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John Guare's The House Of Blue Leaves
By Sheryl Flatow
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
           “Dreams,” by Langston Hughes
On the first day of rehearsal for John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves , running now through June 2, director J. Barry Lewis shared Langston Hughes’ poem “Dreams” with the cast. “I’m using it as a sort of guideline,” says Lewis. “This is a play about dreams. Our dreams are the stuff of our lives. We carry our dreams carefully so that we don’t lose sight of that which is hoped for, that which is possible. Our lives are about holding fast to our dreams so that we can sometimes endure that which we feel is unendurable. Our dreams and our passions carry us forward at the most difficult times. And what happens when those dreams die? I think that’s what the play is about.”

Guare has said that the play is about “humiliation and the cruelties people inflict on each other.” If these two descriptions make The House of Blue Leaves sound like a dark piece, it is – and it isn’t. It ping-pongs between farce and tragedy, and is as funny as it is heartbreaking.

“One of the biggest challenges is to find the right tone,” says Lewis. “Guare often talks about how life isn’t comedy or tragedy; it’s both at the same time. We’re able to hold a mirror up, and in the reflection we see that which is both absurd and very moving, dark and funny. How we respond depends on how we see. Trying to find that balance is absolutely the key to the success of the work.”

The House of Blue Leaves takes place on October 4, 1965, when Pope Paul VI spent 14 hours in New York City, marking the first visit by a reigning pope to the United States. Millions line the streets to greet him including zookeeper Artie Shaughnessy, a wannabe Hollywood songwriter with big dreams and no discernable talent, who hopes that a papal blessing will help propel him out of Queens, away from his mentally ill wife, Bananas, and into a new life in Los Angeles with Bunny Flingus, his overly optimistic and encouraging girlfriend. Bunny persuades Artie to contact his old friend Billy Einhorn, now a celebrated film director, convinced that Billy will get Artie’s songs into movies. One of the play’s themes is our celebrity-obsessed culture and the outrageous things people will do for a few minutes of fame or notoriety. That includes Artie and Banana’s son, Ronnie, eager to carry out a plan that will bring him infamy. 
The characters are extremely self-involved – no one listens to anyone else – and over-the-top. Although Bananas is the one who might be headed to an institution, most of the characters exhibit some degree of crazy. “The great question is just how crazy is Bananas,” says Lewis. “She’s wacky, but she may be one of the saner people in the play. She loves Artie, and she tells him, ‘I never stood in your way.’ Is she giving him a gift and telling him it’s okay for him to do what he’s got to do? Is she saying all she wants is to be loved? Nothing is clear and easy. She talks about a period of time where they would laugh and life was good. We don’t know what her sickness was, but we know it was severe and complex enough that it changed who she was.” 

Although the play is often farcical and fanciful, it’s grounded in reality. Guare’s impetus for writing The House of Blue Leaves was the pope’s historic visit. The playwright was in Rome on that day, but his parents were among the throng in Queens who saw the pontiff pass by. They later wrote to their son about what that moment meant to them, and after receiving and reading their letter in Cairo, he began writing the play. The piece also includes references to actual places in Queens and elsewhere in New York City. This kind of information was extremely useful to Lewis as he began to investigate the play long before rehearsals began.

“I do a lot of research because I believe that plays are rooted in the particular period and time in which they were written,” he says. “When I understand those dynamics, they truly inform me about how the play was written, why it was written, and what the conceit is about the play. I went back and looked at the headlines and the news reels of the day the pope came to New York, and what was happening in the city was tantamount to hysteria. A million people lined the streets. It was the time of the nuclear arms race, and America and the Soviet Union were both trying to be the first country to get to the moon. We were competing for supremacy. This is an oversimplification, but the pope’s visit was kind of a validation for America.

“Guare’s two biggest hits – this play and Six Degrees of Separation – were inspired by actual events,” Lewis continues. “It was important for him to root his plays in reality. You know the places in this piece. When Bunny talks about going to stand on the corner of 46 th and Queens Boulevard, you look at the map and go, ‘Oh, that’s Cavalry Cemetery.’ When Artie and Billy talk about the fun times they had at Leon and Eddie’s, you locate it on 52 nd Street between 5 th and 6 th . It was one of the most famous clubs. Servicemen went there during World War II and saw burlesque and comics, and you understand how important it was that two young men out of high school would go and spend their time there together. Guare makes reference to these various places for a reason. It’s a road map: when I understand the reason, I better understand who the character is. 
“Here’s another case in point. When they start reminiscing about the past, Bananas says that she loved the Village Barn. And I thought, ‘What was the Village Barn? What does it mean?’ When you do some research, you find it was a nightclub located in a basement on Eighth Avenue. It was well known to adults, who would go and play silly games. They would play musical chairs. They had square dancing every night. There was a performing horse that would be brought in to ‘answer’ questions from an old comic. It was a kind of tomfoolery antithetical to New York. It was a place where people went to relive their youth, and listen to cowboy music and square dance. So, for Bananas, the Village Barn was a release, almost a fantasy world. The guys’ fantasy was Leon and Eddie’s, which was essentially a strip joint. These little things tell me who these people are and what their lives were like. All of this fleshes out the reality of the play. Now, we ultimately let go of all of this, but having the information tells me how I can approach the work.”

The original 1971 Off-Broadway production of The House of Blue Leaves won the Obie Award for Best New American play. A 1986 revival, which starred John Mahoney as Artie, Swoosie Kurtz as Bananas, and Stockard Channing as Bunny, opened Off-Broadway and was such a big hit that it transferred to Broadway. Frank Rich, then the theatre critic for The New York Times , felt a shift in tone between the 1971 and 1986 productions: the latter, he said, was more tragic than funny, while the original was reversed. Lewis believes that in PBD’s production the balance between light and dark is in the eye of the beholder.  
“One of the things that I think is very important is that all of these characters – and I mean this in the technical sense, not in the literal sense – are clowns,” he says. “They are clowns in the style of commedia dell’arte. Clowns are both sad and happy, and a clown can be laughed at when he is sad, as well as when he does pratfalls. It’s the old ‘two sides of the same coin’ and it takes both sides to complete the clown. So, do we think of it more today as a tragedy or a comedy? It has a lot to do with where we are today as society and what we come into the room with. Who knows? I think it could possibly feel more tragic because the characters seem to be stuck, they seem to be caught, they seem to be unable to move forward. Well, are we feeling that today ourselves? Do we feel stuck? Are we unable to feel the forward motion? We’re in a pretty tough time right now. In the end, it depends on who you are and what your perspective is.”
Pictured: J. Barry Lewis, Vanessa Morosco, Bruce Linser, and Elena Maria Garcia
Photos by: Samantha Mighdoll
As summer rolls in and the weather heats up in South Florida,
Palm Beach Dramaworks provides the perfect escape
 with dynamic summer programs for all ages.
Sounds Of Summer
Three diverse live concerts featuring favorite local artists and a rising star
Taimane: June 19 (8pm)
Sponsored by Downtown West Palm Beach and
 Arts and Entertainment District West Palm Beach
A ukulele virtuoso and songwriter, Taimane plays everything from Bach to rock, flamenco infernos to tribal hymns, with passion, ferocity, and sensuality. Widely known to Hawaiian audiences since she was a child, she is now performing on the international stage to roaring crowds and rave reviews. Taimane brings her trio (ukulele/vocals, classical guitar, and percussion) to PBD in her South Florida debut.
You can check out her remarkable skills on youtube:
The Lubben Brothers:
June 21 and 22 (8pm), June 23 (2pm)
The Brothers will perform genre-blending acoustic folk music that highlights their roots: Irish/Celtic fiddle tunes, John Denver, Woody Guthrie, and spirituals. Audiences of all musical backgrounds delight in the Brothers' fusion of classical, pop, newgrass, and Americana, represented best in the main focus of their shows -- their original music.
Jill and Rich Switzer:
August 2 and 3 (8pm), August 4 (2pm)
The dynamic duo of the Morning Lounge on Legends Radio 100.3 FM, along with some surprise guests, will pay tribute in word and song to some of their favorite Great American Songbook artists, including a centennial celebration of Nat King Cole.
TheAcademy@pbd Presents  Edges :
June 28 and 29 (7pm), June 30 (2pm)
A beautiful musical about self-discovery and coming of age by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Tony and Oscar-winning composers of  Dear Evan Hansen La La Land , and  The Greatest Showman  .
The Academy@pbd is a summer program for teenagers that provides them with the opportunity to appear in a musical or play focusing on social issues and concerns relevant to the world today. The program offers rigorous training to both actors and stage managers in a safe, positive environment. 
Stages Productions Presents  Charlotte’s Web :
June 15 (11am & 1pm) and June 16 (11am)
Based on E.B. White’s best-selling children’s paperback book of all time,  Charlotte’s Web  tells the story of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with an extraordinary barn spider named Charlotte. When Wilbur is in danger of a trip to the butcher, Charlotte is determined to save him. Her ingenious plan ultimately ends with the now safe Wilbur doing what is most important to Charlotte. A beautiful, knowing play about friendship, sacrifice, compassion, and bravery.
Stages Productions Presents  The Ugly Duckling :
July 13 (11am & 1pm) and July 14 (1pm)
Born bigger and different than the other hatchlings, the ugly duckling is ridiculed by his brothers and sisters, rejected by the other ducks, and eventually shunned by the entire barnyard. The little bird leaves home, embarking on a rollicking journey through hecklers, hunters, and hilarious hijinks only to discover that the beauty he was seeking was inside him all along. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved fairy tale.

Stages Productions is a professional theatre ensemble specializing in bringing exciting educational programming to over 150,000 people each year. Established in 1988, this Tampa Bay-based company has helped to redefine professional standards in family theatre.

Sounds of Summer:
Taimane: $25
(Use code EARLYBIRD to save $5 per ticket)

The Lubben Brothers: $35
Jill & Rich Switzer: $35
(Purchase tickets to both The Lubben Brothers and Jill & Rich
and save $5 per ticket)

Edges : $15 Students / $30 Adults 

Stages Productions: 
Charlotte’s Web  and  The Ugly Duckling : $15
PBD's Associate Managing Director
By Sheryl Flatow
When Lara Wagener went off to college at the University of Florida, her plan was to become a pediatrician. As a pre-med student she was required to study advanced chemistry, and quickly discovered that the subject didn’t interest her. Eager to work with children, she decided she would become a child psychologist instead. So, she switched her major to psychology and also elected to take an acting class. By her senior year she was fully immersed in the theatre department with acting and stage managing, and realized that she wanted to pursue a career in the theatre.

Today Wagener is the associate managing director of PBD. Aside from founders William Hayes (producing artistic director) and Sue Ellen Beryl (managing director), Wagener has worked for the company longer than any other fulltime employee, having launched her PBD career in 2005 as resident stage manager. “Bill likes to say I started here when I was 5 and worked my way up through the company,” she says. “Although I still think that child psychology is something that would have given me fulfillment, once I was bit by the theatre bug it became my passion and I knew that was what I wanted to spend my life doing.” 
Wagener is essentially third in command at PBD, and when Hayes and Beryl are traveling, she runs the day-to-day operations. She is the overall supervisor of all the front-of-house employees and also manages the master calendar. A big part of her job is problem solving/ prevention and troubleshooting, and she is the de facto HR person for the staff – which makes her psychology background a definite plus.
When she cast her lot with theatre, Wagener felt she needed further training and decided to go to grad school. But she was uncertain whether she wanted to pursue acting or stage management. Her mother was friends with Sherry Eaker, former editor-in-chief of Backstage , the entertainment industry magazine, and suggested that Lara seek out her advice. “So that’s what I did,” says Wagener. “She asked me, ‘Are you willing to starve to be on the stage?’ And I wasn’t. She said, ‘Well, there’s your answer because there are a lot of people who are.’" Wagener received an MFA in stage management from the University of Iowa.    
Upon graduation she received two job offers. One was for a stage manager position in North Carolina with a semi-professional company. The other was for a stage management internship at Florida Stage. “The internship paid a stipend, barely enough to live on,” she says. But her professors told her that working for Florida Stage was a better career choice. She took the internship and became the assistant stage manager for Suzanne Clement Jones and James Danford, who would become invaluable additions to PBD after Florida Stage folded (Danford recently retired). Ironically, Jones did not initially want to hire her.

“Suzanne said to the production manager, ‘Why would I want an intern who has an MFA in stage management? What could I possibly teach her? This position is meant for someone to learn,’” Wagener was later told. “But he asked her to interview me anyway. She asked me why I wanted the internship, and I told her, ‘Most of my experiences are in the educational theater. I don’t have many professional credits. I think it would it be a good experience for me to work alongside two seasoned professionals, just to make sure that I'm on par with you and that I understand all the choices and decisions you make and why. I want to make sure I feel ready to step into the professional world.’ She thought that was a good reason and I was hired shortly thereafter.”
When the internship was coming to an end, Nan Barnett, Florida Stage’s managing director, asked her what she was going to do. She planned to start sending out resumes, and Barnett floated the idea of creating a job for her if nothing turned up. “I left her office to run an errand, and when I came back, she was running down the hall screaming my name,” says Wagener. “‘You’re never going to believe this, but Bill Hayes from Palm Beach Dramaworks just called me and said, ‘I need a stage manager. Someone who’s young but good, and that will be willing to work for a small company and help take us to the next level.’ I met with Bill and Sue Ellen within that week and I was quickly hired.”

At that time, the company was still at the 84-seat theatre on Banyan Boulevard, and for her first five years with the company Wagener was the resident stage manager – and only stage manager. “It was a huge learning curve for me, because in school there would be a crew of three or four, plus an assistant and the head stage manager,” she says. “I got to Dramaworks and I had no assistant. I had to figure out how to manage everything by myself – do all the cues, stay on book [in case the actors needed help with their lines], and track all the props. There were many nights that [production manager] Mike Amico and I were there until very late finishing up all the small details. It was tough, but we were never willing to compromise our professionalism or the quality of the work. No one in the company was. As time went on and the demands increased, we slowly started to add staff. It grew organically out of necessity.”

Wagener describes herself as “calm and objective,” qualities that serve her well in her current position and were equally advantageous as stage manager. “When there were problems that came up, I never panicked,” she says. “And, as you can imagine, there are always things that happen in live theatre, like the night the actors jumped an entire act and couldn’t find their way back.” 
The play was The Gin Game , in which a lot of the scenes are card games with very similar dialogue. At one performance near the beginning of the run, the actors jumped into a scene from the second act – while still in the first act. “I almost stopped the show, because in my judgment the audience was not going to see the show they’d paid for,” Wagener says. “I'm running the booth and trying to jump light cues, and making notes of all the script that they cut that had important information, and of which scenes in Act II they’d already done. Then one of them finally figured out how to get back to the end of the first act, and said the cue for the intermission blackout. The actors were very shaken and stressed in the dressing room. I gave them notes of the parts they’d already done and of the chunks that they had missed, and we figured out how to piece it all back together so they didn’t repeat anything and the audience still got all the information they needed for the play to make sense. They used scoring pads as props during the gin games in the play, so we wrote all the cuts and additions on their scoring pads during intermission, like cheat sheets. We also hid a couple around the set for when they were walking around. I think intermission took an extra five minutes. We went back and finished the play, and they managed to make it through all the necessary adjustments we had worked out. And the best part was that the audience never knew what happened. After the show they literally picked me up off the ground and hugged me. They couldn’t believe we pulled it off and neither could I!”
Wagener says that after stage managing for ten consecutive years, she was starting to feel a little burned out and yearned for a more traditional schedule. “I was literally running the closing week of one show at night and rehearsing the next show during the day. There was no time to decompress. We did a lot of great shows that I was proud to be a part of and had a lot of fun, but it was tiring. I had recently gotten married and wanted a schedule that would allow me to spend more time with my family.”

While she was still stage managing, Wagener began working in the box office. “We didn’t do seven or eight shows a week back then,” she says. “We did around five. If I was in rehearsal, I didn’t do box office. Then I became the box office and subscription manager. As our subscription base grew and we had peak times for renewals, it became too much for one person to do. At that point, I switched to stage managing half the shows during the non-busy box office times. And then it got to the point where Bill and Sue Ellen needed more help. I phased out of stage management and became the executive assistant. At some point after we moved into our current home, I became associate managing director.”

Wagener says that the greatest reward of her job has remained the same, regardless of the position she’s held. “It’s the moment that the show is over and the actors are taking their curtain call,” she says. “People rise to their feet, some are in tears and some are cheering. To this day, it still makes the hairs on my arms stand up and my eyes tear up. This is why we do what we do. There’s nothing else like it in the world. For a few hours, a group of strangers come together and have a collective, moving experience where they are truly affected. It gets me every single time.”