I’ll be frank with you – I didn’t know much about Lumina Studio Theatre until I read a ‘rave’ for Lumina’s The Comedy of Errors … at Colonus?. by DCTS reviewer Leslie Weisman in which she called the production “a remarkably inventive and accomplished effort by the young company.”
Since I write about local young actors – I was curious about Lumina and their upcoming musical version of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. I’m looking forward to seeing its final performance on January 29th.
David Minton (Artistic Director)
I have directed, produced, and acted in professional theatre for the last 30 years. Before coming to Takoma Park, I produced and managed an Off-Broadway theatre in New York. Before that, I directed the Addison Centre Theatre in Dallas, Texas, and led the development of its new state-of-the-art facility called by Theatre Crafts magazine “a Theatre for the 21st Century”. I am also a playwright. I joined Lumina as Co-Director in 2000.
Joel: Tell us about Lumina Studio Theatre.
David: Lumina Studio Theatre’s mission is to provide unique opportunities for young and adult actors of all levels of experience to perform Shakespeare, other plays of the classical repertory theatre, and modern plays that focus on the beauty of language.
Lumina provides a disciplined and rigorous professional setting where actors are trained in a comprehensive performance program of theatre arts based on Rudolf Steiner’s Creative Speech and Drama techniques. The techniques of Stella Adler and Michael Chehkov are also demonstrated and put into practice. Our program includes in-depth vocal and character coaching, improvisation, and stage combat training, detailed costumes, live music, choreography and occasionally special elements such as masks to support the shows. The results are exhilarating and thoughtful productions that demand more of our aspiring actors, and benefit them for life, whether they pursue acting professionally or become informed and astute patrons of the arts.
Lumina Studio Theatre made its debut on October 5, 1995 in Brooklyn, NY at Promote Art Works, Inc. as a new concept in teaching speech and drama. Jillian Raye, Founder and Artistic Director, moved the organization to Takoma Park, MD, in 1997. Ms. Raye’s extensive training included: the Victorian Ballet Guild Theatre School; the Harkness Conservatory of Drama, Australia; a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre from the University of Texas at Dallas and Rudolf Steiner’s Speech and Drama technique.
Beginning with a few young people rehearsing in Ms. Raye’s basement and performing in an old movie theatre, Lumina has flourished and now attracts over 100 young actors from the metropolitan area. Lumina offers many opportunities for participants: Creative Drama for the youngest actors (ages 5-6) to the Theatre Group for adult actors. We present nine productions each season. I took over the position of Artistic Director upon Ms. Raye’s death in 2008.
Why did you choose a musical version of The Canterbury Tales?
I am at heart a classicist, although I also love the offbeat and quirky as well (my passions range from comic books to the “Twilight Zone” to William Blake) so I have always been drawn to what is the first genius of English literature. Chaucer was unique in his storytelling, mastery of an evolving language, and character creation. I LOVED the works of Chaucer and one of the high points of my graduate studies was reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. The characters of this epic work have persisted through the centuries and are still walk beside us today in our everyday life.
I love music in theatre – being sort of a lover of cabaret theatre and Brecht. So you will find live music in MOST Lumina productions. During the past season: Big Band in our production of The Merchant of Venice, CA; Old time fiddle and guitar in Boss John (our adaptation of King John); Renaissance consort in our recent production of The Winter’s Tale. John’s brilliant adaptation of The Canterbury Tales that includes musical numbers throughout was a natural!
John O’Connor (Director and Playwright)
I am an Englishman by birth and a Shakespeare scholar by trade. I teach a weekly class for Cornell (at their Dupont Circle base) and have written several books, including “Shakespearean Afterlives” (a study of the way Shakespeare’s most famous characters have lived on in diverse areas such as advertising or the arts) and a three-volume Directory of Shakespeare in Performance, which gives details and reviews of all professional productions of Shakespeare in the UK and USA since 1970. Theatre is my passion: I have been acting and directing for many years. Most recently I have directed a number of my own adaptations, including The Canterbury Tales, in the Oxford Playhouse, and The Hound of the Baskervilles and What Ho, Jeeves! in the Roundhouse, Silver Spring. In 2001, I set up a theatre group which each year performs a Shakespeare play in a variety of venues mainly in and around Oxfordshire. I can also be heard acting some of the minor roles on the audio version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
Joel: You have adapted The Canterbury Tales before. Tell us about that production.
John: I wrote the core of the present play twenty-five years ago as a community production for a village in Oxfordshire. Since then it has been performed four more times in England, changing each time. For the Oxford Playhouse I made some cuts and added the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’. (The script of that production has been published in the Nelson-Thornes Dramascripts series England.) When my wife Kelly and I directed it at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, we Americanized some of the script as most of the students performing it were from the U.S.
For the Lumina production, I have taken the basic script last performed in England and have modified it in several ways. Firstly I have added two new tales –‘The Shipman’s’ (in our production narrated by his wife) and ‘The Nun’s Priest’s’. For this production, ‘The Shipman’s Tale’ has been written as a Tennessee Williams parody, and two other existing tales, ‘Chaucer’s’ and ‘The Pardoner’s’, have been redrafted so that they will mean more to an American audience. In this I have valued US dialect help from my wife Kelly and from David Minton (who has himself added some dialogue to the ‘Pardoner’s Tale’).
Which songs from that production are being used in the Lumina production?
From the old production we have retained all the major songs, including the Pilgrims’ anthem ‘To Canterbury’, a rock number ‘The Seven Deadlies’ and ‘On the Fiddle’, sung by the more crooked element.
How have Wendy Lanxner’s new songs and score contributed to this production?
When I first proposed this show for Lumina I stipulated that I couldn’t undertake it unless Wendy Lanxner were Musical director. She is prodigiously talented, the perfect collaborator, and has a mischievous sense of humor to bring to bear upon her arrangements and compositions. This emerges particularly well in the witty musical links that she and the Blackjacks play, and in Wendy’s own song ‘Experience’ (she plays the feisty, five-times-married Wife of Bath), for which she has composed a new melody. We have also added one completely new number. This has lyrics based on a medieval poem and has been composed as a Motown hit by my brother-in-law Kit Newman and the singer of the song, Dre Weeks. Kit, Dre and Todd Blair (who play the Lawyer, Prioress and Scholar respectively) are all in the band Zoo Music Girl.
Jillian Raye (who founded Lumina) believed that “all ages could perform together on the stage. Ms. Raye believed that young actors can perform brilliantly using the classics in imaginative ways; that actors and audiences can grow from barrier-free, intergenerational performances; and that theatre discipline and creativity are soul mates that belong to the entire community.”
There is a cast of 31 actors in the show. Tell me about the diversity and the makeup of the cast. How many are Lumina students and instructors, and how many are professional actors?
Most are actors with whom we have worked before. Several, including David Minton, Ritchie Porter, Bette Cassatt, Brian Monsell and Ian Blackwell Rogers, have also acted professionally, while Noa Baum trained as an actress in Israel and now is now an internationally known story-teller. My wife Kelly and I have acted in numerous productions. Kelly has herself performed professionally, directs the plays and musicals at Montgomery Blair High School and also recently directed Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers for Victorian Lyric Opera. There are also six cast members currently in high school (five at Montgomery Blair) who have wide experience of acting both at Lumina and at school. All have just had lead roles in either Macbeth or Julius Caesar – they are very experienced and hugely talented. I like to think that the older and younger actors learn different things from each other.
What were the greatest challenges directing this production?
The production consists of eight of Chaucer’s tales linked by scenes between the pilgrims or villagers they meet on the way. We also decided to share the directing among seven directors. Given those two factors, plus the importance of music and dance (with some sword fights thrown in), the venture entails considerable logistical problems concerning when to rehearse which sections and with whom. The rehearsal schedule is a work of art in itself. Currently we are at the stage where we are beginning to string scenes together and block entrances and positions for the onstage pilgrim audience. This aspect of the production is more challenging for actors than a traditional play.
Have you directed young actors before?
I started my career as a high school teacher and have always enjoyed working with younger actors. When I performed as King Lear with Lumina, I had fifteen Fools, some as young as eight, and it was a thrilling experience. One younger actor who, according to the 1986 Canterbury Tales production program, played the silent part of ‘Caption-holder’ in the Reeve’s Tale, was last summer playing the lead in Henry VIII on the Globe stage in London and is a regular with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. In these high-tech days, the captions will be projected; but I still anticipate seeing a young Lumina actor playing leads somewhere one day.
How can modern audiences relate to The Canterbury Tales?
Despite the changes in language, Chaucer is in many ways closer to us than the Victorians. The nineteenth century never did cope with the direct language and saucy tales, but Chaucer simply takes the view that his tales should be as diverse as the people he has telling them. And the tales in our production are all ones that a modern audience can find entertaining and in some cases, we hope, edifying. Alongside the innocent bawdry of the ‘Miller’s Tale’, the ”Reeve’s Tale and the ‘Shipman’s Tales’, there is the ‘Wife of Bath’s, an astonishingly feminist exploration of what constitutes an appropriate and effective punishment and what makes for a lasting relationship. Then there are the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ (a swashbuckling affair in our retelling), the suspense and horror of ‘the Pardoner’s Tale’, and the ‘Franklin’s Tale’, one of the most enduring statements in literature about decent behavior.
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Lumina’s production of The Canterbury Tales?
Chaucer created a work of extraordinary variety which obliges us to recognize that there is not a unified view of human existence and morality, but a multitude of voices deserving of our patient attention and humane judgment. If people leave the theatre confirmed in that view of life, as well as having been entertained, we’ll be happy.
Wendy Lanxner (Composer)
Wendy, a local music teacher, composer and performer, has taught privately for fifteen years in the Washington area, and works as a vocal coach and music director for Lumina Studio Theatre. She currently plays with a several bands in the area, including The BlackJacks (mostly comprised of past & present Lumina parents), the House Band at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, and in an acoustic duo with Amy Freedman. As a Montgomery Blair high school student, she was a finalist in the Seventeen Magazine & General Motors National Concerto Competition, and was trained at Oberlin Conservatory and the University of Massachusetts. Her primary instruments are flute, guitar, and bass, although she dabbles in saxophone, recorder, mandolin, piano and drums.
Joel: How did you get involved in The Canterbury Tales?
Wendy: When Lumina was staging a 2002 production of Romeo & Juliet, an onstage rock band was called for, and I answered the call, as a member of the very first Brighton BlackJacks (almost all of the members remain the same). Two years later, our son Nick Porter jumped into his first Lumina production, and has stayed with it ever since (he’s now a freshman at Blair). Over the years, I’ve helped with vocal coaching and music directing on many productions, with varying degrees of involvement. Music has always been an important part of Lumina shows, and it’s been very rewarding and a lot of fun to help make it happen.
For The Canterbury Tales, John simply asked if I’d consider music directing. John & Kelly are such talented actors, directors, and wonderful people besides, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with them, as well as with David and the whole gang of grownup actors (something new for me! At least at Lumina).
The last time I acted in a show was 20 years ago at Arena Stage, where I met my husband Ritchie Porter when we acted together in Caucasian Chalk Circle. Ritchie plays Chaucer in this production, and this is the first time we’ve been in a show together since that experience at Arena. Very fun for us! I hope it’s not another 20 years ‘til we do it again.
Tell me about the orchestra/musicians that will be used in this production.
The core of the band has worked together on several shows as the BlackJacks: Roger Coleman on piano, Mark Felsenthal on guitar, David LeBow on bass, and Stew Hickman on drums. For The Canterbury Tales, we are joined by Eric Kelderman on trombone, whom I met through our work together in the house band at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring. In this production, I play flute, recorder, saxophone and sing./
What have you composed for this production?
“Experience” – This is a song my character, the Wife of Bath, sings, kind of a Shirley Bassey/Big Spender-type number. In this song she is coming onto a rather frightened Scholar whom she’s set her sights on as her next conquest. A big production number with lots of guys involved – think Marilyn Monroe in “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”. When writing it, I got the idea of using a slowed-down, bluesy version of the “Bunny Hop” as an introduction, which led into developing the tune. The lyrics were co-written by John and me. In the original text, the Wife of Bath talks of experience as being more valuable than, well, anything else: “Experience, though no other authority were in this world, is quite enough for me….”
“The Seven Deadlies” – Lyrics by John O’Connor. This is a song sung by the more raucous members of the cast at the end of Act One, all about lechery, gluttony, sloth and pride, etc. It’s got a Bo Diddley-sort of rhythm, very lusty and danceable.
“Worms” – a brief, a cappella 50s-style 3-part-harmony jingle in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale about how worms are a good laxative.
And then, there is a song sung by the Prioress: “Love Conquers All”, written by 3 cast members who are also in a band together: Dre Weeks, Kit Newman, and Todd Blair. At a certain point in the show, they take over the band’s instruments and perform this Motown-style tune.
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing The Canterbury Tales?
I want the audience to be inspired to read Chaucer, for one thing. I think this show really brings to life his Tales in a way that will give audiences a glimpse into his wit, humor and insight, and the fact that these tales of humanity really can be understood in the context of today’s world. We haven’t changed all that much in 500 years.
Also, I think the show inspires a sense of camaraderie that will extend beyond the cast to include the audience, and in the way good theater always does, it will bring us closer together in our humanity and inspire us to look at one another with greater connection and understanding. Plus give the onlookers a healthy belly ache after all that laughing.
The Canterbury Tales plays from January 28th to the 30th at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD.