A serendipitous encounter between Broadway veterans Matt Joslyn and Jeffrey Binder led to the formation of Hudson’s newest theater company, The Whale Theatre.
For their inaugural production, the duo will lead a team of theatrical veterans in staging a three-week run of “A Christmas Memory,” based on an early, semi-autobiographical work by Truman Capote.
Park Theater Hudson (723 Warren St.) has transformed into an intimate performance space where audiences will be swept up by Capote’s rich writing amidst all the festive trappings of Christmastime.
We spoke with Joslyn and Binder ahead of their debut performance, to learn about how this unique production came to be and what audiences can expect from the troupe.
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So, A Christmas Memory: Truman Capote. Where was Capote in his career when he penned this?
Matt Joslyn, Director
He was just a college student- he was a nobody. Soon after writing this, before it got published, his childhood best friend, Harper Lee, would become famous for writing To Kill a Mockingbird. And these two very unlikely friends would grow up and become— certainly for Truman— a part of New York society. But this was one of his really early works.
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And it was highly autobiographical?
I don’t know to the degree to which it’s completely autobiographical. But what we do know is “Buddy’s Friend”— in the short story and in our play she’s called “His Friend”— was his third cousin. They called her Sook. And she was this spinster kind of aunt living in this old house. Truman’s real story is that his mother vanished early on and his dad really didn’t want to be burdened with him, so he parked his son in the houses of relatives. And Truman had this slightly latchkey kid early life. It’s really astonishing that with this kind of misfortune and lack of stability early on he went on to be one of the most important voices of the 20th century.
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Is there a specific resonance that this work has for the two of you?
Jeffrey Binder, Actor and Producer
When we were initially talking about doing something here in Hudson, the first idea was to start with a performance around Christmas. And we had a couple of ideas that we were tossing around as we were looking for performance spaces.
But Matt reads this story every Christmas because he loves it so much. He says this all the time, and I completely agree with him— that the main character of the story is Truman’s writing. The way that he writes is so truthful but so richly crafted— I mean, even as a 20-something year-old college student— it’s stunning, and it’s incredibly evocative.
And for all of your preconceptions about who Truman Capote is or who Truman Capote ended up being, it’s very simple and very heartfelt. The language isn’t simple, but the core of the story is and it’s very vulnerable. And I think it’s all the things that make Christmas resonate with all of us. In some ways, it’s wondrous. It’s fun, it’s beautiful.
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Tell us about how this production came to be, and taking it a step further, how The Whale Theatre came to be.
I was in New York, mostly on Broadway for about 15 years, and when we decided to adopt our daughter, we moved upstate, and I was commuting back and forth between New York, but I really wanted to have a life where I could make art and watch my daughter grow up.
There are some very fortunate people who can do both, but it’s a tightrope walk, you know? I came back up here and we moved to Hudson full-time because we love it: it’s a beautiful town, it has such an interesting, diverse group of people. There’s an artistic vibrancy here that’s exciting.
But one thing that isn’t here is a professional theater company. There was one, maybe 15 years ago, but it went away. And so when I got here, I decided that I would really like to start one.
The amazing thing about this particular experience is when you’re lucky enough to put something out into the universe and the universe boomerangs stuff back to you, and so what was essentially coincidence, I ended up having drinks with Matt maybe a few months after I moved here and I just got to talking about, “oh, I’d love to start a theater in Hudson,” and Matt, who I’d just met‚ it was like the lights went up in his eyes, because he had the same vision. And so began this kind of madcap journey.
Almost everybody we’re working with are New York City professional theater artists who have worked in all the major markets. And they all have a connection to upstate— everybody’s local in some way.
We found with the help of our amazing casting director, Stephanie Yankwitt, the actress Marceline Hugot, who’s a remarkable artist who lives nearby in Kingston.
So ultimately this is a bunch of people who love each other, coming together to play in a way that exhilarates us all the most. We’re making theater the way that we made theater when we all started out, but we’re all operating with the skills that we have now at this point in our careers.
It’s got that same spirit of this labor of love, but there’s not 60 producers at the back of the room. There’s not 100 critics ready to pounce on us. Instead, we’re going to do this in our community, for our friends and family and neighbors, and we’re going to do it as beautifully as we can and are going to pour our hearts and souls into it, and we hope that it’s a big old love fest.
And that’s no shade at all to anyone who creates theater as an amateur artist or, you know, that dabbles in it for fun— we celebrate that, love it, we see it, we support it. But it’s really quite lovely for us to be playing in this way and bringing this caliber of performance to Warren St.
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What was it like transforming Park Theater Hudson so significantly for this production?
If the writing in this work is the thing that excites me the most, the second thing is the intimacy. We as theater artists so rarely get to do intimate work because it’s financially ludicrous, right? There’s no way what we’re making here pays for itself with just ticket sales.
To me, what I’m thrilled about is that we’ve taken this room that has this deep, hundred-year-plus historical significance as a theater, and we have brought in an incredible design team that has created this environment that’s really quite exquisite. And every night 24 people are going to get to see it.
Hopefully they all feel like they are getting together with friends to hear a story. We want it to be familiar, warm, cozy, welcoming.
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And there’s something intimate about the source material and there’s a sort of an intimacy with the actual production, with the proximity to the performers…
No question. I mean, you can reach out and touch these performers. (Editor’s note- please do not attempt to touch the performers). We’re deeply connected to this text, I believe. And obviously, I’m a Truman Capote fan, to put it mildly. But I believe that when you sit down with Truman Capote, his texts— he’s whispering in your ear. You have a storyteller on your shoulder that is talking directly to you. And I think Jeff is an incredible interlocutor of that, the way that he places you in the palm of his hand when he starts the show and takes you on this journey… I’ll oversell this all day, but I think it’s everything we’ve hoped for and more.
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Tell us about the musical component to this performance.
The Truman Capote story is a short story and it runs about 50 minutes. And so we wanted to have a beautiful evening celebrating the holidays. And I think we wanted to figure out how to continue to celebrate if we have all the hot chocolate and cider around.
And I thought, what better way than a small cabaret where people could relax and enjoy? And also to leave the door open for people who are excited about the prospect of small professional theater in Hudson to have a broader experience and sample the kind of art that we can bring here.
And there’s also a musical component in the actual Truman Capote piece. We have this amazing bassist, Brandon Kruhlzer— he’s a phenomenal musician and excited about devised work. So he came in in the midst of this story and devised worked with us to provide these musical underpinnings- it’s almost become an original score. I mean, it’s not really a full-on composition, but it’s pretty close. It lifts the story in a beautiful way, and so we’re grateful to have him with us.
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The priority is the next two weeks of performances, but if not a specific work, can you tell us at least what kinds of works or what kind of productions you hope to bring to Hudson in the future?
I think contemporary works by playwrights that dig into our souls, that move us in one way or another to tell incredible stories. I’m a huge fan of classics that are reinterpreted for a modern audience, without jettisoning the things that make the text or the story a classic— but that allows for it to resonate with a contemporary audience as opposed to being a museum piece. That excites me.
I’m a big dork, so I also love anything with physical comedy.
What we’re ultimately looking for is to tell great stories with art, with artists that we have a fun time hanging out in the room with. And we’re also looking for work that resonates with an upstate audience and have that dialog with the community about what comes next.
That’s always sort of my cheesy spiel as an artistic director, you know— a season, a theater— it’s a conversation. It’s a conversation, hopefully, with a family. And that family is your audience. And some of it’s funny, some of it’s tragic, some of it’s more esoteric, some of it’s more realistic.
Hopefully you love all of the conversation, but occasionally you might not like the way the conversation goes. But ultimately the idea is that that we’re looking for are people who are committed to continuing the conversation, so that we’re creating the kind of work that not only excites us, but excites the community around us.
I’m just going to add one thing, which from the producer’s perspective, is that this is a little bit of R&D. No great arts organization was born solely because some artists got together and had some great ideas. They all have to be embraced by communities with audiences and people who want to enter into deep, meaningful conversations.
We want to create a deeply meaningful, relevant organization in Hudson. And we will do that in partnership with our Hudson community and family, if this is what they want, and if this is what excites them.
We hope that we can stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us in Hudson. We hope that we can partner with all these beautiful arts organizations around us, like Bridge Theater in Catskill, just across the water, and the nonprofessional companies that are doing work, and TSL and our friends at Hudson Hall.
And above all else, we’re just really grateful— to be in conversation with everyone we have so far, everyone that’s been on this journey with us already, and everyone that is yet to join.
The Whale Theatre’s “A Christmas Memory” is currently running Thursdays through Sundays until December 18 at Park Theater Hudson (723 Warren St.) Many performances are already sold out. To learn more and purchase tickets to the remaining performances, visit www.achristmasmemory.com
Photos by JD Urban.