Friday, October 30, 2009

Just for Fun Friday

It's a quiet Friday morning, so I thought I would post some "just for fun" pictures from around the building. An abbreviated tour, if you will...

First up... co-director Tom Quaintance in the wee hours, three weeks into rehearsal. This was taken from a Skype conversation he was having with friends back home. Tom actually sent this to me; I did not invade his privacy for the sake of the blog! (This time.)

Here is the first thing I see everyday - the "yellow brick road" - a path through backstage that is painted yellow. It helps guest artists find their way around this maze of a building. 

This is what the Nickleby set looks like so far, from backstage. Very little work goes on in the morning because most of the crew is either teaching or attending classes.

This is the stairwell that leads from the dressing rooms down to the stage. This season, some of the bigger sports fans in the building hung this inspirational sign a la football field houses. 

The hallway leading to my office... On the other side of this wall lies the costume shop and here are some examples of projects that are routinely displayed. These particular dresses are from the "Period Pattern" projects by several costume graduate students. 

Just around the corner, is our rehearsal hall. Stage manager Sarah Smiley preps for today's rehearsal. 

Stage Manager Chuck Bayang tries to keep it light.

A rare moment (and only a moment) of down-time for the Stage Mangers as they prepare for today's rehearsal.  I think Chuck and Sarah are the two busiest people in this building. It's their job to corral 2 rehearsal rooms, 2 directors, and 25 actors while trying to schedule rehearsals around costume fittings,  PR events, classes, production meetings, union rules, the flu, and dozens of other obstacles.  Then of course, they have to manage rehearsals! They are often the first ones in the building and always the last ones to leave. I am in awe of these two and the fact that they can still stand up.

And last but not least - Tug! This is Sarah Smiley's bulldog. He has become an important member of the PlayMakers family over the last 3 years and can often be seen carefully watching over rehearsals. His office is directly across the hall from mine and "Tug days" are always good days here. He even has his own couch in the rehearsal hall!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Ladies and is one o'clock"

As one might imagine, if one has been following us on our journey to bring this play to fruition, there are many idiosyncrasies to this process we’ve undertaken. So it seems a bit redundant to say something like “this is unlike any other production I’ve been a part of.” Not only redundant, it can’t begin to capture the excitement, fatigue, magic, fear, anxiety and joy that has infected all of us inside the rehearsal hall (and out). We are now entering our fourth week of rehearsals having staged more than 300 pages of play in roughly 9 days. We have been working 6 days a week from 1pm – 10:30pm. All of us, as members of the company, share our responsibilities in the rehearsal hall with our other selves (professor, graduate student, PRC staff), and the horizon has no relief in sight. And while the grueling schedule can take its toll, there is something incredible going on within the walls of the Center for Dramatic Art.
Each day when rehearsals begin, one of our awesome stage managers (Chuck and Sarah) announces the start of rehearsal with, “Good afternoon ladies and gentleman, it is one o’clock.” This is met with – and I kid you not – a rallying cry of 25 actors sounding like something more akin to a football team’s pre-game war cry before charging onto the field. And, while I won’t bore you with a tired sports analogy here, the parallels are many.
Joe and Tom have often called this production “an exercise in company” – taking on the thing that an organization isn’t sure it can handle, but challenging itself to take it on nonetheless. We are rehearsing in a way that is unconventional. We have two directors. Two rehearsal halls. We have been staging roughly 40 pages a day. We are in constant motion from room to room and scene to scene. We move at a lightening pace, and we don’t have time to spend rehearsing in the traditional, methodical fashion of a conventional process. This means that every moment that we’re not “on stage” we’re grabbing our scene partners to work notes given to us from one or both of the directors, and continuing that work on our own when we get home at night. This requires an incredible amount of focus, but more importantly it requires trust. The feeling in the room is not only enthusiastic but incredibly supportive. We rely on each other to make sure that everyone is on the same page (quite literally), and that we are approaching the work with the moment to moment presence that is required for work of this kind. We drop in and out of characters constantly, we switch in and out of dialects, we marvel in the work of our colleagues, and we celebrate the creativity of all involved.
One little anecdote – this past week we were doing our evening run of everything we had staged earlier in the day (we were, by this point, well into Part 2 of the play). The story is spending much of its time following Nicholas as his stories come to resolution. We were heading toward the final scene in Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire where the once enslaved boys have started taking over the school in something reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies. At the start of the scene the stage manager called out, “Thank you ladies and gentlemen – it’s 10:30,” announcing the end of our rehearsal day. And a collective groan of disappointment was shared by the entire company ‑ “Awwwwwwwwww!” – like children being told to turn off the TV and head to bed. Now that’s something you don’t find too often. I say again, something special is happening within these walls. And everyone is excited to share it with our community.
–Jeffrey Meanza, Cast Member

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

And the Costumes Just Keep Coming

Nevermind that I've worked in this building for nearly a decade. I'm not sure that I've ever gone to a costume fitting here. I have definitely been missing out! Today I went to a couple, and they were a ton of fun. Of course all I had to do was take pictures. Because this show is so enormous, costume fittings have become their own show. Lots and lots of people involved, and a lot of hard work for our amazing costume shop. I can't wait to go back!

Below are some of the photos from cast member Jeff Meanza's fitting - one of MANY he will have. Jeff is not only a member of the Nickleby cast, he is also PlayMakers' Director of Education and Outreach and a graduate of the Professional Actor Training Program here at UNC. He was most recently seen in Amadeus and Well, and during his term as an MFA student here, he appeared in The Man Who Came to Dinner, A Prayer for Owen Meany, King Lear and Luminosity, just to name a few. In Nicholas Nickleby, Jeff is playing half a dozen characters and these photos only show fraction of those. 

Jeff's fitting has to begin with the putting on of the "fat suit" as most of his characters are much heavier than he is. Above we see him being assisted by Associate Costume Designer Jade Bettin and costume graduate student Kaitlin Fara.

It's important to find just the right combination of coat and vest for this character, so many options are tried out. Again we see Jade Bettin, Kaitlin Fara and Costume Designer Jan Chambers deciding this outer coat just isn't right. 

Jan ponders and then decides they've got something with this combo. 

Jade takes a last measurement to make sure the fit is perfect. 

Above we see Jan consulting the now-famous "chart" that indicates which actors have to become which characters, and at what point, to make sure Jeff can get in and out of costume in time to get back on stage fully transformed. 

Another combination of jacket and vest to get it just right for this next character. 

Hmm. This one doesn't quite work either. 

Another vest. Will this be the one? We'll worry about pants another time.

Aha - finally a combo that works!

 And now for young Wackford Squeers - the brat everyone loves to hate. Of course only blue velvet will do!

I think we've got it!

Not only does a fitting require the designers (Jan & Jade) and the costumer who makes all the adjustments (Kaitlin). Randy Handley, a third year costume graduate, who has served as assistant designer on numerous PRC shows, keeps track of important details in the Co-Star system about which pieces have been approved for which character, which alterations need to be made and which pieces are still needed. 

In upcoming posts, hear from Jeff Meanza about what goes on "in the room," more character analyses from dramaturg Anthony Fichera, and photos from a fitting with company member Jimmy Kieffer, recently seen as the dubious Wickham in Pride and Prejudice and the affable Karl in Opus. We'll also have another piece from blog favorite, Rachel Pollock, as she returns to bonnet making in part two of her fascinating series "Bespoke Millinery." Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"...But oh, let us dye with life about us!"

As PlayMakers' resident crafts artisan, in addition to all the millinery, another of my responsibilities is to function as the company dyer, assisting the costume designer in careful control of the color palette of the show by making adjustments in fabric hues.

Because we share space with the facilities for UNC's nationally-known Costume Production MFA program, I have access to a state-of-the-art theatrical dye shop which features a full range of four different classes of dyes and related auxilliary chemicals, two industrial dye vats with fume exhausts, a yardage steamer (called the "silver bullet," no relation to Coors!), and both dye mixing and spray boxes. I have worked in a lot of costume shops, from LORT theatres to Broadway to international opera and ballet, and I have to admit--the dyeshop facilities here really impressed me when I interviewed for the job. It's so rare for a regional theatre like PlayMakers to have these kinds of options when it comes to equipment and supplies for surface design of fabrics and costumes. (And, it's such an exciting luxury for me, to have these resources at my disposal when it comes to doing my job!)

Silver bullet--we can steam-set a whole bolt of dyed fabric in this!

The average PRC show involves around 25 custom dye jobs--from dyeing fabric yardage before it is made into costumes, to matching a trim or lining to a chosen fabric, to turning a finished garment a whole new color. (For the curious, the current record-holder for number of dye jobs for a single show is 2008's Pericles with 63! Second place goes to Glass Menagerie with 47, closely followed by Amadeus with 45 and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye with 43.) So far, Nickleby is right on track with 25 completed so far, and nearly a month to go til opening. If we had an office pool running on it, I'd bet on a total of 75 by the time we open, with a lot of those coming in after we start seeing things onstage. Sometimes a costume designer needs to see everything together with the set and props under the lights to realize that, hey, that guy's pants are really bright compared to everybody else up there...

Mixing tickets for Nickleby dye jobs in-progress

Here are some examples of the dye requests for Nicholas Nickleby which have been processed so far:

- a whole bolt of cotton fabric for men's period shirts tea-dyed off-white
- a yard of antique lace trim dyed leaf green for the Rich Daughter's bonnet decoration
- an industrial metal zipper for the back of a quick-change dress, dyed half one color and half another to better blend into different skirt and bodice fabrics

For each dye request, I keep accurate records on the precise process developed--what type of dye and auxilliaries used to dye what fiber fabric, how much and for whom, how quickly it's needed. Sometimes I have a week or two to turn it around (like in the case of the two-tone zipper, which will go into the costume toward the very end of its construction) and sometimes I only have a few hours (such as collar fabric that needs to be cut and sewn onto a shirt in time for a fitting that afternoon).

All this dyeing has to feed into my workload for making the hats and altering shoes and various other accessories as well--it's a time-management juggling feat, that's for sure!

Dyer Rachel Pollock works on the perfect shade of peach for Mrs. Mantalini's dress fabric

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Costume Sneak Peek

Here's a tiny sneak peek at some pieces costume designer Jan Chambers and associate designer Jade Bettin have pulled for the show. I'm told that there are over 600 pieces in this room. 

Costume designer Jan Chambers inspects pieces pulled for the Crummles Company.

The men's dressing room served as a temporary staging area as costumes were pulled. 

There are racks and racks of costumes, sorted by piece - pants, jackets, skirts, etc. 

Associate designer Jade Bettin consults with Jan on the more colorful pieces for the Crummles. 

The Crummles Company is a theatre troupe in the Nickleby world, so their costumes will be much brighter and more "theatrical" than those of most of the other characters. 

You've already heard from Rachel Pollock that there will be many, many hats. Here are a few!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Art of the Power Couple

Video production has hit a small technological snag, so today I'm posting some fun character analyses of the Nickleby "Power Couples," as seen by our dramaturg Anthony Fichera. Enjoy!

Long before Bill/Hillary, Nicholas/Elena, Bennifer and TomKat, Dickens seems to have made considerable use of the Power Couple. Here are a few of them.
Mr. and Mrs. Squeers:
Greedy, coarse, vicious: the Squeers represent a replete cornucopia of Dickensian evil. Rapacious exploiters of dysfunctional families and their children (Dickens based at least some of their existence on a Yorkshire school master named Shaw—no relation—who was prosecuted in 1823 for living conditions so sordid that a number of his charges went blind). Mr. and Mrs. Squeers nonetheless manifest some curious differences in their approach to evil. It’s a dynamic we encounter again and again in Nicholas Nickleby: the affected, oddly idealistic male malignly or benignly contrasted with the practical no-nonsense female. (And on some very odd level it may be possible that Wackford DOES believe he is acting as an educator; at least, his commitment to the “act” stands in severe contrast to Mrs. Squeers, who from the beginning manifests a great deal of impatience with her husband’s mere insistence on even maintaining the façade of an authentic school.) The payoff comes, of course, in private: away from the boys, their real feelings for one another (simultaneous mutual loathing and co-dependency: imagine how a modern therapist could have profited from counseling the two) emerge in full force.
Mr. and Mrs. Crummles:
Long before Everybody loved Raymond, everybody loved the Crummles. Warm, all-inclusive, proud mother and father to a fractious but embracing brood of “Children” both direct and metaphorical. The Crummles Company is the anti-Dotheboys Hall: spontaneity and free expression reign exuberantly. The “life-lessons” imparted by this mother and father troupe create happiness for their audiences, respite for Nicholas and transcendence (of a sort) for Smike. But yet: he is the spontaneous dreamer of big dreams. She is the cautious observer of day-to-day affairs. He adopts Nicholas and Smike off the streets like strays, she warily (but benignly) accepts them into the company (after prodding Nicholas a bit to prove his value to their operations). But in opposition to the Squeers: the Crummles do nothing but act: to themselves, to their company and to the world. But it is understood, implicitly, that their bottom nature (thank you Ms. Stein) is one of complete and unaffected love for one another, for their profession and for the world. Because of that, Dickens need not even bother with prolonged domestic scenes of revelation and true feeling. Their theatricality transforms: what is hypocritical and deceitful for the Squeers is made redemptive and life-affirming. For the Crummles, all the world’s a stage and their all-embracing magnanimousness makes it one eternal Opening Night.
Mr. and Mrs. Mantalini:
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: he’s a head-in-clouds waxer of lyrical fantasy and she’s got one eye on the books and one eye on the help. He has one eye on the help as well, only in less productive ways. She knows the market. He knows how to spend. He can expound and expound on his capacity for love and romance. She knows how to bend to the often-ridiculous demands of clients. Of the major Power Couples in Nicholas Nickleby, she is by far and away the most authentically in charge. Her shop, her business: these exist entirely because of her. She is well aware that left to his own, Mr. Mantalini would beggar them in a heartbeat; just as she seems positively aware that behind his rhetorical flourishes and curlicues is a man with the potential to create multiple and damaging havoc to the female help if not strictly (and constantly) told—sometimes obliquely, sometimes not—to Stay Away. His ridiculousness and her steely nature manifest themselves with extreme prejudice. Faced with either his potential ruination of the business and the chance to run the show in tandem with the equally steely Miss Knag, Madame Mantalini makes her decision without a tear, without a co-dependent sob and without a single hyperbolic expostulation. She goes where the dictates of business take her. It’s probably a good thing she isn’t married to Wackford Squeers. They’d probably own the most successful boarding school in England… 

Check back next week for more videos and pictures from behind the scenes!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Just For Fun

We don't normally do two posts in one day, but yesterday I got this great note & photo from Deirdre Haj. Definitely worth sharing...

"This was taken over the weekend. When the rehearsal stops, the directors gather on their down time to plan ahead for what will go on in the Nicholas rehearsal rooms. They were at it again yesterday on Joe's birthday and the "day off". I think the best part of being the wife of the Artistic Director is listening to all the amazing creative discussions that happen around this table in our home. Right now they are all centered on Nickelby. I brew lots of coffee, too."

First Rehearsal - The Joys of a Read-Through

We rarely take photos of first rehearsal, but when it comes to the biggest show in our history, exceptions have to be made. The first rehearsal is typically  a read-through, as you'll see here. 

This is our rehearsal hall, which is large enough to tape out the actual specs of the stage. With a set as amazing as McKay Coble's, the taping process includes a complicated color-coded system of tape, indicating everything from stairs to moving platforms. 

Co-directors Tom Quaintance and Joseph Haj confer during rehearsal 
(also company member Kenneth P. Strong and playwright David Edgar)

Playwright David Edgar joined the company for the first week of rehearsals
(also pictured stage manager Sarah Smiley)

Long-time company members Ray Dooley, Dede Corvinus and David Adamson

Associate DDA Chair and company member Jeffrey Blair Cornell, acting graduate student Joy Jones, and undergraduates Sarah Berk and Jeb Brinkley, and Allison Altman (recent graduate from UNC and the Department of Dramatic Art.)

Guest actor Justin Adams (Nicholas) prepares for the read-through

While the company was doing table work, everyone gathered in our rehearsal hall, however that phase was completed on Saturday and now they've divided into two spaces in order to double the rehearsal time. More pictures will be coming soon! 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nickleby Has Entered the Building

Last Tuesday kicked off the first rehearsal of Nicholas Nickleby, and we're all very excited around here. Of course the first rehearsal is always preceded by a company "Meet & Greet." This tradition brings the company together to welcome guest artists and to hear from the directors and designers exactly what's planned for the coming weeks (months in this case).

Our next few posts are going to take you into that room, so you too can hear what the design team had to say, as well as playwright David Edgar. This series of posts starts with co-director Tom Quaintance... 

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Steely Men of the Shop

Yesterday, as I rounded the corner that leads to my office, I noticed our new Technical Director, Neil Williamson, speeding towards me. The Nicholas Nickleby build has begun and the shop is literally covered in steel, which Neil wanted me to see and photograph for the blog. I'm so glad he did because it is an awesome sight. 

At any given time, there are no less than 4 welders working and Neil guesses this will be going on for at least the next couple of weeks. You have to be really careful back there because the light from the welding can burn your eyes without the proper safety equipment and everywhere you turn someone is welding something. 

You'll notice in these pictures that everyone is wearing masks and leather sleeves. I took them from a distance while looking back over my shoulder, rather than through my lens. 

Here are some interesting stats about the NN set build (provided by Neil):

There will be 400 Linear Feet of Box Truss: 20 pieces at 20 feet per piece
The build will use:
834 linear feet of 1" x 1" steel box tube (the outside framework)
534 linear feet of 3/8" solid steel rods (the criss-cross pieces in the center)

Early/rough estimates suggest that there will be about 3 tons of steel on stage.  

If these numbers sound mind-boggling, it's because they are. This is the largest set anyone remembers building here at PRC. 

Neil promises to keep me updated as the build progresses. I'm hearing tales of a flying platform that is going to weigh roughly 1,000 pounds. As soon as that process gets underway, pictures will follow. 

Because this post wouldn't be possible without Neil Williamson, it seems appropriate that you know a little about him. While he is the new PRC Technical Director, he is certainly not new to PRC. Neil started working in the shops about six years ago as a carpenter. He then completed his MFA in Technical Design through the Department of Dramatic Art. After graduating, Neil served as the PRC Assistant Technical Director before moving into the top job this year. He has also worked on the Summer Youth Conservatory since it's inception three years ago, first serving as Lighting Designer, then Technical Director and Scenic Designer for the last two years. Like me, Neil prefers not to be photographed, so you'll have to visit the shops yourself to get a glimpse of him in action. 

Rehearsals for Nickleby started this week as well, so our traditional meet & greet took place on Tuesday. All the designers, the directors and even the playwright made presentations. Check back next week for those videos and pictures!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

So Much to Be Done...

As promised, director Tom Quaintance has provided today's blog post. Rehearsals got underway today as well, so check back later in the week for photos of the presentations and table read. 

And there was so much to be done,
And so little time to do it in.

I think I caught Joe’s cold via Facebook.
I don’t get sick often, but as soon as I got the update “Joseph Haj is sick. and in bed. and dismayed at the timing” I came down with a nasty bug of my own - perhaps transmitted through Facebook Scrabble.
The good news is I believe we will both be better by Tuesday’s first rehearsal.  Better now than then, though the plane ride in was no fun.  After I landed I googled “horrible sinus pain cold airplane” and found this link, which described my feeling while descending into the Raleigh-Durham airport with great accuracy:
Today I saw Opus, playing for the next week at the Paul Green Theatre. The show featured five resident company members all of whom will act in Nicholas Nickleby.  It is a terrific show and a great lead in for our production, as it too is an exercise in company.  The play is about a string quartet that has been together for years, and even the newcomer to the group fits in immediately, as if she has a history with them based on their common love for music and playing style.  The show did not just feature splendid acting--all five actors were in the same play.
This feat may sound elementary, but it is, I believe, exceptionally difficult to accomplish.  I have seen countless plays where one actor was in a farce, one in a kitchen sink drama, another in a sitcom and yet another in a Telemundo telenovela.  When Joe and I were in New York this summer we saw Théâtre du Soleil’s spectacular two part, seven hour play Les Éphémères at the Lincoln Center Festival.   (The length and structure of the evening was not lost on us in relation to our task of bringing Nic Nick to life.)  Director Ariane Mnouchkine’s work is theatrical, beautifully staged and deeply moving.  Her most striking accomplishment, to me, is the sense of company imbued in her actors.  They clearly work together, live together and love each other, all of which results in an intuitive sense of play and an astonishing consistency of style. In short: perhaps the biggest job of the director is to get everyone in the same play.
Given the huge amount of text we have to rehearse this is a particularly daunting task.  Putting together the jigsaw puzzle that is the rehearsal schedule is unlike anything I have done in my career.  On Tuesday, October 13th from 2:30-3:10 we rehearse 1.1.9A (that’s Part One, Act One, Scene Nine A – “Dotheboy’s Hall Intro” – a tricky piece of staging where Nicholas and Squeers enter Dotheboy’s and meet Smike for the first time.  At the same time 1.1.14 will be rehearsing in another room.  At the end of the day we run both scenes in context so that everyone can be on the same page as to what’s going on in both rooms.  This run will be our standard practice for the first three weeks of rehearsal.  When we finish staging Part One (on Saturday, October 17th, if we stick to the schedule) we’ll run that whole section again with the entirety of Part One.  We might not see either scene again until tech.
There is so much to be done.  And there is so little time to do it in.  But we are ready.  This is why we all do what we do – for the opportunity to tackle this kind of challenge.  I feel like a kid waiting for Christmas morning, poised at the top of the stairs, ready to race down to see what’s under the tree.