Theatre Series: Act

“Never the luck, and never the lead, and “never-you-mind” they say. In time we all taste, the lime in the light, and I’ll have my night someday.” – Bazzard, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”

Let me be completely transparent here. Every actor–yes, I’m making this blanket statement–every actor wants to play a big part on stage. If there is an actor who is completely content with five minutes of stage time and two lines to memorize, I certainly haven’t met them. We strive to be the best. Sometimes we know we are the best, and things still don’t go our way. Theatre, especially in the acting realm, is a hardscrabble, competitive life. Even at the collegiate level I have seen friends cut down friends because casting didn’t go their way.

Now, while what I have just described is a large facet of what happens between actors, it is not the only facet. I prefer to air the dirty laundry at the beginning, and then get to the good stuff.

There is an immeasurable bond that is created between cast members. During every show I have been cast in, there was a sort of communal experience that is unique to theatre. To tell a story with our bodies–our faces, vocal cords, arms, legs, clothes–and to create beautiful art together is priceless. The theatrical community as a whole shares a fantastic bond, but the actors knit especially close together throughout the process of creating a play.

I have spoken about Snow Queen before, in my entry about design. Let’s revisit that show, shall we?

The characters in Snow Queen consisted of a band of lost children, a ragtag gang of Orcs, the Storyteller, the Snow Queen, the Ice Warriors, the Snowbirds and the Wolves. A Prince and Princess also make an appearance. These characters were brought to life by myself and a few dozen friends of mine while at community college, and it was amazing.

In this show, I played the first role that I truly loved. I was a loud mouthed girl who was part of the lost children in the forest. My name was Gerda, and with the help of a slew of others, I ended up saving the world. It was a truly magical show, and let me tell you this: the friendships that were formed and strengthened during that show have not been broken. I am still in contact with many of those people, even though we’ve all moved on in life. The other day I saw a couple of the middle school actors who had been in the show (two years after our performances) and we reconnected as if we had never been apart.

I have a hard time putting it into words just how I have been changed by the shows I’ve been in. It is a process that is difficult to explain, but anyone who has ever acted knows what I mean.

For those of you who’ve not acted, here’s a scenario: Imagine that you have grown up in a single room. You have everything you need: sunlight, food, water, toys, internet, etc. You are content in this room, and would live out all your days there without complaint. Then one day, someone opens the door. The room is flooded with sound, and a warm sort of light you’ve never felt before. This person pulls you out into a room full of people. You are uncomfortable, all you want is to crawl back into your room and lock the door. The person who has dragged you out begins introducing you to people. There’s a dancer, and she shows you a bit of her art. A juggler, a mime, a basketball player, circus performers, accountants, inventors. People of all shapes, sizes, colors and professions. Your mind is overwhelmed with all the new information these people are injecting into it.

At the end of the night, you go back to your room, and the person who took you out of it quietly closes the door. You realize, suddenly, that all you want is to be back in that room with all those people, and so you wait anxiously for the next opportunity. You are no longer content in your small, enclosed world. So you sit with your ear to the door, and wait for the people to return.

This is a small illustration that shows what theatre did to me. It got a hold of my heart, of my soul. It will never let go, and I never want it to.

Theatre Series: Build

The camaraderie one feels when working on the set for a show is unlike any other; laughing back and forth, listening to music play over the sound system, and creating the occasional hilarious story that may survive for years to come. Even though the work is hard—as is inevitable when you put your whole being into something—it is rewarding.

Building the set for a play is very different than building a house or a shed. I’ve seen more jerry-rigged set pieces than I can count. The rule of thumb is, generally: If it’s safe to walk under and the audience can’t see how you made it happen, then it’s good. As long as the set looks good from an audience perspective and is functional, it really doesn’t matter what the back of it is like.

One of my favorite things to build was a set of thrones for The Snow Queen by Graham Cooper. They were called the “Seeing Thrones” and each represented one of the four elements—Earth, Water, Fire and Air. Going into it, I had no idea what I was going to make—but it was a challenge, and I rose to it.

I decided that each throne would represent the darker side of its element—after all, they were being controlled by the Snow Queen herself, and were designed to paralyze children forever and allow the Queen to rule the world. So Earth would be a deadly Nightshade plant, Water a frozen waterfall, Fire carved from a chunk of lava rock, and Air a tornado.

After coming up with these ideas, the next step was to decide on what to make them out of. I based each one on something different. A few other builders and I scrounged around the storage space and found three old chairs (one upholstered) and a stump that was not exactly made of wood. I decided these things would do.

The stump eventually became the Water throne, the two wooden chairs Earth & Air, and the upholstered chair was gutted and turned into the Fire throne. These pieces looked great at the end, but the process that went into building them was long and arduous. One night I recall staying in the theatre until 3 o’clock in the morning just to finish one of them.

I think a lot more people should be exposed to building something—anything, really. The satisfaction of seeing a finished product, done properly, and knowing that you made that happen is absolutely glorious. Even if your finished product is only viewable for a few hours over the course of four shows, it is worth it to know that you contributed in such a way.

The problem solving skills I have gained from being a builder in the theatre have been astronomically useful. I rarely flinch from a challenge anymore—I simply stare it in the face and try to think of creative solutions; with the help of others, of course. The community of theatre construction teams I have worked with over the years has taught me this: to never undervalue the ability of someone other than myself to come up with something absolutely brilliant.

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Published in: on October 9, 2013 at 12:41 am  Comments (3)  
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Theatre Series: Design

The designer in a theatre is often the most overlooked individual, at least from the audience’s perspective. There is a certain respect all audience members hold for the builder, the director, and always the actor–but the designer, the mind behind the set, costumes, lights and whatnot–is often forgotten. I myself have been a designer and experienced this firsthand.

When I was in community college, our director always built design teams from his student body. For my very first production with him, I was put on the costume team because I could sew. He has always been one of those men who wanted everyone to use the skills they already have–and yet he was also very willing to teach his students things they might not otherwise know (i.e., how to use a DeWalt drill).

When the production opened (I was also acting in the show), I was excitedly looking around at all the costumes my team had designed. There was so much symbolism! Each character had specific color schemes that directly related to their personality, and every bird that was mentioned in the show (because birds were a very important theme) had a character whose costume related to it. I was soon to realize, though, that none of the audience was nearly as excited as I had expected.

We acted! We tore up that stage. The production was wonderful, and afterwards as I spoke with audience members, I could hear them congratulating everyone on how well the actors did, how fantastic the set was, the effective way that the actors were directed—but no one seemed to have picked up on the symbolism we had so carefully crafted into the costumes. The asymmetrical lines for the mentally twisted characters, the red fabric to represent the life force of each person on the stage, the yellows and browns used for the main character and her family—it seemed like no one understood all of the thought that went into those things.

It wasn’t just the costume design that had been overlooked. Set had symbolism, too, but that is almost never seen. What people see is the work that went into building the set, not designing it.

Then there are the lighting designers. If you have not designed lights, you do not understand the amount of work that goes into it. Hanging lights and covering the stage properly is work in and of itself, but there is a lot of work going into the color choices and the transitions as well. It is lighting that almost no one in the audience will think about. To the average audience member, the lights are simply flipped on at the beginning of the show and then flipped off at the end. Little do they know, it is not that easy.

I write this to bring about awareness of the work that goes into the design of a production. Perhaps next time you go to a theatrical event, you will notice more of the subtleties that are involved. Remember that every color and every pattern is chosen for a reason—it isn’t like we spin a color wheel to decide which one the main character’s dress will be.

Published in: on October 7, 2013 at 11:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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