by Joe Hanrahan
The selection of plays for a theatre group’s season is always an exciting, wildly hopeful, sometimes frustrating process. The scripts must play to a company’s strength, while often exploring new themes and production styles to encourage artistic growth. It has to take into account the appropriateness of available spaces for the plays selected, as well as the available pool of talent and their appropriateness for roles needed to fill. Also, a group has to consider scheduling issues such as holidays that might fall during a show’s run, necessary rehearsal schedules, performer availability, and more. And then, you have to secure the rights for a play — not always an automatic.
At The Chapel: Kicking Off The Season — And Punting It Into Next Season
2020 has proven to be a challenging time for everyone, including theatre companies, most of whom have decided to shut down all theatre for the calendar year. The Midnight Company’s challenges started at the very beginning of the virus outbreak. They’d scheduled their first production for May at a space new to the company: The Chapel. The show they chose would be a reprise of a one-person play they’d initially presented at the 2018 St Lou Fringe Festival, “Now Playing Third Base For The St. Louis Cardinals…bond, James Bond.”
Written and performed by Midnight Artistic Director Joe Hanrahan, the script focused on 1964 when a teenage boy — set back by world events like the Cuban Missile Crisis and particularly the assassination of John F. Kennedy — finds the world coming back to life with the emergence of the Beatles, a sensational new movie featuring one of the first superheroes, James Bond, and the race of the hometown Cardinals to a pennant and World Championship. The play explores such diverse themes as the racism black Cardinal players had to face as they made their way into Major League baseball, the role WWII played in JFK’s assassination and the history and growth of one-person shows in the theatre scene.
Because of Fringe restrictions, that production was limited to a handful of performances and limited to less than an hour in length. But still, the show was very enthusiastically received by audiences. Never had Midnight experienced such a visceral reaction to a play. So, thinking that the play (with its crowd-attracting title) could draw larger audiences, it was decided to bring it back to The Chapel in Spring 2020; this time with an expanded script that added depth and new stories to the incidents of the script.
But the outbreak of COVID-19 altered opening plans and Midnight made the cautious decision to postpone the show until July. And as the virus strengthened its grip on the world, it was postponed again until August.
And it was only in mid-July when discussions between the small cast and crew resulted in the difficult decision to reschedule the show for July 2021, at The Chapel. The decision was particularly difficult because the people at The Chapel were unfailingly supportive and enthusiastic about the show, right up until the moment of cancellation. They were preparing to undertake all of the safety precautions pioneered locally by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. But the final decision rested on the entire team’s belief that a greater number of people might want to see this show, and it should be given the chance to draw those crowds.
If you’d like to take a look at the script of the Fringe production, click here.
At Kranzberg Arts Foundation Theatres: The Fall Shows — October
As a resident company of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, The Midnight Company had two slots to fill in their 2020 Calendar: mid-September and late October, each for three-week runs.
The October show was the first engagement filled. “It Is Magic” premiered in Chicago in Spring 2019. Midnight management saw the production, and it never left their mind. The play was written by Mickle Maher, playwright, and co-founder of Theater Oobleck in that city. Midnight had already produced two plays of Maher’s: “The Hunchback Variations” and “An Apology For The Course And Outcome Of Certain Events Delivered By Doctor John Faustus On This His Final Evening,” first as individual productions, and then on the same bill in September 2018 as part of Faustival, a St. Louis celebration of the work, which involved five different St. Louis companies doing their own take on Faust.
Midnight loved Maher’s work and loved Theater Oobleck. It’s on hiatus now as are most groups, but you can check out their fabled history on their website: theateroobleck.com. They’re a very small group that gets very big recognition and very good reviews in the very competitive Chicago theatre scene.
“It Is Magic” takes place in the basement of a community theatre. Auditions are going on for a new play — an adult version of the Three Little Pigs. Upstairs, in the main theatre, opening night for the Scottish play is underway. Holding the auditions are two sisters — one who has written the new play, the other an actress. Both have volunteered for this community theatre for years, but neither has ever got the opportunity to contribute artistically. Now one sister has written a play that will be produced, the other wants the lead role of The Big Bad Wolf. Auditioning for them is an actor (in a kilt, expected upstairs soon) who also wants the Wolf role, and who also has been with the group for years without a good role. As the play develops, the arrogant artistic director of the group comes down and causes havoc, and later, an actress appears out of nowhere to audition — yes, she is the “third sister” of Scottish play fame.
The play is brilliant, as is all of Maher’s work. It explores the love/hate relationship many people (and many aspiring artists) have with theatre but confirms the magic that infuses the stage. It also has a touch of black magic, so it qualifies as a show that can open on Halloween weekend. (Midnight, like many companies opening a show at that time of year, first looked around for a more traditionally-themed script, like a “Dracula” adaptation they’d always liked.) And with a cast of five, the show gave Midnight a chance to work with more local talent than their usual cast sizes of one or two.
But as the COVID-19 crisis continued, Midnight saw little choice but to reschedule this show. It’s now slated to run Oct. 21-Nov. 16, 2021, at the Black Box Theatre inside The Kranzberg.
At Kranzberg Arts Foundation Theatres: The Fall Shows — September
After deciding on “It Is Magic” for October, Midnight still had a calendar slot to fill in September. After considering several works, one prominent theme continued to echo for the Company. With the current political turmoil and the upcoming sure-to-be hotly contested elections, Midnight decided to do the one thing it could do best to contribute to possible positive solutions for the country.
It brought back a play it had done before (at The Missouri History Museum, during the dawn of the Obama administration) — “Give ‘em Hell Harry” by Samuel Gallu, the one-man show depicting the life and times of Harry S. Truman. The play premiered in 1975 with James Whitmore in the role. The show was shot on the then-innovative format of videotape and released as a major motion picture (for which Whitmore received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.)
The play begins with Truman’s days in the White House, a tumultuous time. After three terms of Franklin Roosevelt guiding the nation through the Depression and World War II, FDR’s death propelled Truman into the Oval Office, introducing a new president that the nation knew only slightly (as FDR knew him only slightly.) Truman’s first four months in office were some of the most critical and overwhelming any President has ever faced: Four months that saw the founding of the United Nations, the fall of Berlin, victory at Okinawa, firebombing in Tokyo, the Nazi Surrender, the liberation of concentration camps, mass starvation in Europe, the controversial decision to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the surrender of Imperial Japan, and finally, the end of World War II and the rise of the Cold War. After Franklin Roosevelt died, and the unknown senator from Missouri took the oath of office, what was called Truman’s “Accidental Presidency” began. But his performance as leader of a changing world in crisis during those whirlwind four months, and after, continues to enhance his reputation and regard.
Two recent books underline the continued interest in and appreciation of Truman’s term in office. Chris Wallace’s “Countdown 1945” focuses on those first few months of the Truman presidency, narrowing in on the final preparations and Truman’s decision to use the Atomic Bomb to end World War II. And A.J. Baime’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” moves ahead to 1948, when Truman’s whistle-stop tour of America helped his underdog campaign win back the White House. (Baime also wrote 2017’s “The Accidental President,” which explores the first four months of the Truman presidency in detail, but also gives a good, balanced overview of his early life and career in Missouri.)
Through research, Midnight (along with most everyone else) came to the conclusion that Harry S. Truman was, at minimum, a decent human being who sat in the Oval Office. It was their goal through this play to offer that example, and to instigate more thought about the type of person that should lead our nation.
At the time of this writing, “Give ‘em Hell Harry” is still scheduled to run this Sept. 17-Nov. 3, at .ZACK Theatre.
At The Kranzberg Theatres: The Fall Shows – New Show For October?
And for an on-going theatre company, the selection of which plays to present never ends.
For Midnight, with the rescheduling of “It Is Magic,” there are now open dates in late October. Midnight does not have to fill those dates, but already has a play in their pocket that — worldwide pandemic allowing — will run at that time.
Note: Any productions that happen at Kranzberg Arts Foundation spaces in the coming months will be rigorously prepared and extensively monitored for safe audience experiences. See the Foundation’s COVID-19 Mitigation Policies here.
And also for Midnight, that leaves June 7-June 27, 2021, at the Black Box Theatre inside The Kranzberg waiting. Hoping things will be back to some kind of (new) normal, the Company is currently looking into a number of scripts for that time.
To stay up to date with what’s happening and what’s coming up, check kranzbergartsfoundation.org for updates on all the activities at their various spaces. And check out midnightcompany.com for the latest on their shows.
Joe Hanrahan is the Artistic Director of The Midnight Company. As an actor and director, Joe has worked with many St. Louis theatre groups, including the St. Louis Rep, the Black Rep, Upstream, Stray Dog, Metro Theatre, New Jewish Theatre, the West End Players, R-S Theatrics and SATE. As a playwright, his scripts have been produced by companies and festivals in Kansas, Brooklyn and St. Louis. As a company, Midnight has produced many works new to St. Louis in a variety of spaces, as well as performing at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival and the Jesse James Farm in Kearney, MO.