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The Drama Circle and Flying Machine Theatre Company will jointly present the world premiere of On the Rooftop with Bill Sears, a new play about the Bahá'í Faith written Mark Perry based on the true story told in God Loves Laughter by William Sears (1911-92). The show will run April 15-25 in the PSI Theatre in the Durham Arts Council in Durham, NC.
The curtain rises in Philadelphia in 1953. According to preshow publicity, "Bill Sears is on top of the world. His weekly show, 'In the Park,' is a hit, broadcast nationally on CBS Television. He's married to a wonderful woman and his house is alive with any number of children, pets and guests. His life is a dream-come-true. But whose dream is it? Because his dream, the dream that has hovered around him since very early childhood, is of quite a different character. His dream is that Christ would return and that he, Bill Sears, would have a special mission in spreading His new gospel. But this dream couldn't have come true... could it? ...On the Rooftop tells the charming, moving, and hilarious tale of a man found at a turning-point in history, caught between a legacy of despair and a call to renunciation.
Flying Machine artistic director Julian "J" Chachula, Jr. will direct this thought-provoking one-man show, and Drama Circle playwright and artistic director Mark Perry (A Dress for Mona) will play the title character.
On the Rooftop marks the fourth collaboration of Messrs. Chachula and Perry. Last fall, Perry directed and Chachula starred in Flying Machine Theatre Company's Oct. 17-Nov. 2 production of Underneath the Lintel by Glen Berger. Both Robert's Reviews and the Raleigh, NC News & Observer numbered Underneath the Lintel among its Top 10 Shows of 2003, and in January 2004 Robert's Reviews presented Chachula with its 2003 Triangle Theater Award for Best Solo Performance.
In On the Rooftop, Chachula and Perry will switch roles, with Chachula directing and Perry starring.
"Mark Perry told me about [this play] while we were working on Underneath the Lintel last fall," Chachula recalls. "I told him I'd direct [it] before I'd even read it, but he suspected I might be uncomfortable with the material, since I'm agnostic and the play deals with the Bahá'í Faith. So, he gave me the option of backing out honorably if I read it and got cold feet. I did get cold feet; but after reading the second draft, my toes started to thaw. I thought it was a story that ought to be told, rather than the pushing of an agenda."
Chachula says "Once we came to an agreement on what the play was really about — a human being wrestling with his destiny — the role I've played has been to look at the choices Mark made and make sure everything supported that story and its themes. Quite simply, I'd ask, 'Why this?' or 'Why that?' I wanted everything in the script to be justified, purposeful, and specific (to paraphrase Diane Arbus, 'The more specific something is the more universal'), so that he could deepen the sense of conflict."
J Chachula adds, "I like the issues at the heart of the play, the central problem the character struggles to resolve, which is figuring out what path to take in life. All of us have to address it in our lives. Many of us address it by ignoring it. But for the majority of us, how do we find answers to the questions, 'What has the most meaning to me?' or 'What is my deeper wish?' and, once we find it, 'Am I willing to risk everything I have for this dream? Everything I've worked for?' Or even, 'How did I get here in the first place?'"
Ha adds, "The play introduces us to Bill Sears (Mark Perry), who is at a crossroads in his life. He's a very popular radio and TV personality, and he's just been handed what he's sure is a very lucrative contract to renew his children's TV show, which has recently been trumpeted by none other than Ed Sullivan. Having survived the sacrifices of the Depression, finding himself a rich and famous man while doing work he truly loves is exhilarating. But he's got this troubling sense of a deeper calling within him, and following that mysterious voice means sacrificing everything. So clearly it's not a decision he can make lightly. He has a family to consider, among other things. So in order to make the right decision he must look at all the people and all the forces that brought him to this point."
Besides director J Chachula, the show's production team includes scenic designer Jeff Marvin, lighting designer Robert Stromberg, costume designer Kathy Sadri, sound designer Rowell Gormon, and props mistress Devra Thomas.
Chachula says, "Jeff's set is a radio/TV studio from the early days of television. No sense of the flashiness of modern facilities; strictly utilitarian," and "Robert's [lighting] design is basically realistic, but also responsive to the character's emotional state, memories, and fantasy life.
"Sears was a pretty dapper guy,' Chachula says, "so Kathy's challenge was to find something suggestive of the 1950s that Mark looks good in."
He adds, "We've scheduled a Talk-Back for each performance. The play runs about 70 minutes, so we hope people will stay afterwards for a little while and offer some feedback. It's always a work-in-progress, particularly with a new script being presented for the very first time, and we really want to know how people respond to the play.
"There have been many challenges," Chachula admits. "I'd say the biggest challenge has been bringing out what's universal in the story so that an audience won't label (and perhaps dismiss) it as a strictly religious journey. The play is not a sermon. I don't want to be preached at!
"As for Mark," J Chachula says, "performing a one-man show makes tremendous demands on the actor in question. You have to be very self-reliant, to say the least! And Mark had another challenge, and that was to let go of the playwright in him and concentrate solely on the character he has to take on."
The Drama Circle and Flying Machine Theatre Company present On the Rooftop with Bill Sears Thursday-Saturday, April 15-17 and 22-24, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 18 and 25, at 3 p.m. in the PSI Theatre, Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris St., Durham, North Carolina. $8-$12. 919/594-1140. Note: There will be a talk-back session after each performance. The Drama Circle: http://www.dramacircle.org/. Flying Machine Theatre Company: http://www.flyingmachine.dreamhost.com/. Synopsis: http://www.dramacircle.org/Plays%20&%20Excerpts/ontherooftop.htm.