When the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Hancock County competed in the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England, back in 1994, it returned to Ellsworth with more than just the first-place award. British G&Sers met American G&Sers. Phone numbers were exchanged. Addresses were written down.
So last year, when the longtime artistic director of the Ellsworth group resigned, one of the board’s directors called Geoffrey Shovelton, who had formerly been a principal tenor with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and who had moved – of all places – to New Portland, Maine.
In a twist of fate worthy of a good G&S plot, Shovelton will make his debut as the new artistic director of the company with a run of “Patience,” which opens Friday at The Grand Auditorium in Ellsworth.
Shovelton easily quotes from shows and characters and productions. He didn’t grow up in a G&S family, but after a first career as a teacher, Shovelton found his life’s work performing in Gilbert and Sullivan roles. Shovelton, who is from the Manchester area of England, is not only a self-described “compulsive singer,” but his dedication to and familiarity with the G&S oeuvre, not to mention the G&S phenomenon, are both polished and impressive.
Of course, it is the seven years at D’Oyly Carte in roles such as Nanki-Poo in “The Mikado,” Cyril in “Princess Ida,” and Colonel Fairfax in “The Yeoman of the Guard” that qualify Shovelton for the job. But it’s also his performances with the London Savoyards, directorships with other companies, and an international touring concert program, which he devised and narrated, as well as his particular talent for drawing G&S themes for holiday cards, program books and newsletters.
The hefty list of experiences added up to make him a shoo-in for the Ellsworth-based position. But there’s yet another qualification Shovelton brought, one that is not on his resume: He understands the essential family spirit at the center of any G&S company.
“Gilbert and Sullivan is quite a small world of people,” said Shovelton recently while waiting for rehearsal to begin. “This family feeling, this sensitivity to each other onstage is an important ingredient and I try to work on that with every group.”
Indeed, Shovelton and his wife, Deborah Clague, choreographer for the show, were pleased to find that same spirit with the Hancock County group. Clague, an American, also applauded the number of young people in the Ellsworth company, because often G&S companies are tilted in the direction of older performers. But with a cast that includes performers from age 8 to aged, there’s a constant replenishing spark.
“This group has a close-knit family feeling,” said Clague, a soprano who often sings with her husband. “There’s also a unity of purpose. So when you get them onstage, they support one another. Although I’ve always felt a warmth with the companies we’ve known, the particular warmth of this company is notable.”
With that sense of family intact, Shovelton and Clague are more at ease to work on other necessary qualities for a G&S operetta. Running the risk of sounding obvious, it’s worth stating, as Shovelton did, that the fundamental components of a G&S production are enunciation, intonation and projection – and more so than usual, because the language play in a G&S score is where so much of the subtle humor lies. The style of movement – Victorian, old-fashioned, proper though not prudish, notes Clague – is another vital element of a successful production.
In the end, it comes down to having fun and both Shovelton and Clague said they hoped that was as true of the audience as it has seemed to be of the actors in the course of preparing for the show. “They are going to make a good job of this,” said Shovelton. “And I hope they have a good time as well. Quite frankly, if my back was against the wall and it came down to getting a certain effect or letting the actors have fun, I think I’d let them have fun.”
Still, the husband-and-wife team went into the production backed by their own prodigious organizational skills and a sense of solid work to be done to create a performing ensemble that meets with the high standards they have developed over the years of professional exposure. They had studied the photos of the cast and knew the members by name when they showed up for rehearsals, which are also carefully focused.
“They have spent an enormous amount of time preparing to lead us through this production,” said David Wilson, who plays Archibald Grovener, one of the lead roles in “Patience.” “They have done a fabulous job organizing the material, and Geoff appears to be very willing to work with all kinds of ideas – even though he’s a D’Oyly Carter right down the line.”
Shovelton knows that the adjustment to a new artistic director is never easy for the actors or the audience. And he suspects that both will go through new, perhaps challenging experiences.
“The big question mark is always: When there’s a change of this kind, you never know how long it will take people to adjust,” said Shovelton. “To be a good director, you have to have a touch of the salesman, a touch of the teacher and, for someone who has been a practicing artist, there is the compulsion to pass on anything you know to the universe. I try to be the type of person I would have wanted to know when I first arrived at D’Oyly Carte. It’s time I tried to be that same sort of person. With this company, I knew they had an experience of Gilbert and Sullivan because, for what they did in Buxton, they had to have a lot going for them. And I’ve found they pick everything up easily and the discipline is excellent. It may be they have more to teach me than I them. Who knows?”
Wilson put it another way, which captures the anticipation and the joy of the experience:
“We’re on a honeymoon but it’s a very pleasant one.”
The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Hancock Country will present “Patience” at 7 p.m. Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 2 p.m. Feb. 2, 7 p.m. Feb. 7-8, and 2 p.m. Feb. 9 at The Grand Auditorium in Ellsworth. For information, call 667-9500.