Lessons Learned

Hi everyone,

Portraits: The Last Leaf / Still Life is done, probably never to be seen again. I loved this show. The cast routinely brought me to tears on a nightly basis when I was able to watch the show. Thanks to Rachel Baum for her enthusiasm and her patience (we subjected her to a 2-hour photo shoot to create the show’s logo, which came out beautifully). Thanks to Lisa Korak, for her energy and professionalism and constant feedback. Thanks to Dorothy Ahle, who brought the perfect blend of bravado, maturity and grace to both of her characters. And thanks to Peyton Pugmire, who stepped in at the very last minute and was able to portray The Doctor beautifully and sympathetically. My thanks to them all for telling these beautiful stories night after night for us.

Now that Portraits: The Last Leaf / Still Life is sadly behind us, this is a good time to reflect on the lessons learned from producing this beautiful show.

Lesson #1: You cannot produce shows in a vacuum.

There is no theater company that can survive without the other companies around it. Thanks to the Publick, Concord Players, Turtle Lane Playhouse, New Rep, and the Arsenal Center for their support in making Portraits possible.

Lesson #2: Producing new works is risky even if the rewards are great.

Portraits won great critical acclaim, but unfortunately due to various reasons, attendance was, to put it politely, “light.” In a down economy, audiences are much less likely to take chances on new companies producing new works. They would (understandably) rather go to see Spamalot on tour – a so-called “sure thing” – than invest $50-$60 on an edgy “new work.” What does that mean? That says to me that it’s more important than ever to keep supporting new works and new theater companies. Emerging companies like F.U.D.G.E., Whistler in the Dark, Loki Arts, etc. all need your support now more than ever. If you want to see small theater survive, it’s now or never.

Lesson #3: There is always a solution.

Portraits: The Last Leaf / Still Life, from a production standpoint, was the most challenging show in which I have ever been involved. It all seems so simple when you’re watching it, but seemingly simple things – like how to attach a curtain to a foam brick wall – become magnified when you’re rushing to get things done. There were times when Portraits seemed like it would be an impossible show to produce; due to completely unanticipated and understandable reasons, we ended up having two of the roles re-cast (one at the very last minute), we had orchestra members who had to cancel – hours before showtime – causing last-minute telephone frenzies to find replacements, and an extremely tight rehearsal schedule, all of which made for a very challenging environment in which to work. (Did I mention that it was challenging?)

However, I think there is no denying that the end result was fantastic. All of the problems were solved, just in time, and therefore it gives credence to the old theatrical saying, “It’ll always come together.” This is a testament to the hard work of our production crew, and I owe them all thanks: Nathan Lofton, for getting (and keeping) the orchestra together; Joe Delgado, who reworked much of the orchestrations for Still Life at the last minute; Shannon Gmyrek, who gathered all of our beautiful costumes and kept them in good repair; Dahlia Al-Habieli, who put up with my endless requests for changes to the set design; Margaret “Maggie” Kayes, who somehow managed to find a way to transform the entire set between acts without rushing, panicking, or making any mistakes; our house management team, Louis and Louise James and Anika Bachhuber, who kept our patrons comfortable and made it possible for me and my co-producer to stay free to take care of anything that might be falling apart at any given moment; and last but not least, my wife and co-producer PJ Strachman, who created the beautiful lighting for the show, shopped for props, helped build the set, and did pretty much anything else she could think of to keep the show going strong.

Lesson #4: When people tell you something is impossible, you’re probably on the right track.

There were three things I was told not to do – by many people – and I think they all came out beautifully.

Number one: Don’t do a show that requires a harpist. They’re too expensive and too hard to find.

I loved the harp in this show. It wouldn’t have been the same without it, and synthesized harp just doesn’t have the same visual and atmospheric appeal. I am grateful to the harpists that played for us – and the entire orchestra – for their participation in this endeavor.

Number two: You won’t find someone to play Mr. Behrman/Helen.

One of the challenges of this show was to find a woman – or a man – who could play a man in the first act, and sing in a man’s range, and then play a woman in the second act, and sing alto. Enter the incomparable Dorothy Ahle. Interestingly, this role was the easiest to cast of all four.

Number three: Don’t do original orchestrations.

Original orchestrations can be sticky business in certain circumstances. However, Jenny Giering and Joe Delgado were very flexible in how they were able to work together on this, and the outcome was brilliant. My thanks to them, and to Nathan Lofton who worked with them on this, to bring this dream to fruition.

In all, I consider Portraits: The Last Leaf / Still Life an enormous success. My hope is that some day we can see this work again, perhaps under better economic circumstances, so that more people get to enjoy these stories – because they need to be told. I hope that those of you who have seen these stories are inspired by them, and continue to work to create and support art, and continue to celebrate love and life. My final comment to my readers is this: What would you to give up, in order to give? Art is a gift, not just to an individual, but to the ages. To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, the two things that we leave to future generations are children and art. The importance of both of these things cannot be underestimated. Art allows us to communicate with future generations. We look back on history through art. What would the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks be to us without their statues, architecture, and paintings? How could we understand history without music and poetry? We must create art, as that is our legacy – the only thing that allows us to survive beyond our mortality, besides the influence we leave with our children. Please, consider what it is you would give up, in order to create and support art.

Thanks to all,
Jesse Strachman
Producing Artistic Director
Blue Spruce Theatre