Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mockingbird Hits Second Weekend

Larry Savoy as Tom Robinson
Thursday — Tonight we open our second weekend of performances of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Vanity Theater. We'll perform three more shows at 8 p.m. tonight, Friday, and Saturday nights. Friday is nearly sold out and Saturday is likely to sell out by the time we take the stage. Good seats are available for tonight's show.

Last night before our LAST rehearsal, I said to the cast that I wanted them to be sharp — sharp on timing, sharp on lines, focused. Then I looked up and said, "We only get to do this four more times."

Four more times. That's all.

A year ago when I signed on to do this seems so far away. Early February — when I cast the children's roles — seems like a long time ago. Our first rehearsal in early March, well, a long time ago. And yet now we have only three more days as a cast of this remarkable play.

Mahlon Nevitt as Link Deas
And what's really interesting is that this weekend's performances will no doubt be dramatically different than last weekend (pun intended). Larry Savoy carries the role of Tom Robinson this weekend, while DeVan Taylor slips into the role of a spiritual-singing Maycomb citizen.

We're excited to see both men in these new roles. As a director, I'm looking forward to seeing the effects on the rest of the cast and the flow of the courtroom scenes.

I have a hunch that each and every one of the 27 actors still has a "personal best" performance in them. While I thought all three shows last weekend were excellent, this group just seems to get better every time we're together. There is a closeness in this cast that I've not experience before, and they trust each other to perform at a high level every time out. I'm positive that will be the case this weekend.

At auditions way back when, I told the actors that I thought they had an opportunity to do something special with Mockingbird. I also said that I am aware that every director says that at the outset of a production.

But given the historical significance of this story, the town in which our play is being performed, and the way the cast has galvanized — something truly special has happened. And I suspect all of us associated with this production will never forget our time together. We hope our audiences feel the the same.
Reggie Steele, DeVan Taylor, Jerry Bowie, and Bekah Kirts

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Terrific Opening Night!

A packed house at the Vanity Theater gave the cast of the Sugar Creek Players' production of To Kill a Mockingbird a warm reception, and in turn, the cast turned in a terrific opening night performance Friday.

Only a stalled train blocking the tracks in downtown Crawfordsville could slow the start of our show. But even starting a few minutes late, Niki Hutson (Jean Louise), Sammie Amidon (Scout), and the entire cast got off to a fast start and never looked back.

Having rehearsed the show for so long, all of us involved had grown accustomed to the dialogue, and so when the audience laughed or applauded, it caught us a bit off guard. But the energy from the audience was passed directly to the actors and the show was a remarkable success.

For people like Debbie Reed, Alex Livengood, Matt Mayberry, and many other cast members stepping on stage for the first time (in some cases the VERY first time and in others a VERY long time), the butterflies quickly flew off and each delivered memorable performances.

It's hard to single out just a few of the 27 actors in the show; I couldn't be more proud of all of them. I take my hat off for Sammie, Conner Smith, and Trey Rogers — ages 11-13. They're Vanity veterans who have combined for about 20 theatrical roles, but acting in an all-adult play with such serious, heavy themes, they shined brightly. The began rehearsals in the library at Wabash College back in February, and that hard work really paid off.

Sue Rubner — one of the sweetest women I've met in years — transforms herself into Mrs. Dubose, who is one of the angriest, bitter women I've met in years. What a performance!

And while Clayton Mikesell has only one line — "Miss Jean Louise, will you take me home?" — he certain sold the part and was one of the most talked-about actors after the show.

Anchoring it all was Damon Lincourt's incredible performance as Atticus, razor-sharp from start to finish. After the show, he looked positively drained. But I stole a glimpse of him in the lobby after most of the crowd had left. There he was, standing with children Victoria and Ben, smiling. And so were the kids, whose pride in their father was clearly evident.

Tickets are still available for Saturday night's performance, as well as Sunday's matinee and all three shows next weekend. Call 765-362-7077 to reserve your seats now.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hitting the Books and Boards

We're now less than 48 hours away from opening night — and hoping the paint will be dry on the stage of the Vanity Theater for the Sugar Creek Players' production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Opening night is a virtual sell-out and will be a full house by mid-day Thursday. We're hoping the buzz generated from all the hard work of the cast and crew will lead to packed houses throughout the first weekend.

Before we hit the stage, though, a few of us will hit the books. Thanks to generous grants from the Montgomery County Community Foundation, the Montgomery County Republican Women, the Women's Auxiliary of the American Legion, and Delta Theta Tau, we're engaging in some educational outreach — to promote the play, but more to promote the values of the To Kill a Mockingbird.

On Friday, a few of us will visit the Tuttle Middle School class taught by Tami Haas. Her students are sixth graders and all are advanced (and eager) readers. Many of those same students are Vanity Theater veterans, and we know many will attend the play in support of their classmate Sammie Amidon, who plays Scout.

The following week, we'll visit the classes of Beth Gentry (Northridge Middle School) and Anita Harris (Hoover School).

The grants allow us to offer free tickets to students whose classes are studying the book — or who have studied it. We also know that seeing the play will inspire many of these same students to read or re-read Harper Lee's amazing book.

While we'll have students from fifth grade to seniors in high school scattered throughout our six performances, it looks like Friday, April 22 will be the biggest night for students. Mrs. Gentry is bringing 30 students and two teachers to watch the play!

We're grateful to everyone who has supported us on this amazing journey over the last two months. We're anxious to share our work with you and hope you can appreciate how dedicated the cast has been — to each other and to the production.

Tickets can be purchased or reserved by calling the box office at 765-362-7077 or stop by to see Lois at 122 South Washington Street from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily.

In 48 hours, we'll be most of the way through our first performance. I couldn't be more proud — or excited.

Break a leg!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Vanity's Mockingbird Ready to Fly

Early Tuesday Morning — The cast and crew of the Sugar Creek Players' production of To Kill a Mockingbird opens Friday at the Vanity Theater (122 S. Washington Street, Crawfordsville, IN). Through the hard work of two dedicated producers, an incredible lighting designer, an overworked costumer, the theater's managing director, and our 27 actors, this first-time director could not be more proud of the play that makes its Montgomery County premier Friday night.

Rehearsals have improved with every passing night. Brent Harris's lighting design is taking shape, and his side kick, Henry Swift, are creating a stunning visual environment. Chris Amidon's costume picks take us back to 1935 and rural Alabama. With all of those pieces in place, the cast is breathing life into the words and our audiences will be the beneficiaries of ego-free collaboration among people who just two months ago barely knew one another, but today stand as a galvanized ensemble.

I applaud them all for embracing the play's central theme of walking around in another person's skin; seeing things from someone else's perspective.

I also wish to thank Steve Charles for attending our rehearsals to document our work in photographs. I'll share a stack of them here.

But if you're reading for the first time, as many of you are, please read beyond the photographs; back up and see just how far we've come.

Join us our wonderful journey and plan now to get your tickets through the Vanity Theater Box Office. Call 765-362-7077 at any time or drop by the box office from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays to purchase or reserve tickets. The box office opens one hour before curtain each night. But you ought to reserve your tickets TODAY. Opening night is nearly sold out and tickets are going fast for the first weekend's shows.

Performances are at 8 p.m. April 15-16 and April 21-23; there is a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, April 17 with a talk-back session immediately following the show (approximately 4:30).

Sammie Amidon as Scout and Heather Olin as Miss Maudie

Trey Rogers as Dill, Sammie Amidon as Scout, Conner Smith as Jem 

Damon Lincourt as Atticus Finch

Damon Lincourt and Sammie Amidon

Damon Lincourt as Atticus, Deb Reed as Calpurnia, Matt Mayberry as Heck Tate

Damon Lincourt as Atticus Finch

Stephen Morillo as Bob Ewell

Alli Aldrich as Mayella Ewell

DeVan Taylor as Tom Robinson

Damon Lincourt and Sammie Amidon
Sue Rubner as Mrs. Dubose

Art Lang as Mr. Gilmer and Stu Weliever as Judge Taylor

Niki Hutson as Jean Louise Finch

Bekah Kirts as Helen Robinson

Jill Rogers as Miss Stephanie

Monday, April 11, 2011

Nearing the End of a Remarkable Journey

When the cast of the Sugar Creek Players’ production of To Kill a Mockingbird hits the stage Friday for opening night, they will be at an important point on a long journey that began for many of them in early February.

The actors and crew will be a part of this community’s first-ever staged production of Mockingbird, which is one of the most-read and most-loved books in American history.

Ranging in age from 11 to 80-something, the actors come from Texas, Mississippi, New Orleans, Illinois, and all parts in between. Some are black, some are white, and some are bi-racial. One is a sixth grader and another is a Rhodes Scholar.

They have come together as a family of sorts. They have become an ensemble that can tackle the difficult issues of racism, sexism, and class differences. They know each other so well — and trust each other so much — that they are capable of using language we’ve tried for generations to purge from our lexicon.

As the play’s director, I’ve watched them struggle and overcome obvious obstacles. And I’m proud that when a particularly nasty, mean-spirited scene ends, the actors remain good friends.

“Well, of course,” you say, “they’re only acting.”

Yes, but imagine being a 19-year-old black man sitting on stage as a dozen white people call you “nigger” in scene after scene, rehearsal after rehearsal, night after night.

Recreating this part of our not-so-distant past has been a difficult and remarkable achievement.

Mockingbird has long been described as one of the great children’s books of all-time. Yet its themes are hardly the stuff of childhood. Scholars have debated and published widely on the book’s themes and characters, and part of author Harper Lee’s genius is that no two people love the book for precisely the same reasons.

For many young men, Atticus Finch is an ideal role model. Indeed, ask a dozen lawyers today what motivated them to pursue a career in law, and I’ll bet you half will reference Atticus Finch or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Young girls are attracted to Scout’s rare combination of innocence and courage. Others feel empathy for Mayella Ewell’s sad existence and pain for the abuse she suffers at the hand of her father.

Some people are drawn to Boo Radley, the most talked-about and scarcely seen character in the book. The legend of Boo is larger than life with the kids imagining a boogey man capable of eating live squirrels and dead cats. Yet after he saves the children’s lives, Scout is inspired to say of Boo, “He’s real nice,” at the conclusion of the play.

Harper Lee throws a lot at the reader, but the real take-away message (at least for me) is the idea of seeing things from a different perspective — the notion of “walking around in another man’s skin.”

The story at first follows normal stereotypes and attitudes of 1935 Alabama. But with every event and through every character, we’re allowed to see that “different perspective.” While we know that Mayella Ewell is lying when she accuses Tom Robinson of raping her, we also see that she is a very young and desperate woman, who fears that her own father will kill her if she doesn’t tell the lie.

We see Jem and Scout’s many frustrations with everything their father, Atticus, can’t do — he isn’t sheriff, he doesn’t play football or drive a dump truck, and he won’t even teach them to shoot their air rifles. But as the story unfolds on the stage, the children begin to walk around in their father’s skin; they begin to see him for what he is rather than what he is not.

Our goal since day one of this journey has been to produce something that does more than stir nostalgic recollections from middle-aged audiences who fondly remember reading the book as a child. While we hope that our play does that, too, our real hope is that this production inspires honest and thoughtful conversation.

The book was written 50 years ago when the KKK still had a pretty active presence around here. Less than a generation ago, the Klan tried to rally at our courthouse, but our Human Right Commission countered with a successful Celebration of Diversity.

What remarkable progress we have made in this community.

How much farther can we go? Can we begin to recognize people for who they are and not what color they are, what gender they are, or how much money they make?

The secret to our success — and the wonderful theme of the play — lies in our ability to walk around in the black man’s skin, the woman’s skin, and the poor farmer’s skin. Once we do that, all of us will have learned what Scout learns by the end of To Kill a Mockingbird — that most people are real nice, once you get to know them.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Mockingbird Ready to Sing

Heather Olin steps to the center of the Vanity Theater stage, pauses, then looks closely at the three child actors sitting nearby. She takes a deep breath before she turns to the children and — as Miss Maudie Atkinson — says, “I simply want you to know that there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them.”

The father is Atticus Finch and the unpleasant business is the defense of a young Black man charged with rape. The time is 1935, the place is Maycomb, Alabama, and the story is To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most-read books in American history.

The Sugar Creek Players’ production of To Kill a Mockingbird opens April 15 and runs for consecutive weekends. Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. April 15-16 and April 21-23, and there is a 2 p.m. matinee on April 17. Tickets go on sale Monday, April 11.

“The cast feels honored to bring this classic story to the stage of the Vanity Theater — the first time the play has been performed in Montgomery County,” said the play’s director, Jim Amidon. “While the story deals with unpleasant issues like racism, sexism, and class differences, it also celebrates the integrity of Atticus Finch and the lessons he imparts on his children. The central theme of ‘walking around in another man’s skin’ is as pertinent today as it was when Harper Lee wrote the book 50 years ago.”

The play condenses the book’s two years into a couple of hours, but the powerful themes remain, Amidon said.

“Much like the book, the play is narrated throughout by Jean Louise Finch,” he said. “Our Jean Louise, played by Niki Hutson, returns in memory to her small town home and recalls the people and events that changed her life. And only by recalling these events does she gain a full and real understanding of the motivations of her father. It’s a wonderful script that does justice to the book.”

Some members of the 27-person cast have rehearsed since early February.

Damon Lincourt, who last appeared in Sugar at the Vanity, is a poised and proper Atticus Finch, who with the help of his housemaid Calpurnia (played by newcomer Debbie Reed) raises two precocious and curious children, Scout (played by Sammie Amidon) and Jem (played by Conner Smith). The role of the children’s friend, Dill, is played by Trey Rogers.

The play tells the story of Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell — though Finch claims Mayella was beaten by her father and that the rape never occurred. 

“I feel blessed to have such talented actors in these key roles,” Amidon said. “Two Wabash students, DeVan Taylor and Larry Savoy, will share the role of Tom Robinson. Both are experienced actors and both delivered stirring auditions.”

Taylor will have the role in the first weekend and Savoy will play Tom in the second weekend.

Alli Aldrich appears in her third Vanity production as Mayella, while Stephen Morillo, a history professor and author at Wabash College, makes his Vanity debut as the bigoted Bob Ewell.

“This is a tough play,” Amidon said. “Its themes, its language, the treatment of African Americans and women — these are difficult issues. But in spite of these crucial themes, it is Atticus Finch’s goodness, the innocence of Scout, the power of one man standing up for what is right — those are the lessons that have made this one of the most-loved stories of all-time.”

Local attorney Stu Weliver, who appeared in the first Sugar Creek Players production at the Vanity Theater years ago, makes his return as Judge Taylor. SCP newcomer Matt Mayberry plays the rough-edged, but sensitive sheriff, Heck Tate. And Art Lang makes a return to the stage as the prosecuting attorney, Mr. Gilmer.

Heather Olin delivers some of the most meaningful speeches in the play in the role of Miss Maudie, while her gossipy neighbor, Stephanie Crawford, is played by Jill Rogers. Sue Rubner makes a fine Vanity debut as the angry, sickly Mrs. Dubose.

Other cast members include Barbara Walden and Sharyn Adams as Maycomb citizens; Rick James as the court clerk; Alex Livengood as Nathan Radley; Clayton Mikesell as Boo Radley; Jerry Bowie as Reverend Sykes; Rebekah Kirts as Helen Robinson; Bill Hepburn as Walter Cunningham; Mahlon Nevitt as Link Deas; Matt Clark as the angry boy; and Reggie Steele as a citizen of Maycomb.

Hoosier Heartland State Bank is the play’s sponsor. Tickets are $10 for adults and $6 for children 12 and under. Tickets can be reserved by phone at 765-362-7077, or purchased at the box office Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and one hour before curtain each night.

The production has also garnered grants from the Montgomery County Community Foundation, Republican Women of Montgomery County, Delta Theta Tau, and the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Legion. The grants will be used to purchase tickets for students and teachers studying or discussing the book as part of classroom activities. Teachers interested in bringing students to the play — or offering extra credit to those who do — should contact Amidon at 361-6364.

A “talk back” session with selected members of the cast and production team will be held following the performance on Sunday, April 17. Audience members are welcome to converse with cast members and ask questions about the play.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pictures and Grants

The cast of the Sugar Creek Players' production of To Kill a Mockingbird is coming together and our rehearsals are getting better with each passing evening. On Sunday, we came together for our usual cast meeting — though missing a few spring breakers — and worked through the entire play for only the second time. There were a few bumps here and there, but our actors have worked hard to learn their lines and blocking, and it looked really good last night.

Great news: Our production was selected as a grant winner by the Montgomery County Community Foundation! The MCCF is celebrating 20 years of grant-making and is doing so by drawing at random 20 grants each worth $1000 in the 20 weeks leading up to the anniversary of the founding.

Our production of Mockingbird was selected on March 28. Our hope was to use grant money to purchase tickets for students at the local middle and high schools who are studying Harper Lee's book. We didn't want ticket prices to get in the way of an important learning opportunity for those students, and so we wrote a grant application with hopes of being drawn.

Cheryl Keim, the MCCF director of development, called last week to tell us we had been selected, and on Wednesday she surprised the cast by showing up with a check for $1000. Not only that, but Cheryl made a few phone calls to other local agencies, and we've now received four grants totaling $1800 for our educational outreach efforts. Big thanks to the Republican Women of Montgomery County for a $500 grant; the Delta Theta Tau sorority for a $200 donation; and the Women's Auxiliary of the American Legion for their $100 grant.

We love this play, this story, and all that it stands for. We're excited that so many local people have shared our vision and our desire to bring students into our theater to experience the story on stage.

Finally, Steve Charles of Wabash College dropped by last night and took photos of our rehearsal. Steve will be back to take "official" photos once we're in dress rehearsals, but he shared a few of his better shots with us. Many, many thanks, Steve!

Mockingbird Rehearsal Photo Album 1

Mockingbird Rehearsal Photo Album 2

Mockingbird Rehearsal Photo Album 3

Mockingbird Rehearsal Photo Album 4