Self admittedly, John Kroft and Amanda Kristin Nichols were not the best of students, to put it lightly.
They were the daydreamers, easily distracted by their ambitions bursting outside the classroom. They wanted to be on stage, diving into the human condition their way, in front of an audience.
Ironically, the majority of their upcoming audiences at Bay Street Theater will be full of students — kids who may relate to them, looking up at the stage with wide, hungry eyes, just as Nichols once did.
“Theater, as a young kid and as a teenager, it helped me to plug into something else. It was like a magnet and brought me to life,” she said. “It helped me expand and grow and open my heart and open my mind — especially as a kid who didn’t want to sit down and do my homework.
“Those kinds of experiences were more than educational. They were instrumental toward shaping who I am and who I’m trying to be,” she continued. “So I’m so excited to have the opportunity to perform for local teenagers. I think it’s a real gift. And I hope that they like it. I hope that it serves. And I know we, as a cast, are going to boldly give our hearts, like we have been in rehearsal, to each and every show. And I hope that they feel it.”
As part of the Literature Live! program, the Sag Harbor theater will stage public productions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” — adapted for the stage by Simon Levy, directed by Joe Minutillo and choreographed by Stephanie Vertichio — beginning Thursday, November 8, while additional weekday performances for student groups and their teachers from across Long Island will be free.
Now in its 10thseason, Literature Live! has served more than 60 schools and nearly 30,000 students and their educators — and “The Great Gatsby” will continue that legacy.
“With our telling of it, if you’re familiar with the book — and particularly for these students, who we hope will have done the reading — hopefully our interpretation of these characters and the story, and the way we enact it live in front of them, will challenge them and inspire them to see things in the story that they might not have considered,” Kroft said.
The play takes on new meaning on the Sag Harbor stage, not far from where the actual novel is set in East and West Egg — which, in real life, are the Great Neck and Port Washington peninsulas, not far from Queens.
“There’s something about the way that they describe East Egg and West Egg — with East Egg being a little more buttoned up and traditional and old money, and West Egg being racy, new money with artists and people who are really challenging things,” Kroft said. “That very much reminds me of the dynamic I’ve always known growing up out here between East Hampton and Sag Harbor — at least that’s the narrative that my parents have spoon fed me. Like, ‘We live in Sag Harbor with artists, who are cool, and East Hampton is like Maidstone and buttoned up.’”
He laughed, adding, “Careful, that might start a turf war.”
But the real story revolves around Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan — portrayed by Charlie Westfal and Sara Carolynn Kennedy — former sweethearts who reunite in a whirlwind affair. While it is a quintessential story of romance, the author concurrently criticizes it, explained Kroft, who is portraying the play’s sweet, non-judgmental yet slightly unforgiving narrator, Nick Carraway.
“This is what’s so brilliant about Fitzgerald,” he said. “He romanticizes the glitz and the glamour and the wealth and the cosmic weight of Gatsby and Daisy’s attraction, that their love is so profound. He simultaneously shows that and how beautiful it is, while also cheekily underneath it going, ‘Yeah, but isn’t it also kind of silly and also a bit fantasy and delusional and not really practical, frenetic and not sustainable?’
“I think everybody can relate to that feeling of being totally swept away by something to the point where it overwhelms you,” he continued, “and you go, ‘Okay, this is a very powerful feeling, but how healthy is it? This feels dangerous, this feels unrealistic.’”
Myrtle Wilson, whom Nichols is portraying, is also swept up in an affair of sorts. She is not the brightest, or the most morally aligned, but she is doing the best she can — as is the actor, in her effort to relate.
“I still see her as human and flawed and beautiful, with deep hope and deep capacity for romance and to dream, someone who is just hungry in all of the ways — spiritually, physically, mentally, just hungry for more,” Amanda said. “Is she someone you’d want to hang out with necessarily? Maybe not. But I just try to connect where I can, to humanly what I understand about her — all those deep needs and lack, and not having, and wanting.”
For Kroft, acting is the best way he has discovered to learn not only about humanity, but history, science and even mathematics. In high school, he portrayed a genius mathematician in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” while simultaneously failing pre-calculus, he recalled with a half-hearted laugh.
“I find stories and how they relate to people and the human psyche as being the most fun and interesting way to learn about things,” he said. “In the same way, I also love that you get to teach people through it. I think it does people tremendous good to see themselves through stories, and I think it teaches empathy.”
Literature Live! will present public performances of “The Great Gatsby” on Thursday, November 8, at 7 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Additional shows will be held on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., and Saturdays at 2 and 7 p.m., through November 25. For more information, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.