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The Show Won’t Go On

Farewell, Dignity Players

Less is more.    
    For nine years, Dignity Players proved it. The focus of this unique volunteer theater company was not on complex sets, colorful costumes, tricky lighting and sound effects. It couldn’t be, because for Dignity those things didn’t exist. All that existed was the small, bare stage at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis.
    But on the wood planks of that bare stage, Mickey Lund did a kind of theater that wasn’t being done in Annapolis: Plays with subject matter that other companies with more money and resources either couldn’t or ­wouldn’t take on. Stories that promoted the inherent self-worth and dignity of all people. All was told in a minimalist manner that concentrated on the rudiments of theater: committed acting and creative direction.
    Lund, a local theater veteran who was a popular and successful director at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre and The Colonial Players, founded Dignity Players in 2004 with the unabashed intent of pursuing liberal causes. In fact, the full name of the company is Dignity Players: Theatre for Change. But there was no preaching, just good theater that made you think … and feel … with the always-welcome musical or comedy sprinkled into the mix of 36 productions.
    From the two initial productions, The Exonerated, about six innocent death row survivors, and The Laramie Project, which brought to life interviews with Laramie, Wyoming, residents in the wake of a gay student’s grisly murder near their town in 1998, Dignity embarked on a bold and locally untrodden path. It was a gamble, that matters of social importance addressed directly might fill enough seats to sustain the next production, then the next one after that. For nine years, it worked.
    If you thought the lack of a true stage, the seriousness of the subject matter and the resulting smaller audiences might keep actors away, you would be wrong. Some of Annapolis’ best talent came to work at Dignity, precisely because the focus was on the script, on developing characters, on helping audiences feel the emotions of the stories.
    Audiences started coming as well. Maybe 10 or 15 on some nights, until word got out that this was quality stuff, then 20 or 30. Then the reputation for quality got around, and for some shows, like 2010’s The Crucible, the church was packed. Sure, people had read the book, had seen the various TV and movie productions. But at Dignity, they felt the fear the Proctors felt, they felt anger at the hypocrisy of the townspeople, they felt the terror of those whose lives hung on threadbare accusations.
    That feeling happens in live theater when “the play’s the thing,” when the focus is on the heart of the story and not on theatrical surroundings.
    Take Dignity’s 2012 production of 8, which uses court transcripts from the landmark federal trial of California’s Proposition 8 and firsthand interviews to show both sides of the same-sex marriage debate. Just a bunch of actors in suits reading from scripts. But the feeling … of what injustice does to real people, people with long-term relationships, people with jobs and cars and kids, people who want to legally wed the one they love … changed minds.
    Reach back to The Vagina Monologues, performed twice by Dignity, in 2006 and 2008. How many local theaters would tackle that one? Only Dignity Players. But Dignity’s production was a hit because it consisted of three talented actresses perched behind music stands, reading from their scripts in the voices of dozens of different women … blunt, funny, often unbearably moving voices … making the audience feel their humor, their fright, their births … their rapes. No effects. No fancy stuff. Just the characters and their stories. Less is more.
    Even Dignity’s lighter touches focused on character, story and minimalism. 2010’s The Last Five Years took us on a reverse/forward journey through a couple’s deteriorating relationship. 2011’s Songs for a New World featured a musical combo accompanying singer/actors telling stories of different characters experiencing and surviving life and its tragedies. 2012’s Stones in His Pockets featured two actors performing dozens of characters, Irish and American, in a play about an American movie being made in Ireland but whose subject actually is loss. 2011’s hilarious Sordid Lives was “a black comedy about white trash.” But, through the laughs, it made us feel what it’s like for family ties to be stronger than ignorance and prejudice.
    The most recent production, The 39 Steps, broke almost all of Dignity’s rules. It featured a fog machine, video projections, a spotlight, many costume changes and a ton of slapstick comedy. Still focused on the characters and the story, it proved to be quite an exit for Dignity Players as the company enters a well-earned hiatus. It’s a break made necessary by several factors, not the least of which is the increasing difficulty of securing rehearsal time and space on a church calendar getting more crowded by the month. Lund says he plans for the company to return after a year or so. Here’s hoping the year goes by fast.

Jim Reiter is a long-time actor/director in the Annapolis area and a veteran of several Dignity Players productions including the recent The 39 Steps. he recently joined the Bay Weekly team as a theater reviewer.