In this edition of the Hedgerow Theatre Podcast, author Rem Farr pens a tale about the stories in the trees. Read by Rebecca Jane Cureton and Lily Dwoskin, find out why “Everybody Sins in the Sticks.”
Joel Guerrero, Allison Bloechl, Brock D. Vickers, and Susan Wefel in A Murder Has Been Arranged running now through March 29.
a Ghost Story
“Brisk. Nice fall day in Rose Valley. Not cold enough to keep an audience away, and with a sold out show, the evening would be another success for the current production … sales were doing well.” James turned these thoughts over in his head as he prepped for the day ahead.
Passing by the notice board in the front hall of the Hedgerow Farmhouse, he read:
“I’ve got the guts to die. What I want to know is, have you got the guts to live?” – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
“Actors,” he thought with a grunt. “Always quoting show. Especially current shows. Don’t they get enough of it on stage?” As James erased the message and wrote the next day’s call times he thought how great it would be when the show closed.
One of the new actors was giving him trouble. Thomas. Ever since he joined the company last August he was nothing but a pain. Insubordinate. Disruptive. A joker with dark humor. James was done with him, but the show was going well. He’d dismiss him but after closing. “One more week.”
That afternoon as James quietly ate his lunch in the basement of the theatre, Thomas entered. Solitude was disrupted as Thomas lazily flopped on the sofa. “Full house tonight?” James nodded and continued to eat his now rotten tasting egg salad.
“Good,” said Thomas in a long, drawn voice that made James uneasy. James was a tall man, built with a commanding face, hidden by a grizzly bear beard. The wiry Thomas, dark-haired and hunched over at the shoulders, doesn’t serve much of a threat to James’ authority. He could take Thomas–if he had to. There was something in the kid’s eyes. Rebellion. Laughing and joyful rebellion. “One more week.”
Thomas took out a small matchbook from his pocket and threw a new deck of playing cards down on the coffee table.
His mouth formed a gritty half-smile as he moved the matchbook playful between his slender fingers with the dexterity that a stranger would recognize was developed from habit.
James watched him from his chair as Thomas built a small house of cards. No sooner was it standing than Thomas, with a small inward chuckle, tore off a match and set his king and queen alight with the tiny flame.
“Put it out,” James sternly commanded. Thomas laughed with carefree resistance. “Now,” ordered James,”It’s a hazard.”
“Life’s a hazard,” as Thomas hunched over to light a cigarette from the burning paper. James rose angrily and stomped on the burning cards as Thomas, laughing, sauntered outside to take a drag. A gust of November wind rushed in from the open door ushering dead leaves into the basement lounge.
“Actors,” grumbled James. He rubbed at the burn mark in the wooden table. “One more week.”
Alarm bells sounded. Red lights raced past the Hedgerow Farmhouse, down toward the Theatre. Rose Valley was ablaze when James got the phone call to come down.
“Just come now. Quickly.”
James quickly banged on all the residents’ doors.
“Fire!” He yelled.
Noises. Scrambling. Obscenities filled the recently quiet, dark house as doors opened and actors emerged. James grabbed a handful of men and raced down to the theatre.
The thirty-second ride seemed like an eternity until they pulled into the gravel lot cluttered with giant red engines and firefighters struggling to quell the blaze that engulfed the once mill turned playing space. Jets of water shot into the flames. The beautiful dome was gone. Perished. Roof caved in completely.
The fireman fought for what seemed like years until the flames gave up, leaving a burnt out shell of over 100 years of history. Now all blackened stone and bits of wood.
James sent the company back to the Farmhouse as he began to survey the rubble.
Running around he identified the wooden chairs, once warmed by full houses, now burnt. The stage boards, completely eaten up exposing the basement lounge underneath. As he squinted, James recognized the frames of furniture and Thomas’ trampled, burnt-up pack of cards. Kings and queens. Gone.
There was no time for anger or questions. But that never stopped the police.
“Excuse us, James,” said the officer.
“I’m afraid so. Can’t wait”
“What is there to say?”
“Where were you earlier this evening?”
“Here. Then I went to the house after the show started.”
“Why was your car still here then?”
“I left it. It was parked in. Full house.”
“Full house? So the theatre was doing well, eh?”
“Was,” James gritted his teeth at the officer’s lack of sensitivity.
“Can this wait? I’ve got to get to a company without jobs. I need to-”
“We need to speak with them as well. Individually,” insisted the officer.
The interrogation continued until the police were temporarily satisfied. They dropped James off at the Farmhouse. One of the residents shyly walked up to James as he entered the front hall.
“Police question you, Allen?”
“Questioned us all for hours”
“Where is the kid”
“Which one?” Allen apologetically grinned.
“Skipped out. Left.”
“I dunno. Late last night. He didn’t come down when you woke us”
“Good riddance, eh?”
With a sigh, James turned catching sight of the notice board. His earlier message erased with a new one in its place:
The Phoenix hope, can wing her way through the desert skies, and still defying fortune’s spite; revive from ashes and rise. – Miguel de Cervantes
James flew down to the theatre. Smoke still steamed from the pile of rubble against the blues and oranges of the dusky night’s sky.
The smoldering ashes created clouds of dust as James searched through the fallen beams, stones, and miscellaneous debris. Wading through the soggy mess and coughing through the dust, he turned over bits of half melted furniture with fiery rage.
As he looked down he noticed a something. A playing card. New. He picked it up, looking around for an explanation of its existence.
Turning the card over he saw a picture of a lanky joker staring at him with a gritty grin.
A familiar laugh echoed through the smoky rubble as James looked out into the empty darkness.
a Ghost Story
The pounding and carving of the machinery created a soothing, constant motion. Reassuring. Pulleys, cogs, cranks, piles of wood, and water churning through the stream that powers Rose Valley’s small but growing community. David walked up the path, a lunch pail in one hand and a worn leather notebook in the other. He looked forward to these sounds.
As he took in the early morning light and nature that made his commute so pleasant, he hummed his usual tune, entering the building with a nod to his Super. The Super was a hard man, but not unkind. His worn, ruddy face showed he knew a hard day’s work since he was a young boy. Keeping a stern face kept men in line.
Old Hutton’s Mill was built in 1840 as a feed mill. Now seven years later, the mill supplied bobbins and served as a warehouse to the nearby textile mill where the “Old Mill” presently stands.
Apart from his usual humming, David was a quiet man. He kept to himself and bothered nobody. Nobody bothered him. He liked the quiet. He liked Rose Valley. The mansions nestled among the hills and valleys of the community melted into the natural scene. It was better to work here than in the city. Here was clean dirt. There were Greens and blues. Lights and darks. Busy and Quiet. Life and death. No city stress. A gentle purpose in the solitude.
David made his way over to his work station. A pile of wood, ready to be carved into bobbins and carted across the way to the textile mill. Purpose. Hammering and carving. The smell of carved wood. Sawdust underfoot that made a soft crunching noise. David hummed and carved, carved and hummed.
On his lunch breaks, David would sit on the little stone wall by the mill wheel with his lunch pail beside him. His notebook in his hand. As he sat he sketched new bobbin designs, practical, purposeful. Sometimes he drew ornate bobbins, like the knobby trees making up the surrounding forest. Sometimes he drew nature; his feet dipping into the cool water below him until the Super’s bell called everyone back to the grind.
Everyday was the same. The Super was always first to arrive. David was always on time followed by a sleepy crew of workers who spent their nights and wages in town, grumbling at the birds racket. They clocked out every night at the same time. The sleep crew now excited to get out with David trailing behind, as usual, carrying a bobbin snuck in his sleeve. The Super last to lock up.
One morning there was no hammering, no pressing. There was no reassuring. No soothing. The super unlocked the doors to the creaking of weight on a settling beam. David’s body was slowly swaying to the tune of his morning hum, as his feet swung inches above the mill floor. Pages of sketches dancing underneath as the wind blew through the open door. Purpose blown away.
Years later, no one remembered David, or the Super, or the pounding and carving. After the 1985 fire that left the theatre a hollow shell, workers came in to repair the building. One man always stayed late. Kept to himself. Liked the quiet sound of hammering as he rebuilt the flame consumed building. Once a mill, then a hall, now the shell of a theatre to be rebuilt from the ashes.
Late at night he heard swaying and creaking. Looking up he saw nothing. Just a sturdy beam, blackened by the flames that swirled around it. Sway, and hum, sway and hum.
“Who’s there?” Shouted the man.
He went back to his hammering.
Creak. Sway. Hum.
“Go away!” he called out.
Before he could get the words out his hammer flew from his hand, across the worn out shell of the stage.
“I said, go away!” This time the man was louder. He was angry.
The hammer flew across the other side of the stage.
Humming. Swaying. Creaking.
“ENOUGH! I-I just want to finish my job. You finish yours and let me finish mine.”
A bobbin rolled across the stage.
“Thank you,” breathed the man. He picked up the bobbin and looked at it. Old. Worn. Loved. Purpose. The man picked up his hammer and went back to his task. As he worked he quietly hummed David’s tune. Reassured.
The events of this story are based on fables, truths, and honest lies. Names have been changed, or assigned for anonymity and clarity, respectively.
Welcome to a new podcast series: Hedgerow Horror. For A Murder Has Been Arranged, we’ve scripted ghost stories from local artists, read by the Hedgerow Theatre Company. In this week’s story, “No One Will Read This,” we find the diary of women who finds out family heirlooms are not all they’re cracked up to be. Written by Lily Dwoskin and read by Allison Bloechl, enjoy this production of the Hedgerow Theatre Podcast!
David Nikolas, Actor portraying Maurice Mullins
Theatre is full of metaphors.
Remember the first time you were invited to dinner to meet your significant others’ family? That oh-so-pleasant moment when you realized you were going to meet people who’d be judging you and how appropriate you were to be with their loved one?
Not a comfortable feeling, right?
Nothing in the closet looked good on you, every shoe was too tight…and better not say much, in the hopes of letting them think you were a weirdo rather than opening your mouth and removing any doubt. It’s almost worth getting married the very next day then to risk ever having to go through that experience more than once.
Performers will never have it so lucky. Actors – especially ones like me, who are just branching out into new territory artistically and geographically – experience the tension of that first family dinner date every time they venture into a new theater.
We are always going on that first date: always meeting the parents: always on one blind date after another.
I confess it’s occasionally uncomfortable. There are theaters I have worked at more than once where I still feel like an outsider or where I feel I’m not worthy of being invited to the table.
So, when I arrived at Hedgerow for the table reading of A Murder Has Been Arranged – at the house, rather than the theater, driving the “dinner date” metaphor home with comical accuracy – I was ready for that tension. To my relief, I never got it.
This is a team that doesn’t judge the new guy.
I was welcomed as an equal – and for a group with this much talent and with this high a standard of performance that was about as great a compliment as an actor can get. We hit the ground running like I’d always been here – they pulled up a chair for me and we all got to work together, as a unit.
It’s only a few weeks later, but everything is comfortable and I feel like one of the family…hopefully I’m invited back to the table again!
Penelope Reed, accomplished actor and executive director of the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Tree Park since 1991, takes the lead as Mary, the senior of three bright and independent Victorian ladies who travel into the future in Eric Overmyer’s ON THE VERGE. Reed was directed by the much younger Kittson O’Neill, artistic associate at the InterAct Theatre. O’Neill grew up in Connecticut and Australia, has acted in many theaters in the Philadelphia area, New York, and various regional theaters. She has directed many plays, appeared in a number of films, and also works as a dramaturge and teacher.
In this two-part series, Phindie writer Henrik Eger talks to Reed and O’Neill about their intergenerational collaboration. Part one features an interview with director Kittson O’Neill. Check out all of Phindie’s work here. For more from Eger, click here.
Henrik Eger: Looking back at your many theater experiences, what do you remember about the first time you directed a play?
Kittson O’Neill: Well, since I only just embarked on this part of my artistic life, I remember it clearly. My overwhelming emotion was terror, but since I am lucky enough to have always had amazing actors around me, my terror soon turned to joy. I love acting and I love watching my fellow actors so rehearsal is a blessing twice over!
Eger: Are you saying that your work at the Hedgerow was your directorial debut? That sounds exciting.
O’Neill: I was a replacement director for this show, so I didn’t know my actors well. I had met them all before we began, but some for only a few minutes, so the first day of rehearsal was a huge question mark. Would we know how to talk to each other? Would they see the play the way I did? ON THE VERGE is a big and complicated play. It asks a lot of the actors, physically and emotionally. I knew that I was going to push them and push the designers. I was delighted to find they were more than on board! Our cast has actors in the first years of their careers and Penn [Penelope Reed], who has been acting everywhere and in everything. That could make for a bumpy ride, but every one of them said “yes” to every insane thing I asked them to do. I am so grateful.
Eger: Tell us more about your interactions when directing the almost legendary Penelope Reed—on stage and off stage.
O’Neill: I honestly didn’t fully understand Pen’s history when we started rehearsal, thank goodness! And she never pulled rank in any way. It wasn’t until I googled her for fun during tech that I realized what an incredible career she has had. By then it was too late: we were all having too much fun for me feel intimidated. Also, my mother is a theater maker in Albany, NY and she and Penn have a lot in common, so all through the process I felt a protectiveness and cheekiness toward Penn, perhaps because making a play with her felt, literally, familiar.
Eger: Describe those moments where you and Reed dialogued, and perhaps even changed roles during certain moments of the rehearsal process.
O’Neill: There was a lot of dialogue, particularly as we worked to unearth our take on the end of the play, but there was never a change of roles. Because I am also an actress, I am particularly mindful of trying not to impose my aesthetic as an actor on my cast.
Eger: Where there any funny moments in your interactions with Reed—on stage and off stage?
O’Neill:I had no shame about showing Penn exactly how I wanted her to do her drunk burlesque. Watching YouTube videos of pole dancing with Penn and the rest of the cast will always be one of my favorite rehearsal moments ever! She never balked. She just looked me in the eye and said, “Do you want me to shake my booty here or further downstage?” How can you not fall in love with that actor?
Eger: If ON THE VERGE is a celebration of self-discovery for the three Victorian ladies, what did you discover about yourself as a director working with four great actors (Brock Vickers, Jennifer Summerfield, Maryruth Stine, and Penelope Reed), especially the most senior of these wonderful performers?
O’Neill: I am much more comfortable with the steering wheel than I thought I was. I asked a lot of this cast and the designers. They gave me their trust and that helped me to really trust myself and my instincts. I am still a young director, so I learned a lot for my next show, but I’m at ease in the driver’s seat. That feels nice. I also discovered that I really love goofy jokes—the goofier the better.
And that honesty really is the best policy. ON THE VERGE is a very heady play. It’s easy to get lost in the ideas, but when we came back to truthfulness and honesty, everything clicked. That’s how I work as an actor, and it was so satisfying to see my personal aesthetic working on in a full production, too.
Eger: What advice do you have for young directors working with seasoned actor-directors?
O’Neill: The greatest respect you can show actors is to treat them like actors, like all the actors in the cast. Trust yourself and your vision and they will, too.
Eger: I enjoyed your production of ON THE VERGE. Is there anything else you would like us to know about your work with Reed and her colleagues?
O’Neill: Hedgerow really took a chance on me as a young director and I think that’s because they are an actors’ theater first and foremost. Penn and Jared [Reed, Hedgerow’s artistic director and Pen’s son] saw my long history as an actor as a real qualification to direct, and I am SUPER grateful to them for that. Also, I was very lucky to have an amazing group of designers around me as well and without them and the tireless crew, we would not have the show we have.
Henrik Eger: What made you decide to ask Kittson O’Neill to become the director of your latest production at the Hedgerow?
Penelope Reed: Hedgerow’s artistic director Jared Reed was seeking a director for ON THE VERGE. We had thought one of our treasured directors, Dan Hodge, would be leading the team, but he was off to Walnut Street and a lead in Private Lives. Our production had been cast and some design staff chosen, but we needed a powerful director, as Hedgerow has committed to getting fabulous directors to grow the company.
We both heard simultaneously (from two separate and most esteemed colleagues) about this incredible director and actress, Kittson O’Neill. When Jared heard this and that she loved and knew the play deeply, he knew she would be perfect. I was a little anxious as, having read the play and the part, I thought, “I hope this terrific, new director will enjoy the company we’ve handed to her and that I can rise to the role of Mary.” When I met her, I was overjoyed, because her clarity, discipline and commitment to consistency were palpable. I knew immediately that we were in the best of hands.
Eger: Looking back at your many years as an actor and director, what do you remember about the first time you acted professionally and worked with an experienced director?
Reed: This is a little difficult as I had the great fortune to work with some terrific local directors with the Brandywiners, Wilmington Drama League in Delaware, among many others as a young teen. Some of these directors were terrific. However, there names have passed me by. At 15, when I joined the Equity Summer Stock Robin Hood Theatre (now known as Candle-Light Theatre), I had the fortune of working with New York Directors Winston Sharples, Bill Woodman, Pirie McDonald, all of whom hired major seasoned actors and actresses from New York. The work was even as we turned around a show in one week. I realized the discipline and passion required by watching these amazing professionals. While another show was running, a lot had to be learned, executed and shared in those 6 days.
After two summers (while playing throughout the school year in shows at local theatres) I went to Perry Mansfield School of Theatre and Dance in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I discovered the actual intense study of the art form–day in day out, with extraordinarily talented other young artists, we learned under the intense professional guidance by Kingo Perry and Portia Mansfield.
But all that paled in the fall of my senior year, when my father died. My mother moved to Rose Valley, and I began to study with Jasper Deeter. This was truly mind-altering as the depth and breadth of his experience was daunting and prepared me well for basing my work on truth before technique. I received my Equity Card at the Summer Theatre and on Carnegie, too, where I spent four magnificent, intense yeas–more competitive than anything I’ve seen in theatre in the 45 years +. Off I went to The Milwaukee Repertory for 13 years and later to The McCarter Theatre and then to the Hedgerow—all the while being an actress, director, and teacher.
Eger: Compared to those days, what was different this time working with Kittson O’Neill, a younger director?
Reed: What I love about Kittson is her depth of experience in theatre, theatre technique, and huge mind for dramaturgy, exploring character, and extraordinary sensitivity and understanding of how to get her ideas and vision across. I have never seen people as “younger” or “older” determining their quality.
All I know is that I saw her as a kindred spirit who is in sync with any cherished director—a kind, generous person for whom I would try any idea she came up with. Because of these qualities of hers, I would give her 150%, often challenging her to bring my choices where she wanted. I also saw her do the same with the other actors and designers. She has a style from which we all can learn.
Eger: Theater critic Neal Zoren praises your “thoughtful, classically-styled take on Mary.” Tell us more about the discussion between you and the director on portraying this role.
Reed: What you see is what we made together as an ensemble of four, bouncing Kittson’s take on the play. I consciously did not do any in depth thinking about the play. Not only because I was directing 60 some people in our A CHRISTMAS CAROL (huge job annually), but I really wanted to experience her take on this obviously complicated material before I made any choices. I’m sure it was difficult for her in that first week—she’d never worked with me before, didn’t know I was back onstage acting (having had much focus on keeping the Hedgerow going), having this more mature actress bushwhack, climb cliffs, skate on invisible ice working with actors half her age, while holding script in hand. Again my summer stock experience told me I could get the lines, but I wanted her vision and depth coming off what the others actors were sharing. I love ensemble work.
Eger: Describe a scene where the two of you collaborated successfully?
Reed: We had lots of laughs. I guess the funniest was the scene where Mary (my character) shares her experiences in the casino and acts out the floorshow Girls a’ Poppin. Having never seen such an exhibition myself, I need guidance. Kittson said there was going to come a time where I would “want to kill her” for her suggestions. Never happened.
With every suggestion, I took it and ran as far as I could. We discovered pole dancing on Google, exotic dancing, etc. Kittson’s brilliance at dance gave me great ideas. I just followed. However, seriously, the most profound collaboration was Mary’s osmosing the future toward the end of the play. Images come to Mary [the character] fast and furious, and the acting job is to keep up with Mary’s words. This was much challenging fun.
Eger: How did you handle a scene where there might have been creative differences?
Reed: We didn’t have any. That’s the truth. I trusted her completely.
Eger: Where there any funny moments in your interactions with O’Neill—on stage and off stage?
Reed: Many. I remember the first time I launched into the moment where Mary thinks Cool Whip is Noxema and smears it on her face. The company wasn’t ready, but I went with it and covered my face. Cool Whip going everywhere—I have a sort of abandon when I feel free and that someone I trust I watching. Well, rehearsal had to stop for a moment as everyone was laughing so hard.
So many other hilarious moments.
The only non-happy moments for all of the [three] ladies of the entire experience was dealing with the packs and particularly the umbrella holders. So for the delight of having a great personal experience on stage, we all take it as part of the journey: Life imitating art and vice versa.
Eger: You seem to have had a great time. Describe those moments where you and O’Neill dialogued, and perhaps even changed roles during certain moments of the rehearsal process.
Reed: Kittson will use any technique to get her point across, which I love—physically or vocally. As an actress who “wants to get it right, ” I love coaching. However, she never tells you how to do it. She guides you to it. Brilliant.
Eger: I enjoyed your portrayal of the Victorian explorer, who travelled all the way into the 1950’s and then seemed to wonder whether to return to her life in the previous century.Is there anything else you would like us to know about your work with O’Neill and her colleagues?
Reed: Actually, Mary returns to her method of approaching the future. She moves ON to discover, explore, and illuminate “new worlds, within and without.” She doesn’t return to 1888. Instead, she goes with her yearning for the future into the TYVEK—with dark distances and clusters of light leading the way.
Eger: If ON THE VERGE is a celebration of self-discovery by three Victorian ladies, what did you discover about yourself as an actor-director working with a young director?
Reed: I guess what I discovered about myself was that I am as young, creative and eager to explore as the extraordinary team Jared and Kittson put together. I am so grateful every night to work with M.R. [Maryruth Stine], who teaches me risk; Jennifer [Summerfield], who teaches me grace; and Brock [Vickers], who teaches me charm and nuance.
I am grateful every night for the brilliance of Aaron Cromie, who designed and Zoran [Kovcic], who built the extraordinary TYVEK set and clock platforms. I’m grateful to Jared [Reed] whose lights changed our adventures from tropics and jungles to mountains and snow; to Patrick [Lamborn] who created character with sound; grateful to the five stalwart folks backstage who make the environment and costume changes happen. Oh, and the problem-solving prop people, who brought in many artifacts and dealt with our continuing pleas for help about our backpacks and those nasty umbrella challenges.
The only real sadness is that we opened the show, and Kittson, our leader and partner, had to leave. It is fun, every night, and we’d love to share it with her. In short . . .Kittson ROCKS!