He laughs. “I don’t know,” he says. “I got distracted? Life got in the way?”
Fact is, he says, “Alice” is the first full-length play he’s written that he feels passionate enough about to deal with the frustrations and challenges of actually bringing to the stage. And there have been plenty of challenges, beginning with the fact that the play appropriates characters created by another writer, Lewis Carroll, from another world, another time, the late 19th century. Meaning that he’s had to take a classic piece of literature, a staple from our youths, and drag it into modern times, which is always a dangerous thing — something that can irritate people as much as amuse or enlighten them. Then there’s also the fact that it deals with complex psychological and spiritual issues and worldviews, which, if not done with a deft touch, can smother the whole enterprise.
“Wonderglass,” which opens Feb. 11 at the Actors Studio, follows the teenage Alice through the Looking Glass, but the character divides into three characters competing for dominance: Prima, the young girl as defined by her parents, who is locked into their worldview; Secunda, who wants to grow up and change, but is she ready?; and Tertia, the third Alice, a shadow self, who is flatly denied by the other two and who holds all those dark feelings that the others do not want to acknowledge. The role is split among three actresses — Christina Beck, Allegra Larson and Katherine Hall. Anna Smulowitz is co-directing with Clopton, who tapped her, in part, because of her strength working with physical plays. And because, as both acknowledge, because Clopton knew that, as playwright, he might be a little too close to the work and not be able to assess issues that come up in the course of getting the production up and running. “I needed another eye, someone who could look at it critically and make changes,” he says. “Anna doesn’t hold back, she’s someone whose opinion I can trust.”
Yeah, they’ve got history, theatrical and otherwise, going back to the early 1970s, when Smulowitz taught in the theater department of the University of Maryland, and Clopton was one of her students. The campus became a theatrical playground. They worked on many shows together. The collaboration led to marriage. When the curtains closed on the marriage, Clopton headed to the Left Coast, where he studied with Gene Bua in Burbank and taught in Bua’s expanding studio. He also taught for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences at Paramount Studios in Hollywood and in the UCLA Continuing Education Program.
Smulowitz moved to Cambridge and, eventually, Newburyport, where she founded the Newburyport Children’s Theater, which would eventually become Theater in the Open. Clopton moved to the Port City to be closer to his son, Aaron, who is also involved with the current production, working on special effect set painting with Deirdra Corbelle and Ellen Sklar. “It was good then,” Smulowitz says, laughing “... and better now, nearly 40 years later. I know it sounds really schmaltzy, but we really do finish each other’s sentences. It’s a remarkable piece of writing. It looks like a play for children, but the language is beautiful and poetic and musical. It feels like a showcase for something for the future, something bigger. It’s just a great piece.”
Down the rabbit hole
Actually, the concept for “Wonderglass” has been kicking around for a long time, since Clopton’s LA days, where the piece started out as a 10-minute short. He’s used that version through the years as a workout piece for students at the Actors Studio. “I’ve wanted to explore its themes for a long time,” Clopton says. “It kept tugging at me.” Then about three years ago, he took the plunge and started developing and expanding the ideas of the piece, and has gotten “intense about it” over the past year and a half. He rolled it out, with a little trepidation (“It’s risky, personally risky as well as risky as a writer,” he says. “You don’t know how the world is going to respond to it.”) last year at the North Shore Readers Theater Collaborative — just to see how it would fly. The response was strong enough, he felt confident enough to work out the kinks.
It’s a Stage Three production, the last stop before actual, official world premiere — a process that begins with cold readings at Writers and Actors, Ink, and is followed up by North Shore Readers Theater treatment, but it’s a completed work.
The production will take the Tannery theater way beyond its well-defined role as edgy, alt-stage black box. The show is front-loaded with the kinds of bells and whistles from, well, more financially well-endowed theaters, beginning with Gordon Przybyla’s multimedia magic, which will take the audience, as well as Alice, through the looking glass. Barbara Keiter’s set pieces complete the multimedia, multidimensional effects. Dan Hanson created set designs, Shari Wilkinson and Kathy Schenk created the costume designs. In addition to the three Alices, the cast includes Alan Huisman and Danny Gerstein.
JUST THE FACTS, MAN: “Alice in Wonderglass,” a new play by Marc Clopton, will be staged Feb. 11 to 27 at The Actors Studio of Newburyport, Mill #1, Suite #5, at the Tannery. Anna Smulowitz directs. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays, and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are $15, $13 for seniors and students. For more information, call 978-465-1229 or check out the Web page.