THE MORNINGSIDE PLAYERS GO TO THE SOVIET UNION
During the holiday season I went to a party given by our community theater, The Morningside Players. Some of the guests didn’t know me, so the artistic director Susanna Frazer introduced me as the co-founder of the theater. She also told the story about how eight of the original Players went to Russia in 1990 and how we were treated like royalty by their theater people, apparently under the illusion we were from an important theater company in New York City. Her words stirred up memories and prompted me to write up this experience, that is, what I can remember from almost thirty years ago.**
Our first local theater company was actually started in 1974 by Paul Kozelka, Professor Emeritus of the Drama Department of Columbia Teacher’s College. He visualized it as being a creative outlet for the senior citizens who resided in our six-building, Morningside Heights Co-op, Morningside Gardens. Paul invited me to join even though I hadn’t retired and was still in my 50s. (At the time my daughter joked that I could play the ingénue roles.) We performed skits and one act plays, some written by our residents. Sadly, after suffering two heart attacks, Professor Kozelka moved to an assisted living facility out in the Midwest.
With his departure, the fear was that would be the end of our budding theater. My friend Aimee Scheff and I, however, had both yearned all our lives to be actresses on Broadway. By the late 1970s, as we were approaching our 60s, clearly time to pursue this pathway had passed us by. If we could no longer perform on Broadway, why not resurrect The Morningside Players and expand our repertoire, include younger residents who were also afflicted by the theater bug, and perform for our local audience? Resident William Ellis became our pro bono lawyer and in 1981 incorporated us as The Morningside Players; with donations from residents, we had a stage built in the Co-op’s Recreation Room; Aimee and I composed copy which another resident, Florence Keller, a graphic designer for Columbia University, made into a professional looking brochure. The Morningside Players was now in business, maybe even qualifying as a Broadway theater. After all, didn’t the west side of our Co-op face Broadway? We were all amateurs with the exception of Dorothy Carter who in the 1940s and 1950s had important roles on “real” Broadway in “Strange Fruit“ and “Take A Giant Step.” We eventually totaled over twenty members, and, this being Morningside Gardens, were of varying ages and ethnicities. I remember there being a wonderful energy put forth by the participants, and the audience very forgiving when the actors occasionally had lapses in memory. We branched out doing one act plays by such notables as Shaw, Chekhov and Tennessee Williams, but also full three act plays written by resident playwrights, Judson Levin, Frances Geer and Harry Granick. The latter, a professional whose plays had been performed in Europe, when approaching the age of 90, gave us the delightful play “Florabelle for President.” It is about a young African-American girl running for President of the United States during the actual election season which gave us Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At 89, Mr. Granick directed a powerful version of Giraudoux’s “The Madwoman of Chaillot”(we weren’t allowed to use the translated into English version so Harry simply did some masterful editing of the first act!).
We continued to branch out doing plays that called for all ages and taking our productions to nursing homes, hospitals, libraries and even to Bryant Park one summer where during lunch hour seven of us older actresses performed monologues from “When Shakespeare’s Ladies Meet,” with Ophelia’s monologue recited by our oldest member 91 year old Rie Koeslag. By now some of us had taken acting lessons at the famous HB Studio, but we never did get the hang of the then popular Method Acting!
It was probably Aimee, with her boundless energy, who first proposed the trip to Russia. She made all the arrangements with a travel company in Manhattan for their Soviet Arts and Theatre Tour. emphasizing our group’s interest in attending theater performances. And from the reception we were to receive, she must have given the travel agent the impression that ours was an important New York theater company. Eight of us signed up – Mabel Beavers, Elizabeth Blair, Herbert Thorne and his partner Rebecca Rikleen, Dorothy Carter and her daughter Carol (the only young person), Aimee and I. (Aimee, Dorothy, Mabel and Herb are now deceased.) The time was the summer of 1990 which turned out to be the year when the Soviet Union was facing difficult political times. It would collapse the following year. Meanwhile three of the Baltic States – Latvia, Estonia and especially Lithuania were pursuing independence. Included in our journey would be the first two but not the latter whose borders had been closed.
Looking back it’s surprising to me how little I remember of this journey. My overall recollection is how bleak and dreary the Soviet Union appeared to me, and except for our always-capable guide who may have been from Finland and could speak English, how cheerless the people seemed. I remember eating lunch one day sitting on benches at long wooden tables; I had imagined the Soviet Union to be a vast farmland but the only vegetables being served that day were tomatoes, potatoes, and maybe one other, and some sort of ground meat (every time Herb inquired what kind of meat because he liked it so much, the answer was always just “meat”). Store windows were empty of goods for sale. We visited the store for tourists where we could buy the iconic nesting dolls and tablecloths with borders of Russian red roses; in the center of Moscow, a huge advertisement for Coca Cola, streaming in the sky above; soldiers guarding Lenin’s casket and moving insomniac Aimee away from leaning on the casket of Lenin’s preserved body. I don’t recall any luxuries, but do recall the sleepless night on the terribly uncomfortable mattress and the primitive bathroom on the overnight train between Estonia and Latvia, going to a beach in Estonia and an outdoor fair in Latvia where we learned about and bought their number one gemstone – Amber.
Another American tour group sometimes joined ours, but don’t recall ever running into any other foreign travelers. Perhaps because of the political turmoil going on in the Soviet Union. Maybe we were the only ones oblivious to the situation, focused as we were mainly on the arts and cultural experiences, and these were in plentiful supply. I remember going early in the morning to one of the world’s greatest museums, The Hermitage, before it opened to the public for a private viewing of precious ancient manuscripts in its vaults and later a tour of some of the galleries (oh yes, complaints here – only being shown the French Impressionists and no works by Russian artists – no dawdling to enjoy the paintings as we were marched quickly from one room to another); also the beauty of Leningrad (renamed St. Petersburg the following year)with the Winter Palace where the czars once lived, now opened to the Soviet people, one of the Communist government’s proud accomplishments. It was particularly poignant to be in Stalingrad (now named Volgograd) where over a million civilians died of starvation while withstanding the two and a half year siege by the Germans, a stand which turned the tide of WW11.
We were most excited at being scheduled to attend four performances. One was seeing the famous Bolshoi Ballet performing, what else but “Swan Lake?” In Estonia we were given a choice – I think an opera with music by Tschaikovsky or the play “Twelve Angry Men.” Every one wisely chose the former except Carol and I who chose “Twelve Angry Men.“ Both of us were familiar with the play, having seen it on Broadway. Of course, neither of us understood a word the actors were saying in Estonian and there was no physical action since it all took place between jurors in a court room! I recall our attending a matinee performance outdoors of some other play, not for what it was about but for our being invited to talk to the cast during the intermission.
Our last stop was a three day stay in Moscow. Here, nearing the end of our journey, we very much looked forward to the fourth performance – the piece de resistance! Our group was going to attend a matinee performance of one of the plays by Chekhov in the famous Moscow Art Theatre, co-founded by Stanislavski; afterwards we were to meet privately with the actors and the theater’s renowned director, Oleg Yefremov, in his office for afternoon tea and conversation. Seeing the play was bound to be a great experience even though it would be performed in Russian. We had prepared ahead of time by reading all four of Chekhov’s most celebrated masterpieces so that we could follow the action if not the words. Alas, that day they were performing his first play “Ivanov” which was not a masterpiece and was the only play none of us knew, Well, we would go to an interpreter to enlighten us during intermission as to what was going on, but when we asked him about the plot, he said he didn’t know because he had fallen asleep! But all was not lost. After the performance, there was the tea, poured, of course, from a samovar. I assume that the actors who joined us for tea understood some English. One of the leading Soviet film actresses was among them, and we were all introduced. I don’t recall what we talked about, but they were all very gracious, and seemed to be impressed with our theater. Then, to my consternation, the director proposed that we do an exchange and have their company come to perform in our theater. From the Soviet national treasure, the Moscow Art Theatre – to the Recreation Room in the basement of one of our apartment buildings. If they only knew!
As we were leaving, the director called me back and gave me a pendant with a seagull imprinted on one side, and on the other the years 1898 – 1988 and the inscription in Russian commemorating the 90th anniversary of one of the most important events in the world history of the theater – the opening of Chekhov’s play “The Seagull.” I loved the pendant but did not tell any of the others about all this in case they would be envious, and I’ve never shown it to anyone until now. It suddenly comes to me after thirty years that the person who deserved the pendant was Aimee who had arranged this adventure and had sold the tourist company on ours being an important New York City theater company! This pendant is the only authentic proof of our journey; the roll of photos sent to be developed was lost in the mail!
Probably the best outcome that materialized from this journey is that after our return, the remarkable Dorothy Carter began to direct the classics, starting with Chekhov’s “ Uncle Vanya” and going on to do Ibsen, Albee and Tennessee Williams – And Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and “The Cherry Orchard.” All successful productions which helped propel The Morningside Players into becoming a genuine artistic home. It is now run by younger people like Aimee and I were 30 years ago (Aimee passed away ten years ago, and I at 92, am too old to act but still sit on the Board). Unlike us, however, they are professional actresses and directors who live in our complex, with Susanna Frazer at the helm. More actors, directors and designers from the Co-op have joined, many having worked professionally and continue to do so on TV and regionally. We hold open auditions only for roles which cannot be filled by residents. Often we get top people vying for roles or to direct, and the performances are now on a par with those you might see in a venue downtown – yet still are our locals! The productions have won the prized AUDELCO award three times in recent years, and Columbia University has been very supportive, viewing us a real community asset. So we continue our mission to provide accessible, high quality theater.
Currently the Recreation Center is going through a major overhaul which will transform the space. All groups will benefit, plus we can then have our MG wide Co-op meetings and celebrations. There will be a larger seating capacity, complete rewiring of the electrical system, additional ADA entrance to the outside, an additional ADA bathroom and a rebuilt stage. This will take at least two years to complete, but maybe when it’s done, I will, at long last, get in touch with the .director of the Moscow Art Theatre and take him up on his offer of an exchange!
**I have enlisted fellow-travelers Carol, Liz, and Rebecca to jolt my memory and fill in some blanks. Carol was wise enough to have kept the original itinerary. Much appreciation to the three of them for sharing their memories. For those experiences in which our recollections differ, I’m recording my memories.