In 2016, I took over as the producing director/CEO of the Cumberland County Playhouse from longtime producing director Jim Crabtree. Jim’s parents, Paul and Mary Crabtree, started the Playhouse in 1965, and Jim had been in charge for the past thirty-three years. Jim Crabtree had always been an advocate for “new works,” as both Jim and his father were writers of musicals and plays. Through the years Jim taught me the value of supporting and helping to nurture new works and writers. So when I took over, my team wanted to find places in our seasons for New Works.
We had had the great fortune to have met and worked with Lori Fischer on Barbara’s Blue Kitchen in 2015, and she approached us about her show The Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers. From the first read I loved Sparkley, and then hearing the music I was sold 100 percent that we wanted to produce this show, and I knew I wanted to direct it. Lori has such a way of storytelling that can speak to any audience. Her words and themes make you laugh out loud and then wipe away a tear of compassion. Both the artistic director, Britt Hancock, and I had an instant bond with Lori and producing her work has been a passion project for all involved. During the rehearsal process and run, here are five things I learned from Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers:
Music heals the soul: Lori and Don Chaffer’s music is absolutely stunning. Poignant, moving, and at times hysterical — all things that make a great musical. I have always believed that music has healing power, and Lori and Don’s music cannot only heal an audience, but also transport an audience. One of my favorite lyrics in the show is in the final song “To Build a Beautiful Life”: It takes a lotta small steps to build a beautiful life.
Respect the process: We all know how personal working on a show becomes to the director, cast, and especially the writer. Many people have related it to giving life to something only to have people judge it. This is both rewarding and heartbreaking. Working with Lori and Don in the rehearsal room was such an excellent learning experience. Lori’s process was twice as intense; not only was she watching her work be brought to life, she was also playing one of the lead characters. It was humbling to watch her be so open and willing to allow me as the director to make changes and suggestions, and for her to embrace them as the playwright. This process can be a delicate balance to walk, but as long as you respect each other and the process, and know that there are days that could be tough or even disagreements between you and the actor and you and the playwright. That’s why communication and respect is always the key!
Allow everyone to have a voice: I always loved watching Lori and her castmates interact with each other. Together with Lori and Don, we created an atmosphere in the rehearsal room and during the run of show where everyone had a voice in the creation/growth of their characters and the show. We learned so much and were able to dive deep into the heart and soul of this family and their story. For the ten years I worked on and off Broadway on several new shows or first revivals this process was a given, but in a regional theatre setting many times there is not enough time to have this aspect of the process. It was great to have that NYC feeling and it taught me how important it is even in a regional setting to find and take the time to allow everyone to have a voice. It gives the stories we tell a stronger connection to the cast and audience.
Things change: I think we all love live theatre because by nature each performance is fresh and has a newness to it. It’s multiple human beings reacting to each other, so naturally things will change. That is never truer than with a new work that you are developing. As unsettling as it can be at times, roll with the punches, embrace the changes, and you will always see something from a different angle and most times make something better than before.
It’s gotta have heart: There are so many wonderful things to say about Lori’s Sparkley Clean Funeral Singers, but the biggest thing for me was the show’s HEART. This story is so personal and real. The battles the Lashley family are fighting hit home with every demographic of your audience. Addiction, Alzheimer’s, Loss, Love, and the point in our lives where the children become the adults caring for their parents. Everyone is either dealing with one of these battles or has had experience with each. That’s a powerful tool to have in a show that also makes you laugh and smile. Together with Lori Fischer and Don Chaffer, our cast and crew created a beautiful piece of theatre that remains one of my favorites.