A badly-kept secret at Peapack Reformed Church this month are the rehearsals currently underway for October’s production of Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN, the Pulitzer prize-winning play that has become one of the best-loved American theatrical standards since it first opened in 1938. Presented by The New Peapack Players, an amateur theatre troupe that grew out of a creative collaboration among two of the church’s members, Our Town will be performed on four nights over consecutive weekends, starting October 19.
Our Editor Bob Sutton caught up with founding Director Allen Crossett recently and had a chance to interview him about the play, his players, and the growing role of amateur theater in his community’s affairs.
Sutton: Our Town is a classic “little-theater” chestnut. Why did you choose to inaugurate your new troupe with a vehicle that has been performed so many times before?
Dr. Crossett: Linda Lipkin, my co-founder and producer for this project, for more than a year had been urging me to direct another play at Peapack Reformed Church. Working with Trilogy Repertory, a community theater group in Basking Ridge, we staged Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters about 18 months ago, and even though that play is not well known, we drew a pretty good audience. And that got us thinking.
There is an excellent community theater in nearby Chester (The Chester Theatre Group at the Black River Playhouse), community theater thrives during the summer at the Gill-St. Bernards School in Gladstone, there is community theater at the Lutheran Church in Mendham, there is a very successful community theater in Randolph, and of course Trilogy’s summer shows are a major attraction in Bernards Township and the group’s traveling children’s shows are welcomed in area libraries during the winter. Chatham also has an outstanding community theater, and I am sure that there are others. So, I guess what I’m saying is that the area certainly doesn’t lack for community theater activity. We’re surrounded by groups that do good work.
So why stage Our Town in Peapack-Gladstone? I think part of the answer to that is that I live here, and even though I have directed projects in Basking Ridge, and Middlesex, and Chester, and Bernardsville, I’m at the point in my life where if I’m going to get involved in a theater project, I would prefer to do it close to home. I’ve lived in Peapack-Gladstone for almost 35 years, and I really love this little village, and I would like to think that having a community theater group in town somehow enriches the community if just a little bit. I’ve also been a member of Peapack Reformed Church since I moved here, and I hope the church’s sponsorship of this project is a clear reflection of its mission to the community. Certainly a large number of church members have become part of the project, whether they are actors or working on one of the many backstage crews.
Before deciding on Our Town, I gave serious thought to staging an old-fashioned melodrama, complete with a damsel in distress, a hero worth cheering and a villain one could hiss and boo. And I considered Spoon River Anthology, which celebrates the wonderful poetry of Edgar Lee Masters. And I am very interested in the more recent work by A. R. Gurney. And I’ve got some plays of my own that I would like to stage.
But we picked Our Town for these reasons, and I list these in no particular order. First, the play is well known and we thought that would help attract an audience. It’s also a play that is still studied at many high schools, and that might help us to sell tickets. There’s the reality here of investing thousands of dollars in the project, and we don’t want to lose money. Second, the play has a large cast, and one of the realities of community theater is that shows with large casts tend to have an easier time attracting an audience. Third, there’s a lot of music in the play, and that’s something I personally like to work with. I added all sorts of music to our production of Servant of Two Masters and I think the music enriched the production. Fourth, while the leads in Our Town have a demanding but reasonable number of lines to learn, the show also offers a large number of smaller supporting roles. These supporting roles are perfect for actors who have little or even no previous experience. Fifth, Our Town is intended to be performed on a stage with no realistic scenery, so we are spared the expense and effort of constructing a complex set. Most of the props are imaginary and that makes things a little bit easier. While the costumes are turn-of-the-century, they are often available in the collections of other community theaters, and there has always been an enthusiastic sense of support among the community theaters, and even between the area’s professional theaters and community groups. Sixth, Our Town celebrates the daily life of small town America, and while the setting for Wilder’s play is a hundred years ago, we’re finding ways for our production of this play to celebrate our town – Peapack-Gladstone – and that’s very special. Seventh, although the play was first produced in 1938, it was revolutionary in its staging, especially in the techniques Wilder used to involve the audience, and that’s something I am personally very interested in. Some of those techniques are still revolutionary. And finally, I like the play, and I enjoy studying it and then rehearsing it with actors who also like it. Yes, it is a classic “chestnut,” but it’s an interesting play to work on, and one that I hope our audiences will enjoy.
Sutton: For readers who haven’t seen the play, perhaps you could start by describing for us what it’s all about.
Dr. Crossett: In the first act, which Wilder calls “The Daily Life,” a character called The Stage Manager introduces the audience to two families. There’s Dr. Gibbs, his wife Julia, his son George and his daughter Rebecca. We first meet them as they are having their imaginary breakfast in an imaginary kitchen on one side of the stage. On the opposite side is the Webb family. Mr. Webb is the editor of the town’s newspaper, his wife is Myrtle, and they have two children, Emily and Wally. We also meet other characters: a professor at a local university, the milkman, the town’s constable, and the paperboy. There are hints in Act I that George and Emily, who are at this moment high school sophomores, will develop a stronger interest in each other.
Act II, called “Love and Marriage,” sees this relationship mature, and at the center of this act is the marriage ceremony that unites the two. We learn at the beginning of Act III that Emily later dies giving birth to her second child, and the core event of this act, following Emily’s funeral, is her reliving a few minutes of her 12th birthday.
That’s what happens, but maybe that’s not what it’s all about.
Sutton: The cast and production personnel you’ve recruited number more than thirty-five. Where did you find so many willing volunteers?
Dr. Crossett: Without question, it is very encouraging to find really good people who are interested in being a part of this project. Many of these people are members of Peapack Reformed Church, and either Linda asked them for help, or I did, and they agreed. And they are enthusiastic with their support. Maybe a dozen of the cast members are included in this number, and just as important (and maybe more important), we’re getting from members of the church support in the areas of costuming, and make-up, and lighting, and stage construction. And we’re also getting enthusiastic support from people in the community who are not members of the church. I don’t know for certain why this is happening but I have a theory, and this is it. The play is familiar and worth doing, and because I’ve been around for so long, many people know me and know that my work is usually pretty good, so it’s a project that you can attach yourself to with a fairly high comfort level. Odds are, we’re going to do a pretty good job with it, and it’s always fun to be part of a successful project. But I think more than that, many people find an important fulfillment being part of a project that’s both exciting and worthwhile. We all live in a world where it’s difficult to get to know other people, even neighbors. Most people who live in Peapack-Gladstone work somewhere else, and even if we see each other on a Sunday morning, that’s only for an hour and during that hour the focus is clearly on something else besides building relationships. I find that my participation with the church’s choir to be important not so much for the music we create but rather for the friendships that develop. And I feel the same way when I get involved with a food drive or a pancake breakfast. Breaking bread with someone is a good way to start a friendship, but breaking a sweat is a better way to build it. And I have found this to be true in community activities as well.
Everyone involved in this project contributes a lot of time and effort. And there are some evenings when I would rather do something else besides go to a rehearsal, and I know there are times when the actors feel the same way. And I know the terrific people who are working to costume the cast must wonder at some point, especially when they realize how much work is involved, why they ever got involved.
Hopefully, all this work will pay off in a production that we can all feel proud of. That’s one level of reward. But at another level, a higher level, I think, my relationship to each of these people will grow as I get to know each of them better and as we share for a couple of months a common goal. And the relationship of each of these people to the others will grow. It’s an exciting process.
So where did I find so many volunteers? Many of the actors are people I have worked with before, and they know what’s involved in a project like this, and they want to work with me again. Some of the people working on the various backstage crews are also those who have worked with me before. And I find that to be very pleasing. Some of the other actors are those who responded to a “casting call” appearing in the local newspapers, and they know nothing about the group—New Peapack Players—because we’re new. We have no reputation. So they’re community theater actors looking for a project. Then there are others who have become part of the project because they know someone else who’s involved, and that’s how they get involved.
If I were to move to another town far away from where I am now, I think I would search out a community theater group and volunteer for something minor for just one production, just to see how it goes. Chances are I’d find myself working with interesting people who share a common interest, who take pride in doing a job well, and who are fun to be with. When all that is happening, finding volunteers gets easier.
Sutton: In his writing, Thornton Wilder seems to have been preoccupied with questions about life’s priorities. What is he telling us in Our Town? Why does that message seem to resonate so clearly with contemporary audiences?
Dr. Crossett: While Our Town has lots of messages, the most important idea is that the earth really is a wonderful place and that all of us don’t take the time or make the effort to realize this. At the climax of the play, Emily, who has died in childbirth, gets the chance to relive a moment of her 12th birthday, and she not only relives it but also sees herself reliving it so she’s both inside and outside the experience. And she enters the kitchen where her mother is cooking breakfast, and she wants to embrace her mother and express her love, but she discovers that her mother, rather than returning her affection, is focused instead on her work at the stove. A few seconds later, Emily says with some passion, “Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.” And at the play’s climax, she asks,” Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” and the Stage Manager answers, “No. Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”
All audiences, contemporary and those who saw the play for the first time in 1938, and all of them in between—all of these people must have had experiences in their own lives that reflect this. We don’t take the time or make the effort — especially with those closest to us — to really see them, to listen to them, to realize the wonder of each moment while it is happening.
One of the things we talked about at a rehearsal is that Wilder is clearly not saying “remember the good old days.” He is urging us instead to appreciate the magnificence of the present moment. And that’s, of course, something we can’t do “every, every minute.” And if you see the play and understand this theme, you can’t help but think back to all sorts of experiences in the past when you’ve turned your back to someone who desperately wants your attention. And if the play really gets to you, you’ll begin to become aware of moments in the present when you continue to do the same thing. We all do. It’s impossible not to, but becoming aware of these moments is the first step toward beginning to “realize life while we live it.” And that takes an effort because we are all so busy doing other things, like cooking breakfast instead of hugging a child.
Over my desk I have posted a magazine ad that I clipped and it shows two people jumping naked into a lake, and the text reads, “Understand that this is not a dress rehearsal, this is it!” And I think that’s the kind of thing Wilder is exploring in his play. Life is a wonderful gift, but its wonder is all too easily ignored. And what makes life so rich are not the major moments, like a wedding or the birth of a child, but rather the seemingly unimportant ones. Wilder wants us to value such things as “clocks ticking” and “hot baths.”
Sutton: In mounting a secular play in a church sanctuary, have you encountered any special technical challenges or benefits? How have you found the cooperation of the folks at Peapack Reformed?
Dr. Crossett: Thornton Wilder was not a particularly religious man although I find Our Town to be a very spiritual play. The play is not urging us to do anything like follow the Ten Commandments or to practice forgiveness, but it is urging us to appreciate the gift of life. The play also has as one of the things that holds the various pieces together the singing in each act of the familiar hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” There are also two other hymns and an anthem by Handel, and all sorts of wedding music, so all of the music is music that is normally heard in a sanctuary during a church service or ceremony. Act II also centers around a marriage, and that is a ritual most often performed in a church sanctuary. There’s also a funeral service. So, yes, the play is secular, but at the same time there are both themes and activities within the context of the play that are especially appropriate for expression or presentation in a church sanctuary.
This church has had in the past dramatic presentations in its sanctuary, and these have ranged from Sunday School pageants to short religious plays, so the idea of bringing “theater” to the sanctuary is not new. Our Town, however, at least in my experience, is the most ambitious theater project to be performed in the sanctuary. I talked with the Rev. Linden DeBie, the pastor of Peapack Reformed, before deciding to proceed with this project and we agreed that there was nothing in the play that would be inappropriate for the sanctuary. And I think we agreed that there was much in the play that justified its presentation in that space.
We’re going to have to make some adjustments, of course. For two Sundays, for example, the traditional Sunday morning service will take place with our stage in place and our lighting equipment clearly in sight. What we are starting to work on now is a way to incorporate ideas from the play into the service, and we might very well invite some of the actors to present brief moments from the play during those services.
Many church members are directly involved in the project, including the pastor who has expressed an interest in singing with the play’s choir. The church is also sponsoring the project, and that’s important, and the church secretary has told us that she will be more than happy to take ticket reservations by telephone. I think you would have to conclude that the cooperation is excellent.
As far as meeting the technical demands of the play, the major advantage of performing in the sanctuary, beyond having seating for close to 200 people, is that we have a magnificent organ to accompany the special choir that will be part of our play. And the church’s organist and choir director is the show’s music director, and the church’s soprano soloist will be singing a solo during performances of Our Town. That all works out beautifully.
The challenge, beyond working on a stage that measures only 16-feet wide and about 12 feet deep, is first building that stage, and we’ve gotten a lot of help for that, and then figuring out a way to light it. We have to be very careful with electricity because we will be working with a total of 24 stage lights, and at 500-plus watts each, they draw an enormous amount of power, and we’re working in a building that’s more than 100 years old.
We also have to be very careful with the weight of the lighting. Our plan is to use two lifts to support a 40-foot aluminum truss that will go across the width of the sanctuary. We will hang on this truss most of the lights, so we have the weight of the truss itself, the lights, and all the wires. And while there is no danger from the truss extending across a 40-foot span, we have checked very carefully to make sure that the floor at the sides of the sanctuary will support the lifts. We also have to provide a sound system, and that will involve some wiring, but the biggest technical challenge is finding a way to install safely the lighting system.
Sutton: With OUR TOWN Wilder broke new ground with his spare use of props and stage furnishings, yet he filled his play with music – a choice that poses difficulties for most amateur productions. Are you doing anything special in that respect?
Dr. Crossett: I think there are two questions here, one about the imaginary props and the other about the music. Let’s work backwards on this question.
Yes, most amateur productions, at least the ones I’ve seen, do little or nothing with the music. Without the music, the play is easier to stage, and that’s because it takes a lot of time not only to rehearse the singers but also to blend what they’re doing with the work of the actors. Some of the music is meant to be the center of attention, much of it is intended to be used as underscoring, so once it’s learned, a director working closely with a music director has got to work out the balance. If the music is too loud, the audience will miss important dialogue, and that can’t happen. So it will take time to work all of this out. And adding to the complexity is that members of the choir have to learn entrances and exits, and not only are they heard, they are seen, and not only are they seen, they actually become characters during the Act III funeral service. There are a lot of very important things for them to do.
The advantage of all this for an amateur production is that the people involved are kept fairly busy. It clearly is not a situation where the singers have a few minutes during a performance and then hang around backstage for hours, waiting for the curtain calls. I think most people in the choir would agree that they would rather have something to do than sit around doing nothing.
The situation becomes even more complex for a professional production because now we’re talking salaries, and most professional productions simply cannot afford to hire a 20-voice choir, even though the Broadway production in 1938 did feature a large choir, singing from the orchestra pit. But, of course, the cost of a bit-part actor/singer in those days was far more manageable. So an amateur production today of Our Town, assuming you can attract the singers, is much more able to enrich a production with a choir. And that’s an advantage we hope to exploit.
As to Wilder’s spare use of props and stage furnishings, what he is doing is trying to involve the audience. In his day, as well as in ours, realistic scenery with verisimilitude as its goal almost always provides answers so audiences don’t have to work very hard. With Our Town, the audience has to use its imagination to create various settings and a variety of objects, from little things like string beans and cups of coffee to larger things like doors and trees, and Wilder wants his audience involved.
And without the presence of realistic scenery, the characters tend to become ideas more than specific individuals. Emily becomes “young girl,” Mr. Webb becomes “loving father,” and when he pushes his imaginary lawn mover, he is performing “household chores.” This elevates the ideas of the play from the specific to the universal, and that’s exactly what Wilder wants to have happen.
I recently saw a production of Romeo and Juliet at a major regional theater in the area, and the set was composed entirely of large white rectangular walls, with spaces provided for entrances, and with two walls containing small balconies. And I realized as I watched this performance that Juliet was a “young girl” and Romeo was a “young man” and that the tragedy was not about two specific families that couldn’t get along but rather about two groups of people, families, perhaps, but just as easily ethnic groups or nations that hated each other. When one’s imagination fills in the blanks, ideas can become abstractions, and the world of metaphor can be an exciting place to be.
Wilder was influenced by Pirandello, who also influenced Brecht. Each of these playwrights tried to find new ways to involve an audience intellectually, and one of the things I find interesting is that even with such developments as environmental theater and some of the other experimental work of the 60’s and 70’s, we haven’t progressed beyond where Wilder took us more than 60 years ago. What we are trying very hard to do in our production is to first understand what Wilder was up to, and then to make it work for us and our audiences.
Sutton: To pull this together, you’ve outlined an ambitious production schedule calling for lots of rehearsals with your cast. What’s it like in your rehearsals?
Dr. Crossett: Too often in amateur productions, a cast really learns the play during the first two or three performances, and then, of course, while remaining performances may benefit, often there are only a few of them. We don’t have the benefit of a two-week out-of-town tryout. We’re likely to open to a full house, and we’ve got to be ready, and that means all of us. And that means actors as well as backstage crews. For a straight play, and by that I mean a play that is not a musical, I want between 90 and 100 hours of rehearsal. And I want my cast to peak on opening night, and while they can only learn how to respond to an audience by playing to an audience, they should have everything else under control. I don’t want my actors to be nervous because they’re not sure they’re prepared. I believe they must feel fully prepared, and they should be hungry for an audience because they know what they are doing and want to share it. And when a cast gets to that point, they can have much more fun with each other. Goodness knows, every performance is going to provide some surprise or another, and some wonderful stories are born in these experiences. My number one rule as a director is to protect my actors, and that means helping each one of them in every way I can to be fully prepared and to give as good a performance as possible.
To know what it’s like at one of my rehearsals, you‘d have to talk to the actors. I know I have a lot of respect for actors. I know that if I want my cast to work hard, I must work hard. I also know that my ideas alone won’t create an excellent production, and that I need all cast members to contribute their best thinking. I think it is important for the cast to see me make mistakes, to see me struggle to make a scene work, to see me coming to each rehearsal prepared for the work of that time. I plan each rehearsal very carefully, and I have a purpose for each rehearsal, and I share this information with my actors. Each rehearsal runs for three hours and I try personally to work for the full three hours without a break. I try to get started on time and because of that I make getting to a rehearsal on time a priority.
And I often think of the time involved. Most of my actors have jobs and/or families to raise. They’re busy people. And what I’m asking each of them to do is give me about nine hours a week for rehearsal, plus the time to drive to and from rehearsals, plus the expense, plus the time it takes each one of them to memorize the lines at home. That’s a huge commitment, and the pay is zip. So I do everything I can to make sure their investment is worth it. Otherwise, why do it?
I also try at each rehearsal to praise or encourage each of my actors in some way, especially once we get beyond the blocking and memorizing stages of the rehearsal process. I don’t gush, but I do try to offer a pat on the back when I see something that’s especially good.
And I like to have fun, and I want my rehearsals to be fun. Sometimes I will introduce a game of some sort that’s appropriate for a rehearsal. Sometimes we might together do a theater exercise. Some rehearsals all on their own get wonderfully silly, and that’s fine with me as long as we continue to work. And if the actors are relaxed, and the atmosphere is supportive, all sorts of crazy things can and will happen. Rehearsals can be a lot of fun, but it is important to remember that we’re not at a party.
An important part of my rehearsal planning has to do with getting a cast to bond, and I’ve been very fortunate in the past to have this happen. I believe in ensemble staging, where some parts may be larger than others but each cast member is equally vital to the success of the project. I try very hard not to play favorites. I try very hard not to be persistently negative with any individual, and I try very hard to make sure no member of my cast is perceived by the others as being less talented or, even worse, a threat to the success of the project. One of the cliches in theater is that casting represents about 80 percent of the job. With a good cast, the job of directing gets easier. With careless casting, some problems will never go away. I try to cast very carefully, not only for acting potential but also for compatibility with me and with other cast members. If a cast is divided, it will not bond, and if it doesn’t bond, the performance will suffer. Not only do I need Emily, for example, to do well; she needs the support of every other member of the cast in order to do her best. And that’s true of each actor, from the leads to the walk-ons. In rehearsals, I try to create the bonding that makes that happen.
Sutton: Your Opening Night is a special Benefit Performance for the Friends of the Peapack-Gladstone Library. Let’s see: you’ve enlisted a church, a theatre troupe, and now a cultural/fund-raising organization in bringing Wilder’s message to our community. Is there magic in all this collaboration?
Dr. Crossett: Absolutely, and it’s even more magical than you described. For the benefit, the Friends asked each of the community’s seven restaurants and caterers to provide a tray of specially prepared refreshments to be served without charge during the intermissions on opening night. And each of the seven not only said yes, they were enthusiastic in their desire to support the Library and to support the New Peapack Players.
What we have is Our Town supporting Our Town, and Our Town supporting Our Town, and I think that’s very, very special.
Sutton: Turning to future offerings by the Players, what lies ahead? Will you stick with American repertory classics like Our Town or is there more you’d like to teach us?
Dr. Crossett: If there’s one lesson my long experience has taught me, it’s the absolute necessity to put first things first when mounting a production, and take things one step at a time. Right now, all I am thinking about is getting the immediate project up and running, and I want to do it in such a way that those who are involved will maybe want to get involved in another project sometime in the future. Will we attract an audience? Will we be able to pay our bills? Will the church be interested in sponsoring us again? Did we do a good job? Ask me this again in six weeks, but for now, first things first.
Sutton: Lastly, our readers are probably wondering where to get tickets for Our Town. Do tell.
Dr. Crossett: I thought you’d never ask.
Tickets for the opening night benefit for the Peapack-Gladstone Library are available at the library. The date of that performance is Friday, October 19, and the show will start at 8 p.m. The price is $25 per ticket, and there are no senior or student rates. All tickets are for general admission; there are no reserved seats. The telephone number of the Peapack-Gladstone Library is 908-234-0598.
Tickets for the regular performances on Saturday, October 20; Friday, October 26; and Saturday, October 27, may be reserved by calling Peapack Reformed Church at 908-234-2733. The price of each of these general admission tickets is $15.00, again with no senior or student discounts. The curtain is again 8 p.m.
The New Peapack Players also has a “hotline” for ticket reservations for all performances. This number is 908-234-2979.