NEWFANE — It's the end of show three of seven in the Rock River Players' (RRP) run of The Front Page. I'm queued up for curtain call - for my turn to bow - as Mrs. Grant. Scanning the row of characters in front of and behind me, I feel how lovely it is to be part of a cast again, to be a thread in the weave of a play's story.
I'm smiling big, fully sated on community goodness. In the company of a business consultant, an addiction nurse, an investment guy turned environmentalist/teacher, a farmer, a former state rep, a software engineer, a couple of artists, a builder, a retired pharmacist, a preserves maker, a retired arts preservationist, a composer, and the retired Episcopal Bishop of Vermont, among others, I feel quite rich.
It's been years since I've acted. A 60-year theater person, I'd called on some good training from college and grad school and shifted focus some 30 years ago to directing. But when Bahman Mahdavi wanted to do this comic chestnut, I leapt.
I'd taught and directed his three kids, I buy eggs and lamb from his wife Johanna (Diamond Louie in this show), I cherished his help backstage and on sets for myriad Leland & Gray Players' productions, and I directed him in the RRP's 12 Angry Jurors. And he's a good friend.
Trained amply in film, he's built on that background to not only immerse in live theater - he directed the RRP's Oleanna! - but also to co-launch the award-winning SOLOs series aired last winter on BCTV.
When he proposed he was ready to take on this biting bit of satire with the Rock River Players, despite its large cast, complexity, and pace, I couldn't resist the invitation to audition. Soon I signed on, not only as producer, but in a role.
I love this kind of script. Wisecracking, irreverent, and relevant, the play still speaks volumes: its barbs are enduringly American.
Fellow actor Ramsey Demeter (the character McCue) says, “Even though it's nearly 100 years old, The Front Page feels eerily current as it brings our attention to the crooks, the narrative benders, the power mongers that blow through innocents in pursuit of their goals. And it does so with ridiculous and refreshing humor, almost like a Twain-esque satire.”
With the gestation period of an elephant, The Front Page went into rehearsal in 2019; Covid tried to kibosh it all but, undaunted, we came back together in June to resume rehearsals in the Williamsville Hall, RRP's home.
Bahman mused recently that “it's been a long two years since the pandemic started.” Roles have shifted: some actors had to leave, others joined, and we've coalesced.
Since the play's resumption, “I have seen everyone involved become increasingly invested [...] not just in their own role, but in the whole production,” he continued. “[We're] a tight knit, enthusiastic community [...] including some who are doing this for the very first time ever.”
Alan Darling (a.k.a. Schwarz) talked about that first-timer experience.
“Many people go their whole life dreaming of being able to act/perform and never can, because of fear and lack of opportunity,” he said, calling the role “a rare opportunity.”
“In my high school, where we had a graduating class of 500, many auditioned, but few were able to act. (I never had any interest then.) There are plenty of people in [New York City] waiting tables and going to cattle calls for off-Broadway shows who would give their eye teeth to perform in a volunteer company like ours,” Alan continued.
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Our volunteer company is reveling in theater's synergy: the merging of text, sound, movement, light, architecture, carpentry, color theory, textiles, props, music, design - and people.
People are at the core here, as together we take on some of theater's regular challenges, including both tapping a creative spine to shape a 3-D character and acting with the whole body - voice box to fingertips - to underscore meaning.
Ramsey said recently that she has “learned so much.”
“Acting is so much more than regurgitating lines,” she said. “The body movements, the spatial relationships between characters, the facial expressions - it's the things happening between lines that make a scene come to life. Just like the space between notes in a great piece of jazz.”
Theater demands collective and creative problem solving and manifests the essential value of reliability and responsibility, of listening well and reacting honestly, of jumping off a cliff with a characterization - safety net in place.
Where else do you get all that?
Now more than ever we need live theater; we need live music, puppetry, circus, dance, performance art. Business at HBO and Netflix boomed as the pandemic sent us into isolation. Stage lights dimmed everywhere, from big-city venues to school cafetoriums, as many engaged in a two-year love affair with the screen.
But now it looks like we can cautiously start to feel again that inimitable audience-performer relationship in real time, in shared space.
Albeit with a pandemic-limited capacity of only 40, every performance has sold out thus far; as of this writing, we still have seats for the show added on Nov. 11 and for Nov. 14. So come catch us if you can. You can purchase tickets and find more information at rockriverplayers.org.
Or maybe you'll venture out to hear a concert, to enjoy some dance, to catch a circus thrill. Even masked, I love to feel that buzz of aliveness, the heartbeat of the lively arts that we really must sustain, for they are at the core of what it is to be human.