by Chris Cayer
David Ward’s name should be familiar to patrons of the theater at the Allens Lane Art Center, but it most likely is not. After all, Ward been building stage sets there for over 30 years, but he usually has no bio listed in the playbills. “The people who need to know do know who I am,” says David modestly.
He also hides behind the name of Bleakhouse Productions, a name conjured up by him and a group of friends who have been meeting on Saturdays for breakfast for eons, a name designed to lend panache and “to disguise the fact that set construction at the theater is essentially a one-man operation.”
“Bleakhouse” is a misnomer if there ever was one, because there is nothing bleak about David Ward. His voice is pleasant, and his features fine, looking years younger than his age of 68. One can more easily picture David Ward in a dramatic role on stage performing to a full house than hanging a pre-hung door in a faux dining room stage set.
It turns out that he’s been there, done that, too. David’s long association with the Allens Lane Art Center began in 1978. Then an English teacher at Overbrook High, he was asked to direct the school’s spring musical, “Lil’ Abner.” David had never acted or directed. Living then in Mt. Airy, where he still lives with Debbie, his wife of 46 years, David signed up for an acting class at the Allens Lane Art Center, thinking “I should know something about acting if I’m going to direct a play!”
Kate Shaffmaster, then the resident director of the theater at the Center, taught the class. “She changed my life,” David says. “She saw something in me that I was not aware of. She opened up the world of performing.” Shaffmaster cast David in Woody Allen’s plays, “Death” and “God,” that year, and he went on to become one of her “stable of actors.”
As we spoke, David removed from a wall in the empty theater a poster of the plays performed from 1953, the year that Shaffmaster and her husband, Fred, opened the Center, to 2003, the 50th anniversary. He reminisced about the plays he had performed in over a 25-year period. Obviously moved, as was I, the emotion in his voice was palpable.
From the start, David helped with set construction, occasionally designing sets, although he considers himself “a designer of last resort.” He had learned some basic carpentry skills from an older brother, and he continued learning on the job. David does credit himself with “being a genius at reusing wood.” When he showed me part of the “stash” of materials used and reused for sets, it was apparent that some materials had seen better days.
“We could really use some new doors!” he said. “It becomes a real challenge to install a door that has been in and out of many sets and not have it wobble.” With almost devilish glee, David related seeing a door wobble in the set of a play at Philadelphia’s long-established Wilma Theatre. Allens Lane’s entire set budget probably covers (maybe) coffee stirrers for a Wilma production. So, yes, David Ward does look at sets when he sits in an audience, but says that “if patrons are looking too much at the sets, the play isn’t working.”
Next up at Allens Lane is “Table Manners” by Alan Ayckbourn and directed by Noelle Nettl, opening Nov. 21. The play revolves around a dining room in a country home where for years Annie has had a dull existence taking care of her elderly mother. After a tryst with her brother-in-law, Norman, things become very interesting when Norman shows up with his wife. Consulting with Nettl, David drew a “ground plan,” a view looking down on the stage showing where everything in the set will be positioned.
He will paint the stage to look like floor boards, paint and stencil the “flats” to look like wallpapered walls, and install wainscoting and baseboards (“pieced together from scraps!”). The back wall will have a window that “thankfully, does not have to be operable!”
Retired for several years from Overbrook High, David now teaches English part-time at the Community College of Philadelphia. And his volunteering is not limited to the theater at the Center. Two Sundays each month, David operates the sound board at his church, which soon is getting a new high-tech board, which he “is a little nervous about!” And, at least once each month, he donates blood platelets, which takes several hours each time. “They need to get some new movies; I’ve seen them all!”, he says.
Although David prefers his volunteerism to float beneath the radar, his accomplishments at Allens Lane are not unrecognized. As Craig Stover, director of the Center said, “He’s done so much for us, it’s staggering.” When he thanked me for the chance to revisit some wonderful memories, I could only wish that I had been an Allens Lane patron when David Ward graced the stage.
(Footnote: Sarah Labov, who performed in “Quake,” Allens Lane’s first show this season, was cast by David Ward as Daisy in the first play that he directed at Overbrook High, “Lil’ Abner,” in 1978!)
“Table Manners” runs from Nov. 21 to Dec. 6 in the theater at Allens Lane Art Center. 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. If you have an interest in building sets and would like to help David Ward, or if you have new or gently used wood or pre-hung doors, contact the Center.
Christine Cayer, a resident of Glenside, is a long-time Allens Lane Art Center theater subscriber.