Entry #6 “Off We Go” Indeed! (Reflections on a sign in a yard). by Jean Moore

It’s one thing to think about a community production of Our Town and to imagine what it would be like to be a part of it. It’s one thing to watch the movie, and later to join in with neighbors for a read-through of the play. (That’s what many Tyringham residents have done since July of last year and March of this one.)

But it’s quite another to actually go to an audition and sign your name, agreeing to either take a part, or to sign on to the crew, or to agree to work in one or more of the many behind-the-scenes roles also needing volunteers.

Yet that’s exactly what a jolly good number of town residents did during audition days held on the weekends of May 20th and June 3rd. And then on June 4th, those brave souls who tried out and signed on received “the call” and were asked to become part of the cast or to take on roles as part of the crew.

So the Tyringham production of Our Town has metamorphosed from a twinkle in the eyes of producer Ann Gallo and director Courtney O’Connor to a flame burning bright in the heart of the town.

It’s no exaggeration, truly. Neighbors who sometimes may have taken each for granted now roll down their windows and heartily wave to one another—to (borrowing from a key line in the play) “really see one another.” People have taken on new aspects of their personalities. In addition to being stalwart members of the community, they are now also characters in a play; head of box office, in charge of lighting or sound; some are now in the choir, bell-ringers, ushers, parking coordinators…the list goes on.

Whether taking on an active role or anticipating the production to come, Our Town is bringing this town together, all eagerly awaiting the performance days, August 5 and 6 and 12 and 13, at 11:00 a.m., at the Union Church.

Bringing people in a community together…come to think of it, isn’t that exactly what community-based theatre does?

We’re in it now. “Off we go!”

Entry #5 Wondrous Moments During the "Our Town" Fireside Read-Through & Potluck by Ann Gallo

by Jean Moore

Every once in a while something quiet but extraordinary happens - and if you're alert to it - you know it.

This is what happened in the rural town of Tyringham, Massachusetts, Saturday night, March 25, 2017.

That is when 35 or more of our residents, full and part-time, young and old, made our way to Ann and Joe Gallo's house for a fireside read-through and potluck dinner of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. 

The event was one more step toward the community-based production planned for two weekends in August of this year and to be held outdoors in Tyringham's "back yard," overlooking the Berkshire Hills.

On this cold and soggy evening, after shedding our coats and boots, greeting each other, and filling our plates, we gathered around in the kitchen and in the living room to eat and to enjoy each other's company. 

Then Courtney O'Connor, the director, and Ann Gallo (the driving force behind this effort, although she would strike this reference if allowed) called us to gather in the living room where many chairs and cushions had been arranged near and within view of the fireplace. We grew quiet and listened as Ann and Courtney assigned our reading parts.

There would be several Stage Managers assigned, as there would be for many of the other parts as well. There was one Emily, though, read by Kate Oakes. Her real-life husband, Robert, read the part of George, who would be Emily's husband by Act Two. The rest of us shared parts as the evening went on.

But here's the amazing thing: there was some kind of magic happening in the room. Kate became emily, Robert was George, Maggie Howard, Barbara Palmer, Tom Fennelly - were the Stage Manger, with his charm, his humor and with the wisdom that life brings to those willing to grasp it.

And around the room, the same was true for all who read as Mr. and Mrs. Webb, as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, and all the play's children and neighbors. Even the dead seemed to be talking to us from the beyond.

So what was it that made us into actors that night? What animated us that night that transformed us?

Was it the universality of the play itself? It does after all pose the biggest questions life offers, the ones that have been asked as early as drama itself.

What is our purpose? Why are we born only then to die?

I certainly don't have the answers, but for the two hours we were huddled together in Ann and Joe's warm and inviting house, their living room was electric with the questions and with the power that comes from contemplating them together.

As Ann says, "That's theater for ya!"

By the end of the evening, there were more than a few of us who were misty-eyed as we closed our books after seeing the words "The End" on the last page. (Emily, brought back to us as Kate, was handed a tissue.)

As I said, the evening was magical!

Next up: Community Auditions/Volunteer Sign-Up May 20 and June 3rd. See the UBU Theater (Producer) link for further details: http://ubutheater.org/about-1/

Entry #4 "Our town" Movie Night by Ann Gallo

On Gathering to Watch by Jean Moore

Our Town by Thornton Wilder

Movie Night

Town Hall, Saturday night, October 15, 2016, 7:00 p.m., Tyringham, MA

It was an unusually warm fall evening, the night we gathered to watch the 1977 television adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, with Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager. All—the popcorn, the cider, the technical setup—had been arranged by the power behind OT, Tyringham, Ann Gallo and her team of supporters, those who signed on early to be a part of our own site-specific, community-based production of the play, to be performed this coming August.

Residents and visitors in attendance that night, some with pillows and lawn chairs, climbed the stairs, grabbed the popcorn and cider, and settled in to watch the show. Something special happens when people watch a powerful drama together. The Greeks had it down centuries ago, but we moderns—in our digital cocoon—seem to be losing this wondrous communal experience.

Not so this night. Indeed, feelings ran high as the last line was uttered two hours after the play had begun. One or two of us ended the evening a little teary-eyed.

To capture the impact of the experience, the organizers passed out comment cards. Some attendees turned theirs in that night, others days later. All the reflections written on those cards express some felt connection between us in Tyringham and those whose lives we saw portrayed in the film adaptation of Wilder’s play.

One audience member wrote:

There is a piece of me in all of this. I love how Mr. Webb spoke of the subtleties of life: the sun, the birds, the moon. And oh, the cemetery scene, how that pulls at my heartstrings. Death has a way of doing that.

Another wrote of specific parallels between the events of the play and those in the lives of her Tyringham neighbors, the loss of a beloved spouse, taken too young; the rallying of the town to help those in need, to provide aid and comfort. No longer living here, she still considers Tyringham home. And moved by the funeral procession near the play’s end, she wrote:

No matter where a person dies, most want their remains brought back home for eternity.

Another viewer that night wrote:

I think that Thornton Wilder seeks to explore the meaning of being human – without heroes or villains – focusing on traditions of childrearing, marriage, and death. He does not question them, but tries to hold a mirror to them. I think that he finds comfort in the repetition of daily routines, day after day, year after year and generation after generation – The “eternal” of being human…Yes, “Our Town” = Tyringham.

“The eternal of being human,” kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

More than a few of us are eager to learn what lies ahead as we contemplate our own production of Our Town in Tyringham next summer.

Next up: March 25, 2017, 5:00 p.m. Fireside Read-Through of Our Town.

Entry #3 Tyringham's Journey to "Our Town" by Jean Moore by Ann Gallo

Tyringham’s Journey to Our Town 

I’m beginning to get the distinction between “community theatre” and “community-based theatre,” but the difference is still kind of elusive, so I thought I’d have a conversation with Ann Gallo, who is the originator of the  Our Town Tyringham Project. I asked Ann to give me a better understanding of community-based theater, and while I had the opportunity, I asked her several other questions that were on my mind.

Here is what Ann had to say…

For me community-based theatre is one in which theatre empowers, engages and celebrates a specific community. Theatre as an art form provides an artistic environment for communities to enjoy unconditional permission to come together, play and engage with each other in a new way. Not just chatting at the post office or transfer station or even honking when you see a neighbor sweeping their front step. Theatre allows communities to meet and understand themselves in a uniquely creative and safe environment.

Community-based theatre is when the community is the base, the foundation, the driver of the artistic process and vision. It’s not about individuals who can belt a song or memorize endless pages of text. Rather, it is a communal endeavor that succeeds or fails based on the entire community coming together and exchanging ideas. It is a place for members of a community to share an experience in which to grow together and share a common goal, e.g. a play. Community-based theatre thrives on all participants willingly and openly sharing a vision of theatre piece that resonates with who they are and where they are in the moment.  

Hopefully the experience and process of putting on a play with likely and unlikely neighbors will reveal hidden talents, realize unfulfilled dreams, make new friendships and even possibly repair broken ones. It is a creative way in which to bring a community together.

This is really different from what most of us think about when we think about theatre and traditional performances. What made you think about doing community-based theatre here; why Tyringham? And of course—why Our Town?

I’ll reverse the order of the questions because that’s in fact how I got to where we are today.

The play Our Town quite literally popped into my head while at a Tyringham Memorial Day service in the cemetery three summers ago. A young Palmer was playing Taps on a knoll, town folk were sprinkled amidst the eclectic head stones, everyone sporting straw hats, canes, military swag, cotton dresses, sun umbrella’s and tiny American flags. Those present represented virtually every family who has lived in Tyringham. To me the connection between Tyringham and Our Town was blatantly obvious.

I then had that outer body experience when my physical body remained on terra firma but my imagination pulled up and away. I realized that I could be literal about the locations in which the action of Wilder’s Our Town takes place. Why not stage the play outdoors, amidst the rolling Berkshire hills, beneath the church’s tree canopy, inside the church and of COURSE, in the town cemetery?! Why build a set when we live in one?

And of course I knew the stories and interactions taking place in Our Town represent similar events that have taken place in Tyringham for centuries. The themes, people, places and situations are completely transferable. And to ask a community to stop and experience those moments through a theatrical production with family, friends, and neighbors—that’s why this project became essential to me. It is an opportunity for the residents of Tyringham to live in the moment as well as reflect on the past. Wilder magnifies sweetly and simultaneously harshly, everyday life. Why not explore this together as a community here in Tyringham?

And finally, coming to your question about doing community-based theatre, well... my past work in communities and with youth, have been headed in this community-based theatre direction. But until now I was unable to identify a community and appropriate vehicle to take the next step. Then, serendipitously, after the Memorial Day service I mentioned, I received an email notice about a workshop in California at the Cornerstone Theatre. Remarkably, that’s all they do; site-specific community-based theatre. I signed up! That weekend intensive solidified my dream to produce Our Town in Tyringham. Finally I was able to articulate and substantiate the concept. I wasn’t crazy. Other theaters were doing the same thing and Cornerstone gave me the ‘permission’ and methodology in which to tackle the Our Town Tyringham Project. 

Is it fair to ask then, what is your vision for getting us to the town’s actual production of the play?

Great question.

My vision to produce Our Town with members of the Tyringham community AND staging it site-specifically is because I love this town. And until now I had not found a way to share this with the community. That moment at Memorial Day when my passion for theatre and Tyringham collided, I knew I had found a way to celebrate with the community what I believe is universally felt by all town residents. Tyringham is a unique, complicated yet pure American town, beloved by all who live here. I wanted to celebrate that through theatre.

How does one get a town/community to participate in a community-based project? This is really at the heart of what community-based theatre is all about. It is about engaging a community in something pointedly meaningful...for example, preserving the Cobble and other important tracts of land in our small town. Everyone rallies, is engaged, cares, and participates to address the issue, at their level, in their own way. It doesn’t matter the role each community member chooses to take. What matters is that we come together and have a unified vision to achieve that goal.

For the Our Town Tyringham Project I knew I had to start with discovering and meeting those who live in our town. I visited every community group I could find including the Hop Brook Club, Council on Aging, Fire Department, Goose Pond Association, Valley Club, Town Selectmen, etc. Did I miss any? That process gave me opportunities to explain how this OT Tyringham project was relevant to our community. At the same time it was an opportunity for folks to ask me questions, give ideas, and most importantly, show excitement and support for this community project.

Simultaneously I recruited a professional director who is a colleague of mine out of Boston. I knew her work, knew her and was completely confident she would be a wonderful fit for working with non-actors/non-tech people in a rural community. That hire was the key to knowing I had a chance at making this project happen.

At our first Community Meeting this past July, my director and I laid out the master plan and concept. About sixteen key town residents showed up. (see Blog #1) It was nerve wracking yet exciting. Great ideas came out of the Q & A after our project intro. In fact we have three events planned over the fall, winter and spring to keep the community engaged and thinking about this project. The first is Movie Night on October 15th where we’ll have a free showing of a TV adaptation of Our Town. Then on February 4th,  I hope to find a group of people in the surrounding towns to come together and share stories, real, myths or otherwise, about the playwright, Thornton Wilder. And finally, we will be holding a fireside read-through of the play on March 25, 2017. This will be an opportunity for interested actors and others to read and listen to the play. Plays are meant to be spoken out loud, not just read in a vacuum. It will also be a time for Courtney, my director and I to start thinking about casting. No pressure though ;)

Yes, this is a science experiment for the residents of Tyringham!

That all sounds exciting, embarking on this adventure together as a town. Anything else you’d like to add?

Frankly, I have been having the best time of my life during this initial phase. I’m finally meeting town folk I’ve seen, heard of or waved at for over 15 years. Being a part-timer for so long and finally having the freedom to move here full time, has been an extraordinary experience. Tyringham is small but truly a spectrum of people who support each other mostly and especially when the need arises. We all care about this bucolic little town and my having the chance to bring folks together to talk about this and reaffirm this love is amazing.

I am MOST looking forward to working with the cast and crew of this play, come next June. We all will be surprised on a daily basis seeing what talent has been simmering in this town. But let me say this, it will be a big project and it’s my job to make it effortless for all participants. The primary objective is to make this OT Tyringham Project fun, fun and fun! Let’s live a little, get together, do a play, talk about our town and share it with the community at large!

I think I get it now, Ann. Thank you.

I’m with Ann—and cannot wait to witness and to be a part of this adventure!

Entry #2, Jean Moore - Blog moderator and sometimes contributor, Tyringham homeowner by Ann Gallo

When I first learned this summer (July 2016) that Tyringham was going to “put on a show,” I was intrigued. When I learned that the production would be Our Town, I was enchanted. An ardent theatre student in high school (many years ago), I had delivered more than one monologue from this, my favorite play by Thornton Wilder, always casting myself as Emily, the main character, of course.

But there was more…

This production wasn’t going to be a traditional “show” but rather a community-based production. Not being familiar with the term, I was sent scurrying to the dictionary, well, to Google, actually. There I learned that community-based theatre is a theatrical performance made in relation to a particular community, “made by, with, and for a community.” (Definition courtesy of Wikipedia—and pretty accurate from what I’ve learned thus far.) What I have also ascertained is that community-based theatre, being intensely collaborative, has the power to bring a community together in ways that are unique. If I understand it correctly, this production may prove to be a learning experience not only enriching us culturally, but perhaps also leading us to a deeper understanding of who we are in relation to one another in our community and in relation to our times. That may sound big, but isn’t it also exciting?

When I first thought about this potential in relation to the play, Our Town, I gasped. We are, here in Tyringham, Our Town, having so much in common with its core, its characters, its values, and closeness to the land.

I am ready now, so many years after my first introduction to this play, to approach it again, but with new eyes, eager for the collaborative adventure that lies ahead for all of us.

July 2016 Community Info Meeting by Ann Gallo

On July 16th at 10:30am we had our first Community gathering for the Our Town Tyringham Project. The Director, Courtney O'Connor and Producer, Ann Gallo, with help from Marcie Kammel, awaited our first community members. At 10:32 they started to arrive, and by 10:45 we had 16 community members. Lots of great questions and ideas emerged after about an hour. A Movie Night showing of "Our Town" is now being planned, as well as a Fireside Read-through and Wilder Tales, an evening of stories, truths and myths about Thornton Wilder. 

Word is spreading around town and folks interested in participating are reaching out. It's very exciting to know that Tyringham is open and willing to take on this community-based theatre project.