CAMP ZAMA, Japan – It is three days before “curtains up” on the first performance the Zama Community Theater Group has staged in four years, and every corner of the Community Recreation Center here is humming with last-minute preparations.
Some of the cast are onstage for scene blocking, while others are in the dressing room putting on their costumes and makeup. A set crewman uses a table saw to cut a plank of wood to size to make a trap door. The spotlight operators familiarize themselves with a new piece of equipment that has only become available this night. And in the orchestra pit, the music director goes over cues as the band warms up.
This is the night of the group’s first dress rehearsal for its staging of the musical version of “Peter Pan” and is the latest step in the production, which began with auditions in February and ended with three performances May 19 through 21.
Observing all of this is the director, Robert Montgomery, who sees a cast and crew that are basically ready, but who also gives them instruction with the urgency of someone who knows he has only a few days left to work out any of the remaining kinks in a show that has a lot of moving parts.
“We wanted a big blowout for our first performance,” Montgomery said. “Hopefully this is the most work for us for a given show, because now we have people who have actually done this stuff before, so they don’t need as much mentorship or advice or encouragement—they can just start.”
The previous iteration of the theater group was last active in 2019, staging a production of “Clue” and a Christmas musical that year. When Montgomery and his wife, Jennifer Quilty, arrived at Camp Zama in August 2021, they set their sights on reviving the group as soon as COVID-19 restrictions loosened up.
The two are no strangers to the world of theater. Montgomery holds a master’s in theater, and Quilty one in piano, and they met on the set of a musical in which he was acting and she was the music director. Over the years, wherever work has taken them—Montgomery currently works at the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion here—they either get involved with that community’s troupe if it already exists, or work to establish one if it does not.
“We are always looking for where we can do some theater,” Quilty said. “When we got here ... we saw that they had had theater, so we were trying to get the ball rolling and figure out, ‘How do we get a group going here again?’”
Late last summer, Montgomery sent out an open call to the community and held an informal initial meeting to state his intent for the group, which was to have regular “seasons” with a few performances scheduled each year. He also informally polled the group on ideas for shows they could perform and stressed that he was looking not only for actors, but crew—lights, sound, costumes, prop master, stage manager, publicist—as well.
“I started convincing people to volunteer,” Montgomery said. “They were all very hesitant because they had never done it before ... but that is one of the rewarding things for us, watching people who had never done these jobs and just reinforcing their natural instincts and telling them to go for it.”
The group of nearly 50 people that was assembled for “Peter Pan” ultimately included children and adults in both the cast and crew, some with experience but mostly first-timers. Work on the show began three months ago, and Montgomery said it has been amazing and heartwarming watching everyone learn their roles and come together as a group.
“It’s fascinating watching the kids and actors who have never been onstage before learning basic acting stuff that, once you teach it to them, they will continue with it for the rest of the rehearsals,” he said. “And we had great adults in the cast who encouraged them.”
Patty Flick-Hill was a vocal performance major in college and has been in productions of “Bye Bye, Birdie,” “Iolanthe” and a revue of composer Stephen Sondheim’s works. She attended the initial meeting last year and decided to audition. She was ultimately cast as both Mrs. Darling and a pirate in Captain Hook’s crew.
Because she had experience with memorizing dialogue, songs and choreography, Flick-Hill said she was eager to help the younger novice cast members. After Spring Break, the cast got “off-book,” meaning they rehearsed without the aid of the script. This is the time when the actors really began to dig into their characters, she said, which helped bring them closer together.
“We really seem like a close-knit family now,” Flick-Hill said. “There is a special bond when you perform with others that you just can’t get in other aspects of life. It has made us feel like we are more a part of the community.”
As the cast worked on bringing the show to life, work of a different kind was going on behind the scenes. Quilty once again took on the role of music director and practiced with a group that included musicians from the U.S. Army Japan Band and Zama Middle High School. Sullivan Dowdell, 11, worked as a first-time electrician and spotlight operator with his father. Crewman Tom Zmyewski, whose wife played the pirate Smee, helped build parts of the set.
Set designer Lindsey Powell first got involved in theater in high school 20 years ago, later spending time as an assistant technical director for an amateur dinner theater program. She has worked on a few sets since then, but having children and moving around with her husband, a military retiree, slowed that down a bit.
Powell has never liked acting, always preferring to work on the technical side of a production. Her grandfather was a carpenter and would bring her on jobs with him, and she said she has always had a knack for building and fixing things.
“I wanted to get back into working on sets again,” Powell said. “I’ve built many sets, but this is the first time I’ve designed a set. It was very intimidating at first, but I learned to step out of my comfort zone, trust my instincts and rely on the knowledge I’ve had for many years.”
The group had a very small budget, which often meant having to find cost-effective workarounds for the set, costumes and props, she said.
“I have said from the get-go that this play was going to be held together by duct tape and prayers, and that is exactly where we’re at,” Powell said on the night of the dress rehearsal. “But it is coming together, and I think it’s going to look great and people are really going to enjoy this.”
Montgomery was particularly pleased with the solution the crew devised for creating the illusion of the title character’s ability to fly. The wire-and-harness apparatus typically used to suspend actors in the air costs around $40,000 and requires instructors to teach the crew how to use it. Instead of that, a few cast members, outfitted in form-fitting black body suits that camouflaged them against the background, lifted Peter, played by 11-year-old Fynan Montgomery, into the air and swooped him around the stage.
The director praised his crew for their ingenuity and emphasized how important they are in producing a play or musical.
“Without the crew, there is no show,” Montgomery said. “The actors get all the glory, but this show absolutely does not happen without those dozens of volunteers doing all the technical aspects of the show.”
Montgomery said he has no plans to be the director for every show the group puts on. It is his hope that others will step up to take on the challenge and gain the experience. This will hopefully lay the groundwork for Montgomery’s ultimate goal, which is that the group will be able to continue after he and his wife leave Camp Zama.
“I can make all the decisions, but that doesn’t teach and mentor and encourage other people to take on those responsibilities,” he said. “Obviously they will still continue to learn, because there’s something new with every production that you’ve got to figure out. But now we have people who have got the self-confidence and can actually put a show together.”
As for his hopes for the audience and what they will get out of attending a Zama Community Theater Group production, Montgomery said he wants them to leave each show with the same feeling that drew him to the craft decades ago.
“I want people to become, if nothing else, appreciators of the theater experience—that special experience of watching a live, never-again-to-be-repeated performance,” he said. “This is an ephemeral moment in time that only the people in that room will share. And there’s just something magical about that.”