Theater by the people


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Joanne Lessner on New York City’s longstanding all-volunteer performances


Photos



  • Joanne Lessner as Charlotte in the Blue Hill Troupe's production of "A Little Night Music" from November 2015. Photo: Douglas Kiddie.




  • Photo: Bluface Photography




In the Blue Hill Troupe, everyone from opera singers to MTA engineers to lawyers join together not only to sing and act, but to construct sets, design costumes, sell tickets and even serve wine at intermission.

This volunteer theater group started in the city in 1924. Every year, it puts on two productions, and proceeds always go to a city-based charity. From Nov. 11 to Nov. 19, the troupe will be performing “The Pirates of Penzance” at the Theater at St. Jean’s, inside St. Jean’s Baptiste Catholic Church, on East 76th Street. The charity of choice for this production is Rocking the Boat, in the South Bronx, which teaches young people how to build and sail boats.

Joanne Lessner has always had a special connection to Blue Hill: Her mother used to take her to its shows as a small child. Now nearing her 20th year with the group, Lessner spoke about Blue Hill’s tight-knit community. “What’s really wonderful is the friendships that form across age boundaries and outside job interests. The people who become friends in the Blue Hill Troupe become friends for life. We also average a married couple a year. I think we’ve hit a hundred people who met in the group and have gotten married.”

A professional performer, Lessner was in “Cyrano” on Broadway, and her accomplished resume also includes penning mystery novels, contributing to “Opera News” and writing plays with her husband.

How did you get involved with Blue Hill?

I have kind of an unusual story. You know they’ve been in the city for 93 years. My mother grew up seeing their shows. She brought me to see them, so I’ve been an audience member at the Blue Hill Troupe since 1972. I was a small child. And then I joined the group as a front stage performing member in 1997. I have done 11 shows with the troupe, and I’ve also been on the board and run multiple committees. The members run the organization, so there are a lot of ways to be involved. It would be misleading to just say I’ve done 11 shows, because we all do a lot of heavy lifting backstage.

Who are some of its members?

It’s really an incredible span of people. You’ve got professional performers like me. We have a front stage performing member who has sung principal at the Met. We have quite a few Broadway people, people who had careers and are not pursuing it so much anymore. We’ve got a lot of younger members who are at the beginning of trying to pursue professional careers. We don’t like to encourage people to come in, grab a few roles on their resume and leave, because we really are a community and looking for long-term members. But we love having people with professional experience. We’ve got lawyers, people in the financial services industry, people from just about every kind of job you could think of. Not-for-profits, people who work in libraries. I think we have the Brooklyn and Queens Library both represented. We have a couple of engineers who work for the MTA. And then the really cool thing is also our age demographic. You have to be 21 because as some of us like to say, we’re a drinking group that does theater together. [Laughs] And our oldest active member, I believe he’s 92.

Tell us about your theatrical mystery series.

I actually launched my fifth book yesterday. My detective, Isobel Spice, is an aspiring actress who goes from temp job to temp job, stumbling over dead bodies and solving mysteries, as one does. It’s very loosely based on my early days in New York, without the dead bodies, of course. My new one is called “Offed Stage Left.” It’s a backstage mystery and various troupers contributed ideas for the book.

You also wrote a novel about a half-a-million-dollar bottle of wine. What’s the true story behind it?

It happened at the Four Seasons in 1989. It was a wine appreciation dinner of old Bordeaux. And a wine dealer named William Sokolin had a bottle of Bordeaux that he was trying to sell on spec for half a million dollars. And there are many versions of what happened, but somehow or other, it landed on the floor and the bottle broke. And the story goes that the assembled wine aficionados threw themselves to the floor and started licking the 250-year old wine off the carpet. I don’t know if that’s true, but when I heard that, I thought that was the most hilarious thing I’ve ever heard. And was like, “Who are these people?” So my book [“Pandora’s Bottle”] is about a man who buys a half-a-million-dollar bottle of wine that was purportedly once owned by Thomas Jefferson. I actually consulted with a wine maker to find out what somebody could have done in 1787 to make a wine still drinkable today. And so the tragedy in my book is that the wine was drinkable and a waiter serving the wine drops it. So it’s really about what happens to the man, the girl he’s trying to impress, the poor waiter and the woman who owns the restaurant who was using it as publicity event. So it’s really about how these four people come together over this bottle of wine and then everything goes absolutely wrong for every single one of them.

What are your future plans?

“Offed Stage Left” is out right now, so I’m doing promotion for that. I’m going to be working on the next book in the Isobel Spice mystery series. I have another book that’s a non-mystery book. And my husband and I were commissioned by London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama to write a musical for their master’s program. We have the rights to adapt Kaufman and Ferber’s classic play “Stage Door,” so we’re working on that for them.

What’s in store for the Blue Hill Troupe?

Our next big thing is in the spring we’re doing “City of Angels,” which has not really had many big productions in New York City since the Broadway run 25 years ago. This is going to be the biggest production of a non-Gilbert and Sullivan musical that we’ve ever done. And that will be at El Teatro of El Museo del Barrio at the end of April.

To learn more about Joanne, visit joannesydneylessner.com

For more about Blue Hill Troupe, visit bht.org





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