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Joan Lyons Gets Her Chance

Tue, 01/23/2024 - 09:30
When not moonlighting as a director, Joan Lyons is the administrator of Ackerman, Pachman, Brown, Goldstein, and Margolin, an East Hampton law firm.
Mark Segal

When Joan Bennett Lyons, the co-director with Michael Disher of Center Stage at the Southampton Arts Center, first became involved with theater, she was a huge Tennessee Williams fan.

"He's very dark, and I like that," she remarked during a recent conversation.

Ms. Lyons, who studied acting for many years, noted that in almost every class somebody gave a monologue from either "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" or "The Glass Menagerie." She herself did Amanda's jonquil monologue from "The Glass Menagerie" in one class and thought, "If I ever get a chance to do this play, I'm going to do it."

That chance is at hand. While she no longer acts, Ms. Lyons will direct a staged reading of the play at the arts center this weekend. Actually, there will be a lot more going on than in the typical staged reading, which consists of a bare set and actors sitting in a semi-circle reading from scripts.

Her "Menagerie" will have "entrances and exits, there's lighting and sound cues, there's music." And while there are chairs, the actors don't stay in them. "I wanted it to be more of a production," said the director, "but it's not a fully-fledged one, because I don't have the rehearsal time and space, and it's only one weekend. But it doesn't diminish the performances in any way. The actors are really wonderful."

The cast includes Tamara Froebel Salkin as Amanda, Zianya Quiroz Kane as Laura, Vincenzo Harty as Tom, Kieran Conlon as Jim, and Kristin Whiting as the host.

"The Glass Menagerie," a memory play set in St. Louis in 1937, premiered in Chicago in 1944 and went on to Broadway, where it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as best American play and launched the playwright from relative obscurity to fame.

Ms. Lyons's acting career began early. Hugh King, now director of Home Sweet Home and other East Hampton Village historic sites, was part of Guild Hall's East End Players back then, and also her fifth and sixth-grade teacher at the Springs School. Because of construction, those grades met in the gym, which, she recalled, was also the auditorium and had a stage. "So whenever we had a class project, Hugh King would do a play."

Her theatrical career then languished until the early 1990s, when she began dancing at the Lighthouse Dance Project on Springs-Fireplace Road. "I did jazz and tap and a little bit of hip-hop here and there. I wasn't good at hip-hop, it wasn't my genre."

Eric Jacobson, who is now special events producer at the Bay Street Theater, was her dance teacher. "He was so creative, and I danced there for a few years," Ms. Lyons said, until 2006, when, with "a lot of upheaval," the studio was relocating, and several people broke away to found a new place, which would also teach singing and acting. The Jacobson Center for the Performing Arts, which lasted six years, was based at the Springs Presbyterian Church.

Ms. Lyons also studied acting with Steve Hamilton and Mr. Disher. Mr. Hamilton, she said, used a method advocated by Harold Guskin, the author of "How to Stop Acting." "Steve always said, 'Don't act, just be,' and that resonated with me. That's pretty much the concept by which I operate as a director. I don't want you to pretend, I want you to actually be this character. Steve had a huge impact on me."

She started at Center Stage around 2012, "just acting," when it was under the direction of Mr. Disher at the Southampton Cultural Center, and there she found what she called "the role -- where you forget that you're acting."

She played Mattie Fae Aiken in Tracy Letts's play "August: Osage County," directed by Mr. Disher. "Stephen Scheck played my husband, and every night he would grab me and shake me. He would leave bruises on my arms. And every night I would forget that he was going to grab me and shake me like that, because I was so in the moment, in that character. I thought every other role would pale by comparison. And it did. That's really why I got into directing." (That, and the fact that Mr. Disher suggested she direct something for him.)

The last show she directed at the cultural center was Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," in January 2020. Then came Covid, and there were no productions at the center during the rest of 2020 and most of 2021. Mr. Disher did return to direct "Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play" in December 2022, and Ms. Lyons was planning to direct "The Humans," but "things were not jelling. Sometimes it's just time to go somewhere else, and it was time for us."

During a breather, the two directors questioned whether they wanted to take on the "enormous amount of work" of running a theater program. 

Ms. Lyons is certainly not afraid of work. She has a day job as the administrator of Ackerman, Pachman, Brown, Goldstein, and Margolin, an East Hampton law firm founded by Leonard I. Ackerman in 1978.

After East Hampton High School and secretarial school, she had plans to move to New York City to work and attend college, "but none of that happened." Instead she worked for Ed Horn, who had been the town attorney, and then, while  browsing The Star's classifieds, she saw that Mr. Ackerman, whom she knew, was hiring.

That was in 1981, and she has been there ever since. "So I'm really in a rut, but I love what I do."

Running a law firm would be more than enough for most people, but when the Southampton Arts Center invited Ms. Lyons and Mr. Disher to move there, they agreed. "They have been just wonderful," Ms. Lyons said. "We suspect, and I think they suspect, that we will both want to stay. But we said let's do this for a year and see how successful it is. So far, it's been great, so I see it continuing."

Performances will take place on Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2. Tickets are $20, $15 for members, and available from the arts center's website or by calling 631-283-0967. Information about brunch and dinner discounts for ticket holders is also on the website.

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