In 1995, apparently I had the chutzpah and energy to co-found a summer theatre company that produced new and contemporary work in a town that had no history of professional theatre. At the time, I was also working at New York Theater Workshop and we were producing RENT. I was the assistant director. One of the cast members, Gilles Chaisson, was an old friend as well as a founding member of this summer theater. He knew of a charming new musical called Barbara’s Blue Kitchen (BBK) and suggested it to me as something to produce in our two-night series. So, in our first season, Lori Fischer came to the Adirondack Theater Festival (ATF) in the Glens Falls, New York area to do a two-day workshop of a musical she had written. It was about the community of people that visited a diner called Barbara’s Blue Kitchen in Watertown, Tennessee. At ATF, our brand-new audience completely fell in love with this small-town musical. As did I. From that moment on, Lori and I set out to work on developing it as a full musical production. Many drafts and readings later, I directed the ATF production in our 2000 season. It’s been over fifteen years, and to this day, longtime audience members still tell me that Barbara’s Blue Kitchen is one of their top-five favorite shows at ATF. I’m never surprised at this comment because Lori is brilliant at writing characters that have a deep emotional life, and are also really funny. She can pull on your heartstrings while tickling the funny bone. This is a combination that is extraordinarily hard to find and one that hits the audience right in the gut.
As a director, I knew I found a writer whose work I truly respected and clicked with. So in between the duties in our lives — for me, overseeing RENT on Broadway and directing it in other countries, and for Lori, acting in other shows as well as working on new writing projects in theatre, film, and even children’s books — we kept BBK moving.
After ATF’s production, we were invited to Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and once there, the show benefited from a longer run and continued to resonate deeply with the audiences. A few years later, our next stop was Off Broadway at the Lambs Theater on West 44th Street. We were excited to see how New York City connected to these small-town characters. It was clear that no matter where Barbara’s Blue Kitchen was produced it spoke to the audience. One NYC review said it perfectly: this musical “is a little miracle of art and heart.”
As the years have passed since we first did Barbara’s Blue Kitchen, I moved on from the Adirondack Theater Festival —although I’m proud to say, it is still thriving and producing new work all these years later. As I continued to direct many projects in NYC and around the country, Lori and I continued to collaborate. I’ll never forget when she told me the idea she had to write a musical about two sisters on the verge of country singer stardom, but are brought down when after performing at the Grand Ole Opry, one of the sisters, who is drunk, crashes the tour bus into a pet store and kills puppies. As the character Lashley says, “You can’t come back from killing puppies,” so they are forced to move back home to run the family dry cleaning business. While there, the local reverend gets them to sing at funerals. The funeral songs are tailor-made for the deceased, allowing for some of the funniest songs in musical theatre! But in true Lori Fischer style it’s mixed with the emotions of returning to your hometown as an adult, with failure in your rearview mirror. She co-wrote the music with Don Chaffer, and it’s fantastic. The musical is titled The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers, or what we like to call “Sparkley.” Of course development began with the usual rounds of readings and new drafts, and new songs. But once it was ready, I approached the Artistic Director at Capital Repertory in Albany, New York with Sparkley and after reading it, they were hooked — and in 2013 they produced the world premiere. In 2016 it went on and had another successful production at the Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville, Tennessee.
Our most recent collaboration was just last year when we worked together on a beautiful production of Lori’s play Petie, a powerful story about a family affected by a father’s mental illness and the tragedy that strikes when it’s left unchecked. Theater East produced it at the 30th Street Theater. One review said it is a cross between Rabbit Hole and The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
In all this history between us, I’ve left out one very unique part of our collaboration. Before Lori was ever a writer, she was an actress. She would be the first to tell you she started writing her own material because she knew she would be perfect for the part. Many people would say an actor shouldn’t be in their own material, especially a first production. I understand that idea, and it would certainly make it simpler for a director in rehearsals to have a separate writer AND an actress, but in working with Lori it’s clear that the reason she can make rewrites and figure out the next draft of the play is because she is in it — she can feel it from acting inside of the play. I’ve watched it happen right before my eyes and it’s impressive. I believe many people are blessed with the abilities of more than one talent, and I believe that should be encouraged.
I didn’t know when we first met all those years ago that there would be such a great artistic connection between Lori Fischer and Martha Banta, but it has been a wholly satisfying experience to work with someone who’s so passionate and talented at what they do. I’m so glad we met in that diner all those years ago.