Personal History: Players of Utica (Part 3)

Avenue Q

Avenue Q

At 1:30 in the morning of May 5, 1999, a passerby observed thirty-foot flames shooting up from the building. The fire department could do nothing but protect the adjoining buildings. The siding on the funeral parlor next door was deformed and melted from the heat. All that remained was blackened timbers and, ironically, the shell of the steeple we had planned to remove because it was structurally unsound. Everything was lost—furniture, china, flats, costumes, props, piano, stove, computer, memorabilia—our home. (Players of Utica web site)

My house is just a quarter mile from 19 Oxford Rd. Although we slept with the windows open that night, we didn’t hear the commotion, didn’t smell the smoke. The volunteer fire department was located across the street from the theater, which saved the properties on either side. One of the firefighters later told me, “We know how it started, but the real story probably won’t be told.” I asked if it had been electrical. “Um, no. And I can’t say any more.”

I wrote a check for $300 and sent it Players, along with a note: “This is to start rebuilding. I’ll be happy to sit on an advisory committee and offer any help you need with lighting or tech.” They didn’t take me up on the offer, although I was added to the group’s mailing list, name misspelled (to this day).

Jackie Osterman’s production of Moon Over Buffalo was scheduled to open that weekend. It was transferred to Spring Farm CARES. I was the house lighting designer at SFC, so I ended up lighting the show. It must have been a bittersweet run, but surprisingly I have no memory of it, except I was there.

I was on deck to light Dan Fusillo’s production of Cabaret, which would have been our fifth project together. Dan told me the show would be presented at Utica College, and I told him that was the worst possible venue for stage lighting. (Low ceilings, no fly space, front lighting very close to the stage which casts shadows on everything, unreliable dimmers, etc.) We didn’t talk again, but I was scheduled to attend a rehearsal at UC. Then I learned Dan had hired somebody else to do the lighting (he didn’t tell me, but the person was a friend.) I was surprised, confused, angry, most of all heartbroken. I didn’t work with Players of Utica again for 13 years.

During that time, Players entered what I call a “wilderness phase,” wandering to venues around town. Although I attended several of their productions over the next decade, and once wrote a card to the cast of a show I particularly liked, I didn’t hear from anyone in the group. I’d “retired” from theater to work with computers, then attended college for 7 years. I kept track of their progress, was dismayed when they decided against purchasing a used church and started a new construction on State St. in Utica. They broke ground in 2003, and finally began presenting shows in the space in 2010. I attended one of those, anonymously, and spent the next week in a furious black funk. After more than ten years and well over a million dollars, I thought it was the worst performance venue in town.

In June 2012, Dan Fusillo directed Avenue Q at Players’ State St. theater. I broke my long estrangement from Dan and sent him an e-mail in the fall of 2011, indicating my desire to attend the audition. We met for the first time in more than a decade at the auditions. I was cast as Nicky, the Ernie-like puppet who sings If You Were Gay to his Bert-like roommate. The show was a success, and I couldn’t wait to dive back in and help wherever I could. Now that college was done, I wanted to get back into lighting and maybe perform more frequently. I’d developed computer skills and earned an MBA during my time away. I mentioned all of this to Dan and to Vince Scalise, Players’ president. They didn’t say no to my enthusiasm, but they didn’t encourage it, either. (I didn’t help my case by issuing impolitic pronouncements like “The web site desperately needs updating” and complaining loudly about the new space’s technical limitations.)

Since Avenue Q, I’ve appeared in two plays at Players (The Seagull, in October 2012, was my first non-musical ever, followed more recently by God of Carnage, maybe my best work), and tonight I start rehearsal on The Impressionists, which will be presented by Players at Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute later this month (my first reader’s theater!) I had another falling out with Dan Fusillo (a story for another time), sat on a fundraising committee, reiterated my willingness to help shape the technical direction of the theater (was again rejected) and have upset many by writing critical opinions about various shows in this blog. During the same time period, my daughter Sarah has appeared in or worked backstage for more than ten productions at the new theater space. This group is in my heart, soul, and the creative blood of my family.

A friend asked the other night, “What’s behind this latest rant?” First, I don’t see these memories as a rant. They are a significant part of my story, which is (frankly) what it is. But there is a reason. Lately, I’ve found myself responding to various inquiries by sharing pieces of this history with people who don’t know my background with Players. My hope is that the previous 3,000 words offer some perspective on why I might say, do, or write what I do.

Also, it’s just been fun to remember all of it. OK, most of it. My daughter wrote something recently about her “theater family.” This is mine, for better and for worse, for the past 25 years. There have been joys, hurts, setbacks and triumphs. And so it continues.

Personal History: Players of Utica (Part 1)
A Theatrical Romance
Personal History: Players of Utica (Part 2)
Personal History: Players of Utica (Part 3)