The Quiet Execution of Frank L. Teal will be performed this weekend in the Cathedral at Murray’s in Tivoli. It could be called a hybrid sort of dramatic production, in that the story is told as documentary. The text is based on actual interviews with locals who knew of Teal’s death in 1949 and on research into the archives at Historic Red Hook. Written by Storyhorse Theater co-founder Jeremy Davidson and directed by his wife and co-founder Mary Stuart Masterson, the unsolved murder mystery will be staged as a reading, with characters giving voice to the action.
This is how it’s done at Storyhorse: True events that have taken place in our region, either contemporary or historical, are transcribed and brought to life by actors in multimedia readings. “It’s a tricky format,” says Davidson. “We don’t rehearse a lot; the actors are not moving around and are not in costume. So, how do you create a dynamic story? It’s meant to be a conversation with the audience. The whole point of the Storyhorse project is to create a landscape of local stories we can all connect to and recognize we’re a part of, in some way.”
The fifth such story to be presented by Storyhorse, The Quiet Execution of Frank L. Teal, came about when the president at Historic Red Hook introduced Davidson to the murder that was never solved. He was able to talk to people who were alive at the time, and also managed to read the case file. “That opened the story up in a way I thought could live in a documentary form onstage,” says Davidson. “Frank was a surveyor from around 1903 to 1949. In 1949, he was living alone, in his early 80s. He’d never married or had kids, but lived with his mother and sister, who had passed away. A neighbor would bring dinner to him. One night, she couldn’t get in and found that he had died of smoke inhalation.”
An investigation determined that the fire had been set, and that Teal had been shot in the head. It was murder. “The case files were in people’s own words. It’s very immediate. I have changed names in certain instances. You’re playing with rumor a lot of the time. To use a rumor to disparage someone’s name – that’s a line I try to be conscious of as much as possible. I do play with time in this one. I hope it gets at the essence and is a useful window to not just a murder case, but to the community over time. It’s a tragic story, but ultimately there’s something about the way they existed as a family that is inspiring. And Frank Teal’s work as a surveyor is interesting; who he was as a man is fascinating.”
When asked about the process of fictionalizing a true story, Davidson says, “The stories need to be heard in a way that is immediate and intimate, not overly manipulated by performance. There’s a narrative here that is ‘direct address’ to the audience. To fictionalize it, there are liberties you take just by casting actors to tell it. You put the story through their spirit, and that’s changing the story just by doing that.
“When you hear ‘documentary,’ it’s hard for some people to understand. A live documentary is here and gone. We’ll probably do this once, which I find both exhilarating and frustrating. It’s expensive to produce live theater, difficult to sustain something like this. For this one in particular, a lot of terrific upstate actors are involved. They care as much as I do about this area because they live here. It helps bring integrity to this story and make the words memorable.”
Davidson and Masterson settled their young family in the Hudson Valley five years ago, after living “like Gypsies – moving around, getting close to people in different parts of the country” as working actors. “We’re fortunate to get to travel, but it often feels rootless; you’re passing through,” says Davidson. “In New York, it sometimes feels that theater is something only for the privileged. Here there are so many inspiring people doing incredible work, who are not passing through.
“Now, being here full-time, we’re trying to contribute to the community. We collect these stories and want them to be of value, not only for entertainment. We’re all so over-entertained as a culture. But when we gather together and all listen to the same story, there’s something communal about that. I find it very powerful. The feeling of telling local stories that have been pulled from the community: It’s a different experience for me. I feel the stakes of the storytelling a little more. They’re my neighbors. It takes a huge amount of courage for them to share their stories and allow us to share them in this way. This is connecting me and my work with the place where I live and where we’re raising our kids. The land is part of it; you feel the history of the place in the land. It feels like it’s alive, and it speaks to us.”
The Quiet Execution of Frank L. Teal is also produced by Tricia Reed; sound design is by Seth Chrisman and projection design by David Szlasa. The cast includes Denny Dillon, Jeffrey Demunn, Tim Guinee, Michael Chernus, John Bedford Lloyd, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Sean Cullen, Jeffrey Doornbos, Michael Rhodes, Foster Reed, Julian Senterfit-Sanjuan, Eric Hill, Emily Simoness, Alec Glass, Tommy Costello and Sam Eisenbaum.
The Quiet Execution of Frank. L. Teal, Friday/Saturday, April 13/14, 8 p.m., general admission $28/students $20, Sunday, April 15, 2 p.m., pay-what-you-wish, Cathedral at Murray’s, 73 Broadway, Tivoli; (323) 646-0157, https://storyhorsetheater.org.