Disher’s Act II

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It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said “There are no second acts in American lives.” While Fitzgerald may have found that to be true in the world of novelists — in theatre second acts are not only par for the course, but that’s when things get really interesting.

Take Michael Disher for instance. For years, he was the director of the Southampton Players, the theatrical troupe based at Southampton College which featured both students and community members in its many productions. When the Long Island University campus became part of SUNY Stony Brook a few years back, Disher’s role in the theater there evaporated.

“Once I realized there was no opportunity at the college, I had to think about what else I could do,” says Disher. “I’ve been here 25 years now.”

Last fall, that opportunity presented itself in the form of the new Levitas Center for the Arts at the Southampton Cultural Center. Though music and the visual arts have long been the focus at SCC, Disher approached Kirsten Lonnie, the center’s director, about a new venture — one involving theater.

“It’s still developing,” says Disher of the new partnership with SCC. “There are many challenges and benefits too — the best is the performance space which had just been renovated. It’s geared toward concerts and recitals, but still is a very lovely performance space. It’s also acoustically perfect. It seats 200 people, which in my estimation, is a good size.”

 “I think theater is something they realized should be hosted there,” says Disher. “But how do you go about that?”

Initially, Lonnie asked Disher to teach a class at SCC, which he did. Then he was asked to produce a show and in February, “The Fantasticks” became the inaugural theatrical performance in the space and a new company, Center Stage at the Southampton Cultural Center, was born.

“‘The Fantasticks,’ I have to admit, is not one of my favorite shows,” confides Disher. “But it’s a crowd pleaser with a reputation and a history. Plus it’s a production that was done in October on the North Fork, and I wanted to work with some of the players. I wanted to seduce them to come over to the South Fork and take the show to a new level of understanding. They came in and it was wonderful — a great inaugural production.”

“From there the rest is history,” adds Disher.

Since January, Center Stage and Disher have offered three productions at the cultural center. In addition to “The Fantasticks,” Disher helmed a production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” in April and a concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” in March to replace run of Cole Porter’s “Fifty Million Frenchmen” which was to be directed by Lee Davis but had to be canceled.

“I had to come up with something very quickly,” acknowledges Disher. “In 17 rehearsals, I had a cast who was ready to step it up, learn the choreography and be off-book. It wasn’t really a concert staging. It was incomplete, to be sure, but it was pretty close to being completely realized.”

“My thought was to do it again,” he adds. “In the theater, we always want second chances.”

This Friday, September 5, audiences will have that second chance when Center Stage at SCC begins its second season with a reprise, and this time fully realized, production of “Merrily We Roll Along.” The play will run weekends at the Levitas Center through September 14 and Disher notes that the show audiences saw last spring is not the same show they will see beginning this weekend.

“Time alters so much,” says Disher. “Your perspective changes, and casting changes so much. Though 50 percent of the cast came back, the other 50 percent is new. It’s such a different dynamic, and a different show.”

“I saw things the first go around that didn’t work,” he adds. “I did away with them and I was able to enhance things that should have been enhanced.”

“There’s a great weight upon these performers because the first go round was so well received. Now there’s a comparative precedent. It makes me nervous.”

With this production “Merrily We Roll Along” is getting its own second chance. The play, with book by George Furth, first opened on Broadway in 1981 and ran just 16 performances before closing. Though it seems like quite a gamble to take on a show that didn’t even succeed on Broadway, Disher doesn’t see it that way.

“I love Sondheim,” he says. “Clearly, he is a genius. He’s very cerebral and he forces casts and directors to think — plus audiences. That’s a very welcome dynamic in my realm.”

The musical tells the story of Franklin Shepard, a former Broadway composer turned successful (but cynical) film producer who has lost his friends, including his longtime collaborator. The musical is told backwards in time, and runs from present to past. A technique that Disher admits can be challenging for audiences.

“Very few people like to think backwards,” says Disher. “I use the example of the alphabet. Can you recite it backwards? I can’t. Yet that’s what this show demands. You have to remember everything that came before so you can catch its origins later. It’s a true thinking man — and woman’s — piece. It doesn’t ask what will become of you, but what became of you.”

“These are the pieces I’m drawn to,” he adds. “I think so many shows deserve second chances. Just because it failed on Broadway doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of being mounted somewhere else.”

Disher feels very fortunate in his ability to cast productions so far. This show includes 14 actors from Montauk to Port Jefferson who represent a wide range of ages (16 to 40s) and occupations as well as a seven piece band. Disher is optimistic about his ability to establish a strong theatrical company via Center Stage.

“I would like nothing more than to establish a resident company east of the Shinnecock Canal that is for the community and by the community,” explains Disher. “There are few companies anymore that will commit to theater by the community which is above the level and standard of what could be known as community theater.”

“The fact is you have to set higher expectations upon your cast, your crew and yourself,” he adds. “There is the capability to find that middle ground where it’s not community theater and it’s not regional theater, but pretty close. The professional realm does not require just a union affiliation.”

On that score, Disher already has a full slate of offerings planned for Center Stage. In rehearsals now is “Company” another Sondheim/Furth musical scheduled to open on October 17. Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys,” which won a Tony Award two years ago, will follow in January. Come next April, Disher will direct Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner” and next July it will be Sondheim again. This time, “Into The Woods.”

For his part, Disher is happy with the way things — and his own second act — have evolved here on the East End.

“I think I’ve learned not to take anything for granted, nor assume everything,” he says. “If things evolve properly and in the manner I think they should, I’m always pleased and pleasantly surprised. I’m probably much happier and much calmer than I’ve ever been.”

“I hope to do the kind of theater I want to do, not the kind I have to do,” he adds. “Maybe breathe a second life into theater that didn’t get it’s just due the first time around.”

Performances of “Merrily We Roll Along” are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. from September 5 through 14. The Southampton Cultural Center is located at 25 Pond Lane in Southampton Village. Tickets are $25 ($10 for students). A series subscription for each of the plays through July is $95. To reserve, call 287-4377.

 Above: Michael Disher in rehearsals with the cast of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”

 Michael Heller photo

 

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