Feature Article

Setting the Scene

The cast of Why Marry? | Photo courtesy of East Lynne Theater

Good theater transports an audience to another time or place, engages people in dialogue about issues and ideas. But can actors focus an audience on a play when looming over them are huge religious stained glass windows? Can they connect with playgoers in a cavernous space, beneath an enormous vaulted wood ceiling?

That’s the question for East Lynne, a Cape May equity theater company housed not in a traditional playhouse space, but in the historic First Presbyterian Church of Cape May. It’s a challenge East Lynne has not only embraced, but turned to its advantage.

East Lynne’s “theater” was built in 1898, a large soaring stone Gothic Revival church with a beautiful wood nave and pews seating more than 150. When performances begin, the church’s stage itself helps draw the audience right into the action.

Termed a thrust stage, it juts out among the seats. Actors are close enough to touch.  “There’s sort of an actual intimacy about it because you are so close to the audience,” explains actor Derrick McQueen, who performed on the stage numerous times, most notably portraying singer and activist Paul Robeson.

“I’ve always felt much more connected with my audience in that space,” says Thomas Raniszewski, another frequent actor there. “I am able to channel it into my acting and into the character.”

Unrestricted by the three walls typical of most stages, East Lynne performers and set designers have more flexibility. “When you’re not hemmed in by walls you can be more creative, do more,” artistic director Gayle Stahlhuth says.

There is easy access from the stage to the two front aisles, and often they are incorporated into the play. This allows the audience “to feel they are part of the story, of the action,” says Raniszewski.

That action can get very real for theatergoers. In a recent East Lynne adaptation of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the aisles doubled as paths in a forest. Raniszewski and a fellow actor were walking there, along with their “friend” Jim, who had just fled slavery. Unbeknownst to Jim, but known to the audience, they planned to sell him to a slave catcher. As they walked down the aisle, they passed an agitated five-year-old little boy, who suddenly jumped up. “Don’t trust them,” the child implored, grabbing Jim’s shirt.

The East Lynne stage is unusual in another way too. In place of a traditional theater back wall, huge organ pipes are in full view. They perch in a balcony area, where hymns resonate from the church choir on Sundays. A wooden parapet sets it all off from the rest of the stage.

But on play nights, that area is transformed. Sometimes it becomes an added room in a set. Sometimes the parapet is used as a catwalk. Other nights the bulwark doubles as a brick wall or a stone fence. For ELTC’s production of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the parapet hid the bottom of a fake horse that moved above. When the company produced Dracula, it became a fireplace in his castle and the main character jumped over it with the aid of a hidden ladder.

Despite the lack of a traditional backstage area, Stahlhuth says, “We can do three-act plays with three different sets.” With the stage set for one act, scenery and props for the others hide behind a curtain or are covered up against a church wall.

Operating in an historic structure is particularly fitting for a theater company founded to pay homage to the history of American theater. Established in 1980 in Rutherford, New Jersey, by professor and Broadway actor Warren Kliewer, it was the first company dedicated to American classic plays. The name, East Lynne, was a tribute to a play of the same name that was wildly popular in the U.S. during the 1860s. An American adaption of a British novel, its success grew over the years, and the film version was nominated for an Academy Award in 1931.

While centered in Rutherford, East Lynne performed periodically in Cape May. In 1997, the city became its home. The following year Kliewer died, and Cape May resident Gayle Stahlhuth took over as artistic director. Soon afterwards the company moved into the First Presbyterian Church. East Lynne’s focus is on plays written before 1940. “Every other country pays homage to their playwrights except ours,” Stahlhuth explains. The reason everybody does Shakespeare is we have that’ ah ha’ moment,’ I’ve been through this, that’s me, that’s someone I know.’ I just saw Wonder Woman. There are no new stories since the Greeks.”

However, East Lynne also performs newer plays that adapt early American literature or discuss historical figures, events, or issues. And every year the company features a New Jersey or even a world premiere of a play. 

Why is emphasizing American theater and history important? Stahlhuth says looking at history is like looking into a mirror. “You see you are pretty much the same as you were 100 years, 200 years ago,” says Stahlhuth. “People are always the same.”

The current production of A Year in the Trenches is Stahlhuth’s  100th production as ELTC’s artistic director, a striking achievement.

“We can’t forget where we came from, “because it’s the only way we know where we’re headed.” says Raniszewski, who this year became President of East Lynne’s board. By knowing our country’s struggles, its culture, the shoulders we stand on, “we learn how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.” The company sends its scripts, playbills, photos, and other materials to Ohio State University every year for the school’s renowned performing arts research and education archive.   

Each year beginning around August, Stahlhuth starts discussing a theme for the following season with patrons, actors, and friends. She looks for something that will be “relevant to what is currently going on.” Then comes the search for plays to give voice to that theme. By October, the calendar is set for the following summer and fall theater season.

Last August, the country was anticipating the upcoming presidential election.  Regardless of who won, Stahlhuth wanted a theme that underscored the political challenges the next president would face. She chose The American Dream. And she added a subhead: “Some want it for everyone—and some do not. Others live it. Others fight for it.”

She chose three plays that analyze the American Dream in different ways. To kick off the season, she decided on Will Rogers’ U.S.A. Written in 1970, it draws on the wit and wisdom of Rogers, the famed star of stage and screen, a journalist and satirist, who died in 1935.

Following Will Rogers, U.S.A. is Ah, Wilderness, an idyllic portrayal of American life, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Eugene O’Neill. It first opened on Broadway in 1933. 

To round out the season is a play analyzing the impact of war on the American dream. Premiering on the East Lynne stage, the play, written by James Rana and titled A Year in the Trenches, is based on historical first person accounts of World War I. It was commissioned by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the New Jersey Historical Commission to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war.

Other short-run productions, about women’s suffrage, Louisa May Alcott, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and the tales of Edgar Allen Poe are also in the ELTC lineup.

“Gayle has done a fantastic job in presenting American stage classics that are not only entertaining, educational, and historic, but also are a mirror to today’s society, that reflect what we are going through today and are very timely,” says Raniszewski.

Indeed, some of the lines in Will Rogers’ U.S.A. could come straight from today’s newspapers. Consider these comments from Rogers, played in the East Lynne production by Tom Byrn. Congress is deadlocked, there’s some good news,” he jokes.  And another insight, “Ten people could buy the whole world, ten million can’t get enough to eat.”

Byrn has also channeled our 16th president as the lead in Lincoln on the East Lynne stage. He explained, in a recent question-and-answer session following a performance, that he feels a special responsibility when interpreting historic figures, a need to reflect them accurately.

Although one might think that it would be more intimidating to portray Lincoln over Rogers, given their relative historical importance, Byrn says for him it is the opposite. Lincoln was never filmed or recorded, so an actor can only guess at his mannerisms and nuanced speech, he says. Rogers was filmed and recorded, something Byrn strives to portray precisely, including why “all of America wanted to be his friend.”

And what about bringing these important figures to life in a church? “This is the best acoustical place I’ve ever performed in,” says Byrn, sitting on the stage. “It was meant for oratory, so it feels good up here. The sense of churchliness disappears. “ 

While actors and playgoers may forget they are in a church, the reality is they are. And that sometimes creates issues, especially after a Saturday performance when the company must strike the set, take the props away. and restore the church to its original look in time for Sunday service.

East Lynne  has Sunday services factored into its activities. But nobody can predict a funeral, so the theater crew have to be ready to take down a set without much warning.

And while the theater gets plenty of advance notice for weddings, they may be scheduled within a tight performance calendar. After Byrn’s late Friday night question and answer session, the stage set was taken down for a Saturday afternoon wedding. Then it had to be restored in time for the evening show. Being mindful of church activities is a small price to pay for some of the advantages in working in a large church building. In particular, thanks to the roominess of the church, East Lynne has huge dressing rooms that can accommodate more than a dozen actors, along with areas to both store and paint backdrops.

Church members have embraced the theater, welcomed visiting actors and staff, and consider it an integral part of their mission to reach out to its neighbors. “I felt very supported by the community in the church,” recalls actor Derrick McQueen, now a Presbyterian minister at a church in Harlem. He says the support was particularly important for actors coming from other cities, such as New York, who didn’t know anyone in town.

Because of his work at East Lynne, McQueen, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary and instructs upcoming Methodist and Presbyterian leaders elsewhere, has a unique understanding of how a theater company and a church can help one another, both financially and technically. Theater groups need space to perform and many churches can provide that easily, he notes.  Rent paid by a company can also help maintain the church.

Then there’s the technical help, what he terms “sound architecture,” along with skilled lighting design.  Most churches are constructed to carry sound in a natural way, McQueen explains, but with air conditioning, street traffic, and the like, they need to amplify sermons and choirs. “Professional theater companies know how to do sound design and they can take that skill and translate it into church speak. So you get a more authentic spiritual experience, not just the mechanical experience of a microphone being loud.” So too with updated lighting, which many churches need. Stahlhuth got her start designing lighting for professional ballet companies, and has used that knowledge to install needed lighting at First Presbyterian. 

There’s a deeper reason for a church to collaborate with arts and theater, says McQueen. There can be a symbiotic relationship. “People who are going to lead a congregation have to figure out how a church can make itself more viable to the community, not just be insular to itself.” And to that end, a theater company “helps in having the church understood as part of the fabric of the community.”

And that means connecting not just with the adult community, but to its children, teens, and older students as well. It’s a mission Stahlhuth and East Lynne have taken up. The company has a college intern program, and organizes summer youth classes and performances. It runs workshops at schools in South Jersey, and has used local students in its performances. As Stahlhuth noted, “If I can engage children to like theater, I can motivate the next generation of theatergoers.”