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Sturbridge Ring-a-Round Playhouse

March 11, 2010

Ring-a-Round Playhouse playbill contributed by Liz Horwitt

Sturbridge Ring-a-Round Playhouse (aka “The Rounders”) was a summer stock company that lasted two seasons, ’71 and ’72, as far as I can remember. It was directed by Bob Harper, who taught drama at Kirkland. There were about two dozen of us, Hamilton and Kirkland both, stuffed into an old rambling house, five or six to a room. The second year, we had a different house and the guys slept in the attic with the bats. John Gillick, who was technical director, and very fond of guns, went up and shot at the bats with a rifle, which didn’t kill a single bat but probably didn’t do the ceiling any good.

The first year, Sturbridge let us use their Town Hall, but we messed it pretty good (holes in the floor, etc.) so we got kicked out and had to use the Southbridge Y the following year. We did a show a week, so quite often we actors wound up rehearsing for one play while performing in another. With just a week to get our lines, occasional fluffs did happen. I recall desperately improvising while playing cats cradle, waiting for the other actress to remember her lines. During I Am a Camera, (I played Fraulein Schneider, the crusty landlady) I spent a very tense five minutes deploying a carpet sweeper and muttering to myself in a German accent while Sally Bowles rushed backstage to find out what the hell had happened to Fritz’s entrance.

We did a very eclectic mix of plays, including Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, Anouilh’s Thieves’ Carnival, Dames at Sea, The Lady From Maxim’s, The Knack, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. We also got stoned a lot – Bob Harper discovered a bunch of us standing in a circle and shaking our hands and giggling, and was extremely nonplussed. We got paid $20 a week plus room and board – not bad.

I just found a couple of letters I wrote from Sturbridge to my mother, the first summer. Here are a few excerpts:

Dear Mom,

I am writing this during a line rehearsal in the long spaces in between my lines. The play goes on tomorrow night and we don’t even have our lines down. I suppose this is the famed excitement and flurry of summer stock.

Last night was the last performance of The Knack. After the play the company was scattered all over the house, so I wandered around, playing a game of table hockey here, “Metaphors” there, kibbitzing on a chess game, listening to a guitar-playing session, getting my fortune told. . .

In a second letter:

As a company, we are going through another of our climbing-the-wall times. Tempers are short, and laughter tends to get a little hysterical. People fall into moods and cope with it in various ways that often gridge others.

Juno and the Paycock’s opening night went very well, I think. We haven’t seen reviews yet but Mr. Harper said I made him cry. For the first time in four weeks I don’t have a play to rehearse and I am on kitchen duty, washing dishes and cooking for our family is nothing compared to doing it for twenty-four people!

And to a friend, the following summer:

The first weeks in Sturbridge (Southbridge actually) are always a circus with everyone has been running around trying to learn the part/build the set/sew the costumes/fix up the theater before opening night (Dames at Sea). That was tonight, and I suppose, objectively, it was hilarious. Zivia’s dress parted from the rear up and her a belt popped of so she had to play the big romantic dance number with one hand clutching her rear, holding the dress closed. One love song sounded like cats moaning in a back alley. . .

I spent the week doing tech, living on ham and cheese sandwiches and not enough sleep. I spent two days arranging bricks on a flat so some of them would fall out in chunks when punched. I spent an entire afternoon trying to construct a star geometrically (so much for high school math).

by Elisabeth Horwitt K’73

3 Comments leave one →
  1. cordelia burpee permalink
    March 11, 2010 7:40 pm

    The things we forget..I had forgotten my summer with the Sturbridge theater but reading Liz’s recollections brought it all to mind – sleeping on mattresses four(5?) to a room in a barely furnished farmhouse miles from the townhall, cooking for ourselves (sort of), trying to learn a new play every week. It seemed to me that in ‘71 most of the female students Bob selected were a particular physical type – tall and lanky. I suspect I was selected solely because he liked me but when we arrived in Sturbridge he realized that there were several women who could playing leading roles but not many who could play character parts so I played children, drunk old ladies, you name it. I don’t think my uncle, an insurance executive from Worchester, ever got over the shock of seeing his sweet niece rip into people as Martha in “ Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf”. I remember that Bob Harper practically dropped his script the first time I read Martha’s lines. Apparently no one realized that I had a gift for displaying hostility, wounding sarcasm and raw resentment. ..
    Liz’s comments about coping with those who forgot their lines or entrances reminded me of “A Thousand Clowns”. I played the female lead and had several scenes were there were long conversations with the young boy, Nick. The local kid who played Nick was sweet but absolutely unreliable and capable of freezing up, going blank, or inserting dialogue randomly into the proceedings as it occurred to him. My only defense was to learn all his lines and my lines and to announce brightly “ ..I wonder if you are thinking that ..” or “ Oh! I thought you were going to say..” and then reply as if he and not I had uttered those words. In a good performance I had to do this once or twice, in a bad one I plowed through whole scenes stuck saying both sets of lines, having a conversation with myself around the boy. It was a long week.
    A graduate drama student and his Korean wife, a professional costumer, were also part of our group that year. The wife whose name I remember but not how to spell it ( Sooni Hit?) bravely agreed to fix us dinner one night and made us wontons. There were wontons covering every flat surface in the kitchen stacked and resting on top of the refrigerator and in the cupboards. We asked her why she cooked so much. She,a bit flustered, replied that we had told her to make four times what a normal recipes worth would be ( enough for 25-30). Apparently a normal recipe in her family fed 25 so we were looking at enough food for 100 people. We ate wontons for a long time… For the rest of the summer the refrigerator displayed a cartoon wonton trucking happily down the road . She and I had many good conversations, I collected interesting sewing tips and she taught me how to stirfry zucchini and sesame seeds. For many years I had recipes in her handwriting with the English spelled phonetically the way she would have pronounced it .
    We hit some interesting lowlife bars after shows. I think many of them were run by Greeks or catered to a Greek clientele. I remember that several of them had these jukebox contraptions with a tv screen mounded above them. When we played certain songs ( I don’t remember which ones I was usually only half paying attention) a little film clip of a dancing scantily clad young women would appear. It was rather odd – more cheesy and amusing than sexy. I never saw anything like it anywhere else but then I had (and now even more so have) a rather limited experience of late night bars.
    I had the sense that whole summer that Bob was in over his head and a bit overwhelmed. He was a very kind man but appeared to be just barely suppressing hysterics much of the time. We had a loyal following and the town hall and I would have people stop me to ask what part I would be playing this week . I learned to strip down to my underwear and change costumes backstage as backstage life continued around me ( I also discovered that no one much paid attention, they had their own stuff to worry about, a useful perspective to care into later life). The summer was a grand and exhausting adventure, we all got very little sleep, and learned a great deal. Thank you for jogging my memory

    • Tom Creamer permalink
      March 16, 2010 11:21 am

      Those two summers in Strurbridge were an extraordinary experience, I realize now. Ten plays in eleven weeks each summer, plus a week building the theater each time, virtually from scratch. Total immersion theater. Those two summers plus my Winter Study in London with Professor Barrett — 30 plays in 28 days — formed the core of my theater training.

      I remember joining some of my fellow actors in trashing Bob Harper’s taste in plays. He was decidedly uninterested in the avant garde: no Ionesco, Beckett, or Brecht. His repertory was solidly in the aestehetic of summer stock — tried and true comic and sentimental warhorses from 1950s Broadway. Well, he did program a Tom Stoppard and an Edward Albee, though Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolff and R & G Are Dead were both big Broadway hits.

      But Harper got it done. He conceived the seasons, cast the company, secured the playing spaces, found housing, raised the money, and did the publicity, as well as directing the majority of the shows. No wonder he was a jittery wreck most of the time. He got it done and I am deeply grateful he did.

      And I loved just about all of it — every day rehearsing, building sets, performing, endlessly learning lines. Jim Ragland and I got an extra week to learn the repartee of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but how did we do it? I remember on opening night of R&G, Ragland and I realized to our horror that we had jumped ahead, cutting about four pages of the script full of crucial plot information. Somehow, miraculously, we went back and picked up all the dropped lines, then jumped forward to the moment where we had realized our mistake. Pretty seamless.

      The one show I didn’t enjoy working on was The Fourposter. This was a two-person play about the course of a marriage from the wedding night to very old age. Four acts at four different ages and moments of crisis over the years. Bob Harper brought in a 41-year old actress, a semi-pro from Utica, to play the wife, and he had another ringer from New York set to play the husband. But the guy dropped out the week before rehearsal and I was tapped to replace him. 22-year-old me and 41-year-old her didn’t match up very well. There was no one act in the play when our ages matched up at all. And I didn’t much enjoy having to make love to a woman that much older than me. (Now of course I’d be delighted to play opposite a beautiful young 41-year old.) And on top of that, Harper’s plan to cast the show with outsiders was designed to give the rest of the company a break. So while I was stuck in the rehearsal room with the old people, my friends were having a great week relaxing and having fun.

      About the bats. Yes, there were bats in the attic of that wonderful old Victorian, which is still there in Brookfield on the banks of the Quabog. At night when the lights were out, I could hear them flittng around over the beds. In the morning we would wake up and find small black bat turds on our sheets. Charming. No wonder John Gillick organized the great bat hunt. I remember a B.B. gun, and I remember some chemical warfare too — John thought insect spray would work on the bats. Pretty grisly. All the same that attic was pretty special too, for the ladder leading to the wonderful roof above where we spent many evenings after the show smoking dope and admiring the stars and for the wonderful sound of the rain drumming down on Sunday mornings when we could sleep in a little.

  2. September 4, 2011 8:28 pm

    TC has it right. Wasp-nest spray to bring them down out of the eaves, a BB gun for the coup-de-grace, And all Fledermause ever wanted was a good day’s sleep. sigh.

    A minor sub-plot form that little drama: originally Before I went and got all John wayne on the local Chiroptera, we opted the kinder, gentler apporach. Kate Barefield was detailed off to staple screening over noticeable cracks, openings etc. in the attic that made for the cloister. I was working on something or other else when she came down, staple gun in one hand, roll of screening under her arm, to tell me that the way the nooks and crannies ran up into the peaks of the roof made the effort futile. While she was telling me this, I took note of a bat working its slow day-squinted way up the screening towards a grip on her shirt.

    I said I’d take care of things, relieved her of her tools and walked quickly off with the roll without letting her become aware of her passenger.

    It would have been a good scream – a world-class scream, maybe. Not to mention a fine oh-college-days anecdote for years to come …



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