Sunday, January 9, 2011

Richmond Theatre Collection

Tomorrow is my Dad’s 69th birthday. My dad is awesome. He was instrumental in turning me into the dork-geek that I am. I was going to write a post to try and show how awesome my dad is through examples, but what I wrote sounded treacly and sometimes cringingly personal. There are things that are sweet and overly personal that I should tell my dad about why I think he’s so awesome. But I should *tell* them to him-not publish them on the interwebs. There is one thing I keep coming back to in my exploratory writing and I think I should write about that instead.

When my parents moved to Staten Island, Dad got involved in a local theatre company. Since growing up I’ve heard a lot of disparaging comments about community theatre groups. There may be some truth in them, but what the people who dis community theatre fail to grasp is that community theatre gives people who are not professional actors and singers a chance to take part in Pirates of Penzance or Cosi fan Tutte. Additionally, it gives people who don’t have the money to go to the Met a chance to see theatre up close and personal. I think I was in second grade when my dad first took me to see Die Fledermaus and it was in a church basement, or something like that, but we were within 15 feet of the action. I loved it.

Anyway, my dad had gotten involved with a community theatre group called Richmond Theatre Collection (RTC.) They did most of their productions in a church. As I understand it, the rule was that if they were doing something Christian they could perform upstairs in the church with the altar as the stage, but if their production was more secular they performed in the basement. Looking back, it seems to me that the church was rather lenient with that rule since Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Godspell qualified for upstairs performances (along with Noye’s Fludde and Amahl and the Night Visitors.)

RTC did four productions a year. They did one Gilbert and Sullivan production a year and other than that, their catalogue was eclectic. They did not do Rogers and Hammerstein and I don’t think they ever did Sondheim. They did some Mozart and some Galt Macdermot (although not Hair, as far as I know) and they dabbled in Benjamin Britten. They did La Serva Padrona, which I loved and The Cradle will Rock (which I did not, at the time appreciate.) And they did Jacques Brel is alive and well and Living in Paris—which introduced me to Brel (in English.)

Dad did all sorts of things for RTC. He sang chorus, he did set designs, he helped build things, he sold donuts and coffee at half-time. I’m not sure how it happened, but I started tagging along with Dad—maybe he needed someone to hold a clamp or maybe he thought I’d find it a treat to watch rehearsals (I certainly did) but I spent a lot of time as a kid hanging out at the church on Saturdays.

I was not a very socially adept kid—I had one good friend through grade school and a few more in junior high, but in general I didn’t “get” other kids. I don't think it would be overly dramatic to say that theatre was the glue that kept me together when I was a kid. I got to go to RTC and help paint things or move scenery (while watching rehearsals.) When they were doing a Gilbert and Sullivan show I got to talk to grownups who were just as into G&S as I was. I got to geek out with the guy who was playing the Sorcerer (in the Sorcerer) and who’d done every G&S show except this one. I got to talk to the guy who had understudied for John Reed at D’Oyly Carte. But I also got to talk to other adults who treated me like a reasonable human, unlike most of the kids I knew. I must have been an annoying brat, but they put up with me. Not just when I was being a Gilbert and Sullivan dork, but other times. They said “Do you know how to make coffee in this Thing? The coffee will be bad and they’ll blame me for it.” Or “the tenor’s been sick I hope he hits all his high notes tonight.” And of course “move this here”, tighten that clamp” “just a little more green paint” “go see your dad and tell him we need…”

In 1986, the Mets beat the Redsox for the World Championship. I was in sixth grade and old enough to participate in a local children’s theatre group. We were doing the Lottery and I was Tessie Hutchinson. But on the evening that the Sox lost, I was done with children’s theatre and was helping out with donuts at RTC’s production of Princess Ida. I got the information from the guy who was playing King Hilledebrand. He was out having a smoke break between acts and announcing the fact to the world at large.

RTC was part of my growing up. Local theatre groups do well when there are people who are willing to treat them like a full time job. In the case of RTC, for a long time this was Mr & Mrs K. They were, I believe, a retired couple. I knew them both. As far as I could tell Mrs K was mostly the music director of RTC. Mr K must have done a lot of administrative work (I don’t think he ever directed anything or acted in anything that I saw.) One of my most vivid memories of him is from Godspell. As I mentioned above, because Godspell was Christian in theme, RTC got to perform it on the altar. The church had a high ceiling with a metal beam near the top. During one of the earlier numbers (Prepare ye the way of the Lord) confetti would drop on the stage. This was managed by filling a box with confetti on the high metal beam. I distinctly remember Mr. K climbing up to refill the box.

A few years later, he was telling me that it was okay to sell donuts that were two weeks old. I thought it odd, but I was a kid and he was a grown up. Not too long after that incident, Dad told me that Mr. K had Alzheimer’s disease.

The RTC project was essentially doomed on the departure of Mr. and Mrs. K. Even though I was a kid, I could see this. Community theatre attracts big egos. And while people with big egos make great comic leads, they are not necessarily any good at administration. Mr and Mrs K had provided that. By the time I was in high school they had gone to California.

The company more or less officially fell apart my junior year in high school. They were presenting Trial By Jury, Cox and Box and The Racketeers (this last being the mock Gilbert and Sullivan opera that a few of the RTC regulars had composed.) To this day I cannot say what was the straw that broke the camel’s back. People that I had otherwise considered reasonable adults yelled and or quit for reasons I could see, but didn't seem as important to me as they were to other people.

I learned a lot through my RTC experience. I learned a lot of Mozart and Gilbert and Sullivan and obscure musical theatre (some of it deservedly so) I learned to operate a dimmer board (not well) and I learned a lot about how people behave—good and bad. I am sorry that they are no longer in existence, but I am glad that they were part of my experience.

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