PLAYING THE PART
It’s barely 8:30 on a Wednesday morning and 33 seventh grade boys and girls—students at the Holy Trinity School in Whitestone, Queens—are enthusiastically filing into theater class. As they enter, they notice teachers Scott Barrow and Steven Gridley standing with their arms raised high above their heads. That’s the sign for quiet, they’ve learned, and the students’ loud chatter quickly turns to apprehensive silence.
Barrow and Gridley, an actor and playwright, respectively, are part of Stages on the Sound, a three-year-old Brooklyn theater company that Barrow says has “a symbiotic relationship with the Catholic church.” The company’s complicated relationship with the Brooklyn Diocese requires a fair amount of explanation, Barrow adds, so that discussion will have to wait. Right now, they have a class to teach, one of three they’ll conduct on this chilly October morning.
Gridley explains the goal of the lesson to the students. “Every character has something they want to accomplish which they do by using tactics or expressing themselves in a particular way.” A simple exercise gets the class moving, as a bright yellow tennis ball is tossed from one student to another.
“What’s the goal?” Barrow asks. “Yes, keeping the ball in the air. You do that by cooperating with one another to keep the ball going as quickly as possible. Communication is what we’re going for and eye contact is a strategy.”
Shortly thereafter, the tennis ball is replaced with an invisible object, first an imaginary softball, then an imaginary bowling ball. “How do you catch something heavy?” Barrow asks. “How do you throw a bowling ball? What about how you hold it?”
In short order a discussion is underway about the importance of watching facial expressions and body language, and listening to vocalizations, to determine the size and weight of the invisible sphere being thrown. Lecturing is kept to a minimum. Instead, Barrow and Gridley pose questions and let the students discuss the answers: What made the last exercise easier? Why is pointing to the person you’re throwing to an effective attention-getting strategy? What gets in the way of paying attention to one another? Are there other obstacles?
The 50-minute class flies and it is clear that both students and instructors are enjoying themselves. They’ll do this for 16 consecutive weeks, part of a residency between Stages on the Sound and Holy Trinity that will reach nearly one-third of the school’s 311 students.
Stages came together almost serendipitously. The story of its founding, Barrow begins, starts with a visit to the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, NY by Bob Choiniere, the Director of Pastoral Planning for the Brooklyn Diocese. The Seminary—which presently trains priests and offers Masters’ and Doctoral programs in Divinity and Theology—is located on the 159-acre estate of early 20th century businessman Robert R. Conklin.
“Bob Choiniere is in charge of community planning for the Diocese and while he was visiting the Seminary back in 2005 he came across an enormous, rundown theater that had been designed by Frederick Law Olmsted,” Barrow continues. “It was a huge, 5000-seat outdoor amphitheater that looked like something from ancient Rome. By the time Bob found it, it was covered with rocks and grass and had trees that were three-and-a-half feet wide growing in the orchestra pit. The space hadn’t been used since a Salvation Army benefit during World War I.”
Choiniere was intrigued by his discovery. A theater aficionado since his days at DeSales University in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, he called some of his college buddies and described the find. A flurry of phone calls followed—including several between a friend of Choiniere’s and Scott Barrow—and the next thing Choiniere knew, a group of theater mavens had gathered in Huntington. The rector of the Seminary at this time, Monsignor Francis J. Schneider, welcomed them in.
“There is nothing more exciting to theater artists than raw space,” says Barrow. It represents potential. At that point, it can be anything. The sky’s the limit.”
Very quickly, Barrow adds, a core group of people found themselves wanting to get involved in renovating the theater and then using it. This was Spring 2005. “By Fall 2006, we were having two-to-three day weekend retreats in Huntington,” Barrow says. “The place was decrepit; it looked like a forest, but we had 20-some people working 10 hours a day to clear the space and after five or six weekends our labor had transformed the overgrown area and it was quickly revealed to be a fantastic outdoor theater. We envisioned a summer drama program for kids and several of us thought we would move to Huntington to run it.”
In fact, things were going so smoothly that the group decided it was time to name their fledgling company. They chose to honor their proximity to Long Island Sound and have been Stages on the Sound ever since.
Then, as will happen, everything fell apart.
Bob Choiniere blames internal church politics, and says that after Monsignor Schneider was reassigned, neither the interim nor new rector were interested in having a theater company on Seminary grounds. “We tried to get them to reconsider,” Choiniere recalls, “but the whole idea went flat. We wanted to create a mutually beneficial relationship between the church and the arts. When artists are not afraid of the church and the church is not afraid of artists, great things can happen.”
But no amount of coaxing would sway the new administrators. “Church people often say, ‘we don’t want artists around since they may color outside the lines, or go beyond what we preach or teach.’ But if we, the church, provide resources like stage space with the belief that creativity comes from the Creator, I think it is always beneficial to communities,” Choiniere says.
Talks are currently underway with the Seminary’s new rector and Stages’s members are cautiously optimistic about eventually being able to use the theater. At the time of the project’s implosion in Fall 2007, however, Scott Barrow recalls feeling completely bereft. “It was the classic artist conundrum. Are you an artist or a businessperson? We did the clean up on a handshake and a smile. A businessperson would not have cleared a single tree without a written contract, but we had nothing. We were a group of young idealists, people who still like to think there’s a theater sitting in Huntington, waiting for us.”
Back in 2007, though, company members had to decide whether they wanted to try and salvage Stages on the Sound or fold. While each of the troupe’s seven members had other jobs—as teaching artists, office workers, restaurant staff, and consultants—they agreed that they wanted to continue collaborating. Shortly thereafter, when the Monsignor of Brooklyn’s Cathedral of St. James invited the actors to use the auditorium at the St. James Pavilion on Jay Street, they jumped at the chance.
“It was hard to imagine a consolation prize at this point,” Barrow admits, “But it was a classic God shuts a window and opens a door moment.” And, while the fledgling company has certainly faced challenges in the subsequent two years—financial constraints being paramount—they are pleased with their output thus far.
Since beginning at the Pavilion in Fall 2007, Stages on the Sound has done 10 residencies, similar to the classes offered at Holy Trinity, at parochial and public schools in Brooklyn and Queens. They’ve adapted Herman Melville’s Billy Budd for the stage, and have pulled together an original play, Shakespeare in ACTion, to introduce high schoolers to the Bard. In addition, Stages members perform an annual holiday pageant for school and general audiences.
But their greatest feat, Barrow says, is the development of Crossings, a play written by company members Amy Sabin and Shannon Michael Wamser, about the struggles immigrants face when pursuing the American dream. Shown at this summer’s NY Fringe Festival, the play was also the U.S. representative at Teatr Polski’s annual new works’ festival in Poznan, Poland.
“Right now our energy has to be focused on education, what schools want, and on our Christmas show,” Barrow says. In the future, though, he expects that the company will be able to mix this work with original plays that speak to the troupe politically, spiritually, and creatively.
And, of course, he, Gridley and the rest of their group hope that one day soon, they’ll be able to take Stages back to the Sound that gave the company its name.
You can contact Stages on the Sound at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by writing them at P.O. Box 24371, Brooklyn, NY 11202.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.