A circuit breaker changed my life. It was 1989, and I was sitting in the cafeteria at a local hospital. I was not a visitor or a patient. I was an actor. Weary of grading endless English papers and tests, I left teaching in 1986 after 17 years. It was time to try my hand at a variety of things: personal counseling through hypnotherapy and Neuro-Linguistic Programming, corporate communications consulting, and acting. All of my acting jobs were in industrial films. Not glamorous or flashy. Industrials are the meat and potatoes of the acting profession. The hours are often long, the payment low by feature film standards, and the audience limited to in-house training and product/service demonstrations within corporations. For a small cadre of Philadelphia-based actors, though, the work was rock steady and paid the bills between bigger gigs.
I was sitting with one of those actors, Vicki Giunta, that morning in the cafeteria. She was cast as a nurse; I was her patient. The client was a pharmaceutical company. The setting was an actual hospital room. It was cheaper to rent the room than all of the hospital equipment needed to make the scene realistic, as well as build the set. The only problem was that every time all of the production lights were turned on to cast the appropriate glow in the hospital room, a circuit breaker would blow. The director, my brother, Dave, who had left teaching high school theatre to start a successful production company, was having a hernia. Between him and the supervisor of maintenance for the hospital, they were stumped. The talent and production support staff were on site, the room was rented, a deadline was promised - the shoot had to be completed!
So, while Dave and the tech heads at the hospital pleaded with and cursed the electrial system, I sat across from Vicki and sipped juice.
I quickly discovered some fascinating things about Vicki. She was married to George Giunta, a prominent lawyer in Media, PA, who had grown up around the block from me. She had her M.A. in theatre from Villanova University, had taught high school English, like me, and had been acting on stage and in TV and films for years. Yet, with this incredible background, she was frustrated.
"I want to start a children's theatre company," she said. "I can produce the plays. My sister, Carmela Guiteras Mayo, who has danced Off Broadway, can direct the plays. But I can't find anyone to write the plays. Only, I don't want to present tired old fairy tales. I want to produce original plays that will completely engage kids. I want to address issues that are important to pre-school through elementary school kids. And I want to reach kids who have never felt the magic and power of live theatre."
I looked at her. Her passion was electric. The power that was missing from the hospital room was surging through her.
"I'm a writer," I said quietly.
She looked at me.
"I also know your sister, Carmela. She's choreographed a couple of musicals that my brother, Dave, directed at area high schools. She's fantastic."
"This isn't accidental," she said. "The problem with the shoot today? That put us right here, in this cafeteria, together. Otherwise, we wouldn't have had the time to talk like this."
"What are you saying?" I asked.
"We're going to start a production company," she said. "Me and you and Carmela. We're going to present original musical theatre to lots and lots of kids. They're going to come on field trips during the day from their schools. And we're going to give them educational support materials so that they can discuss the plays when they go back to their classrooms."
"But, we don't have actors or a theater," I said. "And, we don't have any money. We'd need sets and costumes and props. I can't write music so we'd need someone to write lyrics and compose a score. And we'd need musicians or a tape of the score. That means a stage manager to cue the music for each show."
Vicki was smiling.
"I know," she said. "I've already thought of all of these things. It would also be smart to form a non-profit corporation, for tax breaks. Until today, I knew I could try to find all of these pieces but one. Now, here you are."
My brother, Dave, suddenly appeared to tell us that the electricity had finally decided to cooperate. The shoot was on.
Stages of Imagination was born that day. It took some months to decide upon a name and then incorporate, with George Giunta's help. It took several more months of knocking on doors to convince Neumann College and Saint Joseph's University to let us use their theaters. There was a lot of knocking on doors, asking for state and corporate grants and private donations. A board of directors had to found, and teachers needed to be convinced that they should bring their students to our shows. Throughout this uphill process, often with more rejection than acceptance, Vicki kept her electricity flowing. She knew Stages was meant to be. There was no stopping us.
A tad over 200,000 kids have now seen our shows in four states. Many of them are inner city kids from very poor neighborhoods and parishes. We now have a van to carry our actors and portable sets to those schools who can't afford the bus fare to Neumann or St. Joe's. We have performed in tiny gyms and minature all purpose rooms, with the audience inches from the actors. And the actors love it.
At the end of each show, the actors remove their wigs and face masks to remind the kids that the play is over, that it was all wonderful make believe. One little boy, who had been standing close to Vicki at the end of a show, looked like he wanted to say something. His teacher called his name and told him to hurry up and join his class as they left. He took a couple of steps, then spun around to her and said, "I'm going to think of you everyday for the rest of my life."
The magic and power of live theatre.
Some time back, I asked Carmela, "How can you really tell if a show is working, that the audience is with you?"
"It's like an intake of breath that they don't expel 'till the end of the show," she said.
I had not expected, when I reported to a shoot 22 years ago, that I was going to suddenly inhale when I met a dynamic ball of energy named Vicki Giunta. I did not know that I would be connected to an entertainment/educational organization that would go on to produce an award winning film and award winning CDs. I had no idea that Newberry Award winner Lloyd Alexander and Pultizer Prize Winner Dr. Robert Coles of Harvard would endorse our work. And I could never imagine that the National Education Association and the Southern Poverty Law Center would cite our plays for their important issues.
Chris McGovern, our long time New York composer and lyricist, has now directed, arranged and composed shows Off Broadway and around the country, as well as produced, arranged and orchestrated solo CDs for Tony nominees' Alison Fraser, Rebecca Luker and Susan Egan. Vicki landed a principal role in M. Night Shyamalan's film, Wide Awake, along with Dana Delaney, Denis Leary, Robert Loggia, and Rosie O'Donnell. Carmela was named "Best Director" by critics for PA and NJ and has directed regional theatre in FL, VA, PA, DE and RI.
And me? I returned to education in 1990, teaching in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District during the day and writing the plays and educational support materials for Stages at night and during the summer. My industrial films had converted to classrooms, rock steady work that paid toward my kids' college tuitions and my own tuition at the University of Pennsylvania.
Douglas Adams wrote: "I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be."
And I know that the show is still working, because I haven't exhaled yet.
Copyright (c) 2011 by James Hugh Comey
Information about Stages of Imagination can be found at http://www.stagesofimagination.org/