Bootcamp for Actors

Monomoy theater embodies the trials and tribulations of summer stock theater. Scott Lajoie goes behind the scenes to witness the often chaotic coming-together of a summer production.

Photography by DAN CUTRONA 

Since Monomoy Theater’s Ohio Players only have a matter of days to get one of their summer stock plays up and running, rehearsals can get pretty intense. On a breezy August afternoon, three actors stand on an outdoor practice pavilion for a run-through of Anna Christie—the Eugene O’Neill classic about a seagoing father who reunites with his daughter after twenty years—while a few other student actors, assistant directors, and the director look on.

Monomoy-Theatre-091Tom Degnan, a masters’ student from Case Western Reserve University, is pouring his heart into the role of Mat Burke, an arrogant but conflicted Irish coal stoker who is courting Anna against the wishes of her protective father. The play is starting to reach a climax in the final act, when a major revelation is about to be made. Both Degnan and Melynee Saunders Warren, who plays Anna, occasionally pause to ask for a forgotten line, but as the play itself becomes more emotional, Degnan has begun yelling out “LINE!” while in character. Unfortunately, the calls for lines become more and more frequent, and it is obvious Degnan is overcome with frustration. He closes his eyes, and breaks character to sit down and put his head in his hands.
I think I am witnessing a bit of a meltdown.

Will the show go on? Will Degnan storm off, hop in his car and drive home to Cleveland? All is silent, and everyone is nervously looking at the floor. Director Michael John McGann, who has been silently studying the performance the entire afternoon, finally speaks. “Even Jesus had help bearing his cross,” says McGann, who walks over to Degnan and embraces him. “Why don’t you go lie down.”

Degnan has been shouldering a lot. This summer, he has major roles in multiple productions, and this week he is undergoing triple sessions—blocking rehearsals for comedy You Can’t Take It With You in the morning, run-throughs of drama Anna Christie in the afternoon, and performances of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the evening. He has been going to bed late and waking up early to memorize his lines. While some of the other actors take the lunch break roughly at noon to socialize and blow off some steam, Degnan finds a quiet spot to review O’Neill’s rich, but complicated language.

Such is the life of summer stock actors. Nonstop. Exhausting. Stressful. But it’s the training of a lifetime, and most will tell you that all being said, it’s usually flat-out exhilarating.

What most people see of Monomoy Theater—the cumulative efforts of dozens of students and volunteers associated with the theater, and a slim three-person staff resulting in a two-hour nightly performance—is just a small part of what happens on the so-called campus in an 18-hour day. Situated on just less than three acres, the campus comprises of a theater, a main house where the students sleep and communally eat, a barn where sets are designed and constructed, and hidden back in the woods, a couple of guesthouses for visiting directors and actors and an open-air rehearsal pavilion.

From the barn, I hear the screech of an electric saw straining against hardwood. Five set makers are assembling a two-sided façade for Anna Christie. Decked out in old t-shirts, worn-out jeans and paint-splattered cargo pants, they are trying to place the wooden frames on steel beams rising up from a couple of wheeled platforms. “Watch your feet as it comes down,” yells a dreadlocked Preston Speaker, who is up from North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. When it locks into place, his satisfaction with a morning’s worth of work is evident with a boisterous “Yeeeeaaahhhh!”

Speaker and tech director Michelle Thomas, also from the North Carolina art school, are both in their second summers at Monomoy. What keeps them coming back is the fast-paced work. “Four days to build it, then just four days to show,” says Thomas. “Then it’s gone.”

Monomoy-Theatre-105The set makers are just as busy as the actors, if not more so. While actors can go on knowing not everything is perfect, the set makers must make all the sets from scratch. They say they often feel the time crunch more than the actors. But knowing they can pull off such feats instills tremendous confidence. “If we can make it through this place—and we haven’t killed anybody—then we can make it anywhere,” says Thomas.

Up a path through the woods sits the pavilion. I come upon a collection of students, professional actors, and director Dennis Delaney in the middle of a run-through for You Can’t Take It With You. Some students are dressed a little more casually than their set-making counterparts; some like to look the part of an actor and come to rehearsal in something a little more fashionable. (Degnan wears a navy blue t-shirt with “Muck Fichigan” eblazoned upon it in gold letters.)

They go over where they should stand and how they address certain props, some of which do not exist as of yet. One of the volunteering professional actors asks Delaney if she should add a little humor to a certain line. “Everything is worth it if it makes someone laugh,” says Delaney, and they decide to add it to the notes.

“This is their eighth play [of the summer],” says Delaney, as we walk together to the main house for the lunch break. “They know what to expect by now.” He reflects on the rapid schedule they follow. “At this point in another performance’s run, I’d still be reading. We’d be working out the dynamics of the language and helping the cast better understand the characters. You might have 3 or 4 rehearsals to do that,” he explains. “Here, I have a single day for that, and I am on to blocking.”

Delaney joined the team at Monomoy this year because he believes in the concept of summer stock. Here, they get to do it all, have major speaking roles, and be on stage with some of the professional actors. “In Williamstown, they’ll hold a spear,” he says, referring to the small roles students will get at the popular summer stock destination in Western Massachusetts. Delaney teaches at the Hart School, which is home to Hartford University’s acclaimed arts program. He and his wife came this summer on bequest of managing director Alan Rust. He arrived a few days early and was able to enjoy the Cape a little bit, taking bikes to Martha’s Vineyard one day.

I join a few students for lunch in the main house. A couple hold a bit part here and there and help out in the box office (they might be back next year); another is a little older and has a part in nearly every play. They talk about where their small stipend goes (“A lot of it goes toward beer,” says one) and how it is a huge transition from their college lifestyle. “You have to be up and ready every day,” says one. “The first week was a transition. You can’t come in smelling like a brewery.”

Alan Rust has been running the program for 35 years, since he came in the early seventies as a student. In fact, his portrait—bearing a much younger version of himself—still hangs on the ceiling of the box office amidst every other actor who has graced the old stage. The collection of old photos features, among others, Joe Martello (summer of 1983), who went on to direct the Broadway hit Wicked, and a young Sally Quinn (1963), a famous journalist from the Washington Post.

Like ninety percent of the subjects of those portraits, Rust is an alum of Ohio University. Every February, he travels to his alma mater in Athens, Ohio to stage auditions for the coveted parts of summer’s individual parts. All the parts are set, so there is no competition during the summer. Rust says he is very careful not to cast someone in something over his or her head. “It can be very damaging…to them,” he says with a laugh, adding, “We can get through anything.” Not everyone makes it.

Some swear off theater after such a grueling summer stock experience. “They find out that the passion isn’t as strong as it needs to be,” says Rust. But many of them reup for a second year.

What’s the biggest misconception? That there’s all this intrigue,” says Rust. “It’s pretty simple: The students get up and work 18 hours a day.” The students spend most of their time on the theater’s so-called campus, and they don’t get a chance to see a lot of Cape Cod. But ask any actor who’s been through the experience and they’ll tell you they wouldn’t trade it for anything.