I, for one, am depressed about what’s happening in theater. In “normal” times, I’d go to the theater three times a week in New York, often more. I’d go twice a day when I’d visit London. Heck, I even tried to go once a week while living in Los Angeles—no small feat. But that’s how passionate I am of a theatergoer. And I really miss it.
The most satisfying theater experiences I’ve had recently have been with the Old Vic: In Camera series. These are live productions, meaning I usually take a break from my New York day at 2:30 pm to watch a 7:30 performance in the UK. Please try to find recordings of Lungs with Matt Smith and Claire Foy or Three Kings with Andrew Scott to watch if you can. And if you happen to know where I can see The Faith Healer with Michael Sheen, please get in touch!
My hope is that somehow we’ll figure out a way to get theater back to at least a semblance of where it was, because while I’m chomping at the bit for the finale of The Vow on HBO and can’t wait for The Undoing with Nicole Kidman, I’d do almost anything to see Cherry Jones or Sutton Foster or something new—or even old—from Ivo van Hove or Annie Baker or Branden Jacob Jenkins on a stage in a dark theater.
There must be some theater artists who are figuring out new ways to perform theater. In fact, I met a few of them last fall, at the Bellport, New York, home of New York City–based investment banker and philanthropist Boykin Curry
In the summer of 2018, Curry hosted a kind of theatrical experiment. A longtime theater fan who caught the live performance bug as a kid on trips to New York City from his hometown in North Carolina, he invited a few young actor friends to pull a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland and “put on a show” on his large porch for some of his neighbors (who include, among others, Isabella Rossellini, Nicky Hilton, Charlie Rose and, newly this year, Billy Porter).
The two-night revue, a happening titled “Porch Song” and created by Curry’s friends Nadia Quinn and Emily Young, featured songs by Soft Cell, Burl Ives, and the Mamas and the Papas, as well as excerpts from Our Town, Romeo and Juliet, and the Steve Martin Cyrano de Bergerac comedy Roxanne. The evenings turned out to be a surprise immersive hit for the local community.
“It was so much better than anything I had imagined it could be,” recalls Curry. “We saw the neighborhood come together, and everyone was pitching in to help. People were so excited.”
Rossellini, for one, offered a plot on her 28-acre farm, where she breeds chickens, makes honey, and grows vegetables, for a show the following summer, which was later called “Field and Forest.” (That was a mash-up of Chekhov, Peggy Lee, Mary Oliver, David Bowie, Arthur Miller, and Pink Floyd,) And Curry vowed to support Quinn and Young in their future endeavors, even offering his Bellport home as an incubation space for developing new work. With lots of common space and nine bedrooms, “it’s good for a troupe of actors and writers,” says Curry.
“Boykin’s spirt is he gave us this house and he said, ‘Go make a thing,’” explains Quinn, who met Curry while she was performing in a musical revival of The Robber Bridegroom at the Roundabout in the spring of 2016, which Curry saw multiple times. “It’s the old patronage model in its purist form.”
In the pre-Covid late fall of 2019, Quinn, Young and their merry band of videographers, performers, dreamers and such, spent some time in Bellport searching for and workshopping new material. Their goal was to find a new show, but also expand a program that would enable the Porch Song model to be employed by anyone who had some extra found space and an interest in the performing arts. Post-It notes in various colors and full of ideas lined the downstairs; the group even painted a mural in Curry’s kitchen.
On one chilly evening towards the end of the residency, Rosellini, Curry, and Curry’s three children gathered in a living room in Bellport to participate in what Quinn and Young called their regular “happy hour share.” One member of the Porch Song ensemble passed out freshly-made Negronis to everyone (except the kids), and the singing began.
“We sort of went down a hole of songs that the house wanted,” says Young, before the group dove into “Homeward Bound,” by Simon & Garfunkel. It was either that or a medley of songs they’d practiced, like “Rich Girl” and “Uptown Girl,” substituting “squirrel” for “girl,” “for no other reason than it’s funny,” says Quinn.
Betwixt and between, there was a reading of a comic 10-minute play called The Tragical Tale of Melissa McHiney McNormous McWhale, a Dr. Seuss-meets-Otto-Titsling-from-Beaches mash-up by Walter Wykes, which someone had found in a Google search for short one-acts. Rossellini read a poem about a pig by Roald Dahl, and nearly everyone, Curry and kids included, participated in a cold reading of an extended scene from the 1985 comedy Clue “As long as we’ve been coming to this house, it’s been begging for a Clue party,” says Young.
Then, everyone retired to a long table for a dinner of whole branzino, kabocha squash, fire-roasted eggplant, and an unfiltered Chardonnay that had been prepared by members of the ensemble that day.
When it comes to mounting future entertainment, “the idea is how do you force people to come together while at the same time creating something that’s like, ‘Whoa?’” marvels Quinn. Rossellini clarifies, saying “The part that vibrates is the ability to experience something you haven’t experienced before."
The Covid quarantine meant that the Porch Song ensemble could not gather as a group at Curry’s home this summer. For one, Young and Quinn found themselves on different coasts. Furthermore, Young was putting on a different production in mid-August: namely, her wedding, on a retired aircraft carrier in Upper Manhattan, to Max Krauss, with whom she performs in a band called Sweet Nothing. (Both Krauss and Nadia’s husband, Aaron, who is also a musician, are part of the Porch Song Project team.)
With an inability to organize live experiences but a great desire to continue making new theater, Young and Quinn pivoted, for the moment, to the Porch Song Project Radio Variety Show. It’s a kind of Prairie Home Companion podcast with special guests like Lucy Liu, featuring both found and original material. Two episodes have dropped so far, with a third expected by the end of the year. Though some of it was recorded at Curry’s house in Bellport, for the most part, “we’re all in different places,” says Quinn.
“We miss performing, so the goal is to keep trying to find ways we can do it live,” says Young. “We want to do that again when we can all be together and hug each other.”
And so do I.
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