The professional amateurs

The Barnstormers Theater, Tamworth, NH

Went to see a play last night: The 39 Steps. It was performed at a summer stock theater called The Barnstormers in Tamworth NH. I liked it. It’s precisely the kind of silliness summer stock was made for, with just enough expertise required to make it a well-prepared comic meal, and not fast-food. The play is a spoof in which four actors play a million roles, with two of the four bearing the lion’s share of quick changes. These roles are listed in the program as Clown 1 and Clown 2. It is a tour-de-force for the four actors, made all the more impressive last night by the fact that they only had five days to rehearse (apparently they were instructed to arrive with their lines memorized, a task I would argue constitutes a kind of rehearsal, but I digress).

A Barnstormers production of Toad, of Toad Hall, a play I have some history with

As I am standing in the midst of the White Pines these days, tending them, planning for their future, I couldn’t help but think about the issues of value, judgment, economics and community as I chuckled my way through the play. Like community theater, summer stock theaters thrive when they create an emotional bond to the communities they perform for. As a note in the program about long time Barnstormer Cope Murray noted, type-casting is anathema to summer stock. It is a theater form which is based on the astonishing transformation of the actor, and audiences delight at seeing the same actors in vastly different roles throughout the summer. But only if it’s the same audience, by and large, coming to see the same actors. It is in the theater’s best interests to cultivate connections to that audience and to become part of the fabric of the summer experience the audience enjoys, summer after summer.

Mountainside Farm, Dundee Road, where my grandmother and her kids spent the summers, and where I am writing this now.

My dad perused the program on the ride home, ticking of the plays from the 1950 season and saying, “I saw every one.” His mother was an unpublished playwright, amateur actor and director and made coming to the Barnstormers a part of their summers, as well as acting for the little community theater on the road where they vacationed: the Dundee Players, a very informal assortment of adults and children looking for diversion when the gorgeous lakes, mountains and streams had run their course. Being a middle-class woman of the 1950s, her options were very limited, and it is a small miracle she was able to make the theater as much a part of her and her children’s lives. Theater and her children were the only meaningful events in her life, and she was unhappy in other aspects. So in a very real way, the Barnstormers made life worth living for my grandmother, and planted some of the seeds of artistic passion in my dad, who passed some of them on to me.

Old Barnstormers production still of Ghost Train

The single most important component in creating this kind of deep connection between theater and community is continuity. This is the 81st season of the Barnstormers, and the audience was wonderfully multigenerational, with people like my dad with a lifetime of memories there, to kids my own kids age, giggling at the Clowns and rushing to the concession stand at intermission. That continuity is born of two phenomena: one of the theater and one of the community. Of the theater, the phenomena is grit, that relentless, sometimes plodding determination to have a season of plays year after year, through wars, depressions, recessions, Republicans and Democrats, changes in artistic leadership and cultural tastes. And that each season will be anointed with something peculiar that will announce itself as being one-of-a-kind: e.g. “Barnstormers”. For example, there is a melodrama called Ghost Train which is the Barnstormer’s signature piece. It returns about every other year now, complete with the theater-rattling sound effects President Grover Cleveland’s son Francis brought to the Barnstormers.

Ghost Train scene design sketch

On the community’s side, I call the bonding phenomenon “ownership”. Gradually, and it doesn’t have to take very long, a community will say in essence, this is our theater. It doesn’t matter if not a single person in the family has ever painted a flat or torn a ticket. Just the mere fact of their attending year after year, and perhaps contributing financially, is enough to feel in some essential way one is implicated, delightfully, in the magic on the stage.

This kind of artist/audience bonding leads to two effects germane to White Pines. First, it dials down judgment. Ideally, the whole ridiculous and unanswerable question of whether it’s “good” fades into the background. Because one knows that even if this week’s show isn’t one’s cup if tea, there will likely be another one this summer that will be. But more importantly, the meaning of the performance – it’s pleasure and fulfillment – has less to do with phony judgments about “good” or “bad” theater, and more to do with a celebration of the event itself. Stanislavsky said “the play begins in in the coatroom” and I don’t think we have ever thoroughly unpacked how profound that statement is. What he means is that the event that fills you and brings meaning to your life, as it did for my grandmother, is not simply the event that occurs after the houselights dim, but also includes the gathering together of souls under one roof to share an emotional experience together. It is the journey to the theater and the conversations you have to and from it. It is the home-made chocolate chip cookies at intermission. It is the being together that matters most, in that affirms our community and connection, a connection enhanced geometrically as we laugh at the large man dressed as woman berating the bad guy with a thick Scottish brogue.

Now, it is true that the theater has to offer something that meets a mysterious threshold of value. We in the audience have to sense that we are watching something that has been well-prepared and is skillfully executed. This threshold is mysterious because it’s different for everyone (thus the inanity of arguing about whether a production is “good”) and  – because it’s the theater – it’s nearly impossible to quantify. Is it how well the actors can do the accents? How well the set is painted? How pretty the actress is? The snappiness of the movement? It’s some inscrutable combination of all these things, a combination that we are able to evaluate based on a mad variety of references which are different for everyone. One person’s bomb is another person’s charming diversion. But when a theater and an audience are emotionally bonded, these judgments matter less and less. The theater has proved itself over time and the audience has fallen in love. We forgive what is ours, when and if it needs forgiving.

The Foster's pond, on the property where Lillian acted during the summers.

The second germane idea for White Pines is the whole concept of value itself. In The Gift, Hyde goes in to some detail investigating the difference between the concept of “worth” (what something costs) and “value” (its overall benefit to the individual or community that receives it.) When an audience is more concerned about a theater’s worth, the issues of aesthetic judgment are paramount. The first question will be: is this worth $25? And since that question is unanswerable, this relationship puts the theater in a precarious position, having to validate its existence through commercial terms it is fundamentally unsuited to. But when an audience begins to celebrate a theater’s value, then the theater is in a healthy position. Assuming the community is beginning to fall in love with the theater, it is then supported by that community based not in commercial terms, but rather in civic and spiritual terms: i.e. we need this theater because it is giving us something which has become essential to our experience of this place.

In The Deception of Surfaces, Alice ponders what kind of actor she wants to be. Her therapist suggests the word “amateur”, which she bristles at. But Bruce points out to her that amateur means “one who does it for love”. This etymology has meaning to Alice in a variety of ways, but now I am thinking of my grandmother again, Lillian Lloyd. We often think of money as “dirtying” things, and that the purest engagement in any activity has no money attached to it at all. This is the what led the early Christians into the streets to beg. It’s why Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple. And yet, for the artist, pursuing this money-less relationship to art is a form of self-sabotage. Money is a reality, and the answer for artists is to relate to it for what it is – a necessity – without either letting it dictate their art, nor retreat into a fantasy in which money doesn’t matter. Lillian, I imagine, fantasized about being a professional theater artist, with all the liberation and freedom such a life might have offered in the 40s and 50s.

So I propose the professional amateur. One who does it for love while making enough to make ends meet. Much like the actors I was watching last night I assume. Much like the artists I hope to cultivate in the years to come, in and around a glorious estate in Elkins Park.