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Thursday, August 22 2013

The End of An Era

Adapted from a "County Fair" press release:

For almost three decades, the gifted playwright, lyricist, and director, Dorothy Johnson, has written and produced a series of memorable and exuberant musical comedies staged locally by large ensemble casts.  Since her first play "Small Town Life" (1983), crowds have poured into the 1794 Meetinghouse in New Salem for two weekends in September, happy to endure church benches that would have made even the early Puritans wince, anticipating another evening of surprise and hilarity. Fans return for each production from as far as Texas, Chicago, Maine, and New York City.  Come next month, magic will reign for one last round and Johnson, Andrew Lichtenberg, and a cast and crew of almost fifty will stride the boards for five performances of "County Fair".   Afterwards, the lights will dim and the house will go dark.

The music for "County Fair" was written, and will be performed, by Andrew Lichtenberg of Pelham.  Carolyn Brown Senier and Martha von Mering assist as vocal coaches.  Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Friday, September 6th, Saturday, September 7th, and Saturday, September 14th.  There are 2:00 p.m. Sunday performances on September 8th and September 15th.   All performances are at the 1794 Meetinghouse on Old Main Street in New Salem.   Ticket Prices:  All persons 12 and older  $10.00, Children under 12 free.  Tickets available at the door or online at  All proceeds will benefit the 1794 Meetinghouse.

In early collaboration with musician Stephen Schoenberg and more recently with Andy Lichtenberg, Johnson’s plays are community theater in every sense of that phrase. They explore “small town life” thematically, sometimes with a specific historical focus such as in Quabbin: A New Musical(1983) and more importantly they enact community in performance.  As Marcia Gagliardi writes in A Fine Turn . . . Community Musical Comedies, the ensemble cast “embraces experienced actors and novices alike, kids and grown-ups (ages 6 to 80), singers and the tone deaf, the introverted and the extroverted.” When a casting call goes out, no one is turned away, and actors/singers have included town officials, construction workers, college professors and elementary school teachers, nurses, real estate salespersons, the school bus driver, the church treasurer, and volunteer firemen, who danced an over-the top Pancake Breakfast cancan (Home Movies, 1999). Plays always involve both children’s and adult choruses who function very much like a Greek chorus commenting on the action of the play in song. Entire families have participated as cast/chorus members, sometimes to the third generation.

From the beginning Johnson has not been shy about writing parts for neighbors and townsfolk she knows. As Dylan Frye, who first joined a production at age 4 and is now a professional actor, observes: “She is not subtle about casting you as the character you are. We are all directed into ridiculous caricatures of ourselves.” Long-time cast member Sally Howe who has performed in all t he musicals since the temperance-themed Yankee Spirits (1991) comments, “I was in disbelief when Dorothy explained that in ‘Dogs’ (a 1997 take-off on the Broadway hit Cats) I was going to be a witch who turned into a dog, but I donned my ears and barked.”  Meanwhile, Dee Waterman, who has been acting in the valley for years and another veteran of the Johnson/Lichtenberg productions, crawled up onto the piano, dressed as a dog,  and sang "I don't feel so good as a dog"   Howe's barking notwithstanding, twenty years after her first performance Howe rose to become the company’s resident “diva,”—playing an exiled Russian heiress turned western hotel/saloon owner who belts out songs and dances herself across the stage in the recent Western Glory (2011) while Waterman, lamented the loss of Vito, her Italian lover who fell "Down, down in the Arno" in " Friends & Neighbors."

Enacting community in performance, from Johnson’s perspective, always includes the audience of her plays; in her words, “we create a theater out of the community itself.”  As audience member Deborah Lichtenberg expresses it: “Johnson’s artistic purpose is to create a piece of theater that brings a community together for a common purpose” with plays “performed by townspeople for townspeople.” She continues, “You, as audience member, are part of the collective, part of the town meeting, part of the community ritual.” And from the stage the actors feel those connections. As cast member Mary Ann Palmieri describes her performance in Yankee Spirits (1991), “our last show turned out to be a genuine ensemble piece, audience and actors joining together and having a good time.  By the end of the play, every face was grinning as people joined in the singing of the finale and gave us a standing ovation. What an audience!” Not by accident, each of Johnson’s plays ends with a scene in which the community in the cast comes together in a song that unites them and their audience.

From the initial glimmering of an idea for a play until the applause fades after the final performance, all of Johnson’s time as writer, casting director, collaborator with musicians, and drama coach, is donated time. And the investment in the community enterprise is considerable, and as showtime approaches, all-consuming. The first read-through of a new play usually begins in June, followed by regular rehearsals on weekdays throughout the summer. Rehearsals are often in bits and pieces as director and cast accommodate summer vacation schedules. As Johnson reflects, “Rarely do all the members of the cast see the play in its entirety until the dress rehearsal, and in a few cases, not even then.” But somehow, every two years for the last twenty years, it has all come together. What makes this magic happen is Johnson’s generous commitment of her talent, her wicked humor, and her dedication to community. Thinking back, she observes, “I have said almost from the beginning with whatever play we are working on ‘This is the last one’ but they all know better.”

The theater has been an important part of Johnson’s life since her undergraduate and graduate school years when she was a student of the esteemed Denis Johnston at Mt. Holyoke and Smith Colleges. Later In New Salem, her long time partner the late Doris Abramson, Professor of Theater at the University whose students included Richard Gere and Bill Pullman, could be counted on to be there in the audience with her perfectly-timed laughs and rousing applause.

In this most recent year, Dorothy Johnson has outdone even herself—presenting both a new play (Western Glory) and a new book. The book, A Swift River Anthology, presented last June in a full-length dramatic reading at the 1794 Meeting House, is a collection of wholly imagined character sketches and voices from the five “lost towns” flooded to make the Quabbin reservoir. Johnson’s own parents lost their home and history when they were displaced from the town of Enfield.  With a short walk from her home in New Salem, Johnson can view in the distance the pristine waters of the Quabbin.  As one of her imagined characters, a farmer exiled from the town of Enfield, says in the book,“ I went back years later, and I stood on that hill/where the heifers had been pastured, and looked at the water.”  Perhaps Dorothy Johnson’s dedication to community theater is her way of looking again at those waters and paying homage to “small town life” in the hope that it should not be lost again.