by Christine Cayer
Sarah Mitteldorf, 29, may not ‘rawr’ like the dinosaur on her shirt, but her enthusiasm for the power of theater speaks volumes. Sarah will be directing “Quake,” the opening production of Allens Lane Art Center’s 61st theater season, and she insists that “I love what I do.”
“It’s somewhat terrifying though, to see your name listed as the director; I owe it to the actors to do a good job,” she insists. “Quake”, which opens Sept. 26, is a comedy about a woman searching for meaning and love.
As a reviewer once explained, “Quake,” by a playwright named Melanie Marnich, follows a young woman named Lucy, who travels across America looking for “The Big Love.” This means that she jumps from one guy to another in search of the perfect soulmate. This keeps the viewer’s interest; almost every scene brings a new man who, as the scene goes on, starts to display a flaw that marks him as a poor choice for our heroine.
Once you learn the rules of the game, the play becomes a little like a marathon of “Twilight Zone” episodes, with the audience trying to guess how far each episode will get before everything falls apart.
When Lucy’s quest becomes intertwined with that of a quirky female serial killer (an astrophysicist gone bad), the landscape changes once again, as they cross state lines and faultlines, exploring the geography of the human heart.
The director of “Quake,” Sarah Mitteldorf, was raised in Mt. Airy and enjoys staying connected to Allens Lane Art Center, where she attended summer camp as a child. “It’s home. It’s where I grew up,” she said. “I feel that ‘Quake’ is a good fit for Allens Lane because it embraces the concept of ‘non-traditional casting,’ which is part of the theater’s mission.”
Sarah definitely understands the meaning of “non-traditional.” Born in China, Sarah was adopted by Mt. Airy residents Josh Mitteldorf and Alice Ballard in 1986; she was one of the first girls adopted from China in the U.S. (Since that time, many more thousands of girls have been adopted from China.) After completing a degree in linguistics and literature at Reed College in Oregon, Sarah felt the need to “self-identify.”
She began a project, funded in part by a Leeway Foundation grant, to develop a play exploring the perspectives of Chinese adoptees. Over a period of about a year, Sarah worked with five young adoptees to develop “Many Ways,” which was performed in 2013 at the city’s Asian Arts Initiative. “I have claimed some identity since then,” Sarah said, “but it is still a work in progress.”
“Many Ways” was about finding your place in two countries, two cultures and one family and growing up in a house where nobody looks like you — and about the people who brought you into this world but who are now living anonymously thousands of miles away. In 2012 Mitteldorf directed “Nobody But Somebody” at the Strawberry One-Act Festival in New York, where she was nominated for best director. She also co-wrote and directed two works in the 2013 Philly Fringe Arts Festival.
At Reed College, Sarah took a couple of directing classes and was quickly hooked. After college, she began looking for opportunities to gain theater experience. At Allens Lane Art Center, Sarah started volunteering, first as a stage manager and then as director of last season’s “Polaroid Stories.” She also founded an ensemble theater group, Kaleid Theatre, that has performed a number of original plays.
Kaleid just completed a weekend of performances in this year’s Philadelphia Fringe Arts Festival. The play, “No Place Like,” was about coming of age; it asked the questions “What is home?” and “What do we risk by not having it?” Sarah saw in this play that people are more willing to confront difficult topics in the guise of a “performance” rather than in everyday conversation.
Sarah and the rest of her ensemble routinely work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Sometimes cast members miss rehearsals because it comes down to a choice between keeping a job or showing up at a rehearsal. The dedication of Sarah and her compatriots to their craft and to their belief in the power of theater is impressive, possibly even inspirational.
“Quake” runs Sept. 26 through Oct. 11 in the theater at Allens Lane Art Center. Tickets are $20 with reservations. Patrons are invited to bring in food and beverages (BYOB) to enjoy before the show. For tickets, visit allenslane.org or call 215-248-0546.
Christine Cayer, a resident of Glenside, is a long-time Allens Lane Art Center theater subscriber. She has an MS in Horticulture from Michigan State University and an MS in Environmental Science from Drexel University, and she has written often on environmental subjects.