NORTH TONAWANDA – The plays of L. Don Swartz have traveled the world, but locals need to only travel to North Tonawanda and its Ghostlight Theatre to join in the fun.
Swartz, 55, the director of the Starry Night Theatre troupe in the historic Ghostlight Theatre, has been entertaining his followers for more than 30 years with some 27 original plays and adaptations. His work has been performed by nearly 500 school and community groups in 48 states as well as England, Guam, India and Australia.
Swartz said most of his plays are set in the Buffalo area and he once received a call from England asking what a Buffalo accent sounded like.
“I said plug your nose and speak as fast as you can,” he said with a laugh. “They have those wonderful English accents. It never occurred to me that they would want to sound like us.”
The Ghostlight Theatre will celebrate its 2015-16 season with four productions written by Swartz, including a 25th anniversary production of “All Through the Night,” a Christmas play. He also will bring back a favorite comedy duo in a new play, “Lottie and Bernice: Living Large,” as well the premier of a new thriller, “Murder in the Smoky Mountains,” and his original adaptation based on the Mark Twain classic “Tom Sawyer.”
Swartz said “All Through the Night,” one of his most popular plays, tells the story of seven weary travelers trapped in a rural train station by a blizzard on Christmas Eve. “Murder in the Smoky Mountains,” which opens the season on Oct. 8, is a thriller that tells the story of tourists being murdered in a remote resort. “Lottie and Bernice” is the sixth play about these two grumpy ladies and their daily adventures, featuring his wife, Debby Swartz, in one of the lead roles. “Tom Sawyer” focuses on two boys who witness a murder in the town’s graveyard and the killer is stalking them.
The troupe will conclude its season in August 2016 with “The Music Man,” the classic musical by Meredith Willson.
The Starry Night Theatre, which has been providing theater in North Tonawanda since 1972, is housed in the Ghostlight Theatre, a 214 seat theater tucked inside a former neighborhood church at 170 Schenck St. The historic church, built in 1889, also houses an art gallery and a snack bar.
The Swartzes have four children, two girls and two boys, ages 10 to 20. All of them grew up in the theater and both boys have played Tiny Tim.
When did you start this theater?
The program goes back to 1972 with the City of North Tonawanda. My wife started in 1975, as an actress, one of the little kids in the “Sound of Music.” She was here before I was here. They hired me in 1982. We broke off from the city and got this building in 2001.
What church did this used to be?
It was Freidens United Church of Christ. It’s German for peace and they broke ground on Halloween, which is kind of interesting.
How did you and your wife meet?
It was here. Auditions for “Carousel.” My first job here. I had just got out of college. Three hundred dollars for the whole summer, but I was so happy. I went to Concordia University of Chicago and got my teaching degree in theater and English. I was told I would probably teach English and do one play a year. But I came home and got this job, and with the Theater of Youth in Buffalo. I grew up in North Tonawanda and was so glad to be home and have a career in this. I thought, “Hey I can do this.”
This seems like a good spot for people who want to be part of the theater.
We have six people who have been doing this for over 30 years with us. They do their 9-to-5 job and then they are here with us every night.
I think this is their clubhouse. We feel like a bunch of kids. There is no janitor, no board of directors saying, “You must do this.” If we need toilet paper, someone has to get it. If the roof leaks, we get it fixed. Basically we are six goofy actors who thought, “Well, here we are.” I think it is the people and the community. The community has been so crazy supportive that if you say we need this and they come forward ... You dim the lights and say, “I’ve got a story to tell” and they keep coming back.
How did you begin writing your own original work?
I was in “A Christmas Carol” in 1982 and fell in love with it. This is the first show our company did and people quickly got tired of it, especially the actors. But I told them there was nothing else out there. They said, “Why don’t you write one?” So I did. And that was “All Through the Night,” which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this coming Christmas. We do it in rotation with “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” every third year. So we make them miss it. Being in company with these plays is a wonderful thrill. It’s something I will never take for granted.
Were you surprised by the positive reaction you received?
It’s the one play I wrote that I don’t know where it came from. It’s more of a “Twilight Zone” episode. It’s quirky. It’s strange. It’s so gratifying when people remember it and ask for it – and humbling
Do some plays fail?
Oh yes, absolutely. There is a way [people] shut down. I hide. I don’t come out. But now I’ve published 27 plays, performed in over 500 theaters around the world. I didn’t set out to do this. I’m so gratified that they are picking me. Next month we are in Australia, on the beach. They are doing, “A Night of Dark Intent,” a murder mystery. It’s a cast of eight women, no men. It has taken off. It also played in India and twice in England and a whole month in California. It’s thrilling. I have no business having a bad day. Even though it’s high schools and community theaters, they are picking me. And I get the royalty checks.
Some of your plays are adaptations. What are those?
One of my most popular is “Little Women.” It’s in the public domain so there are 100 versions out there, but people are picking mine – and I get the royalties. It’s crazy. I’ve also done “Dracula” and “Treasure Island.” This year we are doing “Tom Sawyer.” It’s confusing for the kids. My daughter told her teacher I wrote “Little Women” when she was in the second grade.
Do you have new plays every year?
We have three world premieres this year, but last year I didn’t write anything and we had 800 fewer patrons. But mostly (what brings in the audiences) is Lottie and Bernice, the two old Polish ladies.
Lottie and Bernice?
The two actresses who are Polish have been telling these stories since high school and they just make me laugh so hard. It’s our franchise and every seat is full when we trot these two grumpy old ladies out. It’s not poking fun at them. They always get the best of every situation. They do better than the musicals. They do better than the Christmas shows.
Who are Lottie and Bernice?
It’s my wife Debby and her friend Joann Mis. These are stories from their heritage. And they have made a fortune for this place. People love to see them. I wrote five plays with them featured. This will be the sixth. They are so funny and so easy to write for, though it takes about two years. There’s this rat-a-tat-tat way they speak, very economical, zing, zing, and I know when it’s right. I’m not Polish, but Debby and Joann are.
It sounds like you don’t want to be anywhere else except North Tonawanda.
I went away for seven formative years, from 14 to 22, and all I wanted to do is come home to Western New York. I had been to Texas and Chicago and Missouri and I realized, a little bit like Dorothy, all I want to do was to be back home. People said I wouldn’t work in theater here. But I love this area. I love everything about it ... You meet the most awesome people who share their lives with you – for free. And I am happy and feel incredibly blessed.
Swartz said Starry Night offers a children’s drama club on Saturdays, taught by his wife, who is a sixth-grade teacher in North Tonawanda. New members are always welcome. Season tickets offer five shows for $50. For information on classes, auditions, play dates and tickets, go to www.starrynighttheatre.com.
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