New York City director stages ‘Present Perfect’ at Salem’s Bingham Camp

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Salem's Bingham Camp, with its hilltop location and sweeping valley views, may be one of the most picturesque places in Connecticut — perfect for summer vacations and weekend getaways. But for two weeks out of every September, the camp turns into an intensive theater workshopping retreat, bringing up-and-coming and Broadway actors from diverse cultural backgrounds to take part.

Originally founded as The Bingham Camp Theatre Retreat but now known as Live & In Color, the program's goal is to promote and celebrate diversity — not only through the piece selected to be developed, but also by giving actors of varying cultural backgrounds an opportunity to experience the intensity of a multi-week workshopping process.

It's no easy task, though, says program founder and director Devanand Janki, a New York City theater professional whose acting credits include appearances in Broadway's "Miss Saigon," "Cats," and "The King & I," and off-Broadway directorial work on "Zanna Don't." Having spent his childhood summers at the camp after being adopted into the Bingham family, Janki, who is of East Indian descent, decided, with the help of his student Dennis Corsi, to hold the retreat at the place he would come to escape, both as a child and as a professional actor.

It's about preparing the actors, he says, for playing with the "big boys."

"Actors of color typically haven't had the opportunities to practice their craft as well as, say, a white, beautiful, blonde girl, who is an ingénue and sings well," Janki says. "It's nothing to do with talent. It's about having that opportunity to work at a much higher level than beforehand. ... (This retreat) is about giving the opportunity to play with the big boys, to give them skills needed with the business side of this industry, to help them understand how fast this all really is."

This year's piece, "Present Perfect," is a fitting production to see such ambitions through — a story about eight immigrants and one Hasidic teacher meeting and getting to know each other in new and unexpected ways through an adult English language class in New York City. With a love story between the teacher and a student driving the plot, the show reveals the very real backstories of each of its characters, stories that were directly inspired by playwright Nancy Nachama Cheser's personal experiences as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Florida — a perfect tale, Janki says, to bring in to the greater context of the camp's goals.

Selected from about 100 submissions, "Present Perfect" will have public performances this weekend.

"It's really such a positive show in terms of being aware of the world we live in, the challenges we face, but rising above, surviving and making it work despite every door being slammed in our face," Janki says. "To me, that's what really resonates."

Working the story

On a recent Friday afternoon, in the camp's main living room now turned into a performance space, that passion is being put into motion as the team rehearses "Let Me In," the show's opening number. As the actors get up to sing their lines, Janki is standing at the edge of the room, earnestly reading along, making sure that each part is tying in well with the next.

Moments prior, the cast was in a stop-and-go process with the same number, rehearsing a line here, or briefly pausing to cut out a line there. The aim, Janki says, is to make sure that the audience is hooked from the very beginning.

As the cast progresses through the first number, the first scene starts to take shape — eight immigrants sitting in an ESL classroom, each struggling to pay attention as their own personal issues take precedence. A Japanese character, for example, needs help interpreting a phone call. A father coming from Peru is trying to reunite with his son. An Uzbeki woman, fluent in several languages, is looking to continue her career as a journalist. Their personalities and worries seem to be at odds with one another as a flustered teacher is trying to start class.

“There are always a lot of dynamics going on in class, and not everyone realizes that,” says the show’s writer and lyricist Cheser, an ESL teacher for the last 13 years.

“It was always interesting to me that you are trying to teach, but all these other stories are always happening, and every single one of (those students) has a story,” Cheser says.

She recounts the time a Cuban student wasn’t able to pay attention one afternoon while he worried for his brother who, at that moment, was making his way to Florida by boat; or the day a Haitian student received news in class that her sisters had died in the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that had hit the country. There was also the successful Colombian lawyer who was forced to abruptly flee from his country after receiving threats from Colombian guerillas; or the young Cubans, trained as dentists and doctors, trying to rebuild their credentials in a complicated schooling and medical system here in the U.S.

Making a musical out of this real-life material naturally made sense.

“I kept hearing these incredibly moving stories that keep being revealed little by little by little at different points as the courses went on,” says Cheser, who is also a graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in photography and a masters of arts in teaching, as well as a master of science in art education from Massachusetts College of Art. “I’m a creative, so it’s hard for me to hear these stories and not think we should do something with this.”

So, in 2008, she started sketching out an overarching story idea for her future musical, letting a brief attraction she felt toward one of her students (but one that never played out, she specifies) shape the plot.

“I wrote it originally as two students falling in love, but as I worked on it over the years, it was clear that a teacher/student relationship would work better for theater,” Cheser says.

Another challenge Cheser faced? Finding a composer.

That’s where Jaime Lozano came in; he’s a Mexican immigrant and a musical theater graduate from New York University’s Tisch School of Arts. He was deemed by “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda as the “next big thing” on Broadway in 2014 after working with the composer/playwright on several productions over the years. Lozano has had several works produced off-Broadway and at other theaters around the world.

Cheser and Lozano officially met in 2011 after they were connected through a mutual friend. But it was also then, coincidentally, that Lozano was in the middle of his off-Broadway production “Yellow Brick Road” (an immigrant’s spin on “The Wizard of Oz”) for which he co-wrote the score and which Janki was also directing.

But even in the midst of that success, Lozano says, “Present Perfect” resonated.

“I immediately, right away, fell in love with this project, because it was about me in a way,” Lozano says. “It was about immigrants risking to leave their homes, to try to find a new, better home. To look for a better opportunity. Musical theater is not that strong in Mexico, so I just tried to find a place where I, too, can fit in doing this. And that’s what all the characters from this show are trying to do.”

The score is largely crafted around “Latin flavors: Mexican; Cuban; Dominican; merengue; salsa; jazz and R&B,” says Lozano.

“In the same way that I am trying to tell these stories that are about myself, the music is also myself. It is a fusion of musical theater and story telling … and is a very distinctive sound. It’s not like a lot of the musical theater today, which is more pop.”

The perfect fit

Now, under Janki’s direction, Cheser is finally seeing, for the first time, her piece come to life — an especially exciting moment, considering that several of the camp’s past works have achieved large degrees of success. The retreat’s first show, “Call It Courage,” for example, which was workshopped in 2015, went on to be optioned by Broadway producers, while “The Family Resemblance,” workshopped at the camp in 2016, was selected as part of Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s most recent National Music Theater Conference.

But for Janki, too, “Present Perfect” was an ideal show to put its nine actors through their paces, offering much for them to work with in terms of the show’s writing and score.

“It really takes a certain type of actor to (go through this process) … I’m always amazed at it, but it’s also what we are trained to do. It’s hard, and not every artist can do this. It’s an intensive two weeks.”

“In the bigger picture, I was an actor for many years, and when I first got into the business, I was the only brown person. There wasn’t another actor who looked like me. I didn’t have an agent and was basically told that I was un-castable and that there would be no work for me.

“It’s gotten better, and there is a lot of talk about diversity and representation and inclusion, but I feel like a lot organizations are just checking off that box as opposed to actually making it about the culture and a part of the fabric of an organization.

“Ultimately, the bigger picture is that I really want to find a voice and a platform for artists of diverse backgrounds. But I think, in order to do that, I need to pick pieces that will achieve that.

“This is not just a show that we hope a Broadway producer will pick up. This is a way to help these actors to get to that next step.”

m.biekert@theday.com

If you go

What: "Present Perfect" by Nancy Nachama Cheser and Jaime Lozano

When: 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Bingham Camp, 490 East Haddam Road (Route 82), Salem

Cost: Donations accepted

Reservations: Required

Visit: www.theatreincolor.org

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