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The Grand Manner, A Personal Message

As a rule of thumb, I try to avoid writing previews in first-person for fear of sounding self-indulgent or, worse yet, being found out and scolded by my former writing professors. But given the nature of The Grand Manner and playwright A.R. Gurney’s own “appearance” in the play through the character of Peter, I have decided to temporarily suspend that rule and to begin this preview with a (brief, and minimally self-indulgent!) personal anecdote.

I recently met a gentleman whose accomplishments astounded me. In his eighty odd years of living, he had run a multitude of successful businesses, travelled abroad and lived among other cultures, raised three beautiful children… and remained a sweet, humble spirit through it all. He asked me what I wanted to do in my own life, and, slightly starstruck, I stammered off my “plans” with a nervous smile and all the poorly masked uncertainty that betrays us recent college grads. Kind and compassionate as he was, he leaned over to me, and with a twinkle in his eye he whispered, “I’ll let you in on a little secret, Carley: We’re all winging it.”

Again and again as I read The Grand Manner for the first time, I relived this moment, smiling just as I had smiled at the man for his oh-so-appreciated empathy and feeling at least a smidge of that post-graduate terror lifted off of my shoulders. And this is what I believe and hope will happen to each audience member who sees Little Lake’s production of The Grand Manner: They will be reminded of pivotal, life-changing moments in their own lives, and they will be reminded that uncertainty and imperfection are what make us human, and that humanity is beautiful.

“Each character in this play starts out as a distinct personality, and slowly, as the story unfolds, the façades that the characters start with are stripped away, and they become real people,” shared TJ Firneno, the director of The Grand Manner. In describing the challenges of directing this particular production, he said finding those “moments of realness” where the façades chip away has been of vital importance in fully realizing each of the four characters.

One final anecdote before I bid you all farewell until the next production:

At one of Little Lake’s matinee performances of Letters to Sala, the show immediately preceding The Grand Manner, one Little Lake staff member recounted to me what had happened while she was watching TJ and his cast rehearse.

“The character Katharine Cornell has this one line,” she said, “and when I heard it, I just knew exactly what she meant. It was a line about how women, once they reach a certain age, begin to feel ‘invisible.’ And it’s true; people treat you differently, their expectations of you change, and Patricia Fuchel, who plays Cornell, delivered it with such honesty. It was just beautiful.”

Though I didn’t mention it at the time, I felt it a lovely, serendipitous moment: There I was, listening to this woman of an entirely different generation than I talk about how this play touched her, while I had been touched by my reading of it as well, just in a different way. Personally, I cannot wait to hear more stories of how this play moves each individual member the Little Lake family who comes to see it.

The Grand Manner opens this weekend, November 12-14, and runs again next weekend, November 19-21, and finally closes with performances on November 27 and 28. Tickets can be purchased online at www.littlelake.org/box-office/ or by contacting the box office at (724) 745-6300.

67 seasons, 67 shows, 6 (or 7) Lessons Learned

Today’s blog post is written by Melissa Levine, a Little Lake Apprentice who leaves for Baldwin Wallace College this weekend. It is the first installment in our new “My Little Lake” series.

Little Lake’s 67th season marks my 6th year as a participant in the theater’s Apprentice program. In that time I have performed in 3 shows and seen 7 Looking Glass/Fall Family Matinee productions & 57 main stage productions, including 5 that I have worked on as run crew.

Last Gas (which I stage managed) was my 67th and final Little Lake production as an Apprentice. (For the sake of transparency, I’ll admit that I have technically seen 58 main stage productions, but that number includes two productions of A Tuna Christmas, so the number of unique productions stands at 57). Through my experiences with those 67 shows I have learned more about myself, about life, and about the theatre than I could possibly enumerate. But I’m going to give it a shot.

  1. You will make mistakes.

As the Little Lake Apprentice Handbook says, “You will make mistakes. Don’t make any, but if you do…” This is something I keep in mind in life, as well as in theater. No matter how hard you try not to make mistakes (and you certainly should try), you will make them. Being an Apprentice has taught me how to deal with my mistakes better than any other activity I have participated in. I have learned how to own up to it, try to fix it, and move on. In theater and in life, whether it’s a missed light cue or something much bigger, you cannot dwell on your mistakes or you’ll miss what’s up ahead.

  1. There is something to be learned from every show (even the ones you don’t like).

Here’s something wild: I haven’t loved all 67 shows I’ve seen here. While there are some shows I remember for years afterward (I’m looking at you, Farnsworth Invention), not all of them have resonated with me (Sorry, Black Tie). Regardless, I firmly believe there is something to be learned from every show I have watched or worked on. Whether it was an inspiring performance by an actor, an ingenious set design, or a particularly well-written scene, I have never regretted seeing a show, even if I didn’t really enjoy the production as a whole. I am honestly troubled by how many people don’t take the time to enjoy live theater. All shows are worth seeing, in part because…

  1. Theater is so much more than what you see on stage.

There’s this idea in the theater world that the audience should ideally not notice the technical aspects of a show, and if they do, it’s because something went wrong. This probably explains why I did not fully understand the amount of work that goes into a production until I became an Apprentice. There is a set to be constructed, props to be found and cleaned, costumes to be found (or created), lighting and sound to be chosen, and countless other technical and design decisions that often take place before the acting rehearsals even begin. Working as an Apprentice has given me a much fuller understanding of this process, allowing me to be a more aware and appreciative performer and audience member.

  1. Team work makes the dream work.

The magic of community theater is that everyone eventually ends up helping out with everything. Our technical director just finished acting in one of our Looking Glass Theatre productions. Both the current and previous props masters started out as actresses here. And if you hang around after a show in the summer, you’ll most likely see the actors helping take down the set in preparation for the Looking Glass show the next morning. When you’re on such a tight schedule with such limited resources, everyone has to be willing to contribute something extra and occasionally do things that are not “their job”, but the cooperative nature of Little Lake’s productions is part of what makes them so special.

  1. Expect the unexpected.

This is another one I learned at Little Lake that applies to pretty much everything else. After the initial run of 2011’s Tuna Does Vegas was cancelled due to an actor’s illness, 14-year-old-me thought I had seen it all. I have been proven wrong every year since. Sometimes, surprises bring added difficulties: on the first day of tech rehearsals for Last Gas, the power went out at the theater (Roxy’s note: A bird dropped a snake on a power line and blew out our transformer. Can’t make that up); as you can imagine, it is difficult to hold a tech rehearsal with no tech. However, sometimes the surprises are good ones: after being especially delighted with a performance, a patron once gave all of the cash in his wallet to our managing director as a spontaneous donation to the theater. Little Lake has taught me to stay on my toes and to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

  1. Never ignore what you have a passion for.

One of my favorite things about Little Lake is the mix of people it brings together. While many actors who have graced our stage pursued careers in the theater at some point in their lives, and others graduated college with degrees in theatre, many of the actors here have careers completely unrelated to all things theatrical. While they spend their days as teachers, businessmen and women, and stay-at-home parents, they all make time in their schedule for the thing they are passionate about. These actors in particular show me how important it is to make time in life for my own passions. If something is truly important to you, you shouldn’t have to give it up; there’s always a way to make it work.

  1. Putting a show together is one of the most difficult things I have ever done.

It is also the most fulfilling. The transformation of a production from the script to the stage in a matter of weeks is a process so hectic you cannot completely understand until you experience it. This makes it all the more meaningful when the show finally comes together. In fact, it was on one especially hectic day that I decided to major in arts management. I was performing in a Looking Glass show in the theater while, at the exact same time, trying to run a rehearsal in the barn for the main stage show that was about to go into tech week. I ran back and forth from the barn to the theater more times than I could count. And I can honestly say I have never enjoyed anything more.

I go off to college knowing that Little Lake not only helped me discover my passion, it prepared me to pursue it. Here’s to six years that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

See you next summer.

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Artistic Director’s Blog: Welcome!

Hello, Friends!

It has been nearly five months since I took the helm here at Little Lake Theatre. In that time, we’ve staged five Main Stage and three Looking Glass productions; held two sessions of Theatre Arts Summer Camp; hosted Techie Training class; auditioned hundreds of actors; re-organized and revamped costume storage; said farewell to Sunny and Rob; and consumed countless pots of coffee (okay, perhaps that last part was just me). Now we’re adding the launch of my Artistic Director’s blog to that list!

One of the more fun things I’ve had the opportunity to do is talk with people about their personal connections to the Lake. Over the years, people have discovered new career paths, formed lasting friendships, acquired new skills, met their future spouses, and, of course, made some truly amazing theatre along the way. We’ve laughed and cried and shouted and transformed, offstage and on. Thank you for welcoming me into the Little Lake family and sharing all of your stories with me.

Now it is my turn to share with you. I am hoping this blog gives me a chance to share with you all the interesting behind-the-scenes stories that unfold everyday here at the Lake. I also want to introduce you to some of the amazing people who make this place truly special. We’re launching a new social media campaign called “My Little Lake” that will be a platform for those introductions. We’ll kick things off in a few days with a guest blog post by Melissa Levine, a Little Lake Apprentice who is about to head off to college.

So, make sure that you are following us on Facebook and Twitter, and keep checking back here for all the latest backstage scoop. And next time you are at the theatre, say hello (I’m the one in a dress and knee brace telling you to turn off your cell phones before the show starts)!

Warmly,

Roxy

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Opening Night flowers for Last Gas from Melissa Levine

Let it Rain, Let it Pour as an Ireland-set Love Story Brings Showers to Little Lake Theatre

To people heard complaining that rain—even just periodically—dampens their spirits and drowns their expectations, a meteorologist might shoot back the question “How would you feel about living through drought conditions for years at a time?” Dry grass. Dying trees. Parched gardens. It’s not pretty.

Wrote John Updike, “Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth.” Or, as Emma Thompson observed in the movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” rain brings life.

And, lately, in what might go on record as the wettest summer in local history, it’s bringing some novelty to the stage at Little Lake Theatre, where the rains will come—seriously, they will—when John Patrick Shanley’s play “Outside Mullingar” opens on July 30. At least one scene in this story about everyday quiet life and new-found love in the Irish Midlands (a wet place year in, year out) calls for actor Eric Leslie to get soaked from head to toe while standing in a cloudburst.

You’ll see it happen, real water and all. No lighting tricks, no sound effects mimicking rain for director Jena Oberg, who gambled on creating a downpour where no downpour has ever been before. It’s a first for Little Lake.

Well, “the first time it’s ever rained on stage at Little Lake on purpose,” cracked Jena, referring to past leaky-roof episodes that caused a high enough level of anxiety among the staff and crew. She gives the credit for this Mother Nature-like act to technical director Phil Irvin, who, she explained, devised “a pump system that runs from backstage to the ceiling, to essentially a large PVC shower head. In Act One, a gutter sends the water back to the pump. In Act Two, the water collects and drains off a specially-built platform. It’s pretty neat.”

The magic of live theater, in other words. There’s nothing like it.

Staff member Leigh Ann Frohnapfel, who thought she’d witnessed every manufactured feat imaginable at Little Lake, was impressed when she attended last Sunday night’s rehearsal. “The rain effect is pretty spectacular,” she said. “Kudos to Phil for making it work.”

Along with Eric Leslie, “Outside Mullingar” stars Jennifer Sinatra, Martha Bell and Bill Bennett. The four co-stars portray characters introduced last year in the Broadway production (applauded in The New York Times as “a softhearted comedy freckled with dark reflections on the unsatisfactory nature of life and the thorns of love”) by Brian F. O’Byrne, Debra Messing, Dearbhla Molloy and Peter Maloney.

After reading the play a few months ago, Jena asked former artistic director Sunny Disney Fitchett to make it a part of this season’s lineup, and Sunny didn’t hesitate. What attracted her?

“The surprises” in the plot, in particular at the end, she said. “Also, I love all four of the characters, especially Anthony (Eric Leslie) and Rosemary (Jennifer Sinatra). They are so lost in their love for each other; you just have to root for them.

Plus, she teased, “there is a secret reveal that is deliciously wonderful.”

Loving the play as she does—for, among other things, its offbeat charm, or, as some might say, its quirkiness—Jena spent many hours with her cast developing the characters and discussing the author’s stratagems. There were four more rehearsals for “Outside Mullingar” than are usual in the Little Lake timetable.

“We spent about three days just sitting around the table discussing relationships and intentions,” she said. “John Patrick Shanley gives no information in stage directions, so every moment could be played many different ways. In rehearsals, we played with intentions and we tried all of the options to see what worked. Sometimes a play is so clear where it’s headed. This one isn’t.”

“Outside Mullingar” runs through August 15.

To purchase tickets for the play, phone Little Lake’s box office at 724-745-6300, or take advantage of the opportunity to order tickets online at www.littlelake.org.