The sign at the door to the Princess Theater in downtown Sanford reads, “Welcome, friends and family.” It is a fitting prelude to that which lies beyond, a community theater experience where the emphasis is unashamedly on “community.” Sanford’s Celery Soup theater project was developed with the mission to preserve Seminole County folk history by incorporating personal memories into folk-life plays. The project collected stories from residents and wove them into a narrative that could be performed by local volunteers. The first such work, Touch and Go, opened last month and continues through Nov. 13.
According to the tabloid-style newspaper that serves as the playbill, the Princess Theater dates back to a 1915 showing of a silent film in a then floorless and roofless structure. The building is now being restored and was gutted for this production; no walls separate the functional areas, so before the show the audience could mingle with the cast as if they had just stumbled into a family reunion.
The production has a “Hey gang! Let’s put on a play!” quality. With more than 70 people in the cast – ranging in age from 2 to 82 – some performances are, inevitably, unpolished. There’s even a volunteer calling out lines to actors who lose their way. However, playwright Jules Corriere and composer Heather McCluskey have cleverly turned real-life vignettes into a coherent whole, and the community-first approach to theater ultimately yields an endearing product.
Touch and Go takes its title from Navy pilot jargon that refers to a maneuver used while training for landing on aircraft carriers. It’s also a metaphor for the life of the community, where joys, concerns, trends and even people touch down only briefly before moving on. All too often, we think of history as a sterile progression of events in a textbook and forget that it happened to real people: a man who hand-built a citrus empire acre by acre only to see it die overnight in a freeze; a high school prank that got classes canceled for a day; neighbors who pooled “next to nothing” to create dinner for their families; a war bride who, instead of welcoming her husband home from the war had to settle for the flag that draped his coffin.
Touch and Go manages to bring such stories to life. Educational purposes aside, the production is often hilarious and sometimes poignant. In one scene, for example, a woman’s ball of yarn connects her Civil War ancestor to a Vietnam-era pilot, demonstrating that the two wars are barely separated by history. Later, two women come to terms with their childhood encounters with racism from opposite sides of the fence.
Some of the most engaging scenes come from performers who literally tell their own stories, such as Annye Refoe’s recounting of her ancestral journey from Africa through the Caribbean. The monologue is beautifully told, accompanied by dramatic choreography and underscored by a simple rhythm from a single drum. It is such scenes that remind us that everything that touches down will eventually move on, but that these special memories are worth preserving.
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