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Operatic Workout

A new work about Harriet Tubman. Plus: a new company devoted to middle-aged actresses, and various comings and goings.

Gordon Davidson is no neophyte when it comes to directing opera. The artistic director of Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum steps away from the dramatic stage every so often to flex his classi cal opera muscles, but his latest foray with the Virginia Opera Association has a challenging twist. The work, Harriet: The Woman Called Moses, is spanking new.

“You don’t get a chance to work on a new opera that often,” says Davidson. “I find the collaborative process of shaping a piece for the first time to be very exciting. You don’t rewrite an opera in the way you would rewrite a new play. The help I give Thea Musgrave [the composer] is in the shaping of the libretto. I’ve only heard the score in bits and pieces, and it’s a different rhythm to get used to when you compose something and then create scores and arrangements for each instrument.”

Davidson’s association with the work began two years ago when he was approached to direct it by Musgrave and her husband, Peter Mark, who will be conducting the work. The opera, which follows the struggles of underground railroad heroine Harriet Tubman, was commissioned by the Royal Opera House of London and the Virginia Opera Association. “I liked the story and the fact that Thea was motivated to do something about black history that would utilize black performers.”

While Davidson was heartened by a historically related opportunity to utilize black singers, he has never felt restricted in his casting choices in the culturally specific settings of grand opera (he has directed productions of Il Trovatore and Otello, among others). “In a sense, opera is way ahead of theatre in color-blind casting,” he notes.

Davidson has no trouble making the leap into opera directing, observing that “I have always programmed music in my plays at the Taper. I think of opera as music theatre, and I enjoy it so much because the gesture is so large. The greatest challenge as a director is that if I just study the libretto alone, I don’t get the whole story. I have to marry it with the music, and that’s what opera is: a marriage of music and drama. I do think that theatre can bring things to opera that opera doesn’t always have, like dramatic strength.”

Harriet has its premiere in Norfolk, Va. on March 1.

Older and Better

One evening, a playwright named Elsa Rael sat at a party while an unemployed actress entertained the crowd by performing Stephen Sondheim’s Company in its entirety—every role, song and dance. Knocked out by the woman’s commitment and exhaustive range, Rael asked her why she wasn’t working. The actress replied simply, “I was about to make it and there was nothing left for me. I hit 40.”

Rael simmered over that familiar scenario for a long time. Ten years later, when Rael was the recipient of a CAPS grant, there was no question in her mind as to how to use the money: it became the seed funding for a theatre whose intention would be to fill in the inevitable chasm faced by actresses reaching middle age. Under the pointed (and poignant) acronym P.O.W., Rael’s Professional Older Women’s Theatre ran an ad in the Dramatists Guild newsletter for a playwriting contest. The requirements: the play’s central character had to be a woman over 50.

Out of 214 submissions, 33 were chosen for special staged readings at the first P.O.W. Festival, to be held on three consecutive Mondays beginning March 11 at the New York Shakespeare Festival. The impressive array of actors scheduled to participate in the readings includes Kim Hunter, Beatrice Straight, Ruby Dee, Frances Sternhagen, Zohra Lampert and Viveca Lindfors, and they will be directed by an equally prestigious line-up of women directors including Josephine Abady, Tisa Chang, Susan Einhorn, Sue Lawless and Dorothy Lyman.

Seven full-length plays and eight one-acts will be read in their entirety, while the remainder of the works (two of which were written by men) will be excerpted. Among the full-length readings will be the three top prize winners: Paducah by Sallie Bingham, Reaching Out by Mary Ryzuk and Emily and Kate by Ruth Phillips.

Rael, who is 55, hopes the festival will bring recognition to a large and neglected faction of the acting community. “The most underemployed group of actors is older women. They are the most apt to disappear at a time when they are at their highest development of acting skills, and that includes a lot of big names. It’s a fact of our whole culture, but for those of us in the theatre, it’s the most painful, somehow.”

Briefly Noted

From Hamlet to Noises Off, theatre has exulted in talking about itself. Which may be why Tom Eyen keeps going back to it for source material. The librettist of Dreamgirls and the upcoming showgirl musical Kicks has reached into a shadowy corner of the stage for his next play, The Melody of the Glittering Parrot. Parrot focuses on the life of Sarah Bernhardt’s understudy, who moves to the Midwest in the ’40s to live with her daughter. “It’s sort of Paris meets Ohio,” says Eyen, who wrote the play for actress Liliane Montevecchi at Tommy Tune’s request. Tune, who directed Montevecchi in Nine, will do the same for Parrot, which targets a spring opening.

Bruce Beresford joins the growing legion of film directors, including Robert Altman and Ken Russell, who are testing the waters of the opera stage. The Australian auteur behind Tender Mercies and Breaker Morant will make his operatic directing debut this May when his production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West opens the ninth Spoleto Festival, U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C. A May 24 opening has been set for the Puccini work, to be conducted by Spoleto music director Christian Badea.

Louisville and New Haven are pumping some high-octane actors into Broadway for March openings. George Segal steps into Richard Dreyfuss shoes when the Long Wharf production of Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight moves to New York, along with Long Wharf cast members John Lithgow, Maria Tucci, Joyce Ebert and David Proval. Arvin Brown repeats his duties as director, while Lithgow and Segal take the roles originated in a 1956 Playhouse 90 production by Jack Palance and Keenan Wynn.

Sport of a more sedentary (but equally dangerous) nature charges in with The Octette Bridge Club, P.J. Barry’s new comedy about eight gossipy sisters set during World War II. The trumping sisters are Peggy Cass, Lois de Banzie, Elizabeth Franz, Bette Henritze, Elizabeth Huddle, Roberta Maxwell, Nancy Marchand and Anne Pitoniak. Tom Moore directs the eight-hander, which had its first performances last spring at Louisville’s Humana Festival of new plays.

Nonprofit resident theatre “caught the ring” of new play development when the Broadway merry-go-round became too economically risky for new works, drama critic Ann Holmes of The Houston Chronicle told an attentive audience at Manhattan’s West Side YMCA last month. Holmes and her New York Times colleague Mel Gussow mulled over “Riches of the Regional Theatre,” under the aegis of American Kaleidoscope Theatre’s monthly discussion series. Moderator and theatre veteran Norris Houghton (who with T. Edward Hambleton founded the Phoenix Theatre in 1953) pointed out that he foresaw the ascendency of America’s nonprofit professional network of theatres as early as 1941, in a prescient book called Advance from Broadway.

When Whoopi Goldberg receives her honorary Doctorate of Humanities from the University of Charleston this May, she may be smiling wryly at the memory of washing dishes at San Diego’s Big Kitchen just a few short years ago. At that time, the multifaceted black actress was playing Mother Courage at the San Diego Rep. Three years later, this courageous mother-of-one is filling the Lyceum Theatre in New York with her heartfelt impersonations of (among others) an American junkie touring Amsterdam, a hyperkinetic Valley Girl, and an ex-patriot Jamaican heiress housefrau.

When Lily Tomlin did her celebrated one-person show Appearing Nitely in 1977, she dressed up as a Red Cross lady and passed out hot coffee and doughnuts to line-standers braving the bitter winter chill for tickets. If Tomlin resurrected her Red Cross lady for her latest gig, chances are ticket buyers would be cooling off with iced tea instead. Her Works in Progress…No Costumes, No Scenery, No Refunds, under the direction of Jane Wagner, had its first exposure last month at the Santa Fe Festival Theater.

The Gershwin Theatre in New York is the ceremonial grounds for this year’s Theater Hall of Fame inauguration. The luminaries being added to the scroll of enduring achievement on March 4 are Edward Albee, Richard Burton, Melvyn Douglas, James Earl Jones, Garson Kanin, Tharon Musser, Robert Preston, Alan Schneider, Lee Simonson, Kim Stanley and Dorothy Stickney.

It’s a top-hat-and-tails committee: Charlton Heston is chairman, Nancy Reagan is honorary chairman and the rest of the seats are filled with former members of the National Council on the Arts. The committee’s job is to mark the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts (signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in September, 1965) with a week-long national celebration this fall. Museums, publications, television and, of course, performing arts organizations will be recruited into the commemorative effort.

A number of distinguished actors are currently plying their declamatory skills at New York’s Symphony Space, in a series entitled Selected Shorts: a Celebration of the Short Story. For nine Wednesdays through mid-June, short works by such diverse pen-masters as Edgar Allan Poe, Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, Calvin Trillin, Alice Walker, Anne Tyler, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov and Truman Capote will be read by the likes of Fritz Weaver, Estelle Parsons, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, John Rubinstein, Gloria Foster and Joe Grifasi. Hosts for upcoming evenings in the series include Ann Beattie, Roger Angell, Leonard Flesher and Grace Paley.

He was Mary Tyler Moore’s TV husband and a generation later she was Moore’s TV neighbor. Yet another generation later, Dick Van Dyke and Cloris Leachman are Les and Bess, a New York couple who do a radio talk show together from their apartment. The Lee Kalcheim comedy Breakfast With Les and Bess, hatched at the Hudson Guild Theatre with Holland Taylor and Keith Charles, is now a TV production by PBS. The video curtain goes up Mar. 11.

“For years I’ve been avoiding the theatre,” confessed film critic David Denby in January’s Atlantic Monthly. In his lengthy mea culpa entitled “Stranger in a Strange Land: A Moviegoer at the Theatre,” Denby went on to declare, “I am not happy there… And I’m not alone. I don’t know about the rest of the country, but in New York they are everywhere—the theaterphobes, the people who turn white with boredom when the new Stephen Sondheim is discussed at a dinner party.” Denby was so enraptured by his phobia that he has offered to send a copy of his views to anyone who sends him a self-addressed #10 envelope at New York Magazine, 755 Second Ave., New York, NY 10017.

From Headlines to the Stage 

Peter Noone, center (best known as Herman of the ’60s pop group Herman’s Hermits), makes his American dramatic debut in the current Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre production Topokana Martyrs’ Day, a stinging satire on famine relief in Africa. The play’s author, Jamaican-born poet and translator Jonathan Falla—who, in addition to writing, is studying to be a nurse—based his work on events he witnessed as a cultural worker during the drought and tribal wars of 1980-81. Joining Noone in the cast through March 24 are Grand L. Bush, left, Dorothy Tristan and Niche Saboda.

Entrances and Exits

After a three-month search, Stage West of Springfield, Mass. tapped Gregory Boyd as its permanent artistic director. Boyd comes to Stage West next month from his stint as artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C…Founding members Gary Sinise and Terry Kinney have been installed as artistic directors of their nine-year-old Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Sinise and Terry succeed Jeff Perry, who will devote his work with the company to acting.

Jose Ferrer has abdicated his position as artistic adviser of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Fla., citing a slump in ticket sales and repeated press criticisms regarding his artistic policies. Arnold Mittleman steps in as producing artistic director, merging Ferrer’s post with that of former managing director G. David Black…The Seattle Children’s Theatre has a new interim artistic director. Linda Hartzell moves into the six-month position after directing productions at Seattle’s Empty Space Theatre and Group Theatre.

Richard Frankel, former managing director of the Circle Repertory Company, has left the group after a successful five-year association to open his own Off Broadway producing and general management firm, Richard Frankel Productions. The new managing director is Suzanne M. Sato, who comes to the New York company from Dodger Productions…The Virginia Stage Company has also installed a new managing director, Dan J. Martin, former marketing director of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre Company. Martin joins artistic director Charles Towers at the helm of Virginia Stage…Sandra Schreiber replaces Maggie Grove as special projects director of The Dramatists Guild. Grove left the Guild in December to become managing director of New Dramatists.

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