Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Stage Manager's love for The Philadelphia Story

I first saw the The Philadelphia Story as a teenager. I fell hard and instantly for the dialogue - spending time with these characters made me feel worldly and intelligent, which I think is exactly how every 16-year-old girl wants to feel. Their words seemed to effervesce around me, a snapshot of American culture in a very interesting time - the sparkly, cultured breath before the plunge into the gritty, rationed waters of the 1940s. But over the years, though my feelings about its themes are complex, I have discovered more and more to love about this story.

Tracy appealed to that younger me in particular. At the time, all I wanted was to surround myself with fast-talking, confident dames in the style of Rosalind Russell - sharp-tongued women who held their own and gave the fellas a run for their money. Don't get me wrong, I still love those scrappy characters, but I now see that what drew me to Katherine Hepburn's portrayal of Tracy Lord was that she's a gentler model of this archetype: strong, but feminine too, and not competing with the boys so much as operating in her own league completely. She's unflappable, but we get to watch her get flapped, and THAT is compelling.

The story behind this play and the subsequent movie also colors and deepens my affection for them - Philip Barry wrote the play for Hepburn specifically to star in after she was labeled "box office poision" and her film career was widely believed to be kaput. She rallied, bought the rights to the movie, starred in it and influenced the rest of the casting.

This play, for me, is about gumption, redemption, and the kind of strength that's tempered with mindfulness and warmth. It's a study of a time and place in our national history - where intelligence, wit and the implementation of these were highly valued. It's about kindness and understanding across social and economic lines - something to think about, in this time of closed borders and partisan everything. It's about giving yourself, and others, a break sometimes. Couldn't we all use that?

- Rachel Dendy

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Don's Treehouse in France

So what does Don do when he doesn't have to build a theatre? Well he heads over to France to visit his grandkids and build them the best treehouse ever!
This April, Producing Artistic Director, Don Toner, took a well-deserved vacation during the run of Roaring to visit his grandkids in France. My mother and brother went along too. While there, Mike and Dad worked their tails off building an incredible treehouse for the kiddos.

Here's the family posing on the staircase of the treehouse. That's right, it was built 14 feet up around a Sequoia.
It took them some time to select the right tree, then they had to clear a lot of bamboo and prep the tree.
Then they built the deck. This was slow going as they were using a lot of reclaimed lumber from the property and were working 14 feet in the air. Once the base was stable they built a pulley system to haul up supplies.
Didi the terrier was an excellent supervisor.

The finished tree house has a roof, siding, and shutters that open and close.
Here's the view of the tree from the lawn for a little perspective!

And here's the finished treehouse! Some of the lumber will be stained and the bamboo railing will be replaced with rope. 
I missed my family a ton during April, but it was definitely worth it. When dad got home he needed another vacation from all the hard work!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Roaring Rehearsal: A Special Treat!

Last Saturday, our playwright Cyndi Williams' nephew Christopher came and surprised everyone with a special treat.  Christopher is a long-time lover and supporter of Austin Playhouse and has been eager to volunteer for us in some way.  When he found out that the theatre has a Keurig machine, he very graciously offered to come serve us all coffee before rehearsal.  
Rehearsals are in full swing and director, writer, cast and crew have been working very hard so this was a very special and much appreciated delight!  Thank you Christopher!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Developing a Play: Roaring by Cyndi Williams

What do I really want to write about? I asked myself, about three years ago.  
Make a list, I decided, of things I can't stop thinking about.

A few things on the list seemed to fit together:
* A romance with older people
* Seeing the ghost of a living person
* Living in a society under the ground
* The way we make assumptions about people at different stages of life, especially the way young people sometimes tend to infantilize and patronize older people
* Coming of age in different decades
Doing research on the idea of ghosts of living people, I came across a possible scientific explanation: the double-slit light experiment.  Only half-way understanding the science, it lit a fire under me.  SCIENCE and the SPIRITUAL!  And I was off!

About 30 pages in, my brilliant idea began to feel awkward.  So I did what I have done many times: put the pages into the hands of trusted dramaturg and friend, Lara Toner.
As a young actress, Lara appeared in several of my plays, including CowpeopleA Name for a Ghost to Mutter, and Fish.  Then Lara decided to add awesome director to her resume.  She directed an excellent production of my play Dug Up for Austin Playhouse's Larry L. King stage a few years ago.  She would tell me if these awkward pages held any promise.
Female firefighters at Pearl Harbor
Her response was that I should finish the play so Austin Playhouse could produce it.

When the first draft of Act One was completed, we gathered actors for a reading of it, and everyone got excited.
I completed the first draft of the script.  We had a reading, and everyone was disappointed.
Armed with many notes, I killed my darlings, cutting three characters out of the script.  Continued to research the double-slit light experiment till I 4/5th's understood it.  Developed an odd theory about the color blue.  Revised, rewrote, and wondered if I was smart enough to write a play about science and spirit. 
We had another reading, and everyone was relieved.

More rewrites.  Another reading.  This time... there weren't so many notes.  Everyone was excited again.

Now the rewrites are less a re-imagining a story, and more fine-tuning what we have.  I'm looking at each character's journey through the story, one by one. 
This is the process that we've used to develop Roaring.
I think of this play as a Valentine to all the people who have brought us to where we are, and as a toast to hope for our future.  -Cyndi
Rita Levi-Montalcini, Nobel Prize Winner

Friday, October 4, 2013

Behind the Scenes: Properties Design for Man of La Mancha

Helmets and Horseheads

Gathering properties for a production often involves lots and lots of thrift store shopping. With Man of La Mancha it's hard to find horse heads, golden helmets, and broken lances in a thrift store, so almost everything that appears onstage had to be built. We built shields, rakes, lances, gauntlets, and much, much more.

I spent several evenings working on The Golden Helmet of Mambrino and the horse and donkey heads. The helmet is cardboard and papier mache with lots and lots of acrylic paint. The acrylic paint creates a flexible plastic shell. The hat got severely dented during a fight on stage and popped right back into place at intermission!
-Lara Toner

Balloon inflated to the size of Rick Roemer's head? Check. Cardboard circle with wedge removed to create a "shaving basin"? Check.
Can you see it?

Papier mache!

After 3 coats of newspaper the balloon is removed.
The helmet is base coated in gold acrylic paint, then sponged with several different metallic shades to create depth.

Almost done! The hat needed drying time between each coat of papier mache and paint.
Rick Roemer as Don Quixote de la Mancha.
The horse and donkey heads started out as felt hats, a wire frame from a large bell ornament, and baskets. They were covered with hand-sewn burlap and fabric. The ears are a floral mesh with hand-sewn moss.
The bases of the donkey and horse.

Base coating of fabric and ear frames.
First dress rehearsal. They still need moss, manes, eyes, and lots of burlap fringe to hide the human heads.
Finished donkey head hanging backstage.

Finished horse head.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Noises Off Loads In!

Out with Lady Windermere's Fan, in with Noises Off!
On Sunday we had the last performance of Lady Windermere's Fan! Monday morning we got busy on....
Noises Off! We've been wanting to do Michael Frayn's hilarious backstage farce for ages. We just had to get into a place with high enough ceilings to deal with the massive set! Speaking of ceilings....
Ours got a dark blue makeover so it will disappear during performances! Don and Mike and Patrick have been busy for the past two days loading in lumber.
So much lumber. And making platforms and walls and stairs and did I mention the whole thing turns around?! Our lovely spinning fan pieces were a piece of cake next to this set!
Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes action as it all comes together...
Here's a first day of rehearsal peek at the actors enjoying their last down time before the craziness begins!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Other Desert Cities: Behind the Scenes with Bernadette Nason

Other Desert Cities is making its Texas debut at Austin Playhouse after successful off-Broadway and Broadway runs. We've interviewed the cast to give our audience a behind-the-scenes look at the process of creating the family of Other Desert Cities. We'll be posting new interview excerpts on a regular basis, so check back soon! 

Bernadette Nason plays Silda Grauman, a recovering alcoholic who co-wrote screenplays with her sister Polly (Babs George) in the 1960's. Bernadette has appeared in many Austin Playhouse productions including Boeing-Boeing, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Steel Magnolias.

What was your first impression of the play? How has that changed during rehearsal?
It was a cold, cold day in England when I first investigated the play; from what I could tell, it was smart and funny with great dramatic moments.  This was supported when I read it on my return; it was an easy, "un-put-down-able" read! 
Even after only one or two rehearsals, it became clear how rich a piece it is, both in language and ideas.  Every character is fully fleshed out yet with room for actors to build their own interpretation, develop their own sense of who they're portraying.  And yet, the more I read, work on and perform the play, the more I see every character's POV, not only Silda's.

Most of the actors have worked together before. How does knowing your fellow performers affect the rehearsal process?
I've worked with the whole cast before, individually.  It's been really helpful having an idea of my colleagues' process -- it makes it easier to give them space to "do their thing" while I work on my own.  There's an gentle, easy camaraderie which is really important to me in any rehearsal set-up.  If one can feel comfortable with one's fellows, it makes it less scary when one feels unsure or vulnerable.  And God knows, this is a play in which vulnerability figures strongly, both for actors and characters.
What research have you done for your part?
Apart from the obvious web searches on the play, playwright, other productions, reviews, etc. I read up about the Vietnam war (as a Brit, I don't know much)
; also about how recovering alcoholics cope with life, i.e. their daily struggles. 

What do you find the most challenging about this play (or your performance)?
Ha ha!  Trying to balance Silda's (a) wacky personality, (a) her loud, lower-register voice, (c) her California/Texan/Jewish dialect, and (d) what she actually has to say!  Also, balancing a sense of Silda's brittle vulnerability with her brash presentation.  Also balancing her general couldn't-care-less, seen-it-all attitude with a deep, sincere passion for both liberal politics/her family.
Are you doing anything in this play you haven't done before?
See above!
Are there parts of your character based on anything from your real life?
As a storyteller, I always have to be careful about whose story I'm actually telling.  If it's my story, I should in theory feel safe sharing my interpretation of it.  If it's someone else's, obviously I must get permission both to tell the story and to tell my version of it.  The problem is, one's own story often overlaps with someone else's and this can cause serious problems when it comes to permission.  In this play, I identify more with Brooke than I do with Silda but all the same, I can see where Silda gets her sense of righteousness -- she may not have all the facts and she may not remember a story correctly but she feels nonetheless that the story needs to be told.  In my real life, I often confront the subject of permission.  I have told stories with sensitive family issues, thinking that I've successfully excluded anything other than the most basic facts and my own feelings, then had family members question my right to share any of the facts at all.  "They can't imagine a world in which you have the right to speak of it...critically," as Silda would say. 
What has been the easiest part of this process?
Oh, working with people I really respect.  And less significantly, the easy drive from my home to Highland Mall.