True community theater
Johnson & Litchtenberg’s final theatrical collaboration opens in New Salem Friday
“COUNTY FAIR” 1794 Meetinghouse, New Salem. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Community musical in which the stage, auditorium, vestibule and lawn will transform into a 1939 fairgrounds replete with chorus and a parade of engaging characters straight out of pre-war lore. Featuring a 50-member cast directed by Dorothy Johnson and Andy Lichtenberg, who say this is their 10th and last collaboration. These performances are unique in that roles are created for anyone who wants to participate. There are no auditions for parts. The show concludes Sunday. $10 adults and seniors; free for children 12 and under. Tickets available at the door or at www.1794meetinghouse.org, at New Salem General Store, and Bruce’s Browser, 1497 Main St., Athol.
Dorothy Johnson and Andy Lichtenberg during rehearsals for County Fair at the 1794 Meetinghouse on the New Salem Common.
1794 Meeting House on the Common in New Salem
It’s the final ride, at the county fair for Johnson & Lichtenberg.
Like Gilbert & Sullivan, Rogers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Lowe before them, New Salem’s ditty-drama duo is calling it quits after its 10th production at the 1794 Meetinghouse. The final collaboration for 80-year-old writer/director Dorothy Johnson and 59-year-old songwriter Andy Lichtenberg is titled “County Fair.”
Staged Friday through Sunday (Sept. 6 through 8), and on Sept. 14 and 15, its opening coincides with the 165th Franklin County Fair.
You’ll recognize the midway rides, the prize-winning pickles and down-home folksy charm in the New Salem production. In all respects, it is true community theater, not with a cast of thousands — since there just about 1,000 residents in town — but of with a cast of about 60.
“We used to say that half the people in town were in the audience, the other half were on stage,” said Lichtenberg, who lives in Pelham. He has become a key part in New Salem’s theater community since he and Johnson first collaborated on “Yankee Spirits” 15 years ago.
Traditions run deep in New Salem, where Johnson has lived since 1971, next door to the performance center where she heads several nights a week every couple of summers for rehearsals.
One tradition is that every couple of years, Jonnson calls Lichtenberg to say she’s decided to write and direct another show as a benefit for the 1794 Meetinghouse, and here’s what the theme will be: dogs, or a lottery winner, or a circus, or Mother Goose.
Another tradition is that there are no auditions and the play is custom written to fit anyone who’s up for participating, whether they’ve received Johnson’s mass e-mail or not.
But there have been changes.
“When we started out, most of the plays were about the small town and most of the characters were based on the actors who were going to play them,” says Lichtenberg. “Over the years, it’s expanded to include people who aren’t from New Salem and the stories have drifted, with a Western, a who-dunnit, the lottery, ‘Mother Goose Lost.’ So from the original concept of being about a small town, where everybody knew each other and kind of knew what Dorothy was trying to say about them as the characters in a small town, we’ve gone farther afield.”
So, when he got a call from a retired professor from Shutesbury saying how much he’s loved being in the past two shows and would enjoy being in this one, Lichenberg told him, “Of course. Then, he phoned Johnson to tell her she needed to write another part.
“Anybody who wants to be in it is in; That’s part of the problem,” Johnson says with a laugh.
Johnson, a Mount Holyoke and Smith alumna, grew up in South Hadley and worked as a teacher and editor for a New York publisher before operating the Common Reader Bookshop here with her lifelong theater-professor partner, Doris Abramson, who died in 2008.
Johnson said it’s fun to write the scripts, but directing a cast of amateur neighbors and neighbors of neighbors through two months of rehearsals, when many go away for vacation, is like trying to herd not just cats, but also their fleas.
“We’re tired, frankly,” Johnson says. “It’s a lot of work. I’ve counted this year and, counting children, there are almost 60 people. That really is too many. I can’t control them. They all control each other.”
So this community theater, with custom-written parts to help each player and each singer shine, turns into something of an improvisational theater, with a person or two dropping out or — as really happened — a mother and daughter telling Dorothy they’d like speaking parts. Sometimes, cast members disappear, like the woman who sings part of a duet and who showed up for her first rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. (Fortunately she’d taken her part with her on vacation and when she finally showed up to speak and sing her part, she nailed it.)
Everything comes together in “County Fair,” set in 1939, when New Salem and its neighboring Quabbin towns were about to be changed forever by the creation of the reservoir. The area was still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression and the previous year’s hurricane, and yet it was still a time of relative innocence.
“It seemed like a good idea,” Johnson says, dryly. “We needed a concept where we could use a lot of people and that’s it. And this fair is in 1939 because they love costumes.”
But if you’re thinking 1939 World’s Fair, this ain’t it. Johnson didn’t even go to that New York spectacle. “I was too little and it was too big. Besides, we didn’t have money to go to the big city.”
As for plot, that’s almost an afterthought since the main idea with all of Johnson’s New Salem shows — even the earlier pre-Lichtenberg collaborations with neighbor composer Steven Schoenberg — are truly about community and the way it comes together. In this case, it’s around the fair.
Everyone’s there. The policeman. The embezzler who took all of the money to help her sick mother. The pickle judge.
There’s a visitor from Vienna, heartbroken because her husband had been beaten by Nazi thugs. There’s the woman who shows her around the fair and tells her about the North Dana farm that was taken by the state and about her husband who died, of heartache. Together, the two women sing about all they’ve lost, in “Shadow Heart.”
As with any fair, there are rides. But as Johnson explains, “There’s no backstage and there’s hardly any front stage. It’s wide and narrow, the piano’s there and we’re not allowed to put a lot of things up. So, we have imaginative rides.”
And there’s a song, “I Love the Rides,” in which two kids are on a Ferris wheel, one is on a merry-go-round and two are on the roller coaster.
For the kids — who have, in Johnson’s words, “been on all the rides, up and down and around and around, and they’ve had cotton candy and hot dogs, soda and fudge, then gone on more rides, and they don’t feel so good” — there’s this song “I’m Sick, I’m Dying.”
Lichtenberg says, “Whenever you can give kids a song where they sing, ‘I’m gonna throw up,’ you know they’re going to enjoy singing it. I put that line in lots of times.”
There’s a horse race at the fair, says Johnson, “but it’s offstage. But there are pickpockets on stage, so there is some action.”
“County Fair” even has a state representative in it. A real one. Denise Andrews plays just another woman in search of the ladies room, not any kind of celebrity.
“We don’t have stars. We have a real ensemble,” says Johnson. “It’s just folks.”
Even an aging country singer, who’s at the fair as a star attraction because he’d been in a Roy Rogers movie with Sons of the Pioneers, is just another character, even though it’s played by Martha von Mering, one of several cast members who’s had many an encore in Johnson’s shows.
True community theater
“It really has been amazing and, in some ways, life changing,” says von Mering, 48, who began in the productions as a 16-year-old New Salem singer who would be heading off in a couple of years to study voice at the University of Massachusetts.
“I kind of grew up in front of Dorothy,” she says. “Her writing is just marvelous: her sense of humor, her timing. Dorothy’s always managed to fit our personalities with the roles. That’s why her plays are so wonderful. She gets people on that stage who probably wouldn’t have the chance to perform in community theater. She plays to their strengths. Otherwise, they wouldn’t even try to get on stage.”
Von Mering started with the 1794 Meetinghouse shows when Johnson was collaborating with Schoenberg, first in 1983 with “Small Town Life,” and then with “Quabbin — The Musical.”
Having that tradition end, says von Mering, now a Longmeadow resident, “is really huge. I think it will be a loss, a void. You plan your whole life around it every two years because you know there will be another show. You don’t take a long vacation, you don’t plan to go away around Labor Day. I moved away eight years ago and it draws me back.”
Getting everyone together
One “County Fair” song, “Helping Hands,” exudes the spirit of community, saying,
“We take care of our own.”
“When the world is too much with us, when the worries crowd our souls,
Don’t bear it all alone. Turn to neighbors and to friends ....
Small towns may seem too small to let our spirits be;
In heart and mind too small to set our spirits free.
This is true in part but small towns also have heart.”
It’s the kind of song that brings the cast together on stage in a way that’s designed to warm the hearts in the audience, and those of Lichtenberg and Johnson as well; especially if it all comes together.
“Once we get it done, it’s fun,” Johnson says. “It’s just getting everybody together. Summer makes it difficult to rehearse because we rehearse with empty spaces.”
It’s often the case, recalls von Mering, that a show will go on with the final run-through being the first time the entire cast is actually all there together. But somehow, it all seems to work. The “somehow” turns out to be Johnson filling in here and there.
But in this show, Johnson’s actually written herself into to the play: a character who lives up in the hills and returns to every year’s fair with just the dollar her brother gave her before he went off to war.
“He said he’d meet me. But he never came back,” says Johnson. “But I keep going, with my dollar, year after year.”
But Johnson, who doesn’t plan to come back with another show for her town, says, “I don’t know of any other group that’s done exactly what we’ve done, anywhere in country, which is to work with the people. In each show, we try to get something for every single person to do on that stage, so everybody can have a moment to shine.”
Lichtenberg adds that there’s also a lot of fun working with people they’ve come to know really well over the years.
“We’ve done this together forever, so we enjoy getting together,” he says. And now that the 1794 Meetinghouse, for which their plays have been raising money as a benefit all these years, has been successfully running on its own, this isn’t such a bad time for the Johnson & Lichtenberg collaboration to end.
Johnson, who always has the last word, adds, “We thought it was a nice even number. This is the 10th show, and I’m 80 and he’s turning 60. All those zeroes. The stars are aligned.”
“The zeroes add up to zero,” he adds quickly.
“Which is what our future will be,” she says, laughing.
Show times for “County Fair” are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets at $10 for adults and seniors and free for children 12 and under. They are available at the door, online at www.1794meetinghouse.org, at the New Salem General Store, and at Bruce’s Browser, 1497 Main St., Athol. Advance tickets are recommended.
Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.