Something else to blame on George W. Bush: The tanking economy has forced the Vermont Stage Company to cut costs by scaling down its current production, Looking Over the President’s Shoulder. Six staged readings of the play (between today and Sunday) take the place of the originally scheduled two-week run of 12 performances.
According to VSC Artistic Director Mark Nash, a slight decrease in ticket sales and a steep drop in donations made it clear by December that “the economic downturn was going to take a toll on our budget for the season.” Ticket receipts cover just 50 percent of the nonprofit’s costs. With little administrative fat to cut and few other ways to raise revenue, scaling back one of this year’s remaining three shows seemed the only option. January’s production was already under way, and trimming the season’s finale would make VSC run the risk of “closing on a whimper,” Nash remarks.
Looking Over the President’s Shoulder is a one-man play based on the life of Alonzo Fields (1900-1994), an African American man who served four presidents — Herbert Hoover through Dwight Eisenhower — as chief White House butler. “We realized that we could save a certain amount of money by not having to rehearse the actor for the full three weeks, by not having to hire designers and build sets,” Nash explains. “But at the same time, I felt we could do justice to this particular play because it is essentially one man telling a story, and it doesn’t need the bells and whistles of a full theatrical production as much as some other show might.”
The 2004 script has been on Nash’s radar screen for a while, in part because the Vermonter went to college with playwright James Still at the University of Kansas. Nash, a fan of the TV show “The West Wing,” is intrigued by the play’s unique behind-the-scenes perspective on the commander in chief. “Yeah, this may be the most powerful man in the world, our president. But what is he like as a guy?” he muses. The play captures the butler’s observations of this “guy” as he eats dinner with his family, world leaders and, occasionally, ill-behaved celebrities.
Vivid detail emerges, such as Winston Churchill’s beverage requirements: sherry with breakfast; Scotch with lunch; champagne, brandy and more Scotch with dinner. The playwright draws from Fields’ own memoirs and portrays him with a “humble, human voice,” Nash says. Fields was trained as an opera singer, but the Depression curtailed the already limited career opportunities for black performers.
Having spent a lot of time waiting tables himself as a young actor, Nash identifies with the way Fields channeled his artistry while working in domestic service, however rarified. “If you can find a way to use your creativity in whatever way life hands it to you, then that’s truly a creative soul,” Nash reflects. Even though Fields never fulfilled his opera dreams, “he found a way to put that creativity into this other line of work ... That’s a very moving approach to life.”
Nash, who is directing the show, explains how this staged reading differs from a fully realized production. “There will be almost no set, and the actor [New York City’s Andre Montgomery] will have a script with him. Other than that, there are more similarities than differences. He will have a costume; there will be theatrical lighting; the play is full of sound cues.” Nash is confident the compelling tale will move audiences, even in this leaner staging. “It gives your imagination the chance to create the story.”
Looking Over the President’s Shoulder by James Still, directed by Mark Nash, produced by Vermont Stage Company. FlynnSpace, Burlington. March 11-15, Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday & Sunday at 2 p.m. $16-21.