Today’s TOP FIVE comes to us from David Pierce, an actor and director who called ICCT home for many years in the 90s and 00s. He most recently returned to the theatre scene to direct Dreamwell’s much acclaimed production of Death of a Salesman. (Spoiler alert: that show might be on the list…) We’re sure you’ll enjoy David’s TOP FIVE. And hey, maybe you’ll like his jokes too… anything’s possible…
When Matt emailed and asked if I wanted to help rip off the runner from Chris Rock’s most recent movie, I said yes immediately. If you’re going to steal, steal from one of the best. And anyway, it’s not like Chris Rock originated the notion of Top Whatever lists. I breezed through the first four entries, then hit a long, and sustained, writer’s block with respect to the number one show here. Yes, you should have read this weeks ago, which means you were longing for something you never knew existed.
But then again, aren’t we all?
I finally broke the block, and here we are. There are a couple of shows that didn’t make the cut that I want to give a brief shout-out to first. ICCT’s Arsenic and Old Lace, from the late 90s, my return to the stage after a 20-year absence; ICCT’s Hay Fever, also in the late 90s, my first time working with Matt and the beginning of a great friendship and a very productive theatre relationship; The Protest, my first Dreamwell show which had me doing a vicious 2.5 page monologue; Chapter Two, my return to the stage after a 6-year absence; and many, many, more. Local theatre has not only given me a fun thing to do, but it’s also given me my primary group of friends. Thanks Local Theatre!
Almost ready to start, but first, a bonus Top Five listing of the Top Five numbers.
Yes, that’s a visual Sondheim joke for you. Or for me. Sometimes the jokes are just for me.
5) Of Thee I Sing by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. ICCT, 2000.
A great, underrated musical, the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, with book by Kaufmann and Ryskind and music by the Gershwins. I fear our production didn’t do the show justice. The show is basically a Marx Brothers musical, and our production violated the basic rule of every Marx Brothers movie, to wit: only the Marx Brothers know they’re in a comedy. Everyone else thinks they’re in a serious drama. That’s how Of Thee I Sing has to be played to work. Only the leads know they’re in a comedy. Everyone else has to be in a drama. Still, I include it here for very personal reasons. One is that as a lead, I got to be a Marx Brother (Throttlebottom is two parts Harpo, one part Chico). It’s fun to be able to play a role with that much utter abandon. The other is that my father played this role in a community theatre production when I was a kid. Though he passed away over a decade before I played the part, I still felt him with me every single performance.
4) Harvey by Mary Chase. ICCT, 2003.
Mary Chase’s 1945 Pulitzer Prize winner is one of the greatest comedies in American theatre, and Jimmy Stewart’s performance of Elwood on both stage and screen is one of the most memorable performances of any actor. I read for this actually hoping to get another role my father played, Dr. Chumley. Instead, I got the lead (Thanks Ellen!). I also got a portrait of me with a pooka. This was a fun show with a fun cast, and a great response from the audience. I think every performer who wants to someday direct needs to do a role this central to a production. It provides valuable insight into one you’re going to expect from your cast.
3) Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. Dreamwell, 2004.
My first directorial effort was David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner. (By the way, that line you think of when you think of Glengarry? Coffee is for closers? Not in the play. It, and Alec Baldwin’s entire role, were written specifically for the movie.) I can admit now that I was mostly winging it, based on directors I had worked with in the past. It helps when you have a cast as good as I had. Matt Brewbaker, Matt Falduto, Adam Fauser, Chuck Dufano, Danny Fairchild, Michael Connell, and of course, Gerry Roe as Shelly Levene. With a cast that good, and a show with not much needed for staging (Act I is three scenes, all at the same restaurant table, Act II is one scene, all in the office), the director really just needs to get out of the way. There’s more I could have done, and more I would do if I directed the show again (Hey Dreamwell, the time is right for a revival!), but it was a wonderful production despite my inexperience.
2) The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. ICCT, 2000.
Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Brecht and Weill’s adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera provided me with what is without a doubt the most fun experience I’ve had as an actor. Remember what I said earlier about the fun of playing a role with utter abandon? It’s double fun when the role is an unrepentant villain like Peachum. It’s triple fun when the role is an unrepentant villain with two solos, two duets, and the lead in a big company-wide number. Even more bonus points for getting to wear a fez like Sydney Greenstreet. This is the only role I’ve played already that I would love to play again.
1) Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Dreamwell, 2015.
Arthur Miller’s classic is both a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award Best Play winner. It’s considered by many to be one of the top five greatest American plays. Although written in the 40s, Death of a Salesman is more experimental in structure than most modern plays. It takes place in the real world and in Willy’s mind, a place where we have what first appear to be memory sequences but on closer look are actually Willy’s distorted memories of the real events. The play shifts back and forth between these states, and at one point goes to a memory sequence WITHIN a memory sequence, a trick that predates Inception by about 70 years. This structure makes the play much more technically challenging than most plays. The biggest of those challenges is how do you show the audience when you’re in a memory and when you’re in the real world. The standard way of doing it is to bring the actors in memory sequences out dressed in drastically different clothing. We did a little of that, but the main way we differentiated those scenes was through lighting and music. Gabby Ferro did great lighting work for our performances in Mt. Vernon, and Maria Schroeder did amazing work lighting our performances at the Iowa Children’s Museum. Thanks to Valerie Davine Bills, we got local musician Karen Charney to create original flute music for our production. That’s right, we had original music.
The other challenge the structure creates is one of timing. This is a play that needs to flow without hesitation from scene to scene and place to place, and one of the things I’m proudest of is the fact that we only went to black for a scene change on three occasions, always less than a minute, and always between scenes taking place in real spaces. We never dragged, keeping the audience focused on the show.
There were other challenges we faced during the production. The show actually has a rather large cast, 13 people, and we had to replace one actor several weeks into rehearsals. Ali Ajram saved us by being able to step in on little notice. We did the space in two different venues, resulting in two load-ins, two load-outs, two lighting set-ups, and blocking adjustments that ranged from very small to pretty drastic. The Friday night of the second weekend we came in and found that Iowa Children’s Museum volunteers had moved every single light while painting the auditorium, causing us to readjust and refocus the lights, finishing up barely an hour before we opened.
Despite these challenges, we put on what I can honestly say is one of the finest local theatre productions I’ve ever seen as well as one of the truly great theatrical experiences I will have in my life. The cast, the wonderful, incredible, talented cast was a huge part of that. Everyone gave great performances, from Rip Russell as Willy and Krista Neumann as Linda down to the performers in the smallest parts. And it wasn’t just a talented cast – it was a fun group of people to be around. There’s always someone in every production that no one can stand, but we didn’t have that person, unless it was me and people were just too nice to tell me.
I learned so much about being a director from this show, and I can’t wait to put what I learned to use in a future production. I can never thank Dreamwell enough for giving me the chance to direct this play.
Check back soon for another TOP FIVE. And check out the previous TOP FIVES here:
When not making lists for blogs, David works diligently creating crossword puzzles for the easily distracted. He no longer claims to have an invisible six-foot rabbit as a friend, though he often refers to a mysterious adviser who is in Canada, which is why we’ve never met him. He’s been an actor, a director, a board member, a board President, and was one of the founding members of the group that helped revitalize the Englert, where he learned the valuable lesson that if you bring a laptop to a meeting, people will elect you Secretary of the Board. He hopes to direct a lot more, act a little more, and be an all-around greater presence in the local theatre scene in the years to come.