New professional theater company will present “classics”
By Michael Mell and Alison Rooney
Director and writer John Plummer is concerned that “classics of the theater” have acquired a bad reputation for being turgid and creaky. He’s also concerned that, in trying to right that wrong impression, sometimes contemporary productions accentuate what’s facile: updating the time frame of the work, dressing it up in modern trimmings but missing the emotional core which made it a classic in the first place. “There seems to be a Pavlovian response from anybody, say, under 50, to change the channel when it comes to classics,” says Plummer. And even if a mod coat of paint is applied to a production, it can still be, Plummer notes, “fusty and formulaic.” This is certainly not the case with the World’s End Theatre production of The Seagull, currently performed at the Depot Theatre.
The combination of a colloquial translation (of the play,) and the uniformly excellent performances of the entire cast draw the audience into the drama without the mental translation that so often occurs in productions of “classic” plays. Taking its cue from the script, which sets the first two acts on the shore of a lake, the production takes advantage of its location and performs them outdoors at the gazebo, at Garrison’s Landing, on the shores of the Hudson River. The expansiveness of the location underscores the wishes, hopes and desires of the various characters — for the moment — and for the future. This environment of possibilities is cast in sharp relief in the last two acts, which are performed in the Depot Theatre. The small confines of the theater reflect the claustrophobic realities of the characters actual lives. In the large mirrors that are part of the set (by Dana Kenn) the characters cannot escape themselves nor each other. The audience is also captured in the mirrors and so drawn into intimate actions of the play and the characters ennui and anguish.
The beginning of the End
A chance meeting on Metro-North between Plummer and Gordon Stewart (whose many job descriptions include theater director, political speech writer and publisher of Philipstown.info) got them talking about local theater in Philipstown, and the Depot Theatre in particular. A community theater in a community full of theater professionals, the Depot has, at times, been caught in a bind where Actors Equity Association (AEA) members seeking to work locally have not been able to, because of union restrictions. However, on occasion, through what is called an Equity Special Agreement Contract, AEA members have been able to perform there. There are a number of stipulations with this contract, including a limited run and a limited number of AEA actors, and there are fewer Equity regulations enforced. “There are so many talented people who live in this community. Isn’t it better to use the local community and mix Equity and non-union designers, composers, musicians?” asks Plummer. Stewart reached out to Philipstown theatre professionals, and during a meeting at his home in September 2010 an idea was hatched to start a new theater company, focused on the classics, based in Philipstown, but not at any particular venue. Other founding members of the company are Amy Dul, Maia Guest, Donald Kimmel, Jenn Lee, and Nancy Swann.
Intentions and philosophy
Plummer is quite clear on the intentions of the new company: “this is not about doing old work, but doing work that is great in a fresh way “¦ too often theater is static, controlled—you get exactly what you expected—people have become habituated to seeking a predictable satisfaction, the ‘McDonaldsization’ of life.” The Seagull was chosen as the first production because, as Plummer notes, it is “somewhat about the creation of the theater.” Feeling that “the job of a theater company is to serve the writer — yes, the play’s the thing,” Plummer says that “if we view the play as our mentor and us as disciples, the mentor isn’t above you—you need to fuse and share a mission: unite, respect the play and inspire and entertain.” All of this entails not putting Chekhov or any similar writing luminary “high on the mountain. Tear down the walls between you and the script, the company and the environment, actors and other actors, actors and audience.”
The text of The Seagull offered guidance to the new company. Plummer cites the character Konstantyn, a young playwright, “Yes, I’m more and more convinced that the point isn’t old or new forms, it’s to write and not think about form, because it’s flowing freely out of your soul.” For Plummer, “The point isn’t that it’s old, or new, it’s to create. The play itself is concerned with forms in general, forms of relationships: Are we married? Is she a mother or is she an actress? and so on. Too much adherence to form without investigating the heart will lead to ruination.”
Nina, another young character, has this to say near the end of the play: “And so, now you’re a writer. You’re a writer, I’m an actress “¦ we’ve both fallen into the maelstrom.” Plummer is looking toward this kind of “restless, disordered, tumultuous state of affairs” with this production.
The name of the fledgling company, World’s End, has its own connection to maelstroms. In trying to come up with a name that reflected what the company is all about, the use of the word maelstrom set Plummer thinking about them, and their connotations of “taking down many a ship; challenging many a captain,” when he realized that a very famous maelstrom was right nearby, at the bend of the Hudson at a very deep point of the river, near Constitution Island, dubbed “World’s End” and handily giving a very apropos acronym to this non-dry version of classics company: WET.
World’s End intends to use the varied and beautiful landscapes and interiors of the Hudson Highlands as a setting and backdrop to many of their productions. Their first production has been set, in part, on the shores of the Hudson, matching almost precisely the setting of the play at dusk at a makeshift outdoor theater by a lake. The fear associated with a maelstrom fuels Plummer’s vision as well. “Not enough money; not enough audience; too much competition “¦ it is great for a theater company to deal with and work through fear. My task is to encourage fusion—even fusion with our fears, and use fears as a motivating force.”
Alison Rooney wrote the majority of this piece and interviewed John Plummer months ago, before the production, in which she has a role, got underway. Michael Mell wrote the dramatic-review portions of the article; his son Tyler serves as stagehand for the play.
Photos courtesy of World’s End Theatre