The next few years are something of a blur in terms of media. There was a lot going on in my personal life – marrying in 1969 and moving to New York City, where my husband was a student at the General Theological Seminary, one of those for the Episcopal Church, and later to Ottawa, Canada’s capital. Live theatre has always been part of media and this was my chance to participate. Just after my first son was born in 1961, I landed lead roles in the seminary’s productions of Our Town and in the following year, the title role in Iolanthe. The seminary had a tradition of presenting dramas and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in alternate years.
Clergy in training were natural hams and many were excellent singers, while some had also been on stage in both amateur and summer stock productions before entering the seminary. It’s important to note that this gave me an opportunity to work with two professional directors of note. Cynthia Belgrave was taking a break from her role as Adelaide Bobo in the first New York production of Genet’s The Blacks and Dorothy Raedler was the director of the American Savoyards who did the seminary a favour of directing its G&S productions because she liked working with the students.
When I went to the audition for Our Town, I had the peculiar experience of knowing that I was going to get the lead role of Emily. The competitors in the waiting room were wives of students or tutors so the field was limited, and I was the only one who could possibly pass as 12 years old in the first act. I knew the play well after acting as prompter for my high school production. As well as that knowledge, I had the advantage of being a new mother. In act three of the play, the character has died in childbirth and her entry into another world gives her some perspective on the real one.
Ms Belgrave was an intense director and I remember her as a very angry black woman. At the time I thought she didn’t like me, but in retrospect she was just working desperately to help me express a greater emotional range. I didn’t know until recently that she was the first black woman ever to clerk in a downtown Boston department store, so her anger in 1961 was probably well justified. She also acted in the plays of James Baldwin and Wole Soyinka as well as that of Genet; she did note that spending some time with Thornton Wilder was a good respite from the intensity of The Blacks. In later life she played many roles in TV series including a librarian in Law and Order.
She was rough on me but fair, and I grew in the process. In the final act of Our Town, where Emily has an amazing soliloquy of praise for the miracle of life, the audience stopped the show with applause on the last night. I remember thinking, “She did that right” as though the applause was for the character and not for me – or perhaps for the director. Cynthia was there for that final performance and gave me a hug with the words, “You finally came through”.
The G&S productions nearly always imported the leads, who got a chance to try out the roles before appearing on the professional stage. One of the contraltos actually got a better professional part and everyone moved up one step. So I emerged from the trio to the larger title role. These productions were performed for three consecutive nights and with no proscenium stage available they were presented in the round. That was a good preparation for multimedia though the word had yet to enter anyone’s vocabulary.
As a director Dorothy Raedler was, in contrast, all joviality and approval. She had started her own theatre company in 1939; it became the American Savoyards in 1952 and was a highly regarded fixture in the New York musical world through the late 1960’s. In our amateur production we had to learn simple dance routines as well as acting and singing. The men’s chorus was up to the challenge but Miss Raedler’s experiments with the women’s chorus generally had to scale back.
One of the things about experiences like these was to learn the number of players who are necessary to the production above and beyond the performers. Many roles were duplicated or done capably by volunteers – costumers, stage crew, publicists, marketers, front of house. The music director also served as vocal coach and rehearsal pianist.Compared to modern TV or moving production the numbers were miniscule. When visiting LA some years ago and attending a movie, I noticed that no one left before the credits. Everyone knows someone who plays a part.