‘God’ lends a hand to Newport theater drive

Ed Asner stars in "God Help Us!," a fundraising political comedy scheduled for August

What started out as a plea for cash has turned into what likely will be the biggest draw at the Newport Performing Arts Center this summer.

It’s a play called God Help Us!,  and playing the title role is the actor with more Emmys — seven — than any other male performer. You may know him best as Lou Grant, the ornery TV news director with a soft spot for Mary. Yep, that would be Ed Asner.

Here’s how it happened.

For the past seven years, the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts has been raising money for its seven-phase capital campaign to expand and improve the Newport Performing Arts Center. That campaign is in the final stage, with efforts to transform the former Black Box Theater. The Black Box originally was designed as rehearsal space, morphed into a small theater, and recently was renamed for the late David Ogden Stiers. Improvements totaling $1.6 million will make it a fully functioning theater.

Ed Asner as God judges a debate in purgatory between a former couple — one liberal, one conservative — in the political comedy “God Help Us!”

Charged with figuring out how to raise the money, Andrea Spirtos, capital campaign consultant for the council, got her hands on an extensive resume of Stiers’ work. Stiers was a Newport resident and actor best known for his role as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III in the TV series M*A*S*H.

“It included all the shows he was on,” Spirtos said. “And then I researched each of those shows to find out which episode he was on and which actors would have been filmed with him, including what lines he may have said surrounding his appearance.”

Then she found the names of the agents for those actors and sent letters, reminding the actors what episode they were in and the role Stiers played. (Note: If someone wants to name anything for me when I die, please put Spirtos on the job.)

Along with the letter, Spirtos sent information packages about the campaign, the performing arts center, and what it means to the community. She followed up with an email. Among those she  heard from was Asner’s daughter, Liza Asner, who lived in Portland for 22 years.

“She called and said, ‘We like what you’re doing. My father is … interested in doing a benefit show if you’re interested,” Spirtos said. Liza Asner sent two plays to pick from, and they chose God Help Us!

The play is a political comedy with a changing script to reflect current events. There are roles for four local actors. Two high school students, Kylie MacDonald, 16, and Cole Theodore, 17, have been selected to play angels. Two adult roles are being cast.

“We’re really excited, and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the PAC and for the people of Newport to see Ed Asner, who is 89 years old. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for the local actors to act with him,” Spirtos said.

I talked with Liza Asner about the play, written by Samuel Warren Joseph and Phil Proctor, the latter an actor and member of Firesign Theatre. She said she was given the play for her father’s consideration, and “I just loved it.”

“Everyone is so freaked out by politics. They’re scared of it. They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t understand it,” she said. “That’s the end message in this political comedy – sometimes you’ve really got to put yourself in someone else’s shoes without shutting down or shutting out. Try to look at a different perspective and do the right thing. In the play, God brings a divorced couple back together. One is liberal. The other conservative.” 

Although the play premiered last summer in Illinois, Newport will be only the second venue to host a fundraising performance of God Help Us!  The first was March 30 in Paradise, Calif., where wildfires devastated the community last year.

“There was a huge spread in The New York Times about the wildfire destruction and they talked about a theater there,” Liza Asner said. “My dad said, ‘You know what, why we don’t we…’  It was wonderful. We just thought it was totally worth doing.”

The play is scheduled for 7 p.m. Aug. 10 and 11 in the Newport Performing Arts Center. Tickets — set to go on sale any day — will be $50 per person, plus an online ticketing fee. Twenty people will have the opportunity to pay an additional $20 to meet Ed Asner after each show. Stay tuned for more on ticket sales or keep an eye out here.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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