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Theater company pivots from politics to the lives of American workers

  • Memory Apata, left, Rob O'Leary, Mary Ann Stanford and Mike Backman chat during the rehearsal time for the musical Working at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The musical is inspired by the book by Studs Terkel and adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Michelle Carlson, of Lebanon, N.H., gives feedback during rehearsal to the cast of the musical Working at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Carlson is the choreographer for the production, which will premiere on March 1 and continue through March 17. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Will Moore, of Hanover, N.H, and Memory Apata, of Lebanon, N.H., perform in the number "Brother Trucker" during a rehearsal of the musical Working at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The musical tells the story of work in America, with various voices and different workers' perspectives. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Loic Lerme performs as Raj during a rehearsal of the musical Working at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The show is organized by We the People Theatre, a community theatre company that last year performed '1776.' (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/27/2019 10:00:36 PM
Modified: 2/27/2019 10:00:40 PM

Many scholars attribute the saying to Confucius, a few to Mark Twain. A Google search even yields a reference to singer Marc Anthony, aka the former Mr. Jennifer Lopez, and others to a parade of motivational speakers and authors.

Whatever the original source, it basically goes like this: Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.

While it sounds nice in theory, the characters in Working, the musical adaptation of Studs Terkel’s oral history collection, seldom talk or sing about labors of love. The We the People Project opens a production of the show Friday night at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction.

Where We the People last year debuted its pursuit of “community conversations” by reviving 1776, the better to explore the lofty business of forging American democracy, Working follows modern-day Americans into the trenches of their factories, offices, airplane passenger cabins and construction sites, in all their profane glory.

Take this speaker-phone exchange between hedge-fund manager Rex Winship, portrayed by Hanover resident Will Moore and project manager Amanda McKenny, played by Norwich resident Katie Kitchel.

“Amanda!” Winship bellows. “Where is that P&L report?”

“It’s on your desk,” Amanda replies.

“Why is it not in my hand?” the voice of Rex demands.

Amanda, turning to the audience, declares, “I’m here at work at 7:30 a.m., I leave at 8 p.m. In between my meetings, I answer messages and email — and try to avoid my boss. You always have a boss. Sometimes you have an OK boss, and sometimes you have a Satan boss. … He’s not behind me, is he?”

When she’s not rehearsing her Amanda scene and those for several other roles — including a sore-shouldered assembly-line worker in a luggage factory — Kitchel is overseeing We the People’s community-engagement efforts, as she did last spring during 1776. The efforts include a ticket price of $11.50 for people who can show they earn minimum wage.

While in 2018 We the People held question-and-answer sessions about the nature of democracy, both at Upper Valley town meetings before the run and then after each performance, “this time it’s going to be a lot less formal,” Kitchel said backstage before Monday night’s rehearsal.

“During 1776, we figured out that people really wanted a chance to talk more, to have more communication with other people, not just a Q&A format. A time for people to talk with one another, not just through a moderator.”

Toward that end, We the People will encourage audiences to linger in the Briggs’ lobby, sharing observations and refreshments. Also, they’ll find space on one wall to post sticky-notes thanking employers and colleagues for making their work lives bearable. On the other, they can reveal, anonymously or otherwise, “What could you have been? What could you still be?”

Among many post-performance events is Sunday afternoon’s discussion, “Voices of Work from the Upper Valley,” at which Valley News columnist and retired contractor Willem Lange, Parish Players board member Toni Egger and TV executive turned sheep farmer Peggy Allen will talk

“We want to make it a place for introverts and extroverts,” Kitchel said. “To invite, to invite, to invite.”

With most of the characters uttering quite a few curses and a number of F-bombs, the invitation is directed more toward adults than it was during 1776, when We the People founder and play director-producer Perry Allison set aside one performance for school groups to attend free of charge to join the conversation about the democratic process in all its messiness.

“This year is not quite a kid show, though we still want to make it as accessible as possible,” Allison said between rehearsals this week. “This play is about regular, hard-working people.”

And, sometimes, it’s about their bosses. The aforementioned hedge-fund manager, played with oily conviction by Moore, might be the character happiest with his lot — or the least conflicted, anyway.

“True story — they did a study that just looking at a Maserati made girls produce twice as many hormones as normal,” Rex Winship says with a smirk a few scenes later. “Oh, yeah. If someone wants to call me a shallow douchebag, a corporate tool, a freaking robber baron? I take that as a compliment.”

“There’s not a set of characters interacting with each other like in 1776,” Allison said of last year’s play, in which the Founding Fathers bicker over the final draft of the Declaration of Independence. “It’s moments, with a whole bunch of different characters. (Director) Richard (Waterhouse) has done a masterful job with the transitions from character to character and scene to scene.”

During Monday’s run-through rehearsal, Waterhouse couldn’t help chuckling at Morse’s depiction of Winship, and at West Lebanon resident Mary Ann Stanford’s depiction of a middle-aged, upper-class fundraiser named Candy Cottingham.

“The other day,” Candy observes, “I was riding around New York in a limousine during a hotel strike, and there was nowhere to go, and I thought, ‘Now I know what it feels like to be a bag lady.’ You can’t just go around, pick up every homeless person you see and bring them home with you. But if you can help by saying something entertaining, you bring a light into their eyes. Maybe that’s what the word ‘social-lite’ means.”

Candy is one of several characters added to the script since the original adaptation came out in the late 1970s, while others have cycled out. In recent years, playwrights Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso also have commissioned fresh songs by, among others, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“There are some really nice additions of characters and music that bring it to the current time,” Waterhouse, who lives in Newbury, Vt., said last week. “I like it. I think it makes the show a little weightier and a little deeper. It’s a little edgier, because it deals with some current topics. Now is an edgy time in many ways.

“Perry has a real knack for choosing things that are topical and current and can encourage a community conversation without chasing people away.”

The We the People Project stages Working at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction over the next three weekends, starting Friday night at 7. For tickets ($11.50 to $50, plus service fees) and more information about qualifying for the minimum-wage ticket price, visit wethepeopleproject.com or call 802-295-7100.




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