10 Magical Summer Stock Memories
Danny Burstein, Isabel Keating, Jan Maxwell, Patrick Page, Max von Essen and more stars fondly recall their earliest days in professional theater.
Max von Essen
I've always been obsessed with summer stock. I knew it was something I had to do, and I've had some amazing experiences. Probably my favorite place is Sacramento Music Circus, where they've been so good to me and continue to take chances on me. My favorite role there was the Emcee in Cabaret. That's one I wouldn't normally have the opportunity to take on, but they trusted me and it turned out to be amazing. Another favorite is Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, where a few years ago I played Fredric in Pirates of Penzance. We only had five days to stage it, so I studied the music for weeks before I flew there and, on arrival, I dived in like a crazy person. It turned out to be one of the absolute best theatrical experiences I've ever had! Probably my all time favorite summer stock experience was Hair at Bay Street Theatre back in 2001. Being so young, playing Claude, bonding with my amazing cast and experiencing it with the backdrop of beautiful Sag Harbor all came together in a sort of indescribable theatrical alchemy. I'll never forget it!
I cut my teeth at the St. Louis MUNY, where, like so many others, I got my Equity card. The executive producer, Edward Greenberg, took me under his wing and I'm forever grateful. I played several seasons there, starting when I was 19. I have many amazing memories: Funny Girl with Juliet Prowse and Larry Kert; Show Boat with Eddie Bracken; and the list goes on and on. The wackiest time was when I was playing Smee and Nana in Peter Pan with Cathy Rigby and John Schuck. It was over 100 degrees and I was in a 30-lb. dog costume. At one point, I had to exit because I thought I was going to pass out right in the middle of the Darling's living room. Mostly, when I think about those summer stock days, I think of those amazing young men who are no longer with us because of the AIDS crisis. I lost so many great friends over the years and I think of them all the time. They are forever etched in my heart and memory. And while I am sad thinking about them, my memories of our summers working together are only happy ones: seeing them dance, hearing them sing, and laughing so damn much.
I had the "summer stock" straw-hat circuit experience. I knew nothing of what it entailed, so I crashed on a friend's couch and showed up for a three-minute time slot to do a monologue and eight bars for 25 producers. The fates aligned and I landed at a place that will forever be dear to my heart: Bristol Valley Playhouse, in a magic setting among the hills of New York's Finger Lakes. In a season that included the requisite Agatha Christie (The Mousetrap, in which I played Miss Casewell) and Barefoot in the Park (in which I played the lead role of Corie Bratter), my hands-down favorite role was the shy seamstress Popeye in Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest. Popeye exposed me to my soul -- and my affinity for playing broken ones. I'd never read anything quite so heartbreaking and funny. She's such a rich character, so full of eccentricities, bottled-up passion, and honesty. And that's just the surface. I loved everything about that production: the role, the set, the crazily talented company, the history, new friends, and the beginning of a life in the theater.
At the ripe age of 19, I got an awesome job at Seaside Music Theatre in Daytona Beach, Florida, doing The Royal Family and The Mikado. I especially liked The Royal Family because I was playing Gwen and had this cute cropped blonde wig and amazing costumes. I also learned a lot about acting from the wonderful women playing my mother [Nicole Halmos] and grandmother [Lourelene Snedeker]. What I learned didn't stop me from sitting backstage before a particular scene for about 10 minutes thinking of every depressing thing I'd experienced in my life trying to cry so I had real tears onstage. I'd like to think my acting skills have improved significantly since then!
One of my first paying jobs was an exhausting and wonderful summer in Keene, New Hampshire at the Keene Summer Theater [Keene State College], run by a great guy named Al Corona. We were paid $35 a week, and stayed in dorms and ate in the cafeteria, It was a dream lineup of shows -- Candide, Merrily We Roll Along, Baby, A Nigth in Hollywood/A Day in the Ukraine and The Robber Bridegroom, all in 10 weeks. Having loved the original production of Baby, the chance to play Nick, a role I would never be cast in professionally, was an opportunity I've always cherished. I also met a lifelong friend, Kurt Deutsch, who now runs ShK-a-Boom records and carries on the legacy of original Broadway cast recordings that often would not get recorded.
When I was in my final years of college, and for several seasons after, I spent my summers with the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. The outdoor theatre is a wonderful replica of Shakespeare's Globe, and informs the actor tremendously as to how the text should be approached. I tended to play roles with lots of soliloquies. It was evident from the beginning that I had to speak directly to the audience. Anything else would have been a lie. Perhaps my favorite role was Richard III. At the top of the show the director, Howard Jensen, had placed me behind an enormous banner, which I tore down leaving me face-to-face with 900 people in full daylight. It was an amazing feeling seeing them all so clearly. It's something most actors are unaccustomed to. The audience became a character in the play, an ever-changing acting partner. My goal was to enlist them, to seduce them-- to convince them that I had a more effective and, yes, more entertaining way of dealing with life than they did. To persuade them, in short, that evil works. In the final act, Richard, having killed or alienated everyone in his court, has only the audience to turn to. However, as the sun went down, the audience slowly disappeared into the darkness, robbing me of my only remaining confidante. By the end of the play, just as Shakespeare intended, Richard III was alone.
I got my start dancing with the Kenley Players in Ohio. John Kenley was the producer and he had three large venues in Columbus, Dayton, and Warren. We would rehearse for a week and play each theatre for a week. Mr. Kenley loved giving Ohio dancers their professional debuts. One of my first shows was Anything Goes starring Ann Miller and Bobby Van. As a young dancer, it was a great education to watch Ann and Bobby in rehearsal. Both were approachable, which made the experience all the nicer. Of course, dancing on stage with them was amazing. Mr. Kenley hired a diverse group of show business stars to headline his productions. Where else could a young dancer share the stage with names such as Cyd Charisse, Carol Lawrence, Juliet Prowse -- even the sex symbol Mamie Van Doren? I was fortunate to have danced with them all and only wish that today's young dancers could have the same experience and fun.
I was fortunate there was summer stock at my college, Moorhead State University in Minnesota. The Straw Hat Players paid a small salary -- a couple hundred bucks for the summer. We did eight productions in 10 weeks, working 12-16 hour days, seven days a week. I worked every summer through my college years and after. I was never happier because it was an amazing training ground where out of necessity you learned all aspects of theater. In the old tried and true tradition of summer stock, we built, dressed, and painted the sets. When you weren't acting, you were doing lights, sound, props, costumes, hair, crew, plus ushering. Once a week there was "Strike Night" which was pure torture -- it meant tearing down the massive set (sometimes we had multiple sets and the designs were amazing) and putting up the new one. Strike would start after the show on Saturday, around 11pm., and ended 14 hours later after repainting the stage floor so the cast for the next show could begin rehearsing at 1pm. It was an invaluable experience and entrenched in me a deep respect for absolutely everyone working in theater.
Growing up in Eagan, Minnesota I did a lot of summer theater while I was in high school =- all directed by Dennis Swanson, who did all our high school plays. Mom and Dad were very supportive. They were musical. Mom played piano and sang; dad played guitar. There was an added pleasure in doing such shows as Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and The Music Man, because I talked Dad into doing them. We always had fun, even though I was mostly in the ensemble. Peter Pan was my favorite because I was Peter! I got to fly! I also had lines in The Music Man, portraying Zaneeta Shinn. At 16, I played the oldest daughter, Martha Cratchit, in A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie. Hurrah! I got my Equity card!
My first summer stock experience was for a touring production of My Fair Lady starring Michael Allinson and Susan Watson. I was one of eight ensemble members who played the buskers, aristocrats at the ball and Ascot, and Professor Higgins' housekeeping staff. There were no separate singing and dancing choruses. We sang, danced, executed cartwheels and handsprings, and spoke in British and cockney accents. We traveled New England, staying in cabins and old hotels, playing everywhere from the Cape Cod Melody Tent to the Guilford Playhouse in Laconia, New Hampshire. It was a terrific cast and a great first show for my entry into live theater. The locales and smiling audience faces were the icing on the cake -- even with the mosquitoes. I was in heaven!