CHATHAM – The last time I was on stage at Monomoy Theatre was in 1998, when I sat in as a juror in “Inherit the Wind.”
Seemed about time for a return engagement.
For the past two summers, my youngest son Lir has appeared in shows at Monomoy, one of the last true summer stock theaters on the Cape. This year, there were no roles for 9 year olds in any of the season's eight plays. Although disappointed, the family nonetheless continued to enthusiastically support Monomoy and the group of talented theater students who make up its acting and technical company.
At the Friends of the Monomoy Theatre pre-season kick-off party, Artistic Director Alan Rust mentioned that the final show of the season was heavy with male roles, many of them reporters who rush on and off stage in a gaggle (I'll probably catch flack from my colleagues for likening journalists to geese, but hey, that's the way the script reads). Several of them are referred to in the script as “Chronicle reporters.”
Wouldn't it be fun, Rust mused, if a “real” Chronicle reporter were among them?
I didn't have to think about it very long, especially after Rust assured me that it would not be a huge commitment, that I'd only have to scurry on and off stage a couple of times as part of a scrum of actors playing reporters.
“Johnny On A Spot” opened this past Tuesday after less than two weeks of rehearsal. And while it was a bigger commitment than I'd anticipated, it was also a lot more fun.
Of course, for me the rehearsals and six-performance schedule was a little over a two-week engagement; for the Monomoy students – who hail primarily from the University of Hartford Hartt School and the University of Connecticut, although schools from around the country are represented as well – it was the end of more than 10 weeks of marathon performances, rehearsals and more rehearsals. Monomoy has been called a theater boot camp, and that's not an inaccurate description; actors and techies are often performing one play while rehearsing another and preparing a third.
“The amount of energy and focus you need is just ridiculous,” said Gavin McNicholl, a senior acting student at the University of Connecticut who appeared in seven productions this summer. After that, going back to school will be “like nothing to me,” he said. “I will never complain about another rehearsal process again.”
“It's nonstop all day, every day,” agreed Jack Plozay, who plays the lead in “Johnny On A Spot.”
The experience, said recent Hartt School graduate Mac Wescott, “taught me a certain level of discipline.”
“You don't have the opportunity to doubt yourself here. We go so fast you can't wallow. It's kind of freeing, actually,” he said.
Since 1958, the Monomoy Theatre has been the summer home to hundreds of students, actors and technicians, first under the auspices of Ohio University. For several years Ohio University and the University of Hartford, where Rust is director of the theater division at the Hartt School, jointly sponsored the theater, but the Connecticut school took over as sole sponsor in 2015 when Ohio University ended its 57-year association with Monomoy.
Rust hand-picks many of the students from among Hartt School undergrads, as well as from nearby UConn, which unlike the Hartt School has a graduate theater program. The Hartt School also doesn't have technical programs, so most of the technicians – costumers, scenic artists, lighting, stage production and directing students – come from other schools throughout the country, recruited at the Southeast Theater Conference every year.
Starting in mid June, the students – 38, because “that's how many beds we have,” Rust said, although in plays with an orchestra, “we feed up to 60 people a day” – arrive and begin cleaning away the winter cobwebs in the unique double Greek Revival house, former gas station bungalow and one-time toy factory that are the main buildings on the theater's Main Street site. Then it's right into the first production. By the time they arrive, the company has long known the season's plays as well as the roles they will be playing.
“That doesn't mean they always learn their parts” ahead of time, Rust said. But in his 37 years as artistic director he's only had to switch two actors from roles in which they'd been cast; one year two actors requested a switch in roles, while another year one actor turned out to be too short for a critical part.
“This year they really were way ahead,” he said of the present company, some of whom have been at Monomoy for several years. This is the third year for Wescott and Nate Healey, the latter of whom completed Neil Simon's Eugene Trilogy in the season's penultimate production, “Broadway Bound.” Arline Bozich is in her second year. Students, who receive a modest stipend from the Friends of the Monomoy Theatre, are limited to three years in the company.
The theater has also built up a stable of alumni and veterans who return periodically to act, direct or participate in other ways (Phil Rittner has been musical director on a number of productions in recent years, for instance, and Kyle Brand often choreographs). New York actor and director Terry Layman directs a play most years, and his wife, Ellen Fiske – a student at Monomoy in 1971 – often appears on stage. Both are acting in “Johnny On A Spot,” as is Rust.
Directing the play is MichaelJohn McGann, who directed his first play at Monomoy in 1982 and was a student at the theater before that. As a director he can be stern, but is more often self-deprecating or outright funny. For more than a week the cast rehearsed the play in a tent in the woods behind the theater, where the set was marked out by tape on the rough floorboards. McGann's approach to the play lies in its roots in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and early '40s. Playwright Charles MacArthur is best known for his collaborations in the genre with Ben Hecht, such as “Front Page” and “Twentieth Century,” famous for their rapid-fire dialog, screwy characters and impossible plot twists. “Johnny On A Spot” is no different, and McGann stressed the need to move the show along rapidly – but not frantically.
“It's a laugh,” he told the actors at one point, “go get it. And then move on to the next one.”
This sort of summer stock training is invaluable, Layman said, and is “almost nonexistent” today. Along with its intensity, it also exposes students to eight different directors with eight different directing styles. Many of these students aim for the big time, and to be a professional, “you have to be able to work with every type of director,” said Layman, who directed “One Man, Two Govnors” this season. He also appeared in “Broadway Bound” while rehearsing “Johnny On A Spot,” a pace he said “keeps you sharp.”
Rehearsals go on in the tent for a little more than a week as the play gradually takes shape. In my role as a Chronicle reporter, I appear in only two scenes, so unlike the half a dozen main actors, my presence is not required during all rehearsals. But McGann is generous and gives me two lines, and over the course of the week I gradually become comfortable with my fellow reporters, all of whom are much younger and have much more energy than I. As we head toward the dress rehearsal, I'm hoping that some of that energy rubs off on me.
After “Broadway Bound” closes on Saturday night, the stage crew rips down the set and, amazingly, has the “Johnny On A Spot” set mostly completed by Sunday afternoon. After a run-through in the tent, we spent an agonizingly long evening blocking out scenes in the new, much more confined space of the Monomoy stage. I learn that being quick to adapt to the unexpected is definitely an asset.
After one final rehearsal in the tent – which came down for the season on Tuesday – we don our costumes and head into Monday night's dress rehearsal. From backstage, I hear laughter in all the right places. McGann's direction for Plozay to jab his finger at me as he sneers “Chronicle,” in the hope of milking the local connection, doesn't get much of a reaction from the few reviewers and family members in the audience, but I'm hoping that will change with a full house of regulars on opening night.
One thing that impressed me during my brief stint with the Monomoy company was how tight the company is. There's an easy sense of camaraderie among them no doubt borne out of working so closely together both at Monomoy and at school.
“We all genuinely respect each other,” said Hartt School musical theater major Tyler Pisani, who is heading into his junior year.
“We're living on top of each other,” added Wescott. “So it is kind of like summer camp. But you develop trust.”
As I write this, it is just hours before the opening night curtain rises. I continually play my two lines as well as the staging of the scenes I'm in over and over in my mind, although we've done them enough now that I'm not really worried or nervous, just concerned that I don't stick out too badly as the one real amateur among this ensemble of talented soon-to-be professionals. I've felt welcomed by them – even got some coaching on projecting my voice – and feel enriched by the experience.
Makes me think I shouldn't wait 18 years before returning to the Monomoy stage.