“I know…let’s put on a show!”

August 4, 2011 § 16 Comments

We met via Skype, the cast peering into my living room, me peering back. Then we took this group portrait.

“We’ll bill it as the World Premier!” said Faye Johnson, the director of Project Impact, an after school and summer program for low income
kids in Apalachicola.

For a woman who shepherds an effort funded by grants coaxed from a tightfisted universe Faye is remarkably optimisic. “It will all work out beautifully!”

Blithe optimism is not my style. I am an optimist, but also a worrier.

The World Premier in question was the stage debut of my book “Crossing Jordan,” adapted by me. I have never written a play before and solved some of the problems inherent in adapting this particular book in ways that were either, a. innovative, or b. stupid.

Example: There are several running scenes in the story. My note on the script reads, “Runners will jog in place. Stage crew will carry cardboard cutouts of trees across the stage behind them to create the illusion of motion.”

I was clearly making things up as I went along.

My friend and neighbor, Kary Kublin, agreed to pick up the other corner of the worry load—we were hired as a team. Sharing everything from a room at the EL Rancho Motel to responsibility for whatever happened when the curtain opened, we took off for Apalachicola. Work on the play had started the week before; we arrived with just four additional days in which to prepare for the
first performance.

Kacey, reading her lines.

Walking through the door to the Center we realized that Project Impact had more on its mind than our play. The cast and crew that would make the show happen were just some of the kids and staff of a busy summer  program, participating in group activities, moving from room to room, flirting with each other, running.

Then a handful of kids were cut out of the herd, and for the first time characters I have lived with for more than a dozen years, stood in front of me.

I never knew Jemmie wore glasses, or that Cass bounced on her toes when required  to stand still. By the end of the week these living kids would overwrite the ones I had always imagined. That first day we ran lines and made a ragged attempt at walking through act one.

That night in our motel room, Kary and I worked until eleven, spinning out lists. The note in my journal says, “Our hair is on fire!”

Grace, peeking through the knothole in the fence.

The next morning, when we arrived at the site the kids were  checking in. Grace, the girl who would narrate the play in the voice of my main
character, her sister, Kaylin, who played the ditsy Lou Anne, and their younger brother were all playing Cat’s Cradle with a knotted string. When I joined in  the brother was surprised. Grace informed him, “Oh, they used to do Cat’s Cradle  back when she was alive.”

The week of the play went so fast that it lives in my memory as small bright moments, like the one when I discovered I used to be alive.

Grace, the girl who so graciously declared me dead, was a shooting star. Just 10 years old, she was tiny, and kinetic. She spoke way too fast and jiggled her knees as she sat on her narrator’s stool. Sometimes she would hop up on the stool and squat. Definitely undignified behavior for a narrator, but by the time of our performance, I think she knew every line in the show. She had slowed down and become Cass Bodine, unselfconsciously telling her story.

The Chapman, a grand, if down-at-the-heel WPA theater.

Here’s the moment when I first walked into our theater, as  recorded in my journal.: Tara let us into the booming musty space that is the Chapman. We turned on the AC and the room roared.

We picked trash up off the stage and  lamented the torn and stained stage curtains. Tara said they were quite appropriate for a recent performance of The Diary of Ann Frank.

Our director,  Liz arrived. We looked at each other like foot soldiers in an imminent losing battle.

Faye knew something I didn’t when she said it would all work out.  She knew her town, and at every turn Apalachicola came through.

When the cavernous Chapman swallowed the voices of our young actors Faye called the mayor, Van Johnson, who also ran a sound company.

On the eve of our first performance he banked the front of the stage with so many speakers we could have played Shea Stadium. Randy Mims, a guitar player living aboard a boat nearby came in and offered his services, the biggest of which was adjusting the mayor’s big honking sound system so it really worked with our kids.

Elinor as Nana Grace.

My favorite character in the story has always been Nana Grace. I imagined her as small and tough and compassionate. Local English teacher, Elinor Mount-Simmons, took the part. She was larger than I imagined Nana Grace and younger, but that wizened stick of a woman I have always pictured has been superseded by a living, breathing Nana Grace.
For the play, Kary and my singing partner, Craig Reeder, wrote eight original songs, several of which belong to Nana Grace. Elinor apologized before starting her first number. She had had pleurisy and hadn’t yet gotten used to her diminished voice. The voice left behind was amazing. It was probably grittier and less forceful than the one she remembered, but perfect for the part.

I don’t know whether it was the English teacher in her, or the  fact that she was a black woman who did not like black women to be portrayed as users of poor grammar, but she cleaned up Nana Grace’s grammar considerably. It was okay. When Elinor was on that stage she was Nana Grace, body and soul. Her sheer magnetic force, and an occasional hand on the shoulder, moved the young actors around the stage easily, naturally.

Ron and Tara, Mr. and Mrs. Bodine, also built the fence, operated the lights, walked our actors back and forth between sites. They even sang (sort  of) much to their own amazement.

For some scenes, such as the race, we needed  large groups of kids. My favorite was known as the Cemetery Kids. Each gravestone in our Cemetery was accompanied by a living dead person, well-dressed, and looking a bit sad. When we asked for volunteers. only the really young, stepped forward , giving our cemetery a particularly tragic effect.

But it was the core group of kids who will stick with me the longest. Although she was often distracted, Kacey, who acted the part of Cass onstage looked perfect, and she almost glowed when she told me, “Ms. Adrian, I know all my lines!”

Austin and Kaylyn played a teenage romantic couple, both on and off stage. We had to warehouse them on opposite sides of the stage between scenes so they wouldn’t talk too much. That didn’t keep them from texting.

Beyla played Jemmie with such verve that she created an updraft that lifted the whole performance. And could that girl sing!

We had one adult part played by a kid. Twelve-year-olds Alexis, who played Mrs. Lewis, raided her grandmother’s closet for costumes. She made a credible, in fact, impressive adult woman. I would love to meet her again when she grows into the part she played.

Jamarie, who played Mr. G, was incredibly cool. Ethan, who played Ben, came dressed for the part in a Seminoles T-shirt. “I figured he’d be in Noles fan.”

I can’t close without mentioning Liz Sisung who not only directed but played the enthusiastically dead Ms. Liz (they even shared a name.

And Craig, Mario, and Randy for their music.

And Kary, who stood in for the organizational part of my brain that was
never issued to me as original equipment.

And Faye for her faith, and her ability to find money for projects that give kids a summer.

And the universe, which always provides–even if it sometimes makes us worry first.

The first ever Bodine-Lewis Postluck supper.

If you would like to see more photos of this venture, check out
the blog Kary set up for the show!

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§ 16 Responses to “I know…let’s put on a show!”

  • Sheila Merlau says:

    Thank you so much, Adrian. This is the play by play ( no pun intended) that I longed for since I couldn’t be there, THIS TIME. It sounds perfectly wonderful, just like I knew it would be. What a wonderful gift these children have received. What’s next?

    Like

  • We hope to put it on here in Tallahassee. I’ll keep you posted!

    Like

  • I am looking forward to a Tallahassee performance!! I will bring my grandchildren and we will all enjoy a live show of one of our favorite books!

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  • Tgumster says:

    “The play’s the thing,” and you took us behind the scenes so we got “the rest of the story.” Felt as if I were right there for the whole week. Hope you take us to each and every backstage; it’s quite wonderful getting to know variations of “Crossing Jordan,” such a fine story by any imagination.

    Like

  • Craig reeder says:

    You did the hardest thing: you addressed the sensitive subject of racism head on, pulling no punches, and you left everyone clapping, cheering, and feeling hopeful for the human race.
    WOW!

    Like

  • Dear Crossing Jordan On Stage Team!
    Kudos!
    Adrian many thanks for sharing this beautifully written essay.
    I’m eager for the Tallahassee performance.
    Wasn’t in the Apalach audience & with these words & photographs, I feel as if I’ve met the cast at their creative best. (I will check out the play blog, too.)
    I’m guessing a new cast for Tallahassee? So I truly missed out by not being in Chapman. Those young ones & Elinor Mount-Simmons sound Broadway bound.
    You & Kary & Craig are deserving of many more stages, such as the visionary Faye Johnson provided. Wanna meet that gal!

    Finally, applause to the folks, young ‘uns and not so young, of Apalachicola.

    xox
    Jan

    Like

    • Wherever we stage the show it will never measure up to the Chapman for seemingly insurmountable problems and sheer beauty. I got very fond of that grand-old-lady of a theater.

      Before the play is staged again I will do a little rewriting so the show is sleeker and has fewer points at which I say, “Any second now the curtain will open.”

      Hope you are there next time Jan!

      Like

  • I love the thought of your characters becoming real and having minds of their own. Very similar to what happens when you write! And just like in your books, I could see each of these kids for who they were. Congratulations on your first play!

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  • Well, finally Amy came to my neighborhood and I got to see her play. It was very good. Now as they as, I will have to read the book and compare. I especially enjoyed the trees moving across the back of the stage while the girls ran in place. I haven’t seen too many plays in my life but I imagine Arthur Miller had all the same problems when he started out. It was lots of fun for everybody. Good job Amy … and a good town for the opening performance of such a play.

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  • Faye says:

    Adrian- Oh my, what do I say? We are, were, and always will be so blessed by this program. I can’t tell you how many locals have come to me to say, “Gosh, I heard the play was great, sorry I missed it.” I’m sorry for anyone who missed out on the excitement and joy of a beautiful birthing. This will always be our “first born.”

    Adrian, Kary, Liz and all the cast and characters were absolutely perfect! The whole process from Skypeing rehearsals with Adrian before they even arrived to watching one of the dead people twirling their flower in the cemetery. It has always been my strategy that problems are just something that need to be fixed-up, even the holes in the curtain, but it takes a real trooper to hang in there and see the light at the end of such a large tunnel. This was a massive undertaking for a small program, but I never had a doubt that it would be perfect.

    I thank you all, my children thank you, and all of Apalach is a better place for your work. I loved the book and thought it would make a great play, but the music was a major bonus. It breathed life into the story. Thanks you Kary and Craig.

    We (Nana Grace & I) want to stage it again for the Franklin County School- what do you think? Encore, encore! Broadway anyone?

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  • Elinor Mount-Simmons says:

    OMG Adrian! In reading your review of my portrayal of Nana Grace, I am so humbled!! You blessed me w/ your words. Thank you so much for allowing me to show Nana Grace in the manner that I did. It was an incredibly enjoyable time for me and much fun!! Thanks also to Faye for asking me to be involved in this wonderful premier for Apalachicola. I so very much loved it! Other than church holiday events, I never acted before, but thoroughly enjoyed myself in this production, including the singing! This experience will always be fondly remembered! (I got excited all over again in just reading your review and other’s comments on this page.) Again, thanks so much Adrian, for allowing me to share Nana Grace w/ the ‘world.’

    Like

    • You were perfect Elinor, and an important part of a very warm memory for me. We haven’t produced the play since so you may be the first–and only–living, breathing embodiment of Nana Grace. If so, I am completely satisfied.

      Like

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