“This passion, and the death of a dear friend, would go near to make a man look sad.”
– Wm Shakespeare, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream
If you attended the recent production of “Kiss Me Kate” in Nashua, you undoubtedly saw the familiar face of Kevin Riley at the concession table, selling snacks and chatting with the many people he knew. You would have exchanged small talk about the local theater arts community and maybe asked him something like, “Aren’t you usually working a show for Nashua Theater Guild? What are you doing here?” Kevin would have shrugged and uttered some non-descript reply like, “I was happy to help out.” Maybe a silly question to ask, because seeing Kevin involved in a show, any show, was a routine and comfortably familiar occurrence.
“Life is a theatre set in which there are but few practicable entrances.”
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
It’s no secret at all that Kevin Riley carried the Nashua Theatre Guild on his back for the last few years. I’m told that some time ago, when this company, perhaps the state’s oldest continuously operating community theater company had but twenty dollars in the bank, Kevin paid the theater rental out of his own pocket. In this dicey business, there would be doubt that he might be reimbursed. I’m sure that this thought might have crossed his mind as he carefully placed his signature on the check and then slid it into city’s coffers. The show must go on.
“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
- Wm Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii
There’s no family like a group of actors. They are bolted together by the precarious notion of theater. A strange idea, when you think about it: Standing on a stage and reciting centuries old lines heard tens of thousands of times. Yet, still hopefully to an audience that for a portion, these words are new. Somehow, the language transcends time and makes you part of its history. You’ve played the role. You’ve sung those songs. You have woven a little art today and someone’s memory of that great literature was shaped by your work. It’s no wonder that the quickly formed friendships endure long after the show is over. The play itself is fleeting, and once the set is struck, only memories, photos and the shared bond of a cast and crew remains. There’s nothing quite like it. Kevin Riley brought Shakespeare to Greely Park in Nashua on many a warm summer’s day. The sweat laid cold when the day was done but nothing felt quite as satisfying. It’s good to know that there’s something enduring in the hearts of friends who played the same play.
“Love Him as much as they want, no one really wants a painting of Jesus in the living room. You’re having a few people over, having a few drinks, and there’s Jesus over the sofa. Somehow it doesn’t work.” - Sagot, Picasso at the Lapine Agile.
Kevin was a director. Not an actor very often. When I had the opportunity to direct the modern classic, Picasso at the Lapine Agile, Kevin was an obvious choice to play the art dealer, Sagot. When I asked him, an honest glow emerged, and then was swiped away by actor uncertainty. “You sure you want me?” There’s nothing more heartfelt than the blessings of another artist and it might happen very rarely from someone you respect. My reply was “of course, you idiot.” And, so the role was cast and those who saw it will remember Kevin, resplendent in black, being just who you would imagine saying these lines as he did, as they were meant to be said. And then, as is the way, the show was over.
“You are the obstetrician. You are not the parent of this child we call the play. You are present at its birth for clinical reasons, like a doctor or midwife. Your job most of the time is simply to do no harm.” - Frank Hauser, Notes on Directing: 130 Lessons in Leadership from the Director's Chair
Being a director is a daunting task. You must have a vision. You must see the play as both the actor and the audience. Unlike those lucky professionals, the community theater director rarely has designers of all ilk to call upon. He may design his own set, drive a hundred miles for a special prop, and plead someone to help paint. Before all that, he’ll stand and watch auditions, and judge you, and think about you, and finally, ask you to play a part. So many local artists owe their acting careers to Kevin Riley. He cast his net widely, and prodded those who thought they could not, to do their best.
“Love art in yourself, and not yourself in art.”
- Konstantin Stanislavski, My Life In Art
Four times, Kevin won American Association of Community Theater (AACT) awards for directing. In 2005, he received the NH Theatre Award’s “Vision and Tenacity” honor. He was the “go to guy.” He would paint the floor, direct the show, and, as we’ve seen, sell cookies at intermission. I never saw him hang lights. But, if someone asked him to, I know he would have given it his best. Because there was nothing he loved more. And we loved him because of that.
“Hear my soul speak:
The very instant that I saw you, did
My heart fly to your service.”
- Wm Shakespeare, The Tempest
It’s a tribute to the role he played, and both fitting and proper that we do this. His language now lies in molecules in the darkness, its spirit evaporated to misty worlds we only imagine. For life is but a trick of light, furtively dancing in the universe. Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.