As she bids adieu to Fresno, arts enthusiast Ann Vermel gives us one last ‘Experiment’
Ann Vermel is saying farewell to Fresno for a second time. And she’s leaving us an artistic gift: a production of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood.” It’s brought to life by Vermel’s experimental theater group, fittingly named The Experiment, and will play three performances on Saturday, April 6, at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium.
Here’s how Vermel describes the play in an email: “Readers theatre, every actor plays multiple people, the play is clothed in language that just sings with a zest for living. Bawdy and sweet, a little harsh and a lot gentle.”
She shares this important (and poignant) fact as well: “Also my last performance, I think, and certainly my last in Fresno. All in all, for those who get there, Saturday should be memorable.”
After this final public performance, she’s moving to Colorado to be closer to her daughter.
A bit of backstory: The longtime artist and arts activist came to Fresno in 1959 with her husband, Paul Vermel, when he was appointed the second conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic. She was a singer and actor and was active in Fresno Community Theatre and the Fresno Musical Club. She got her MA in Acting at Fresno State and took a few writing courses with poet Peter Everwine, which she says changed the direction of her life.
The first time she left Fresno was in 1966. She went on to become executive director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts from 1970 to 1976, and served as a founding vice president of the National Assembly of States Arts Agencies.
Vermel returned to Fresno in 2002. Since then she worked with FCASH (the Fresno Coalition for Arts, Science and History), the Warnor’s Theatre, Woodward Shakespeare Festival and the community nonprofit sector.
We caught up via email for an interview.
Q: Tell us about The Experiment.
I am a writer-actor, a species that never knows when to stop, so it is hardly surprising that I would be launching a new project in my mid-eighties, but The Experiment was actually triggered by my desire to share a book with an aging friend who was losing his eyesight.
“I’ll read it to you,” I said, glibly, and about 10 minutes later I was thinking of reader’s theater, and the odd fact that Fresno didn’t have one. So I started asking people what they thought; they thought I should do it and what eventually emerged was The Experiment, so named because we would be testing everything and we had no idea what would take shape.
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I had a few basic ideas: 1) that we would be bringing literature to life, so books and poems, rather than plays and these would be worked, not cold reads; 2) the actor’s voice and the author’s language were to be the focus of the work. I knew that we none of us had time for audience building, and anyway, it was the work we would do that was important, so I looked for audiences already in place: the Public Library and the Terraces at the San Joaquin Gardens saw our first performances, and we did a benefit for the Fresno Art Museum. I gathered together actors and non-actors who liked to read aloud, we auditioned and we had a little company. I could go on for hours about the members of the company. Some are familiar faces, some are newer to the scene, all are troupers. There is enormous talent there. We started in October with James Thurber’s “The Thirteen Clocks,” a silly but unique fairy tale, and celebrated Christmas with Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
Q: Tell us how your involvement in the Fresno arts scene developed after your arrival in 1959.
A: I was still studying to be a singer, so I was immediately active in the Fresno Musical Club, but the acting bug had bitten when I was 5, so naturally I gravitated to both the Community Theater and to the Fresno State theater department. The university still had a Masters program in theater and I went for the degree. Our closest friends were very active with the museum, and the Fulton Mall was just being built, along with the Saroyan. Paul was very active in the design of the Saroyan and we both worked on the Mall art and performance selection.
My first producing job was to organize the participation of the national and ethnic arts groups working in Fresno, which is how I learned there were 104 identified national and/or ethnic communities in the area. Without the help of the International House and Maybelle Selland, I would have been sunk. One of my most satisfying activities in that period was developing a production of “In White America” for the North Avenue Community Center with a group of teenagers who were community leaders when I returned 36 years later — and they remembered.
During those 36 years, I accumulated a lot of mixed experience in the arts, most of it off stage, so I came back with “experience” to share. Since my return, I have worked with the Philharmonic, of course, the Woodward Shakespeare Festival, tried a little teaching (acting and voice) a little consulting (non-profit management) and was involved in the beginnings of FCASH, but mostly I have until recently, been audience and hanger about.
Q: Tell us about “Under Milk Wood.” You mentioned to me that the “experiment” with this show is co-directing it with Greg Taber of Woodward Shakespeare Festival and Theatre Ventoux. Why do you say that?
A: We are doing “Under Milk Wood” because at our very first meeting of The Experiment, half the people in the room went from saying yes, they would like to do “Child’s Christmas,” to adding, but what about “Under Milk Wood”? And I recognized the message. “Under Milk Wood” is the last work of the poet Dylan Thomas. He was still adding lines when he died. Typical Thomas: rich, ebullient, poignant and bawdy. It was written as a radio play and was done originally in New York with five actors playing all the parts.
There are nine of us, and we are all playing multiple characters. The audience has to listen carefully. I am co-directing with Greg Taber, and a good thing, too. he Experiment has shown me where my strengths lie these days, and they are in actor development and dramaturgy, not in visualizing a piece. Greg is wizard at that, and a generous collaborator. His is the work that takes those wonderful words off the page. “Milk Wood” is incredibly special and deserves the best we can give it. There were a few bumps for the actors as they adjusted to two directors, but they soldiered through, and I think the piece is the better for it.
Q: What is one thing that makes you happy about the Fresno-area arts scene?
A: Its variety and vitality. This place is so rich in artistic talent in all the arts and in all the levels of the arts from formal to pop – writers, artists, designers, musicians, actors and directors with points of view, a fringe festival that stands with the best, and a film group with a real eye for the best. Best of all, that never seems to stop even when shuffled to the side by the community.
Q: What is one thing that makes you sad?
A: Damn, there are two, but they merge. In Fresno an artist in any genre can only go so far before he or she needs to work with a master or at least a teacher in the next level up. In fact, this happens often in the artist life, but time, proximity and yes, complacency tend to keep artists from pursuing this, especially when the “masters” don’t live in town. Summer Arts brings in new ideas and some mentoring, but it would be nice to see finding the mentors and sharing the wealth become understood as essential to making the work always better to the degree that everyone understood it. Among other things, this instills perspective and range in the artist, if not a little humility. In turn, should this happen, I believe that my second regret, the marginal place the arts hold in community priorities, might begin to change.
Q: What artistic endeavor are you most proud of in the time you’ve been here?
A: Having Peter Everwine point to my work and say, “That is a very good poem.”
Q: You’re moving to Colorado! Where and when?
A: I leave in June for Fort Collins where I will be nearer my daughter. I will be 87 soon and joining her now while we can still have fun makes the best sense. I have researched the theater scene in Fort Collins, and there is a group, Bas Bleu, that does interesting work and has a full season of readers theatre. Just saying.
It is wrenching to leave Fresno again. I cried the first time, to my surprise. I will probably tear up this time, too, but I will not be surprised. This has been the hometown, and the place I grew up in all the ways that are important to a good life. I honor it and all the people who shared it with me.