BWW Interview: Co-Production of McCourt's IRISH Sure To Bring Smiles to Portland
From August 16 - September 4 this summer, two of greater Portland's leading theatre companies will combine forces in an exciting and news-making endeavor that is sure to enrich Maine's arts landscape. Both prestigious Equity companies, Maine State Music Theatre and Portland Stage Company have announced a co-production of Frank McCourt's runaway hit, The Irish and How They Got That Way, at Portland Stage in the weeks following MSMT's regular summer season in Brunswick and before the opening of Portland Stage's 2016-2017 season in late September. The 1997 play with music chronicles the emotional and spiritual journey of the Irish on both sides of the Atlantic and features melodies, originally arranged by Rusty Magee, that range from traditional Celtic folk tunes to Thomas Moore ballads, George M. Cohen favorites, and the more contemporary sounds of U-2.
According to Anita Stewart, Executive and Artistic Director of Portland Stage, the idea for such a collaboration "originated with Curt Dale Clark," MSMT's new Artistic Director since 2013. "Curt has been thinking about it for a while, and we as an organization are always asking ourselves how we can be more efficient in our programming and use our down times. When he approached me a year ago, I felt it was an idea well worth considering and developing."
Clark, himself, who has made it one of his primary goals to expand MSMT's audiences, the company's repertoire, and its performing reach, says that from the first, he understood that because MSMT leases the Pickard Theatre on the Bowdoin College campus for its summer season, "we are landlocked into twelve weeks, and it simply doesn't make sense to produce only for that short time period. So when I undertook my position, I visited theatres in the area with an eye to finding one with whom we could collaborate."
Clark and Stewart both see the goal of this partnership to broaden audiences for both companies. "It will benefit both theatres greatly," Clark says, "Our audience will be introduced to a new theatre and theatre-going experience in downtown Portland and theirs will become acquainted with MSMT's work." Moreover, Clark, who himself was one of the stars in 1999 at Chicago's Mercury Theater and in the 2006 Fulton Theatre regional production, both of which had long runs, feels certain "This will be a huge box office success!"
Stewart concurs, adding, "Not only do we get to program a work at a time when we are usually dark, but this is a great way to share resources. I am very much enjoying working with MSMT and learning where our commonalities and differences lie. We both do work for the stage, but we are different."
Asked to elaborate on their differences as producing entities, Stewart continues, "At Portland Stage we have a smaller space, and we are used to more rehearsal time," she acknowledges. Unlike MSMT which produces four elaborate Broadway musicals on its main stage each summer, Portland Stage largely presents straight theatre, often with small casts. Stewart notes that though Portland Stage has produced plays with music (such as Words By Ira Gershwin or Souvenir about Florence Foster Jenkins) and even small-scale musicals in the past, their house does not have an orchestra pit like MSMT's and can only accommodate a small instrumental ensemble on stage, she explains. "The Irish is also a different sort of play for both of us. It is not what they would program in their regular summer season, and for us it is not quite on message in terms of our mission for our regular season, so it gives us both a chance to try something new."
Both MSMT and Portland Stage are hopeful that this new collaborative venture can become an ongoing event in future seasons. Clark says he is optimistic that this is only the beginning of a fruitful working relationship. And he would like to find works the two companies can share at least every eighteen months. "We will assess the experience in the fall," Stewart says, "make any adjustments needed, and hopefully continue in this mode with a new producing model beneficial to both organizations - one which will delight and inspire people in a different calendar slot for years to come."
Clark describes The Irish as "gritty and grounded enough to make sense for them [Portland Stage] at the same time that it has a musical sensibility that appeals to MSMT. It is a small cast, small musical ensemble show that takes you on a trip through Irish history, and you find out along the way that the journey is different for each person on stage and in the audience. In fact, the beauty of it is that each audience member takes away something different from the experience."
Frank McCourt's four-character, four-musician play premiered at the off-Broadway Irish Repertoire Theatre in 1997, and went on, in addition to the two-year run in Chicago and several heralded regional productions, to enjoy two off-Broadway revivals, the last in 2010. Clark, feels privileged to have been associated with the work for so long, and it has retained a special place in his heart, which likely prompted him to suggest the production. His identification with McCourt's work and his association with Lancaster's Fulton Theatre production directed by Marc Robin also prompted both Maine producers to make their first joint artistic choice to engage Robin as director for Portland. Robin, whose award-winning direction and choreography are nationally acclaimed, has worked extensively with MSMT, where he will direct this summer both Ghost and Evita before returning to do The Irish. Stewart says the choice of Robin seemed natural and wise: "Since Marc had done the piece before, it made sense."
Clark says of Robin, who is not only his long time artistic collaborator, but also his spouse, "Marc worked with Charlotte Moore, the original director in Chicago, when she engaged him to do some choreography for the piece. She fell in love with him and his work, making him one of the few people who now has the rights to do the show as he wants to."
The other initial artistic choice which seemed to make great sense was to have Anita Stewart design the production, as she does for so many of Portland Stage's plays, and the costumes, props, and scenery will be built at Portland Stage. All other decisions about casting and production issues will be shared, as will the work on marketing, development, and administrative tasks be collaborative. Together Clark and Stewart have been assembling an artistic roster for the play that is bound to delight audiences, when the two artistic directors are able to announce these choices later in the year after all contracts have been signed.
"The audiences are in for a huge treat," Clark asserts as he attempts to articulate the tremendous appeal of the show. The Celtic tradition with its stories, music, and dance appeals to everyone, he feels "not only because we have been raised on these stories, but because McCourt has written the show to explore the laughter and the sorrow. The audience will have so much fun, and they will find themselves crying, too," he says, recounting his own experience with the moving song "Skibbereen" when the cast, frozen for a long still moment at the end, could hear the muffled sobs of the spectators. "And from the actors' perspective, it is structured so that you have a certain freedom to stretch comic moments and really engage the audience. I get chills just thinking about the feeling you get on stage and in the house with this show," he adds.
Stewart describes the appeal of the play in these terms: "Celtic music and dance come from the heart; they are very human, not very refined, very much from a gut root which seems to say 'we don't have very much, but we will make something fantastic and wonderful anyway.' I love the music, the heartwarming way of looking at the heritage of a group of people so instrumental in shaping the United States. There is a huge Irish population around, and whether you actually have Celtic roots or are 'honorary' Irish, you can connect to the play. And I also see a foil to the current immigration situation as it is now happening."
"The melodies are universal," Clark concurs. "There is something about a song written 250 years ago, which once you hear or sing it, you cannot get it out of your head." Asked what it is that makes these tunes so haunting, he pauses for a minute, hums a snatch of "Dublin Town," and says, "There is a melancholy and a hope in them. These are cries from the soul, sometimes sad, sometimes happy, but always longing. They just take hold of your heart."
Poster photo and headshots courtesy MSMT and Portland Stage; photo of Mercury Theater production courtesy Playbill online.
MSM 's and Portland Stage's production of Frank McCourt's The Irish and How They Got That Way will run at Portland Stage, 25 Forest Ave., Portland, ME from August 16 -18 (previews) and August 19-September 4, 2016. Tickets will be available for MSMT and Portland Stage subscribers from March 28 and to the general public from April 28. For more information: www.msmt.org 207-725-8769 and www.portlandstage.org 207-774-0465.