Little money, a backstage dressing room the size of an office desk — it’s all part of the charm of working in community theatre. But when the audiences, about half of whom you know personally, laugh or gasp or sit in mesmerized silence it’s all worth it.
“That kind of reward, you know you’ve done something right,” actor and director Leslie J. Stark said this week while sitting with fellow Island directors Kevin Ryan, Lee Fierro and Wayne Greenwell. “When you can do that to an audience, without equity performers or all the technical stuff, that’s what theatre is about.”
Next weekend Mr. Stark, along with the other directors, will be presenting the Island Theatre Workshop’s (ITW) annual one-act play festival featuring works by David Mamet, Robert Anderson, Susan Shafer, Edna Farber and Mr. Greenwell. Performances begin on Thursday, March 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven and continue through the weekend and again on March 28 through March 30.
Working with new and longtime community members has its advantages, and all of the directors agreed they enjoyed working with their neighbors, not to mention themselves. In addition to directing the one-act play Lou Bitterman, Attorney at Law, Mr. Stark is also starring in the play along with Karen Krowski.
Ms. Fierro, or Madame Fierro as her colleagues refer to her, has been working in Vineyard community theatre for more than 40 years and has seen her fair share of novices. She’s directing The Reunion by David Mamet, about a young woman reuniting with her father after 20 years.
“The more you get to know people, the more you get to know their quirks and kinks,” she said sipping on black coffee. “With a new person I find it fascinating to learn as rapidly as I can what they’re about. Sometimes that’s easy and sometimes an actor is . . . very reluctant. Golly, dang, here you have to get up on the stage and you may not have ever done it and you’re supposed to expose yourself. Many directors don’t tell you to do that, so you can hide behind that or the other little quirks, but I’m not that way.”
Mr. Ryan, who is vice president of ITW, said some of the faces of community theatre are familiar but new players have brought new ideas.
“What tends to happen is people have this preconceived notion it’s always going to be the same people, the same singer, the same leading man and sometimes it’s been true, but, boy, the last few years we’ve had so many people come through the doors who are so fresh and so new,” Mr. Ryan said.
Mr. Ryan is directing the play I’m Herbert, which depicts an elderly couple struggling to remember who they are married to.
Mr. Greenwell, who in addition to directing the Big Bang (A Sexual Theory) about the origin of the battle of the sexes, is also the writer. He admitted that it is hard to relinquish control over something you’ve crafted yourself but having a familiar and trusted team helps you become a better director. He has worked with one of his actors, Rob Myers, on several occasions and because of that working relationship, he has been able to be more open to feedback.
“It’s a two-edged sword because you wrote it and know exactly what you want but you’re not going to get something that perhaps another director would have brought,” he said. “Rob is comfortable saying, what about this, this is something that might round out the effect, the emotion. It’s up to me to say, well, everything I wrote is from on high and holy and can’t be tampered with, but he has a good point.”
Ms. Fierro sympathized with Mr. Greenwell.
“That’s happened to me . . . it’s very difficult when you’ve written a play to give up your idea of the way it should be,” she said. “What I believe you must do, is you have to look at it completely fresh and be open to everything. It’s almost pretending you didn’t write it yourself.”
In the end it’s up to the actors, Mr. Stark said.
“No matter how strong you are [as a director or playwright] . . . ultimately the actor owns what he or she does,” he said. “They get what they get from the text, they get what they get from the director and they get what they get from the other players. Most of acting is listening, but ultimately the performance they give, they have to own it.”
“Amen, brother” Ms. Fierro chirped in.
Rules that apply to professional actors also apply to community actors too — love your character, be flexible, and leave your baggage at the stage door. Only sometimes the pro’s forget that last adage.
“I like working with untrained and relatively inexperienced actors more than I do with experienced actors,” Ms. Fierro admitted.
When something goes wrong, community theatre actors are quick to improvise and smooth over the mistake without hysterics, the group added.
For Ms. Fierro the key to directing is building the relationship between the actor and the character they are playing.
“What’s necessary, absolutely necessary, it doesn’t matter who an actor is playing, they can be playing the most vile human being, and yet the actor must love the character,” she said. “The only way to inhabit something is to love the role ... otherwise it’s not truthful. It’s cardboard. You have the actor and the character fighting each other.”
Mr. Ryan and Mr. Stark agreed that Ms. Fierro insists on authenticity, no matter how difficult the character may be or how challenging it is to leave your opinion off stage.
Mr. Ryan added that flexibility is also key.
“In community theatre if you’re not willing to be flexible or step aside or move or change, it won’t work,” he said.
Island Theatre Workshop’s One-Act Play Festival is March 22 through 24, and March 28 through 30 at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, all shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and the Island Card is accepted.