visit a McDonald's drive-through, I look closely in the window. I am confident that, someday, the person handing me my Big Mac will be you.

Okay. 365 to go.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

I have found myself, over the past couple of years, watching entire series of old TV shows.  It's a fascinating, if time-wasting, exercise that offers glimpses not only into the creative process of these old shows, but also into the social context in which these shows were produced and presented.

My first complete series was THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW.  First of all, let me say that I think Andy Griffith is brilliant.  From his youthful parody recordings such as his country-telling of the ROMEO AND JULIET story, through his early Hollywood career making films like NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS and the outstanding A FACE IN THE CROWD, through his short Broadway stint in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN to his long-running television shows (don't forget MATLOCK), Griffith had an uncanny ability to find the pulse of the public and treat it with worthy entertainment.  

Ron Howard had to have learned film-making discipline from his many years with Griffith.  Jim Nabors' career was launched and catapulted through Griffith's insistence that he was a star.  Don Knotts became a television icon when Griffith wisely stepped back to serve as Knotts straight man when he realized his sidekick was getting all the laughs.  

Griffith simply knew how to make audiences happy.  His first television series--not really a sitcom, but rather more a subtle, sweet, episodic lesson in morality, friendship and understanding--ran from 1960 to 1968, when it morphed into MAYBERRY, R.F.D.  It made the mandatory transition from black and white to color in 1966.  Often, the storyline involved Howard, who played Sheriff Andy Taylor's son Opie, and who would invariably choose or be lured into doing something wrong--like sling-shooting a bird to death--and, in the final scene, would sit on the porch of the Mayberry house and learn right from wrong from Dad.  Griffith's Taylor, always gently firm, knew how to get his point across without hammering it home.  Whatever Opie learned, we learned.  And we tuned in the following week because we cared about the characters and believed in the truth the series evoked.  

The characters were memorable--Aunt Bee, Gomer Pyle, his cousin Goober, Floyd the barber (played by Howard McNear, who suffered a stroke after the first couple of seasons, was brought back by Griffith after he recovered, and was, if it's possible, funnier after the stroke than he was before it), Ernest T. Bass (the irrepressible Howard Morris) and so, so many others over the years.  Most unforgettable, of course, was Knotts' Barney Fife, possibly one of the five most iconic television characters in history.  There wasn't a second of Knotts' lunacy as the bumbling deputy that wasn't honestly rendered by the actor, who deservedly went on to win a slew of Emmys. 

It's difficult to pick a favorite episode of the over 200 produced, so I won't even try.  However, a favorite moment, which occurred many times in the life of the series, was the late-in-show porch sit with Andy, strumming softly on his guitar, harmonizing a hymn with Barney.  True, heartfelt, without embarrassment or apology, Griffith told his story.

Next time--Amos and Andy.  Yes.  That's what I said.
 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

9/11 Fund Raiser for Veterans

Wanted to let you know about an upcoming event. I've been playing in a September baseball game with a group of friends, many of them from Lowell's Sacred Heart Parish, for 30 years. This year, the game falls on September 11, and we'd like to commemorate our 30th Anniversary by honoring the memory of the victims of 9/11, and our Veterans. Below is the event's official letter. Hope you'll consider helping out:

Dear Friends,


As you are aware, the tenth anniversary of the tragedy of September 11th is upon us. The City of Lowell and Community Teamwork, Inc. Senior Corps programs will commemorate the 10th Anniversary of September 11th at a flag raising ceremony on Friday, September 9th. The observance recognizes the impact of terrorism on the surviving family members and friends of those who lost their lives or suffered otherwise on that day.


In addition, as a way of thanking those whose lives have been changed forever by the service they have given to our nation since that time, CTI’s Senior Corps programs are partnering with local Senior Centers to collect supplies that have been requested by local area veterans’ services. All items will be donated to benefit local veterans who are struggling.


To assist in this noble effort, a group of friends, many lifelong Lowellians and many from the former Sacred Heart Parish, are raising funds to support the CTI’s Senior Corps and our veterans. The interesting story about this group of friends is that for the past thirty years, they have gathered on the Sunday after Labor Day at ballparks across the City for a game of baseball. In fact, 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the game. Of course, the speed and level of play has diminished over the years but the spirit of the players has not. A pre-game ceremony is planned to honor our Veterans, and Micky Ward will throw out the first pitch.


It seems fitting that as a way to give back to their community, and to show their gratitude to local service men and women that the players dedicate this year’s game to the heroes who now need our support.


The players seek to raise $5000 to be donated to CTI’s Senior Corps to be used to purchase much needed items for veterans living in Lowell. The funds will be raised in a number of ways including donations from players, friends and families, and from sponsorships from local contributors.


We know that you share our commitment to the spirit, pride, selflessness, generosity, courage and service of the men and women of our military forces. We respectfully request that you consider participating in our efforts by contributing an affordable amount to help our seniors help our heroes.


Thank you in advance for your support and contribution. Click below. You'll be taken to PayPal, where you can use your credit card to donate by entering an amount designated for "CYB."


Sincerely,



The Sacred Heart Church Yard Boys