A publication featuring student work from the Department of English and Communications at Salve Regina University.
BY LAUREN KANE
I n a small basement room of the Emmanuel Church on Spring Street, in Newport, R.I., a group of seven mismatched singers are circled around an electric piano, rehearsing classic Christmas music such as “Now Thank We All Our God” and “Carol of the Bells.” The room is sparsely furnished, littered with assorted costumes and chorister gowns and a few fake plants. It is a space obviously meant as a community practice room, and that is exactly what the group, the Marley-Bridges Theater Company, is using it for – to prepare for their Christmas show.
Only one member of the group isn’t bent over a binder of sheet music. Standing with his arms lightly crossed, Patrick Grimes is dressed in a faded green baseball cap, a polo shirt and a sport fleece. He sings the songs from memory, hitting the notes that he is responsible for as one of three baritones. In between songs, he jokes with members of the company as they shuffle through their binders of sheet music. The company’s executive and artistic director, Grimes blends in easily with the other company members, both vocally and socially. Though another member leads this particular rehearsal, any questions of uncertainty are deferred to Grimes, and he always gives a definitive answer. He never imposes his opinion, and his own concerns are always addressed as a group discussion.
The singers around the piano hit a snag with the “Sussex Carol.” The sopranos keep getting stuck on one measure of the song, and the group starts discussing how to get past it.
“What if we don’t change keys?” asks one member of the group, a suggestion that is met with doubtful glances.
“That’s OK. We can just practice it later,” pipes up a soprano.
Grimes puts his finger on the problem. “It’s a mental shift,” he says. “Nothing’s actually changing. It’s just where our brains need to be.”
The group runs smoothly through the carol again, and the rehearsal carries on.
During most days, Grimes can be found at the front desk of the Cushing Gallery at the Newport Art Museum, simultaneously greeting visitors and working away on Marley-Bridges business. That’s the executive part of his title. The artistic part is where Grimes comes to life.
“My theory on theater is that it’s meant to be experienced, not witnessed. That’s sort of our catch phrase,” Grimes says. “And to that end, when we do shows when there is a fourth wall, it isn’t a solid fourth wall.”
Marley-Bridges is not a traditional theater company. They are mostly improvisational, portraying historic characters who interact with the audience. Currently, the company is preparing for their Christmas show, a Dickens-inspired feast, in which the audience will get dinner and a show, and ultimately feel like a part of the performance.
Whether the actors are pulling the audience in directly, giving them lines to read and costumes to wear or simply acknowledging their presence in the dialogue, the fourth wall is indeed never solid. More often, they are including the audience through more indirect gestures and references.
“In our new time, with movies so prolific, I feel like anyone can go to a movie and sit there and witness what’s happening in front of them and not be engaged,” says Grimes. “When they go to a live theater, it should be a different experience than that.”
Jessica Bradley is the managing director of Marley-Bridges and also the company’s co-founder alongside Grimes. From the beginning, Bradley says, the sense of audience inclusion has been a goal for the theater company.
“It was always a dream of Patrick’s to have the audience also be able to play the characters,” Bradley says.
Nothing about Grimes suggests the stereotype of an egocentric director. Rather, he sings the praises of theater as a collaborative art, where not a single member of the cast or crew is dispensable.
“I’ve heard theater described as a duck on a pond. When you look at the duck on the pond, it’s just gliding along ever so gracefully… But if you were under the water, what you’d actually be seeing is legs furiously kicking in all sorts of directions. That is sort of theater to me,” says Grimes. “When it comes to theater – it’s a bunch of feet that need to work in concert.”
Before founding Marley-Bridges, Grimes was an actor, starring in productions ranging from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” to a play called “The Third Man” in which he played a grand total of 17 different roles. His experience as both an actor and a director has inevitably helped to shape the way he directs.
“My degree is in acting,” says Grimes. “My directing style comes from the side of an actor. Actors want motivation. I help (the actors) find that motivation. While I might not have initially thought about why they have to move, we’ll find that reason, and one that makes sense. Or we’ll change it. Because that sort of stuff makes a difference in what the audience sees
With Marley-Bridges, Grimes has been involved in more than just historical and improvisational theater. The group recently put on a full-length musical, an original script written by one of the company members. Entitled “Menace of the Morgue,” it was a musical about zombies, a comedy done in the style of 1950s horror movies However, the one-of-a-kind “musical zom-edy” was an exception for Grimes. As a general rule, he does not abide by the genre of musical theater.
“Someone was either too lazy to write a full script or too lazy to write a full opera,” says Grimes. It’s the non-committal nature of musicals that the director can’t stand, as they so often float between the realms of reality and fantasy. “You show me ‘Grease’ and I’m like, ‘No! Whoever wrote this never went to high school!’ I cannot imagine a time in high school when everyone knew all the words, or all the steps, or got along! I cannot suspend my disbelief for something like that.”
While Grimes has made his living re-enacting Newport’s history, he is far from a New England native. He grew up in Craig, a town in Moffat County, which is tucked snugly in the northwest corner of Colorado.
“My county just voted to secede from the state of Colorado. So you can understand why I don’t live there anymore – they’re a bunch of crazy people,” says Grimes, with a shrug and a laugh.
Despite the quirkiness of his hometown, the atmosphere he grew up in was the perfect one to nourish his interest in acting. Grimes grew up in a family of the artistically inclined. His mother was an English teacher at the local school and also championed the local acting company. His father was a music teacher and still plays with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra during the symphony’s summer opera series.
Grimes spent every New Year’s Eve with his brother and cousins at his grandmother’s, along with the entire family, where he began developing his craft at an early age. The group of children would pull out their great-grandmother’s old vaudeville books and pore over routines such as “Who’s on First?” The adults of the family made up Grimes’s first audience, watching as the miniature theater company performed their own renditions of classic vaudeville routines.
The University of Northern Colorado was where his inherent love of acting was set to truly take shape. Grimes entered the theater program at a time when it was becoming much more rigorous and auditions were required for those planning to focus on acting.
The professors he met there were not only serious about their craft, but also serious about a student’s choice to pursue art.
“I think I was shaped a lot by my college years. My professors were oftentimes brutally honest, which I think is an important thing for actors to hear,” says Grimes. “Acting is a horrible life, and I think too many actors get involved in it to escape who they are. And that’s the job of the audience–to be there to escape.”
New England became home for him after he landed a role through an auditioning convention at Newport’s Beechwood Mansion in 1996. Beechwood was independent from The Preservation Society of Newport County, and the unique draw for tourists was the living history tours, which provided the opportunity for visitors to interact with an historic Newport family. There one could find Grimes in authentically styled historic garb, educating visitors through interactive “performances.”
During his time there, the mansion conducted murder mystery tours, and Grimes was the catalyst for transforming those tours into totally interactive experiences.
“There was no structure to it at all except where clues are placed and what all the actors know to say about their backstory,” says Grimes, describing the fluidity of the Beechwood murder mysteries. “We have no control over what the audience asks, what storyline they choose to follow. People can come back again and again and again and see the same show, and it’s always different.”
The same idea would inspire the Marley-Bridges Theatre Company. Enter stage left, Jessica Bradley. Bradley worked with Grimes at Beechwood, and the two paired up to start Marley-Bridges after the Beechwood Mansion closed its doors in 2010. The Beechwood owners were looking to get rid of the historic costumes and other assorted theater props, and before he knew it, Grimes was an actor with all the materials to start a theater company – the only thing he was missing was the theater. They were not about to let that stop them, and the group started out as what Grimes describes as a “nomadic theater company.”
“We make a good team – we really click. He’s my best friend and partner-in-crime,” says Bradley. “He made me realize that history was not just about the dates, but also the people.”
Since then, the two have expanded far beyond Aquidneck Island, performing in places such as Cape Cod and Westerly. Marley-Bridges was booked solid for 2014.
Grimes is now focused on finding a space that Marley-Bridges can call its own. The work they do now is what they like to call site-specific theater, which prevents what Grimes refers to, with disdain, as “a canned performance.” Each performance is unique precisely because the scenery is always different. However, he would like to see the group be able to work in a space that belongs to the company.
Grimes’ workweek lasts from Sunday through Sunday; if he’s not doing Marley-Bridges work, he’s at the desk in the Newport Art Museum or working the projection booth at the Jane Pickens Theater. Cris McCullough, an actor and one of the first to hire Marley Bridges to do outdoor Shakespeare performances, can attest to Grimes’ dedication.
“Patrick is a workaholic…we get a little worried sometimes,” says McCullough. “The man has unbounded energy.”
However, to hear Grimes talk about his busy life is to listen to a man who never goes to work.
“I learned very early on that you should never wake up in the morning, and you know when you get out of the shower, and look at yourself in the mirror, you shouldn’t think to yourself, ‘Oh God, I have to go to work today.’ If that’s how you feel, you’re doing the wrong thing,” says Grimes.
“You’ve got to do something that makes your heart sing, even if it means you don’t make any money doing it.”