Most of us have had the experience of opening our mouths to speak and hearing in our mind’s ear ourselves speaking with the voice of a parent or grandparent, saying words we never realized we believed, but which we now understand we believe deeply.
Some writers have described that influence from earlier family members as an “ancestral voice.” One week from today at the Robert H. Jackson Center in downtown Jamestown, the public is invited to see a performance of a theatrical version of a work of chamber music, which bears the title “Ancestral Voices,” by playwright A.R. Gurney.
This week, I’d like to give you some background information about that performance. Then I’d like to share with you the circumstances beyond the performance, with an explanation of why it should matter to you.
Then, finally, I’d like to recount to you things I learned from a telephone conversation I had with a talented young actor from the New York City theatrical scene, who will be coming to our area to play the principal role in next week’s production, along with six actors from our own community.
To nobody’s surprise, I’m hoping the column will convince you to purchase tickets to the performance, but even if it doesn’t, to lift the veil on one more of the many rich layers of artistry which take place within our community, all through the year.
Audiences are invited to arrive at the Jackson Center, which stretches along Prendergast Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets, at 6 p.m. on Jan. 12. The performance will include the serving of a light supper in the beautiful public rooms of the Jackson Center. Those who are of age will be offered complimentary wine or beer to accompany their meal.
When everyone has eaten, the public will be welcomed into the historic theater at the center for the performance, which will be presented, as the playwright intended, as a dramatic reading. The play lasts approximately 90 minutes and is presented without intermission. When the performance has ended, the public will be served coffee and dessert. The actors and the director will join them for informal discussions of the play and of the sponsoring agency at the audience’s discretion.
The total price for the supper with beverages, the performance, and the coffee, dessert, and discussion is $30 per person. Purchase tickets during business hours at the office of the Jackson Center, which is in the front part of the historic mansion, on Fourth Street. One may also reserve tickets by phoning 763-0578. To use a credit card for the ticket purchase, please use the telephone number. It is a local call from Jamestown.
Proceeds from the ticket sales will fund three scholarships for arts students ages 30 or younger, sponsored by the Chautauqua New York Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters.
“Ancestral Voices” is being directed by Bob McClure. The leading role will be performed by Chris Corporandy, a talented young actor who is described later in this column. Playing his character’s parents will be Nancy Karp and Robert W. Plyler. His grandparents will be enacted by Ralph Walton and Kathleen McGough Johnson. Juanita Wallace Jackson and Vince Joy will perform the roles of other characters who have become part of the grandparents’ lives.
Around the performance, singer Melanie Gritters will perform music from the historical period in which the play is set, accompanied by Lucille Miller.
The play is the work of award-winning playwright A.R. Gurney, a native of Buffalo who has set most of his plays in Western New York, including this one, and who has an astonishing understanding of life in our area. He is the same writer who created the play “Love Letters,” which was performed a year ago as a benefit for the same organization. Like “Love Letters,” this play was specifically written to be read aloud, rather than staged with costumes and a formal set.
The action begins just before the outbreak of World War II, when the leading character is only 8 years old, and progresses through his adult years, when he has become a parent himself. It is a tender, often funny story about a young person’s struggle to come to terms with his own family’s eccentricities and his inevitable discovery that, in fact, he is what they are.
Probably most readers understand that concert music is a demonstration of performance skills, intended to impress and to provide emotional release for the audience, while chamber music is intended for a more intimate location, in which the actual situation of the performance creates an atmosphere in which the members of the audience become an element of the performance. There’s a feeling of “We’re all in this together.” Like that music, so it is with this play.
The National Society of Arts and Letters is a national organization founded at the end of World War II by American First Lady Bess Truman and a collection of people who loved and participated in the arts themselves – aware that young artists, who are still studying their artform and who haven’t yet created a name for themselves so that people will buy tickets to see and hear them, need to be supported and encouraged until they can establish themselves in the firmament of their chosen art.
Each year, the society conducts three national competitions for young students of the arts. Each individual chapter of the organization awards local scholarship prizes to the winners of their competition, and then the winners of those competitions advance to a national competition, where scholarship prizes run into the thousands of dollars.
Our area falls into the Chautauqua New York Chapter, which was chartered in the summer of 2009. Our very first local winner, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Sutphen, went on to win the national award in 2010. The chapter is receiving entries at this time in singing, visual art and printmaking for local competitions, which will take place in late January or early February.
Posters advertising the performance, which you may have seen in sites around the community, plus the beautiful tickets themselves and program covers, were designed by former winners of the chapter’s visual arts competition.
Although some of the members of the local NSAL chapter spend the winter months in warmer climates, and others have other responsibilities on the evening of the performance, a number have donated money to provide tickets to the performance alone to students at area schools and colleges, so that they may have a cultural experience and be introduced to another element of theater arts. Readers who would be willing to donate tickets for students to attend this production may inquire at the phone number given above for the purchase of tickets.
If we are realistic, we must recognize that it takes both time and very hard work to launch a new activity in our local community. When a single ticket to a Broadway show, with no food nor beverages nor discussion, can easily cost more than $200, for NSAL to charge only $30 for the entire package demonstrates the chapter’s efforts to attract local audiences, to make themselves and their efforts more visible to the public in the hope of attracting more support and more members to share in the many tasks of supporting their scholarships. We hope the day can come in which they can charge more and thereby put more toward their good works.
No one understands better than I do that there are hundreds of good causes, and all of them are pressing us to support them to survive in a dangerous economy. Nonetheless, if you love the arts and you are as horrified as I am by the possibility that the next Beethoven, Picasso or Shakespeare might end up accepting a middle-management position in a corporation because they couldn’t afford the training they needed to become what they could become, I hope you will consider providing such tickets, or perhaps adding an additional $5 or $10 to your ticket price, to help fund the scholarships that are provided.
If you’re constantly frustrated by the amount of money that many agencies spend on fundraising, instead of on their reason for existing, here’s one you can believe is spending virtually nothing on fundraising, but rather giving everything they make to the scholarships.
As I stated earlier, the central character in “Ancestral Voices” is a young man named Eddie, whom we first meet at the age of 8 and who ages throughout the play, until he is himself a young parent. The role has been performed in professional productions by Fred Savage of the television series “The Wonder Years,” and by film star Paul Rudd, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as his parents. I’m certain you recognize immediately why I was cast as Eddie’s father, the role having been performed by Newman.
In Jamestown, the role will be performed by a handsome and very gifted young actor named Chris Corporandy, who was born in California and began acting as a child in San Francisco. His studies have taken him to the Tisch School of Fine Arts at New York University and the much-celebrated company of the Hillberry Theatre, associated with Wayne State University in Detroit, not to mention terms of study with Trinity College in Dublin and with the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia.
Our readers who enjoy attending performances in Buffalo will surely remember him from performances he has given there with the companies of the Irish Classical Theatre, the Kavinoky Theatre, the Road Less Travelled Company and the Torn Space Theatre, among others.
Lest anyone think your $30 will be going to pay Corporandy a professional salary and to pay expenses for his lavish travel to our area, he’s coming as a favor to Director Bob McClure, whom he has met through the actor’s wife, Sarah Clare Corporandy, who is managing director of the Chautauqua Theatre Company. He’s staying with friends while he’s in our area.
I reached the actor’s cellphone as he was driving from his home in New York City to Philadelphia. His mother had flown east to visit him and his wife for the holidays, and they were taking her to see a popular art collection that is located there, while she was in the area.
He said he had agreed to play Eddie because he considers it a well-written role, and because he understands the importance of providing scholarships for young people with dreams of a career in the arts.
“When I first was asked to read the play, I started with the feeling that, OK, the writer remembers his childhood and has warm memories he wants to re-capture; that’s nothing special. But by the time I got to the last page, I found I had tears in my eyes. The challenge of playing a character who believes in the adults around him and who accepts without question what he’s told, who gradually finds reasons to question them and to see their human qualities, both positive and negative, and who finally learns to connect his own strengths and weaknesses to theirs – that’s going to take a lot of work and provide a real challenge,” he said.
The urge to perform came early to Corporandy and has never deserted him.
“Long before I started school, my parents told me I used to dance around, lip synching to recordings of songs by Weird Al Yankovic. When I was 6, I visited a park and saw puppet shows being performed there, and when I got home, I used my toys and other objects and made my own puppets to act out stories.
“The first time I heard audio books, I used a tape recorder and made my own audio books,” he continued. ”Acting has just always been part of me.
“When I was 7, I auditioned for the San Francisco Boys’ Choir and was accepted,” he continued. “One of our first projects was to serve as the children’s chorus in a performance of the opera ‘Carmen,’ with the Oakland Opera Company, and I loved every second of it. Strangely enough, it wasn’t about being seen by my friends and family; it was about loving being on stage.”
Corporandy’s mother put him into acting school in response to that love.
I wondered how he had come to perform so many roles in Buffalo, since that city had not been part of his personal experience.
“When I was studying in Detroit,” he answered, “I was cast in a touring showcase production, and one of the cities where we performed was Buffalo. One of my friends in the cast had a personal connection to Vincent O’Neill, who is artistic director of the Irish Classical Theatre Company. He invited O’Neill to see the performance, and he liked what he saw and invited a number of us to audition for productions with his company.”