Park School faculty members succeed in writing and directing

January 08, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The faculty at Park School has been spreading its theatrical wings in recent months. Laura Amy Schlitz, a lower school librarian and author of a dozen plays for children, is completing rewrites on a play about Sacajawea, commissioned by a professional children's theater in Louisville, Ky. And in November, Howard Berkowitz, an upper school English teacher, directed a musical based on Anton Chekhov's "The Marriage Proposal" at a New York Chekhov festival.

Schlitz's connection with Louisville's Stage One began in 1988 when her mother encouraged her to send the theater a copy of her play "The Emperor's Nightingale," which had previously been produced locally by the Children's Theater Association. "I didn't see why I should," Schlitz says. "I figured every town had a school librarian who was writing these, and why would they want to buy one from somebody else?"

So her mother sent the script for her.

That began a continuing relationship with the Kentucky company, which performs for audiences of more than 100,000 annually. To date, Stage One has produced four of Schlitz's plays. "Sacajawea" is her second commission.

In this case, Moses Goldberg, the theater's producing director, told her he wanted a play about a "feisty American woman." Schlitz launched into her research about the Native American guide for Lewis and Clark during last winter's snowstorm, when Park closed for a few days.

However, she says, it was quite difficult to pin down Sacajawea's story. "She didn't talk, and she didn't complain," Schlitz says. "I wrote down at one point everything that is known about her - absolutely everything that is known about her. I made this list, and there were 35 things. ... It was a question of how do I connect the dots."

Among those things: "She was the only woman, one of the youngest people, and the only mother on the expedition," Schlitz says. "I tried to focus on what it was like for her."

"Sacajawea," which she expects to be produced next fall, isn't the only theater-related event in Schlitz's future. In 1996 she wrote a series of monologues about children in the Middle Ages, to be performed by fifth-graders at Park. The monologues have just been accepted for publication by Candlewick Press.

Meanwhile, Berkowitz, a long-time Chekhov fan, made his New York debut directing "How to Insult Your True Love." The 35-minute operetta was adapted from the one-act play "The Marriage Proposal," by his boyhood friend, Burton Sternthal, and his wife, Susan Saltiel. It was the only musical among 13 productions in the second annual Chekhov Now festival, held at Connelly Theater the first three weeks in November.

This was not, however, Berkowitz's first time directing "The Marriage Proposal," a tale of an engagement thwarted by petty arguments. In 1999 it was one of several Chekhov one-acts he directed as the upper school spring production at Park. Sternthal, who runs a math enrichment program at LaSalle College in Philadelphia, attended that production and "was delighted," Berkowitz says.

When "How to Insult Your True Love" was accepted by the Chekhov festival, Berkowitz says Sternthal was told, "We can give you a New York director or you can choose your own. He thought a collaboration between the two of us would be wonderful."

The experience "went beautifully," Berkowitz says. "I'd never worked with adults before, I'm usually directing kids. ... It was great spending time in the theater with adults who had spent a lot of their lives committed to theater."

The festival has invited the director and composer back next year, and Sternthal has a musical version of Chekhov's "The Bear" in the works, although it may not be ready in time.

For now, one of the classes Berkowitz is teaching at Park is a course in playwriting. "I'm using Chekhov in that course as an example of exquisite playwriting," he says. "Anything that happens in the school connected with Chekhov eventually comes my way."

Center State connections

August Wilson's "Jitney," which played a record-setting run at Center Stage in January 1999, will end its off-Broadway engagement on Jan. 28, after 311 performances and 20 previews. The award-winning drama about gypsy cab drivers in Pittsburgh in the 1970s opened at New York's Second Stage on April 25, and transferred to the larger Union Square Theatre on Sept. 19.

In its last weeks, the play's sole female role is being played by Linda Powell, a Center Stage alum and the daughter of U.S. Secretary of State nominee Gen. Colin L. Powell.

That's not the only Center Stage-related news stemming from this production; the play's director, Marion McClinton, an associate artist at Center Stage, has been named director of Disney's coming musical, "Hoopz," about the Harlem Globetrotters.

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