by Sarah Teach
The Grey Lady has a habit of gathering great theatre talent and providing a stage upon which it can flourish. This is a luxury for those of us on Nantucket, but unfortunately, not everyone can make it here to see the caliber of our work. Two islanders are challenging this situation: a summer resident who fell in love with a home in ‘Sconset, and a year-rounder who has graced the Nantucket stage for more than three decades. Co-Artistic Directors of the newly revived White Heron Theatre Company, Lynne Bolton and Michael Kopko, are bucking the conventional in order to bring Nantucket’s theatre talent to the world stage. Working alongside the island’s established theatre organization, our beloved Theatre Workshop of Nantucket (TWN), Bolton and Kopko aim to incubate White Heron’s productions here on the island during the winter months, and then take them abroad in the spring and summer. They are setting their sights high, and they’ve made their very first goal the be-all and end-all of arts events worldwide: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The original Artistic Director of White Heron was the late Earle Gister, eminent Yale Drama School teacher and coach to such luminaries as Paul Giamatti, Frances McDormand, Chris Noth, Liev Schreiber, and many more. After Gister’s retirement in 2004, the company’s curtains fell for several years. Bolton remained involved in theatre, but it wasn’t until last summer that she endeavored to breathe life back into White Heron. Bolton and Kopko were both directing plays in TWN’s 2011 lineup when they realized that they worked in very similar ways. Bolton explains, “We were both instructed in hybrids of the Stanislavski system, which employs a series of physical actions to train actors to bring real emotions into their performances.” Kopko illustrates Bolton’s point by saying, “In other words, I the actor ask myself what physical behaviors might I engage in if I felt, say, uncomfortable in a certain location? I will recall a time when that happened to me, and my eyes might begin darting to the nearest exit.
It’s not being, it’s doing, and it brings a character to life in a unique way.” Bolton nods at this statement then continues, “So Michael and I started discussing this common method that we use, and I told him that I thought he would be an interesting addition to a Chekhov workshop that I was running through TWN later on in the year. The workshop wasn’t being done for any performance in particular; we were just creating this kind of action-driven, character-driven theatre for its own sake. Our Chekhov group had a wonderful experience, and afterwards, we applied the same style of work to our fall production of The Crucible.” A co-production by TWN and the Nantucket Historical Association, The Crucible was directed by Bolton and featured Kopko alongside Judy Seinfeld, who is a third partner in the White Heron revival.
Bolton continues her narration, “Afterwards, Judy, Michael and I sat down in The Brotherhood and asked ourselves, ‘How can we continue to work this way?’ Incidentally, both Michael and I been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy about appreciating the moment, and we just decided to dream a big dream and restore White Heron.”
Why the name White Heron? Bolton’s face glimmers with a hint of a smile as she recalls the story. “When Earle Gister and I were initially creating the company, I started seeing white herons everywhere. First, I saw a picture of a white heron on a restaurant wall. Shortly thereafter, I took my kids to a swimming pool, and several white herons flew over top of the pool. Everybody stood up to look at them; when I went sit to back down, I looked over and the lady next to me was needlepointing a pillow with a white heron on it!” Bolton smiles knowingly and keeps on going: “Not long after, my kids and I flew to Florida to visit my sister. We couldn’t pull into the driveway because there was a gigantic white heron standing right there in the driveway, looking like it was five feet tall.” Bolton laughs heartily at the memory. “It was then that I realized, ‘Hey, maybe I should
look into the meaning of a white heron.'” She did, and discovered that in mythology, a white heron symbolizes overcoming adversity. “These birds fly high above the clouds to avoid the rain and stay in the sunshine. Theatre is notoriously difficult, and the white heron symbol seemed just right for a theatre company trying to rise above adversity and achieve the impossible. The famous quote from
Shakespeare in Love sums it up: ‘The natural condition of theatre is one of unsurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. But it all turns out well. Why? It’s a mystery.’ But it somehow always comes together in the end.”
She glances at a smiling Kopko and exclaims, “It fits Nantucket, too! The whole seabird connection is there, of course, but then there’s also the aspect of Nantucket having overcome so much through the collapse of its primary industry [whaling in the 1800s], but then it renewed itself. Nantucket itself is a white heron!”
It may be tempting for people who have never been on stage before to believe acting is simple, but Bolton and Kopko reveal the intricacies of the work. Bolton demonstrates this method that forms realistic behavior as she looks at Kopko. “Say I want to get him to change his behavior. I want to make him get somewhere on time. I can do this using the same words but different actions. First, I’m going to do it by making him feel guilty.” She proceeds to ask in a stern, motherly tone, placing one hand on a hip and wagging the index finger of the other: “Why weren’t you there?” Next, instead of making him feel guilty, Bolton shows how to use actions to make him feel loved. She places a kind arm around his shoulder and her voice takes on a soothing tone: “Why weren’t you there?” Kopko explains, “It’s a solid line of real actions, and if you do it right there are no gaps.” Bolton pipes in, and they repeat at same time, “If you do it right.” Above all, this method employs a great respect for the text, so actors involved must be very dedicated to closely studying the script day inand day out. Bolton comments, “One thing you must have for this to work is a very tight ensemble. It’s a very vulnerable way to work. Actors have a lot of leeway in choosing the action that will convey their message,” Kopko adds, “You’re slopping around in all the conditions of life together, in a puddle this deep,” he says, placing his hand at waist’s height. “But it can also be very rewarding and funny. It’s the opposite of getting lost in a character. It is somewhat instinctbased, but at the same time, you are very practiced, intentional, and clean about what you’re doing. You have studied the text extensively, and you know exactly what action means what, and what you are trying to do.” He reiterates, “It’s not being, it’s doing.” Bolton says, “The goal of this kind of very realistic theatre is to hold the mirror up to life. That allows the audience to assess some aspects of their own lives that they see in the characters onstage, and hopefully even make changes for the better. That’s why we call it transformational theatre.”
With TWN as originating co-producer, White Heron was able to stage the classic George Bernard Shaw play, Candida, this past winter at Bennett Hall. “We started by thinking about when Theatre Workshop was not busy. Then when we started discussing our idea with some local theatre people, they were just so kind and so supportive. That’s the thing about people out here. They say, ‘You want to do something creative? We’ll help you!'” Executive Director of TWN Gabrielle Gould said, “TWN was thrilled to be a small part of the beginnings of White Heron’s Candida. It was a gift to Nantucket to bring a classic to the stage in January and the production fit beautifully with our mission. Lynne Bolton has a worked with us for years and it was a perfect fit for a time when our theatre was “dark.” We are so excited to see Candida cross the ocean and we wish her, her amazing cast and crew a most wonderful and successful run in Edinburgh and beyond!” Indeed, just about everything is dark in January on Nantucket. Bolton smiles and exhales luxuriously before saying, “When you’re rehearsing out here, there are no distractions,” shaking her head. “You’re not competing with other activities like you would be if you were rehearsing in New York City.
Plus, Nantucket in the wintertime is just inspiring,” she says, emphasizing the last word. “Plus there are these loyal theatergoers who come out and support, enjoy, and give feedback to a production. We are very grateful to Theatre Workshop for their great generosity in sharing their stage with us.”
White Heron’s most exciting news is that they made it into one of the top four venues at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Every year, 2.3 million people attend the Festival, and fill 250 venues that are producing 2,500 shows. Bolton says, “It’s almost like an old world carnival atmosphere. You see fire jugglers, bagpipers, all kinds of street performers. So there are several million people from all around the world who are ultimately passionate about the same thing converging upon the capital of Scotland to celebrate and enjoy that passion.”
Bolton chuckles and admits, “We were pretty cheeky by showing a British play in England.” She raises her eyebrows and leans in. “But when we went to London this winter to apply to the Festival, we showed our play to the biggest producer of the festival, and he loved it!” she exclaims. And while Bolton and Kopko have certainly hit the target for British theatre, they express a desire to bring something representative of America to the Edinburgh stage in the future. “Maybe next year, we’ll do a classic that is quintessentially American.” And how did they decide to try out for Edinburgh? Kopko explains, “We were talking about taking the show to New Orleans and other cities with vibrant arts communities, and then Lynne just says, ‘Why not the Edinburgh Festival?'” It was a bold ambition,for sure, but one that White Heron evidently had the chops to achieve. “It’s always helpful to dream big dreams,” says Bolton softly. She pauses a moment and closes her eyes, which have welled with tears, then divulges, “For me, this is the dream of a lifetime.”
For the next couple of weeks, TWN brings us the perfect chance to witness both Bolton’s directorial capacity as well as Kopko’s ability as an actor in Time Stands Still, a contemporary drama that highlights the effect our choices have on our relationships. Opening Thursday, June 7, Time Stands Still will run at Centre Stage (located at 2 Centre Street below the Methodist Church). For tickets,visit TWN’s website at www.theatreworkshop.com or call the Box Office at 508-228-4305. To learn more about how you join in the excitement with White Heron Theatre Company, visit their website at www.whiteherontheatre.org or check out their Kickstarter video http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1350919014/help-us-to-take-shaws-candida-to-edinburgh-festiva/backers.