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By KAREN ROSEN
Bland Simpson and Tommy Thompson must have
looked mighty peculiar to anyone witnessing their early
morning wanderings around Thompson's neighborhood.
They got their exercise not by jogging, but by jotting
down ideas in a notebook and laughing hysterically.
'I'm sure we looked like vagrants," Simpson said.
'Maybe we looked like appraisers, something respec
table." Isn't playwriting respectable enough? The two men
were searching for lyrics to use in their musical version of
Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi.
The new play, a fanciful account of young Sam
Clemens' career as a cub pilot, opens Sept. 22 as Play
makers Repertory Company's season premiere and runs
through Oct. 3.
Simpson and Thompson began adapting pieces of .
Twain's memoir in 1979, then added a riproaring steam
boat race and some voodoo and borrowed from some of
Twain's other works. A Connecticut Yankee in King Ar
thur's Court influenced their decision to send Twain back
in time from the 1880s to 1850.
Two weeks before opening night, Twain quite the
time traveler strolls into rehearsal at the Paul Green
Theatre in cut-offs and with his hair a bit less unruly than
it appears in photographs. But it's just a cigar-chomping
James Harper who has the "Missoura" drawl intact, even
as he sings in PRC's first full-scale musical ever.
Life on the Mississippi was originally produced in
Memphis, but since arriving in Chapel Hill, the play has
continually undergone experimental and permanent dia
logue revisions and scene shiftings. Either Simpson or
Thompson has attended every rehearsal, where they
often explain how they visualized a particular scene.
"It's good to be around," Simpson, a UNC creative
writing professor, said. "New plays really do take a lot of
fiddling with and tinkering with. A lot of times something
better will come out by accidental interpretation."
During the grueling four-week rehearsal period, there's
plenty of time for fiddling around with the play and with
in the play as the Red Clay Ramblers improvise on the
Imagine a typical rehearsal session midway between
the initial discussions of what motivates each actor and
the first technical rehearsal, complete with lights and
The Red Clay Ramblers, who specialize in old-timey
music, gather around a piano beside the stage and prac
tice the same song for an hour. Director David Rotenberg
sits on the steps in an aisle, chewing gum and watching
intently. Choreographer Laurie Boyd pirouettes in a cor
ner of the stage, or rather, on the deck of the steamboat
Alexander Scott, and actress Kee Strong slips on a hoop
skirt over shorts. Stage manager Kimberly Kearsley
doesn't have any stage hands yet and ends up lugging
most of the Aleck Scott s cargo across the stage.
From 2 p.m. to 11 p.m., with a two-hour dinner break,
the 19-member cast usually rehearses with the crew. It's
exhausting and invigorating at the same time.
When a non-singing scene claims center stage, musical
numbers are practiced in the lobby, utilizing almost all of
the available space.
As stage manager, Kimberly Kearsley coordinates all
the technical aspects of the show, from handling the de
mands of the director and designers to giving the cues for
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Kee Strong portrays Florence Williker, who sparks a
romantic interest in the young Samuel Clemens.
lights and sound effects. Kearsley also makes sure that
everything involving the actors is ship-shape at work and
at the actors' house, where the out-of-towners live. "It's a
basic psychology," she said, "As long as somebody knows
that somebody else cares and is willing to help."
In addition, Kearsley makes the daily schedule, times
the scenes and oversees the prompt book. "Everything is
in pencil," she said. "Sometimes it never gets inked in."
Laurie Boyd, while choreographing her first Carolina
production, has been concentrating on "roughing in" the
movement. She aims for the overall effect, instead of do
ing one part over and over again before moving in.
"There's nothing quite like the stage
for the immediate relationship be
tween yourself and the audience."
portrays two roles
"Even if they're unsure, I can tell if the form is
working," she said. After the form is down-pat, then Boyd
can concentrate on the details if the actors' hands are
in the right place, if heads are turning at the same time
and if they all have their legs raised the right height
"If you rehease that much, that thorough, that often,
when opening night comes, you don't have junk in the
way, and don't have nerves that come from fear," said
Strong, a third-year graduate student whose husband Ken
is also in the play.
"Ifs fun and enjoyable, Strong said. "But there's a
sense of 'business is business "
Simpson and Thompson are grateful for the sugges
tions that the actors offer as they understand their char
acters better. "We had Twain saying, 'Yeah but he
wouldn't have said that." Simpson said, "Harper automa
tically changed it to 'yes "
"If s a good thing they care. These are the people who
are going to sell this material, make it work" !
The actors had different ways of approaching their
roles, ranging from painstaking research to just plain
Ellen Crawford, who has two roles, was a last-minute
replacement when the original actress broke her arm, so
she hardly had a chance to prepare before rehearsals
started. "Mostly I just packed," she said. "Then I ran out
and bought a copy of Life on the Mississippi and discov
ered that none of my characters were in it."
One of her characters, a New Orleans voodoo queen
named Marie Laveau, was a real person whom Simpson
and Thompson inserted to spice up the shenanigans.
Crawford researched her and the subject of voodoo, even
learning Louisiana's Cajun dialect with the help of f
cast member David Romero.
Crawford, who played the world's oldest living ri
Broadway's "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes
Reflect UP?" also portrays a femme fatale, the
woman to treat Sam like a man.
By inspecting costume plates, Crawford gained iri
into the chivalry of the hoop-skirt era. "I realize whf
hold open doors for women and pull out chair!
them." she said. "Back then there was no other w
navigate, no way you could do it yourself."
Carolina faculty member Patricia Barnett, a
veteran, remembered Twain's steamboating storie
hit a snag with the hoop skirt. "It's a little like wea
harness," she said.
Playing a proper matron, she's made two discov
"If you walk pigeon-toed you can make the hoop!
sway," she said, "and if they pitched the music i
bass-baritone level, I could sing."
And what about a singing Mark Twain? That's a
as incredible as a singing James Harper, who grabbe
of the four non-singing roles in the Broadway revi
West Side Story.
"My agent and casting director said, 'Oh, come i
audition for Mark Twain. You don't have to sin
much. It's just a play with music " Harper said, "ft
find out it's a musical."
Harper read Twain's autobiography in order to c
terize a man who is legendary as a character. But H
said, "Some of that stuff doesn't help when you're
a musical fantasy version. I just think, 'This is how Jj
Harper would do something. How would Mark
Harper doesn't lose himself in the character t
point of thinking that he really is Twain when hd
stage. "It's your own intelligence that brings" life t
character," he says. "I am the one listening to the b
the music because I have to sing to it."
.Sam Clemens is played by former Carolina gral
student John Daggan, but Daggan didn't expect to r
to UNC so quickly. "Usually they cast a student i
roles I would play," Daggan said. "I've got one of
faces that is ageless. I'm 28 playing a 16-year-old1
Daggan has never been to the Mississippi, but
looking at picture books, he could probably p
steamboat down the river. He's not just aimlessly!
ning the wheel around. It gives the actor a reality tq
onto. If ifs real for the actor, ifs real for the audii
For his first play at Lenoir-Rhyne, Daggan camel
his lines memorized, which he said, "infinitely disg
the rest of the class and appalled the director." H
not done that since so he will not get a certain re
stuck in his mind.
Author Thompson is tripling as the banjo player f
Red Clay Ramblers and pilot Horace Bixby, but he J
have been content to sit in the audience and watl
Yet Bixby was a character that Thompson "Id
after" during the writing process. "With a little
luck, I was looking out for him enough so that by
myself, I'll be Bixby," Thompson said. "I haven't
anything except say my lines the same way I hq
every theatrical thing I've ever been in."
. Although Mel Johnson, Jr., who plays the roust
Coe, was rn Eubie! for a year and a half he was exci
get back to the creativity of regional theatre and the
of a new piece.
"You're putting your stamp on it and don't h
conform to anybody's views of how they playet
character," Johnson said.
The onlv Droblem is the shortness of the two-wed
"After two weeks, you're coming to some kinds oi
zations," Johnson said. "You've barely scratched trj
face. That last day, something will come to you
you'll say, 'Cod, I wish I could try that again tomorr!
"There's nothing quite like the stage for the imm
relationship between yourself and the audience,"
Crawford said. "Thaf s what makes it not as easy
tending in your basement in your Mom's clothes.'
Karen Rosen is a staff writer for The Daily Tar H
James Harper as Mark Twain observed the young Samuel Clemens played by John Daggan.
6 Weekend, September 16,1 982