Directing: Christopher Fry
“A SLEEP OF PRISONERS”
Riggs Drama Group, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, February 1956
Dick Spahn, the activities director at the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric sanatorium to which I retreated, at my father’s suggestion, when I dropped out of Yale, gave my first opportunity to direct a play. I had acted in a few plays in prep school, never happily, and done lighting in college, which I loved. Directing immediately felt right: I could do it. Staging Christopher Fry’s beautiful play with a cast of fellow patients did me far more good than the months of psychotherapy I underwent at Riggs. Thank you, Dick!
Richly imagined and developed in language of sparkling intelligence and character, the play advances an antiwar message I embraced. Fry seems old-fashioned now: he was a modernist, inspired to write poetic drama by the example of T. S. Eliot. I had only recently encountered modernism, helping out with the lights for Eliot’s “Sweeney Agonistes” and Ezra Pound’s “The Women of Trachis” at one of the Yale colleges. I understood Fry’s play and enjoyed helping the actors make sense of it, making up things for them to do to convey the play’s spell and force. I liked being in charge and ordering people around. (My leg was in a cast, my foot broken in a pingpong fall; I enjoyed whirling on the rubber heel and gesturing dramatically with my crutch.) “A Sleep of Prisoners” is written to be performed in a church, but we were stuck with the big upstairs of the activities building. I brought the actors off the stage, circulating in the aisles and behind the audience, an experimenter from the start. The play was a success; we took it to the Berkshire One-Act Play Festival in Pittsfield and won a prize.
I followed up by directing “The Hungerers,” a one-act by William Saroyan, which was not as challenging or rewarding. However, doing these two plays convinced me that I should be a director. To do that, my mentor advised, I would have to move to New York. So I did.
By sheer coincidence I encountered Dick Spahn many years later in Santa Barbara and directed him in “Come In Here,” the play-within-play from my otherwise unproduced play “Half Life”. Dick was old for the part, and hard to direct, but it was gratifying to close the circle.