No fancy lighting. No sets. No costumes to speak of. And only 20 hours in which to rehearse. Is this any way to put on a play?
Actually, it’s a great way to put on a play, as thousands of satisfied patrons of the Kansas City Public Library will attest to.
Now in its seventh season, the Kansas City Public Library’s Script-in-Hand series has been both a popular and an artistic success, bringing masterpieces of dramatic literature to life and delivering them to the public at no cost.
As the title suggests, this is bare-bones theater with actors in street clothes (augmented by the occasional hat or simple prop) putting on the play while holding the script in front of them.
“It’s the ideal format for presenting a stage performance in a library venue,” says Henry Fortunato, KCPL’s director of public affairs. “Actors in the act of reading. The message sends itself.”
But it’s more than a mere reading. There’s real acting and movement going on here, and at some point in every Script-in-Hand performance it hits you that shorn of fancy costuming and stage effects, we’re forced to confront the playwright’s words without razzle-dazzle distractions.
It may be the purest form of theater around.
Certainly it puts special demands on the actors, who often perform with audience members only an arm’s length away.
“In a situation that immediate, you’d better bring your ‘A’ game,” says Robert Paisley, one of the three actors in this February’s production of Dirty Blonde, Claudia Shear’s play about the lingering influence of 1930s star and sexual icon Mae West. “When they’re that close they can tell if you’re faking it or phoning it in.”
Paisley and his wife, Karen Paisely, are the founders of the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, the not-for-profit Kansas City troupe that over the last six years has produced nearly two dozen Script-in-Hand shows. The MET has its own mainstage theater at 36th and Main in Midtown showing fully-mounted productions. But its partnership with the Library has special attractions, according to Karen Paisley, who suggests plays for the Script-in-Hand series.
“I’ll admit, some of my choices are selfish,” she says. “I’ve chosen plays I’ve always wanted to see but which I knew were very unlikely to get a full production in Kansas City. For me and many of our audience members, a Script-in-Hand show is the only chance we’ll get to see and hear these great plays performed.”
Working with Fortunato, Paisely fashions each season around a theme. “For a couple of years we did Pulitzer Prize-winning plays,” she says. “One year we did plays with legal themes – The Night of January 16 and Chicago.”
Last year’s Script-in-Hand series was called Women of the Years and featured Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, Anne of Green Gables, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and the musical My Fair Lady. Many were written by women; all have strong female protagonists.
The full series was underwritten by a grant from the William T. Kemper Foundation – Commerce Bank, Trustee, with additional support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. It was co-sponsored by the Women’s Center at UMKC.
The 2012 series of plays about women proved so timely and popular that Fortunato and Paisley decided to extend it through a second year. Upcoming 2013 shows include The Heidi Chronicles, I Remember Mama, and Dreamgirls.
And this year the series found a new, anonymous donor, with continued support from the Kauffman Foundation. As these lineups suggest, the series touches a lot of bases. There are straight dramas, family-friendly fare and musicals.
Part of the fun, Paisley says, comes from the reactions of audiences that may never before have experienced live theater.
“Our very first Script-in-Hand show was Death of a Salesman. We did it in a corner of the Plaza Branch with the usual library stuff going on all around us. Back then we didn’t know if anyone would show up, so we called all our friends and told them to come. We put out 80 chairs.”
When the play began, Paisley said, there were 87 people in the audience. But more kept showing up.
“Finally there were 150 people, half of them standing. I remember looking out at the house during one of Willie Loman’s big monologues, and the people over on the other side of the library at the computer tables had stopped what they were doing. They stood up. And then they starting coming over, too. That’s when I realized we were onto something.”
Paisley, who has directed more than half of the Script-in-Hand shows, says she’s been pleasantly surprised at how much can be accomplished with the limited rehearsals the budgets allow.
“A full production rehearsed over weeks or months allows the actors to relax and develop nuances,” Paisley says. “But one thing about a short rehearsal period – it forces you to be decisive. You have to decide right away what’s important.”
One thing Paisley stresses is the importance of movement. She expects her actors to act, not just read aloud.
“What we’ve learned is that there’s no point worrying about messing up the blocking,” she says. “Actors are pretty instinctive. It’s hard to act and just stand still. So most of their stage movements come naturally as they read the part. I tell them, ‘Be who you are.’”
Actor Tony Beasley, who played a half dozen roles in Dirty Blonde, says the Script-in-Hand format takes some getting used to. “Sometimes it’s nice to have both hands free, and having to always be holding your script is limiting. On the other hand, it’s really nice to have that security blanket so close”
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I REMEMBER MAMA
By John Van Druten
2 p.m. Sunday, March 3, 2013
Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.
First produced on Broadway in 1944 (a young Marlon Brando was an original cast member), Mama is based on Kathryn Forbes’ fictionalized memoir of growing up with a loving family of Norwegian immigrants in San Francisco in the early years of the 20th century. The play became an American classic for capturing the family’s small joys, sorrows, and aspirations. I Remember Mama became a hit 1948 film and spawned a popular television series that ran from 1948 to 1957.
THE HEIDI CHRONICLES
By Wendy Wasserstein
2 p.m. Sunday, April 28, 2013
Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein
(1950 – 2006) became the voice of an entire generation of women who came of age in the late 1960s. Her best-known work, the comedy The Heidi Chronicles, follows its intelligent, well-educated heroine from college through a career as an art historian. But Heidi is less sure of herself when it comes to men. Though regarded as a seminal work of feminist theater, Heidi was criticized by some women for criticizing the women’s movement through the negative comments voiced by some male characters.
Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen
2 p.m. Sunday, May 12, 2013
Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.
Inspired by early 1960’s “girl groups” like the Supremes, Dreamgirls follows a trio of singers from their early days on the “chitlin’ circuit” to superstar status. Along the way this Tony-nominated hit (music by Krieger, lyrics and book by Eyen) follows their romantic ups and downs, professional struggles, and the triumphs and betrayals that come with a successful musical career. The story offers a cast of colorful characters inspired by the likes of James Brown, the Shirelles, and Jackie Wilson and features hit songs like And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.
Admission to all performances is free. Call 816.701.3407 or visit kclibrary.org to RSVP.