GALVESTON – "This is my first year not only as artistic director of Galveston Island Outdoor Musicals but also as artistic director of any theater," revealed Neil Larson, as he readied his troupe for the opening of the 22nd summer season. The 39-year-old has lots of experience in front of and behind the stage, however, as a founding member of the Judith Shakespeare Company Off-Off Broadway and as a seven-year member of The Project III Ensemble at the Ohio Theatre in Soho. For the past few years he has worked out of Los Angeles. He first came to Galveston in 1985 to play Davy Crocket in The Lone Star and Ambrose Kemper in Hello, Dolly! and returned over the years to appear in South Pacific, Oklahoma! and The Music Man.
"Becoming artistic director is a chance to test my own theory that there is a profound good message in theater, no matter if it's Shakespeare or Styne or Moliere or Mamet," Larson stated. The bill for his inaugural season, which was selected by, among others, the prior artistic director, Denton Yockey (who's now at Casa Manana in Fort Worth), is Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, June 10 - 27; Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's Grease, July 1 - 18; Hello, Dolly!, book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, July 22 - August 8; Anything Goes, songs by Cole Porter and book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, August 12 - 29. "All four shows are about survivors," Larson concluded, "from an ugly duckling put upon and shunned to outcast teens bonding to a marriage broker arranging lives and love to high seas lovers and other colorful types sailing full steam ahead, they all persevere."
Larson, with an undergraduate degree in theater from Oklahoma City University and an M. F. A. from Southern Methodist University, cites his versatility as one strength he's bringing to Galveston Island Outdoor Musicals, which is produced by Lone Star Performing Arts Association. In his peripatetic career, he's done everything from farce to melodrama, musical comedy to historical epics. "Also, in a prior life I was a carpenter." According to Larson, electricians and other technicians had been overcharging the theater; he cited one extreme instance of a $55,000 bill for work that should have only cost $6,000. Abusing the trust placed in them, craftspeople turned the theater into a cash cow. "I know how to help restore this theater technically for the least possible price."
Larson sees his goal this, his first season as building the theater back up, literally. Out of the four shows, Larson is only directing one, Hello, Dolly!. "I'd go crazy directing more, what with getting the grass cut, carpet laid, dormitory kitchens painted, beer cans picked up off the lighting boards."
Larson's biggest challenge, however, is instituting structural changes to the theater. Galveston Island Outdoor Musicals is comprised of a 1776-seat venue with no proscenium and no overhead rails of any kind. In a design inspired by ancient Greek architecture, the angle of the tiers of seats is sharp, with the lower tiers below the level of the surrounding grounds; consequently, no seat is very far from the vast stage, which measures 150 ft. x 100 ft, not including two additional side stages, which add about another 50 feet across. But while everything in Texas might be big, bigger is not necessarily better. "We're bringing the set downstage, pulling in the depth and narrowing the perimeter," Larson explained. A pivoting platform that can spin has been erected upstage, reducing depth nearly in half. The side stages have been eliminated as acting spaces; instead, via scaffolding, they will be used for lighting instruments. In seasons past, the stage had been illuminated by massive generic area lighting; now hue and shading can occur. In addition to helping with intimacy and nuance, such changes, Larson said, will ease the theater's $2 million budget, saving on sets and chorus. Larson's contract with Galveston Island Outdoor Musicals runs roughly from February through August. Where will he be the other six months of the year? "Wherever work takes me. It's me, a cat, and a Volkswagen bus and that's about it. I'm a gypsy."
For information about Galveston Island's Outdoor Musicals, call (800) 54-SHOWS
By Peter Szatmary