The Stuff of Dreams: Life Behind the Curtain of American Community Theater

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"Leah Hager Cohen entered the world of community theater, where she was fascinated by the magical pageantry and complex camaraderie she found among its small-town adult participants. Looking back on that experience, she writes that it was the first time she had "seen the stuff of dreams come seriously to life."" "Twenty years later, Cohen found her way to a community theater near Boston, Massachusetts, one of the many thousands like it in America, and set out to chronicle what would be an extraordinary year. Arlington Friends of the Drama had ...
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Overview

"Leah Hager Cohen entered the world of community theater, where she was fascinated by the magical pageantry and complex camaraderie she found among its small-town adult participants. Looking back on that experience, she writes that it was the first time she had "seen the stuff of dreams come seriously to life."" "Twenty years later, Cohen found her way to a community theater near Boston, Massachusetts, one of the many thousands like it in America, and set out to chronicle what would be an extraordinary year. Arlington Friends of the Drama had just celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary, was embroiled in disputes over structural changes proposed to help it adapt to changing times, and was about to hold auditions for its most controversial production to date, M. Butterfly." "As members of the theater immerse themselves in the production, we witness Celia, the brilliant, hard-driving director, and her struggles with the stars of the play - Patrick, a shy newcomer to the group who plays Song, and Jimmy, an old hand who finds the part of Gallimard the most difficult of his acting career. Backstage, we watch as the sets are designed, the costumes are created, and the lighting is orchestrated. And as opening night looms, we wonder whether Patrick and Jimmy will finally achieve the rapport to make their onstage relationship believable, if the blood effect in the final scene will ever work, if the choreography will really coalesce into smooth movement on the stage, and, most of all, if their daring selection of this play will mean that the cast will be performing it to an empty house."--BOOK JACKET.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this unique theatrical memoir, novelist Cohen chronicles the ups and downs of her suburban community theater's struggles over the staging of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly. The project is fraught with problemsthe Arlington, Mass., theater and its conservative supporters are reluctant to stage a play that deals daringly with sexuality and race; meanwhile, it proves quite difficult to find an Asian man to play the transgendered lead (who also has a nude scene)but the show must and does go on. Cohen (Heat Lightning), who loves working in theater, is a keen observer who never hesitates to pinpoint the problems and personality clashes endemic to the process of putting on a play. While she provides useful background, from the history of her theater (begun in 1913) to the importance of community theater in the U.S., she is best at describing the endlessly delicate negotiations between the small but award-winning theater's director, actors, designers and stagehands. Cohen is respectful of everyone's opinions and methods as they face M. Butterfly's considerable challenges to the theater's conventional approach to staging a production and moves us assuredly through her characters' process of political and artistic discovery. While never deeply probing the myriad social issues it raises, Cohen's backstage drama does give us a miniature yet nuanced glimpse into a world rarely explored. Agent, Barney Karpfinger. (May) Forecast: Though the appeal of Cohen's memoir is probably limited to readers involved in community theater, there are so few books written about that milieu that hers could find a small niche. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Cohen (Heat Lightning, Glass, Paper, Beans: Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things) offers an insightful look at what has become a social phenomenon in this country. Using four parallel story lines the history of one theater, the day-by-day narrative of a production, quick biographical sketches of the people involved in it, and her own personal story Cohen shows how important community theater is to both individuals and communities. Anyone who has ever participated in the production end of a community theater will recognize every character in this story and find a glimpse of his or her own motivations for participating in this age-old art. While the narrative becomes somewhat jumbled in places as Cohen changes story lines, this is nevertheless an enjoyable and telling look at what motivates everyday people to sacrifice so much in order to participate in this ancient ritual of storytelling. Recommended for public libraries. Laura A. Ewald, Murray State Univ., KY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist and reporter Cohen (Heat Lightning, 1997, etc.) examines the Arlington Friends of the Drama (AFD) production of M. Butterfly for what it reveals about the changing shape of community theater-and in the nature of community itself. Founded in 1923 as a genteel recreation for society ladies in suburban Boston, AFD in the late 1990s found itself struggling to attract younger members, who had less free time than their predecessors and looser links to Arlington (where its recently renovated theater stands). M. Butterfly, which features nudity and a same-sex love affair, was a controversial choice for the over-50 crowd that constitutes the majority of AFD's members, but director Ceila Couture (AFD president and a manager at Hewlitt-Packard) believed it was an artistically necessary step. She recruited most of the AFD stalwarts for her design team and cast a canny mix of old-timers (including board member and perennial leading man Jimmy Grana as French diplomat Gallimard) and newcomers (most notably, 22-year-old Patrick Wang as the Chinese opera star who impersonates a woman and becomes Gallimard's "mistress"). Cohen follows the production from auditions through opening night to its triumph at a regional competition, detailing the hard work of actors, directors, designers, and backstage personnel, all of whom are profiled with empathy and acuity in lucid, deceptively simple prose. Eschewing the now-tired traditions of New Journalism, she keeps herself out of this third-person narrative, although her intelligence and sensitivity as an observer are always evident. A few first-person chapters, somewhat bumpily integrated, movingly convey Cohen's love for amateur theater as the purestexpression of the universal human desire to tell stories and make art-which she finds alive and well at AFD. Not quite as imaginative and unusual as the marvelous Glass, Paper, Beans (1997), but nonetheless another fine work of cultural reflection by a gifted young writer.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670899814
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 5/3/2001
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.88 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


Auditions


In the September twilight a girl in a sweater and ponytail sits on the sidewalk and plays with a stick with a cat. The air is dense with normalcy and cricket song. Down on the avenue rush hour plods. Recycling bins dot the curb all up and down Maple Street like proclamations of sameness, most of them filled with empty plastic milk-jugs and seltzer bottles and the fortnight's bundled news, the familiar debris of respectable, predictable consumption. The last bin on the block, just beyond the girl and cat, is, as usual, somewhat nonconforming, overflowing tonight with stacks and stacks of unused cherry-colored ticket-order forms, and an improbable number of Coke cans. Beside the bin is heaped a peculiar assortment of scrap lumber: planks painted gold, plywood with elaborate shapes jigsawed out of it, a few broken spindles spattered lots of different colors. The girl dangles her stick and the cat bats at it once, with vague disdain. No one else is about.

    It's the Thursday after Labor Day, with all the children of America back to school and the work force of America back in action, and you can feel it, the sigh of it: business as usual resuming its stride, life's gray minutiae lining themselves up once again in orderly fashion. Twilight drops deftly into dusk, and the girl and the cat rise from the sidewalk; the former slips inside a yellow house on Maple Street, but the latter prowls delicately in the direction of the building that generated the interesting trash, sensing some action there. The building, a Gothic stick-style former mission church, ishome to Arlington Friends of the Drama.

    Now at the corner a white car pulls up, a Ford Taurus, that most ubiquitous of American cars, only this one has a license plate that reads ACTOR 1. Moments later, walking from the bus stop down on Mass. Ave., past stately old houses with drawn curtains and smells of supper, comes a young woman with a jittery look and a script in hand. And then, from two doors up on Academy Street, a boy in cargo pants and an Adidas shirt lopes winsomely across his family's graveled drive and ducks into the theater's main entrance. The reason they, and others like them already inside the building, are here tonight is on the face of it simple—they have answered a call: AUDITION NOTICE.

    The boy in cargo pants is not here to audition himself, but to help out. He is Matt Rehrig, aged thirteen, another neighbor of AFD and something of a devotee. His whole family is. Matt's father is the sound person on the stage committee and a trustee of special funds for the fund-raising committee; his mother edits the newsletter and is a member of the publicity committee. Everyone in the family took part in this summer's musical fund-raiser, Stage Door Canteen, with Matt, his mother, and his younger sister singing onstage, and his father acting as musical director. Matt is running a follow spot for Funny Girl, which opens in two weeks, and is here tonight to be the audition "runner" for the next show: he'll run people's audition forms up from the lobby, where their pictures are taken, to the casting committee, clustered front and center before the stage.

    In the lobby, which is below street level and cool, he'll meet his colleagues for the evening, the two other audition aides. Dot Lansil and Lorraine Stevens are each more than a half-century older than Matt, and their collective years of membership at the Friends total more than seventy. Dot, a retired bookkeeper for a snowplow manufacturer, has a lively shock of white hair, which, along with the breadth and symmetry of her roundish features, gives her a leonine aspect. She carries a magnificent bunch of keys, mostly to various locks within the theater, from the tiny ones on the paper-towel dispensers in the bathrooms to the one on the back gate that's no longer even there. She comes to the theater every Wednesday morning, when no one else is about, and cleans the bathrooms. Lorraine, retired from managing the kitchen at a school for disturbed children, has an imposing, smoke-raspy voice and eyes that light mischievously with opinion. Her involvement with the Friends has been a family affair ever since she first went down and painted flats, toddlers in tow, thirty-plus years ago. Her three grown children were practically raised at the theater, playing with the prop swords in the aisles, later learning how to hang lights and dress sets; just last spring, two of them came back to work on a play her husband directed. Lorraine has baked and decorated opening-night cakes for the theater since 1975. Neither woman has the slightest desire to set foot onstage, and both have done more for AFD than they would ever tell you themselves.

    When Matt arrives, Dot, who gets there an hour early, has already set up the card tables and the pair of ancient black-and-white Polaroid cameras in the lobby, and pulled the audition books—five fat looseleafs crammed with the alphabetized audition forms of the past decade or so—from the shelf in the greenroom. Should anyone show up tonight who has auditioned here previously, his or her old form and photo will be pulled for reference. Brand-new auditioners will stand against the large square of yellow jersey Dot has tacked to the wall and have their pictures snapped unceremoniously by Dot, two to a frame, to save film. Lorraine then snips the developed picture in two, staples the appropriate image to the appropriate form, and hands it to Matt, who runs it upstairs to the director. All somehow very professional and lemonade-stand at once.

    Lorraine, when she comes in, takes up immediate residence in the blue easy chair by the fake potted tree, and organizes her equipment: stapler, scissors, staple remover. Dot keeps busy checking over everything. She doesn't like to sit, because it's hard to get up again; besides, as she says with a wink toward her backside, she does it all day. Only Matt, bright-eyed and affable, has nothing to do, and eventually inquires after change for a dollar so he can get some soda. When he started out as runner four years ago, Dot used to feel obliged to walk him the twenty yards home in the evening; now, at thirteen, he's perhaps outgrowing the job. Next year he'll be eligible for the first time to join the Friends as a student member, one of the very few young people in the theater community. Lorraine drums up the coins and orders herself a Diet Coke, no caffeine, while he's at it.

    She and Dot are symbiotic, salty and retiring respectively, and chat with the easy familiarity of those who've been fellow clubbers for decades. They catch each other up on other members, no longer active but residing now in nursing homes. They disapprove aloud, but without any real vehemence, of the "strong language" in most of this year's plays. When Lorraine discovers she's out of staples and calls "Dot!" Dot answers reflexively "Sir!" and neither laughs; it's that old. Matt comes back with the sodas, plunking down the one before Lorraine, who delivers her standard thank you: "You're not all bad, Matthew. I don't care what people say."

    Down the hall, the show's production team is waiting in the greenroom. Not every backstage lounge area is actually green, but this one is painted a very deliberate, not to say strident, green, a sort of mossysagey-avocado hue, and is just one aspect of the generally swanky new digs the theater acquired in a major renovation completed last winter. New, too (to Dot's mild chagrin: more for her to clean), are four of the six bathrooms, as well as the new lobby and entrance, dressing rooms and makeup area, boiler room and box office: virtually everything on the bottom floor has been newly built or rebuilt, and though it doesn't literally smell of fresh paint, there is a new-shoes squeaky sharpness to the atmosphere that has caused a measure of homesickness among a certain set.

    Tonight, however, a different sort of sharpness imbues the greenroom: the needling pressure of a flock of invisible question marks, pricking the air over everybody's heads. If the little chapter in the story of this community theater whose beginning is tonight is not monumental, not drastically different from the hundreds of other little chapters that have made up the story so far, it is nevertheless different enough to cause some special excitement and consternation. In a network of branching roots it might show up as a sharp turn, even a tiny brand-new tendril. Certainly there is that wish among the production's creative team: to break new ground with this play, to accomplish something that pushes the limits of this community, that makes possible new risks, new explorations in the future.

    The play is M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang. Here is how the play-reading committee described it in notes to the board last fall: "Drawn from real life events, involving the strange tale of a French diplomat who carried on a twenty year relationship with a Chinese Opera star without (he contended) being aware that his `perfect woman' was really a man, the play becomes a powerful metaphor for the exploration of deeper themes: the perception of Eastern culture by the West, and the persistent romanticism which clouds and inhibits that perception." It premiered a decade ago, won the Tony, the Drama Desk, and the Outer Critics Circle Awards for best Broadway play, was made into a Hollywood movie, and has been produced by at least a hundred nonprofessional groups, nationwide.

    In spite of all that, the play was an iffy choice for Arlington Friends of the Drama to include on its annual slate of five shows, and represents an unusual challenge for this group in two ways. The first relates to content: central to the plot is an enigmatic love affair between what the audience eventually learns are two men; also, the script calls for one of the actors to undress completely onstage. The second relates to context: the mounting of this particular play, which is rich with Asian themes, culture, politics, and characters, within the particular communities of this theater and this town, which are both predominantly white, European-American. In choosing to put on this show, the theater has offended some of its own members and set itself a task that it is frankly not at all sure it can meet.

    Celia Couture, whom the play-reading committee selected last winter to direct, is sitting, but barely, on the edge of one of the ornate, mismatched greenroom sofas, eating a Subway sandwich leaking shredded iceberg lettuce, and listening intently while the set designer and the costume designer discuss color schemes. She has come straight from her job as a Hewlett-Packard business branch manager, and is wearing a navy-and-white checked jacket and navy slacks with simple, bold gold jewelry. She has short brown hair, the do of someone with more important things to think about, and incongruously manicured plum-colored fingernails. Celia is forty-eight, and crackles with a kind of compressed energy that seems always to be seeking outlet. There is a physical density to her, a compact kineticism, as there is to a baseball bat, or a golf club, or a well-strung racquet. In fact, despite her movie-star name, she pretty much embodies the spirit of everybody's fifth-grade gym teacher. She makes people snap to, anticipatory, expectant, eager to be led.

    Celia has been actively preparing to direct this play for ten months—literally ever since the play-reading committee submitted its proposed slate to the board of directors last November, for she is president of the board, and learned earlier than most what next year's prospective plays were. From her first reading of the script, she knew she wanted to direct this one, and her preparations for doing so have been extensive, including a trip to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to research the original production. Yet she is also the first person to say she doesn't know whether this play can be done in Arlington, Massachusetts. Even now, even tonight, ten minutes before auditions are due to begin, she still hasn't committed herself unequivocally to directing the play. The catch lies not in her faith in herself as a director, or in her faith in the theater's audience, but in that flurry of felt question marks: who will show up to audition?

    Celia has made clear that she will not direct the play without a qualified actor of Asian descent in the role of the ambiguously gendered male lead. This is not an idle threat; once before, at another community theater, she stepped down as director when auditions failed to yield suitable actors; in that event, the play simply did not go on. M. Butterfly has been done with alternative casting, but this is an option she will not consider—partly in deference to the playwright, who makes clear in his notes that the part should "unquestionably be played by an Asian actor, and preferably a man," and partly in deference to her own artistic vision. Yet, in the theater's entire membership of over five hundred people, and even in the broader pool of "gypsies" who move about from one community theater to the next, no one can think of a single Asian man, let alone one physically able to pass for a woman, talented enough to make the complex part of Song Liling believable, and, not incidentally, willing to get naked onstage.

    The scanty pool of available Asian actors within the theater's established circles is in a way the whole point—when the play-reading committee chose to include M. Butterfly on the 1998-99 slate, it was in response to a self-imposed imperative to select a play that would encourage multiethnic casting, as a way of broadening and diversifying its membership. But no one knows if this plan will work, if simply electing to do a show with Asian characters will lead to lasting future changes. No one knows if it will lead to Asian actors' coming out to audition, for that matter. In the months and weeks leading up to tonight, prospects have seemed discouraging. One rumor going around is that even the Chinese Culture Institute in Boston couldn't find an Asian actor for the part of Song when it did the play a few years back, and wound up casting an Italian-American in the role. This turned out to be false (the Chinese Culture Institute never even did M. Butterfly; the theater in question was actually down on the South Shore), but the story added urgency to the outreach campaign conducted by AFD members.

    The kinds of outreach themselves speak volumes about the degree of preparedness the group has in taking on this goal—revealing its energy, its earnestness, and its lack of existing contact with an Asian community. AFD usually advertises auditions through several sources, from newspapers to Web sites. In the case of M. Butterfly, extra steps were taken. A couple of people on the publicity committee posted fliers in dozens of Chinese restaurants in all the surrounding towns. One member's co-worker's husband knew someone at the Chinese Culture Institute, and agreed to pass the message along. Slice of Rice, an organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Asian youth, was sent a mailing. The Asian student organizations and the drama organizations at all the area colleges were notified. Some members, in a display of either boundless enthusiasm or embarrassing desperation, depending upon your point of view, have actually been approaching Asian strangers in restaurants and shops and asking them to spread the news word-of-mouth.

    Now, in the greenroom at seven-twenty-five, Celia gnaws one flawlessly lacquered nail and squints a little at those assembled, as she is wont to do when collecting her thoughts. She often manages to seem simultaneously alert and preoccupied, as though staying on top of the current situation while planning for the next. Beside her on the worn velvet sofa is Jeneane Desilets, aged three, eating a Happy Meal and feeding bits of it to a toy bunny. Wistful at Jeneane's feet is Baron Giagrando, a small gray terrier, all clicking toenail and jutting eyebrow. On various sofas and chairs are Nancy Tutunjian and Suzanne Spezzano, whom Celia has asked to sit on the casting committee; Molly Trainor, the costume designer; Doug Desilets, the set designer; Kelley O'Leary, the stage manager; and David Giagrando, the production manager, who has been addressing everyone who walks through the room with a rapid-fire "Are you auditioning? Why not? Then do you want to do props?"

    It's time to head up. The group of them file up the back stairs, through the tiny shop that runs the depth of the stage, and out into the front of the house, taking residence in the front row of bolted seats. Dot Lansil has set up a folding table here for the casting committee, and Celia unloads her things: working copies of the script enlarged to leave room for notes, a hardbound blank book with pansies all across the cover, extra pencils, a wristwatch, her mug of omnipresent green tea. Behind the committee sit a smattering of auditioners; at first glance the numbers look disappointing.

    Auditions are a weird thing, contrived and awkward, arguably never more so than at the community-theater level. In the professional theater, make-believe is people's stock in trade, a world people inhabit, with intention and craft, as part of their jobs. At the other end of the spectrum, the school show, children and even teenagers are not unintimate with make-believe and play on a daily basis. But for most of the rest of us, the activity of make-believe is at odds with the selves we are called upon to be, by jobs and family and society, for most of the minutes of our lives. Similarly, the act of exposing oneself emotionally, of being private in public, is at odds with everything society has taught us by the time we reach adulthood. Yet in the implausible environment of community theater this is exactly what people are asked to do, and never as nakedly as at the audition. By the time a show reaches opening night, actors have been partially protected from this nakedness: by the direction they have received, by the trust and familiarity that have grown up among the cast, and by the physical armor of costume, makeup, lighting, and props. At the audition they have nothing. They are arriving from days spent as office workers and welders, bookkeepers and bakers, tutors and homemakers, and being asked to step up and bare themselves, to play make-believe with strangers, in front of other strangers, out of context.

    It's very difficult, and few people, on either side of the casting table, relish auditions. Celia and the casting committee share a sense of respect and admiration for anyone who has come to try out tonight, and a desire to put people at least somewhat at ease. So, while they wait for Matt Rehrig to come upstairs with the first batch of audition forms, and for (they hope) more auditioners to straggle in at the last minute (there are only eleven bodies scattered widely through the house, and some may not even be here to try out), the committee engages casually in what a script would call "business," meaning, in this case, sort of secondary physical actions: arranging pencils, putting on eyeglasses, stretching, turning around to acknowledge any familiar faces. The tension in the room is packed and moist as pound cake, but it's layered over with frivolity, like a dusting of confectioner's sugar.

    The house is not overly large—it seats 194, on a gentle rake—but the vaulted church ceiling gives it a gravely splendid air, and tends to dwarf its inhabitants. It also renders the space perpetually dim, as do the heavy velvet drapes on either side wall, so that, even with all the house lights on, the room has a murky, cavelike feel. In the absence of natural light, with only the pooling shadows cast by a handful of incandescents, this chamber seems perfectly severed from real life.

    Amid the light, nervous, pre-audition banter, Doug Desilets arranges his model of the set, which he completed late last night, on the thrust, a part of the stage that juts past the proscenium. A work of miniature beauty, made of balsa and plywood and rice paper and foam core, the model has real sliding doors and movable set pieces. Doug learned stage design twenty years ago—-in the military, of all places, while working at the community theater on an army base in Germany. He's a trim man, with precise features and movements, and strong traces of native Michigan in his speech.

    Marion, his wife, arrives now, late, straight from work, and clops down the aisle in pumps and business suit. Jeneane goes to her and up into her arms, holding a pink sippy cup. Doug and Marion exchange slightly harried hellos. They have to take turns doing shows now that they are parents, whereas for a long time they worked together on plays and musicals, doing as many as they liked, often four out of the five each year. In fact, Doug had been keen to audition for this play ever since the slate was announced last winter, but in the last few weeks has decided, reluctantly, that being in the cast as well as helping execute his set design would take him too much away from his family. Still, he and Marion are determined to support each other's continuing involvement at the theater, which after all is sort of the reason their family even exists: the two met here at the Friends, in the cast of Barnum eleven years ago; Celia, who directed that show, too, helped hook them up. Besides her directorial skills, she has a quiet but considerable reputation as a matchmaker.

    In strides another late arrival: Maryann Swift, wearing a Northeastern University soccer T-shirt, and sunglasses shoved up on top of her curls. The cast will include three kurogo, a Kabuki term for "invisible" stagehands; these three actors will be responsible for effecting simple set changes with stylized movements, and Celia has asked Mayre, as she is most often called, to do the choreography. She hugs Celia and delivers a loaded glance—Mayre is a great one for loaded glances—and changes into her soft black jazz shoes. She, too, is half of a theater couple recently turned parent, and is finding it harder to stay involved with AFD. She wordlessly hands over a stack of photos of her little daughter and, while the casting committee pores dotingly over them, retreats to the vestibule by the handicapped-access bathroom to mark the simple combination she will teach the auditioners.

    Baron appears onstage and looks around open-mouthed, obviously delighted with himself.

    "I just locked you up," says David, in the front row.

    "Guess what," says Celia.

    "Handicapped bathroom?"

    "He'll whine."

    "I'll hold him on my lap in the back." David collects the terrier under his arm and they disappear to the back of the house.

    Marion heads home with Jeneane. Mayre comes out of the vestibule and gives Celia a nod. Celia scans the house. A paltry eleven people. The play has a cast of ten. She gives no sign of dismay. Three of the faces are Asian; two of these, male. Already that's better than she'd dared hope. Anyway, there's still Saturday. She checks her watch. It's past time. She gives a sign.

    David reappears hastily, dogless, in front of the stage. At thirty-two, he's the youngest member of the production team. He's in jeans and a Martha's Vineyard sweatshirt, cuffs extending right to his knuckles, like a college kid. He has bright, close-set agate eyes and a sharp sense of humor. "Good evening," he says, with warmth, and the auditions begin. Everything about his welcoming speech is designed to be just that. He thanks people for coming out on a weeknight, jokes it'll win them extra points. He introduces the casting committee and the production team, tells the auditioners where to find coffee, and invites them to make a cup. He asks them to "feed the elephant" if they do—-a little silver bank in the shape of that animal, which perches always on the kitchen counter in the greenroom. "What else? ... Oh yeah. This is now Arlington Friends of the Bathrooms. We used to have two, and we remodeled, and now you go downstairs and every door you open's a bathroom, so if you have to go just open a door and it'll probably be one."

    "Knock first!" interject Celia and Mayre in laughing unison. The locks are shaky.

    Now Celia stands and moves back two rows to address the group. She knows five of the eleven. A few she has directed before. One sits on the AFD board with her. One works at Hewlett-Packard, directly under her. She addresses them all equally, in professional, cordial tones. She ticks off the commitments the show requires. They will rehearse for six weeks, four nights a week, from seven to ten up until the last week or two, when they'll rehearse from seven to whenever. The part of the pin-up girl will require some nudity. The part of Song will require full nudity. Both Gallimard and Song will have to be very, very comfortable with the sexual situations. The two actors playing the leads will have extra rehearsals to learn how to work with their special wigs, costumes, and makeup changes. Three of the male characters will be required to smoke. Any questions? None? Good luck to everyone.

    Auditions, Celia sometimes says, are the most important job she has as director. She sits down again, cups an elbow in the opposite palm, lays a finger against the side of her mouth. Dimples flash in and out of her cheeks. Her perpetual focus gathers itself, sharpens a notch further.

    The stage at this moment bears traces of scenery from the upcoming musical, Funny Girl, so the actors will be trying out, incongruously, under brightly painted signs reading "Saloon" and "Track 2 New York" and "Keeney's Music Hall." They begin, all eleven, with movement, and they begin with their backs to Celia and the committee, turned protectively upstage by Mayre, who teaches them the simple combination. It's like that moment when the doctor leaves the room so you may undress in privacy: that queer politeness, illogical but somehow necessary to preserving an illusion of dignity. So the auditioners, clustered close to the lumber-cluttered back wall, fumble and grope for the steps, and learn them, and laugh very quietly with each other as Mayre runs them through it calmly again, and a fifth time, and then they face front, with johnnies on, as it were, and present themselves to the examiners.

    Not all auditions have such a meager turnout. The previous ones, for Funny Girl, drew fifty. But that was a musical, a big, familiar musical, a funny, fluffy, old-fashioned musical. M. Butterfly is a serious play, with complicated, adult, and frankly darkish themes; no one ever expected it would draw fifty. Nevertheless, the numbers are discouraging. Eleven people for ten parts. Celia will have to get on the phone.

    Here is the other fear: that the turnout tonight is prophetic and the show will fail at the box office in November. Half the old guard at the Friends have been saying as much all along: People come to the theater to be entertained, not challenged or depressed. It's our job to make people happy, not to make them think. Just as this play is only a single entry in a voluminous history, these sentiments are single notes in a cacophonous debate that has been going on for millennia: What is the purpose of theater? What is the point of art? That this debate continues, not only among artists and scholars in museums and ivory towers, but among sales clerks and chiropractors in church basements and barns, is testimony to its inherent, if surprising, relevance to human beings.

    Right downstairs at this moment are two of the people not exactly wild about the choice of play. Dot's just going on what she's heard—nudity, a same-sex love affair, "adult situations" and "adult language"—and it just doesn't sound like something the Friends' regular audience would like. Lorraine has actually seen it performed, when the professional touring company came to Boston some years ago—or saw the first part of it, anyway; she fell asleep. She found it boring and wordy, and expects most of the core audience will as well, if they bother coming at all.

    They're both here, though, as ever, doing their parts, and if you questioned them as to why they're volunteering to work on a show they don't entirely approve of, they'd look at you as if you had some mild brain damage. And that's the difference between the old guard and the kids, the fickle gypsies of today, who come and go from theater to theater, often without even joining as members, without paying their dues, literal and figurative, but only drifting toward the plays or the parts that appeal to them and then drifting on again. People like Dot and Lorraine are here not for the play but for the organization. Among the old guard, the Friends is referred to as "the club," the physical theater as "the clubhouse." And disagreement about a slate, or even dissent and political infighting among the members, are never reasons to quit, but evidence of an impassioned, committed constituency. Which is graying.

    It's no secret that the board is worried about this trend. Sixty-six percent of members are over fifty, only 16 percent under forty. The planning committee, in reporting results of a membership survey conducted this past winter, put it in no uncertain terms: "We're not getting any younger.... We need to cultivate members, particularly in the 31-40 age group, if AFD is to have a future." The report warned that "there is no `next group' at the moment to take over running AFD," and recommended diversifying the regular season to include offerings designed to appeal to younger members, as well as adapting to the schedules of people in this target age group, who may already have huge time commitments to work and families.

    Everyone who works at Arlington Friends of the Drama is a volunteer. On each show, the director receives a five-hundred-dollar stipend, which generally just helps defray out-of-pocket expenses (most every director winds up adding some of her or his own money to the play's budget, and it isn't uncommon for a director to donate the entire stipend back to the theater). The only other exception to the all-volunteer status is when AFD produces a musical, in which event the musical director and musicians are paid; this relates largely to precedent and even more largely to the shortage of available people to assume these jobs. That's it. No one else is paid, not the people who show up virtually every Tuesday and Wednesday night and Saturday morning to construct sets, not the people who landscape the front of the theater, not the people who manage the budget, or design the costumes, or pay the bills, or run the box office. Certainly not the actors, or the stage managers or production managers. Certainly not Dot, for cleaning the toilets, or Lorraine, for icing the cakes. And at one time this presented no problem, and there was no shortage of bodies eager to assume these tasks.


In 1913, Arlington staged a civic pageant in which virtually the entire town participated. The program, given on the shores of the Upper Mystic Lake over the course of three performances, before audiences of fifteen thousand people, brought to life a staggeringly ambitious hodgepodge of history and myth, from Paul Revere's midnight ride to the landing of the Vikings; from English Morris dances to French harvest rites; from Robin Hood and medieval heralds to Greek maidens and Roman peasants, Pan and satyrs, dryads and naiads, the Winds, the Months, the very Hours.

    The dreamer-up of this pageant, its author and initiator, was Vittoria Calonna Murray Dallin, one of the town's most prominent citizens. She had already penned two other pageants, "The Pageant of Education," presented in Boston in 1909, and "The Pageant of Progress," presented in Lawrence in 1911. She had just completed a term as president of the Arlington Woman's Club when, at a regular meeting of the group, the idea of starting a pageantry movement in Arlington was officially born.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Gutter and Stars
1 Auditions 1
2 Lonelyhearts 32
3 Preproduction 45
4 First Rehearsal 61
5 Arena of the Street 70
6 Stage Business 84
7 Behind the Scenes 109
8 The Guard in the Poet's Tree 136
9 Cue to Cue 151
10 A Theater Primeval 179
11 Tech Week 189
12 Places 218
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