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From page to stage
The winner of the Fort Wayne Civic’s first playwright contest meets her characters for the first time
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
For nearly 25 years, playwright Nancy Carlson has known a group of five women who take an annual vacation to a run-down lake resort. But she just met them, in the flesh, a few weeks ago, when rehearsals for her original play The Ladies In Cabin 10 began under the direction of Jeff Moore.
The Ladies In Cabin 10 won first prize in the Fort Wayne Civic Theater’s first Northeast Indiana playwright contest, earning Carlson a cash prize and a two-weekend run as part of the Civic’s “Off Main” series at the Allen County Public Library. The play makes its debut Friday, June 4, during the Northeast Indiana Playwright festival.
Carlson first wrote a version of The Ladies In Cabin 10 back in 1985. A frequent actor with the Arena Dinner Theater and the author of several children’s musicals (her children’s play The Magic Pebble was named Best Children’s Play in Denver), Carlson got some good feedback from The Ladies In Cabin 10, but wound up stashing it away in a closet for many years. “I had to put my stage career ‘on hold’ while I went out to make a living,” Carlson told us last January.
Carlson lived in Denver and Santa Monica for a while, and heard about the Civic’s contest shortly after moving back to the area. She broke out The Ladies In Cabin 10, and discovered that… well, she really didn’t think it was very good. She submitted it after a quick but thorough re-write, and won first prize over 30 other scripts submitted for the contest.
The Ladies In Cabin 10 is about five middle-aged women, all long-time friends, who get together every summer at a lake resort for a week filled with talk, drinking, and bridge — “away from husbands, mothers, children and problems.” This particular summer, they decide their routine needs shaking up, and turn their attention towards Gus (played by Michael Young), the owner of the down-at-heel resort. “Gus is as dilapidated and in need of his repair as his cabins,” says director Jeff Moore. “They basically decide to give him a make-over, like My Fair Lady. Kind of turning the flower girl into a princess.”
As a set-up, there’s nothing particularly out-of-the-ordinary or shocking about The Ladies In Cabin 10 — it’s a story that celebrates the virtues of friendship. The play is about the relationships between these women, and the story itself seems to serve as a means of highlighting the dialogue and exchanges between the characters. “This is very much a character-driven play,” Moore says. “It’s full of whip-smart, really funny dialogue. The characters are all friends, and they call each other out on their flaws and their foibles. It’s like where you’re sitting around with friends and a couple people get on a roll… it’s that wonderful stuff that you wished you had written down.”
“There’s a real sense of familiarity with some of the characters and themes (in The Ladies In Cabin 10),” Moore continues. “But it’s told in a way that’s very warm. There’s a real generosity of spirit about it. Sometimes we neglect those little moments in our lives — a moment of surprise, discovery or awareness that comes to us — because we’re looking for the dramatic thing that turns our lives around. And those moments are what this play is about.”
Moore, who has done his share of avant-garde and edgy theater, says that one of the things he really liked about The Ladies In Cabin 10 was that Carlson simply did a great job realizing the old-fashioned virtues of storytelling and drama — great dialog, vibrant, interesting characters, and a timeless theme that avoids becoming trite or pat.
Carlson and Moore met early on, before casting had even taken place, to discuss changes they wanted to make in the script. This isn’t the first time in the director’s chair for Moore, a theater instructor at IPFW and an actor with many Fort Wayne productions to his credit, but he says turning The Ladies In Cabin 10 from an accomplished script to a full production presents some particular challenges for everyone involved. “Locally, we’re usually doing shows that already have a track record,” he says. “There’s a template and the script has been set, and you trust that all the ‘bugs’ in the script were ironed out during whatever successful production it had that makes it worth doing. So you’re getting a really good template for what the production should be like. But we don’t have that template. We’ve got a script.”
Carlson had some changes she wanted to make, and says Moore liked “about 95%” of her suggestions. Moore had a few ideas of his own, but neither thought significant changes were necessary. “Almost everything we dealt with were very small details,” says Carlson. “No huge character changes. No epiphanies. I trust Jeff a lot. He has good instincts. He’s an actor, so he brings that same introspection and understanding to being a director.”
But the detail work, the tweaking, continued after they had found their cast. For Carlson, seeing these characters that have existed on the page for so long finally become real has been an exciting — and sometimes nerve-racking — process. It’s probably pretty shocking for a playwright to hear those words spoken aloud, and have your characters taking on personas that you may not have imagined for them, though Carlson says the latter has actually been one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of the process. Carlson says she’s reluctant to single out one particular actor, since The Ladies In Cabin 10 is very much an ensemble piece, but as an example of a character who did something completely unexpected once an actor made her real, she sites Violet. Violet was just sort of “there” in the script, just one of the five women, but actress JoAnne Kirchner has made her really come alive. “(JoAnne) has great comic timing. She’s a great actress, and she brings this marvelous flakiness to Violet.”
She saw a similar transformation happen with Marcella, the group’s ringleader. Marcella was always intended to be a major role, but actor Susan Domer adds a new sarcasm to the character, and a certain presence that wasn’t in the script. Domer says that Marcella might come across as a little bossy, and the challenge for her was to show how Marcella could be “in charge” without being overbearing. “Marcella has four kids, and the way that Nancy has written her you can just tell that she really enjoys challenges, wagering, playing games, coming up with ways to keep people occupied,” Domer says.
Another facet of Marcella’s character that isn’t explicitly stated in the script is that, despite her role as the instigator and ringleader, she seems more attached to the past than the other characters, something Domer believes comes from the fact that Marcella’s husband has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “But none of that is spelled out, and you have to discover that by really working with the script,” she says. “Bringing that out doesn’t necessarily require a line change.”
As an actress, Domer relishes the chance to explore uncharted territory with her character. “I really appreciate the opportunity to start fresh,” she says. “I do this as an avocation, and if it really were my vocation out in the real world and I was a paid actress, I might have the chance to do this kind of thing more often. But this is my opportunity to get a little taste of what it must be like for people who do this for a living. I love the process of rehearsal. I love to just try as many possible ways of doing something before we set it and say ‘that’s what we’re going with.’”
The rest of the cast includes Maggie Kohl Hunter as Amanda; Lori Leonard as Dorothy (Leonard has done two stints as Mrs. Potts in local productions of Beauty & the Beast); and Judy Whitney as Alice.
Though Carlson says that there are “probably” aspects of herself in all these characters, she has never had this particular experience — she’s never been part of a group of women who go away every year for a week. But she thinks she’s tapped into something. “The funniest thing that has happened is that three different women came up to me and said they had read a synopsis of the play and said ‘you know, my friends and I do that every year. We go away for a week together’.”
Carlson will admit to a little trepidation, whatever the playwright’s equivalent of opening night jitters is called. “This is what I didn’t expect: I’m really realizing how many people are investing their time and faith in this,” she says, laughing. “All these people are giving up their nights to come rehearse — the director, the library, the Civic… And now I’m thinking ‘Holy Christmas! What if this play stinks? What if nobody laughs?’”
With the play’s debut approaching quickly, Moore and Carlson have decided that the tweaking and detail work is now over. In fact, both concede that it might be time for Carlson to stop coming to rehearsals and let the director and cast do their thing. Carlson, who is currently working on an original Christmas musical for First Presbyterian Church with Betsy Chapman arranging the music, doesn’t mind the idea at all. “It’s been very exciting and very rewarding, but frankly, I think it’s time to let those characters go.”
The Ladies In Cabin 10 makes its debut on Friday, June 4 at 8 PM at the Allen County Public Library as part of the Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival. The play will also be performed that weekend on Saturday, June 5 at 8 PM, and Sunday, June 6 at 2 PM. A post show discussion follows each performance.
The Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival will also feature staged readings of the contest’s second and third place winners — Papillons by Ruth (Tyndall) Baker; and Asleep In the Arms of God by Jay Duffer.
See the Festival schedule for details.
Additional performances of The Ladies In Cabin 10 take place on Friday, June 11 at 8 PM; Saturday, June 12 at 8 PM; and Sunday, June 13 at 2 PM
The Civic Theatre Off Main Presents The Ladies In Cabin 10
Allen County Public Library Auditorium
Friday and Saturday June 11 and 12 at 8 pm.
Sunday June 13 at 2 pm
Tickets: Adults $15; Ages 23 and under $10, Sunday Sr. Matinees $12.
Box office (260) 424-5220
Business Office (260) 422-8641 x221
For festival event prices and tickets, please see the schedule.