Today, I would like to invite you to join me and a few very good friends for an experience which both entertains and inspires, and which supports young artists from our area.
The occasion will be two weeks from this evening, Jan. 28, at 6 p.m. It will take place at the Robert H. Jackson Center, at 305 E. Fourth St., in downtown Jamestown.
At that time, the Chautauqua New York Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters will offer a light supper, including wine and dessert, followed by a performance of the play ''Love Letters,'' by Buffalo playwright A. R. Gurney. All money earned, beyond paying expenses, will go to be part of the annual scholarships which the chapter gives to talented young visual and performing artists.
Actors Jill Keating and Robert Plyler will perform A. R. Gurney's play 'Love Letters' at the Robert H. Jackson Center on Jan. 28. The performance is a fundraiser to support the scholarships for young artists from the Chautauqua New York Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters.
It is an occasion which I would be honored to call to your attention in any circumstance, but it is especially important to me, because I'm smack dab in the middle of it. The Gurney play has only two actors, and I'm going to be one of them. Mayville resident Jill Keating, who appears through the kind courtesy of Actor's Equity Association, is the main reason to come. I'd go just to see and hear her.
Let me tell you the basic facts of the performance, followed by some information about the play, some about my leading lady, and then share some of my thoughts and feelings about being on the other side of the footlights:
Tickets to the performance cost $30. That includes the light supper with wine, if you're legally eligible for it, and dessert, plus admission for one person to the play, which will take place in the Carl Cappa Theater. The supper will be served in the beautiful public rooms of the Jackson Center, and if you haven't seen them yet, you're in for a treat. The Cappa Theater is at the very back of the center, at the intersection of Sixth Street and Prendergast Avenue.
Now named for Carl Cappa, who was a great supporter of the founding of the Jackson Center, the theater has had a number of incarnations in our community's history. It was for many years the home of the Little Theatre of Jamestown, the ancestor of the Lucille Ball Little Theatre. It was home to the Shoestring Players for many years, and was an important facility for the Scottish Rite Consistory.
The theater seats only about 200 guests, which makes it perfect for the intimate quality of the play. It also makes it advisable to reserve your seats early. Because it will involve some planning for the caterer to buy and prepare the food, it will probably not be possible to offer tickets at the last minute or at the door, unless possibly someone buys tickets and then is unable to attend, in which case someone might get a last-minute opportunity.
You can purchase tickets in person or by mail at the administrative office of the Jackson Center. Their hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. The center is able to accept cash or personal checks for ticket purchase.
You may also reserve tickets by check or using a major credit card by phoning 763-0578. Reserved tickets will be held at the door.
I'm told by people who know these things that $15 of the ticket price may be claimed as a charitable donation on your 2012 income taxes.
There was a time, before Twitter and other such electronic media turned the language to garble and the highways to high-risk passages ruled by distracted dominants, when people wrote letters to one another.
Many of us who were alive in those ancient days hunger passionately for them. Every few years, I look back through my collection of letters and read again, in their own handwriting, the news that my sister is expecting the birth of her first son and my best friend has joined the U.S. Marines, and a wealth of such information, which has come together to form my life.
''Love Letters'' has only two characters. It involves no scenery, no costumes, no music nor dancing. Two adult actors, one man and one woman, sit side-by-side at a table - or sometimes at two tables - and read the letters that their characters have written to one another, from when they were in about second grade, until well into middle age.
The fact that the actors don't need to memorize all those words reduces by weeks the amount of time needed to prepare the play, which partially explains why it has become so popular. But it isn't the main reason.
Author Gurney, whose published plays number well over 40, chooses virtually perfect words to paint a picture of children required by their parents to write thank-you notes and letters of apologies for minor errors, and the same characters as teens, experiencing elements of life which they don't yet understand and aren't sure they can cope with, and yet also, as adults, hungering for some closeness with another person who understands the frustrations and self-doubts and the seeming irrational qualities of life.
The characters' names are Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III. Both characters have parents with money and social position, although Melissa has far more money and far less family support than her friend.
Melissa has never learned that sometimes it pays not to just blurt out whatever she is thinking. Andy has never learned that some things are so important that they ought to be recognized and even talked about, even if it might pay not to do so.
The thing I love about the play is the fact that these two people care so much and so purely about one another, even though they're both perfectly aware of each other's shortcomings. Melissa tries to blunt her emotional pain with drink, and she sometimes seeks the attention she needs in her life through outrageous behavior.
Andy is a stuffed shirt, who feels entitled to judge others even when they lack the nurturing and the lessons and the family connections which make him successful in a traditional sense. His greatest strength is his recognition of Melissa's nobility and her need for him.
Melissa doesn't want to write. She wants Andy to phone her, or to come in person. Andy loves to write. He loves the quest for the perfect word to describe a situation or an emotion. He tastes his words as he commits them to the page, while Melissa blurts hers out from her heart.
The play was first performed in 1988. The actors who have performed it range from Elizabeth Taylor and Sigourney Weaver and Colleen Dewhurst, to Jason Robards and James Earl Jones and Christopher Reeve.
Always, an actor starts with the character which the playwright has created, and melds it with his own feelings and experiences and personality. Jill and I invite you to get to know Melissa and Andrew and to learn how they emerge through our embodiment of them.
The performance at the Jackson Center offers what may be a last opportunity for area audiences to enjoy the performing talents of Jill Keating - at least for a while.
She moved to our area in 1990, having married John Keating, who chose at that time to give up his career with several Broadway and off-Broadway performing companies, and returned to his home in our area, where he originally was a writer in the sports department of The Post-Journal, then accepted a teaching position in the South County.
John Keating has been at work for a number of years on a musical drama dealing with the Irish patriot Parnell, which he hopes to have produced in New York City one of these days.
The couple had a daughter, and Jill devoted her time to operating the Pointe Chautauqua Dance Studio, and to teaching with the Department of Dance at Chautauqua Institution. Gifted as an actor and a singer, in addition to her dancing, from time to time, she has staged small productions around the area, including last February, when she succeeded in tempting me out of retirement as an actor with the chance to perform ''Love Letters'' with her in Mayville. The production sold out, and was so positively received by audiences that the Arts and Letters Society asked us to repeat it in Jamestown as a way to earn some of the money which goes into their many scholarships.
Her daughter has left to attend college, and Jill has decided she would enjoy re-entering the theatrical life. She has been auditioning for professional touring companies and other opportunities, which mean that she has no plans at this time for additional performing in our area.
Ms. Keating was born in Ann Arbor, Mich. She started dance training at the age of 9. While she was still in high school, she was accepted into the training program of the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto.
She attended Point Park College in Pittsburgh, where she received a bachelor's degree in dance, and after graduation, danced with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, both in Heinz Hall, and on national and international tours. Her roles for PBT included Juliet's Nurse in "Romeo and Juliet," Berthe in "Giselle," and the Queen Mother in "Swan Lake."
Deciding that her talents might be better suited to musical comedy than to classical ballet, she launched a career, performing as dance captain for ''Damn Yankees'' ''Big River,'' ''Grease'' and ''Showboat,'' and playing the principal role of Miss Hannigan in ''Annie.''
We were lucky to get her agreement to perform one last time in our area, and she alone is more than reason enough to attend the performance at the Jackson Center.
WHAT, ME ACT?
There was a time when I had a great hunger to perform on stage. When I was in school and in college, I was frequently to be found either acting, singing or working on some technical position behind the scenes of one play or another.
I do think that acting is the major requirement of a successful teaching career. Many people think that acting is pretending to be someone or something. I never felt that way.
Acting is intensely studying a character, absorbing the character's personality into one's own, and then allowing an audience to see inside yourself, past your normal defenses, so that they understand who you are and why you do the things you do.
Nearly all of us are trained from the cradle not to allow people to see the depth of our true thoughts and feelings. I once did an interview with a young actor who was playing the young lead in Peter Shaffer's play ''Equus,'' a role which required him to be on stage completely nude for a long period of time.
I remember asking him how he found the courage to do that, and have always remembered his reply: ''Not long ago, I played the title role in Shakespeare's 'Richard III.' I had to let the audience see me wanting wealth and power so much that I would betray my country and my friends and even murder young children. Compared to that, just the facts of my anatomy aren't nearly such a big deal,'' he said.
For true lovers of theater, the experience is a soul-inspiring event. It is a seeking for understanding and truth which rivals the experience of attending church. For those who need spirituality, it is vastly superior to many church experiences.
The most difficult thing about teaching, for me, was having dozens of people with me, all through my work day, many of whom were actively seeking to worm their way into areas of personality which had nothing to do with history or literature, for the purpose of doing harm.
If one mentioned in passing that one didn't like a particular color, certain students would wear that exact color, day after day. If one forgot to place a dot over a letter ''i,'' on the blackboard, or if one mispronounced a word or said something less than elegantly, those little flubs would be treasured and be spewed forth at the most embarrassing moments possible.
Like the Melissa character, they were in pain, and they felt that they needed to inflict pain on others - especially on those who sat in judgment on their work, with grade book and red pen - in an effort to blunt their own pain. They didn't always say ''You think you're so smart ...'' in those words, but they often said it in their own way.
After more than three decades of those experiences, I had completely lost any interest in exposing my thoughts and feelings in public. I stopped playing the piano more than 20 years ago, and stopped singing almost completely about 10 years ago.
Readers are probably familiar with the commercials, where they show maimed puppies and suffering kittens, and they suggest that the only thing preventing the health and recovery of those poor creatures is our unwillingness to mail in our dollars. The ones showing starving human infants with flies landing on their eyes are even more cruel.
I want to help the puppies and especially the children. I want to improve the hospital and preserve our cultural heritage. I want to advance education and save the environment and support the best candidates to advance our various governments and conquer all the diseases which afflict mankind, and a million other such causes. But not even Bill Gates, with his billions, is able to do it, much less my far more modest resources.
The National Society of Arts and Letters was founded just after World War II to create scholarship opportunities for students of the arts. The national organization and members of its many local chapters use their talents, their resources and their ability to capture the public's attention, to help as many young singers and dancers and actors and sculptors, etc., to fight their way to a career in the arts.
Our local chapter was started by Juanita Wallace Jackson, a singer and actress who moved to our area from the area of our nation's capital, where she was active in their chapter.
The idea took particular root among the people of professional lifestyles who have come to live year-round at Chautauqua, although there are many active members from Jamestown, Fredonia and other parts of our county.
Such area artists as JoAnn Falletta, Vincent O'Neill, Jay Lesenger, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and many more have agreed to serve as members of the chapter's advisory board.
The chapter was chartered in the summer of 2010, and in its year of life has already offered scholarship competitions in singing, dance choreography and visual arts. Winners of our local competition went on to take first place at the national level in singing, second place in the national competition in visual art, and, I believe, second place nationally in choreography.
The chapter is actively working at this time on competitions in three more areas. Naturally, the biggest struggle is finding the money to pay for local winners to travel to advanced competitions, and the like.
I can't give the organization more money than I'm already giving them, but when Ms. Jackson suggested that I could earn a nice sum of money by repeating my performance as Andy in ''Love Letters,'' I agreed to do it.
I wish you would consider membership in NSAL and I wish you would consider the local chapter among the many worthy organizations that are perpetually in competition for your money. And, I wish you would come to the play on Jan. 28, to experience that artistry which will be demonstrated, and to help make it possible for young musical, dramatic and visual artists to take one more step toward a career.
Please and thank you.