August 28, 2023
I love a good storytelling. I love an outdoor storytelling. I first found Frank Levering’s Cherry Orchard Theatre a few years ago, right when the pandemic started. How were we supposed to do theatre in lockdown? What about outdoors? A producer I had worked with suggested Frank’s place, and in the summer of 2020, we had a three-performance run of John Logan’s Red.
Red is about the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko and his assistant, Ken, during the time when Rothko had a commission to paint works for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. Rothko had several assistants, probably none named Ken, but the play is a fictionalized account of a mentor-apprentice relationship in the backdrop of modern art.
Logan included a final note after his lengthy set description of Rothko’s real New York studio from the ’50s: “Alternatively, the entire setting could be abstract.” A 15’x15’ rickety wooden platform in the middle of a cherry and apple orchard with a backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains was transformed into the artist’s studio. Shows began at 7pm, and by the end of the play, twilight had settled in. The artistry of nature blended with the artistry of performance, taking our collective breaths away.
This summer marks my third production at Frank’s orchard. One of my artistic collaborators, Shenendoah Thompson, had created a solo adaption of Shakespeare’s Henry V, one performer developing many characters to retell the story of Henry as a man, not the leader-warrior from Shakespeare’s play. We’ve worked on the script since March. He came down from New York in early August for some preparation and rehearsals, and we solidified the script. Tonight, he returns to start full rehearsals tomorrow morning. Friday, we get to tell the story for the first time.
The rehearsal process leading up to a production consumes me. From nothing, we create a world, tell a story, then those assembled leave experiencing something no one else will ever experience. Such an ephemeral event! And this is what I love about live theatre.
Last Friday, I went to the Orchard to see Robert Dobson tell his story of growing up in Dobson (“a Dobson from Dobson”) which is in Surry County, North Carolina, just a few miles down the road from the Orchard. His story encompasses his life as an African-American in Appalachia, going into the Army, working with the feds, then moving to Los Angeles to be an actor. An every-person story, yet a unique story. We all know the ups and downs of life, and while our own experiences are distinct from others, the universality of our humanity shows in these stories. I was struck by the audible agreements heard through his story.
I chatted with Frank after Robert’s story, telling him a bit more about the upcoming production on his stage. I expressed my thanks for his willingness to let us try out this new work. He called his stage an incubator. What artist could ask for more?