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Gavin's Underground

Salt Lake Acting Company: Master Class

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2009-10-14 -

Theater is picking back up again around the state, with the Salt Lake Acting Company leading the charge last month with their presentation of “The Caretaker.” But if you thought they were finished bringing out the high-quality works from well known playwrights, you might want to check the playbill again.

This week the modern classic “Master Class” makes it way to their stage, showcasing Maria Callas both belittle and take pleasure in her singing students work as she calls back to her prior profession. I got a chance to chat with Director David Mong, as well as the show's star Anne Cullimore Decker, and the on-stage musical accompaniment of Paul Dorgan about their careers and the show, as well as thoughts on local theater.

David Mong, Anne Cullimore Decker and Paul Dorgan

http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org/

Gavin:
Hey guys. First thing, tell us who you are and a little about yourselves.

David: Well, Gavin, that's a little metaphysical, but in short, I'm the director of this piece, used to be an actor and have been a Literary Manager and Press Weasel for SLAC. Now, I'm a gentleman of leisure, until I find a real job. I love walks on the beach, my favorite color is puce and I'm a Libra.

Anne: Who am I? I am Anne Cullimore Decker.


Paul:
Paul Dorgan. Born in Ireland; trained as a pianist; did plays/musicals in school; worked with various Opera Companies in US; currently Adjunct Professor of Music at U of U where I work mostly with singers.

Gavin:
What inspired you to take an interest in theater?

Paul: Don't remember when I was first taken to the theatre, but I was very young; my first real memory was a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Gondoliers" by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company - I was probably about 7 or 8.

David: A composite of character flaws. Probably four of the seven deadly sins, although I don't remember them all. I went to school as a playwriting major and actor, but didn't graduate. This was the seventies, after all. I got hooked up with a Salt Lake theatre company called The Human Ensemble Repertory Theatre (this was the seventies, after all) and acted and directed for them for several years, then moved to Seattle to become a professional actor, which means I did it for money.

Anne: I started by writing reviews of plays for my high school newspaper. The drama teacher was a good looking man, so of course, I decided to sign up for one of his classes. I was initially hooked on his classes on Theatre History; but encouragement from him gave me the impetus to try my skills on "the boards." The rest is history,...my own history. I majored in Speech & English (there was no theatre department at that time), After marrying, having 3 children, I went back to school into Theatre in the Masters Program when I got my MFA. Taught at East High School, and then at the University of Utah in the Actor Training Program. I came very close to discontinuing my education during my junior year when I was offered a weekly TV program. Thank goodness, I turned that down.

Gavin: How did you first get involved with the Salt Lake Acting Company?

Anne: Although I had been in the audiences of almost every SLAC productions, it wasn't until I was asked to direct, Death of the Salesman with Tony Larimer & Gail Hickman that I became involved on the other side of the proscenium with this regional theatre. It was a fabulous cast, an incredible script in a intimate space and produced by a then small theatre company who believed in the same principles and philosophies that I did. I felt very much as home with them.

David: I moved back to Utah in 1994, just as Allen Nevins and Nancy Borgenicht were trying to pull SLAC back from the brink of folding. In truth, they just invited me on board in an act of unmitigated trust, made me their Literary Manager and Press Relations guy, and gave me an opportunity to direct plays as the years unfolded. Allen was an old pal from the Ensemble days and Nancy had directed the two of us in WHITE MEN CAN'T DANCE at SLAC in 1990 or '91. I was still living in Seattle at the time. Al and I confirmed the pronouncement in the title and showed one or two other things white men can't do very well. I remember we opened the play on the night we invaded Iraq for the first time. Talk about a buzz kill. I worked for SLAC until 2008.

Paul: I've seen many productions at SLAC, but never thought that I would be in one!

Gavin: David, how did you first come into this play back in 1998?

David: Essentially, I was assigned the play, having opened my mouth once too often to say I'd like to try to direct something. I was given the play, I'm sure, because I knew the least about opera of anyone in the state. It was one of the first plays I directed. Thank god Anne Cullimore Decker was my Maria! And the rest of cast saved my ass, as well.

Anne: I had seen Zoe Caldwell on Broadway playing Maria Callas in Master Class, and I wept over the play, her performance, the entire experience. I was in Europe when SLAC announced Master Class on their season. When I returned and was informed of this, my heart leapt with the possibility of doing the role. But I was soon informed that they had already offered the role to someone else. I was heartbroken. There aren't many roles like this one for an actress. So, when I received a phone call several weeks later offering me the role (the original actor had backed out of it) I was elated, but terrified. There were many moments during the rehearsal period trying to get this role under my belt where I understood why she had backed out. I wondered if I had taken on something that was impossible, especially under an abbreviated time frame.

Gavin: Anne, what was it like for you to be cast in the original version?

Anne: Eleven years ago, we had to spend a great deal of time working with pianists. We went through three of them!!! That added to my terror. When it was proposed that they bring it back, I said, "Only if you can contract a pianist now....and have him commit to the entire run." When they got Paul Dorgan to agree, I was enormously relieved on many levels. He also is our Opera expert advisor as well as our Italian dialects coach. Invaluable.

Gavin: How was it for both of you the first time around? And how did the decision come to bring it back for this season?

David: The first time around... hmmm... well to tell the truth, I have a stunning lack of recollection of the first time. Ms. Decker and I are having a contest to see who can remember the least about it. I do know that I knew so little I wasn't quite as alarmed as I should have been. I know more now, and I have what I believe to be the appropriate level of fear! Still, we're having a great and deep time with it. The prior production was a different world, I mean, eleven years ago, for cryin' out loud. Who can remember? I'm glad we've got another chance at it. Together. As for the reason it was brought back, I wasn't really part of that process. I'm just happy they included me.

Anne: When they asked whom I would like to direct, I said, "If we can get Mong to take it on again, that would be another safety net and a pleasure to work with him again." And the dear boy agreed to it. Having more time this time to work on the background of Callas,as well as on the lines...and there are MANY...that has been a pleasure and a privilege. I think we've both achieved a greater depth and understanding not only of the play, but of Maria Callas herself. She is in my bones now, and I think will be with me for the rest of my life.

Gavin: Did you both know you'd be working together again on this one? And what's the experience been like working on it again?

Anne: When they asked whom I would like to direct, I said, "If we can get Mong to take it on again, that would be another safety net and a pleasure to work with him again." And the dear boy agreed to it. Having more time this time to work on the background of Callas,as well as on the lines... and there are MANY... that has been a pleasure and a privilege. I think we've both achieved a greater depth and understanding not only of the play, but of Maria Callas herself. She is in my bones now, and I think will be with me for the rest of my life.

David: Really, when I was asked if I was interested in directing it, it was the knowledge that Anne was involved that made the decision easy. What am I nuts? I always have a grand time working with Anne. She's amazing in oh-so-many respects. This time is even better, because I think we're both a little better prepared. The last time was a sprint to the finish line. That much I remember. I think both Anne and I are more assured in our craft, as the years have rolled by. Also, I'm older and Anne is not. Swear to god. I think there's a really disturbing portrait of her somewhere in an attic. She doesn't appear to have aged AT ALL. Truly, I think we both dig deeper now, and that's fun.

Gavin: Paul, how is it for you to be a part of this play and literally playing the entire score to the production on stage?

Paul: I'm loving this experience, though my days are long! I usually finish teaching at the University at 3 and then I rehearse from 4-9. I've played for many master classes so I know exactly what Manny is feeling as the three singers arrive and perform their arias for the great Maria Callas. What I find most fascinating about the rehearsal process is the freedom; with opera so much is controlled by the music, but that doesn't exist in a play. The actual playing is not a problem; remembering where my lines are is! I've been a rehearsal pianist for productions of "Tosca" and "Macbeth", so I know those arias well; and the aria from "La Sonnambula" is a very popular one with certain sopranos.

Gavin: Is there anything you've done personally for the compositions and how they'll play out or are you sticking strictly to the music given?

Anne: Getting the music that McNally specifies, including the specific 1952 live recording of La Sonnambula for example, to coordinate with the lines of the script has taken a tremendous amount of time and rehearsal. I have to time the words to what the music is playing, and if I get off, it is a train wreck. If I were singing the words, it would be much easier.....But I'm not suggesting we do that!!! That would be worse and total catastrophe. There is a description in the script which says, "Maria begins to sing the first lines of the recitative. What comes out is a cracked and broken thing; a voice in ruins. It is a terrible moment." I can do that very well. Happily we have some lovely voices in our students in the play as well as wonderful recordings of Callas herself.

Paul: Me, I'm sticking strictly to the music, and insisting that the singers do so too!

Gavin: Considering the content, from all your different point-of-views, would you consider it more of a comedy or a mini-musical?

David: Is neither an option? It's an amalgam of comedy-drama with music. It's unique among it's peer in the way it incorporates the music, which is really a character in and of itself It's also the fluid in which time is suspended as Maria relives moments in her life.

Paul: The play has some funny lines, and there are musical moments. But I never thought of it as a "mini-musical" (even when I saw it 11 years ago at SLAC!); the singers present themselves at this Master Class, and what we are most intrigued with is Maria's reaction to them, which is very different for each of them. It is a play that has some laughs, but is ultimately very sad, because we see what Maria sacrificed for her art; but those sacrifices demanded a terrible toll on her personal life: she left her husband (who had supported her in her early years of trying to establish herself as a singer, and then saw her greatest successes in the world's opera houses) for what she thought was the great love of her life, only to be rejected for Jackie Kennedy. In the end she had nothing but her memories. And the play takes us into those memories. The play is not a comedy, nor is it a "mini-musical"; it is a play with music.

Anne: This should not be labeled a comedy, or a min-musical or any other stereotype. It is a homage to a great artist, who altered the expectations of the experience of Opera. She brought back the dramatic values of bell canto singing. Now audiences expect the opera singers to not only sing these incredibly beautiful arias, but to act them as well. This is a play about Art and Humanity which has some terribly clever funny lines, but also tremendous insight into humanity. We get to experience Callas' public face and her private demons.

Gavin: What's the overall feeling from all of you going into opening night?

Anne: I just hope the audiences will enjoy the experience as much as we are on stage. Master Class speaks of why we artists do what we do!

Paul: After two weeks of rehearsal we are now beginning to get a feel for the arc of the play, and as we get more comfortable with our characters, we are starting to explore them more deeply and we find new aspects every day. The wonderful thing about being in this production is that we have a ton of performances; in the opera world, where I come from, there are usually just 2 performances, and that's not enough to really know a character. And the rehearsal period for an opera is much shorter. I'm looking forward to an audience!

David: As usual, anxious and hopeful, eager to share and still a little protective of the process.

Gavin:
A little state-wide, what are your thoughts on local theater, both good and bad?

David: Under funded, under-attended, homeless half the time. I think we're well rounded in terms of the diversity of theatre that happens here. We surprise people around the country with the amount of theatre done here. Of course a lot of outsiders still think we tie our horses up in the street. I know when I'd go to new play festivals and what-not around the country they would be floored by the kind of theatre SLAC was doing. It's just such an uphill climb trying to find venues and survive here. Though that's not exclusive to Utah, unfortunately. I' m impressed that there's still a hunger coming from the younger folks to do it. Bless their hearts.

Paul: In art there is always going to be good and bad, and there is probably more bad than good: how many of Shakespeare's contemporaries are regularly performed today? But without bad plays how can we decide what are the good ones? Some plays, no matter how good, date themselves over the years; they are so set in the society their author was depicting that they seem to have little relevance to contemporary life. But, whether the play itself, or the production of it (in the case of, say, Shakespeare) is bad or good, there is something special about being in the community of audience. In "Master Class" Maria talks about how "holy" the theatre is for her; historically theatre has always been a sort of "alternative" church. Actors perform and audiences react to that performance. Reading "King Lear" is not at all the same as experiencing it in the theatre; in the theatre we see the tragedy of the old man, and we become caught up in the audience's reaction to that tragedy. Theatre, and all of the arts, must be encouraged and supported - without Arts we are a very poor society.

Anne: During times of financial difficulty, all the arts in the state are having to be creative in maintaining their integrity and their commitment to their communities It is always during difficult times, that people realize the need and importance of the arts in their lives. This is an ideal time for all of us to remember that without our creative expression and contribution, there is very little difference between us and other species.

Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to improve it?

Anne: Like our health program in the USA, we must find ways to make it available to EVERYONE. We will have a healthier and happier society if people have engaged in the arts, either as an artist or an audience member. We must stop categorizing arts as superfluous entertainment. Art defines who we are as a human race. It gives meaning to our lives.

Paul: Governments, local and federal, must realize that the "Arts" are vitally important to society's well-being. Government must support the arts.

David: Not to be a smart ass, but see above. You always crave more support, but frankly, it's a marketplace and that can be a bit Darwinian, for better or worse. Certainly, folks like you help because getting the word out about theatre is becoming tougher as media sources tighten.

Gavin: What can we expect from you guys the rest of the year?

Paul: Nothing planned, but check the School of Music's "Sundays At 7" series - I might be there!

Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?

David: Health care! Come on, Dems.

Paul: Our Store, at 358 South and 300 East. It's a thrift store run by the People with Aids Coalition of Utah. You can find almost everything there: clothes, books, CDs, electronics, furniture, toys, all at ridiculous prices; and you can donate just about anything. The profits go to PWACU which provides essential services to people with AIDS. In today's economic environment of government cutbacks PWACU needs all the help it can get.

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