Liz Ishman as Callie and Melissa Williams as Sara.

Liz Ishman as Callie and Melissa Williams as Sara.

Well, it has been almost two weeks since we closed Stop Kiss.  Normally, I have mentally moved on to the next project by this time, but, for some reason, this one keeps sticking with me.  I was in the shower this morning thinking about how I might direct it next time around and whether I should suggest it for next season at the New Castle Playhouse just so I can do the show again.
Then again, maybe I should just treasure this experience and not try to recreate it. This production wasn’t perfect, but, man, it made me happy watching it each night.  I don’t ever remember being so frustrated with the small audience turn out that happens when every organization on our small campus tries to fit in end of the year events on the same weekend. I was so proud of the entire company. Every person raised their game each night.

I am happy to take as much of the credit as folks will give me, but I can’t help but think about the old Yiddish proverb, “Men plan, God laughs.”  As a director, I have learned that you can have one vision of a production when you start, but circumstances force you in another direction and by some stroke of luck the show you wind up with is better than the one you had imagined.  When I chose the play I had a couple of actors in mind for Callie and Sara. I don’t pre-cast, but I don’t choose a show without some idea of who may play certain roles.  One of the women I had in mind told me early in the year that she wouldn’t be available. “Well, crap,” I thought. This play about two women who fall in love with each other requires strong actors who are mature, and, let’s face it, brave.  New Wilmington isn’t New York. Even though Stop Kiss was first produced in 1998, it is fairly edgy here in rural PA. Liz, who played Callie, was one of the actors I had in mind. Her performance justified my initial instinct. She is experienced and comfortable and confident on stage.  She carried so much of the show with grace and skill.  On the other hand, when I decided to produce Stop Kiss I had never met Melissa.

Dan Gutmann as George, Liz Ishman as Callie, and Melissa Williams as Sara.

Dan Gutmann as George, Liz Ishman as Callie, and Melissa Williams as Sara.

Melissa came to the audition and told me right up front that she had almost no experience, but a lot of heart and passion for the play.  I have heard similar protestations before so I took her passion with a grain of salt.  I started to get a clue about how serious she was when she took every opportunity to read that came up and then came to the second night of auditions and did it again.  I liked her, but was leery about her lack of experience.  Then Anne, an actor with whom I had wanted to work since I saw her in directing class scenes two years ago came to audition. I thought that I had my Sara. I was pretty disappointed when she told me she would be singing with Opera Westminster the week before we opened. We would lose her to opera techs for a week. No way could I lose my Sara for a week late in the rehearsal process. This was the first happy accident. I probably would have cast Anne as Sara because she had more performance experience and cast Melissa in a smaller role with the intention that she would gain experience and be ready for something larger later. I am sure Anne would have been wonderful, if different, than Melissa, but fate forced my hand.  Thank you, fate. The good news was that I would be able to use Anne in a smaller role so I still got my chance to work with her, but, Melissa became Sara. Watching Melissa commit to her role and grow as an actor until she was making beautiful nuanced choices left me speechless. Well, not speechless because I did have to direct the play, but in awe. On top of that, getting to know Melissa as a person has been one of the highlights of my year.

The second stroke of dumb luck was pretty rough on one of my actors. Justin was scheduled to play George. He read very well during the audition and initial read throughs, but as we moved to blocking, he fell ill and was not able to continue.  I turned to Dan, a senior who was in my Intro to Acting class as a sophomore. I had been trying to get him on our stage ever since, but I couldn’t get him out of the pool. He was captain of the (PAC Champion) swim team. Once I explained about Justin, Dan agreed to take over the role despite a busy schedule.  Not only did he take over, he played George as well as I could have hoped. He was also a primary builder of the set, and worked the scene changes.  If we didn’t ask him to take on a task, he volunteered.  The only complaint I could have about Dan is that he didn’t spend nearly enough time in the theater until his senior year.

Melissa Williams as Sara and Nolan Randall as Peter.

Melissa Williams as Sara and Nolan Randall as Peter.

The third happy accident was getting to know Shelly. During rehearsals one weekend, I came into the theater to find a young woman working diligently on a big project for the Intro to Technical Theatre class. I remember thinking, “Too bad this kid isn’t a major; she has both skill and dedication.”  Imagine my delight when Terry, our faculty designer, told me that Shelly had just declared a theatre major and would be working the show backstage.  Shelly was the primary dresser for Callie’s 21 quick changes.  I still don’t know how she kept it all straight, but she did and managed to be a positive presence in rehearsal each night.

Happy accident four came from the students in my Honors Performance Studies (PS) class.  I had what I thought was a very cool idea. I wanted to have an actor play Sara as a patient throughout the play.  This was a pretty thankless task because the actor would have to lie still with her head wrapped in bandages in a hospital bed off to one side of the stage for about an hour and fifteen minutes and not even get a curtain call.  We searched a bit, but couldn’t find anyone to volunteer, so I gave up on the idea. Then about a week before we opened, I looked at Raechel in PS class and thought she might be a possibility because she has the same basic build as Melissa. She agreed to do it, but was not available for one night of the run. While we were discussing the problem, Sara, another student in the class, volunteered to play “patient Sara” as well. The women split the duties, two performances each, so we were able to execute my brilliant idea. Even if I say so myself, it worked very well and I couldn’t have made it happen had not these two young women, who happened to be in my class, been willing to join the company and take on a pretty tedious, but important, job.

Lest you think that I totally backed into such a good production, I did make some pretty good decisions along the way.  I suggested that Carol, a senior theatre major, complete her capstone project by designing the set.  She did great work. I was smart enough to ask Courtney another of our senior majors to design the costumes; not easy task considering that we had a huge number of quick changes.  I was also smart enough to say yes when Maggie volunteered to be my production stage manager. She brought two very strong assistant stage mangers on board. I hope they will each someday be a PSM on a Theatre Westminster production. When I saw Kyle in my Voice and Diction class, I had the freaking brilliant idea to ask him to design the sound.  Almost everyone who talked to me about the show commented positively on his work. Finally, I knew enough to not over direct this wonderful play.  I just found some good actors and let them do their thing while providing a bit of guidance.

So, will I try to do this show again? I think so. It is just such a good piece of theatre that I think everyone should see it and, thanks to a conversation with Terry, I have an idea of a way to make it work within the limitations of New Castle Playhouse’s Annex Theatre.  I may not capture lightning in a bottle again, but I think I could come up with another flash or two.

 

Postscript:  Both Anne and Melissa were nominated to participate in the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship Auditions that are part of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival because of their strong work in Stop Kiss.  Liz was nominated for her work in Book of Days earlier in the semester.