Kenneth Peck is one of the busiest members of the local film community. He's a documentary filmmaker, host of Vermont Public Television's Reel Independents program and the Roxy's Sunday Cinema Club, and a consultant to local film festivals and commissions. So why is the Charlotte-based "film guy" now directing two challenging Samuel Beckett plays for the stage? There will be lights and action, but no cameras, at Waiting for Godot and Rockaby.
The truth is that Peck has been "wearing more than one hat all along," he says. He's been involved in theater since junior high school. When he earned his academic degrees in literature, his studies focused on both drama and cinema. For the past several years, Peck has worked with Hinesburg's "Backyard Players." The informal community group stages Halloween pageants in a backyard, ranging from skits about the Great Pumpkin to excerpts from Tom Stoppard plays.
Peck's leap from backyard to Beckett was inspired by a confluence of two events. A board member at Lake Champlain Waldorf School, where his children are students, challenged parents to come up with fresh ideas for fundraisers. Thanks to last year's international hoopla surrounding the centennial of the Irish playwright's birth, Peck already had Beckett on the brain. Now he's taking the director's chair for four benefit performances, with adult actors both amateur and pro. The school takes home the proceeds.
Peck knows many people in the audience will have experienced Godot only in the arid setting of English class. He wants to reconnect them with Beckett's mischievous sense of humor. "There's a lot of vaudeville and a lot of silent movie comedy - slapstick comedy - in here. Beckett was a really big Buster Keaton fan, a Laurel and Hardy fan," he says. Peck adds that sharp-eyed film buffs may notice two routines "literally . . . stolen from Marx Brothers movies" that the Irishman penned into the play. Expect juggling and singing, too, not an enervating existential exercise.
Viewers are less likely to have preconceptions about Rockaby. When Beckett was in his seventies and eighties, he wrote a series of very short one-person works specifically tailored to his favorite actors. Peck saw Rockaby in New York two decades ago, and he found it so "striking" that the 14-minute piece has stayed with him. An old woman sits in a rocking chair, speaking infrequently. A recorded voice-over offers words that "could very well be the inside of her head, her own thoughts," Peck explains. "It evokes her state of mind, and where she is, and what her life has come down to in her last day . . . The whole thing is a kind of theater poem, in a way."
Rockaby precedes Godot on the program. This weekend's shows are in Shelburne; next weekend, Peck brings Beckett to Burlington at the Waterfront Theatre. He good-naturedly likens this schedule to the old-fashioned Broadway tradition of opening first in New Haven - Connecticut, not Vermont - before trying one's luck on the Great White Way.
Peck seems exhilarated about directing his first full stage production in many years. "Live theater is extraordinary," he notes. "You're working without a net . . . You can't . . . reshoot something or cut something, edit around something, use a different camera angle. You've got what's happening right there and then. You can prepare and prepare and prepare, but when those lights go down, you're on. I think the intensity and intimacy of that is really as pure art as there is."
After the curtain falls? Peck's deck is full of current film projects. But "Chekhov would be a good challenge," he suggests. Ionesco intrigues him as well. Stay tuned.