"Life Upon the Wicked Stage"

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide


"Life Upon The Wicked Stage..."

                                by J Tormey

                         The actor's life for me!"

Six young Boston actors sat in a van outside a bar, each drinking a beer. It was the middle of the the night. It was March. It was raining. They were in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. If they'd had enough money they'd have been inside the bar, but they didn't. So they pooled their change and sent someone in for a six-pack. You can do that in Pennsylvania, on rainy nights in March.

It wasn't much of a celebration, but some dramatic gesture seemed in order. After all, they were a theatre company --- and they had just given their very last performance. Ever. Never again would they be together as a company. There were no tears; just a touch of melancholy, the comfort of ancient friendships, and a feeling of relief. Finally they were free from the burden they had carried for so many years --- the burden of trying to make it as a theatre company.

They quietly toasted each other, finished their beers, started the van and headed home to Boston. A young actress rested her head on someone's shoulder, pulled the blanket up to her chin and closed her eyes. The rain on the roof sounded like distant applause.

As they drove through the drizzly streets of Wilkes-Barre the bold letters on the side of the van proudly proclaimed the name of the company that was no more: THE POCKET MIME THEATRE.

Thanks to a borrowed credit-card, they had enough gas to get home.

"Let's Do A Show!"

It's now over fourteen years since "Boston's Quietest Tradition" quietly gave up the ghost. At their peak they were the darlings of the Boston theater scene. They had their own theatre on Newbury Street for years. They appeared on all the local TV and radio talk-shows. Consulates invited them to parties. People recognized them in bars and bought them drinks. Private and public arts-programs gave them free money. Boston critics actually came to see their opening night performances and gave them raves. And they always appeared on someone's New Year's list of the Top Ten SHows for the year. All that was back in 1976.

But in 1982 in Wilkes-Barre, they bought their own drinks.

It was the end of a dream that had started a dozen years before. In the grand show-biz tradition of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, The Pocket Mime was conceived in the White Tower diner in Park Square. Larry Swerdlove, then a student at Emerson College, sat talking to a friend. Suddenly, with a crazed look in his eye he turned to his friend and said those magic words: "Let's do a show!"

The choice of a name for the company was left to fate. After arguing for hours, they agreed to blindfold someone and have him take a book from the shelf. They might easily have become the "Gone With The Wind Mime Theatre", but the book selected was The New Merriam-Webster Pocket Dictionary

In December of that year THE NEW MERRIAM WEBSTER POCKET MIME CIRCUS presented its first performance at Emerson College. Most of the performers were former students of Rolf Scharre, a German mime who had been Artist-In-Residence at Emerson the previous year.

The show produced an encouraging review from Larry Stark --- apparently the only critic to show up, but fortunately one of the more powerful Boston critics at the time. His enthusiasm inspired six of the original 17 performers to stay together and continue working. They were Julie Goell, Idris Al-Sabry, Ellen Koplow, Debbie Clark (now Mrs. Debbie O'Carrol of Newburyport), Elisabeth Hollibaugh, and J Tormey.

In exchange for rehearsal space at Emerson, they taught mime to anyone who happened by. Because there was no one writing matrial for mimes, they created their own material and performed it wherever people would let them: on Boston Common, in hospitals, schools and museums. They even appeared as mannequins in the front wondow of the Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum on Tremont Street.

The following December THE NEW MERRIAM WEBSTER POCKET MIME CIRCUS mounted its second production. It was in a little walk-up theatre they had created in a space Emerson College rented on Boylston Street. To get from the dressing-room to the stage they had to crawl across the snow-covered roof. They called it The Twilight Theatre.

This production produced some more nice reviews --- and one nasty letter from the Merriam-Webster Publishing Company in Springfield. After some fruitless discussion the name was shortened to THE POCKET MIME CIRCUS and soon after that became THE POCKET MIME THEATRE.

Then came a time of turbulence for the company. Some wanted to continue working in a professional direction. Others wanted to remain academic and explore their art free from performance pressure, financial hassles, and the scrutiny of the press. Still others were interested in mime to develop their skills for more traditional verbal acting. Some didn't have the talent, or the drive. Some couldn't work within the structure. Others were just not prepared to make the immense commitment of time and energy.

During this period Larry Swerdlove left. He went to California to work for his father as an industrial staple-gun repairman and was never heard from again. A woman named Katie Birchenough came to so many performances that she was finally asked to join the company. She soon changed her name to Katie Bentley (The critics could never manage to spell Birchenough correctly.) Just because he was a nice guy, Jeff Bernstein volunteered to become Company Manager and run the lights and box- office for the performances.

Dring these early times many people came and went. They made their contribution and moved on. To the last, their contributions are remembered and appreciated by those who remained.

Laughing Alley

The company grew. It seemed to have a life of its own. Their work became more and more professional, more polished, more popular. Annegret Reimer, who had recently completed her Master's Degree at Emerson, and who had helped direct some of the material in the original production, became the Director of the comapny. She started to prepare them for the rigors of professional theater.

Their break finally came when Boston's famous SUMMERTHING Program accepted them for the summer of 1973. Two weeks performing throughout the neighborhoods of Boston provided them with the professional credibility and the cash they needed to make the next part of their dream a reality. They invested in a co-operative warehouse space in Kenmore Square called Laughing Alley. It had once been the infamous Psychedelic Supermarket, and the Nickelodeon moviehouse is the only trace of theater left in the area. There --- along with two leather shops, a pottery shop, the original Laughing Alley Bicycle Shop, the original Pennsylvania Company clothing store, and a car-repair shop --- they created the tiny Laughing Alley Theatre, home of THE POCKET MIME THEATRE.

It was furnished with rented chairs, a homemade stage, and black curtains meticulously created in an all-night sewing-bee. The lights were made from large #10 tin-cans shamelessly fished from dumpsters behind the Emerson College cafeteria. Len Schnabel was the Lighting-Director. He could do miracles.

Thus began their years as Boston's resident mime company. With the help of the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs the company incorporated as a non-profit organization, and became one of the few (maybe the only) mime companies in the country with regular year-round performances. They also taught regular classes at the theatre, and began to tour their shows throughout New England.

About this time they were joined by a man named Michael Atwell. He started by running the lights and holding the signs that announced the names of the pieces, and soon became a welcome addition to the performing company.

Eventually the critics came ... even Elliot Norton. They liked what they saw. As a matter of fact, from Laughting Alley to Wilkes-Barre the Pocket Mime Theatre never received a bad review --- tepid sometimes, but never bad. For once, mime was being taken seriously as an art form. Marcel Marceau wasn't the only person in the world who did it. People began to realize that it was more than a technique. It was drama. It had a message. It had feelings. There were things that mime could do that no other art form could.

The quality of their work was to become their trademark. They wrote all their own material. It wasn't easy, but it was exciting. Some were better at coming up with new ideas. Others better at making those ideas work. Some were better performers. Some were better teachers. There were problems. Personalities clashed. Feelings got hurt. Some left. Others joined.

For a small theater company, survival itself is an achievement.

Of course they got paid for what they did. As much as SEVENTY-FIVE DOLLARS A WEEK when things were going well! Most of the company's income went into paying the rent, printing the programs, the photos, the brochures, putting ads in the paper. There was always the burden of maintaining a second job on the outside.

The public never sensed the problems of the company, or saw the strain in the faces of performers who worked all day at jobs they hated so they could work all night at a job they loved. All the audience saw was enthusiasm, energy, professionalism, and expertise.The very best, every time. Deep in their hearts the actors were convinced that someday soon all their hard work would pay off.

Then an inspector from the Boston Fire Department showed up one night in the spring of 1973. Did they have a performance permit? Were the cables properly shielded? Where was the second exit? Didn't they know that seats are supposed to be securely fastened to the floor?

Their new home was shut down.

There were no funds to bring the theatre up to the Fire Department standards, so the mimes began looking for a new home. The people at The Church of The Covenant on Newbury Street were kind enough to take them in on a trial basis. The chemistry between the comany and the congregation was right, and soon THE POCKET MIME THEATRE was invited to make The Church of The Covenant their permanent home.

They still call it home.

The Big Time

With the help and inspiration of yet another new member, John Girard of Ipswich, the company built a new theatre in the unused chapel of the church. (Its now the Gallery N.A.G.A.) Regular performances resumed. It was time for Jeff Bernstein to move on, but Doug Haley, an old friend of Annegret's from Northeastern joined the company as Business Manager. Larry Murray left Sweetheart Plastics and signed on as Director of Development and general PR-man-about-town. Under the firm hand of Annegret Reimer, the company continued creative work.

Receiving moral support from the church, the critics, and their audiences, "Boston's Quietest Tradition" began a new age of growth and vitality. Their productions included "This is No Movie," "Wells of Fancy," "Tall Kings and Short Subjects," "Pieces and Quiet," "Echoes," and "The Rime of The Ancient Mariner" --- an experimental production created in conjunction with Boston playwright Jon Lipsky.

In the years from 1973 to 1977 they appeared on every television station in town, even some radio stations. They were regulars with SUMMERTHING. They performed for First Night five years in a row. The company was recognized many times by awards from local papers for Best Play, Best Actor, Best Ensemble Acting. They received the Silver Medal Award from The Association for the Performing Arts three years in a row. Financial support came from the Mass. Council on The Arts and Humanities, The Committee for The Permanent Charities Fund, and numerous private foundations.

Even The National Foundation for The Arts ran out of excuses to ignore their work. With the help of NEA funding a second company for children was formed. It included John Girard, Meb Boden, Randy Culp and Deborah Templin. Their production "Fizzgig and Flapdoodle" played weekend matinees at the theatre and toured to area schools. It was recognized by The GLOBE readers' poll as one of "Boston's Best Children's Shows."

Along with resident performances and classes, the touring activities of both companies were greatly expanded. THE POCKET MIME THEATRE became a part of the education of thousands of students throughout New England. For many children the word "pocketmime" became synonymous with "pantomime."

One day Marcel Marceau himself came to see the company perform.

Uncharacteristically, he asked to meet with the performers afterwards. They sat for quite a while --- the Elder Statesman and the Young Turks. They discussed the material, the execution, and the technique. Marceau offered his advice and encouragement. Miraculously, a photographer from the GLOBE appeared. (Even then, Larry Murray had a sixth sense for PR opportunities!) Then Marceau's managers bundled him out the door --- he was late for his own performance at Ye Wilbur Theatre. In the years that followed, the company regularly received complimentary box- seats to Marceau's performances in Boston.

The management team was headed by Annegret Reimer --- very opinionated, very strong, a creative force in Boston's "Little Theatre" scene at the time. She was both Director of the performing company and Chief Executive Officer of the corporation. She was on the Theater Panel for the Mass. Council on The Arts and Humanities, and one of the original incorporators of ARTS/Boston. She was not an easy person to work for, but her instincts were right. Everyone knew that. And she knew how to get the very best out of her people.

Doug Haley was the Business Manager. He could handle any situation with authority and grace. The business, the bookings, the box-office, the people --- he made everything work with the kind of off-hand competence that makes a born entrepreneur.

The future of the company was the responsibility of Larry Murray, Director of Development. His was the face seen at all the parties. He shook the hands --- and rattled the cages --- of the politicians and the funding-types. If he couldn't manage to pave the way for the company, at least he cleared the trees.

At the core were the performers --- J Tormey, Michael Atwell, Katie Bentley, and John Girard --- a marvelous combination of talents. Everything depended on them. They were what THE POCKET MIME THEATRE was all about.

They were magic --- for each other, and for their audiences. First of all professionals, they prided themselves on giving each performance their very best, no matter what. They respected each other's talents and abilities. In spite of differences --- of which there were many --- they always worked to inspire each other. There was a bond between them that only actors can understand. Many years later, after it was all over, John and Katie would marry.

And it was a love affair with the people of Boston. Of course as in all affairs there were ups and downs. Their most memorable performance was in 1977 when they appeared at City Hall Plaza under the sponsorship of The Association for The Performing Arts. That standing ovation from 10,000 people is a memory each will take to the grave.

There's a three-way tie for the least memorable performance: a wedding-reception in the basement of a Chinese restaurant in Brookline; a performance on a cruise boat in Boston Harbor for The American Society of Statisticians; or the after-dinner show for the Fifth International Conference on Meson Spectroscopy, at Northeastern.

The time was right. The people were right. But both would change. No one knew it then but this was as good as it was ever going to get, and there is a sadness there. They never realized when the peak had been reached, and could be savored. The rest would be little more than a struggle to recapture something gone forever.

The company's home theatre came under attack again, the source the same --- the Boston Fire Department. The tacit tolerance of the inspectors ended with a surprise visit to the theatre in the spring of 1976. Once again, the company was shut down.

George McKinnon of The GLOBE once observed that THE POCKET MIME THEATRE was a "feisty" organization. Touring activities were immediately expanded to keep the company going while they set out on a massive fund-raising campaign to renovate their theatre and bring it up to codes. The touring did well. But in spite of the generosity of the people the campaign reached only half its goal. By the spring of 1977 a decision had to be made.

On The Road Again...

There was one way they could make it. They could abandon their hope for a resident company and become a full-time touring company. Some of the management people disapproved of the idea, feeling it would not work. Others felt their functions would be extraneous in a touring company. For whatever reasons, all the management people decided to leave.

Would it have been more dignified to let the company die a natural death? The performers could not accept that. They still believed. They volunteered to take over the business operations themselves, and continued performing.

The decision was made, ending an era. There were many tears at the parting. Annagret Reimer moved on to teach acting and directing at Emerson College. Larry Murray moved from THE POCKET MIME THEATRE to THE BOSTON BALLET, then to THE BOSTON SYMPHONY, and finally to the directorship of ARTS/Boston. After a stint with Town Taxi, Doug Haley worked for Michael Wasserman Associates, and was one of the producers of "Rapmaster Ronnie" at The Next Move Theatre.

Those who remained were all performers: J Tormey, Michael Atwell, John Girard, and Kate Bentley. Katie had decided to leave as well, but agreed to stay on until a replacement could be found.

Radical changes were needed. They gave up the theatre in the chapel and moved into a small office in the basement of the church. They took on a heavier load of teaching, and started pushing the advertising and publicity needed for touring. When the children's company funding came to an end, it had to be disbanded.

The performers can never forget the gracious gesture of so many who donated to the building fund in letting the company apply that money instead to the next phase of its life.

The new goal was to establish themselves as New England's Regional Mime Company --- a bold move considering the number of quality companies in the region. Their eventual aim was to become a national company.

None of them had an aptitude for business, but they had to make it work. They all worked hard, and paid themselves $50 a week --- just enough to keep from starving. Soon they were joined by Betsy Hodgson, who became Road Manager and Lighting Designer --- the person no one ever saw; the one who made it all happen.

They signed an exclusive contract with Lordly & Dame, Inc., to handle their touring, and were accepted first into the Massachusetts Touring Program and eventually the New England Touring Program, both still administered by the New England Foundation for The Arts. They were among the most popular companies on these programs.

But it was hard to find the right woman to replace Katie. For almost a year it was Sandra Lewis. Then it was Andrea Tovar. The ultimate soilution once again came from Emerson College. Tracy Connor's talents were spotted by the company while she was still a senior and she was invited to audition. They all fell in love with her immediately. In between tours, she even managed to complete her degree.

Slowly, the plan began to work. National touring increased and the company signed with a small Broadway Agency, Leigner Management in New York. They bought a van, and their own portable lighting equipment. In the years that followed they appeared in more than half the fifty states, including such exotic places as St. Louis, Houston, Minneapolis, and Enid, Oklahoma.

And why not tour abroad? THE POCKET MIME THEATER had but to change the language on the title-signs wherever they went. Tours to South America and Japan were actually planned and dates booked --- but plans fell through. For three weeks in 1978 however they did tour Mexico under the sponsorship of the University of Guanajuato and the Primer Encuentro Nacional de Pantomima. Money was tight so they actually drove from Boston to Mexico City, staying with friends the whole way. Yet in spite of careful planning and spectacular response to their work, they lost money on the deal.

By 1979-80 the members of THE POCKET MIME THEATRE were Artists-In-Residence at Northeastern University. They performed, taught mime, and supervised a production written and performed by their students, while continuing to perform on tour throughout the country, mostly for colleges and performing-arts councils.

They were invited to appear at the Festival of American Mime in Milwaukee, and the North American Mime Festival in Syracuse. They were invited to appear at the prestigious Riverside Dance Festival in New York City. It was there the critic from Show Business Magazine gave them a "four star" excellent rating and observed "unquestionable virtuosity, remarkable sensitiviity and emotional range, ingenious material and a clear, honest delivery create an evening of triumphs. This is no ordinary mime troupe."

It was John Girard's last official performance.

By then the work of maintaining a professional company was taking a toll --- the traffic, the office work, the pressure of trying to create new material in the midst of it all. John had had enough. Michael had left the year before. Betsy had left. No one blamed them. Tracy stayed right up to the end. She wanted to leave, but her heart wouldn't let her.

It got harder finding people who could come anywhere near their abilities, but good people were found eventually. Carol Avery took Betsy's place and did a great job. Shep Barnett, Michael Gunst, Dianne Howarth, Lenny Zarcone --- all came aboard as performers for a period, and it took time to work them into the show. They did their best, but eventually the frustrations forced them to leave.

A touring company gets paid to perform, not to rehearse. But there was so much office work they had precious little time to create new material. The quality of their work was beginning to slip --- and they knew it --- but there wasn't much they could do. It just wasn't possible to work any harder.

In 1980 they applied to the Massachusetts Council for The Arts and Humanities for funds to assist hiring a full-time Business Manager, to allow them more creative time, and never before had they needed the help more. For the first time in years their proposal was rejected. Joseph Heller should have written the explanation Mickey Sirota, Theater Coordinator for the MCAH gave for their rejection: THE POCKET MIME THEATRE had not created enough new material during the year --- therefore they could not be given the funding to get a full-time manager to allow them to create more material. The Council's budget had been doubled by the governor that year, and 64% of companies applying for funding recieved it. The Council no longer considered the activities of THE POCKET MIME THEATRE worth support.


What went wrong?

Nothing. That's just the way it is with small theater companies. They run on hope, on dreams, and the naive energy of youth. They make a run for it, as fast as they can, as hard as they can. Sometimes they make it --- mostly, they don't. Performers base their whole lives on the belief that someday they will succeed. How else can they go on? They must believe in their talent. They must believe that if they work hard, some day their talent and the hard work they put into developing that talent will be rewarded.

It's a cruel myth. There is no one keeping score to see who deserves to make it most. There is only happenstance --- and hope. With that, THE POCKET MIME THEATRE could do anything. But they ran out of hope --- Slowly. Painfully. One at a time, until even the strongest could hope no longer. Their time had passed. The magic was gone.

It took a long time for J to admit it. He was on the wrong side of thirty. It was hard to abandon what he'd dedicated a third of his life to. Giving up the dream would mean he had been wrong --- very wrong for a long, long time.

One Sunday morning, in a Deli on Broadway, four hundred miles and eleven years away from the inspiration at that White Tower in Park Square, he finally said it aloud. "I give up."

He accepted no more bookings for the company after that day --- but they honored all the contracts they had, all the way to Wilkes-Barre. No one who saw that show ever knew it was the last mime show. They kept that secret to themselves.

Few mime companies in the country tried or achieved what THE POCKET MIME did. Although success was never realized, everyone sitting in that van that rainy night in Wilkes-Barre --- and all those who were there in spirit --- will forever know they gave it their very best.

THE POCKET MIME THEATRE is mostly forgotten now. Scattered across the country, some are still chasing dreams; others have given up on a career in the arts and only seek some kind of peace. But unlike most people they know what it's like to have a dream and follow it. Behind each of them is a richness of experience.

And memories.

At least one member of THE POCKET MIME THEATRE would do it all over again - just to feel that passion for living again, to believe in his future with the innocence and enthusiasm of the very young. Now he makes his living as a writer --- earning six times what he ever made as a performer. He has a lot of things he never had before. But one thing's missing ---and nothing in the world can take its place --- there's no more applause.

    "Life upon the wicked stage ain't nearly what a girl supposes.
    Stage-door Johnnies aren't always after you with gems and roses!
         If some gentleman would speak with reason
         I would cancel all next season...
    Life upon the wicked stage ain't nothin' for a girl..."
                                     ===Oscar Hammerstein Jr.

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide