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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Hearts of Fire

From the Vault Dept.: I don’t think there’s been a production more lavish than 1990's “Hearts of Fire” presented in the Capital Region. Written to commemorate Schenectady’s 300th anniversary, it brought together 60 area actors and a huge behind-the-scenes support staff, and after its initial success at Proctor’s Theatre, it was brought back a year later for another triumphant run. I was in the show that first year, playing the part of a French officer, and thus was in a good position to write the behind-the-scenes report below which ran in the Schenectady Gazette. (And I’m second from the left in the photo below.)


BEFORE THERE WAS G.E., before there was an American Revolution, an earnest group of Dutch settlers struggled to make a new life for themselves in a village on the banks of the Mohawk River. In 1690, the village was burned by French soldiers with the aid of rebel Indians. “Hearts of Fire” is an original musical that explores the passions and heartbreak of that time, a 300th anniversary celebration of Schenectady's heritage. It opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, at Proctor's Theatre for a six-day, eight-performance run.

Photo by Martin Benjamin
I was invited to play the part of one of the French officers who supervises the massacre. Because of the uniqueness of this event – the largest and most expensive original piece ever mounted in the city – I kept a diary during rehearsals. Here are some highlights:

JULY 29: There’s no talent more admirable than that of a singer who can sight-read a page and make it sound beautiful. I’m not one of those, and that’s why I’m standing like a schoolkid in Maria Bryce’s living room, trying my best to pick up the notes she’s patiently plunking for me on the piano.

“Hearts of Fire” will be her second Proctor’s premiere, following 1988's “Mother, I’m Here.” She wrote book, music and lyrics, and from what little I’ve heard I’m already impressed with the craftsmanship.

“Mother” had a cast of six. This show is ten times larger. Rehearsals already have begun, but the task of coordinating a volunteer cast of 60 is challenging – especially in the middle of summer. Hence this session at her home in Amsterdam.

Bryce grew up in the Mohawk Valley, never dreaming she’d later capture it in a show. She gained a lot of her experience much farther away, in London, where she and her husband Alan managed the Overground Theatre and won a great deal of renown for their work with new material.

After returning to Amsterdam, she got involved with Proctor’s Theatre through the annual Christmas Show, which she devised and directed for three years. It was then-manager Dennis Madden’s idea to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the burning of Schenectady with a musical, which he suggested Maria should write. They had no idea, three years ago, how much of a change Proctor’s was about to go through.

AUG. 3: The soldiers are working in the gym of the YWCA, which has generously donated rehearsal time and space. I’m paired with Gary Hoffman, who is small and thin. I’m not. It should be an amusing combination. Our leader, Count Frontenac, is played by Bill Hickman, a Schenectady Civic Players veteran. John Anthony Lopez brings a gorgeous tenor voice to the part of the Indian leader, Kryn. The four of us will be working together on the Montreal scenes, blocking movement with Maria. I didn’t realize until now just how much factual material she incorporated into the show. All of our characters existed and generally conducted themselves in the manner she depicts, although there’s a touch of Laurel and Hardy about the manner in which Gary and I behave.

Our big scene is in preparing to do battle with the settlers in Albany, a mission diverted to Schenectady. Although Maria would never admit it, this incident has a parallel with the battle that was fought to get this show written and into production. After Madden stepped down from Proctor’s, the idea of a commission evaporated. Alan Bryce began overseeing Proctor’s Too and there was an idea of creating “Hearts of Fire” as a small, alternative-styled show . . . but the story is much too large. Alan finally decided to produce it himself. Proctor’s generously made space available for final rehearsals and the eight-performance run, but the challenge of raising money for the production was daunting. And it still goes on.

AUG. 6: Rehearsal is interrupted by a fire drill. This is taken as a good sign. It’s the first full sing-through, my first chance to hear the score as a whole, and it’s gorgeous. I defy anyone in the audience to stay dry-eyed through the piece. All we haven’t heard is the massacre sequence, which will be part of the work done by choreographer Angela Hardcastle when she arrives from England.

“What we have to do from here on in,” says Maria, “is give the show not only its flesh and blood, but also its passion.”

We get a good idea how that passion will sound when John Allen sings the beautiful title song with riveting intensity. I’m filing a mental picture of the room: 60 people in street clothes with scores perched in their laps A month from now we’ll be made to look like characters over two centuries dead.

There’s word that some Stockade neighbors have complained about the “noise” of rehearsals, which can only mean the singing. Someone suggests burning the area again for verisimilitude.

AUG. 20: ”All right, soldiers! Chests up! Push against me! Bend your knees!” Angela is here. She worked with Maria and Alan at the Overground, and is taking somewhat less than her usual fee to work on this show. She went on to become Alan Ayckbourn’s favorite choreographer and works regularly with the English National Opera, among other companies. She shows a special skill at working with non-dancers. The challenge here is to suggest that fewer than a dozen men can look like an army. She’s demonstrating the trudging she wants to see as the soldiers make their way through imaginary snow.

She’s always watching, suggesting, cajoling. She goes into a mockery of light-hearted movement: “I don’t want to see any of this, yes?” The fellows laugh and then march some more. An unusual compliment: “The stumbling and falling was very good, boys.”

AUG. 26: The massacre is a grisly scene, at first performed silently to music. Fight director Richard Barrows spent yesterday putting the elements together, making sure actions and reactions are consistent with the damage and injuries being inflicted. This includes proper loading of muskets, which for now are pieces of lath.

He steps around the room as the scene is rehearsed, checking on individual deaths. “I know that you want to react when you’re shot,” he advises. “But make sure you look down before you fall. It’s not worth landing on someone else and breaking a hand.”

We move right into the scene in which Count Frontenac allows Schenectady magistrate Alexander Glen to select the survivors who will remain in Schenectady, the rest doomed to march as prisoners to Montreal. Mark Heckler, head of Siena College’s theater department, is creating the role. It’s sobering to think of the authenticity of this. Glen really did try to save all the villagers he could, a scene depicted in a famous painting that hangs in the city.

SEPT. 1: It’s been a week of detail rehearsing, getting the dance and music, pacing and movement right for the scenes that comprise the show. Today, which is an all-day session that begins at 11 in the morning, we’re seeing how all of those parts connect.

The music makes much more sense. There’s a bigger picture than those pieces suggested, with some ideas used throughout the piece to enrich the ideas of home and family so important to the story.

Scenes with an old man in 1776 Philadelphia frame the story, and now we get a look at this old man, played by Rensselaerville’s Richard Creamer. He is telling his nephew, Arent (Anthony Bernini) the story of the massacre on the eve of the call for the nation’s independence. It’s a nice device, adding another dimension to the many concepts of “home” that are worked into the story.

Maria and Angela and Richard study the details that are acted before them, Maria doing double-duty as rehearsal pianist. This time they’re not stopping the action, to try to get the feel of the show. A lot of notes are being taken.

It’s an exhausting day. Despite our best efforts, there are some things that simply have to be stopped and re-started. And there’s the long Labor Day weekend break before we meet again.

SEPT. 5: Reminding us that it’s characteristic of a new work and not intended as a reflection on any particular performer, Maria announces cuts for the first act. One song reprise and a number of dialogue exchanges have been tweezed from the fabric. Pacing needs a boost. There is also the tantalizing appearance of the costumes Lynda Salisbury designed. I climb into my breeches and haul on my coat. It feels silly. Which is probably just as well. I need a sense of some detachment to turn myself into the cold-blooded killer Maria requires.

We work Act One in segments and then run it. It’s getting shorter. And the cast has taken to applauding the work of one another. It’s fun to see the excitement people are sharing.

SEPT. 9: A runthrough. Malcolm Kogut, who will be playing synthesizer for the show, has stepped in to play the rehearsal, freeing Maria to watch and listen and take notes.

There are songs in this show so endearing that you can’t help but learn them as you listen to others sing. Although the soldiers and I are going to slaughter the villagers in a little while, we’re standing against the walls singing along with “Spring in My Valley,” “Be Not Afraid” and the delightful Christmas sequence that begins Act Two.

“What I want you to do, and I know you can do it,” says Maria, addressing us all as she prepares to give notes, “is really make the relationships in this story come alive. Show us what you mean to one another.”

SEPT. 10: ”Show us your relationship to one another.” This time it’s Richard speaking, counseling the victims and survivors of the massacre. “You’re watching a loved one drop right before your eyes. How do you feel?”

We’ve moved from the YWCA, where classes are now in session, to the Rotterdam Boys’ Club, a space generously arranged by cast member Bruce Levy. Thursday we’ll go to Proctor’s and begin working on the actual stage and the large, complicated set that will serve as Schenectady, Philadelphia and Montreal.

That’s when we’ll be working with costumes and lights (“may be late,” is what the schedule threatens for the first two tech sessions) and preparing for the inevitability of Tuesday’s curtain.

During the past six weeks the cast has taken on a family sensibility of its own, enhancing the show with the power of those bonds. It’s the kind of cast that will keep in touch with one another.

Especially with the trial-by-fire to come. As we work through the massacre that brings Act Two to its climax, I notice people outside observing through a window. They see a large group of people in street clothes moving and singing to the sounds of a creaky spinet piano, but we’re already hearing an orchestra in our heads and working in that marvelous space in the imagination that an actor imposes upon his surroundings, where everything looks and feels as the playwright demands.

Maria, too, is working there – or trying to. That’s the most difficult job of all, taking a work over which you’ve labored and guiding half a hundred strangers through the realization of it.
But a spell already has been cast. We can all see what you’ll be seeing as you sit through this show at Proctor’s. The final chord is softly played as Arent prepares to leave the stage, and the entire room erupts with cheers and applause.

“Hearts of Fire” will be performed at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 7 p.m. Sunday.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, Sept. 16, 1990

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