June 21, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
On this first day of summer, I find myself engaged in Plymouth, Massachusetts directing mostly college students and recent graduates in summer stock. We’re putting up a big old Broadway musical (hey, it qualifies as old — Grease opened on Broadway fifty-one years ago) and “old is the word” to describe the PBT’s glorious barn theatre. First transformed into a stage space in 1937, it once upon a time featured the likes of former movie stars like Gloria Swanson and Veronica Lake traipsing its boards. In 2015, it reopened, lovingly restored by Bob and Sandy Malone, Plymouth locals who shared a desire to bring back the tradition of summer stock to their community. Thought working tirelessly to keep its rustic charm, common sense dictated a few updates (it is now air-conditioned). But otherwise, it remains true to its roots; a historic barn theatre, located on what was once a working farm built in 1875.
When renovations began in 2014, it looked like this:
In 2023, it now looks like this:
Not a day goes by when I walk around its campus that I am not visited by its ghosts. No, I’m not talking of Paul Newman and other distinguished artists who are amongst its alumni, but of personal ones from the years I spent at PBT as a teenager. In a 1974 production of The Fantasticks, I played alongside the twenty-year-old, Peter Gallagher, a future theatre, film and television star, as the Boy. Those three summers were not only memorable for the fun times they provided, but also for the education I received, the art of which is all but lost now. We did sixteen productions over three summers — two-week stock. One show would open on Monday night (Cabaret) and the next one would go into rehearsal Tuesday morning (Anything Goes). Thirteen nights later, Anything Goes would open and Guys and Dolls would go into rehearsal the next morning. It was insane and wonderful in equal measure.
Nostalgic for these past glory days, I was charmed the other day by an an interview I came across with the late Oscar winning actor, Martin Landau. Known mainly for his film and television work, Landau began in the theatre, as almost all the actors of his generation did. I never saw him in a play (his one and only Broadway appearance in 1957 was the year I was born), but I was inspired while listening to him speak of his summer stock days on comedian Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast. Recorded in 2017, just before Landau died at age eighty-eight, he spoke with such vivid recall, that I thought it would be informative to transcribe sections of it for this piece.
First, it’s important to note, that Landau had no training as an actor. Zero. He was a cartoonist, who at seventeen years old (and while still in high school), talked his way into a job with the New York Daily News. He became a staff artist and stayed there the whole time he attended college at Pratt, never telling his employers or co-workers his real age. Here’s the story (in Landau’s own words) of how he came to consider what chances he might have on taking a run at the acting profession:
Martin Landau: I worked at the paper alongside a guy named John Ward. He was very good looking and a terrific guy who was studying acting on the side with Sandy Meisner. He was always talking about acting a lot and when he told me he was going to be in a T.S. Elliot play called Family Reunion, I took him up on his invitation to see it opening night. And may I say that John Ward’s performance to this day … was the worst performance I have ever seen in my life! And I had some yardstick to measure it against, as I had seen Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie and Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman by then. And even though seeing those two performances made me think, “How the hell could I ever do that?,” I still knew that I could be a hundred times better than what John Ward was doing up on stage that night. And so, without any training, I decided then and there, “Holy God, I want to do that!”
So I quit my job at the Daily News immediately and went and auditioned for summer stock. And I got a gig at the Peaks Island Playhouse in Maine, that was America’s first summer stock theatre. It had a resident company of forty people all living in one big clapboard house. A lot of rampant hormones running around, let me tell you.
A lot of the actors had been doing this for years, but I was new. I was twenty-two and I was the absolute greenhorn. But I didn’t tell anybody.
Marc Maron: So how did that work? Did you do one show and then take a break, or …
ML: No, you did every show!
MM: So like three or four?
ML: No! Twelve or fifteen.
MM: Oh my God. You mean a new show every week?
ML: Exactly. I think we opened with Streetcar, then we did the Kern musical Roberta, then The Glass Menagerie, then The Marriage Proposal by Chekhov …
MM: And with no training?
ML: No training. Seat of my pants.
Today that sort of training is, for all intents and purposes, no longer available. The young people I am working with this summer get to luxuriate in shorter hours, but it’s a trade-off for the days of performing one-week or two-week stock that once deeply forged an actor’s process and commitment. Among many skills addressed was a fast facility for memorization, especially while barely getting any rest. I liken it to the way emergency room doctors are trained: make them be so good at it that they can perform nearly any function in their sleep.
Longer rehearsal periods are a gift, but short ones have their plusses, too. Every actor should have the experiences of both. Cutting corners, thinking fast on your feet, regulating your energies … all of it is valuable training. Just ask anyone who’s done it — granted you’ll have to seek out someone over the age of sixty.
I’m available at Ron@ronfassler.org.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book.