(Lights up on audience. Doc Kelley sits in metal folding chair being used as director’s chair, shuffling papers. Reporter enters stage right, carrying picnic basket, blanket and black notebook.)
Anyone who’s ever been to a play at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater knows the drill: just pack a picnic, grab a blanket and find a place to sit. There’s not a bad seat in the house. As in the theaters of ancient Greece, the stage is outside, and the spectators sit in a semicircle of benches carved into the hillside. Surrounded by trees, the amphitheater is small, peaceful and lovely. Birds and crickets are the house chorus, and tonight, a sunset swims overhead despite threatening clouds in the east. Usually the whole town is there — close friends, people you run into at the Co-op. One of the best things about community theater is just that: It builds community.
Tonight’s a little different, though. Tonight I alone am the audience, here to consider Consider the Following’s rehearsal of its upcoming musical. When I arrive, members of the local contemporary troupe are in various stages of costume.
This production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children is 12 scenes long and spans 12 years. Set during the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648) , the play opens in Sweden. Mother Courage, a woman originally known as Mrs. Fearling, travels from war to war, making a living by peddling her wares to soldiers. With her travel her three children, each from a different father and ethnic background. Incidentally, the children — Eilif, Swiss Cheese and Kattrin — are all doomed (Mother Courage becomes saddled with this unhappy prophecy via her own fortune-telling skills).
Veteran thespian Hazel Robinson stars in the title role. She is also the reason this particular production even happened.
“This is the one play she’s always wanted to do,” explains director Doc Kelley. Robinson — for whom the amphitheater is named — founded the Montford Park Players in 1973. That same year, she saw Mother Courage at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and decided the role was hers.
Now, 27 years later, her dream is finally unfolding. Robinson started acting 56 years ago and has put in her time as a theater technician and director as well. In the Players’ early years , she directed every show. The troupe debuted with As You Like It and performed all season; the following year, the Players did two shows, leapfrogging them from weekend to weekend throughout the summer.
Of the difference between acting and directing, Robinson comments: “As a director, you have to think of everything. The nice thing about acting, in theory, is that you don’t have to worry so much.” That said, she promptly turns to an actor and sends him back to have his cuffs pinned.
Adding to the challenges inherent in staging a musical, this one was assembled in record time, with just a month separating the first rehearsal and opening night. Another obstacle is that several years pass between scenes, which means lots of costume changes. John Pankow, who has dressed all of Consider the Following’s productions, will also do the honors for Mother Courage. “He’s the best in the business,” says producer Sheldon Lawrence, “but he gives producers heart attacks, because everything’s last minute.” (Pankow, ever in control, notes that he’s never sent anyone on-stage naked.)
Until now, Consider the Following — which won the category of Best Locally Produced Play in Xpress’ “Best of” readers’ poll this year (for The Children’s Hour) — has staged all its shows at the green door on Carolina Lane. But from now on, the first production of each season will be performed at the amphitheater.
From the trenches
(Actors mill about. Most sit in audience and smoke while going over lines. Rain begins to fall. Scene 12 begins.)
Robinson (from balcony, walking downstairs): “Can someone stand in for the dead girl?”
Kelley: “Katie! Hurry up and be dead!”
(Summoned actress appears on balcony, groans, nods, takes position beside Robinson, obligingly plays dead.)
This is the next-to-last day for help with lines, and a ripple of seriousness suddenly moves through the actors. The children gathered around the stand-in look convincingly morose.
Robinson (to actor on balcony left): “Your song will be without accompaniment. We want you to sound like a drunken soldier.”
Drunken Soldier (appearing worried): “Unaccompanied? You’re sure?”(Actor repeats song. Staggers drunkenly off-stage with last verse hanging in air.)
Mother Courage (to Chaplain): “The poor need courage. Why? They’re lost …” (Cue final song. Soldiers march into distance … )