celebrating a sense of place

ON STAGE


Do I Dare to Eat a Quiche?


By C.G. Wolfe  Photo Courtesy of CTG

I was “Georgia,” one of the “widows” of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein, attending the 1956 Annual quiche breakfast, at least that’s what my name tag read, and despite obvious physical attributes to the contrary (I’m talking about my beard), for an hour and a half I believed I was that sister. The name of the production that night at the Chester Theater Group, was 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, and I was close enough to touch the quiche, which I would never do for reasons I can’t really explain. Let’s just say you had to be there, and I’m glad I was, because it was one of the most singular and hilarious theater experiences I have ever had.

The stage at Chester Theater Group’s, Black River Playhouse, is theater-in-the-round or as Penny Hoadley, who has been a part of Chester Theater Group since the opening of its first season in 1967, describes it, “theater-in-the-square.” The 19’ x 13’ square stage is surrounded on four sides by three rows of seats. The third row is a mere five-feet or so from the action and the front row might as well be part of the cast, and sometimes is. Each side of the square seats about 25 people and you can’t help the feeling that you are there for a private viewing with 100 of your closest friends. There are no curtains and there is no place for the actors to hide.

“Everything has to be real,” said Penny, who has produced over 250 of the group’s plays, as well as having been president and board member. “You can’t be not old enough or not young enough for the part. I mean that’s the thing, everything on the stage has to be completely real because you see it! You’re right in the action. Most of this furniture has been on the stage, she said, gesturing to her living room surroundings. My husband always wonders when his sweaters and his pants are missing. When these two chairs were missing he said, ‘I think we have a play going on.’”

While the five-woman cast of Nikki Simz, Julie Camelotto, Lynn Langone, Tracy Lee Witko, D'Angelique Dopson, and under the direction of Lauri MacMillan, led us through a side-splitting romp, I couldn’t help thinking that this is the way local theater should be. Not only could I see every expression on the actress’s faces as they stood naked before us (they weren’t really naked, but one of them did strip down to her slip shortly before exploding before our eyes), I could look straight into the faces of my fellow theater-goers and share their laughs, gasps of surprise, and honest reactions, and so could the actors. Their timing, their gestures, their inflections are all under close scrutiny. Everything has to be perfect when the audience can practically read your lips – or does it? The intimacy of the setting seems to establish a comradery between audience and players where all is forgiven. A missed cue, a stammered line, all are simply brushed off for the greater good – we’re all in it together. 

“It’s so intimate that it’s really different,” said Penny. And she’s not exaggerating. Not only is there no curtain, there is no backstage. Instead, there are two doors diagonally across from each other (we’ll call them stage left and stage right, although it’s more like stage two o’clock and eight o’clock) that each lead to tiny anterooms off-stage and have exit doors. One “chamber” houses the orchestra, when it is in attendance, and is so small that when a harpist was included, the rest of the members overflowed into the entry foyer with a member of the wind section ending up in a seat in front of the restroom. The other room holds small props, and either one can be used for quick costume changes. But if an actor needs to exit stage left and re-enter stage right, they have to pop out the door, run around the building, and come in from the other side. And if the weather is bad “we have umbrellas here, there and everywhere,” said Penny. During one production with a particularly large cast, they rented a bus to house the players that were off-stage and parked it in back – we failed to ask how they were cued.

So what kind of sadist would design such a thespian torture chamber? The Baptists. Although in fairness, they built it as a place of worship in the first half of the 19th century and not as a place for five lesbians to share a quiche in the 21st century. The former church once stood in Bedminster but was purchased by the Methodists in 1854. It was hauled away in sections by mule-teams and reassembled on the corner of Grove Street and Maple Avenue in Chester. When the Methodists built a new church on Main Street, in 1911, the township purchased it for $550 and used it as the municipal building. It served the township in a variety of ways until it eventually became the permanent home of the Chester Theater Group.

The first official season of the Chester Theater Group opened in 1967/68. It was the “summer of love” in America, and the staging of plays by Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Cole Porter, were probably about as welcome in rural Chester as Woodstock would have been. “We had some controversial plays that a lot of people didn’t care for,” Penny admitted. Times have changed since then and the Chester Theater Group is now celebrating their 50th Anniversary. According to Penny, one vital element to their success has been the promotion of directors.

“A lot of groups will choose a season and then find a director,” Penny told us. “We go the other way, we find a director and ask him or her ‘what would you like to do?’”

This “free and accessible venue for creative expression” invites a fresh perspective to selecting a project and ensures a variety of ideas that “does not limit itself solely to the commercial, the avant garde, or the classical; to dramas, musicals, or comedies; or even to plays.” This does not necessarily mean the possibilities are limitless. Ultimately, they always ask themselves the question: “Will the production be interesting, entertaining, and challenging enough to us and our audience to warrant production?”

“Our motto has always been ‘is it worth putting on and can we do it well?’” said Penny. “I always say there are only two shows that I didn’t think were very good (and I served wine before the shows). This theatre has a very high standard. One thing that makes our backstage a little harder is that we don’t ‘reward’ people. You won’t get a part if you’re not good enough. The best person gets the part – whether they come from our group, from another group, from anywhere - and they come from all over.”  

Another key is passion, which is a word that is thrown around a lot when it comes to describing the arts. But if you understand the hours and toil that go into staging a play, not just on stage but behind the scenes as well, then you know the meaning of the word. “If you’re going to do it for free, you’d better love what you’re doing!” said Penny. “They’re doing it for love and they want to put on the best.”

I’m not an actor and except for watching my brother and little sister in a few high school productions, I wasn’t raised attending the theater. But one afternoon in my late-twenties, my wife and I saw Shakespeare & Company perform a gender role-switching production of The Taming of the Shrew in a barn, at The Mount, in Lennox Massachusetts, and we’ve never looked back. Theater isn’t just “live” it’s “alive” and it’s dangerous. It’s a high-wire act without a net, and you can become immersed in its spectacle. As Penny said, “There’s an electricity that goes on,” and you’re charged by it. I still love my screens, big and small, but the theater is a whole different animal. I don’t usually preach but cultural gems like the Chester Theater Group are worth the evangelizing. If you’ve strayed away from the theater, then come on back and see what you’ve been missing. If you’ve never been, I urge you to put it on your bucket list and at least experience it once. Which I hope gets a big amen from the Susan B. Anthony Society for Sisters of Gertrude Stein.

But if you don’t like quiche, and some don’t, not to worry. There’s a great season still ahead that includes, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Shows for Days, and Our Town. We’ll see you in the square.

Chester Theater Group is located at 54 Grove Street (at the corner of Maple Avenue), Chester, NJ. For more information, call 908-879-7304 or visit chestertheatregroup.org.