Michael Disher Believes in Miracles

Michael Disher at Southampton Cultural Center in November 2021. Dane DuPuis photo.
When it comes to East End theatrical longevity, Michael Disher has been directing productions out here probably longer than anyone else. First, he was at Guild Hall, then Long Island University’s Southampton College, and most recently he has served as the director of Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center (SCC).

“I love Southampton. This community’s been very good to me,” said the longtime Amagansett resident during a recent visit to SCC’s Levitas Center for the Arts, where he sat in the front row of seats in the empty theater. “It’s been close to 37 years.”

But audiences have probably noticed that both Disher and his productions have been conspicuously absent from the SCC stage as of late. That’s because he and his partner, David Mrozowski, have primarily been living in Connecticut where, in recent years, Disher has been undergoing treatment for a cancer diagnosis and related complications.

Now, Disher is back on the East End and at the cultural center, where he is directing “Miracle on 34th Street, A Live Musical Radio Play.” The show, which opens Friday, December 3, was adapted for the stage by Lance Arthur Smith and Jon Lorenz based on a 1947 Lux Radio Broadcast.

It’s a format that Disher obviously likes. The last holiday show he did on the SCC stage was “Meet Me In St. Louis: A Live Radio Play,” in 2018. And if you ask him why he has decided to return to SCC now to produce a play celebrating the holiday season, he’ll give you a simple answer.

“We need a little Christmas,” Disher said.

Like the movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” which starred Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood, the radio play version tells the story of a little girl who is wise beyond her years and doesn’t believe that a department store Santa Claus is the real thing — until, that is, miracles occur to restore her faith.

Miracles are something Disher has come to know a bit about in recent years. In 2018, after his diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer, which had metastasized as a malignant brain tumor, he had surgery to remove the tumor and began radiation and chemotherapy. But then a necrosis was found around the radiation site, and he underwent a subsequent surgery that left him partially paralyzed and in a rehab center at Yale New Haven Hospital.

“I was bedridden. For three months, I was flat on my back,” said Disher, who slowly began physical therapy and has been working hard ever since to regain his health and mobility. “I laughingly tell people I’ve been held hostage the last two years. I was out of rehab and at home doing therapy, then I was going to go back to outpatient therapy. I was just about ready to get started when the pandemic closed it down.”

Despite his many recent hurdles, Disher’s cancer is thankfully now in remission. He notes that he qualified for immunotherapy and things are looking good, and while he still struggles with the effects of the paralysis, he’s getting around on his own, albeit somewhat more slowly than before and with the help of a cane.

“I wanted people to know I’m not dead,” Disher said, only half joking about why he wanted to return to directing at SCC. “There were grumblings that made their way back to me: ‘I heard so and so said you can’t talk.’ People are scared of illness, handicap and disabilities.

“That was a reason,” he added. “But I think the biggest reason is, I always liked the Christmas shows and I like the radio format. I thought if I’m going to ease myself back and take the reins of a production, it should be something I’m familiar with.”

For previous productions, Disher has worked closely with Connecticut-based playwright Joe Landry, who has written several radio play adaptations of holiday classics that have appeared on the SCC stage. But because the licensing rights weren’t available for “Miracle on 34th Street,” Landry pointed Disher toward a Los Angeles company that had a musical version of the play.

“I applied for the license and got it, and thought maybe this is exactly what Southampton needs this year,” Disher said. “Maybe we need to have something to look forward to, an opportunity to get together and laugh together, shed a tear possibly and believe again, collectively.

“That’s what I’ve always loved about theater. That person-to-person reciprocity you can’t get with a TV screen or laptop,” he added. “You have to feed off what you’re giving to the performance and the audience. Every show is specific to that cast and that audience and the intimacy that’s created.”

With this play, Disher is ready to get back to the radio-era setting and transport audiences to a simpler time. Set in 1947, there’s a post-war theme of optimism and abundance in the script, as well as lots of ’40s style musical harmonies.

“It encompasses known Christmas carols, like ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,’ done in ’40s jazz rhythm and harmonies — and, of course, there are the mandatory commercial jingles. I think the one that opens the show is for Tupperware.”

Also, in keeping with his comfort zone, Disher has called upon actors he has relied on in the past to star in this production. The only new member of the cast is Emma Hand, a 12-year-old East Hampton Middle School student who will play the role of the skeptical little girl.

“She auditioned for ‘Beauty and the Beast’ [in 2018] and wanted to be Chip,” he said. “She didn’t get the part, but I spoke to her mother at the time and said ‘I have a feeling that child and I will work together.’”

In many ways, Disher is looking at “Miracle on 34th Street” as something of a gift that he can give to the community and he hopes that it will be memorable.

“I think it’s such a pretty story — it’s not saccharine, it’s not overly sweet. It’s about not losing the sense of imagination. Once you lose that, you’re setting yourself up to become jaded and cynical,” he said. “This play will take you to a place of comfort, because it’s so familiar. When you hear the lines that spark remembrance, a fondness will seep into your head and that’s the great joy of doing pieces that people know.”

So given the inherent sentimentality of “Miracle on 34th Street,” does that mean this will be his last directing project?

“I think I’ll always have to be doing something. I don’t think I’m capable of completely retiring, so to speak,” Disher said. “I thought perhaps the cancer would do that, because when they tell you that you have stage 4 lung cancer, you get your affairs in order and put things in perspective to prioritize what’s important and what isn’t.

“If cancer didn’t kill me, I’ll be damned if I’ll let theater do it.”

“Miracle on 34th Street, a Live Musical Radio Play” runs Friday, December 3, through Sunday, December 12, at Southampton Cultural Center’s Levitas Center for the Arts, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. The play stars Daniel Becker, Mary Sabo-Scopinich, Jack Seabury, Susan Cincotta, Joey Giovingo, Christopher Tyrkko, Michaal Lyn Schepps, John Lovett, Amanda Jones, Michael Casper and Emma Hand. Performances are Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Tickets are $30 ($20 under age 21) at scc-arts.org or 631-287-4377. All audience members must wear masks. The cast and crew of “Miracle on 34th Street” is fully vaccinated.