By Courtney Riggar, Arden Theatre Company Production Manager.
I recently had the extreme pleasure of working with the Melmark Players on their debut performance of My Fair Lady at the Arden. It was, by far, one of the best experiences I have had in my theatrical career. Melmark is a non-profit organization committed to serving the residential, educational, therapeutic, and recreational needs of children and adults with developmental disabilities. The Arden has a fierce commitment to making the arts accessible to everyone.
A little history and background about the Players: they are a part of the Meadows program at Melmark, which is a work centered program for adults. Members of the Meadows program are offered music classes, sports opportunities and they run their own business – the Meadows Shop – where they sell their handmade goods. About 15 years ago a group of the members went to their gym coach with a proposal. They decided they were too old for gym class and instead they would like to perform in musicals. Kris Benach their coach had absolutely NO theatrical training whatsoever (and she possesses a horrible case of stage fright), but jumped in wholeheartedly and started making theatre with this group – The Players. The Players perform twice a year in the gym at Melmark; their performance of My Fair Lady marked the first time they had EVER performed for anyone other than friends and family on their own campus.
This amazing group of individuals worked 5 days a week with a team of directors (Kris Benach, Chris Tabakin, Ellen Battersby and Liza Jones) for nearly 6 months to put together this one hour musical montage performance. They came to see James and the Giant Peach at the Arden so they would understand what kind of space they would be performing in. They went back and set up cones and chairs in their gym as a makeshift audience so they could practice playing to an audience on three sides. They took classes from Maureen (Education Director at the Arden) and Sally (Education and Group Services Manager at the Arden) to enhance their acting skills and then they started each rehearsal with the warm-ups they learned. They even came to the Arden for a technical rehearsal with our staff.
I got to work and hang with them each time they came to the Arden and I got to know some really amazing individuals. There is Beth who, in her late 60s, is the oldest member of the group, she doesn’t move very well anymore, but no one wants to perform without her, so she plays a bartender and tends bar from her chair onstage. There is Meg, who played Eliza, who absolutely adores music (her mother was an opera singer) and sings every song with a huge voice and an even larger heart (she also happens to have a wicked sense of humor and can always make me laugh). There is Dan, who loves to dance and grins from ear to ear during his tap solos and waltz scene. There is Bill whose improvisational skills would rival many professionals out there; he brings something new and clever to the stage every time he performs. There is Lisa who’s an old reliable for the directors, she absorbs every note and remembers every bit of blocking without fail, and she’s a quick thinker and problem solver in a jam. There is Ronnie, who likes to help so much that he is the honorary stage manager for every show, in addition to being in each one. There is Doug who is a crowd-pleaser, he often strays into the audience during a show to work the crowd and give a high five (he also does a mean Neil Diamond impersonation). I could go on and on about the fantastic, unique qualities of each Player.
It has been absolutely breath taking and heart warming to work with these individuals to make their production of My Fair Lady a smashing success. It is so easy to get bogged down in the day to day routine of life. And at the end of each season (when we’re all burnt toast-ready for the small respite that summertime brings) it is sometimes hard to remember why we do this. It requires long, weird hours, sacrificed holidays and family time, and loads of stress. It is easy to forget the power that live theatre has to touch the hearts and minds of all those who come into contact with it. Watching the Players onstage having the time of their lives, seeing their friends and families in the audience glowing with pride at watching what the Players have achieved, and seeing those who thought they were coming to see just some ordinary, boring play and walking away speechless, in awe of the remarkable performance they had just seen immediately renewed my spirit. The Arden’s mission is to tell great stories and I am beyond proud to have helped Melmark tell their wonderful story here on our stage.
The Players will take the summer off now, many told me they are saving their pennies in the hopes of going to Disney World, and some will be headed off to camp. They are already talking about what their winter production will be (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown). They want to incorporate video like they saw here in James and the Giant Peach. They are jockeying for positions and lead roles. And they are hoping that they will, again, get to grace the stage here at the Arden sometime in the near future. If all else fails, they tell me, they’ll just make a movie. Look out Hollywood!