Putting a few final touches on the play Camping with Henry and Tom by Mark St. Germain, Sam Pilo admits he is a little exhausted.
He himself has not only directed two of the three fully staged productions this year but, as the artistic director at Actors Theater Playhouse (ATP), he also has had to oversee the technical and artistic aspects of all other productions, including the staged readings that have become such a vital part of the company.
However, right now all his attention is focused on the final fully-staged production of ATP’s 2012 season, Camping with Henry and Tom, which opens Thursday at the theater in West Chesterfield, N.H..
St. Germain says that his play was inspired by actual events: “In 1921, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and President Warren G. Harding took a camping trip together into the Maryland woods to escape civilization; what they couldn’t escape was each other.”
Winner of Outer Critics Circle and three Lucille Lortel Awards in 1991, Camping with Henry and Tom is described by St. Germain as “an exploration of friendship, politics and leadership; a comedic and dramatic clash of two great minds and one great heart of the Twentieth Century.”
Pilo says he was attracted to the play because “each of these men in their own way impacted the course of the 20th century: Edison and his inventions, Ford with his cars and assembly line processes, Harding with his presidency. We think we know something about these people. We’ve all been taught the same stories. But do we really know them?”
He continues: “By putting these three men around the campfire, everything somehow changes. The playwright makes the campfire experience totally believable. He writes effortlessly with a real sense of the immediacy of each moment. When it works right, the audience should find themselves sitting on the logs and rocks with them sharing a campfire with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Warren G. Harding.”
Pilo remarks on St. Germain’s technique of bringing together historical figures, such as Freud’s Last Session, his play that is running in New York. In Camping, St. Germain “is piercing the soul of the 20th century and holding the mirror up for us to examine and perhaps see ourselves. He has used this incident to tell us about the nature of American genius and the emerging personality of the 20th century. We are who we are because they planted the seeds of what became.”
Pilo explains that “the big payoff for the audience is the feeling of being in the presence of these historical figures, in a real way that is warming, revealing, and sometimes frightening. How did we not know the rest of the story about these men we thought we knew? It’s the gifted dramatist enfolding their souls around a campfire that makes this such a moving play.”
Pilo says he greatly enjoyed working on Camping, but he would rather quit stage directing and focus more of his energy on artistic management of ATP.
“I haven’t directed a staged show in three or four years,” he says. He’s been trying to train someone to take over that aspect of the company, but he ended up not only directing this show, but also Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius earlier this season.
Pilo has been the driving force behind the all-volunteer company since he founded ATP almost 40 years ago.
“It happened sort of accidentally,” he says. Shortly after he moved to Southern Vermont in 1975, he was walking down Eliot Street past what is now Hotel Pharmacy. Then it housed something called the Brattleboro Center for Performing Arts, an ambitious project, with both a theater and a school. “Too ambitious, since it went bust in six months,” he says.
“Anyhow, as I strolled past the then empty theater, I decided that we should start a community theater company here. We began with a film festival of classic movies and then moved on to live theater. One of the people I worked with was Richard Wizanski, who this very year directed one of our staged readings in Chesterfield, The Time of my Life.”
The company moved to the Chesterfield Playhouse 18 years ago. “This is a great space,” Pilo says, “but our location in New Hampshire has been a challenge.” The company could not secure tax credits in Brattleboro, says Pilo.
Looking ahead, the company is deciding what to perform in the next two to three years.
“I have piles of plays I would love to perform,” he says. “We have been around a long time, and we have done the canon. Now I find myself looking for new plays and new voices.”
He says he constantly looks online to see what is happening today in theater, who is doing what, what is new and interesting, and checking out what’s going on with other theater companies across the country.
“Although I am always searching for what sounds interesting for us,” he says, “I have to keep in mind our company’s limitations, such as our stage size. Our theater simply is too small to do a big-cast farce with multiple doors to enter and exit. I also have to worry about the size and age of the cast. It is very difficult for us to secure actors who are in the 30 to 50 years range. These people are too busy with their families and careers to find that extra time to work with us.”
While Actors Theater has a reputation of doing new and exciting plays, that does not rule out performing traditional works. For example, next year Actors Theater is doing the Chekov war-horse Uncle Vanya.
“But I can assure you, we plan to do something novel and fresh with it,” Pilo says.