WILL-A-THON – The Twentieth Year

Legendary Austin Pendleton waits patiently to greet Charles E. Gerber talking with Broadway veteran Emily Zacharias
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On April 23rd and 24th, Shakespeare’s birthday was celebrated in a manner that Shakespeare himself would have loved. Ethics and the Theater in association with The Workshop Theater celebrated William Shakespeare’s 459th birthday at the twentieth Will-A-Thon, conceived and directed by Charles E. Gerber. This year was, undoubtedly, the very best one yet.

Charles E. Gerber

Several audience members commented in agreement that this was Shakespeare at its best, each word ringing clearly with powerful emotion to accompany those words in a very simple Shakespearian setting.  A simple stage without curtain or wings, the most minimum of costume to suggest a specific character, a crown, a sweater, a scarf tied just the right way and voila! A new character emerges.

On April 23rd Will’s Way, a selection of scenes, speeches, and soliloquies was presented at the Society for Ethical Culture.

This program was a medley of specific acts from within a variety of Shakespeare plays. It took form as Mr. Gerber, seamlessly blended the various elements. There was a rhythmic flow, beauty, deeply powerful human interactions and, suspense. There was even music that embellished the mood.  But it was the quality of the acting, well-rehearsed, directed and executed that took the day.

“A kingdom for a stage” and that stage was filled by the following actors taking multiple roles:

Joseph Abrams, Arthur Aulisi, Ethan Cadoff, Letty Ferrer, Charles E. Gerber, Maggie Horan, Casey Kelly, Erik Kochenberger, Matt McGlade, Sarah Spring, Jovan Tyler Graham.

On Monday evening, April 24th there was a concert reading of Much Ado About Nothing. Directed by Charles E. Gerber with added guest artists: Joel Bernstein, Tess Frazer, Mark Hofmaier, Randy Wade Kelley, Jeff Paul, Ben Sumrall.

Production stage manager for both performances was Mateo Del Campo.

Joel Bernstein as Dogberry

Mr. Gerber generously agreed to answer a few questions for Splash Magazines Worldwide.

You first conceived Will-A-Thon 20 years ago.  What was your inspiration? How did you choose the name? 

Well, technically, I conceived the festival 19 years ago in 2004 and that made this the 20th Annual WILL-A-THON to date. The name for the festival simply occurred to me as a Bardian pun on Marathon and was instantly recognized as such.

My late wife, Carol Bennett Gerber, who was also a founding artist member of The Workshop Theater, had just mounted a full Equity Showcase Production of “A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM” on what was our Main Stage on 36th St. in December of 2003. We produced it under Tony Sportiello’s reign as Artistic Director at that time and Carol directed a brilliant and critically acclaimed staging. I played Bottom for the second time in my career, having little trouble in making a proper ass of myself.

Previously in that year Tony had persuaded me, with little arm twisting to create a class for professional actors and those particularly in The Workshop Theater company to study on how best to learn, absorb, digest and render the Bard intelligently and intelligibly, which, I and others have discovered is possible, but not the easiest of tasks. Thus, those who have braved to be and remain in my proximity undertaking this challenge have evolved into what Will would call “A CRY OF PLAYERS” that has over the years earned the respect and admiration of the public at large, and some rather discerning Shakespeare veterans who commendations I shall eternally cherish.

My superlative teacher from Juilliard, the legendary Moni Yakim, the equally so, Austin Pendleton, who has been involved in several of the festivals, Stephen McKinley Henderson, my classmate from Group I at the aforementioned school, and foremost I must say, the late, Richard Easton, of whom I’ve much to recount with a further question, ALL of these luminaries have given me enormous encouragement to continue in this pursuit in helping truly good American actors equal ANY players in the world, in their successful playing of Shakespeare.

Jeff Paul and Tess Frazer as Leonato and Hero

What was your vision for Will-A-Thon when you first introduced it?

I suppose I’ve already answered that in the previous response in terms of my vision of allowing my colleagues to be unafraid of collaborating with one of the greatest Mind/Souls in human history. When Carol and I produced TWELFTH NIGHT in”95 and JULIUS CAESAR two years later, members of the audience would consistently ask me,” Who did your TRANSLATION?’ I’d look at them perplexed and tell them that they merely heard Will’s words as written. They’d be astonished that for the first time they UNDERSTOOD these words and the stories that he so superbly told. That began my formulating that there must be a way to make this occur with greater frequency and for that matter, delight! 

 What do you think accounts for the sustainability of Will-A-Thon?

The self-evident Joy of the players in their intelligible playing and for the audience to wholly share in it. 

Erik Kochenberger and Maggie Horan as Benedick and Margaret

Are there any standout moments that took place in preparing for or performing for “Will-A-Thon” that you would like to share?

YES, and that leads me back to RICHARD EASTON,of whom you must know was the recipient of not merely the 2001 TONY AWARD for Best Lead Actor in Tom Stoppard’s “THE INVENTION OF LOVE” but also inducted into THE THEATER HALL OF FAME in 2008.

I’d first seen him perform in Moliere’s “THE MISANTHROPE” along with one one of my teachers, the great Brian Bedford, back in 1968. Richard played the title role, superbly of course, and I became a lifelong fan. By the time he played A.E Houseman in Stoppard’s play in 2001, I was mesmerized by what I observed was a genius portraying a genius with what seemed to be no effort in the least. I prayed to Providence to please show me how to do that. Two years later he was portraying the title role at Lincoln Center in “HENRY IV”, with dear Kevin Kline providing an exceptional Falstaff. By that time I’d had a series of friendly professional encounters with Richard, and on December 7th, my wife’s birthday, I treated her and myself to that auspicious theatrical event. I’d called Richard (the man was LISTED) and asked if when I went backstage with my dear, he’d given her a birthday greeting. After enjoying the remarkable staging of Jack O’Brien’s of Dakin Matthews combining of the two Henry IV plays, I escorted Carol backstage which didn’t surprise her initially since she’d met Kevin some years earlier at a Juilliard reunion and, indeed, we encountered him first and lavished warranted praise on his Sir John. Then we knocked on the dressing room of Mr. Easton, and Lo, the KING Of ENGLAND emerged and without missing a beat sang” HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR CAROL” as my wife’s eyes popped out of their sockets like a Tex Avery Cartoon. From that moment forth, I swore to love this man forever and to my immeasurable fortune, he friended me, my work, and participated in 2013, 2014, and 2015 WILL-A-THONS culminating in my directing him in a reading of ‘KING LEAR” (Ha!, consisting of my telling him,” Sit here.” to which he replied with a smile:’ I expected no less”) and those fortunate to attend heard the best rendering of that role EVER!

And after that, he happily retired. I visited him as often as I could since he tolerated my company yet loved my chicken soup. 

Charles E. Gerber

Do you have any plans for Will-A-Thon’s future?

Well, I just completed this one and am frankly exhausted.  Still with The Workshop Theater’s support Under the artistic direction of Thomas Cote, and the most generous support of our benefactors that has enabled us to actually PAY our players a non-insulting wage, I pray that the 21st WILL-A-THON, coinciding his 460th birthday celebration will, as we appear to miraculously, exceed the previous ones year upon year, please Providence.

I MUST note that there is but one player who has appeared in every festival since its inception, other than yours truly, and that its Ms. LETTY FERRER, the daughter of Uta Hagan, and one of my personal heroes: JOSE FERRER. Her loyalty, talent, and clear reflection of her gene pool has graced us year after year and I am, as I am for ALL the players who’ve contributed, deeply, DEEPLY grateful.

Sarah Spring was a brilliant Beatrice and Randy Wade Kelley the messenger in “Much Ado About Nothing” at an after play gathering with Kelli Sportiello and Tandy Cronyn

Check The Workshop Theater website for upcoming productions.

Check Ethics and the Theater.

Photos: Ronna Wineberg, Marcia Ferstenfeld and J. Lorenzo


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