COHORT REPORT: Slow Food

Pictured: Daina Griffith, Joel Van Liew, and Brian Beacock. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Comedy. It often seems like the poor cousin of the theater world, relegated to a position below serious drama and musicals. When was the last time a true comedy (even a bittersweet one) won the Pulitzer Prize? That would be Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers in 1991. At best, you might get “black comedy,” which is basically humor that no one thinks is funny. But Simon, Christopher Durang, and Alan Ayckbourn seem like anachronisms – okay maybe Ayckbourn should be an anachronism – in a world where theater companies favor plays about identity and personal crisis. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with plays that have real meaning, just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to laugh out loud and forget all your troubles.

Under Sean Daniels, Merrimack Repertory Theatre has been bucking this trend by presenting a number of indisputable comedies, most of them, interestingly, written by women. Because maybe we have we sold comedy short. Not only does it allow the audience to experience what Wendy MacLeod, the author of Slow Food, calls the “joy of shared laughter,” it shows that the best time to deliver a message is when the receiver isn’t looking.

Think about the satirization of American politics in Lila Rose Kaplan’s Home of the Brave or her attack on gender roles in the workplace and in comics (!) in Villians’ Supper Club. And while we were chuckling at the antics of the acrimonious neighbors in Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías, we were also immersed in a struggle between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the young and the old, the established and the immigrant – and pondering where we fit in. Comedy gives us permission to laugh at ourselves – and see the humanity in the other side.

And so in MacLeod’s Slow Food, as we howl in cathartic frustration, it doesn’t matter whether you identify with the hungry couple or with the put-upon waiter, you see yourself. For when the laughter dies down (and the food is finally served) the play reveals itself to be a cautionary tale, as the three characters take stock of their lives at the midway point, with lots of regrets but still many possibilities ahead. Carpe diem, the play seems to say, or you may end up an over-stressed man with a drinking problem (maybe), a woman who never reached her potential, or a waiter who is all he is ever going to be.

 

–Karla Sorenson, Cohort

 

 

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Slow Food runs January 9 – February 3

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COHORT REPORT: Food, Love, and Respect

Pictured: Joel Van Liew, Brian Beacock, and Daina Griffith. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre continues its focus on new works with the World Premiere of Slow Food . . .

“World’s worst waiter,” says the ad – to which we all reply, “No way. One time . . .” But that’s the appeal of the play, the universality of being at the mercy of someone with passive-aggressive tendencies, who seems to be on “island time” while you’re in New York. So when the waiter in Slow Food introduces himself as “Stephen with a PH,” we all think we know what’s coming.

But there’s always another side, no? And if you’ve ever “worked food,” or know someone who has, you know that dealing with volatile chefs, hand-sy bosses, and the ever-capricious American public is its own special brand of hell.

The cleverness of Wendy MacLeod’s new play is not in the power plays that go on – although wildly entertaining. Denied sustenance, Irene and Peter descend into a primal state, where it’s every man or woman (or waiter) for themselves. It’s soon apparent that food is not the only thing missing from the couple’s lives, for this is a play about survival and what it takes to have our most essential needs – food, love, respect – fulfilled.

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–Karla Sorenson, Cohort

 

 

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Slow Food runs January 9 – February 3

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COHORT REPORT: The Art of Blocking

Pictured: Shawn K. Jain, Vichet Chum, and Jesse Hinson. Photo by Meghan Moore.

If your holiday dance card is not completely full, and you are looking for a show that evokes the best of the season – the importance of friends and family – consider Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, in its final week at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Not content with being a daring sequel to Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice – the show also represents a fine example of an overlooked directorial skill: blocking, or the art of making actors appear real. Because real people do stuff, the stuff one would normally do if you weren’t confined to a stage, waiting to deliver your next line or make a dramatic exit.

Some blocking is explicitly written into the text. Think of the stylized fight scenes in The Royale. (Whether a director is obligated to follow these instructions is always contentious.) But typically, “business,” as it’s called, is left to the director and actors. And it can be a lot of fun. Consider the subtle jabs in Native Gardens, like when Virginia Butley dashes her cigarette ashes in the neighbor’s yard as a way of protest. Or the entertaining antics of the landscapers. Good blocking is the foundation of comedy. The scions of silent film can tell you that.

The key is being truthful to the character. The actions should be so natural, the audience doesn’t notice them, but they contribute to the sense of reality constructed on stage. An actor in a play of mine complained that she felt like she had washed a single glass a hundred times. She did. But to each audience, it was the first time.

In a way, blocking is the “lagniappe” of acting – a little something extra, as they say in New Orleans. It’s what takes the character beyond the text, adding complexity and depth – an “under-script,” perhaps. With a large-cast play such as Pemberley, not everyone can talk at once, so good blocking is a necessity; you don’t want people just standing around. Director Sean Daniels and Associate Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary excel at augmenting the script with so much clever and illustrative business, it is as entertaining as the witty dialogue. From the hanging of ornaments to Lydia’s shadowing of Arthur de Bourgh, these simple actions (everything on stage is deliberate) grow organically from the script, until each actor not just occupies space and delivers lines but becomes – well – real.

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–Karla Sorenson, Cohort

 

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs November 28 – December 23

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COHORT REPORT: The Role of the Producer

Pictured: Vichet Chum, Amanda Collins, Alexis Bronkovic, Katie Grindeland, and Victorida Grace. Photo by Meghan Moore.

In this article we look at the role of the producer at Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT), followed by a Q&A with Peter Crewe, the Producer at MRT.

Since Sean Daniels became Artistic Director at MRT playbills have listed a “Producer” on the credits page and under “Who’s Who”. One obvious question is: Why is a producer needed now under Sean Daniels but wasn’t needed under Charles Towers? Another is: What does the Producer do?

Clearly, the comedy The Producers can’t be used as a reference for the role of Producer at MRT –– it’s about Broadway, not regional theater after all. So I checked some books and online. That was little help because the role of producer in different organizations is pretty varied. Apparently at one theater, even the artistic director and producer had different ideas about the responsibilities of the producer… So I asked Sean Daniels (Artistic Director), Bonnie Butkas (Executive Director), and Peter Crewe (Producer) how things work at MRT.

For the answer to the first question, it turns out that there was a producer under Charles Towers. Just not as a dedicated role. Another page in the MRT playbill lists the MRT Staff –– finding that page is a little like playing “Where’s Waldo”. Under Charles Towers, the “Director of Production” performed the roles of Producer and Production Manager. Under Sean Daniels, the roles of Producer and Production Manager are separated because, as Sean says, “we’re doing more now.” (We’ll look at what the Production Manager, Lee Viliesis, does some other time). Bonnie Butkas notes MRT is the first theater where she’s worked that has a full-time producer. She finds it helpful to have the work consolidated in this way.

For the answer to the second question, wherever you see the words “by special arrangement” or “under agreements between” or “courtesy of” or “used with permission” or something similar on the credits page of the MRT playbill, the producer was at work. But there’s more…

The life of single play at MRT, from selection to closing, is 2 or more years. There are seven plays at MRT per season, and under Sean Daniels, several workshops. The producer is involved in each and every production almost from the beginning, starting during play selection. The producer is also involved in workshops for new plays, which include staged readings. Many of these at the same time. As a result, Peter Crewe ends up being pretty much ubiquitous.

The “Nuts & Bolts”:
• Budgets (season, individual productions, workshops)
• Auditions and interviews
• Licenses and contracts (see also: budgets and auditions/interviews)
• Coordinating involvement in workshops (Middlesex Community College, UMASS Lowell)
• Communication (Stage Manager, House Manager, Company Manager & Artistic Administrator, production staff, Artistic Director, Executive Director, artists)
• Calendar and scheduling
• Facilitating cost-effective creative solutions (see also: everything above)

The Producer must excel at managing a budget and being creative: forecasting costs, finding savings, and handling shortfalls. Shortfalls can be due to additional work calls or decreased revenues. (Did you know by buying artwork displayed in the MRT lobby, you help the fund the plays?) Challenges for the producer so far this season: Native Gardens –– replacement actor needed two weeks before rehearsals; Murder for Two –– turntable for piano; and Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley –– elaborate scenic design.

Regarding the last, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a large production (eight actors) with a large (fills the stage area) and elaborate (custom text wallpaper) set. The scenic design exceeded the production budget. Rather than scale back the design (because it’s amazing), Peter brought in additional support. Of which Bonnie Butkas said, “The Producer doesn’t normally do fundraising at MRT. We do really appreciate that Peter did that.” (Also, Peter has been very kind facilitating access for this MRT Cohort, and that is also very much appreciated).
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Q&A with Peter Crewe (PC), the Producer at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

Peter Crewe has been on the full-time staff at MRT since 2008, when Charles Towers was the Artistic Director. Peter first worked at MRT as a “Stage/Company Management Intern” in 2004. He earned his BFA in Stage Management from Salem State College that same year and went on to work at other theaters in the area. In 2008, he returned to MRT as the Company Manager, handling negotiations and contracts. He was also the Assistant Stage Manager (ASM) for every production, calling cues after opening night. Under Charles Towers, stage managers were part of the MRT staff. The ASM called cues during the run so the Production Stage Manager could begin work on the next play in repertory. Under Sean Daniels, Peter transitioned into the role of Producer.

Q: When Sean Daniels first became Artistic Director at MRT, he brought in Emily Ruddock as “Artistic Producer” and you became “Producer & Director of Company Management”. Can you describe your transition to becoming the only Producer on staff at MRT in terms of the changes in your responsibilities?

PC: This meant transitioning from Producing 3-4 shows per season, which had been the case the past two seasons, to producing all seven. As part of this transition we were able to hire one of my former apprentices, Alexis Garcia, as MRT’s new Company Manager. Bringing Alexis onboard meant less of my time had to be spent on the day-to-day management of the artistic company and allowed me to focus more on things like season planning, budgeting, working with our collegiate partners on play development.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of producing a play at MRT?

PC: MRT has built up a reputation over the years for our exceptional production values and as a place where artists from across the country want to come work. Maintaining that reputation, while we also try to expand the scope of our endeavors with our limited resources, is certainly the most challenging aspect for me.

Q: What has been your favorite play to produce so far and why?

PC: I would say the show I am most proud of producing is KNYUM, producing world premieres is always interesting but producing someone’s first premiere is a privilege.

[Ed.: KNYUM was written and performed by Vichet Chum, who plays Lord Arthur de Bourgh in the current production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Vichet Chum is also a member of the MRT Patriot Program.]

Q: What do you like most about the job of producer?

PC: Primarily that there are constantly new challenges and supporting an incredibly talented production team.

Q: Is there a creative solution that you found particularly interesting or gratifying?

PC: During my first season as a Producer for MRT, I was tasked with producing Tinker to Evers to Chance and Home of Brave. I suggested a Scenic Designer who had worked with MRT before to design both shows. In so doing he was able to recycle parts of one set into the next, bringing [down] the cost and making what otherwise might not have been achievable, affordable.

[Ed.: The Scenic Designer for Tinkers to Evers to Chance and Home of the Brave was Randal Parsons. He had previously designed Year Zero, Talley’s Folly, God of Carnage, and Half ’n Half ’n Half at MRT.]

Q: Sean Daniels has stated a goal for MRT to be a premiere location for new play production. What does that entail for you as the producer?

PC: For me that means building strong relationships with our collegiate partners as they have proven vital in expanding our play development efforts; as well as coming up with creative solutions to maximize our abilities to tackle multiple projects simultaneously.

[Ed.: MRT partners with UMASS Lowell and Middlesex Community College. New play workshops and staged readings are conducted in conjunction with those schools.]

Q: What are “Honorary Producers” at MRT and how do they interact with you?

PC: Our Honorary Producers are a fantastic group of theatre lovers who contribute generously to MRT. In appreciation of their support, Honorary Producers get exclusive behind the scenes access to productions as they develop and while they are in production. I serve as one of the primary liaisons between the Honorary Producers and production staff and visiting artists.

[Ed.: Peter also serves as one of the primary liaisons for the MRT Cohorts (thank you, Peter!)]

 

–Cynthia McLain, Cohort

 

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs November 28 – December 23

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COHORT REPORT: A Performance Filled with Love and Joy

Pictured: Victoria Grace, Katie Grindeland, Amanda Collins, and Alexis Bronkovic. Photo by Meghan Moore.

On November 30, 2018, I had the opportunity to see a preview of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s new show, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a spin-off/sequel to Jane Austen’s timeless classic, Pride and Prejudice. The play was written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, directed by Sean Daniels, and assistant directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary.

P3 Set - pic by Kripa Joseph
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley set designed by James J. Fenton. Photo by Kripa Jospeh.

The play as a whole was incredible; watching it was a fantastic way to transition into the Christmas season. The set, designed by James J. Fenton, was beautiful and the actors were well-casted and charming. Elizabeth Darcy (Alexis Bronkovic) and Anne de Bourgh (Veronika Duerr) were highlights for me personally, but I especially loved every scene that involved the sisters – Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, and Lydia (Kitty was in London, and did not join her sisters during the story). The four actors had incredible chemistry with each other, to the point where you could almost believe they were truly sisters in real life.

Pemberley is certainly more light-hearted and comic than Pride and Prejudice (though the novel itself had its humorous moments).  But the play is at its best when it allows Mary Bennet – the forgotten middle sister – to seriously reflect on herself and on those around her. Having a scene between Mary and Darcy – both intelligent people who are not at ease with the social graces of their time – was a very good idea. Mary is open with Darcy, who in return understands and appreciates her, and recognizes her similarities to Lizzy. My favorite exchange was this:

MARY: I don’t mean to sound petulant, but neither [Lizzy] nor Jane have any conception of the invisibility I often feel around them. Around everyone.

DARCY: My understanding was always of yours and your sisters’ great love for each other.

MARY: Oh, indeed. But you see I grew up with the kindest, cleverest, and most beautiful elder sisters in the country; and with the loudest, silliest, and prettiest younger sisters in the country. This left few fair adjectives for me. I find I still suffer from lack of definition.

DARCY: Might you not define yourself, Miss Bennet?

MARY: That seems easier to articulate than to accomplish.

(p. 19)

I read Pride and Prejudice in 7th or 8th grade, and I always found myself sympathizing with the plain, serious Mary. Jane Austen presents the character in a rather unappealing light: the middle Bennet sister moralizes at others, tries to show off, and thinks that reading books makes her smarter and more authoritative than anyone else, though she rarely actually understands what she reads. If I met her in person, I would probably find her thoroughly insufferable. But she is still quite sympathetic: she wishes to make herself seen by her family, but cannot quite figure out how. Here is one of the first mentions of Mary in the novel:

“Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.”

(Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 2)

Quite relatable. I myself find that my wittiest responses come to mind almost two hours after the conversation is over.

Additionally, the two older sisters, Elizabeth and Jane, are the best of friends, while the two youngest, Kitty and Lydia are very close as well; Mary is quite left out, a sentiment to which many readers can relate.

The Mary of Pemberley has grown and matured from who she was in Jane Austen’s imagination. The characters within the play – Lizzy, Jane, Darcy – all comment on her changed behavior.

LIZZY: Do you know, Jane, a thought has lingered with me since your arrival: I like Mary. Is it terrible to admit that I didn’t know I did?

JANE: I feel ashamed of myself but…neither did I. She is changed, is she not?

LIZZY: Yes, for the better I think. She is remarkably observant; I’d never realized how much she sees. What she said yesterday about feeling…uncomfortable with her arrangement. It actually reminded me of…myself.

(p. 34)

The play makes Mary a much more likable person; she acknowledges her love for her sisters instead of looking down at them, she is more self-aware, and she is willing to apologize to and forgive Lydia despite her sister’s flightiness.

Additionally, Mary has a heightened awareness of her place in the world, suggested to be a result of being the only sister left at home with her parents. This awareness shifts into a longing to have a choice about how she could live her life. Another of my favorite scenes is when Mary rebukes Arthur de Bourgh (her love interest) for viewing his wealth and position as an impediment to his freedom, when in reality he could be putting his money and power to good use.

MARY. Well what are you waiting for? (Realizing she’s spoken out of turn.) I don’t mean to offend but…you seem to me to have a vast opportunity at your very fingertips. You, sir, can do anything you want. And you must see how devastating it is for someone like me to hear what you say. I long for the world and here you can have it! Some are not so fortunate to have a choice at all; how dare you not employ the choice you have?

(pp. 32-33)

Mary’s newfound wisdom is reminiscent of Elizabeth’s bold character in Pride and Prejudice. While in the novel, Elizabeth did not really fight against conforming to her role as a woman, she still spoke her mind and did not flinch from criticizing men for their improper behavior. Pemberley’s Mary still moralizes, but there is wisdom to her words rather than just hypocritical pontificating.

For the most part, I thought the play was a charming interpretation of what happened to Mary after the events of Pride and Prejudice. Mary grows to be more humble and accepting of her sisters, and they learn to accept her for who she is in return. I would have loved to see the play center entirely on Mary’s relationship with her family (including Kitty and the parents), even if the romantic storyline was not included. Nevertheless, this story will please anyone who ever sympathized with Mary. The Merrimack Repertory Theatre did justice to the Bennet sisters’ legacy, putting on a performance filled with love and joy. I couldn’t recommend it enough.

–Kripa Joseph, Cohort

 

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs November 28 – December 23

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COHORT REPORT: A Depiction of Intelligent Women and Love for Modern Times

Pictured: Amanda Collins and Vichet Chum. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Wow! First Preview (November 28) of Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberly was packed! The theater was sold out! The crowd laughed and responded throughout, followed by a long standing ovation with hoots and hollers.

The play is a period piece filled with drama, quips, humor and sensitivity with an eight-person cast that truly delivers. Each of the actors embody their characters with zest and believability. The Washington Post calls it “A comic play that is a gift for Jane Austen fans.”

The play is a follow-up to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set two years after the novel ends. The story continues with bookish middle-sister Mary as its unlikely heroine. As the middle sister, Mary has lost her place in the world and yearns for a meaningful life of her own. She is the boring one who likes to play the pianoforte and read alone. Mary grows discontent of her role as the dutiful middle sister in the face of her sisters’ romantic relationships. When the family gathers for Christmas at her sister’s residence at Pemberley, an unexpected, equally awkwardly bookish gentleman gives Mary hope that she, too, may find love while maintaining her independence.

It is a depiction of intelligent women and love for modern times. Young and old will relish the story of love and family gathering. The set design is beautiful complete with library, piano and giant Christmas tree! The period costumes are a delight and plentiful!

MRT is consistently putting out great theater! If you haven’t been in a while, do yourself a favor and take in this play! It will lift your spirits for the holidays and give hope for love for everyone.

Congratulations Merrimack Repertory Theatre! Congratulations to all involved in the making of Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberly!

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–Lorraine Cassista, Cohort

 

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs November 28 – December 23

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COHORT REPORT: MRT Holiday Play is Delightful

Pictured: Amanda Collins (Mary Bennet) and Vichet Chum (Arthur de Bourgh). Photo by Meghan Moore.

It was exciting to see the last rehearsal of Miss Bennet:Christmas At Pemberley played out in the rehearsal hall, then the stage, to put props, costumes, lights, sound together by skilled artists and actors, overseen by the Stage Manager and Director. Those rehearsals go on all weekend to prepare for the play Previews, November 28-30 and finally on Opening Night, December 1.

These final days are the most exhausting, yet exhilarating for everyone. On the days before going to the stage, actors perform the play with visions of the stage. The cast performs the pretense of the set, opening what will be a door and, when there is a missing prop, ad-lib and laugh together as the Stage Manager slides into the scene with the prop.  The actors resume their roles and the scene goes on.

This play needs perfect comedic timing, not just with words or action but with looks towards each other and the audience. And, these actors have it all. This is a period drama that unites delightful characters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. As you would suspect, there are moments of wit and a celebration of love beside a large looming Christmas Tree that provides delightful moments.

The four Bennet sisters give us many moments of laughter with their husbands and suitors. The couples are charming characters. The actors take us in with their character yet blend together to tell this holiday story. It is quite lovely to go back in time, if only in the fantasy of this play, and appreciate the elegant garments, manners, and innocence of romance.

There are eight actors in this play with diverse roles that blend the tone and time of the period. If you attend MRT plays, you will recognize some of the actors, now in very different roles. If you have not been to MRT plays, you will appreciate the quality of the play and performers.

So, get into the spirit of the holidays at MRT – this play is for the entire family.

 

–Gail Gauthier, Cohort Alumni

 

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs November 28 – December 23

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