Alexander Fraser: Staging good times

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but sadly a lot of our Christmas traditions will be curbed in 2020. No dressing up to see the Nutcracker at the Academy, no hopping the train to NY to see the tree in Times Square or standing shoulder to shoulder to see the windows at Macy’s. But fortunately, there are still some things to do to get in that holiday spirit. New Hope, PA is just a short drive away. There are numerous reasons to go anytime of year, but Christmas is an especially beautiful time to check it out. You’ll spend most of your time outdoors as you walk the quaint streets decked out in the finest Dickensian fashion doing your Christmas shopping at the city’s eclectic shops. You can take a ride with Santa on the New Hope Railroad, a beautiful steam engine that departs daily. And you can eat at one of the many restaurants refitted for outdoor dining. One of the restaurants already providing breathtaking seating overlooking the Delaware river is The Deck. The Deck is part of the Bucks County Playhouse, a staple of the area and a great way to start off your visit. We spoke to Producing Director Alex Fraser to find out about the history of the theater and Alex himself.

Tell me a little about Alex Frazier.

I was born in St. Louis, and when I was 6 months old my family moved to Memphis. I lived there until I was 17 and then I got out as quickly as I could! I went to college in Illinois for 2 years and then to NYU. It’s funny, my father was born in Philadelphia and raised in New York City, and when he was young his family moved to St. Louis and he fell in love with it. When I was a little boy I would visit my aunt in New York and the minute I saw NY I fell in love. I couldn’t understand why my father left! He hated it and I thought it was the most wonderful place in the world. I was a child but I knew that someday I’d end up there. I was aware that I was different and somehow knew that NY would accommodate that difference much more than Memphis. 

I’m sure.

I managed to move there when I was 19. I didn’t have any big plans, I just wanted to be there and I would have stayed for the rest of my life but I fell in love with a man who felt the way my father did about NY. Theater producers are limited in where they can live and find work, but the Bucks County Playhouse kind of fell into my lap, miraculously, and it was close enough to NY that I could still get there easily but far enough away for my husband. I’d been here once before with a former lover to go to the Cartwheel a long time ago. It is really extraordinary here. There are so many interesting people who live and work here. We’ve been here since 2014 and I was shocked to find how much I love it here.

I sometimes describe it as an inland Provincetown. 

Yes! That’s perfect!

What’s a magical memory from NY?

What I loved was my aunt’s spirit. She was a walker. She lived on 79th Street on the East side and she would walk everywhere. She had a big bag and always carried a book with her. She’d read paperbacks and any time she had to wait, even if it was 3 minutes at the pharmacy, the book would come out, she’d read a few pages and when she was done, she’d tear out the pages she read and throw them away, so she never needed a bookmark. 

Wow! My mother’s an ex-librarian, so don’t let her hear that! Were you a reader in school? What were you into?

Animals. And I was a voracious reader; I devoured books. Now I just mostly read scripts. 

What did you study in school?

Well, originally zookeeper, animal trainer, pet store owner, and animal importer were the career paths I was choosing from and deciding which would fit best. I was a volunteer at the Memphis zoo which was everything for me. I was always into animals. 

Did you watch Tiger King?

No, we watched one episode and my husband refused to watch anymore because it was too close to the path my life might have taken! Truer words were never spoken. 

Have you been to the Philadelphia zoo?

You know, I’ve never have been there. Once I found the theater, how quickly I turned my back on animals!

How did you get into theater?

In 9th grade, I went to an all-boys, very conservative private school, and it was not a happy experience for me. Until I was asked to audition for a school play. I knew nothing about and had no interest in theater. But since we were an all-boys school, they would bring in girls for the shows. I’d gone to a public elementary school and girls were always my saviors and a big part of my social success. I didn’t get a part in the show but I was asked to do props and that’s how it started. By 11th grade, I wanted to be an actor. I did a lot of shows in Memphis and did well there, but the minute I got to New York, I saw people with real talent, I mean, crazy talent. God gave these people something special and I knew I didn’t have it. I kind of always knew, and in my heart I knew that it wasn’t particularly fun for me onstage. I just loved being a part of the theater, the people, and everything about it except for the actual acting! Especially once I started doing real shows where you had to perform 8 shows a week for weeks at a time. I was like, “Really, we have to do it again? It wasn’t good enough last night?” So I became a journalist, which I thought would be good for me because writing comes easy for me. Just something to support my life in NY. But unfortunately, journalism majors at NYU were competing with journalism majors at Columbia and it was no contest, they got all the good jobs. But then I got a call out of the blue from an old NYU professor who asked if I would be interested in a job doing casting. It paid $135 a week, which was plenty to live on, and that was it! I was back in the theater! 

Cool. 

Later, in dramatic fashion, I was finished with the theater after being disillusioned with my first Broadway show, and I got a job fundraising for the Bronx zoo. Fundraising was a good fit. Having writing skills and being loquacious was a plus in that field. [Laughing] But 9 months of that taught me that the theater was the right choice and I went back. 

And now you’re here with us here in PA! What is your title and what are your duties?

I am the Producing Director for the Bucks County Playhouse. I coerced two friends who are Broadway producers, still in NY, into coming down and helping me do this. The 3 of us make the creative and artistic choices, and they are involved in producing the shows as well as strategic planning and the long-range vision for the theatre. On the other hand, I also run the business side of things so I act as the CEO of the Playhouse. I oversee the day to day operations of the theater, the fundraising, the marketing, venue management, and the restaurant.  

What are some of the joys of the job?

[It’s] unlike NY, where you’re limited in what you can do. [NY is] so expensive, there are so many people involved in each decision, the fact that anything gets done there is a miracle. But here we’re a lot more autonomous and can stretch our wings a little. 

What are some things that make the Playhouse and New Hope special?

New Hope has gone through such a renaissance. When the theater opened in 1939, New Hope was such a sleepy little town, they didn’t even have paved streets, then suddenly this 400 seat theater was drawing Hollywood stars and selling out each night. Grace Kelly made her debut here, Robert Redford performed here with the original Barefoot in the Park cast. Restaurants and businesses started popping up and the artists who lived here realized, “I don’t have to pay a gallery in NY to sell my work, I can have my own gallery here!” and before you knew it, New Hope was a tourist attraction. In the ’60s and ’70s they tried to do theater in the winter but the building wasn’t heated so it was awful. In fact, we had Michelle Lee here for a concert a few years ago and her agent said, “Oh my God, I remember one miserable winter I was there doing some God-forsaken Shakespeare play and the wind was coming through the dressing room window from that freezing river, it was horrible.” I love stories like that, because you always remember misery with humor! In the 70’s and 80’s things went downhill a lot, the theater was in terrible condition and it got a bad reputation. But it stayed open, which was great because if not, I’m sure it would have been torn down. In 2010 the bank foreclosed on it and put it up for auction, but luckily, a NY producer, Ted Bernstein began to beat the drum to save the playhouse and they got funding and became a non-profit. The whole building got a renovation and we were able to get Jessica Walters, who’d been an apprentice at the Playhouse in ’58, to come back for a production of “Steel Magnolias.” When she walked into the building she burst into tears, and said, “It’s never been this beautiful.” But the truth is, it’s pretty much the same, just better. It’s one of the things that appealed to me, the chance to do contemporary work in this amazing structure. It was a grist mill for heaven’s sake and you can feel the history when you walk in. There’s an incredible vibe here and the performers and audience can feel it. Once we get someone in here, they always want to come back, which is why we have such great a concert series. The growth here over the past few years has been extraordinary. 

What will people find if they go?

A combination of things from across the board. We produce a nice balance of new work and classics, of course the musicals in the summer are always popular. I should mention one other thing that makes us special. In NY, as an actor, you really have no relationship with the other professionals you’re working with off the stage, [and] you have no relationship with anyone in the audience. They see the show, they leave and you never see them again, but here we see people in the neighborhood, the theater itself is a member of the community and it’s a special feeling. Currently, we’re working on a Christmas concert that we’re going to stream. We’ll have the actors do it live without an audience. There’s also a benefit performance of A Christmas Carol that we’re promoting though it’s not our production. It’s an exciting time, the Playhouse reopening has encouraged a bit of a renaissance in New Hope, the Logan Inn across the street has been completely rebuilt and it’s stunning. Odette’s, the classic cabaret venue, has just reopened and it’s in a new location on the river which is just beautiful and it’s only a 6 minute walk from the Playhouse going along the canal. Of course one of the best things about coming here now is our restaurant, The Deck. We have tables with heaters out on the promenade overlooking the water, and it’s just gorgeous.  And the food’s delicious too!

Let’s go for some random questions, ever have any paranormal experiences?

No! And I’m open to it. I live in a 230-year-old house and nothing. And we’ve had people come to the theater to try to find spirits or whatever, but to no avail. Just good energy here. 

Who would be your ultimate scene partner, living or dead, and what person do you wish you could have seen?

Oh wow, living, it would be Gena Rowlands, and dead… would be Duse, she was a contemporary of Sarah Bernhardt. From all accounts, Sarah was very declamatory, waving her arms etc, but with Duse, her acting was very subtle and came from inside, and I wish that I could have seen her perform. 

Any words to live by?

I feel like I should have a motto but I don’t. But, I saw George Clooney being interviewed this morning and he quoted a movie line, “I never learned anything by listening to myself”. I LOVED that! I don’t know if they’re words to live by but it’s a good cautionary tale!