From Indiana, to New York, to Cape May’s East Lynne Theater Company
From an early age I was smitten by storytellers and storytelling. Whether it’s intelligent conversation, singing, dancing, small screen, big screen, live theater, I enjoy it. Throughout the years, I’ve performed, written plays that have been produced (some that have not), directed, designed and hung lights, designed and built costumes, designed and created sound effects and music tapes for shows way before iTunes and CD’s.
My family’s first television set entered our Indianapolis home soon after I was born. There weren’t many channels, but I enjoyed the Busby Berkley musicals, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I was taking tap and ballet lessons by age five.
I saw my first film in a movie theater when I was also five. Dad took me to see “Friendly Persuasion.” Wow! A movie on a really big screen. On two vacations to the East Coast to mostly attend the World’s Fair, I saw my first professional theater – Broadway’s “110 in the Shade,” and “Funny Girl” with Barbra Streisand. Another Wow! What an exchange of energy between performers and audience.
In 1963, Clowes Memorial Hall on Butler University’s campus in Indianapolis opened bringing concerts and theater tours crossing the country. When I was asked what I wanted for birthday and Christmas presents, that was easy – theater tickets. My parents, bless them, gave me tickets, and would drive me to the theater and then pick me up afterwards. I saw “Oliver!” and Alfred Drake in “Kismet.” Soon after, I became an usher at Clowes, so I could see as many shows as possible and get paid as well. Fortunately, a fellow usher lived near us so I could hitch a ride. I continued working there throughout high school when I wasn’t rehearsing and performing in a school production. The Metropolitan Opera, dance companies, rock bands, plays, musicals – all came to Clowes. I saw Mary Martin and Robert Preston in “I Do! I Do!,” John Raitt in “Carousel,” Johnny Carson, Marcel Marceau, and Judy Garland. Clowes was also the home of the Indianapolis Symphony.
Even after I left Indy, whenever I visited my folks, the house manager invited me to see the shows. It was at Clowes, where I saw my first one-person productions: Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight” and Siobhan McKenna in “Here Are Ladies.” Since the front-of-house and backstage crew at Clowes knew me, I was allowed access everywhere. I was young and curious, and not afraid to start a conversation. Hal Holbrook and Siobhan McKenna and others would invite me to talk to them after their performances, often in the dressing room.
During the summers, my parents and I would attend at least one show at Avondale Playhouse, an outdoors theater-in-the-round theater under a big blue tent. Television stars, most of whom also had Broadway credits, would come and perform on the ‘tent circuit.’ I’d see “Mrs. McThing” starring Ann B. Davis, and Eddie Bracken in “Teahouse of the August Moon.” I interned and played small roles during the theater’s last two seasons. In 1966, we had a big bonfire when the big tent was burned. Not all of it, however. I kept a piece, and I’m sure others did, too.
It was the demise of the ‘tent circuit’ and the rise of regional and dinner theater. Two dinner theaters started up in hotels in Indianapolis, and I performed comedies in both of them. David Letterman actually performed at one of them while he was our favorite local weatherman on TV.
I also performed in local commercials filmed at a local TV station. It's where I first met Frances Farmer. I was only ten years old at the time I met her, and didn’t know her back story. I only knew her as the host of my favorite TV show, “Frances Farmer Presents.” Like today’s Robert Osborne on TMC, she talked in-depth about the films being shown, and occasionally interviewed guest celebrities.
At one of her tapings, she saw me watching her getting ready, and said “hi,” and we had a lovely conversation. I asked her how she ended up in Indianapolis. “One of my closest friend lives here,” she told me, “and it seems like a good place to be.” From then on, I tried to schedule any commercial shoots when I knew she’d be there. This wasn’t difficult. Her show was on at 4:30pm, right after school.
In 1965, when she played the lead in “The Visit” with Purdue University’s Equity company, under the direction of the head of the theater department, Joe Stockdale, I asked my parents if we could go. Her performance was incredible and I wanted to work with Stockdale. I attended Purdue’s theater workshop program in the summer of ‘67, and a year later I was a freshman in the theater department. The schedule was incredibly busy but I was thrilled to be performing with the Equity company while I was also doing student productions.
Then in ’69, the first man walked on the moon, and most of the funding for the theater program was diverted to the Purdue’s engineering program. My friends at Clowes Hall suggested I attend Butler, and I did, but only stayed a year. And then transferred to Indiana Central University (now Indianapolis University), where I was allowed to run my own theater company in the basement of one of the men’s dormitories. I also spent a semester at Oxford, England.
After I graduated in ‘72, I moved to New York City, and I was lucky to almost immediately begin performing Off Off Broadway, then Off Broadway, at regional and dinner theaters, and in bus-and-truck and national tours of “Cabaret,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Lovers and Other Strangers,” “The Rainmaker,” “Company,” and plays and musicals that never have been seen again. I also worked on soap operas, television, film, and radio commercials.
In the early 1980s, I was accetped as an AIR (artist-in-residence) by NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts). This allowed me to travel to schools throughout the state teaching theater and sometimes directing full productions. I also became an AIR in New Jersey, Utah and Wyoming. For my work, I was selected as one of two hundred artists from all arts disciplines to be listed in the “Directory of Community Artists” published by the National Endowment for the Arts.
At that point, I, along with many others who wanted to take more control of their careers, decided to write and perform a one-person show. Back in the 1970’s, an abundance of one-person shows began on and Off Broadway. Julie Harris shined in “Belle of Amherst” and James Whitmore starred in “Will Rogers U.S.A.,” “Give ‘em Hell, Harry” and “Bully.” Their performances, among others, made a deep impact on me.
I had always been interested in the Transcendentalists in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1800’s, and began researching the American novelist and poet, Louisa May Alcott. The New York Public Library with its two lions guarding the entrance representing patience and fortitude became an integral place for my research. I invited Richard Harden to direct my show, as the script went through various drafts, and when I thought the show was ready, I had my first performance at St. Leo’s College in Florida in 1980. followed by the Smithsonian Institution, the Arvada Center in Colorado and other locations.
Then I performed with my husband, Lee O’Connor in “Not Above a Whisper,” about Dorothea Lynde Dix’s struggles and triumphs in seeking better treatment for the indigent mentally ill. It had been commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, and we traveled throughout the country. I then put together “Eve’s Diary” based on Mark Twain’s writings about the ‘Original Woman,’ performing in New York City as part of Womenkind’s solo festival, and as Edna Ferber in another one-person show. In 2000, at East Lynne Theater Company, I also created a one-person play about Catharine Beecher, to compliment Emma Palzere-Rae’s one-person show about Harriett Beecher Stowe.
It had been back in 1980, when I received a phone call from Richard Harden, saying that a friend, Warren Kliewer, the founding artistic director of East Lynne Theater Company (ELTC), had a show cancel on him due to an actor’s ill health. Harden thought my Louisa May Alcott play would be an excellent replacement, and suggested this to Kliewer, who booked it.
It’s hard to believe I’m still part of ELTC thirty-five years later. I served on the board for ten years, and my husband stage-managed for the theater, and I acted in several productions. When Kliewer lost his battle with cancer in 1998, Board President Frank Smith asked me to become the next artistic director.
In 1980, Warren Kliewer founded ELTC, naming the professional Equity company after a popular late-nineteenth century American play, based, ironically, on an English novel – “East Lynne” was the “Downton Abbey” of its day. After extensive research, Kliewer had discovered that there were no professional theater companies in America dedicated to the performance, study and preservation of America’s theatrical heritage. He wrote, “In almost any other civilized country in the world, audiences can see performances drawn from the 16th century, even farther back in some countries. But no other company in the United States is attempting to revive plays and entertainments of our own past.”
A Mennonite, born in Mountain Lake, Minnesota in 1931, Kliewer had a career in teaching, acting and directing, had several of his plays published, wrote short stories and poems. He had also served as production director for the National Humanities Series, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, in Princeton, NJ. His extensive acting work included the only New York production of Peter Weiss’s “The Investigation.” For four seasons at ELTC’s beginning, it operated year-round in the Five Corners Library in Jersey City before moving to The Williams Carlos Williams Center in Rutherford, NJ.
From the beginning, touring productions were always part of ELTC’s programming, with shows going to other theaters, museums, and libraries as far west as Colorado, down to Florida, and up to Maine. Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities (MAC) in Cape May, NJ contacted Kliewer about booking shows for special events, and in 1987, the musical “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “Yellow Wallpaper” based on the novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first appeared in this seaside resort. My own one-woman “Lou: The Remarkable Miss Alcott,” through ELTC, was brought down by MAC the following year.
At the suggestion of MAC’s executive director Michael Zuckerman, Kliewer brought ELTC to Cape May in 1989 for its first full season. The company performed in a variety of Cape May venues. Since 1999, thanks to the hospitality of The First Presbyterian Church of Cape May, ELTC has been able to continue to perform in this seaside resort.
The plays of O’Neill, Crothers, Kaufman, and other worthy American writers of over eighty years ago continue to grace our stage, as well as thought-provoking world and New Jersey premieres based on American history and literature. Over eighty different shows later, for me as artistic director, I’ve not exhausted the exciting repertoire that’s out there. I don’t have the luxury, like many artistic directors, of seeing a show on Broadway and then remounting it a few years later. Like Kliewer, I’m more of an archeologist – digging into archives and researching and reading, sometimes thinking I’ve found a script only to discover that I’ve only found a fragment of a script, and the search continues.
Also, like Kliewer, I search for the relevance for today, of a play originally written decades earlier or of a new play based on important past events. As always, a good script is a good script and can stand the test of time. If this were not so, we would no longer produce Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov, and Shaw. But there is also worth in American plays written by Langdon Mitchell, Alice Gerstenberg, and John L. Balderston, all of whom have been represented by ELTC.
ELTC’s shows for 2016 include “Mr. Lincoln” written by Herbert Mitgang and starring Tom Byrn. Due to its successful run last year, it’s returning for two weeks in May before it goes to Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble in Pennsylvania, followed by “Rodgers’ Romance,” a musical revue of the songs of Rogders and Hart, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, conceived and directed by David-Michael Kenney; “Dracula” (1927) by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston (American) based on the novel by Bram Stoker; “Biography” (1932) by S. N. Behrman; and our NBC radio-style productions featuring detectives Sherlock Holmes and Nick Carter. Since 2007, I’ve adapted the Christmas stories of American writers and performed them in storytelling fashion for the annual holiday show, with this year’s show titled “Yuletide Tales."
And, just like when I was five years old, I relish seeing the works of others. It’s always about the storytelling. •2016
Written exclusively for “The Soul of the American Actor.”
GAYLE STAHLHUTH Artistic Director of East Lynne Theater Company is an actress playwright, producer and director. She has appeared in Off-Broadway and regional theater, television and on radio. Her plays have been performed at several venues including the New York City International Fringe Festival, Samuel French One-Act Festival, MTC, Arvada Center in Denver.She performed with ELTC from 1987-1997, was on the Board and became Artistic Director in 1999. She has performed her one-woman shows as Louisa May Alcott, Catharine Beecher, Edna Ferber, “Edna,” from Kate Chopin's The Awakening, "Eve" from the writings of Mark Twain, and as herself in her aubiographical "Goin' Home." She has received commissions from The National Portrait Gallery, the Missouri Humanities Council, Theatreworks USA, and other theaters.