he magic of life transpires in the simple moments—moments we often neglect to appreciate, so proposes Thornton Wilder in his classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Our Town.”
For a theater company celebrating its 100th show, the Musical Theatre of Anthem thought “Our Town” was the perfect vehicle to pay tribute to the musical moments it has had.
Founded by Jackie and Jeff Hammond in 2008, MTA is known for its youth musicals, but the couple chose to do something a little different for its centennial production. Directed by Jim Gradillas, “Our Town” features a simple set and intelligent dialogue in a three-act format. Performances are Thursday, December 3, to Sunday, December 6.
Set in 1901 to 1913, the play touches on topics such as life, death, love, marriage and the ephemeral quality of all those things. The main character is the stage manager who often addresses the audience directly, brings in guest speakers and moves the actors about as he tells the story of Grover’s Corner and, through it, the story of everyone.
“It’s about life and how if you don’t appreciate life, it is just going to slip away with time,” Gradillasn said. “It is living and appreciating every moment of your life.”
“Our Town” was also chosen was in honor of the late Lyle Kishbaugh, one of the company’s founding board members. He and his daughter, Jessica Kishbaugh, performed together in a previous MTA production of the Thornton classic.
A scholarship is set up in Lyle’s name to help children afford the MTA fees. His daughter will be one of two actual production stage managers for this show.
“Our Town” is known for its simplicity of production overlaying the complexity of themes and meta-theatricality. Most productions limit set pieces to a ladder and possibly a few chairs or a table. Props are mostly pantomimed, and actors may play many parts, something especially true for the MTA production, which needed to limit the cast size due to COVID-19 protocols.
Wilder was very specific in his script that the sets be kept simple.
“Thornton Wilder was really clear on how he wanted that show done,” Gradillas said. “He just really wanted to delve into the audience having the experience more for the mind rather than seeing all these flashy sets.”
Gradillas, who used to judge student play competitions and saw many productions of “Our Town,” plans to remain faithful to Wilder’s vision, which is to make it very simplistic and to employ pantomime. He also says it is important that the play be staged so that Grover’s Corner is universally recognized.
“It’s kind of Anytown, and it is simple and people with dreams and falling in love and getting married,” Gradillas said. “I also like the theatrical setting. The character of the stage manager is treating it like a play, interrupting the actors, moving in time and setting the scene. It is in a theater setting, but it is a play about their town. I like all those elements.”
Gradillas is aware that some people find this show to be boring because of its length and wordiness. He has kept that in mind as he has blocked and prepared this show.
“I’m really good at staging a show to make it interesting,” Gradillas said. “To me, it is a really intelligent play. I think I can bring that realism and different staging so that the action keeps moving. It is dialogue heavy, obviously, but I can bring some different elements to it, the realism.”
He is trained in pantomime and plans to make the show visually stunning, combining the simple set pieces with lighting specials that include moonlight and clouds with haze in the graveyard and create moods. The show has a student lighting designer and another who is a veteran of the business.
While the show was written in 1938, the themes resonate in 2020. It’s why Gradillas feels this show is particularly apt for today and he is excited to present it at MTA.
“It’s appreciating being here and living. It’s your family and your career,” Gradillas said. “I think that really hits home, especially when I revisit it again. It is a very great message, especially for today.”
Gradillas’ ability to block a show will have special challenges because of the pandemic, challenges unlike most of the six other shows and workshops he’s done with MTA. This time, all the actors have to stay 6 feet apart, something the stage managers, Sierra Litman and Jessica Kishbaugh, enforce during rehearsals.
“It is challenging for me because I like movement,” Gradillas said.
In addition to distancing, one of the costume designers created clear masks so the audience can see the actors’ expressions. They are also fitting all the actors with microphones to make up for their mouths being covered with masks. MTA takes the temperature of all actors each day and gives them assigned seats to use when they arrive for rehearsals.
The show will have only 15 to 17 actors, which is a small cast for “Our Town.” Many of the actors will play multiple parts.
MTA requires that the audience be masked. It is also limiting the number of audience members.
It is a protocol they just recently practiced with “Alice in Wonderland,” which Gradillas also directed. He said Jackie Hammond and the stage managers kept excellent track of who went where and what had to be sanitized.
The distance is something Gradillas has thought carefully about for “Our Town.”
“How do we do a show about the human condition while distanced?” Gradillas asked. “There are some moments where we are able to do some shoulder touches. Some people who carpool who are with each other all the time, they can do some things. There is a wedding, and that is the most difficult part. We create things with silhouettes. We really have to be creative to make sure we are socially distancing on stage. We’re trying to find different ways for those moments.”
Along with the production, MTA is honoring its centennial production with a fundraiser. The pandemic has stretched the resources of all nonprofits, with many of them facing closure. MTA is asking its patrons to make tax-deductible donations of $100 in celebration of its 100th production with a goal of getting 100 donations by December 1.
“We know this can be a hard time to ask for your help as we know that many of your situations may have changed or are challenging like ours,” read the MTA fundraiser announcement. “Like others, we took a huge financial hit during the closures and continue to do so as we have restrictions on the number of performers and audience members we can have at the theatre.”
Donations can be made on MTA’s website, musicaltheatreofanthem.org/index.html.
Gradillas hopes that audiences will come out to celebrate MTA’s 100th show and be touched by this play about life and death.
“I think what we’re going to do is something very different to it as far as a young cast,” Gradillas said. “We’re really working hard to make it special while keeping with the author’s intent. I think it is a great play, especially for the times we are in.”