I’m in Lancaster, PA, about to open a production of Michael Frayn’s comic romp, “Noises Off” at the Fulton Theatre (featuring GRSF actors Christopher Gerson, Tarah Flanagan, Zack Fine, David Graham Jones, and Nick Abeel, who was a member of our 2008 season Apprentice Actor Training Program), and after an absorbing few weeks working on the two-actor drama “Duet for One” in Milwaukee, am having a far less sobering experience in the rehearsal hall as we deal with plates of sardines, doors that open and close, bags and boxes, pants that must drop on cue, and telephones that seem to have a life entirely of their own rather whimsical making.
I emerged from the stage door of the theatre last Friday at about 8:30 PM and found the streets of downtown Lancaster full of people, energetically making their way from one storefront to another. “Pub crawl?” I thought. After all, Lancaster is home to Franklin and Marshall College as well as a campus of the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, so like Winona, there’s a healthy student population, ever-interested in getting out on a Friday night, no matter what the weather might be doing. And as downtown Lancaster can be pretty quiet when the theatre or the adjacent concert hall is dark, I was intrigued by this burst of vibrant activity.
Turns out it was “First Friday,” a monthly “gallery crawl,” for which Lancaster’s art galleries stay open late, serve hors d’oeuvres and beverages, and invite art lovers, novice and experienced, to stop in and view work currently on display. The second floor gallery directly across from the theatre with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street was full-to-overflowing; the coffee house below was mobbed. It happened that the 14-year old daughter of the lighting designer for “Noises Off” had two of her own pieces on display at a gallery featuring the work of local high schools students; she, her twin sister, and their parents were off to take in the showing as well as several others before the galleries closed around 11 PM. The streets were packed with people of all ages and it took a while for a couple of the actors from the production and me to be seated at a favorite neighboring bistro, which was buzzing with conversation about the most recent exhibits.
I was reminded immediately of my hometown, Ashland, Oregon, where the city has designated a four-block area adjacent to downtown locally known as “the railroad district” (former home to the train depot, numerous warehouses and at least one house of ill repute) as the “gallery district.” It, too, sponsors “First Friday,” which has become a favorite monthly outing for Ashland residents and a yet-to-be-discovered event for out-of-town visitors and tourists, though it’s catching on quickly during the theatre season as word about “what’s on in small-town Ashland” continues to spread. The lively, festive atmosphere of “First Friday” has a way of bringing people together in upbeat, merry circumstances, even in the coldest, darkest days of winter, as was the case in Lancaster last Friday – and in Ashland when I was home in January.
I’m staying in the heart of town, two blocks off Lancaster’s main street, and because of the city’s historic nature and working-class, manufacturing roots (“the oldest, non-port/inland city in America”), I’m put in mind of Winona almost every day I go to work at the Fulton. The city was founded in the 1600 or 1700s, and has many historic buildings, including the Fulton Opera House, which has been lovingly restored and is home now to the theatre company for which I’m working. Narrow, tightly-packed, brick row houses radiate outward from the downtown business hub; larger, more impressive Colonials and Victorians are easy walking distance from my apartment. But because Lancaster is fairly large (population 50 – 70,000, someone told me), it’s “bigger city” problems are also more apparent: a colorful variety of street people and a more active crime scene that keeps local police very busy, indeed – at least according to the somewhat sensational local news.
Directly across from my apartment is a two-story elementary school that reminds me of schools in Winona; and I happened to drive past a former elementary or middle school that has been recently rehabilitated as affordable public housing. It’s a college town, so there’s plenty of pub and coffee house culture, but because the theatre is smack downtown, with an adjacent and beautiful, medium-size concert hall for the Pennsylvania Academy of Music, there’s also a proliferation of good and varied restaurants at which to dine out, including a terrific lobby bar at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, one block from the theatre. And, lest anyone get too hoity-toity, there’s an adult book store, one block from the theatre, much like our 3rd Street neighbors in downtown Winona.
So once more, in another unlikely place in the country, Winona has been much on my mind.
It’s March now, which in GRSF parlance means it’s really May, and the pressure’s mounting as we get ready for next season. We’re a company that’s always been known for risk-taking (beginning with the very notion that a Shakespeare festival could actually take root in Winona), and this year is no different. It’s a season of unprecedented expansion for us: a third production (and our first play by someone other than Shakespeare), an additional week of performances, a rousing opening weekend being orchestrated by GRSF’s “WOW” (Will’s Opening Weekend) Committee, a closing weekend filled with performances by the professional company, our interns and apprentices, and our Shakespeare for Young Actors students, and a surfeit of concerts, education and community outreach programs to fill the weeks between.
Plans for the season (including casting, design work, and original music for this year’s productions) will be unveiled at our annual Preview Weekend event Sunday, March 21, 4:00 PM at the Signatures Event Center. We’ll provide an inside look into our 2010 productions (Shakespeare’s Othello and The Comedy of Errors, and GRSF company member Jonathan Gillard Daly’s musical family memoir of World War II, The Daly News, which played a sold-out, benefit performance last summer). Key Festival staff members and designers will be on hand to provide virtual tours of their work so far. We’ll share conversation and refreshments, prizes will be raffled, and we’ll remind ourselves that the days are beginning to lengthen and summer will actually arrive, sooner than we think.
We hope to see all of you there – and I do mean all! Reservations are desired, not required. . . we also suggest a $5.00 donation, to help cover expenses for the get-together.
Meanwhile, I’m off to another iconic American city: Knoxville, Tennessee, gateway to the Smoky Mountains and home to the Clarence Brown Theatre. Next up: “Man of La Mancha,” the musical that gave us “The Impossible Dream.” Interestingly, my directing assignments this spring have all had to do with humankind’s drive to overcome daunting if not insurmountable obstacles: a challenging drama about debilitating disease and the loss of artistry; a slapstick comedy dealing with an earnest but second-rate theatrical touring company that’s coming apart at the seams; an inspiring and uplifting musical set in an era of political imprisonment and torture. It’s a potent time to examine the basic human impulse to keep going, no matter what; to move toward the light even in our darkest hours. And last Friday evening, as I merged with the lively downtown crowd in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I was reminded of just how concretely and abstractly theatre and the arts help bring us together as we all try to move toward the light.