FRANKFORT, MICHIGAN—I have been reviewing and writing about the arts for a good part of my journalistic career; everything from profiles of artists like Indonesia’s Heri Dono to theatre reviews like the strange site-specific production I saw in Lithuania in 2009. But I have never had to review anything I have done—because I haven’t been involved in the arts since I did some theatre back in college 20 (gulp!) years ago. Reviewing something you are in is akin to when a teacher allows the class to grade themselves; you either give yourself an A (healthy ego) or an F, if you have low self-esteem. Interestingly, no one ever gives himself or herself a C.
So trying to write an objective and critical review of “The Pajama Game”, which debuts tonight at Pilgrim, Michigan’s Congregational Summer Assembly (CSA), is impossible. I am playing Gladys, one of the principle roles and I get one of the best songs from the musical, the fun “Hernando’s Hideaway.” I’d like to say I have all my lines learned and have nailed the song, but that would mean I was being liberal with the truth.
But what I can say in all honesty is how much fun it is being involved in the operetta again. In college I was in “Kiss Me Kate” and “The Music Man” and loved being in the chorus, messing about with my friends as we hung in the back and changed the lyrics (we made R-rated lyrics out of “Pick-a-Little.”) But as life and work got in the way and summers spent in northern Michigan meant only two or three weeks at best, I was never able to participate in this annual exhausting yet exhilarating summer stock theatre experience. But this summer, since I planned to be in northern Michigan all July and most of August working on my book “Could I Have Been” –exploring careers I didn’t have but wanted— I decided that I should, in the spirit of research, try out for the operetta as I had wanted to be a “famous actress” when I was a kid.
The reason they are called operettas dates back to the 1930s, when the CSA only did Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Over the years, they have done all sorts of musicals—from “Annie Get Your Gun” to “The Sound of Music”—and there have even been some that were original musical productions. Because the summer community is such a mixture of people from across North America (and a few internationals like myself) from a plethora of careers—doctors, lawyers, teachers, playwrights, actors, organic chemists and even a few professional opera singers—the operetta is a fun group of people who dedicate two weeks to a whirlwind of rehearsals, line reading and individual tutorials with the musical director. And yet, somehow, not only does it work but also we all walk away with smiles on our faces—and the audience does too.
This summer, one of my favorite mystery writers, Aaron Stander, has set his latest whodunit, “Death in a Summer Colony”, in the woods in a place not dissimilar to the CSA. In the book, during the intermission of a summer stock production of an Agatha Christie murder, one of the cast members is murdered. It strikes a cord not because of the murder (God forbid!) but because so many summer vacation communities across the US put on theatre productions. Amateurs and professionals alike love the idea of strutting and fretting upon the woodland stage. From more famous summer stock theatre locales like the Massachusetts’ Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Woodstock Playhouse in New York state to smaller theatres like the Woodbury Community Theatre in Woodbury, Minnesota and the Lamoille County Players in Vermont, it’s a chance for amateurs to cut their teeth in front of the curtain and professional actors be challenged by working in such hectic and often bare-minimum theatres.
Summer stock—also called the “straw hat circuit”— began in the early 1920s, with four theatres credited with being the originators of the genre: The Muny in St. Louis, the Cape Cod Playhouse, the Berkshire Playhouse and the Manhattan Theatre Colony, originally in New Hampshire and relocated to Ogunquit, Maine in 1927. The idea was to put on different plays on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, performed by either a local resident or professional touring company. Most of the plays tended to be—and in many cases still are—light comedies, musicals, mysteries and romances.
I think what has also been the most interesting experience in being involved in this operetta is that, not only do I have a large role and have thus proven to myself that my memorisation of lines is not what it once was, but that live theatre can be such a heart stopping and scary experience. I started out my career at CNN, dealing with breaking news all the time, which was very stressful. But I was always behind the scenes; I was not out there, broadcasting what was going on (which is actually a lot like theatre). And as a print journalist, I have, after filing copy, awoken up in the middle of the night on many occasions, freaking out that maybe I spelled someone’s name wrong or questioned if I had triple fact-checked an interviewee’s age. But live theatre is a whole different kind of stress and worry. You are out there, for all to see, and it is hauntingly obvious if you missed your lines, tripped over something or popped out of your costume. But, I think if you ask any thespian, those uncertain and unforeseen aspects are exactly what makes it so fun and addictive. I won’t wait another 20 years to do summer stock again.
1st photo, from CSA production, 2nd photo of Ogunquit Playhouse circa 1937