Monday, July 6, 2015

A New Look at an Iconic Musical: Robin Vest’s Scenic Design for Guys & Dolls

Scenic designer Robin Vest returns to PlayMakers to create the set for Guys & Dolls. She’s an SYC veteran, having designed last summer’s colorful take on 1960s Baltimore for Hairspray. Her other designs for PlayMakers include the sets for A Raisin in the Sun/Clybourne Park and Shipwrecked! An Entertainment.

Robin says “The most exciting thing about designing this Guys & Dolls is that director Jeff Meanza chose to set it in the 1930s, when the original stories on which the show is based were written. This really gave me an opportunity to re-invent the Paul Green Theatre and forget my preconceived notions of a bright graphic 1940s-50s set (the period the musical debuted on Broadway).

“I started by looking at photos of Times Square in the 1930s and Bernice Abbott's book Changing New York, a collection of photos of all the neighborhoods of Manhattan, taken in the late 1930s for the WPA (FDR’s Works Project Administration).

“New York was a bustling place in the 1930s, but the spectacle of Times Square looks seedier. There's less neon with more signs made of light bulbs. I was also taken with the fact that there were American flags hanging from the lampposts up and down the streets surrounding Times Square. The Great Depression was a very patriotic time. We were choosing not to enter the war brewing in Europe and put our energies on healing the country.

“I needed a sort of glue to hold all these ideas together in the theatre space and that became the image of “the subway.” I started with the wall upstage housing the band being modeled after details of a subway car. Then, when I was looking for inspiration for the floor the 1939 subway map followed.

“We set out to make a collage effect that reflects the story, the time, and the energy of 1930s Broadway. When we go to specific locations in the play, such as The Hot Box Club or Havana, we light up signs or add small pieces, we don't do big changes.

“Anything can happen in New York. At any moment you can be anyone or find yourself somewhere new.”

Join us to experience our new look at Guys & Dolls - onstage July 15-25.

Click here for tickets or more information or call our Box Office at 919.962.7529.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

2015/16 Season Preview and Q&A with Joseph Haj

On June 11th at 6:30pm we’re hosting a special preview of the upcoming season including a Q&A with Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj. WUNC’s Frank Stasio will join Joe onstage to discuss the 2015/16 lineup and what’s ahead for PlayMakers. It will be an evening of celebration for our PlayMakers family and the community.

As a prelude to our June 11th event, Joe sat down for an interview with PlayMakers dramaturg Jacqueline Lawton to discuss how he selects a season and what excites him about our new slate of plays. He also shares a few thoughts on his time at PlayMakers.

Read on for highlights from their conversation; then we hope you’ll join us on June 11th for more of Joe’s insider look at the road ahead and the chance to pose some of your own questions.

This event is FREE, but reservations are required, first come, first served, as space is limited. Please contact the Box Office at 919.962.7529 to reserve your spot today!

Click here for June 11th event details.

A conversation with Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj & Dramaturg Jacqueline Lawton

Jacqueline Lawton (JL): What guides you when selecting a season? 

Joseph Haj (JH): A season ought to feel like a multi-course meal. If it’s all dessert, that’s no good. If it’s all meat, that’s no good either. Like any good meal, there’s a salad, a first course, an entrée, and, of course, dessert and coffee. We proportion the menu with a variety of dishes - larger to smaller cast shows, larger to smaller productions. We also want to give ample opportunities to our company – our resident acting company as well as the graduate students in technical and costume production. So, for instance, we ask - is there a play in period in the season? The students can’t just put jeans and t-shirts on characters all season long. There must be a variety of styles and approaches for educational purposes, along with providing variety onstage. So you see many factors are involved. But to answer the question narrowly, we choose a pattern of plays that make us sit up and say “THIS … this is the season we want to make.”

JL: The 2015/16 Mainstage Season opener is Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. Why did you want to produce this play?

JH: I went with my family to visit my wife’s parents in South Carolina and Disgraced was one of several scripts I read over the weekend. I finished reading and was so disturbed by it. And all the other plays all kind of vanished. All I could think about was this complicated, atypical, challenging play. It caused me to think about ideas around, not just racial prejudice, but cultural assimilation. Anything that had me thinking for so long and so deeply about these important questions had to be a part of the season.

JL: Next in the lineup is Seminar by Theresa Rebeck. Why do you feel Seminar will resonate so well here? 

JH: I love this play particularly in our world here, as a professional theatre on a university campus. The play deals with the dynamic of a brilliant, complicated teacher and four students, who pay a fair amount of money to be close to his genius and learn about writing. It says an awful lot about the dynamic between teachers and students, and the way we make heroes and knock them down. It also lines up beautifully for the magnificent actor, Ray Dooley, in the central role of the teacher, and four members of our acting company as the students.

JL: Then you selected Peter and the Starcatcher for the holidays. 

JH: I wanted a family show for the holiday season, but the challenge is to find something that’s thrilling, fun, beautifully crafted, and not just for kids. So, I’m very excited about Peter and the Starcatcher because it truly resonates on an adult level as well as with young people. It’s an absolute delight, filled with invention and will feature 13-14 members of our acting company. Brendon Fox, who led terrific productions of Opus and Angels in America at PlayMakers, will be directing for us.

JL: Following that, we have the world premiere of a new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. 

JH: Libby Appel, former artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is one of our great Chekhov scholars, translators, adaptors, and I love her new version of Three Sisters. I love her point of view. It’s smart and muscular. It’s not pulled out of period in any way, yet it feels contemporary in a way that feels close to us. To see Anton Chekhov’s great text through the lens of Libby’s expertise made me excited to do this play. And with a wonderful director like Vivienne Benesch, who’s been with us on multiple occasions (Red, In the Next Room, Love Alone), it will be in good hands.

JL: From there, we have We Are Proud to Present… by Jackie Sibblies Drury. What draws you to this play? 

JH: I love this play. I love it formally. I love it aesthetically. I love its politics. A group of well-minded, well-intentioned folks get together to try to put on a play - which is something ludicrously hard to do under the best of circumstances. Then, in their exploration of the topics in the play, the wheels come off, which ends up being terrifically revealing about the undercurrents of prejudice that reside even in those of us who consider ourselves progressive. The play illuminates these ideas in insightful ways in the form of a very exciting piece of theatre. We Are Proud to Present… will be directed by Desdemona Chiang, who so beautifully helmed this season’s Mainstage finale, 4000 Miles.

JL: Tell us about the Mainstage Season finale, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd

JH: Sondheim is hands-down one of our great playwrights; and Sweeney Todd, which is almost entirely sung, is a masterpiece. A revenge story, it’s set against the meat grinder of the Industrial Revolution. This idea of the meat grinder – in the story there are people ground into pies – is a metaphor for a society grinding its own citizens into the dust. With themes of economic disparity, it speaks to our current moment in a lot of ways. I’m thrilled to have it in the season as another look at the masterworks of Stephen Sondheim, as last season featured Into the Woods.

JL: Why did you chose Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam and Highway 47 for the PRC2 second stage series?

JH: Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam follows the harrowing journey of Trieu Tran and his family from Vietnam to the United States. It’s a profound immigrant story. KJ Sanchez’s Highway 47 is another story about the American experience. KJ can track her ancestry in New Mexico back at least a dozen generations through the land given to her family through Spanish land grants. The play is about enormous battles in her family for the rights to that land. KJ is both writer and performer; as is Trieu Tran of his play.

JL: Being located in the Triangle area of North Carolina and based on a university campus, there’s a wide range of cultures, racial and gender identities, religions in our community. Can you talk about the efforts that go into making sure those communities are represented onstage in the plays and off stage in the audience? 

JH: It’s an enormous challenge. Universities are often seen as ivory towers in their broader community. And theatres, institutional theatres, are often thought of in the same way. So when you’re a professional theatre housed on a university campus, you’re talking about an ivory tower inside an ivory tower in terms of perception. We’ve worked very, very, very hard over these last nine years to make the walls of the building more porous. To offer a broader sense of invitation – to really make clear that all of our community is welcome and desired to be part of our theatre.

JL: Share with us how you work to bring greater inclusion to theatre. 

JH: The leader of an organization needs to determine whether diversity is a priority. And if it is, then you must be intentional about what you’re doing, at least some of the time. We work hard to make sure there’s inclusion of a diversity of voices across the season in terms of the work that we do. It’s a challenge when you’re a theatre dedicated to the classics, but there are ways, such as determining who gets to tell those stories, who are the directors and do you have gender and ethnic balance amongst those directors and who will design the plays. We’re very intentional about having a plurality of voices; different points of view. And not as a matter of checking boxes, but because we believe it actually makes the art better.

JL: Allow me to express a heartfelt congrats from all of us at PlayMakers on your appointment as the Guthrie Theater’s next Artistic Director. You’ve achieved so much during your tenure here. What do you feel most proud of? 

JH: Thank you. It has been an honor to serve this community. I’m proud that we’ve built an audience, a community of people, who are interested in their own growth through participation in the life of a professional theatre. That’s a beautiful gift, and I’ll miss that entirely. We have an audience who comes not only to be entertained, to have a laugh or see a show that may be forgotten by morning. Our audience members are also interested in testing themselves … testing their ideas and their ideas about themselves. And that’s been built over time. When I came here nine years ago, we were a theatre making five plays a year. And I thought of something Ben Cameron, head of TCG [Theatre Communications Group], used to say. Ben said, “A good question for an arts organization to ask itself is what would be lost from the community if it were to shutter its doors?” I firmly held that question in mind when I started here. I remember thinking, if the answer is only five well-made plays a year, then that wouldn’t be nearly enough. That’s not nearly an important enough role for a regional theatre. I think PlayMakers has become an important part of the cultural fabric of this community. And for that, I’m very proud.

JL: And finally, what do you think you’ll miss the most? 

JH: The greatest gift an artistic director can be given is the opportunity to make work for smart people; and we have an incredibly smart community here. Many patrons come to us as sophisticated theatre-goers and many more have become sophisticated theatre-goers by virtue of participating in our work. I’ll miss that a lot. Fortunately I’m going to the Guthrie, and the Twin Cities, an area also noted for supporting of the arts. I’m incredibly grateful for the support of this community and for what we’ve achieved at PlayMakers.

Join us on June 11th for our FREE 2015/16 Season Preview event and Q&A with Joseph Haj. Reservations are required as space is limited, so call our Box Office at 919.962.7529 to reserve your spot!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Dreaming in Vivid Detail: Jade Bettin's Design for Mary's Wedding

In Stephen Massicotte's Mary's Wedding we follow Mary and Charlie through a dream sequence the night before Mary is supposed to get married. Costume designer, Jade Bettin's, research coupled with her evident passion for the play have produced designs that are detailed and multifaceted. They create a canvas for actors Carey Cox and Myles Bullock to paint their poignant story.

Because the play takes place during a dream, Jade explains that the clothing must be bound in reality, but that there is some leniency. Mary is seen in a white lace nightgown, but Jade explained that the time period worked to her advantage. Many dresses in the 1910s worn during the day were similar to nightgowns. Women sported dresses that looked similar to modern lingerie with a great deal of lace detailing.

The dress worn by Mary is quite personal to Jade. Her interest in costume design was sparked by her mother. Her mother was a seamstress and Jade said she received her first sewing machine when she was in 5th grade. She remembers spending hours sewing together. Since her mother's passing eight
Jade's final rendering.
years ago, Jade puts elements of her mother onstage in the clothes she designs. All of the fabrics, laces, and trims of Mary's dress belonged to Jade's mother, making this design a very special one.

Jade has a deep interest in the intersection between fashion and history. Her extensive research of images can be seen on her Pinterest board here. It's filled with landscapes of Canada and France, images of silky white lace dresses, and clothing worn by cavalry men.

Charlie's costume had to serve multiple functions. Charlie works on a farm and rides horses, so he is seen in a neutral button up shirt, riding pants, and lace-up boots. Jade ensured that elements of his costume would also fit in a battlefield setting with details like his stand collar. Small details such as this indicate a change in character onstage. 

See Jade's personal, adaptive designs for Mary's Wedding onstage April 29th to May 3rd!

Click here for more information or call our box office at 919.962.7529.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Director Cody Nickell on imagining his "dream play," Mary's Wedding

In Mary's Wedding by Stephen Massicotte, two actors come together to create a dream sequence taking us through horse rides, battle scenes and tea parties that ultimately lead to the blossoming of their love. The character Charlie first addresses the audience and makes it perfectly clear that the events to follow are part of a dream. "I ask you to remember that," he says. Director Cody Nickell says the dreamlike setting allows the production to break all rules of time, space, and at times, even character.

Cody had many difficult questions to answer at the start of the production process. The dream moves from place to place quickly, leaving complicated theatrical elements for Cody to consider. While some may see these questions as challenges, Cody chooses to see them as gifts.
"How do you bring to life a horse for a cavalry charge when there is no horse? How do you show a moonlit battle between trenches on the front lines of World War I with only two actors? And maybe most interesting, for all its theatricality, how do you show the simple story at the heart of this play about two young people falling in love?"
While the staging can be difficult, the underlying story of Mary's Wedding is much simpler. It follows the relationship of two young people in love and the Great War that comes between them. To escape a thunderstorm, Charlie, played by Myles Bullock, and Mary, played by Carey Cox, seek shelter in an old barn. In this setting, their vulnerabilities are exposed and we see sparks of love develop between them almost immediately. The audience follows their budding romance, and ultimately, their separation when Charlie is taken off to war.
"It begins at the end and ends at the beginning. There are sad parts. Don’t let that stop you from dreaming it too. " - Charlie, in his first monologue from Mary's Wedding.
The many imaginative gifts the production staff conjures will awaken the imaginations of audience members as well. "This engagement of audience imagination makes the experience active for them, not passive; they become witnesses, not just observers," says Cody. The actors are on a journey, but they invite the audience along to experience the terror and the hope that Charlie and Mary encounter.

Jeff Adelberg's mystic skyscapes and lighting will be a key factor in the quickly changing time, place and mood of the dream sequence. And Cody says costume designer Jade Bettin took initial costume ideas and ran with them, doing spectacular research and paying attention to details that further conceptualize the journey both the actors and audience traverse. Jeff's lighting paired with Jade's period costumes will pique imaginations and transform the stage from a physical space, to a fantastical world with no limits.

Cody says he's thrilled to collaborate with scenic designer Daniel Conway once again. Daniel's set has a circular frame creating a portal through which the audience views the story. This portal takes us from Canadian plains to European battlefields on a dynamic set that will evoke the many settings explored by the young lovers.

Experience the dream of Mary's Wedding with us April 29th to May 3rd!

Click here for more information or call our box office at 919.962.7529.