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Performing 'Spoon River' in a Brooklyn Cemetery

Performing 'Spoon River' in a Brooklyn Cemetery
Site-specific theater is often gimmicky at best, but staging Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 classic poetry cycle "Spoon River Anthology" in a cemetery is such a natural, it's hard to believe it hasn't been done before. It could undoubtedly be the final resting place for the residents of the mythic Midwestern town who in death come back to reveal the turmoil, secrets, and pain that defined their lives. As far as adaptor-director Tom Andolora knows, his production, dubbed "The Spoon River Project," now being performed at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn through June 26, is the first site-specific version of the piece. Though he previously mounted it in the Lake View Cemetery in Jamestown, New York, Green-Wood Cemetery is perhaps an even more resonating backdrop. A national historic landmark, Green-Wood dates back to1838 and is known for its Gothic mausoleums and weather-beaten headstones.

In Andolora's tightened adaptation that strives to connect the narratives and create a through line, the cemetery's existential potency cannot be beat. "It certainly can't be re-created in a theater," he notes. "The cemetery makes the experience that much more powerful." Fortunately, browbeating wasn't called for to obtain the site. From the outset, the Green-Wood administration was excited about having the play produced on its grounds. "In fact, they are investing in and co-producing the piece with 22Q Entertainment," Andolora points out. "They want to heighten the cemetery's profile and hopefully make some profit from ticket sales."

Still, there were challenges, not least finding just the right piece of land in a cemetery that spans almost 500 acres. Major concerns included seating, visibility, theatricality, and accessibility for the actors. "We needed to find a spot that was surrounded by graves, but I did not want actors performing on the graves," comments Andolora. "I have a reverence for the cemetery. I was also looking for a space not near any road with traffic. And, I didn't want the audience to see buildings in the distance."

In the end, he found an area that is indeed a fair distance from the entrance gate and feels almost totally removed from contemporary civilization. Theatergoers are driven to the space by trolley. The actors perform on top of a gently elevated slope, while the audience is seated in chairs below. It is a natural amphitheater. To further enhance the sense of another time and place, performers, who play multiple roles, are in period costume and sing songs of the era. Three musicians perform popular music of the time, while torches, lanterns, and moonlight evoke the serene and tranquil ambiance that is central to the overall vision. The setting becomes a character, says Andolora.

"The serenity contributes to the whole vibe of the show," says actor Mark Lanham. "It's hard to describe, but you feel it physically. Most stages are neutral. But here you walk around the headstones and the mausoleums—it's focusing. That sense of place adds to the performance. Some of the letters on the headstones are so old they almost melt into the stones. But it's not creepy or haunted. It's beautiful, and that lends itself to the mood. It makes it so much more real."

Actor Carolyn McCandlish concurs. "The first time I was here I felt the peacefulness. I also felt reverence for those who are buried here. I walk through the cemetery and think about their lives and that creates a sense of urgency for me [as the characters] to come back and claim my legacy. We're honoring the dead."

Performing outdoors is far more challenging than the cemetery setting, say the actors. For starters, nobody uses a mic. Projection becomes an issue, especially in the face of unanticipated weather conditions, insects, falling branches, or planes flying overhead. The latter succeeds in breaking the mood as well, abruptly catapulting the performer into the 21st century. The need to concentrate and stay focused is that much more demanding, the actors insist. The summertime heat is a further challenge, as is the uneven ground. "We dance on it and have to adjust to the terrain," remarks Lanham.

But a major issue is staying true to the material and not overacting. "There's the constant danger of doing too much," observes Lanham. "Tom keeps telling us to just focus on what we're saying. The characters will be differentiated. You don't have to fill in anything. Just have the courage to trust the text and believe that it will work."

Nonetheless, moving seamlessly from character to character can be a bit of a stumbling block, especially since the actors never leave the playing area. Indeed, for most of the play, the actors are seated. The preparation and transition have to occur internally. There are no interactions between the actors, but a subtle awareness among the actors is essential.

"You become part of the scenery and the ensemble," says Lanham. "You have to remain present and give your energy to everyone else without doing anything." That's true in a theater too, but at the cemetery the need for that kind of concentration becomes intensified.

Interestingly, Andolora recalls asking actors whether "traipsing through graves, changing in tents, and using Porta-Potties was an issue. Nobody had a problem with it. If anything, performing in a cemetery was more of a draw. I think that will be the same with the audience—those who don't know the material and especially those who do. The cemetery will be a destination."

For more information on "The Spoon River Project," call (718) 768-7300 or go to www.green-wood.com/toursevents.

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