Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Theatre Droppings: Stage Guild Does Its Bit

I was tickled pink (or some other, more Shavian colour) to attend the opening night of Strange Bedfellows, offered by the Washington Stage Guild at Catholic University, Saturday night. It was a welcome return to full production by the Guild, which has been on hiatus for the past two seasons; I'll get to that in a mo'. First, it's a pleasure to report that the double bill of one-acts by George Bernard Shaw is hilarious. Why wouldn't it be? Not only is the cast filled with my friends (well, perhaps one or two are mere acquaintances, but why quibble), they are all experts at translating Shaw's humor to the stage.

Director Bill Largess assembled an outstanding ensemble, filled exclusively with old hands who attended Catholic University back in the day, and who were all important contributors to the formation of the Stage Guild in 1986. I especially enjoyed seeing Alan Wade, who directed me in Of Mice and Men, play a couple of wildly different roles. Alan is a well-respected professor of theatre at George Washington University, and the academic gravitas which that position requires suits him well. So it was a double hoot to watch this genteel gent let loose onstage, first as a harried prime minister crawling under the furniture (in ladies' heels!), then as an hilariously drunken clerk. If he did not already have a very full career on campus, he would be a much more frequent player on local stages.

The rest of the cast are all folks I had the pleasure of working with in the Stage Guild's recent Staged Reading Series. I may be prejudiced toward this unique theatre company; regular readers of these pages already know that one of my favorite onstage experiences was provided by WSG, when I appeared in their production of Opus. That lovely show was, until last Saturday, their last fully produced production. The intervening two years have been more than difficult for the Guild.

I've learned a bit of the history of the group, from program notes and from chats with the current artistic director (the same Bill Largess mentioned above), and from the executive director, Ann Norton. This group of CU grads performed Shaw's Heartbreak House back in 1986, a production which encouraged them to form their own theatre company. From the start their focus has been on the plays themselves, which has yielded a high threshold of quality ("rare plays, well done!" is their motto), and anyone who has been in the DC theatrical community for a while knows and admires their ambitious work.

Over the years, while WSG concentrated on the work, other DC companies spent a lot of energy on institutional growth. Studio, Signature, and Woolly Mammoth, for example, expanded their boards and launched fundraising campaigns, ultimately resulting in those institutions landing in swanky permanent digs. But the Stage Guild took a different route, continuing to concentrate on, well, rare plays, well done.

They had what seemed a permanent space for a decade or so, at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, where the chief priest was a big supporter. Eventually, Rome became displeased with the idea of a secular theatre group performing on Catholic grounds, and threw them out. OK, I made that part up, just to add to the dramatic narrative. Carroll Hall, the performance space occupied by WSG, was slated for demolition. (But I think that was just an excuse; I know the real reason the Guild was evicted: the Pope was mad that WSG refused to do Nunsense). Anyway, the group moved on, performing at Source theatre for a handful of years, and in a small black box owned by Arena Stage for another five or so. It was in that latter space where Opus was performed, and was so successful that it was remounted several months later. The show was promoted as the final Stage Guild production before the company moved into its own, permanent theatre.

Yes, it seemed the muses really did like rare plays, well done, and WSG had been invited to become the arts component in a new office building going up in Penn Quarter (the developers received incentives from the city in exchange for allowing some sort of arts organization to occupy their new basement space). A Capital Campaign was launched, and I'm told a good bit of money was spent to design a theatre space which would afford the Stage Guild a unique home of their own. This was terrific news. The types of plays WSG produces really cry out for a bigger space (the farcical elements of their current show at Catholic, for example, would fit very nicely in a larger venue). The new theatre was to hold several hundred patrons, and was designed with all the bells and whistles necessary to produce high quality work.

Plans for this new space were well underway when I began to hang with the Guild gang. (This was back when I worked with many of them on a staged concert reading of 1776, about which I wrote a while ago.) If my memory serves, everyone was truly excited and optimistic about the future, with only one snag. Well, maybe two. The first: several millions of dollars were needed to turn the basement space of this new office building into a theatre. The second, and perhaps more alarming snag: there could be no kitchen. Herein lies a crucial difference between the Stage Guild and so many other companies; founders John MacDonald and Ann Norton lived and worked as family, and treated others the same. Dating back to the first years at the Catholic Church, when the group had the use of a large kitchen, rehearsals and performances were accompanied by generous "family time," usually taking place around a long table full of food. This was an important aspect of the Guild's production model; Ann used to joke to her actors, "You're not well-paid, but at least you're well fed." The prospect of shrinking full-course meals down to frozen food from a microwave was not a pleasant one for this crowd.

Still, the future seemed bright until, as Bill mentioned to the Washington Post last week, a "perfect storm" hit. The Capital Campaign hit bumps, then hills, then walls, and worst of all, John MacDonald suffered a fatal fall at his home. For a company which believed that an artist's work should be harmonious with an artist's life, this was a terrible blow. Then, the economy tanked, and hopes of achieving funding for the new theatre fell, as Bill put it, "out of reach."

For the last couple of years, the Washington Stage Guild has not had a full production, presenting their Staged Reading Series instead, and taking the time to reassess. And of course, to grieve for the loss of their founder. I know that process continues, even as WSG is now offering its first fully produced piece in such a long while. Strange Bedfellows consists of two very funny Shavian playlets, and will be a centerpiece of the International Shaw Conference, which is in town next week (the conference is in DC, at least partly, due to Washington Stage Guild's presence here).

After thoroughly enjoying the show on Saturday, I started to think about this specific group of actors who has spent the last several weeks returning to the scene of their college crimes. It reminded me of a production of Bye Bye Birdie (below) produced waaaaaay back in the late 70s. I played the lead, and though the show was being produced by a church group, we performed in the theatre at JFK High School, on the very stage where I had spent my senior year of high school. Memories flooded back, and ghosts were hiding in every corner. The same thing must be happening to the cast of Strange Bedfellows.

The most powerful ghost they are encountering is probably John MacDonald, who was instrumental in the creation of the Washington Stage Guild, and who dreamed of a permanent space for his troupe. That goal remains in the long-term plans for the theatre company he created, but for now, it's one show at a time...