Starring in ‘Our Town’ … nobody
November 16, 2006
Of the several elements that distinguish Thornton Wilder’s drama “Our Town” – the barely-there sets, the backtracking through time, the characters’ addressing the audience directly – perhaps the most is the role of the Stage Manager. The Stage Manager acts as more than a narrator: He describes settings and characters, makes observations of the world, and even reveals the future. His is an omniscient presence, and the role is juicy enough to have attracted some big names – Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Hal Holbrook, Spalding Gray and Art Carney – who have received star billing in televised versions of the play.Doug Sheffer, who plays the Stage Manager in the upcoming local production of “Our Town,” believes such high-profile casting badly misses the point of the play. Though he is intimate with the living rooms and the talk on the street in Grover’s Corners, the iconic small-town, New Hampshire setting of Wilder’s play, the Stage Manager is not meant to be a godlike figure. In Sheffer’s reading, he is just another piece of the community. In fact, when he introduces the residents of Grover’s Corners in the opening lines, the Stage Manager omits himself.”I think the role itself is not, ‘Listen to me, because I’m talking to you.’ It’s, ‘I will give you hints at the messages of the play. I’ll throw in a few clues,'” said Sheffer, a 56-year-old Basalt resident. “I don’t consider it a starring role. It’s not that character directing things. It’s the glue holding the thing together.”It’s possible that Sheffer has, to some extent, internalized the role, blended himself with his image of the character. Since he moved to the valley, in 1980, Sheffer has been involved with local theater and always in non-starring roles. He has been in the chorus of a handful of Aspen Community Theatre productions, including “Peter Pan,” “West Side Story” and “The King and I.” More recently he has appeared in downvalley productions, by CMC Theatre and Defiance Players, of “Dancing at Lughnasa” and “The Secret Garden,” both times portraying what he calls “quirky, interesting character roles.” His first-ever paying gig came two years ago, when he appeared in Theatre Aspen’s children’s play, “The Near-Sighted Knight and the Far-Sighted Dragon.”
Sheffer may minimize the prominence of the Stage Manager. Still, he notes, it is “the biggest thing I’ve ever chewed off by far. A lot of monologues. It’s like going from the frying pan into the fire.”Or maybe downplaying the Stage Manager fits Sheffer’s idea of “Our Town,” which earned Wilder the first of two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1938. (He would earn another for 1943’s “Skin of Our Teeth.”) Wilder’s play is a reminder, sometimes not a subtle one, to take in and appreciate fully the everyday aspects of life – and most especially, the people. And that includes everyone from the CEO to the soda jerk.”There’s no star quality. Everyone in the town is an average, ordinary person,” Sheffer said of “Our Town.” “I think what Thornton Wilder is saying is, if you want happiness and peace, to get the meat out of life, notice the people in your life and interact with them. No one in a small town can hide.”
Sheffer was born in New York City, but his family moved to suburban Westport, Conn., within a week of his birth. The distance was not so great that Sheffer didn’t become a Broadway regular. He estimates that he saw some 250 shows, including the first-run productions of “Oklahoma,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “A Chorus Line.”The theater program at Westport’s Staples High School made no less of an impact. The Staples Players was a more or less full-time preoccupation for three teachers, who also squeezed in time to work on Broadway. Over a tenth of the 2,000-strong student body participated in each production.”They were unbelievable,” said Sheffer. “They’d win state drama championships year after year.” The group, added Sheffer, was eventually asked to stop participating in the competitions – but were invited to perform for the other theater companies. “That’s where I came from.”But such high-level talent put butterflies in Sheffer’s stomach. Too shy to audition for onstage roles, he stuck to the technical crew. “If you pushed me onstage, I would have melted, like the Wicked Witch. It was too painful for me at 17, 18,” he said.For a decade following high school – covering his time at Lehigh University, and then his years as a ski instructor, from Vermont to Sun Valley – Sheffer stayed away from theater. But by the time he moved to Aspen 26 years ago, he was ready not only to jump back in, but to get onstage as well.Sheffer’s biggest role in local theater was not, however, onstage, but building a stage. Sheffer and his wife, Barbi, were among the founding parents of the Aspen Waldorf School, and then the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork; their daughter, Brooke, was in the first class to go from kindergarten to eighth grade in the Carbondale-area school.When the Waldorf School was being built and a theater being contemplated, Sheffer rented a jet so that the building committee could make a one-day visit to a Waldorf School in New Hampshire. Sheffer, a significant supporter of the school, advised the committee to dream big in planning the venue, and when the committee members speculated what the price tag would be, Sheffer said, sotto voce, “I think I’ve got that covered.”With funds from Sheffer’s late mother’s foundation, an impressive theater was built. The space was eventually named for the late Steven Moore, who had taught theater at the school. Steven Moore Hall is the location for the downvalley productions of “Our Town,” with the Wheeler Opera House being used for the Aspen dates.The hall is more than just a place; it is also the foundation for a busy theater program. The Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork puts on eight productions a year, one by each grade. Sheffer, who is on the school’s board and community council and helps with the management of the theater, has taken back-seat and backstage roles in the school’s theater program (he operates the lights for most productions). But he takes a leading position in trumpeting the program.”We put as much into the second-grade play as the eighth,” said Sheffer, who flies for DBS Helicopters, the charter service he owns. “Whatever we can do for lights, sound, costumes, we do.””Our Town” is a quasi-Waldorf production. All proceeds will benefit the school. Sheffer is producer as well as a cast member, and the rest of the cast features several Waldorf grads and two Waldorf parents. The show is directed by Wendy Moore, and features local stage regulars John Goss, John Dillon and Bob Moore.”Our Town” is also closely linked to Waldorf principles. Wilder was among the attendees of the 1949 celebration that honored German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe (and signaled the start of modern Aspen). Rudolph Steiner, who founded Waldorf education, descended from Goethe’s thinking. True to Waldorf philosophy – and in a spirit Wilder would have appreciated – every student appears onstage. There are no starring roles, and in the younger grades, the presentations are group recitations.
“Everybody – even down to someone with two minutes of stage time – is important,” said Sheffer. “You take them out, and it’s like taking a brick out of the wall.”It’s a way of looking at life that Sheffer sees in Waldorf, in “Our Town,” and in Anytown, USA – even Aspen.”If you take a look at your own town, it wouldn’t be the same without the skiing stars, the musicians, the Given Institute,” he said. “Every person is important.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org