Dan Tursi continues to present live theater that is edgy, original and thought-provoking
Director Dan Tursi’s theatrical wizardry can be summed up on couple of cocktail napkins. It’s a running joke in the Syracuse theater community. Tursi began blocking summer stock shows for The Talent Company by pulling napkins from his pockets, says Todd Panek, a colleague and friend of Tursi’s for more than 20 years.
“You’d see all of these little circles and Xs and squiggles where he’d clearly been sitting at a bar somewhere and blocked half the show,” Panek says. “He would pull out this mass of cocktail napkins and produce something really great on stage with it.”
Tursi’s unconventional approach to directing was what earned him an anonymous donation to start his own company in 2005. He borrowed the name Rarely Done Productions from a theater company he acted with in Syracuse during the 1980s. Since that first donation, Tursi, 54, has connected to a loyal, wide-ranging audience and closed a major gap in the Syracuse community-theater scene.
Tursi says the donor stipulated that he continue to produce edgy theater for adult audiences. Now in its sixth season with Tursi as artistic director, the company is doing just that with its March 2011 production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, a version of the New Testament in which Jesus and the Apostles are portrayed as gay men in modern-day Texas. The first performance in New York City in 1998 provoked protests by the Catholic League, a Catholic civil rights organization. McNally received death threats. Productions were canceled. Yet this kind of controversy fuels Tursi, whom Ty Marshal, associate creative director during Rarely Done’s inaugural year, calls the “bad boy” of Central New York theater.
Rarely Done opened this season with Elegy in Blue by local playwright Donna Stuccio, who also directed. Tursi then guided the second show, the musical [title of show], which just finished its run on Broadway. The lineup also includes the current holiday selection, Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!), the musical The Marvelous Wonderettes in April, and Psycho Beach Party, a spoof of beach and slasher movies from the 1960s and 1970s, for June. Tursi will direct every show.
“Rarely Done will never do The Sound of Music or To Kill a Mockingbird or any of the traditional pieces,” says actor Tina Lee, who has worked with Tursi on many shows over the years. “That decision comes from a guy who is confident enough and experienced enough to live on the edge.”
Tursi grew up in Syracuse, but after majoring in English and psychology at the University at Buffalo, he moved to the Washington, D.C., area where he directed and performed for community theater companies while working for the Marriot Corporation. Tursi moved back to Syracuse in 1999 to take care of his mother after his father died. Now he works as a short-term disability analyst for Hartford Life Insurance Company. He has always had a day job, but theater is his therapy.
The Play’s the Thing
Rarely Done opened its first season in 2005 with Patrick Marber’s Closer, about two men and two women who become interconnected through a string of sexual and emotional betrayals. Tursi cast four performers with no on-stage experience, but the success of the show kept lines winding out the door. Since then, Tursi has won several Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater
(SALT) awards for director of the year for both plays and musicals.
Tursi is constantly probing his networks to discover shows for upcoming seasons. He finds plays and musicals through a combination of friends’ suggestions from Chicago, San Francisco and New York City, visiting various fringe festivals and typing in Google searches, such as “serial killer plays,” that are likely to yield some oddities (and just might add his name to a government watch list).
“I have to honestly say sometimes we approved of his choice of plays, sometimes we didn’t,” says Frank Fiumano, who has acted locally for more than 50 years and was president of the first board of directors for Rarely Done. “But when you have someone as strong as Dan, who believes in what he does and wants to advance theater in Syracuse, you’ve got to let him do his thing.”
The local media have yet to give Rarely Done a poor review, but Syracuse residents have sometimes objected to Tursi’s choices. When The Post-Standard wrote about the 2008 show Bath House: The Musical and the article included a picture of the four-man cast wearing only towels, Tursi remembers some readers were not happy. “Mr. and Mrs. John Q went out of their minds, but people didn’t stop seeing the show,” he says.
Actor and musician Jordan Glaski, whose kitchen was where the idea for Rarely Done was born, says Tursi does not choose productions so that audience members will leave feeling happy, or so that they can see their grandchildren in the show. “He looks at the shows that are going to send a shockwave through the audience and through the community,” Glaski explains. “It isn’t feel-good theater. It’s disturb-you, make-you-think, putyou-on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind of theater.”
Rarely Done performs at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., a former paint store converted into a music venue. Its 63 seats were rescued from a school auditorium. There are no dressing rooms; actors have to change in the wings. Sometimes they must brave the Syracuse winter to make their entrances. But the venue’s intimacy is a key part of what makes Tursi’s shows singular and inescapable. Tursi says he would not do theater anywhere else even if he had the option.
“There is not even five feet between the first row and you,” he says. “The audience can tell. They can smell fear. They know when it isn’t right. That’s why we tell actors all the time, ‘You have to be real.’” The troupe has premiered several shows in Central New York, including Never the Sinner: The Leopold & Loeb Story in 2006 and The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! in 2007. The beauty of doing original, avantgarde material is that Tursi is free to interpret the piece without the audience expecting a specific experience.
To make sure his decisions as director are viable, Tursi often communicates with the playwrights. For example, he asked for and was granted permission by Jason Robert Brown to change the order of the songs in his 2005 production of Songs for a New World. For last season’s final production, Scream Queens, Tursi wrote the author and asked if he could change some of the West Coast references to cater to his East Coast audience.
Tursi is serious about his work. He does thorough research on every show Rarely Done produces. He does not tolerate bad performances or mediocrity, Syracuse New Times theater critic James MacKillop says. Actors who have worked with him have said that he will not praise you if you are not doing well, but he will come right out and say, ‘You suck’ or ‘I’m bored.’” “He will piss people off,” Lee says. “I know people who will not do another show with him, but he’s good. He’ll push you.”
Tursi encourages actors to improve and is willing to take risks. David Cotter, an actor who currently teaches for Syracuse Children’s Theater, says his dance audition for West Side Story when he was 16 was terrible. It was the first show he did with Tursi as director, although it was for The Talent Company. “Literally, I ran into a wall in my audition, and he still cast me,” Cotter says. “So, he’s able to be sarcastic and be a little bit rough around the edges with you, but he’s also able to see potential.”
Rather than cast for experience alone, Tursi prefers to choose actors based on the balance of personalities and how the actors feel about the subject of the show. Many of his shows address issues of sexuality. Others are political, such as Bang, Bang, You’re Dead, which deals with gun violence. He says letting the performer explore and create is essential.
“If they possess something that you really like that’s part of that character,” Tursi says, “why go and change that or direct them right to the nth degree? Why put your thumb on them all the way? That just squelches their creativity.”
Tursi not only directs for Rarely Done but also free-lances for other companies, such as The Talent Company and Appleseed Productions. He has an intense reputation, and he knows it. He offers only 14 rehearsals on average, then the curtain goes up. For this reason, there are more competent actors in Syracuse than those that come to audition for Rarely Done plays and musicals, he says.
“The term ‘over-rehearsed’ is an impossibility with Rarely Done,” Lee notes. “He would rather have it edgy and unrehearsed and have you up there with the scared deer-in-the-headlights look and the gears moving in your head.”
Lee faced Tursi’s compressed rehearsal schedule in Sordid Lives, produced in June 2006. It centers on Lee’s character, whose sister dies and whose relatives come to town for the funeral. Two nights before the opening, Tursi asked Lee to do a 10-minute improvisation before the show started in which she would act like the audience members were her relatives. She would interact with them, say hello and serve food, such as iced tea, fried chicken and macaroni salad. Lee says she was annoyed at first but that it was “classic Tursi” to make that kind of lastminute request. She ended up loving it.
“People in the audience were looking at me like, ‘You’re crazy, and I don’t want any food,’” she remembers. “And I’d say, ‘You can’t say no to Aunt Sissy,’ and I would just force-feed them.”
The “INTENDED FOR MATURE AUDI- ENCES ONLY!” disclaimer tacked on to most of Tursi’s production advertisements sometimes can be misleading. He does not always veer toward the dark, the political, the shocking or the campy. He has what Mac- Killop calls a “strange, kind of sweet side.” In 2008, Rarely Done produced Children’s Letters to God, in which five children, all friends, sing their concerns about the unanswered mysteries of life.
“There’s a mythology of Dan Tursi in Syracuse,” Panek says. “He has this very intimidating persona, but it is very clearly a mask.”
Todd’s wife, Aubry Ludington Panek, is office and box office manager, Tursi’s assistant and a repeat actor in Rarely Done and other community theater company shows. She says her two children call Tursi “Uncle Dan,” and he always remembers their birthdays.
Now that Tursi has settled into his niche, he is considering the future of Rarely Done Productions. But he’s not leaving any time soon. He is looking to pull in the next generation. Aubry Panek says Tursi started Rarely Done with the goal of bringing in new talent because so many local actors used to train at Salt City Center for the Performing Arts, and the community has since lost that hub. Joe Lotito, who died in November 2009, gave Tursi his first opportunity to direct at Salt City when he was just 18. Tursi says he wants to do the same for the city’s young talent.
“I can see all the fringe festivals that I want, but you have a whole generation who knows what the new stuff is,” he says. “They’re on the pulse of it. I’m not ancient, but at the same time, let these kids have a say. You grab on too tight, you’re going to kill your organization.”
Like most non-profits in the recession, Rarely Done is struggling, Tursi says, but Aubry Panek says the organization is almost self-sustainable. Steve Butler, executive director of the Cultural Resources Council, says he thinks Rarely Done is able to hold on because it is small and lean.
Aubry Panek says the company needs about $20,000 per year to operate, depending on the season, and it generates more than 50 percent of its income from ticket sales. The rest comes from some corporate sponsors and grants from the Central New York Community Foundation and the CRC. Actors are paid a stipend of about $50 per show. Last season, Rarely Done collaborated on two shows: Star Wars: The Musical with Wit’s End Players and Falsettos as a joint fund-raiser for ArtRage and Rarely Done.
“Rarely Done wouldn’t have happened with anybody else because I don’t think anybody else has the fortitude that Dan has to keep Rarely Done going,” Fiumano says. “He’s a pretty allaround guy. I’m not so sure he can dance. But he can sing and he can act and he can direct, so, in that respect, he is a triple threat.”
Syracuse’s indispensable triple threat.
Guiding light: Dan Tursi confers with actor Jordan Glaski during a rehearsal for Rarely Done’s current show Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some!) at Jazz Central. See page 16 for James MacKillop’s review.
Rarely acting: Dan Tursi’s few floorboard roles have included A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (left) opposite Lanny Freshman in the Talent Company’s February 1989 production and performing with co-stars Peter Irwin and Todd Panek in Glengarry Glen Ross, a January 2009 Wit’s End Players show.