CKP stages world premiere of Charlie Barnett’s ‘12ness’
“12ness” may be a play that recounts the history of two influential musicians, but it may also help to shape the future of theater in the Lehigh Valley.
“This is an original piece,” explains the play’s director George B. Miller. “It has not been produced, presented, or performed anywhere before.”
Miller is the first person invited to direct a Crowded Kitchen Players (CKP) play, the company having presented 70 plays prior.
“It feels a little daunting to be honest,” Miller continues, “because the same people have been working there for all those years, and I’ve known many of them for years. But I think that, regardless of that, the piece itself is why I agreed to take part.”
“12ness,” which runs June 9-18 as part of the “IceHouse Tonight Series,” was written by composer Charlie Barnett about Arnold Schoenberg and George Gershwin, two influential musicians of their time, as they debate their artistic processes and inspirations.
“12ness” is based on the real friendship, and tennis rivalry, between two very different early 20th-century composers: the respected but severe Schoenberg and the wildly-popular Gershwin, who sponsored Schoenberg’s family when they fled Nazi-era Vienna for the United States.
Set in 1937 Los Angeles, the play features Schoenberg; Gershwin; Schoenberg’s wife, Gertrud; and Gershwin’s girlfriend, actress Ginger Rogers.
The play’s title refers to Schoenberg’s 12-tone serial compositional technique.
“While I definitely relate to both of them, I feel more connected to Schoenberg in many ways,” Miller says. “When he would write music, he would think through the entire process in his head, creating these fantastic pieces of music in his mind before writing it down. My process, I feel, is very similar, where I can see the notes as I listen to music, whereas Gershwin took a more traditional approach to the process.”
Something that Miller felt important to stress is how this play, while featuring these two male artists, is just as much about two important women and their perspectives on the world.
“Ginger Rogers was an actor and dancer of the 1940s and ‘50s, and acts as the common sense in the dialogue between Schoenberg and Gershwin, making her a very interesting and important figure, both historically and in terms of the story being told here. And Schoenberg’s wife has, in the play, recently arrived in America after having resided in Vienna, and much of her strength comes from what she expects of the U.S. as an immigrant, pushing her to fight for the America she wants to be a part of.”
While “12ness” focuses on the musical aspect of their debate, it also touches on Schoenberg’s and Gershwin’s penchant for all art.
“What’s interesting is that both of these very impressive musicians were also painters, which was something the play didn’t really address originally. So, with Barnett’s permission, I added a few things here and there to address the visual aspects of their art as well as the verbal. I guess you could say I provided a little bit of my own artistic expression.”
CKP Producer Ara Barlieb and Barnett have known each other and occasionally worked together since their days as students at Easton Area High School. When Barnett shared the script for “12ness” with Barlieb and CKP, Barlieb asked Miller to join the team, making “12ness” the first of CKP’s 71 productions to be directed by a guest director.
Miller, Artistic Director of Selkie Theatre, directs a seasoned cast included CKP veterans Ryan MacNamara as George Gershwin and Stephanie Gawlas Walsh as Ginger Rogers, in addition to newcomers Robert Salsburg as Arnold Schoenberg, and Syd Stauffer as Gertrud Schoenberg.
“12ness’ producers are Barlieb and Pamela Wallace, CKP co-founder. Barlieb is sound and light designer.
As a long-standing member of the theatrical community of the Lehigh Valley, Miller feels as if this play helps to signal to playwrights, actors, and directors of the area the importance of banding together to help one another.
“We as Lehigh Valley artists should come together and work more clearly and vividly to make more theater here. There have always been a lot of opportunities, but we should encourage and assist one another now more than ever.
“Here I am, an artistic director of one theater, directing a play for another theater while hoping to get the support from others for this project to become a success. We, as an artistic community, can be stronger than any one theater alone.”
“12ness,” 8 p.m. June 9, 10, 16, and 17, and 2 p.m. June 11 and 18, the Charles A. Brown Ice House, 56 River St., Sand Island, Bethlehem. The June 10 performance includes a “Meet the Playwright” reception. Tickets: ckplayers.com, 610-395-7176.