What drew you to adapt Master's poems?
To answer this question let me introduce Spoon River Anthology to those not aware of the book. Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters, is a masterpiece of American Literature. Written in 1915, it was compelling reading for its day and immediately popular with the public. It was one of the first pieces of American Literature that dealt truthfully with the lives of the repressed residents who lived in the fictional small town of Spoon River. Spoon River Anthology is a series of 244 “free verse poems”. Each tells the story of one of the residents. The twist is all of the characters are dead and are speaking about their lives, sorrows, secrets, and regrets from their grave. To me, the poems read like monologues.
In theatrical terms, Edgar Lee Masters wrote these extraordinary monologues using no fourth wall. The dead are directly talking to the living. This is one reason they translate so well to a stage performance. The monologues themselves are textured, layered, and rich. They are unflinching in the topics they deal with. Every aspect of the human existence are dealt with. These universal stories are as relevant now as they were in 1915. Sometimes one story is told by several characters. The characters know each other and talk about each other. This creates the feeling of a real community. In order to unravel many of these stories you have to delve into the subtext. What isn’t being said is as important as what is.
Somehow, Mr. Masters had the ability to tell very involved, intricate stories in very short monologues. I always loved the material and I loved working with actors on it.
I have been an acting teacher in colleges and high schools for 25 years. I started using the monologues in workshops and in the classroom many years ago. I slowly began grouping some of the monologues I liked together. Along the way I began staging it. Being a musician myself, I started adding a song every year or so. They were songs that I thought worked well with the material. I worked this way for more than ten years before I had the idea to create an adaptation. After ten years of tinkering in the classroom, I had created twenty minutes of “something”. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it had a beginning, middle, and an end. It was also very intriguing to watch. It was only then I set out to specifically write a proper adaptation of Spoon River Anthology.
My goal was to create an adaptation worthy of the source material and to create an adaptation that would be possible to be staged in high schools and colleges, as well as professional theatres. I began to work in earnest on The Spoon River Project. It took me three more years of full time work, and four actual, full blown productions to complete the piece.
The play is called "a play with music" not a musical. Can you explain what role music has in the piece?
For the first three years I called it a “A Theatre Piece with Music”. I didn’t even describe it as a play. It’s not a “play” in the tradition sense. It’s a unique piece of theatre.
The music was carefully chosen to enhance the stories. All of the music in the piece is in the public domain. It was all written between 1850 and1915. The music doesn’t so much move the plot forward as songs do in a musical, the music in The Spoon River Project reflects on the story being told. It might reflect on what one of the characters is thinking. Sometimes it sets a mood. Sometimes it weaves in and out of the monologues. Sometimes it sets historical context to the stories. Sometimes it allows the characters to express themselves in ways that are not possible by the text, yet fully believable.
I think the music is beautiful and ties the whole piece together. It is scored for two violins and keyboard.
Any tips for groups producing The Spoon River Project?
Having directed the piece four times and written the adaptation I couldn’t resist listing some suggestions in the script. However, they are just suggestions. I don’t want to impose my interpretation on other directors.
The first seems like an obvious tip. I always suggest the actors follow the punctuation and phrasing as written by Edgar Lee Masters. It is impeccable. I think most playwrights would love to have that advice followed but in this piece it is really important.
I think the fun in directing or acting in the piece is solving the mysteries and answering all the questions about each of the characters…each word, each line has to have meaning. You have to investigate to find the “real story” the character is trying to tell. Edgar Lee Masters makes it obvious sometimes, and sometimes it’s very vague. Each character requires the actor answer many questions.
I also urge the actors to take their time telling the stories. As a director, It took me until the third production to get this one right. The material is so rich that it takes time for the audience to digest what is being said. I have had people see the show two and three times and tell me they got something new from the text each time.
Spoon River Anthology is a very intense book. There are not too many happy characters that cemetery. I urge you to find the humor in the piece. It is there. You will be surprised at how many laughs you will get.
I think I should mention that I have staged The Spoon River Project four times in an actual cemetery at night. It makes for a thrilling evening in the theater to have 150 people seated in the middle of a totally dark cemetery, lit with lanterns and torches, on a summer’s night. I have also seen it produced in a proscenium theater and theatre in the round. It works very well indoors. You have to be a little brave, and a little adventurous to stage it in a cemetery, but it will be worth it. I have an extra section in the script to help people who are staging it in a cemetery.
Again, these are just suggestions, but I hope wise ones. I look forward to seeing what choices other directors and actors make. Anyone producing The Spoon River Project is more than welcome to contact me personally at email@example.com.
Are you working on anything now?
I wrote a musical many years ago that was produced regionally. I always felt it was never finished. At the very least it needs to be updated. It’s a very silly, funny musical. It’s an environmental piece, somewhat like Tony and Tina’s Wedding. I don’t want to give away too much. It’s very different than The Spoon River Project. I think I am going to dust that off and take a second look at it.
Did you ever act in or write a play in high school?
Of course! I did both. I have a BFA Degree in Musical Theatre so I am a performer at heart. I did many shows when I was in high school. I worked on shows at school and in community theatre. I am very grateful there was so much theatre in the town I grew up in to take part in. I was introduced to some of the most influential and fascinating people in my life through the theatre in those years… Rodgers and Hammerstein, Tennessee Williams, Lerner and Lowe, Harnick and Bock, Jacques Brel, Neil Simon. They wrote plays, songs, and characters that I soaked in like a sponge. Imagine a 16 boy from Jamestown, NY singing Noel Coward songs on his walk to high school.
I wrote a play in High School with two other friends called Plunge. It was a comedy that took place at a plumbers convention. One of the plumbers is in the bathroom of the hotel where the convention is being held. He is practicing the speech he is about to give. He hears one of the toilets running. Being a plumber he can’t stop himself from fixing it. He goes into the stall and is kneeling on the seat fixing the toilet tank. The door to the stall closes. The stall looks empty because he is kneeling on the seat. In come two men who are plotting a crime. They think they are alone. They leave not knowing the plumber has heard them. Lots of people become suspects. It’s kind of a screwball comedy as the plumber tries to stop the crime by finding the guys he heard but did not see.
We went door to door to find the funding. We sold space in the program to local businesses. We produced it ourselves in a college theatre. It was a big accomplishment for three young guys.
-- Tom Andolora
Tom Andolora was born and raised in Jamestown, NY and lives in NYC. He holds a BFA in Musical Theatre. Aside from being a writer, he is a composer, teacher, pianist, performer, and musical director. He has worked extensively in cabarets in New York City and on the entire East Coast. He is director and owner of The Dickens Victorian Carollers. He has been invited to sing, with his group, at the White House for four administrations: including the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and just last Christmas 2009 at President and Mrs. Obama's first Christmas in the White House. He was Musical Director of the original production of Hiroshima (music by Yoko Ono) which won the Kennedy Center Award for Best American Play 1997. He is a founding member and has been on the board of directors of The Oxford Shakespeare Theatre. He is happy to have been musical director and teacher for the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped for three years. Tom is currently on the staff at Brooklyn College in its Preparatory Center, where he teaches classes in Musical Theatre, Cabaret Performance, Acting, and has a private voice studio. He is a member of The Dramatists Guild and the NY State Singing Teachers Association. You can find out more about him at www.tomandolora.com.