You might expect to hear fist-pumping music and shrieks of angst at a rock concert, particularly if punk music is involved. You might even expect to see blood—albeit fake blood. But most people would hardly expect to see all of the above in Wilmington. Or, to be more specific, in a theater on the Wilmington Riverfront.
Inside preparations for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Inside preparations for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
It’s all part of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the rock musical that will serve as the finale to City Theater Company’s 2011-2012 season. The production, performed in the round at OperaDelaware, takes a comedic yet powerful approach to the life of America’s seventh president and the founding of the Democratic Party.
“One thing I love about the show, is that it’s very ‘in your face,’” said Joe Trainor, the production’s music director. “It’s loud and big and it’s supposed to kind of shake you.”
That’s nothing new for City Theater Company (CTC), which has been shaking things up since 1993, when it debuted at O’Friel’s Irish Pub in Wilmington. Don’t expect community theater. “City Theater Company is vastly different,” said Michelle Kramer-Fitzgerald, president of the board of directors. “You, as the audience, are right in the thick of things and sometimes involved in the action.”
You can’t do that at the DuPont Theatre or the Wilmington Drama League. “They’re not built for that,” she said. “They do their thing well, but we’re meant to be viewed by small audiences.” With about 100 people in the audience, the actors can visually connect with audience members and, sometimes, even touch them.
“It’s so powerful to me to see the raw energy and their emotions,” said Kramer-Fitzgerald, who often gets teary-eyed.
Not all the productions are hidden gems like “Bloody Blood Andrew Jackson.” CTC has also presented well-known productions. The approach, though, strays left of center. “You cast it in a nontraditional way,” said Michael Gray, the producing artistic director. “You’re inspired in your design and approach.” Yes, CTC performed “Hair,” but they included the nude scene that made it so famous when it was first on Broadway. In “Sweeney Todd,” the actors were dressed as British punk rockers
Gray, Tom Shade and Jon Cooper—who met as students at the University of Delaware—founded City Theater in 1993. After graduation, Gray and Shade worked together at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia. When Gray was accepted into a PhD program in psychology at the University of Maryland, he wanted to keep his link to theater. The founders selected Wilmington as CTC’s home because it was between Philadelphia and College Park, Md.
During its first season, CTC presented an evening of three short plays at O’Friel’s Irish Pub. The next season, it also held performances in OperaDelaware’s space. The Baby Grand Theatre served as CTC’s home for seven seasons, but it never felt right.
“It is very traditional, and everything we were about got lost there,” Gray explained. “We struggled to try and figure that space out.” The expected layout—the audience facing a stage with a backdrop—creates what Gray and other CTC members call “a fourth wall.” “It’s not how we see theater,” Gray said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
CTC, which returned to OperaDelaware in 2007, is the primary occupant of the space. In effect, CTC is the resident theater company of OperaDelaware, Kramer-Fitzgerald said. The black-painted room CTC inhabits at OperaDelaware is flexible; things move according to the production. The one constant is that all perfomances are in the round. (Technically, it’s more a rectangle.) During “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” some audience members will sit at tables and chairs and become part of the performance. There’s also a working bar in the play.
On a recent Wednesday evening, the cast gathered to rehearse. Wearing red boots, a scarf as a headband and a long gray jacket, Righteous Jolly from Bucks County, Pa. portrayed a rebellious Andrew Jackson. The actor is a newcomer to CTC. “It’s all worth it,” he said of the hour-plus drive one-way to get to rehearsal. “This feels good to me to be with this production.”
He and Kerry McElrone, who plays Jackson’s wife, Rachel, rehearsed a scene in which Jackson cuts himself to unleash mental anguish. Gray, still wearing his tie from his day job, blocked the scene while other cast members watched. Everyone attends rehearsals. There is no backstage, so performers are “on” all the time.
Many of the cast members also do more than act. McElrone, who played Sally Bowles in CTC’s “Cabaret,” also writes the website copy and press releases. Kevin Regan and Joel Rickenbach design video for the productions when needed. Vicki Neal and Richard Kendrick design lights and sets.
The cast and crew receive a nominal fee, although it’s not on par with Equity wages. “It’s not paying my mortgage,” Gray joked. “But even actors in Philly work other jobs.”
Each year, CTC puts on two mainstage productions and a community series that celebrates a local playwright’s work. How does CTC decide what to stage? Sometimes it’s a play Gray always wanted to do. Others are the result of recommendations. “Ultimately, it rests with me to choose the season,” Gray said. “Does there have to be a musical? No. Will there typically be a musical? Yes.”
In the beginning, a season offered up to four annual productions. The reduction is due to the higher cost of putting on a play. To be sure, the economy has had an effect. “It’s tough out there,” Gray said. “But I think we have a unique product and style that you will not see anywhere else. That uniqueness definitely helps us sell tickets.”