Opening Night!

Jig Saw, by Dawn Powell, opens tonight at the Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti, MI. I hope to have show photos up soon. In the meantime, here’s the info:

Jig Saw by Dawn Powell
Thursday through Saturday, December 5-7, 8 p.m.
Sunday, December 8, 2 p.m.; special guests Powell’s biographer Tim Page and her niece Carol Warstler
Thursday through Sunday, December 12-14

The Riverside Arts Center, 76 N Huron St, Ypsilanti, MI 48197
734-483-7345

Ticket prices:
Thursday are Pay What You Can!
All other performances: $18 general admission, $12 seniors and students
For info on group rates and/or to buy or reserve tickets, visit the PTD website: ptdproductions.com

Hope to see you there!

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11/27: Everyone Wins! Awesome Jig Saw Giveaways!

As if coming to see Jig Saw weren’t reward enough, we have extra incentives.

Thursday Nights: Free Tickets AND chocolate: Win a free pair of tickets to one of the Thursday night performances and a date-sized box of luscious Kilwin’s chocolate. Simply send the following information in the comments field of this blog:
Your email address
The date of the show you’d like to attend: December 5 or 12. Showtimes are 8 p.m.

Deadline for entry for December 5 show: Monday, December 1 at noon EST.
Deadline for entry for December 12 show: Monday, December 8 at noon EST.

We will not publicize the comment or make your email public. We will draw from all the emails sent on the Monday before the respective show and email you back to let you know you’ve won. You must attend the show to collect the tickets and the chocolate. In the event of a no-show, the chocolate will be given away at an intermission drawing.

Fridays:
We will give away one prize on each Friday performance:
Friday, December 6: a copy of Kay Thompson’s Eloise, which inspired the look of the show
Friday, December 13: a vintage edition of the game of Life

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Names of all ticket buyers for the show will be collected at the beginning of the show. Reserving or purchase your ticket in advance to get two extra chances to win! Winners must be present to win.

Saturdays:
We will give away one copy per night of The Diaries of Dawn Powell, autographed by the editor Tim Page. Rules are the same as above.

See you at the show!

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Meet the Cast: The Neighbors, aka Carla Margolis and Cindy Franklin

Populating other places besides Claire’s penthouse at the Harwich Hotel are Mrs. Finch and Frank’s wife, Ethel. We’ll start with Finchy, as the characters call her.

Carla Margolis Headsho
Describe your character in one sentence.
Mrs. Finch is quite chatty, very focused on building clientele for her fortune telling business, and looooooves being right.

How are you like your character?

I am a social creature who likes being the center of attention, and can bring any conversation back around to what’s really important…me, of course.

What do you like best about the time period in which “Jigsaw” was written?
I love the social interaction.  Even when it was shallow, it’s nice that people talked to one another and spent time with one another, rather than in front of all of our current distracting media.

What’s your favorite drink?
Red wine, all sorts.

Who would play Mrs. Finch in a movie?
Hmmm…that could go many ways.  Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, or Kristen Schaal.

Previous experience?
Most recently I have been performing in Comic Opera Guild productions as Eulalia in “Light Cavalry”, Bertha in “The Red Mill”, and Dora in “The Girl from Utah”.  Before that, I was Zita in EMU’s production of “Gianni Schicchi”, and Barker in “Assassins”. Other highlights have been Inez in “No Exit”, Mother in “Full Nest Three”, Buttercup in “HMS Pinafore”, and Joan in “Dames at Sea”.

Formal training?
I did study some acting at Herbert Berghoff studio in NYC, but most of my training has been as a singer in Musical Theater, Jazz, and Classical genres.  My mother was an actress, however, and I think that instilled a deep love for the theater and for acting.

Where are you from?
I was born in Hell’s Kitchen in NYC.  My father was a jazz musician and my mother was an actress for much of my young life, but then changed course and became a lawyer.  She was originally from Michigan, so I have been going back and forth between Michigan and New York my whole life.

What do you do when you are not acting?
I am teaching private voice lessons, musical theater class for young ‘uns, and Dalcroze eurhythmics at Ann Arbor School for Performing Arts, and singing out and about whenever possible. I have also written/composed a children’s musical which was performed by YPT, as well as having directed “Beauty & the Beast”, “Bugsy Malone”, “Fame” as well as several original musicals written for children’s theater both in Michigan and Indianapolis.

And here’s Mrs. Mason, aka Ethel, aka Cindy Franklin.

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Ok, tell us about Ethel.
Ethel is married to the rather “free-spirited” Frank, and drinks so that she doesn’t have to acknowledge the fact that he’s chases anything in a skirt. And she freely spends his money as a way of getting even.

And how are you like her?
I am like Ethel in that we look remarkedly alike! And other than that physical likeness, we are not in any way alike.

Favorite drink?
Tea!

What do you like about the period?
I love the musicals from the 30’s. Especially Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonald!

Who would play your part in a movie, either today or in the 30s?
Well, obviously Alice Brady would be great in the role of Ethel. I don’t watch much in the way of modern movies and tv shows, so I have no idea who could play her today.

Previous experience?
I did several plays/musicals with the Community Theatre of Howell in the 1990’s.

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11/11: The Sidekicks, Letty and Frank, aka Rachel Robbins Toon and Mark Batell

Every Lucy needs her Ethel, and while Ricky probably doesn’t need Fred as much, he’s part of the Ethel package. In the case of Jig Saw, that means Letty Walters and her on-again-off-again fella, Frank Mason.

In our production, Rachel Robbins Toon plays Letty.

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Your character in 1-2 sentences:
Sidekick to Claire and partner in crime.

The way in which you’re most like your character:
Always the mediumest pretty in the room.

The way in which you’re least like your character:
I prefer wholesome men.

Your favorite thing about 1934:
The way they talked, the clip of the language.

Your character’s drink:
Gin on the rocks. Or off. I personally like beer.

Your previous roles, and any in particular that have prepared you for this one:
I played Cleopatra with Brass Tacks, but the one most like Jig Saw was some radio shorts called “We Broadcast This Interruption.” They had the language of the 30s, and a saucy woman character like Letty.

Special training?
I have an MA in Arts and Education from Harvard, and I taught Shakespeare to incarcerated youth as part of that degree. I went to UM for undergrad.

And here’s Mark Batell, not only our philandering Frank, but also our superb set designer.

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Your character:
Frank is a lazy, sleazy, idle rich playwright. My kind of guy!

I’m most like my character in that I’d love to be all of the above, well, almost all of the above.

I’m least like my character: Yes.

My favorite thing about 1934 is that I wasn’t alive back then.

My character drinks scotch. OK, so I am like Frank a bit.

I can see Warren Beatty playing Frank, or maybe Sean Connery. Two guys I wouldn’t mind being. Unless they’re dead. Then I wouldn’t want to be them.

Frank is a little like Lloyd from Noises Off.

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11/10: The Complications: Nate and Julie, aka Morgan Brown and Libby Masaracchia

Into every play, a little conflict must fall. Meet our catalysts. First, Morgan Brown, who plays Nate Gifford, the guy who sweeps Claire off her feet when they both crash a wedding.

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Describe your character in one sentence.
Nathan is a fast-talking, free-spirited young guy who is a little out of his depth.

How are you like your character?
We both love witty epigrams.

How are you not?
I tend to tell the truth.  Most of the time.

What do you like best about 1934?
I like the general aesthetic, especially the clothing styles and architecture.

Favorite drink?
Cocktails. Though anything but beer will do in a pinch.

Who would play Nathan in a movie?
He kind of reminds me of George Clooney’s character in O Brother Where Art Thou.

Previous experience:
I was Malcolm in A2CT’s performance of Bedroom Farce last January. And when I was in high school, I was part of the school play, which was a murder mystery.  My character had a line where he nearly spills the identity of the murderer but then the lights go out and he gets killed.  Of course during the matinee, the booth misses the lighting cue.  That was probably the longest eight seconds of my life.

Why theater? 
I really enjoy the freedom you get onstage just to be someone else.  I did a little bit of theater growing up and in high school but drifted away from it in college.  A few years ago in grad school I got involved in community theater again and it’s been really fun and rewarding.  For me it’s a good way to do something creative while getting my mind off my studies.

Training?
None, but I try to learn by watching and doing!

Where are you from?
I grew up in North Carolina, but I lived in Berkeley, California for five years before moving to Michigan.  I’m a pretty introverted guy but moving to new places has made me a bit more outgoing and adventurous.

Nathan’s not the only arriviste; there’s also Julie, Claire’s daughter, played by Libby Masaracchia.

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Describe your character.
Julie is a clever, manipulative young woman in love with an older man.

Are you at all like her?
When need be, I too am persistent. Unlike Julie, I have a conscience.

What do you like most about 1934?
The clothes, of course!

Favorite drink?
A champagne cocktail.

Who would play Julie?
In the 30s, young Katharine Hepburn. Today, Kristin Chenoweth.

Other experience?
Most recently, I was in Office Hours at the Carriage House Theater. I played Courtney VanderMeer, another daughter with an attitude. The directors swear they’re casting against type.

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11/7: Meet the Cast 2: Del Marsh, aka Adam Weakley

Adam Weakley plays Del Marsh: “Claire and I have been misunderstanding each other for 15 years now.”

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Your character in a sentence or 2:
Del Marsh is a no good, drunken, philandering, lay about, but in an endearing sort of way.

How are you most like him?
Like Del, Adam is devastatingly handsome and modest.

Least?
I love my wife, and I’d rather be at home.

What you like most about the 30s:
One word: fedoras.

Favorite drink:
Makers Mark with a splash of coke.

What famous guy would play Del?
Cary Grant.

Previous experience:
I played the corpse in Arsenic and Old Lace. It was my greatest role to date.

How’d you get into theater?
In first grade I played one of the witches from McBeth in our school’s halloween show, and I’ve been in a theater ever since.

Any special training?
I never got a degree in performance, but I’ve taken classes in acting, directing, auditioning, vocal music, dance, stage craft, rigging, and temporary structures. I’ve also spent many years on and off stage in schools, churches, big theaters, little theaters, traveling shows, convention centers, TV, and film.

Got a good theater story?
I once had an audition for Days of our Lives, and found myself 384th in a line of 500 guys that all looked like me.

Where are you from?
I was born in Kingeville TX, home of largest cattle ranch on earth. I used to think of myself as a bit of a cowboy until I realized that I’m very allergic to horses. Unfortunately I did not realize this until I was on a horse in a comercial for a bank in N Carolina. After a lunch break and a bunch of Benadryl I finished the shoot on a bicycle.

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11/4: Our Cast, Part 1: Claire, aka Mouse Courtois

Ok, gang, it’s time to get to know the Jig Saw cast, starting with our leading lady Claire Burnell. Heeeeeere’s….Mouse!

Mouse

Your character in 1-2 sentences:
Claire is flighty, flitting, flirtatious, and feminine. She loves glamor, wit, and being admired.

The way in which you’re most like your character:
I can’t sit still!!

The way in which you’re least like your character:
I love beer, and sneaking under the radar in public venues.

Your favorite thing about 1934:
The advertising style, and the fashion.

Your character’s drink:
Whatever the gentleman orders for her.
What drew you to theater?

My mom bribed me into a theatre Summer camp when I was eight. I guess I never left.
Background?
I have a BA in Theatre Arts, but the best experience I have comes from community theatre. History, theory, and etiquette are important, but the value of what I’ve learned by necessity in volunteer situations is immeasurable. I mainly have experience acting, costuming, and directing.

Home town?
I’m a native Ann Arborite with an adoration for the U.P. Michigan has some of the prettiest land in the world, if you know where to look. I also enjoy variety in my weather, so I’m probably not leaving any time soon.

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10/23: Acting, Not Reading

Well, after waxing eloquent (or whatever that was) in the last post about the play having plenty of plot for my purposes, I realized at the first Act I run-through off-book that Jig Saw reads fantastic because people talk, talk, talk—without a whole lot of action. “Conversation! That’s all you do!” snipes teenage Julie at one point. A wise child, and an apt remark.

Yet when looking at some great inspirational material, particularly Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, conversation is the action in much of the comedy of the ’30s. Of course, a filmmaker decides where his audience will look, and how; shifting back and forth between actor close-ups and two-shots is all the audience needs to engage with fine writing. Obviously, the stage director has a whole other can of worms to open; keep the focus in the right place, but make sure the non-speaking actors are fully engaged. From the beginning, I’ve vowed that this will not be one of those productions while people stand around listening to someone yammer away. I had run into a wall with a big sign on it: “Jig Saw has yammer potential.”

Merde.

I started searching through period photographs in different library books; maybe there were props from the time, things every home had that would give the actors more stuff to do and toys to play with. A blind alley, and anyway, there are enough cocktails and cigarettes in the show to keep everyone occupied on the stage business front. So I grabbed a few books on directing; I always figure you can goose yourself out of any dilemma by exploring other points of view. Every challenge has been had by someone at some point, right?

And in one, a skinny little book from the theater section, The Stage Directions Guide to Directing, I hit on an intriguing approach. Published in 1999 by Heineman out of Portsmouth, NH, the book is composed of essays from Stage Directions magazine that address various issues faced by directors at community theaters and high schools, ranging over topics like the legality of changing a script, helping actors project, and working with difficult cast members.

In a piece by Sue Wurster, who at the time was Director of Drama at the Calhoun School in NYC, she describes an encounter with a talented young actor. He privately told her that he had a great deal of trouble reading and had to learn plays by having the lines read to him; if cast, he requested that the stage manager feed him lines in early rehearsals.

The kid was too good to pass up, but Wurster didn’t want to single him out. She decided on a radical approach: The stage manager would feed all of the actors their lines from the beginning. No one got to use his or her script in rehearsal sessions except for study and discussion.

The result: The actors stopped burying their faces in their books and began relating to each other immediately, not several weeks into production when the dreaded off-book date arrives. They learned lines faster, not just from hearing and repeating them over and over, but because suddenly the lines were linked to a context and a relationship. The practice increased camaraderie between the cast and the stage manager. It even fostered greater responsibility on the actors’ parts; they wanted to let the stage mgr simply managed, so worked to get off book quicker. Wurster would eventually go on to have more than one reader per show, with the added bonus that the readers ended up knowing the parts as well as the actors; in one emergency that she mentions, a reader was able to step into a role seamlessly.

I gave it a shot with the portion of my cast in last night’s rehearsal. My actors and I were a little nervous to try it, but about three lines in, we were loving it. No books! That in itself is huge. Nobody can really act with a book in his or her hand. But also, no pressure; we’re well before the off-book deadline for Act II, and I don’t expect the actors to know all their lines yet. With this approach, the actor doesn’t learn lines; instead, the lines get planted and grow. Blocking becomes organic, relationships develop at a comfortable pace.

I never wanted to become a dictator director, bellowing Citizen Kane-like, “People will move where I TELL THEM TO MOVE!!!” But by the same token, I am responsible, and with a comedy of manners, laissez-faire won’t do. Without books in hand, and with my excellent stage mgr Erin feeding lines while furiously scribbling notes, I could see what was going on with the characters and figure out what would most show rather than tell the audience what mattered. The actors, meanwhile, were free to use their entire bodies, including two of their most important assets in both storytelling and listening: their eyes and their hands. Shit did indeed get real. We left energized, all of us feeling like we had a living organism on our hands, a feeling that often doesn’t begin until much later in the process.

Wurster reported that the quality of work once she began the new process improved, well, dramatically. We all felt it last night. We’ll keep it up.

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10/12: Early Rehearsal

After a night of watching 30s comedy highlights (see previous posts), I was amazed to see how the actors had already responded with faster, more clipped speech and more precise movement in their initial scene work. I think I’ll run a clip every time we rehearse, just to get them pumped up. Beats playing “Jump Around.”

Tim Page’s wonderful bio of Powell came from the library, and there’s a fair amount on Jig Saw. Here are some contemporary reviews, all courtesy of his book:

“enough wit for seven plays—and not quite plot enough for one.” Gilbert W. Gabriel, New York American.

“The dialogue is by far the best part…..limps noticeably in its action…” Joseph Wood Krutch, The Nation.

“My plays have the difficulty of my short stories—an excellent real treatment of character and dialogue on a structure of contrived, exaggerated and strained story.” Dawn Powell.

As per usual, the author is brutal to herself. I consider Jig Saw‘s plot to be light in the best possible way; it’s more airy than insubstantial. I do agree with the assessments above as to dialogue and character; James Wolcott once remarked to me that he thought that Powell wrote better about women and drinking than anyone else. Her men are just as good (and every bit as boozy).

As for plot, I think Powell is marvelously contemporary. In not having to worry about Hayes Code restrictions, she was free to write about characters with a casual approach to relationships, something that clearly went on in 1930s New York whether anyone admitted it or not. And a mother/daughter struggle over a man who sits smack in the middle of their ages couldn’t be more timely, given the recent identification, emergence, and possible ascendance of the cougar.

When we rehearsed Act I between Claire and Letty last night, Claire’s concerns about aging—”It’s not wrinkles, it’s oldness inside”—continue to strike me as genuine, and also touching. Powell did not care for Spring Byington’s performance as Claire: “[She] studies her own role with the greatest care and intelligence, reads it with every pause studied, each merry laugh, but has nothing to do with the other characters, does not listen to them, and doesn’t know what they’ve just said.” I think that kind of interpretation of Claire could have hurt the play as much as Byington’s big name helped it. Claire’s a tricky role, and Byington was, to my mind, an odd choice. She was already playing matrons in Hollywood and has a solid, Marmee-like presence on film. Hell, she played Marmee. But Powell has written that Claire “dashes” in on her first entrance, and in a later one enters “furs flying.” Mouse Courtois, our Claire, said last night that she thought of her as one of those people who’s constantly knocking things over and expecting someone else (most likely Rosa, the long-suffering maid) to pick them up.

Understanding the essence of Powell’s wonderful characters will make the production sing, and I wouldn’t want a weightier plot; it’ll “tie a tin can to the tail of a kite,” to quote another great writer, Tennessee Williams. I only carp about plot when the characters don’t engage and intrigue; I’m much more interested in people and the way the work then the things they do, which they’re only doing because of the way they work anyway. Shakespeare has plenty of silly plots; I always think people get married in the comedies because he knew time was up and he had to do something. The actions don’t matter. It’s that marvelous realization of people, who haven’t changed much from Elizabethan times, let alone the 1930s.

In the same review quoted from above, Krutch also said this:

“[She] has achieved a casualness which removes any distressing suggestion that she considers herself unusually naughty and is deliberately trying to shock. In the second place, she eschews the more or less established techniques of both the Wildean epigram and the Broadway wisecrack in favor of a slightly drunken irrelevance of phrase which, in so far as it resembles anything, resembles the manner of Frank Sullivan or James Thurber rather than that of more formally literary wits.”

High praise indeed. And in a 1961 letter, Powell wrote to William Peterson, “Today I sent you a copy of Jig-Saw [sic]….I looked over the play for the first time in years and found it dated and didn’t intend to send it. However, I met Tom Prideaux, a Life drama or film editor I’d once known, and was surpised to have him tell me he had read Jig-Saw a hundred times as a sample of ideal comedy technique.” Peterson would eventually direct the first staging of Jig Saw in 60 years in 1997.

They don’t write ’em like this any more. And certainly no one ever wrote like Dawn Powell. I continue to be amazed and grateful for the opportunity to direct this play.

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10/8: Inspirations: Time and People

The subtitles here are annoying, but in my mind, Del and Claire, the lead couple in Jig Saw, are Nick and Nora. If they liked each other, which is up for grabs.

 

Trouble in Paradise by Ernst Lubitsch has felt like the model for this production all along to me. Easy virtue!! (Hooray, pre-code era.) I also like that Trouble has its serious moments and isn’t all big belly laughs.

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My Man Godfrey is another good one for 30s patter (and you can watch the whole thing on YT), though I’ve always found Lombard to be massively annoying in it, and her hair is awful. (Don’t get me wrong; I love Lombard, just not the character she plays here.) Nonetheless, the character has that sort of scattered lightness that seems pretty integral to the way that Claire functions. Also, I do like the mom and the sister in this. Mom seems like Ethel to me, in a permanent alcohol fog that appears to be quite pleasant. Sister is bitchier and more like Julie (after Julie aged about a decade and had some hard knocks). Julie will appear to be quite a little bitch if we’re not careful, but of course we will be.

Of course, I had to find a way to get the great Margaret Dumont in the mix; when I think Mrs. Finch, I think MD.

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