How did a little theater snag a big-name Oscar nominee? Artistic director Jason Loewith heard what could have been an apocryphal story about McKellen spending several weeks at the theater back in 1987 and asked the esteemed British actor if he’d be willing to help out.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for Olney, and it’s lovely to be able to make another contact,” McKellen said, speaking by phone from New York Tuesday.
Since October, the actor best known in the States as a star of the “X Men” and “Lord of the Rings” franchises has been appearing with his pal Patrick Stewart in two plays at the Cort Theatre — Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
Before going onstage last Thursday, he spent the afternoon with Loewith, recording the voice of “The Book” in “How to Succeed.”
The musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1961, tells the story of an ambitious New York window washer who becomes chairman of the board at a fictional enterprise known as the World Wide Wicket Company. In the most recent revival, Daniel Radcliffe (of the “Harry Potter” films) played J. Pierrepont Finch, while CNN newsman Anderson Cooper provided the voice of the titular self-help book.
“It’s a musical I’ve never seen, although I’m about to be in it,” McKellen said. “This is my debut in musical comedy.”
That’s a bit hard to believe, but possible given the actor’s long career doing films and plays. In 1987, he embarked on an eight-city U.S. tour with his one-man show “Acting Shakespeare.” Olney was a six-week summer stop, and McKellen recalls it being rather hot in Washington, with tensions running because of the Iran-contra hearings. McKellen noticed how reliant the theater was on its summer interns, and that those interns were not living in the best of conditions.
“There were not-very-nice accommodations up in the attics,” he recalled. “We thought, if we sell some T-shirts after the show, and I were to sign them, we might make enough money to put a bit of air conditioning into the buildings.
“People bought them by the hundreds. The local T-shirt maker had also been making shirts that I think said, ‘Go Ollie!’ on them. I thought, ‘That’s a rather good instruction.’ Ours were just a picture of Shakespeare. At the end the summer, our shirts had outsold Oliver North, or rather, Shakespeare had outsold Oliver North. That was a minor victory.”
The one-man marketing effort raised almost $7,000, enough money not only for box air conditioners but to repaint and re-carpet the backstage areas and dressing rooms. McKellen says he hadn’t heard anything from Olney since, until Loewith introduced himself after seeing his plays last fall.
“There’s nothing sinister about that. It happens in the theater a lot. Years later they come back into your life, and you pick up where you left off. Looking at the shows they are putting on, it seems the theater is thriving.”
So is it worth the trip to the Montgomery County suburbs to hear McKellen’s voice in the musical comedy debut?
“They mustn’t get too excited,” McKellen said, “My contribution I don’t think is a vital one. It’s a little something extra.”
And if people like what they hear? “They should consider coming up the tracks to New York to come see my plays,” McKellen said, sounding like a man who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to succeeding in show business, and is really trying.
Woolly receives grant
Theatre Communications Group, the nonprofit trade association that supports America’s professional theaters, announced Tuesday that Woolly Mammoth is one of 10 theater companies to receive what the organization calls an “Audience (R)Evolution” grant. The Penn Quarter-based company, which specializes in producing experimental new plays, will receive its share of an $800,000 pot of money provided by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The list of recipients also includes the Pasadena Playhouse, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
What Woolly and the others will do with the money sounds much less tangible than installing air conditioners.
“From collaborating with social service organizations to gamifying the patron experience, we’re thrilled by our grantees’ commitment to revolutionizing the ways theatre builds audiences and connects with community,” Teresa Eyring, executive director of TCG, said in a statement.
Just up the road in Baltimore, Center Stage is building an audience for its latest show without the aid of a fancy-sounding grant. Hence, Backstage raises a glass to Center Stage’s latest outreach effort: Passing out 5,000 coasters in Baltimore’s Irish bars and hoping to get patrons off stools and into theater seats.
Rather than offering discounted tickets to “Stones in His Pockets,” the coasters promise a $2 pint of Guinness to anyone who shows up at the theater bar with a Center Stage coaster. After passing out 2,500 coasters at a dozen establishments, the theater placed an order for 2,500 more, said Heather Jackson, the theater’s public relations manager.
“We are hoping to target people who will enjoy the casual comedic aspects of the show,” Heather Jackson says. “It’s a single-ticket outreach effort.”
In other words, they recognize that there may be plenty of people who would enjoy “Stones,” a comedy about two guys who hang out in a small-town Irish bar, but not purchase subscriptions for the entire Center Stage season. “Stones in His Pockets” runs through Feb. 23. In April, the theater will produce the region’s anticipated first production of Christopher Durang’s Tony-winner “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” The play is a riff on themes by Anton Chekhov. No word yet on whether the Center Stage will somehow cross-market the show with shots of Stoli.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.