ON THE SCENE: Book and Blanket Players present ‘Pride & Prejudice’

Mallory Arnold and Harvey Runyon (Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy) (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Book and Blanket Players is a youth-driven community theater based in Keene. Led by Kathleen Recchia and a remarkable team of volunteers, this year the troupe of 16 young actors, on July 17 and 18, staged two performances of a musical based on Jane Austin’s beloved “Pride & Prejudice” to packed houses, receiving enthusiastic applause.

When Recchia’s son Sam was little, he helped out at the Depot Theatre in Westport. They learned that Depot staged a play in eight to nine days. As Sam was young, Recchia could sit in, watch the process, and witness how much Sam loved and responded to that challenge. The experience of watching plays being developed planted the idea in Recchia’s mind of creating a youth-based community theatre wherein the kids would have just a week to learn their lines and songs, rehearse and perform a musical to an audience.

Recchia questioned whether young people could learn their parts within such a short time but decided to go ahead and was thrilled to discover they could. Even after the initial attempt proved to be a success, she thought, maybe the first time was a fluke, but now 13 years later, Recchia knows that they can no matter how fraught the process.

When Recchia began, she and her husband Fred Balzac owned a bed and breakfast in Jay called Book and Blanket, a name that seemed to work for the theater as well. From the beginning, the musicals were rehearsed and performed at Keene Central School.

As the school wasn’t available this year because of construction and, in light of COVID-19, to ensure the kids’ and audience’s safety, this year’s performances were planned to be held outdoors; Saturdays in front of the Neighborhood House and Sunday at the Keene Valley Country Club. As the forecast was for rain both days, they shifted Saturday’s location to the Keene Valley Library. All audience members were required to be masked, as did the theater support team.

From left are co-director Annie Scavo and Kathleen Recchia, director, producer and lyricist. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“The kids are amazing. The whole crew is amazing,” said Recchia. “They put the play together in a week. It takes a long time to plan a show. As an example, we have grants due next week. Last year, we were in the middle of a pandemic when we were starting planning this performance. We’re fortunate that the library and the Neighborhood House would commit to us, so a big thank you to them and our audience for being so flexible, as we’ve had to be flexible too.”

Over the years, the young actors’ ages have ranged from 8 to 18, and this past weekend’s performances were no different. A fair number of the actors have performed with Book and Blanket for two or more years, while for others, it was their first time in a play.

“We are the Ironman of musicals,” said Annie Scavo, co-director. “We rehearse and put on a play within a week. The kids come from all over; anyone who shows up is in the play. They get the script beforehand, but they come in and learn the blocking and the music within a week. They do a fabulous job. To see it transform from day one to what you see on stage is wonderful.”

Prepping for the performance, the kids have to learn many skills, such as facing the stage and not turning their backs to the audience. They have to learn their blocking, how to support their partner, and make their partner look good, so if someone forgets a line, they feed them a line to help them get back on track. They have to learn their dances, to project their voice, and, this year, to speak with the 19th century British upper-crust accent.

“We started rehearsals last Sunday,” said Emily Glass of Sag Harbor, who played Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine. “We were pretty much ready when we came in.”

“We got the script before, and we were supposed to come in with our lines pretty much memorized so we could start blocking and dress rehearsals,” said Mallory Arnold from Willsboro, who played Elizabeth Bennet. “We were pretty much ready when we came in. I’ve read the book before; it’s one of my absolute favorites.”

Recchia wrote the lyrics in 2013 for a previous staging, her son Sam then a senior at Keene Central. She readily admits that writing songs is not her strong suit, so the restaging enables her to redo every song with the help of Sam, now a skilled musician, so they’d meet professional standards.

“He was a bit of a taskmaster,” said Recchia. “He had me redo the lyrics to most of the songs, so all the emphasis was in the right place, and all the rhymes were real. We did that over the past year. We took advantage of COVID to revise it.”

The effort was well worth it.

“The musical is terrific,” said Ed Kanze, who came over from Bloomingdale. “It would be good if they had rehearsed it for six months, and they did it in a week. The acting, the music, the whole production is amazing. I came because a young friend is performing, Olivia Marocco. She sings, dances, and holds down two different roles. She’s great. As I get older, I so appreciate what it takes for a bunch of people to get together, rehearse, memorize lines, stand up there, stick their necks out, and give it a shot.”

The Keene Valley Library also took a bit of a risk as they were in the process of planning the reopening to the public when Recchia sought their support. Making it easy was the musical was based on a literary classic, plus they had an ample open third-floor space that could be dedicated to the kids.

“We felt it’s very appropriate to hold it in the library,” said KVL Director Karen Glass. “We had a great space here, so it seemed right. Plus, we have a summer art program for kids, a concert program we’re co-sponsoring, and a lecture series, all kinds of things. The actors and staff have brought in a lot of great energy all week.”

“I’m proud of my granddaughter Olive,” said Lynn Bussian, holding a bouquet. “She’s playing the role of Lydia Bennet. She’s terrific. But I’m also happy for Book and Blanket because it’s such a nurturing group. They make it easy to bring out the talent in all of the young people. We’re fortunate to have the company take this on every year, she’s lucky, and they’re lucky as well to have Olive and the other young actors. Olive’s twelve. She works hard, and her mom helps her with lines. Olive loves it. She just sucks it up. She’s thrilled.”

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)