By producing Say Goodnight, Gracie and The Azure Sky in Oz at the same time, Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre is able to showcase two high-quality plays and even offer a few double feature days. But Chelsey Lee Gaddy, senior artistic director for the Mars Hill-based company, is aware of the risks involved with such an ambitious endeavor as well.
“Hopefully, our patrons will not be too confused,” Gaddy says. “Because the content of these shows are very different, some folks might be disappointed if they show up on the wrong night. Our ticketing platform and website are very clear about which show is playing when, so we are hoping folks get the chance to check out both.”
Say Goodnight, Gracie, a one-man play by Rupert Holmes, starring area stage favorite Pasquale LaCorte as legendary comedian George Burns, opens Thursday, May 18. And the following night, New York City-based actor Amanda Ladd — a Mars Hill University theater arts alum and longtime SART company member — portrays a different real-life woman in each of The Azure Sky in Oz’s two acts, both of whose lives were profoundly changed by neurodiverse people.
Learning from the past
Having performers whom Gaddy says “have done legendary work on the SART stage” gives the company the confidence to attempt this double dip. She adds that both productions have also recently been presented by other theater companies (Say Goodnight, Gracie at Haywood Arts Regional Theatre in 2021, and The Azure Sky in Oz at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival) and feel well suited to the intimate SART stage. And a certain tie to the theater’s past adds extra significance to the undertaking.
“When SART was first founded [in 1975], many shows were performed in the repertory style — two or more plays alternating performances,” Gaddy says. “We wanted to get back to our roots and try this out with this duo of our best teams.”
It’s not the first time the troupe has tested the formula, either. Last December, SART ran A Southern Appalachian Christmas and a Theatre for Young Audiences version of A Christmas Carol. Lessons learned during those productions are informing how the leadership team manages the latest set of parallel shows.
“Our tech and design staff has to be highly skilled to pull off this trick. Nicole Sumpter is managing both shows, and MHU staff member Andrew Zebroski is designing. Their expertise in the technology available to switch between two shows is invaluable,” Gaddy says. “Our two other lead technicians, Katelyn Crutcher and Blake Freeman, just graduated from MHU and were on the management team for our Christmas shows. Their recent experience with this will also be so helpful.”
By keeping the same tech staff for both plays, SART is hoping for simple transitions from show to show, particularly as each play relies on the theater’s new projection system to tell the story at hand. Gaddy and her crew got to test out that system in late March during MHU Theatre Arts’ production of Neil Simon’s Sweet Charity that she directed, refining the process with projections before using it for SART shows.
“We want to keep revisiting things from our SART past that have worked, especially as we approach our 50th year of producing work,” Gaddy says. “We are already avidly planning other experiences like this one and are excited to learn more about the best way to accomplish this process with modern day technology. If it was possible in 1975, it is certainly possible today.”
Inside the Actors Studio
Say Goodnight, Gracie is laden with what LaCorte calls “fun challenges.” Among them is pulling off a one-man show, which can prove exhausting; timing the emotions so as not to understate them and not to overstate them, which he says “makes or breaks a show”; plus engaging with an audience, alone, for 90 minutes.
Atop those obstacles is the challenge of portraying a legend. LaCorte notes that most characters that actors play are fictional or interpreted. But in taking on the role of someone famous like Burns, a different approach felt necessary.
“Learning his mannerisms and speech patterns were imperative to making the character believable to the audience,” LaCorte says. “They have an image of him in their memory. I must re-create that image but without making it an impersonation of him. I’m striving to catch his spirit more than his physical presence. Though, if I do say so myself, I’ve got the look down pretty well.”
Ladd is likewise portraying historical figures in The Azure Sky in Oz, though not nearly as well-known as Burns. In Act I, titled Yellow, she plays Michelle Feulner-Castro, a visual artist whose life is dramatically altered by the birth of her profoundly autistic son. For Act II: Special, Ladd transforms into Mary Tilford, a special education teacher who attempts to stage a production of The Wizard of Oz with her neurodiverse students.
Ladd’s key to understanding these women was playwright William Leavengood, a longtime close friend of Feulner-Castro and Tilford. Though Ladd eventually had the privilege of talking with both subjects about their lived experiences, she held off doing so until she’d rehearsed the play.
“I didn’t want to imitate these amazing human beings,” Ladd says. “Then when I met them, I said to Bill, ‘Wow, you wrote them so clearly, I’m already embodying so much of who they are.’ That to me is the essence of good writing. It is all right there for the actor to discover.”
Road to success
Ladd feels that after performing The Azure Sky in Oz in so many different venues, festivals and communities, she could “pretty much do it anywhere and under any circumstances.” While she’s looking forward to having alternating days and sharing the space with another show, LaCorte sees the additional breaks as yet another challenge.
“I prefer less time off as once a show opens, you get into a groove,” LaCorte says. “The extra time off just requires a bit more discipline to remain focused on the job at hand.”
Though the two actors had yet to meet as of press time due to hectic schedules, they will be collaborating before opening night to coordinate some of the tech issues that will confront them by running the shows in rep. That planning will prove especially crucial on Saturday, May 20-Sunday, May 21, and Saturday, May 27-Sunday, May 28, when they’ll alternate matinee and evening shows.
“I’m not worried. We’re all on the same team,” LaCorte says. “Theater is a constant challenge, and theater people know that working together is the only road to success.”
The shared yet separate experience also seems destined to bond the actors in a distinct way. Ladd intends to see as many performances of Say Goodnight, Gracie as possible and will spend her days off promoting the shows in hopes of cross-pollinating their audiences. LaCorte will likewise support his colleague.
“I will definitely be attending Amanda’s opening night — not only to show support for a fellow actor but because the subject matter of her show is meaningful to me, as it is to so many people,” he says. “Not to mention that I understand her performance is powerful. I’m truly looking forward to it.”
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