Busier than ever with writing

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BENNINGTON >> Bob Sugarman should be taking it easy, right? Apparently, not so.

The local playwright and author, now 89, is busier than ever with writing in his so-called retirement. This week, he will introduce his new novel, "Antibes 1950" (Puck Press 2016) and play, "When Johnny Came Home," in free public readings just two days apart.

The whirlwind will open at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 21 at the Bennington Free Library. Sugarman will discuss his book "Antibes 1950: A Novel." An author reception, including books available for purchase and signing will immediately follow the program. The presentation will be co-sponsored by The Bennington Bookshop.

Set in 1950, the novel recalls the time in post-World War II coastal France when the country was rebuilding, and becoming a hub for the arts and attracting expatriate Americans.

"I spent a pleasant, but uneventful summer in Antibes in 1950, Sugarman said. "After I left, a letter caught up to me from a friend from Syracuse who had come to visit me in Antibes after I had left. At some point I had the idea of imagining what might have happened if undergraduate friends had come to visit me. Soon the characters took on a life of their own in a landscape I had come to love."

The characters spring from Sugarman's fertile imagination. They include, among others: Harvey, a painter, Genvieve, a French woman reporting for a Paris newspaper on the first tourist season since the end of World War II, and Evelyn, a traveler. At a local nightclub the three encounter Clari, a black singer they had heard at a nightclub in Syracuse.

Clari and Evelyn find they sing well together and start a successful and long career in Europe as an act called the Swing Sisters. But in 1970 they return to the United States for a concert at Carnegie Hall. The Vietnam War is on, there are new civil right laws, but how will an interracial singing duo be received?

Sugarman said the novel started as a play, but the current format allowed for a greater expansion of the entire storyline.

"The move from a 12,000 word play to a 62,000 word novel was fascinating," Sugarman said. "Characters and situations were added and the 1970 section much expanded, although the four principal characters remained and were developed further."

Just two days later, Sugarman will don his playwright sensibilities as his original work, "When Johnny Came Home," will be read by Dorset Theatre Festival as part of its New Play Reading Series. The reading will be at 1230 p.m., Saturday April 23, at the Left Bank Gallery in North Bennington.

The cast consists of Bennington College students and is directed by award-winning actor, director and Bennington College drama professor, Kirk Jackson.

The play describes life on the Syracuse University campus in 1950 when it was being transformed by recent World War II veterans studying on the GI Bill. The character Clari, from Sugarman's novel, "Antibes 1950," also appears in the play.

Jackson said he was drawn to the play by its sense of history, and intimacy.

"What I like about Bob's writing, and this play specifically, is his ability to capture a certain time and place" Jackson said. "The zeitgeist of a moment in history. In this case the years following World War II, the kind of expectations the characters have for themselves and for the country, and the kind of promises as well as prejudices that prevailed."

For a director, Jackson continued, there are fundamental differences with a reading than with a fully developed play going into production. The greatest decision, he noted, was the casting.

"The characters are all rather young, so I cast from students at Bennington College," Jackson said. "It's a chance for them to engage a certain skill set associated with a public reading. It's about clarity, making a few bold but not disruptive choices for the character, about letting the play be heard above any given performer's personality, about talking and listening, even though you are obviously reading. I think it's a great exercise for them."

Sugarman agreed with Jackson's assessment, and concluded by saying that whoever attends the play reading will come away with a great sense of the people he wrote about. He added that this being an election year, and with the play also encompassing an election season, it will be especially relevant for those who attend.

"I'm fascinated with the process by which people create their adult identities," Sugarman said. "Both the play and the novel explore this. I think an additional appeal is the transformative power of an election's impact on people's lives, something we are currently experiencing again, this year. I think that will greatly engage audiences."

For more information on both the novel reading of "Antibes 1950" and the play reading of "When Johnny Comes Home" e-mail: robsugar@comcast.net

— Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist


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