Ah, poor Richard. The succesful British poet is a bit of a mess, with a memorial for his dead wife on the calendar in New York City, and he’s into the booze. He’s also having to deal with a charming but pesky secretary, who pushes for the truth about his marriage, his late wife’s questioning sister and a prying Time magazine writer.
Comfortably, the play’s five actors have rehearsed in the living room of director Ed Milaney’s Newton-area home, because with Naked Stage’s “readers theatre” shows, only scripts are required – no sets, lighting, costumes or props needed. A “naked” stage serves as a blank canvas for the seated actors to do their thing.
“With this, there’s no memory involved, because they have their scripts in front of them,” Milaney explained. “There’s no movement, no props, and costumes are basic. I like that the scripts are on stands because then the actors are free to gesture. If the script was in hand, they wouldn’t be able to gesture.
The big difference with a play like this, as opposed to a full production, is that Milaney has to deal with just one media: the human voice. So far, he likes what he’s heard.
“Directing a play, you have all those other things, some distractions,” Milaney added. “We concentrate more on the voice, of course, because that’s all we have, and I drill them pretty badly on that – or goodly, I suppose. Maybe thoroughly is the word.”
Poor Richard opens the theatre group’s second season at Newton Cultural Centre from Sept. 22 to 24, with a pair of evening performances (Friday/Saturday) and one Sunday matinee. Show tickets are $15 at the door and also via brownpapertickets.com/event/3047361.
Croy Jenkins, who plays lead character Richard Ford, is a veteran of Naked Stage productions, as are Deanna Gray (as secretary Catherine Shaw) and George Stone (publishing firm editor Sydney Carroll). The show also features newcomers Diane Jamieson (as Ginny Baker, Richard’s sister-in-law) and Neil Lawton (the magazine writer).
“I quite enjoy it,” Jenkins said. ‘I came from a background of opera and musical theatre, big productions, pantomimes, all across the board, and this is a new experience for me — well, not new anymore, this is the third time doing it with Naked Stage. But I really enjoy this format because it takes away all the props, costumes and set pieces, and it focuses more on the raw talent – how you can connect with your cast-mates, through your voice, and how you can deliver what you’re saying. There is a form of raw talent needed for that, I think.”
For Stone, one of the most challenging aspects of doing Naked Stage shows is not wearing a costume on stage.
“For (full-production) plays I’ve done, I would always use the costume a lot,” he said. “It was an emotional, psychological key for me, sort of a switch, to become a character. But with this, you just have neutral colours, kind of dark clothing, so I actually miss the costumes quite a lot. I’ve tried to sneak in something a couple of times but Ed will have none of it.”
In part, Milaney chose to stage Poor Richard because the 53-year-old script starts out quite light and develops a heavier tone as the story unfolds.
“That’s always intriguing to me, to get that variety, and it has meat to it,” Milaney explained. “It’s a good play, and in choosing plays, one of the things I have to make sure of is (having) a small cast. The other thing is, if there’s anything visual, unless I can figure out someway to make it work, we can’t do the play. This play fits all the little niches.”
On the topic of visuals, Milaney noted Any Wednesday, Naked Stage’s debut play last September.
“These three (actors Jenkins, Gray and Stone) were in it, the middle three here,” he recalled. “In one of the scenes, it’s already established that one of the girls loves balloons, and at one point she goes to the closet, opens the door and it’s full of balloons. Now, the audience can’t see the closet and they also can’t see the balloons, so they’d have no idea why she suddenly goes off on a whole new tangent. So I had to add one line for her, about the closet being full of balloons. It’s juicing up the script for our purposes. You have to make sure the audience knows what’s going on.”
Naked Stage enjoyed larger audiences as the company’s first season progressed from 2016 to 2017, with the exception of a staging of Noel Coward in Two Keys last February. “With the big snow storm that week, people couldn’t get there,” Milaney recalled. “It was a good piece but people just didn’t want to go out in the snow and cold.”
Last spring, a staging of “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” hit a glitch when one player in the all-female cast landed in the hospital prior to opening night, and Milaney was pressed into service to read her lines.
“In that play, the characters talk about their experiences in life and how the outfits and accessories they wore affected how they remember things,” Milaney explained. “I wanted to play it straight because I didn’t want any cheap laughs. So there I am, and one of my first lines was, ‘My first bra, I can’t even talk about it!’ Well, of course the whole place fell apart and I buried my head because I knew if I looked up, I’d laugh. Out of the corner of my eye I can see the gal sitting next to me falling out of her chair. It was very funny, quite an experience.”
Naked Stage will do four plays this season, closing next spring with Nobody Don’t Like Yogi, which recreates the day in 1999 when baseball great Yogi Berra returned to New York’s Yankee Stadium after a 14-year absence, to throw the opening pitch. It will be a solo turn for Milaney in the spotlight.
“I’m indulging myself because it’ll probably be the last (play) I do with this group, at least for the foreseeable future,” he explained. “I was looking for something that’d work as a one-man play, and I’ve always been a baseball fan and a Yogi Berra fan. And I’ll be able to wear my hat backwards, a Yankees hat. That’ll be the only costuming for that one.”
In 2011, Milaney was named among Surrey Civic Treasures, an annual award given to those who have made significant contributions to the city’s arts and culture scene. This year’s honourees include fellow Naked Stage co-founder Jim Trimble, along with glass artist Robert Gary Parkes and poet Heidi Greco. The three will be celebrated at a Business &the Arts event at Surrey Arts Centre on Oct. 3. For details, visit businessinsurrey.com.