Backstage with Katherine Wzorek at Old Academy’s latest (and 500th!) production: charm, history, and camaraderie. Plus her review of The Seafarer.
If you’re new to the Falls, you might miss Old Academy, an unassuming two story white building tucked away on Indian Queen Lane just below the train tracks. But if you have some time to peek inside, you’ll find out what Fallsers already know – it’s a vibrant community gem.
I had a chance recently to get a look behind the scenes at the Academy for a production of “The Seafarer.” It’s a place filled with boisterous laughter and drama (and in the case of The Seafarer, the occasional f-bomb).
There are thespians of all sorts, some are just starting out in their career, and some act in their spare time, all under the watchful eye of a framed photo of Grace Kelly — our hometown hero — lending an encouraging smile from her permanent perch in the lobby.
Her photos are a constant reminder that acting starts at the community level, and that once you get your big break, you can even become royal. (Robert Prosky, of Hill Street Blues and Mrs. Doubtfire fame also got his start here.)
Once you walk past the foyer, you enter the theater, a small, intimate and dark room, decked out with seating for approximately 100 and adorned with antique chandeliers and mustard yellow curtains.
A small crowd enters the theater and most people seem to know each another. Some are other actors, coming to support and cheer on their fellow thespians. Others are regulars who come to watch each and every show throughout the year.
It’s this mixture of intimacy, history, and community that makes the Academy so charming for the East Falls community.
Each year, the Academy produces, directs, and performs six plays — all powered by volunteers, both young and old, who devote their free time to make each production a success. This year, the Academy is in its 93rd season and it’s a season of comedy, music, and drama.
I attended The Seafarer in March, which was historic – it marked the 500th production for this venerable theater (it dates from 1923 as a theater – the building itself goes all the way back to 1819).
The play was directed by Christopher Wunder, produced by Tiffany Brink, and starred Vail Guiltieri (Sharky), Michael Monroe (Richard), Norman Burnosky (Ivan), Phil Czekner (Nicky), and Ben Kendall (Lockhart).
Tiffany and Christopher warmly greeted me at the door and offered to take me on a “behind the scenes tour” of the set before the show started, an “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” if you will. They showed me around the stage and talked a little bit about their experiences and motivations for participating in Old Academy productions.
Tiffany told me that she had been involved in theater for a long time, reminiscing on her first role as Cow #1 in the play “Animal Farm.” Since then, she has performed, produced, and also volunteered at the Academy.
For The Seafarer, Tiffany helped to design the set, which included little details, like empty beer bottles and a picture of Jesus near the staircase, that added a touch of realism.
During the performances, Tiffany cues the music, opens and closes the curtains, and makes sure that everything is going well. Her dedication and passion for theater was clearly evident as we talked.
Before the play started, I had the opportunity to go upstairs and take some photographs of the actors. The five actors were already in their costumes and Vail (Sharky) was in the midst of putting on the final touches of his stage makeup.
The atmosphere was relaxed but full of good energy. There was some method acting (at least to this untrained eye), as the actors rehearsed their lines in Irish brogue one final time before the curtain call. It was similar to watching a tennis match, a constant back and forth of conversation that reverberated from wall to wall.
The curtain rose to an audience of about thirty people and soon we were transported to Baldoyle, Ireland on Christmas Eve at the cusp of the millennium, when cell phones still flipped and music was played on CDs.
It became evident right away that this wasn’t going to be your typical happy-go-lucky Broadway type production. Rather, it was a slightly brooding drama that included adult themes about familial relationships at their breaking point, past mistakes that haunted the present while shaping the future, and drinking – lots and lots of drinking — to the point of oblivion. If you had to describe the play in three words, those words would be drama, drinking, and the devil.
The play centers around the character Sharky. It’s obvious from the outset that he’s down on his luck (very much evidenced by his two black eyes and taped-up nose). His brother Richard hasn’t fared much better in life – Sharky’s been taking care of him since he became blinded through a series of unfortunate events the past Halloween.
Making matter worse, the brothers live in the same house, which is way too small for the both of them. Tensions constantly ratchet up between the two, especially with Sharky having to be Richard’s eyes.
With Christmas approaching, Richard has decided to invite a few friends over for a night of drinking and poker. That list includes Nicky, the sworn enemy of Sharky, who we later find out is currently dating Sharky’s ex. In addition to bad blood, Nicky brings a surprise guest, the mysterious Mr. Lockhart, who stirs up more trouble and grief for Sharky.
The play then spins into a tale of past mistakes and vengeance, coupled with a poker game in which the stakes are higher than ever. It all leads into a few final dramatic and drunken scenes, chock full of heated exchanges and f-bombs dropped.
Just when I thought that I had the play all figured out, it gave way to another twist that exposed a new, boisterous, and even darker undertone. It appeared as if the play would end up on a dramatic (and hellish) note for Sharky, but another sudden shift resolved everything just in time for Christmas.
The acting by all five characters, and in particular Richard, who provides much-needed comic relief, was inspired, and the Irish accents were quite convincing to this East Falls girl.
Each character had depth, each wearing their hearts, problems, and past on their sleeves while the conflict continued to a boiling point throughout the second act. The dramatic moments were coupled with one-liners that never left the audience feeling overwhelmed about all the yelling and fighting occurring before their eyes.
The unexpected drama, Irish accents, and quirky discussion of important and current themes, left me intrigued and wanting more.
As the actors took their final bow, one thing was clear — Old Academy thrives on the close-knit community of theater pros committed to bold and different productions, and neighbors eager to enjoy them. I will definitely be back for another production in the near future.
Upcoming Performances for the 94th Season at the Old Academy (Specific dates have yet to be listed):
September/October: “Outside Mullingar”
November: “The Fourth Wall”
January: “The Melancholy Play”
March: “Suddenly Last Summer”
April/May: “Men Are Dogs”
June: “Mornings at Seven“