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Let's make a Neil
A comedic summer series from the Masquers of AASU
Phil Newell and Caitlin Mackenzie Wade rehearse Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" (Photo: KATHERINE ARNTZEN/AASU)

Students in Armstrong Atlantic State University’s performing arts department are about to get a lesson in real–world theater. For the Masquers’ Summer of Simon series, they’re doing three beloved Neil Simon comedies in quick succession, over three consecutive weekends.

It was, by all accounts, theater professor Pam Sears – an unabashedly big fan of the legendary New York playwright – who first suggested the idea.

Megan Baptiste–Field, who’ll soon go from adjunct to full–time instructor, was delegated series producer.

“Pam, (professor) Peter Mellen and I all talked about it,” Baptiste–Field explains. “And to be honest, it’s very similar to my professional experiences running summer rep.

“That was really one of the biggest goals for our students – we wanted to provide them with a professional summer experience. So if they couldn’t leave Savannah because they were taking classes, we’re trying to give them a summer stock experience here, where they do shows back–to–back.”

Baptiste–Field, whose field of expertise is set design and the other technical aspects of show–running, says the breathless schedule includes eight–hour days in the carpentry shop and rehearsals every night after classes.

Barefoot in the Park will be followed by The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which will then give way to The Odd Couple (Female Version).

It’s the full turnaround experience.

“Every cast is different,” says Baptiste–Field. “Every director and stage manager is different. I think there are one or two actors playing smaller roles in two shows, but for the most part we’ve just been running simultaneously every night. We have three rehearsal spaces, and they cycle onto the mainstage for a night every couple of days.”

For Barefoot in the Park, opening July 7, the director is recent AASU graduate John Wright. “I originally did my studying at Second City in Chicago,” he says, “so I’m a firm believer that good comedy is a lot harder to pull off than drama. Because you need to be able to switch gears so quickly. You need to have that connection moment, but then you also have to have the timing to bring your jokes across.”

And the comic dialogue of Barefoot, the story of quirky 1960s newlyweds Paul and Corey Bratter and their first days in a 10th–floor walkup, is vintage, rat–a–tat Simon.

“One thing I’ve tried to make clear to the actors is, there’s a reason it’s the longest–running Simon show on Broadway,” Wright explains. “You can almost feel a definite rhythm to a Simon show, and I think that gets lost sometimes, especially in Barefoot in the Park. If it slows down, you forget that it’s kinda just comic bantering – it’s one–liners back and forth off of each other. So if you don’t keep a rhythm you can lull the audience to sleep!

“That’s been the biggest thing we’ve worked on, to the point where we’ll even bring out metronomes, to do the show to a rhythm. Letting the actors figure out that ‘Hey, this has pretty much got to be one line after the other. But when it’s time to feel an emotion, or really dig in, that’s when you can take a break from that rhythm.’”

Once Barefoot closes, with Sunday’s matinee, the set will be re–tooled into the apartment of Mel and Edna Edison for The Prisoner of Second Avenue.

This posed something of a problem for set designer Baptiste-Field. A main feature of the Barefoot set is an oversized window, which has to be big enough for several characters to walk behind, as if they’re edging along the 10th floor ledge.
Prisoner takes place during a heat wave, and a garbage strike. The perpetually irritated Mel frequently opens his French doors, walks onto the balcony and yells rudely at his upstairs neighbors.

There are just four days between the end of Barefoot and opening night of Prisoner.

“Simon,” says Baptiste–Field, “is traditionally known for having written a lot of plays that are interiors, New York City, from the ‘50s and ‘60s into the ‘80s. So the challenge was to find a set that would work for all the three shows. And also to meet the very specific needs that Neil Simon puts into his sets – he’s famous for having conversations about what the sets look like.”

Later, of course, the company will do the whole thing again when the set is used for Olive Madison’s divorcee flat in The Odd Couple.

Baptiste–Field’s got it covered; likewise, she has tremendous faith in her directors. Ashton Carr is handling Prisoner, while Kimmi Sampieri directs The Odd Couple.

Although Wright’s take on Barefoot is strictly ‘60s, she says, “Ashton and Kimmi have both chosen to put their shows in the modern time period.

Prisoner, for example, is all about a husband and wife who have a role reversal. The husband loses a job, and the wife has to go back out and get one. Ashton thought wow, this is a modern story. We can tell it in a modern period.

“And Kimmi chose to modernize The Odd Couple by adding a couple of guys to the cast, not just having all women. They’re playing Trivial Pursuit instead of poker.

“So I think everyone’s found kind of a unique way to find the story in Neil Simon, but also how can we give the audience a little different take on Simon for each show.”

Summer of Simon

Where: Armstrong Atlantic State University Jenkins Hall Theatre, 11935 Abercorn St.

Tickets: $10 each show. AASU students, staff and faculty admitted free

Discounts for U.S. military, senior citizens, alumni association members, and non–Armstrong students/children

Info: (912) 344–2801

Barefoot in the Park

When: At 7:30 p.m. July 7–9, 3 p.m. July 10

The Prisoner of Second Avenue

When: At 7:30 p.m. July 14–16, 3 p.m. July 17

The Odd Couple (Female Version)

When: At 7:30 p.m. July 21–23, 3 p.m. July 24