High School Never Ends

CHAUTAUQUA – Do you remember the joys and the tribulations of high school? The Chautauqua Theater Company is preparing to offer you a new perspective on those important years in your life.

”The May Queen,” by Molly Smith Metzler, examines people who went to high school together, and who had established both a community and a pecking order. Set a number of years after graduation, the play finds these people thrown back together by the peculiarities of life, and shows them re-examining the values which created their community ”back then,” and sets them wandering through new understandings, and new relationships, and entirely new values, while wondering how their lives have been misshapen by their lack of understanding in the past.

The play will open officially one week from this evening at 6 p.m., following one preview performance on Friday at 8 p.m. It will play at the Bratton Theater through July 27, with varying curtain times. If you choose to buy tickets, be certain to make note of at what time your performance will begin. Tickets are $30, and may be purchased in person, at the box office in the Main Gate building, or at Chautauqua Institution’s website at www.ciweb.org, or by phone at 357-6250.

This week, I have made the drive to Chautauqua twice: once to speak with two of the leading actors from the production, and the second time to speak with the play’s director, and with the playwright. The astonishing thing about this particular production is that it is still being written, as you read this column. Metzler was commissioned to write the play, for performance this summer. As she watches the cast which has been chosen to perform her ideas and her words, and as she hears her words spoken aloud, not echoing in her own mind, she can revise, subtract or change them as she sees fit.

The result should be exciting. There’s every chance you might be saying in 20 or 30 years, ”I remember the very first performances of that play.”

VIVIENNE BENESCH

”The May Queen” is being directed by Vivienne Benesch. As you probably know, Benesch is beginning her 10th season as the artistic director of the Chautauqua Theater Company. She was a member of the performing company for six years, before taking the helm of the operation.

Benesch is well known and greatly respected as an award-winning actress, on and off Broadway, and in regional theaters around the country. She has directed productions in the same genres, and has taught acting and theater at some of the finest universities and conservatories in our country.

”When I first came to Chautauqua, I felt an obligation to provide excellent classical theater, which could both entertain and inspire the audience,” she said. ”I also felt I had an obligation to introduce audiences to new things, to provide a platform for new voices, and a mechanism for new talents to develop and to grow.

”Being in charge of the conservatory, which each year trains young actors for careers in the arts, means we need to provide them with roles which will cause them to stretch and to grow,” she continued. ”This year, for example, four of the five plays we’re performing were written by women playwrights – and the one man is Shakespeare, so that’s pretty good company. The two New Play Workshops and our commissioned play, ‘The May Queen,’ all are being produced with the playwrights present at rehearsals, and shaping their writing to the individual qualities and talents of our actors. That’s a situation which makes us stand out among the theater companies of the world, and which has won us a great deal of respect.”

Playwright Metzler has been at Chautauqua twice before, as the author of plays being presented in workshop form. Those would be ”Close Up Space,” which went on to play off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club, and ”Carve,” which was also produced at the Juilliard School, in New York City.

”I love working with Molly,” Benesch said. ”She’s smart, she’s sharp and she has a rare empathy. One of her greatest talents is to work with the actors to show real, believable people in her plays. They’re flawed, as are we all, they make mistakes, but even the characters who are something of a stumbling block for the principal characters have a humanity with which we can all identify.”

The director said ”The May Queen” is funny, and at times will remind people of office-centered situation comedies, on television, but there is art, as well as entertainment in the play. ”This is a great date play. It isn’t too heavy for a summer night, and it’s funny, so the people who don’t want an artistic challenge can enjoy it. It only lasts about an hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission, so no one needs to feel trapped inside on a beautiful summer day.

”On the other hand,” she continued, ”It has a lot to do with facing the mistakes and the successes in our past, and in forgiving ourselves for not knowing what we didn’t understand in the past. It’s not a typical love story.”

MOLLY SMITH METZLER

The playwright of ”The May Queen” is one of those rare individuals who is so interesting and so attractive and so energetic, it’s difficult to concentrate on doing an interview.

I’ve interviewed her several times before, including once on her cellphone during her brother’s wedding, and another time in a New York City diner during the run of one of her plays at the Manhattan Theatre Club. This time, we met in the green room of the CTC, in the Brawdy Building, which is home to all of the company’s activities, except the actual performances. It turned out that several rehearsals and classes were finishing, just at the moment, and the room quickly filled up with actors and other personnel, so she suggested we commandeer a nearby rehearsal hall for a quieter talk.

This has been a golden summer for the young playwright. She has finally reached a level of success which has made it possible for her to stop working ”day jobs,” and to earn her living by her writing. She and her 19-month-old daughter, Cora, are surrounded by a relatively leisurely atmosphere, full of sunshine and leafy, green spaces, and friendly faces.

Of course, when we use the term ”leisurely,” we need to understand that means teaching and being an on-call mentor at the Chautauqua Writing Center, attending rehearsals and revising ”The May Queen,” and working on a television series idea, and commissions of new plays for South Coast Rep, Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Manhattan Theatre Club.

”I worked on ‘The May Queen’ most of last summer at Chautauqua,” she told me. “I was about half done, at the end of the season, and had the first draft finished by October.”

”The May Queen” is set at Kingston High School, where the playwright graduated not all that long ago. The city has a population slightly smaller than Jamestown’s. It is located on the Hudson River, a bit north of the midpoint between New York City and Albany.

”I went back to my high school a while ago. I’ve always felt that when you first walk into a building, it usually gives you a good clue of what is most admired and encouraged in that building. Immediately inside the front door of my high school was a plaque which lists the names of girls who had been elected May Queen, to which they added, each year,” she said.

”It made me think about those girls and whether they had gone on to fame or fortune, and what had happened to those of us who were supposed to admire them so much,” she admitted. Is there more to the story than that?

”Most European cultures have very old celebrations in which young women are selected Queen of the May, and are crowned with flowers, and so forth,” she said. ‘

‘The celebrations tend to have their roots in human sacrifice, involving virgins,” she added, with a laugh.

She said that her play begins in what she thinks is a fairly typical insurance office. ”The office is like a pod, where people are closed together within walls and separated only by cubicles,” she said. ”For many of us, who no longer live near our parents and our relatives, the population of our office often serves the same function as family. We know each other’s secrets, we sometimes socialize together, we eat meals together and so on.”

The character of Mike Tejada is in a leadership role in the office. He’s good looking and athletic, and people tend to look up to him. The women in the office tend to admire him. He is portrayed by guest actor Joe Tippett, whom we interviewed as recorded below.

When he was a senior in high school, Mike had been very interested in a girl who was a sophomore. The candidates for the office of May Queen were nominated by the senior members of the football team, so Mike had nominated and convinced his teammates to vote for the object of his affection, hoping to score some points with her. Since the May Queen had always been a senior girl, until that year, Mike had unknowingly made her the object of the bitter hatred of the overlooked senior girls, and of her own classmates, who were envious.

The focal point of the play begins when the former May Queen comes to work in the insurance office, as a temporary employee. Will Joe and the former object of his affection work out a better arrangement this time, or will the pressures of the office turn out to be twins to those of high school?

JOE TIPPETT

A professional guest artist, appearing as the office Romeo, is actor Joe Tippett. He is a muscular and dynamic young man, certainly believable as a former athletic hero.

”I see Joe as a guy who is trying to atone for his past errors. Not only did he make the unwise nomination of the May Queen, he was involved in an auto accident, which caused serious injury, both to himself and to others,” he said.

Tippett grew up in a small town in Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C. ”Members of my family are mostly construction workers and firefighters. I got into theater because one of my brothers was in a play and he invited me to come and be part of it. I went to West Virginia University on a football scholarship, but I did some acting while I was there. It wasn’t long before I got to thinking that in a few years, I might be earning a living at acting, but I didn’t think I had a lot of opportunity to make a living at football, so I switched over full time,” he said.

The actor has had four roles in television and films, to date, including two episodes of the series ”Boardwalk Empire.” and a role in the still-being-filmed feature film ”License Plates.” On stage, he has a number of credits at highly respected venues such as Rattlestick Playwrights Festival, in New York City, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, in Massachusetts, the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre and more.

I asked if he preferred film performance or live stage appearances, and he chuckled. ”When you’re an actor, you don’t have a lot of choice. You keep your ears open for opportunities, and you go where they’ll take you. Film and television pay a lot more than live theater, and I’m not opposed to making money, that’s for sure. But acting on film means doing one small thing, then waiting while they change the lighting or move the cameras, and then often doing the same thing, again and again.

”Live theater is special,” he continued. ”You can see and hear and feel how what you’re doing is affecting the people in the seats. You start at the beginning of the play and work straight through it. On film, you can do a scene with another actor who has already filmed his part of the conversation, and never even meet him. On stage, you can react to what the other actor says, and you can see how what you’re saying impacts on him. There is nothing like live theater.

The actor said he has loved working with ”The May Queen,” and considers it one of the best plays he has known. I suspect we all will agree with that opinion, soon.

MARY BACON

Mary Bacon describes herself, both in person and on her web page, as ”a working actress.” This is something like a Super Bowl-winning footballer, describing himself as ”a former high school athlete.”

You might have seen her on television’s ”The Good Wife,” or on any of the three ”Law and Order” franchises, including the original, ”Special Victims Unit,” and ”Criminal Intent.” Her stage successes include Viola, in ”Twelfth Night,” Alma Winemiller in ”The Eccentricities of the Nightingale,” Hypatia in ”Misalliance,” and recently as Adarene in the musical version of ”Giant,” which won major awards for Chautauqua County native composer Michael John LaChiusa.

Her role in ”The May Queen” is not the former queen, but an regular employee of the insurance office.

”The play calls our attention to life in small towns,” she said. ”Many people who live there find there are relatively few jobs available, for example. It isn’t like you can quit an unsatisfactory job and start something new, tomorrow. People make big compromises and put up with a lot that isn’t the best for them. They live surrounded by people who know almost everything about them, and they have to deal with other people’s expectations more than people who work in larger cities do,” she said.

Bacon describes her character as a very funny one, who makes a positive situation out of everything she possibly can. ”She’s the sort of person who sort of holds the office together, suggests nights out together, teaches a class in Zumba, remembers people’s birthdays,” she said.

Bacon was part of the first read-through of the script, which was done on Long Island in April. She has been impressed that the play’s director has been so thorough in getting to completely understand who each character is and why he or she does and says the things they do. ”Do people around here understand who Vivienne Benesch and (resident director) Ethan McSweeny are?” she asked, then went on to answer. ”They’re top-of-the-line theater people who know just about everyone in the business, and who can do just about anything.”

The actor describes her chosen career as one of constant uncertainty, where sometimes it is necessary to turn down a much-desired part because one has already signed a contract to do something one doesn’t want nearly as much. Where there are slow periods in which it feels as though one will never work again, interrupted out of the blue by what can turn out to be five different projects, piling up on themselves.

”Living and working in New York City can be exciting, but it’s expensive, and it can be exhausting. If you’re lucky, you can work as much as possible in regional theater. There isn’t a lot of money in live theater, but what there is mostly in the regional houses,” she said.

An exciting cast, in a first-rate play, with quality design and direction and other production values. And, it’s funny. This production should be something to be anticipated with eagerness.