"DID ANYBODY happen to walk off with a spoon from the set?"
"You've got to put milk on your oatmeal.
Then it will be cool enough to eat."
"You're talking too fast. Work on your pacing."
"We're losing hats all the time."
"The word is 'asked,' not axed. Say it again."
"Please keep the washcloths away from the flame."
It's 30 minutes to showtime on Saturday night, and director Fredric Lee is facing the cast of "A Raisin in the Sun." Nine actors are strewn nervously across a dusty, sweaty clutter of costumes, make-up and cracked mirrors in Studio Theatre's dressing room. After six weeks of intense rehearsal, 24 hours before press night, Lee and stage manager Laurie Lynch are running through a checklist of minor adjustments, small failings and occasional compliments.
Each item on the list means egos on the line, and the quiet gets thick as the actors wait for the finger to fall. Pacing in front of them, arms akimbo, Lee works through each problem, sometimes softening the criticism with his small voice and schoolyard grin. But soon iths obvious that the players could use a lift. "Hey," Lee says suddenly, "did you hear that guy in the audience the other night? At one line, he said, 'Oh, ouch!'"
And the 37-year-old director literally jumps for joy, propelling his short, plump frame into the smoky air, snapping his left leg up into a neat tuck and slapping his hands together in a mood-breaking pop. "We really got him!"
The cast relaxes like a petted cat. Ten minutes later they will transform the former warehouse at 14th and Church Streets NW into a Chicago ghetto apartment in a performance that leaves the 90-seat house echoing with applause.
It is only one of the audiences Lee's work will find that night. The 20-year veteran of Washington drama and former artistic director of Back Alley Theater has finessed a Thespian triple-play, directing three categorically different shows now running simultaneously:
"Raisin" is a palpable hit at Studio; "for colored girls who have considered suicide . . . when the rainbow is enuf," the black/feminist/poetry/revue, broke box-office records for five weeks at Source Theatre and is playing now at Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown; and two blocks away, a group of three one-acts, including Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer," is a small success for Georgetown Workshop Theater at Christ Episcopal Church.
"I'm hot," says Lee. So it seems. "In the last two years, he's probably directed more shows than anyone in town," says Source's Bart Whiteman, who chose Lee to direct "for colored girls." (After the Sourcerun ended in March, Lee took over the show as co-producer.)
"He's very good with people," says Joy Zinoman, artistic director of Studio, whose picked Lee as the "first outside director" in the theater's three-year history. "He tends to see theater as a performance vehicle rather than intellectual or conceptual."
"He's absolutely top-side, he brings the scripts to life," says publicist Barnee Breeskin, president fo the Circus Saints and Sinners, who hired Lee to direct the production numbers at the charity organization's frequent gatherings, including next week's roast of House Minority Leader Rep. Robert Michel (R-Ill).
Getting the three current productions from auditions to openings meant a number of 60-hour weeks for Lee, crammng an overlapping total of 22 weeks of rehearsals into three months, and fitting those demands to his drama-teaching schedule at Duke Ellington High School, sometimes working on a different show every day, or even two in one day.
How did he endure the awesome volume of work? "It's normal," Lee says, "although usually one show follows another. I hate to get involved [with producers] in bitter fights about money. It tears you down. So that's why I turn out a lot of product."
There are some 15 experienced free-lance directors in Washington, and "not one of them can support himself by directing alone," Zinoman says. "The only hope for someone like Fred Lee is hope for the whole theater community." Lee estimates his annual income at something like $14,000, "just enough to live." His soft, freckled face lights up to recall that "my landlord came to the opening night of 'Raisin.' If i didn't have a landlord who's a friend -- and a friend of the theater -- I don't know how I'd survive."
Aside from his talent, Lee does have three competitive advantages. The first is energy."Fred's not unconcerned about public relations," Zimoman says. "He knows how to hustle. He's not a head-in-the-clouds, ivory-tower type."
Not, at least, as he's hand-shaking his way through the midnight drinkers at Timberlake's on Connecticut Avenue after the curtain on "Raisin." Even in a bar full of Saturday-night fiber, Lee stands out in his gray suit, orange shirt, navy tie and blue gum-sole shoes, animatedly explaining "survival techniques" like doing the Saints and Sinners show ("I know every political figure in the city -- it's an education") or grumbling about the prevailing attitude of local theater patrons: "If you're from Washington, you can't be any good."
"There are veteran actors like Arena Stage's Robert Prosky who had to go out and make a movie before this town recognized that he was here. Thank God for Elizabeth Taylor," Lee says. "Now we can claim her as one of our own."
A second advantage: Lee is one of a very few trained black directors in town. Whitemen says he engaged Lee for "colored girls," among other considerations, "because of his past work with Back Alley and his experience at Ellington. He has a liasion with the black community and had worked with the actresses before."
Lee dislikes being typecast as a black director. "Because I have a black focus, that's what I'm asked to do most of the time." But not always, for which he reinvokes his deitic congratulation: "Thank God for Hugo Medrano," the head of the Gala Hispanic theater company who has asked Lee to direct its upcoming dual-language production, "Fan Lights." ("I don't speak a word of Spanish," Lee says, "but I understand it's a very literal translation.")
The third advantage is the long experience that makes a trademark style. He was born a few blocks from the rooming house off Dupont Circle where he lives now, and attended Cardozo High School. He drew attention there by directing and acting in a production of "West Side Story," prompting his principal, Benetta Washington, to introduce him to John and Hazel Wentworth, heads of the now-defunct Theater Club.He started acting classes there and worked "doing everything -- box-office, props, the works."
After a few years there and a couple more at the Actors' Studio in New York, he returned to enroll at Howard University ("I hated it -- it wasn't realistic"). He stayed for six months, but by then he was working full-time at the Theater Club on O Street, where Davey Marlin-Jones had just been hired as artistic director.
"Opening the door and seeing for the first time that strange-looking man out there, I could never have known that he's one of the creative geniuses of the world in direction," Lee says, dimples deepening in his contagious grin. Among other things, "he taught me "conceit' -- playing against the moment, using lyric music in angry sequences, that technique of juxtaposition."
The troupe moved to the West End Theater (now a Circle movie house), and started doing more popular shows at the same time that Arena "began doing more avant-garde things. The Theater Club lost its unique image," and folded soon after. By then, however, Lee had begun directing, and in 1972 was picked up by the Smithsonian, where he became program coordinator with the Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife. "I got in touch with my black roots, so to speak," but found folklorists too "clinical" to hold his interest. So he joined the "hard-nosed," experimental Back Alley Theater, rising to resident artistic director and making a name for himself with 20 shows in the three seasons, including "Compulsion," "The Fantasticks," "Short Eyes" and "Hot 1 Baltimore."
His biggest success with Black Alley was such a surprise that he almost missed it. In September of 1979, Vivica Bandler of the Stadtheater in Stockholm, Sweden was visiting Washington, and came to his production of "Streammers," a violent Vietnam-era drama by David Rabe. She was so impressed that she wanted to bring the show to Sweden for a theater festival. Lee didn't believe it at first. "After all, it was a Thursday night, it was raining and one actor had called in sick. We had an audience of 11." So when he heard of the offer, Lee said skeptically, "Yeah, sure, as soon as the tickets arrive, I'll be ready to go." But Bandler presisted, and as astonished Lee started scrambling to get his low-budget troupe to Sweden in only a few weeks. He asked the District government for help with travel expenses (the request was refused, and Lee is still angry), but finally the Swedes came up with the money, and the play sold out abroad. "We were finally invited to the American Embassy," he recalls sardonically, "after the reviews came out."
Then, "suddenly last summer," Back Alley was disbanded in a welter of financial difficulties. The move left Lee without an automatically attractive prospect. He took the "Raisin" assignment without having read or seen the 1959 stage classic. He signed on for "colored girls" despite a real aversion to the show. ("I sat in the audience like every other black male, and said to myself, 'What the . . . . is this?" Lee says. "I was put off by being pushed and shoved around by people I didn't know." He altered the tone, making the play somewhat more inviting: "The women really come out in the audience and touch.") And he did the one-acts even though he finds "Ways and Means," by Noel Coward, "one of the worst plays I ever read."
To one degree or another, all share what he calls his "razzle-dazzle" style, a high-energy emphasis on blocking, facial reactions and tableaux with "lots of movement, leaps and bounds." He's counting on a long run for that style, and his ambitions extend no farther than Washington. He believes that the improvement in local theater has been "amazing," and hopes it can finally continvice patrons that "there's a reliable art form going on. We're getting closer to it."
But until it's closer yet, Lee in his rare free time will usually favor the movies: "I can enjoy a B film every time. But if you go to the theater and it's bad, a part of you dies."