Thursday, July 15, 2010

Some rise by art

Put actors onstage together, and you probably can guess what will happen: theater. But what about after hours? Let's say they're sitting around the table eating dinner together after a performance. Are they still acting?

Turns out, the answer is sometimes yes.

In 2006, when the Stonington Opera House cast of "As You Like It" was finished performing in the evening, the members often found themselves sitting around the late-night table together eating dinner and making up characters -- as actors do. They had also been inspired by the sign on a defunct diner -- Conni's Restaurant -- and sometimes shared a romantic vision of what it might be like to leave the big city and make it in a small coastal town on an island.

"Stonington is so beautiful in the way it creates community," said Rachel Murdy, who was in the 2006 production of "As You Like It." "We had a microcosm community in that theater group. We had this ongoing idea that we could buy the restaurant that was for sale and open an avant-garde restaurant. We would live year-round in Stonington and have that kind of life. We dreamed about that, and we felt so strongly about it that when we left Stonington we had a reunion and had lunch together and literally decided to do that: have a restaurant."
And that's when "Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant" was born. The show is an original work of audience interactive cabaret theater that also includes food and drinks. Not dinner theater exactly. But dinner prepared and served by the cast in the midst of an evening of storytelling that swears the avant garde is still alive. Or not. You can read more about the past New York production here and about the current production at Club Oberon in Cambridge, Mass., here.

Right about now, however, you might be thinking: What does "Conni's" have to do with the Opera House Arts production of "Measure for Measure," running Aug. 19-29 at the Stonington Opera House? Good question.

The answer is embedded in the Stonington Opera House motto: "Incite art. Create community." Not only did the creators of "Conni's" find their inspiration in Stonington where the opera house is located. But they carried that spirit back to their home bases and kept it alive in far-flung areas. Many of them return in this year's production of "Measure for Measure": Rachel Murdy, Melody Bates, Stephanie Dodd, Peter Richards and Jeffrey Frace (who is directing "Measure"). That means they are rehearsing Shakespeare in New York City and traveling for the next three Sundays (July 18, 25 and Aug. 1) to Cambridge to perform in "Conni's."

Even though these actors are familiar with one another through graduate school at Columbia University and their performances at the Stonington Opera House (and if you've seen their Shakespeare work, then they're familiar to you, too), I like the idea of them working on two shows together this summer. By the time we see them in their Shakespeare characters, they will have presumably formed an even stronger ensemble connection.

As a side note, Murdy was part of the original creative team for "The Donkey Show," which was a hit in New York City years ago and was revived by Diane Paulus, artistic director at American Repertory Theater, at Club Oberon last year. After being in the show originally, Murdy also helped Paulus re-create the show for the Harvard scene. "Donkey Show" is still playing Friday and Saturday nights in Cambridge -- and if you're up for an unusual double header, a Saturday night disco version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (on which "Donkey Show" is based) and Sunday dinner at "Conni's" could be as intoxicating as a double header at Fenway. (Well, for me, anyway.)

But back to our main story. In "Measure," old Escalus warns: "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall." If the performance connections between Stonington, New York City and Cambridge teach us anything, it is the opposite of a warning. It is a validation: Some rise by art, and some by community gain all.