(Host) Seventy-five years ago, a group of amateur thespians gathered in St. Johnsbury to start a community theater that is still going strong today. There have been ups and downs in the history of the St. Johnsbury Players, and scrapbooks trace almost every moment of it.
As part of our occasional "Backstage" series, VPR’s Charlotte Albright stopped by a rehearsal for the next show – Neil Simon’s "Lost in Yonkers."
(Albright) Even before the actors arrive for the rehearsal at St Johnsbury’s Middle School, The St J Players’ historian and costumer, Jane Vinton, shows up with a huge stack of scrapbooks and lays them out on the stage. Front and center-two black and white glossy photos of the founders, Clarke Noyes and Alfreda-known as "Freddie"-King.
(Vinton) "You can’t tell in this picture – she’s a redhead. She was always a redhead, and she was the most amazing-they’re just the most amazing people, and they were so warm and friendly. You know, I joined in 1977, and they were just my mentors, and just so kind, so they are the St J. Players."
(Albright) Or were. King died in March, just shy of her one-hundredth birthday. Noyes died in 1999. Yet Vinton still speaks of them in the present tense, like friendly ghosts. She made an audiotape of the elderly Noyes, reminiscing about how the St. J Players began in 1936. Two earlier theater groups had folded, so the coast was clear for a new one.
(Noyes) "So a group of us got together and thought, it would be kind of nice to do a play. We had no idea we would start a 50-year dynasty, we just wanted to do a play. And we did."
(Albright) The scrapbooks don’t go back quite that far, but on this scratchy tape Noyes recalls the name of that first play was "Cuckoo’s Nest." Then, he says, the players worked up to more ambitious song and dance productions. But then, in the 1950’s, something terrible happened to community theater. It was called television.
(Noyes) "That, of course, was a down time as far as the players were concerned. It was the lowest ebb the players ever had because we had tremendous competition, It was awful hard to get people to see a St. Johnsbury Players show rather than listen to Jackie Gleason or Milton Berle."
(Albright) But the Players persevered, and now they’re a popular way to see live theater on a budget. They don’t try to make more money than it would take to mount the next production. More costumes are borrowed than bought or sewn, and many of the actors double as crew members.
(Wayne) "Just so you guys know Nathaniel is going to be running around painting when he’s not acting."
(Albright) As rain pelts the theater roof, Director Laura Wayne assembles the cast for a run-through of "Lost in Yonkers. " She majored in theater at Johnson State College, moved to New York for a while, and happily moved back to Vermont. She loves this play about a widower who has to leave home to find work, and dumps his two young boys with their stern Jewish grandmother in Yonkers.
(Wayne) "It’s definitely something that we can all relate to right now, people who have, they are losing their jobs but they have mortgages to pay, and their children to care for, you know doctors’ appointments to go to and things to think about so it’s an uplifting story in that there’s victory in it, there’s joy in it, and it’s definitely something people can relate to."
(Lora Dean) "Then put the soup in your mouth right now or I do it for you. . ."
(Albright) That’s another Lora-Lora Dean, who plays the Jewish grandmother in Neil Simon’s comedy. Her grandson is played by a St. Johnsbury newcomer, twelve-year-old Josh Bedor, who, in this scene, is being medicated with soup that he detests.
(Bedor) "I try and I can’t get it down."
(Dean) "If you eat it quick you won’t taste it."
(Bedor) "I would taste this if I didn’t have a tongue."
(Albright) Josh Bedor says he was lucky to find this group of talented, caring adults who have served up plenty of encouragement as he steps into the footlights.
(Bedor) "I’ve always enjoyed memorizing stuff. I used to memorize joke books when I was younger, but I never thought I would put that to use, til last year, and I signed up for the play because I thought it would be fun. It turns out I have natural talent for acting. Everyone was telling me that."
(Albright) And soon, Bedor will help the St. Johnsbury players raise the curtain for the next act of their seventy-five-year-history.
For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright in St. Johnsbury.
(Host) "Lost in Yonkers" opens in the St. Johnsbury School Auditorium on August 5 at 7:30 p.m. and ends with a matinee on August 14th.