by Joseph Gresser
GREENSBORO — Secrets are notoriously hard to keep in small towns. But Greensboro has managed to keep a thriving arts organization quiet for eight years.
With its tent theater set up on the green in front of the Town Hall in the middle of town, the Greensboro Arts Alliance’s days of flying under the radar have likely come to an end though.
That suits director Sabra Jones just fine. The New York actor and acting teacher said in one of her increasingly rare free moments Sunday that her organization has been so busy trying to get its shows together that it’s had little time left for publicity.
Ms. Jones said she hopes this year is different.
She has been putting on staged readings and fully staged shows in Greensboro over the past eight years, she said. In previous years the company performed in a barn near Caspian Lake and in a tent behind the Lakeview Inn on Breezy Avenue.
By moving to the lawn in front of the Town Hall the group is nearing its ultimate goal — renovating the building’s existing stage so it can be a permanent home for the company. Greensboro selectmen have appointed a committee to study the idea.
With a new space and a pair of shows running the last two weeks of July into the first week of August, the arts alliance is looking to build its audience, she said.
At a recent rehearsal of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Ms. Jones told her cast that even for professional actors repertory theater is challenging. (The company will perform Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man on alternating nights.) Her group has an advantage, Ms. Jones told them in that “our company is the whole town of Greensboro.”
If that’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. While one group of actors worked on their lines at the Fellowship Hall of the Greensboro United Church of Christ, crews were working on turning an ordinary tent into a space for theater in the round.
The designer of the ingenious stage, Richard Alexander, is also a leading actor in The Music Man, playing an anvil salesman with a grudge against the hero, Harold Hill. His son Elye, who was also a force in the construction of the temporary theater, performs in Our Town.
Wardrobe mistress Sonia Dunbar is also in the musical’s chorus. On the Friday before the show’s opening, she received a delivery of band uniforms for the show’s final scene.
The man who brought them cautioned her that they were not to be altered. Ms. Dunbar smiled serenely.
“No problem. The stage directions describes them as ‘ill fitting.’” she said.
Ms. Jones has gotten some serious help in running the enterprise. She is sharing directing chores with her son Charles McAteer, who is at the helm of Our Town, and local theater eminence Rosann Hickey Cook, who earlier in the season directed a reading of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.
In addition, the casts of the two fully staged shows include professional actors. Marla Schaffel, who plays Marion the town librarian in Music Man, created the role of Jane Eyre in the Broadway musical of the same name and was rewarded for her performance with a Tony nomination. Harold Hill is played by Anthony Wills Jr., whose long list of credits includes serving as artistic director of Artistic Pride Productions and an award-winning production of Master Harold… and the boys.
David Beck plays George Gibbs in Our Town. He starred with Ms. Schaffel last year in the arts alliance’s production of The Sound Of Music. In New York his credits include The More Loving One, a New York Fringe Festival award winning play, and The Long Ride Home, performed at the Cherry Lane Theater.
Ms. Jones considered more than just acting ability in choosing her guest performers. In rehearsals she stresses the need for performers to “love each other.” Watching the professionals work with the local performers, one can see that ethos in action.
One afternoon music director Justin Jacobs worked with Andrew King, one of two actors who will play the role of Winthrop Paroo, the lisping brother of Marion in Music Man. The ten-year-old performer was having trouble with a difficult song, which was at the top of his singing range.
Mr. Jacobs explained what needed to be done and encouraged Andrew as he struggled to figure out how to hit the notes in the passage. Mr. Jacobs’ patience brought forth a super human effort from the young singer, and the two shared an evident sense of triumph when Andrew mastered the song.
Similarly, Ms. Schaffel showed real tenderness while rehearsing a scene with Abigail Demers, who plays Amaryllis and yearns to be Winthrop’s love interest.
Ms. Jones said she believes that “everybody is famous, everybody has talent.” She laughed delightedly when Krissie Ohlrogge, whose talent has hitherto been largely confined to her vast literary output, improvised a pratfall in Music Man.
After making sure she hadn’t hurt herself, Ms. Jones whooped with laughter.
“This is so brilliant, we’ve got to keep it. We have to practice it, but we’re certainly going to keep it,” Ms. Jones said.
The choice of plays was also clearly well thought out. All three of the alliance’s main offerings are examinations of small town life. Even though the smallest of the fictional communities depicted in the shows — Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire — is quite a bit bigger than Greensboro, aspects of the town’s life still ring true.
Ms. Jones has helped to bind the townspeople together in a common effort as much as Harold Hill in Music Man does with his boy’s band.
And the arts alliance makes much sweeter music.
Our Town opens on July 23 with performances on July 26, 28, and 30, and August 2 and 4.
The Music Man premieres on July 24 with shows on July 25, 27, and 31, and August 1 and 3.
contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]