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Stages: A Theater Memoir
by Albert Poland

Book Review by Bob Gutowski

Albert Poland grew up in Indiana in the 1950s, putting on shows and performing in local productions, but he was not fated to be known as an actor. Instead, Poland has had a long, successful career as a theatrical producer general manager and producer, both Off-Broadway and on. In his book, Stages: A Theater Memoir, Poland takes us through a life devoted to shows—as a drama teacher told him, "It's a tough business, darling, but it can be good to you." Fortunately, Poland was also good, nay, great for show business, with a natural aptitude for it, and a can-do, problem-solving attitude.

Poland began gathering his stories back in the 1980s, and they take us, chronologically, from those boyhood dramatics in Indiana to a production of Pinter's The Homecoming in New York in 2007. Time and again we read about Poland's drive and zest for the game, and his clever use of what he's been given—he sets up a tour of The Fantasticks to play colleges in 1966, starring a friend from drama school—David Cryer, who'd recently played the role of El Gallo on Sullivan Street. Later, Poland will obtain Lucille Lortel's Theatre de Lys for Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford's musical Now Is the Time for All Good Men. A charmed Lortel, who ended sentences with the word "dear," told Poland her opinion of the show: "Our Town set to music, dear."

Seemingly effortlessly, Poland matures into a mover in the fringe theater, working on late '60s and early '70s shows such as Futz, The Dirtiest Show in Town, And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, and Let My People Come. We learn about the postage stamp-sized stages, the ones with overhead leaky plumbing and hostile, noisy upstairs neighbors of that era.

Bernard and Betty Jacobs, Albert Poland (1985)
Photo by Anita and Steve Shevett
Poland is also adept at delineating the personalities of the people with whom he worked, sometimes fought, and from whom he learned. One day in the New York offices of then Pittsburgh-based American Conservatory Theater, Poland's boss, theater director and ACT head honcho William Ball took his young assistant to a window:

[He] pointed to a spot in the parking lot. "I am going now to walk with Henry Hewes [theater critic of the Saturday Review] ... When we reach that spot, I want you to run out and tell me I have a long-distance call from London." I noted the spot, and at just the right moment, I ran up to them and delivered the news. He turned. "Don't you EVER interrupt me when I'm talking to Henry Hewes!" I started to speak, caught myself, and then put my head down. Brilliant, I thought. Nutty, but brilliant.

Poland himself never comes across as particularly eccentric, which is an aid in dealing with frequently Janus-faced theater folk, though he had to become tougher skinned. Ellen Stewart, the charismatic director of the La MaMa troupe, had given permission to Poland and Bruce Mailman to include her in a book about Off-Broadway they were putting together, but after it was published Stewart chilled on the project and declared Poland persona non grata. This upset him, but Mailman calmed Poland down and told him that Stewart would one day change her mind; she'd have to, Mailman said, because "She'll need a favor."

Albert Poland and Judy Garland (1957)
Photo by Sid Luft
A lovely example of Poland's nerve, earlier in the book, is when he became obsessed with Judy Garland as a boy. There was no Judy Garland fan club near him, so he started one. He decided that he wanted to contact Garland, so armed with a list of her Hollywood haunts, and with the help of a sympathetic long-distance operator, he tracked her down. Surprise! Garland was delighted to hear from this young fan, and within a few years he and the club members would head to Detroit to see the star in concert, and be photographed with her by no less than her then-husband and manager, Sid Luft.

Poland credits his not very supportive father with helping him develop some of his moxie. He writes: "By saying 'No' to every request I made, he taught me how to negotiate. After hearing my case in every possible way, his 'No' often became a 'Yes.'"

If there is anything I wish Poland had done differently in Stages it's something that I found more obvious while writing this review. I located a quote by one of Poland's colleagues that I was thinking of including, and when I went to verify who the speaker was, I could only find his first name, and this was going back for several pages. This reminded me that I did have to backtrack a few times when I first read the book in order to keep the vast cast of characters clear in my head.

This is a small quibble about a thoughtful, truthful book. Anyone who wants an ego-free overview of theater in the last part of the 20th century could not do better than to read Stages. Thanks to Albert Poland's savant-like recall, we get to vicariously experience his life in the theater as he deals with aspects of the business left unmentioned in the many other "And then I played/directed/wrote..." volumes. I say, "Vive la différence!"

by Albert Poland

452 Pages
ISBN: 978-1733934503
Now available in Paperback/Kindle Edition