“The coffee is usually on by 9:30, and the Clybourne Park rehearsal starts at 10,” explained Sam Rush when I asked him what time I should arrive. “But that’s the morning the kids’ show opens, so they’ll be doing last-minute things at 8:30 or 9, if you want to show up then.”
Rush is producing director of New Century Theatre, Northampton’s summertime fixture, which is approaching its quarter-century mark this season. I’ve seen most of the company’s productions over that time, and admire both its professionalism and its longevity. Now I’ve arranged to spend a day hanging out with the company “backstage” at its home in Smith College’s Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts, to see the theater’s internal workings.
Sure enough, when I show up at nine, the cast of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day are on stage, working through the show one last time before facing their first audience at 10:30. Director Cate Damon—who is Rush’s wife and a frequent NCT actor—is adjusting blocking, fixing cues and shouting encouragement.
Alexander, a musical version of the children’s classic by Judith Viorst, is the inaugural production of New Century’s new program, NCT Kids! It replaces PaintBox Theatre, for 10 years an NCT adjunct, which has moved on as an independent enterprise. The cast of nine are mostly high schoolers or recent graduates, with a couple of older actors playing the parents.
At the end of the run-through, Damon shouts, “Oh, my God, that was great! Now let’s do the show.” She gathers the cast on stage for a pep talk: “Take care of each other on stage, don’t leave anybody hanging out in the air. And most important—have fun and be loud!”
As the cast head to the dressing rooms, I make my way downstairs to a large room where the company’s next production, Clybourne Park, is in its second day of rehearsal. The floor plan of the set—a suburban living room—is taped out on the floor, indicating the positions of walls, doors, windows and a staircase. Stage manager Julien Tremblay sits at a long table, flanked by two assistants, piles of papers and a couple of laptops, while the director, Ed Golden, perches on a stool nearby. As promised, a table with coffee urns stands against one wall.
Bruce Norris’ Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play picks up where A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s keystone drama of the 1950s, leaves off—with a black family poised to move into an all-white Chicago neighborhood—and takes place in the house they are about to buy. Act One revolves around the neighbors’ opposition to the sale, then Act Two fast-forwards 50 years to the 2000s, when the same house, in what is now an all-black enclave, is up for sale, this time to a white couple who see the neighborhood as ripe for gentrification. The same actors play the somewhat parallel characters in each act.
The cast of six is working through the climactic scene in Act Two, when the play’s implicit themes of race and class finally boil to the surface. They are holding scripts but already seem comfortable in their characters and interactions, falling naturally into the beats of the overlapping dialogue. I’m pleased to see David Mason, one of my favorite New Century regulars, in the center of the semicircle of players. His character, Steve, the prospective buyer, has just put the R-word on the table: “It’s race, isn’t it? Am I right—that this entire conversation is at least partly informed by the issue of racism?”
Which leads to an angry confrontation with the two black characters, played by Lynnette Freeman (previously seen here in 2010’s Intimate Apparel) and Jean-Pierre Frost. Golden stops the action to work on Frost’s blocking: “Walk right up to him when you say that. You’ve heard this a million times before. Get in his face, and really enjoy it.”
During a 10-minute break I chat with Frost, a young man who, incredibly, is in his first-ever play. Apparently he suddenly got “the bug,” auditioned for this show and got the part. He’s remarkably relaxed for a novice among seasoned pros. “They’re a great group of people,” he tells me. “I’m taking in everything they have to say, and really taking my cue from them.”
Right now, he’s finding it harder to find his Act Two character than the easygoing fellow he plays in Act One. “That one is very much like me,” he explains, “but this guy has got this very snarky attitude to him. I’ve got to get out of my comfort zone with him. And”—acknowledging his inexperience—“learn to project my voice as well.”
Golden has high praise for the newcomer, notwithstanding his greenness. “He’s naturally very good,” he says. “He’s a musician, so he knows performance, and he’s very good to work with.”
This show is off to an even quicker start than most. The overlapping pace of a new production every two weeks means that as one play is running, the next is on deck. Each show has just nine days’ rehearsal, beginning on Tuesday and opening the following Thursday, with one day off. Partly because of the condensed schedule, Golden has dispensed with the usual “table work,” where the actors sit down to read through the script and discuss the play with the director before beginning to stage it. “I do table work on the set, and we stop to talk about it as we’re doing it,” he says. “A lot of actors resist that—‘Oh, let’s just sit and talk’—but I think it works better in this situation.”
Upstairs, the morning performance of Alexander has just finished. Children are lining up in the lobby to get autographs from the cast, who are seated at a table, still flushed with the excitement of performance. The scene is reminiscent of post-show PaintBox, but Damon, watching approvingly, tells me there’s a stylistic and, in a way, philosophical difference in her approach to children’s theater. Where PaintBox actively involves the audience, even bringing kids onstage, Damon says NCT Kids! aims to create “a different experience” that prepares youngsters for a lifetime of theatergoing. “When you go to see Oklahoma, the actors don’t turn and talk to the audience,” she explains. “You watch the story and the music, and you have a chance to experience it internally.”
The next show, however, promises to be more interactive. It’s Skippyjon Jones in the Cirque de Olé, another picture book adaptation, this one from Judith Schachner’s popular series, which Damon calls “an acid trip for kids. These books are crazy, and my kids loved them because they’re so frenetic.” That energy, she says, will translate into NCT’s production, which runs this week and then plays in repertory with Alexander early next month.
It’s lunchtime, and Sam Rush emerges from the Clybourne Park rehearsal room. On top of his ongoing administrative duties, he’s acting in this one. We talk as he goes out to get a grinder from Pizza Amore, up the street—the establishment which also provides the slices that are given free to audiences at the reduced-price Sunday evening performances. Back at the theater, I ask him what a typical day is like for him, and he laughs.
“There is no typical day. If I’m directing a show, or if I’m acting in a show, like this week, I’m focusing on that. But otherwise I’m floating around, making sure that everything’s working the way it’s supposed to. So the typical day for me is about ‘What hat am I wearing at this particular moment?’ Because we’re such a small organization, in one 10-minute span I can have a conversation with a props person who needs something—and it’s always beg, borrow or steal, the last resort is buying it—or the phone might ring with a question from the box office, or…” Taking a thoughtful bite of his sandwich, he continues. “I’m not a good multitasker, and being in the theater …” He smiles at the irony. “But I can compartmentalize, and go quickly from one thing to another, so that’s what I mostly do.”
The company’s name comes from Rush and co-founder Jack Neary’s ambition, back in 1991, to simply survive into the new century—a longshot in these perilous times for arts ventures. Now, 24 years on, he’s thinking about next options. “After almost 25 years, it becomes about what gets you up in the morning, what excites you.” He’s excited by the new Northampton Community Arts Trust building in down Northampton, in which NCT is a partner and which offers the potential of expanding into a winter season. At this point, however, “I’m committed through the 25th season, and after that everything’s up for grabs.”
Backstage in the main theater, designer Greg Trochlil, Smith’s technical director Dan Rist and a two-man crew are wrestling with part of the Clybourne Park set—a back wall faced by a staircase. Because the play takes place in the same room a half-century apart, the space needs to age and change. The solution is two different walls with different decorative treatments, the second, shabbier one “flown in” over the first.
“It’s the same room but with different wallpaper and fireplace treatment,” Trochlil explains, and the changeover has to happen during the brief intermission. Right now the crew are matching up the two structures to make sure it can be done. In another theatrical shortcut, the rug covering the floor in Act One will be taken up, revealing stained floorboards for Act Two.
It’s hard to walk around the theater building without running into Nikki Beck. As the theater’s only year-round employee besides Rush, she gives her job description as “making sure that everything that needs to happen, happens.” That includes managing the cadre of student interns and young apprentices, “doing a lot of publicity stuff, communicating with the box office, and making sure everyone knows what they’re doing.”
As we’re chatting in the hallway where I catch her between one “making sure” and the next, one of her interns approaches to tell her that some technical cues got dropped during the children’s theater performance. She thanks him for the heads-up, then explains to me that New Century is both a professional theater and a training ground. “We try to make sure the students have a chance to learn as much as they can. Things go well for the most part, but, well, it’s a learning process.”
One of this summer’s interns is Waverly Engelman, a Valley native who’s now attending Barnard College. This week she’s assisting in the box office and house managing, which involves setting up the concession table, making the coffee, training the volunteer ushers—“which is easy since most of them have been doing it for years”—and making sure the theater is clear of debris from the previous performance.
“The logistics of it are simple and easy to do ahead of time,” she says. “Then the hard part is whatever might happen before or during the show—if people leave the theater for some reason, helping people at the handicap entrance, or people who are having ticket problems. There aren’t a ton of problems, but sometimes it gets busy and it becomes a lot for one person to run around and do.”
Like all the interns, she’s at the theater from 9 in the morning till 10:30 at night, six days a week. And like the others, she rotates through a variety of jobs during the 10-week season. “Last week I worked on finding props from nine to 11, then an hour lunch break, came here to the box office from 12 to five, had a dinner break, then a 5:45 call for the 7:30 show.
“I’m really tired,” she admits, “but I’m having a great time. I’m really happy to be here. I’m learning a lot and I enjoy being immersed in theater.”
The box office phone rings, the first ushers check in, an intern arrives with a question about that evening’s 50/50 raffle and an actor comes by with a last-minute ticket request. A day at New Century is giving way to the evening, when the theater’s reason for being comes into play. The show is about to begin.•
Clybourne Park runs July 24-August 3, and NCT Kids! runs July 23-26 and Aug. 6-9, at New Century Theatre, Mendenhall Center, Smith College, Northampton. Tickets and info at (413) 585-3220 or newcenturytheatre.org.
Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and his StageStruck blog is at valleyadvocate.com/blogs/stagestruck.