I n February, Long Wharf Theatre opened its production of Sam Shepard’s comical tragedy The Curse of the Starving Class.
It was the first time the theater had ever done a play by Shepard, a revered Off Broadway playwright also known as the star of The Right Stuff and other Hollywood movies. Long Wharf subscribers (especially those who don’t go to the Yale Repertory Theatre, which has done a number of Shepard scripts over the years) might have been curious about Shepard the playwright. They might have wondered if economic situations in mid-20th century California were really as dire as his absurdist American satire suggests. They might have been curious if it was really necessary to have a live sheep onstage, or whether other onstage spectacles in The Curse of the Starving Class occurred in every production of the play.
The answers are as close as the local branch of the public library. And how close is that? In the lobby of the Long Wharf Theatre.
In January, Long Wharf and New Haven Free Public Library joined together under a pilot program, “Co-Creating Effective and Inclusive Organizations,” funded by the Graustein Foundation. The idea, according to a press release issued that month, was to address “issues of inclusivity, social justice, and conscious co-creation within their own organizations and the city at large, as well as how engagement in literature and theatre can help address these issues.” One of the first methods the institutions came up with was easy: putting library books which addressed key themes in Long Wharf Theatre productions on prominent public display in the theater’s lobby. If you brought your library card with you to the theater, you can check the books out and bring them home. They tried out the idea at the world premiere of the “horror weight loss comedy” January Joiner by Laura Jacqmin, which played the Long Wharf’s Stage II space in January. Books about nutrition and self-image were displayed on a table in the Stage II lobby to augment the topics discussed in the show.
The project was enlarged to bookcase-sized proportions for the recent shows on the Long Wharf main stage. The sleek modern bookcase bears a sign decreeing it a “Special Interest Library,” and has become a real conversation piece before performances and during intermissions.
The initiative has a snappy name for the books-in-the-lobby concept: “Stage. Page. Engage.”
“We provide the library with the basic themes of the plays, and they provide the books,” says Steve Scarpa (pictured above, left), Long Wharf’s Director of Marketing and Communications. “For Curse of the Starving Class, that meant books about poverty and the American West. It’s a small collection, but it’s been popular so far.”
At opening night of the current Long Wharf show, the new—indeed, this is it’s world premiere—drama Ride the Tiger by William Mastrosimone, theatergoers were browsing dozens of books on a variety of subjects relating to power and celebrity in the 1960s. Tiger concerns John Fitzgerald Kennedy and spans the time from when he was still a Senator from Massachusetts to the first couple of years of his presidency, centered around suspicious strategies through which he became elected. Another key character in the play is Sam Giancana, the Chicago Mafia leader alleged to have “fixed” the vote in the Chicago Democratic primary, a significant victory which allowed Kennedy to be embraced by a broader base and let him shed his marginalized label as “the Catholic candidate.”
“There’s so much on the subject,” notes Sunnie Sette (pictured above, middle), who works at New Haven Free Public Library and chooses which books to display in the Long Wharf/NHFPL initiative. “The artistic staff of the theater sends me themes. I read editorial reviews of the books. We try to get a little creative, see how far we can go with a topic.”
The literary array for Ride the Tiger includes biographies of JFK and his father Joe (both of whom are characters in the show), books about First Lady Jackie Kennedy (who is not portrayed in the play, but is naturally mentioned a number of times in the context of her husband’s adulterous activities with another Tiger character, Judith Exner), histories of the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion and general chronicles of politics and culture in the 1960s. A key book in the display is investigative reporter Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot, published in 1997. Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, who directs Ride the Tiger, has said he was influenced by the book in putting the show together.
Ironically, playwright Mastrosimone says he didn’t do a lot of book research for his play. His key source was one of the people portrayed in the show, Frank Sinatra, whom Mastrosimone interviewed over a period of two years for a TV miniseries on the singer’s life. Mastrosimone says he wanted Ride the Tiger to be true to the perspective he got from Sinatra, and that he distrusts biographers who’ve speculated about Kennedy’s relationship with Giancana because those writers “weren’t in the room. I did do some research to fill in the gaps, like ‘When were the primaries?,’ but I didn’t use anybody’s book about Frank Sinatra, for instance. I wasn’t looking for material about him.”
Granted, not everyone who goes out to see a play—or write one—is inspired to dash to the library afterwards for further research. Many theatergoers can’t even be bothered to read the articles and notes in the theater programs. There’s an ongoing debate in theater circles about whether one should go to a theater show “fresh” and unsullied by outside opinions and information, or whether it’s best to bone up on a subject before experiencing it.
The answer, of course: Everybody’s different. It’s nice to have options. And, if you’re incredulous that, as Mastrosimone puts it, “this important story about modern times and the way things really work” could actually have happened the way it’s told onstage, it’s reassuring to have a little independent verification on a shelf just a few feet from the entrance to the auditorium.
The theater and the library are pleased with the early results of their still-evolving partnership. So far, besides the books in the lobby, New Haven Free Public Library has arranged for Long Wharf Tickets to be “checked out” free by patrons in the same way that museum passes can be borrowed. “Other theaters are calling us to get ideas for how they can do projects like this,” Sunnie Sette says.
Christopher Korenowsky (pictured above, right), who’s been Executive Director of the NHFPL for three years now, sees this “micro branch” of the library as part of a worthwhile “longterm partnership” through which many connections between the library and the greater New Haven community can be achieved. He speaks of “shared goals” and “sparking conversations.”
Then he, Scarpa, and Sette sum it all up, in unison: “Stage. Page. Engage.”