I was introduced to the Players in 2001. Derrick Cunningham, a fellow teacher at East Northumberland School and an actor in the musical, invited me to a dress rehearsal of Jesus Christ Superstar. I went and was awestruck. So much so that I was in five shows in one calendar year with the Players after that.
I was blown away by the quality of the show. I wasn’t the only one as it won the EODL and the Theatre Ontario Festival. I guess you could say the rest is history. I have been involved in a couple dozen productions acting, directing, producing, and any way I could help. I taught theatre classes at East Northumberland Secondary School and have been on the Players Board of Directors since 2003. I guess you could say I caught the theatre bug!
I have so many memories from these productions and I hope I have the opportunity to share more than just this one. Perhaps my nostalgia was triggered by Christopher Sharp, Christine Sharp, Carlotta Ruttledge, Dave and Mary Elizabeth Clark moving away recently. Now I hear that Jamie and Beth Hunt too are thinking of moving to the East Coast.
So flashback to 2010. I had the pleasure to direct a Norm Foster play, The Long Weekend, produced by Keith Emery and Mary Kucherepa. It was the funniest show I have ever directed and not because of the script. Dave Clark, Beth and Jamie Hunt, and Heather Jopling were on stage together: a director’s dream team, right? This group brought years of acting experience to every rehearsal.
I had some general ideas about character development and very specific ideas about how I wanted it blocked, but knew from the first rehearsal that the instincts of this cast were far better than what I could put together. I remember one scene where Heather’s character was questioning Dave’s character about his emotional and psychological issues: Heather suggested to play it as a psychiatrist in a therapy session rather than a friend listening.
Well, the scene took off. She pushed him on the couch, got her pen and paper as Dave with this nervous and neurotic energy allowed her to dig into his psyche. I erased more than I wrote in that scene. I threw in an idea, then Dave acted in the moment to Heather’s character decisions. Wow, this was going to be easy. “So how was that?” “Umm….hilarious!” I said.
Beth and Jamie were exactly the same; always in the moment playing off of each character. My approach… let them go and I worked on timing. Run it a second time and it was locked in. Boy was I going to look good as a director in this show! I’ve had experiences like this since, but never to the extent where the entire cast felt so comfortable and safe during the rehearsal process that they were creating on the fly.
The plot is simple. Roger (Dave) is married to Abby (Beth) who dominates him to the point that he can’t think for himself and has no confidence. He lacks so much confidence that he has no success as a writer. Wynn (Heather) and Max (Jamie) are married and even though she controls him she isn’t attracted to such a man. Max is an arrogant and wealthy lawyer and they both have invited their “besties” to show off their summer home.
In the first act the conflict rises and each person not only reveals their unhappiness with their spouse, but also the sexual tension rises and each is attracted to their best friend’s husband or wife. Max resents Roger’s bohemian life and Roger is jealous of Max’s success and wealth. Wynn and Abby’s hidden baggage is also revealed.
Act two opens with exactly the same entrance as act one but the audience quickly realizes Roger is now married to Wynn and Abby is married to Max. Here is this ridiculous moment I will never forget – see the picture below. In act one Dave is this poorly dressed Bohemian, balding, and lacking confidence. When he enters in Act 2 he is dressed as a confident writer who has hit the jackpot with, I believe, a screenplay. Leather jacket, tight pants and a red wig.
Side notes: Beth had found this wig for him in the costume house. Mary Liz, Dave’s wife, couldn’t stop laughing when she saw this entrance in rehearsal and she has a wonderful loud laugh. Dave looked like a younger version of himself when he had hair.
Of course the audience didn’t know any of this and yet on this entrance broke into uncontrollable laughter. When it started opening night, Beth (who had the first line) waited a few seconds and then started her conversation with Heather. The problem was the audience would not stop laughing for maybe 45 seconds and we couldn’t hear a word. To this day I don’t know why this was the loudest and longest laugh I had ever experienced.
The next night the same thing. This time Beth figured she might as well wait until the laughter stopped. So Heather and Beth waited and waited in this ridiculous Carol Burnett Show moment where actors are trying to not laugh. But the laughter wouldn’t stop. Dave would move to another spot and more laughter. He would touch his hair and more laughter. Please stop laughing! This happened for 9 shows in a row.
I think when you have this connection with the audience in comedy the audience has this unbridled energy. It wasn’t just the hair, it was everything these four had done to build to that moment. Their spontaneity and their comfort on stage invited the audience on stage with them for the ride. Don’t you love live theatre? Don’t you miss this energy of live theatre?
Beth, Jamie, Heather and Dave were so authentic and comfortable on stage together that they would respond to the audience without missing a beat. Trust and confidence and being in the moment that leads to perfect comic timing.
On the second Friday of the three week run at the Best Western the props manager had forgotten a plate of crackers out on the back stage table and they had dried up over the week. In one scene, Roger (Dave) would steal a cracker from the tray and the dry crumbling cracker got caught in his throat and he couldn’t get the line out. He was choking and the audience laughed and eventually realized he was having real trouble. Max (Jamie) unscripted walks to the bar, pours a drink and says, “Would you like a drink Roger?” Dave as Dave, in a barley audible whisper…”Yes please,” as Beth and Heather are behind the couch probably wondering if they should perform the Heimlich. More laughter. This interplay with the audience happened every night in every scene. And I had nothing to do with it. They sure made this director look good.
I am grabbing my earlobe at this moment as I say, “I’m so glad we had this time together, Heather, Dave, Beth and Jamie.”