10 September 2013

The Theater Experience

[While I was in the Washington area recently, I spotted a short article in the Washington Post that laid out the backstage process of mounting a stage production.  Though aimed at children, the information is ageless, so I’m republishing it on ROT for anyone who’s never been back stage while a show is going on. 

[After I returned to New York City, I read another short article, this one about attending theater outdoors.  New York Times review-writer Charles Isherwood writes specifically about attending Shakespeare plays at the Public Theater’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park, but the experience is similar at many outdoor performance venues.  (Oddly, this article was originally published not in the Times’ habitual location for theater news, but in Friday’s second arts section, devoted to fine arts and leisure.  I guess, because the performances take place in the park, it’s a “leisure activity.”)

[I think these two pieces go together because they both describe aspects of theater most of us don’t think about when we’re sitting in a theater seat in the auditorium of a theater building.  One shows what goes on beyond the audience’s usual awareness; the other is from a spectator’s point of view, but a perspective not often considered by most of us.]

by Moira E. McLaughlin

[“Staging a Play” was originally published in the KidsPost section of the Washington Post on 23 June.  Though it was intended for children, it’s still a cogent, if brief, description of what goes on back stage when a play is mounted, even if that play is for an audience of youngsters.  (It’s the same work whether the script is Shakespeare’s, David Mamet’s, Aurand Harris’s, or my friend Kirk Woodward’s; see “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Children's Theater in America,” 25 November 2009 on ROT).]

Imagination Stage’s musical “Peter Pan and Wendy” will have its “opening night” Wednesday [26 June], meaning it’s the first time you can see the show. Wendy, Peter Pan, Captain Hook and the Lost Boys will get in and out of trouble as they journey through Neverland. They will sing, dance and even trick your eyes into believing that they’re flying. Lights, sets, costumes and six actors will help guide you as you fall under the magical spell of theater.

Less than three weeks ago, the stage and the whole show looked a lot different. There were no lights, no sets, no costumes and no audience. There was just a bare stage and a script.


“So I’ll end up where?” asked Michael John Casey, who plays Smee, Captain Hook’s sidekick, during a rehearsal. He was wearing a green Boston Celtics cap, he had a pencil stuck behind his ear and he was carrying around his script (the words that the actors speak), jotting down notes here and there.

All the “Peter Pan and Wendy” actors had gotten the scripts and a recording of the music before rehearsals began. The first rehearsal was a “read-through,” and the actors sat at a table with their scripts, read their parts and talked about the characters and the story.

For this rehearsal, they had moved into the black box theater. (A black box theater is a simple space with black walls.)

“I’d rather have you end up here,” replied Kathryn Chase Bryer, the director of the show, pointing to a spot. Without scenery and furniture on the stage, the actors relied on pink, purple and yellow tape on the floor to tell them where the sets would be.

They were working on blocking, which is deciding exactly where all the actors should be while they’re onstage.

“Wendy and the boys, you’re coming from stage right, up the staircase and cross the rock,” Bryer said. “Stage right” means the side of the stage that’s to the right of an actor who is facing the audience.

The feeling at the rehearsal bounced back and forth between serious focus and lighthearted joking as the actors got into character and then broke from their characters to listen to Bryer and share a quick joke.

The cast, or the people in the show, spent all morning on a scene that would take only three minutes to perform.


“It’s definitely hard work, but every rehearsal I’ve been in, it’s always fun,” said Jonathan Atkinson, 29, who plays Peter Pan. (He remembers his first performance, a puppet show he put on for guests when he was 4 years old.)

Atkinson said his favorite part of rehearsals is “getting to know new people . . . and getting to know a brand-new character. That’s really exciting.” Atkinson has performed in about 40 musicals and plays – and auditioned for many more – but he still gets nervous every time he steps onstage.

“That’s just the way I am,” he said. “If I didn’t feel that way, I’d think something was wrong.”


Putting on a performance involves a lot more people than just the actors. More than 20 people started working on this “Peter Pan” production months ago. Set designers worked closely with Bryer to figure out what to build. They sketched ideas and then started building the scenery. Just days before the show, they “loaded in” the sets. (That means they brought them onto the stage.)

A costume designer made the costumes, and a lighting designer figured out how to light the stage. A choreographer taught the actors the dance numbers, and a musical director helped them learn the music.

During “tech week,” which is made up of long work days right before the show opens, all the elements of the show come together.

“It’s a little magical that way,” Bradley Cooper said. He’s the production manager, the guy who makes sure all the behind-the-scenes work runs smoothly. “It always seems to find a way to come together in the end.”

As soon as the show is over, the tech crew will “strike the set,” or take it down, so that work on the next show can begin.


Bryer started working on “Peter Pan and Wendy” more than six months ago. She began reading and researching the play, thinking about what she wanted the overall message of the show to be. She calls herself an editor, thinking and talking about ideas and then deciding what the best ones are.

Bryer said that once the show opens, her job is done. She said she often feels sad because, after spending so much time with the actors and crew and with the story, she must walk away. That sounds a little like Wendy, who leaves Neverland at the end of the show and says, “Goodbye, nursery. Goodbye, Peter.”


What: “Peter Pan and Wendy,” adapted (from the 1904 play and 1911 novel by J. M. Barrie) by Alyn Cardarelli, with music by Steve. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer, with Jonathan Atkinson and Justine Moral (Peter Pan and Wendy), James Konicek (Captain Hook and Mr. Darling), Michael John Casey (Smee), Angela Miller (Tiger Lily and Mrs. Darling), Matt Dewberry and Dan Van Why (the Lost Boys). Music directed by George Fulginiti-Shakar, sets designed by Klyph Stanford, lighting by Jason Arnold, costumes by Katie Touart, choreography by Krissie Marty, and sound by Christopher Baine.

When: 26 June-11 August. Tuesday-Friday at 10:30 a.m., Saturday-Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.; additional shows 6, 20, and 27 July at 11 a.m. and 12 July at 7 p.m.

Who: Imagination Stage, founded as BAPA (Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts) in 1979, which “produces theater and arts education programs which nurture, challenge, and empower young people of all abilities.”  According to its website, “Imagination Stage envisions a future where theatre experiences are a fundamental aspect of children's lives, nourishing their creative spirit, inspiring them to embrace the complexity and diversity of their world, and helping them overcome their challenges with hope, courage and, above all, creativity.”

Where: 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, Md.

How much: $12-$25.

Ages: Best for ages 4 to 10.

More information: www.imaginationstage.org or  (301) 280-1660.

[I recall quite vividly, by the way, an experience I had when I was very young with the magic of theater the production manager talks about above.  I mentioned in a past post (“A Broadway Baby,” 22 September 2010) that when my family spent part of the summer on Cape Cod back in the 1950s, we always went to the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis at least once during the season.  To this day, I still remember being amazed at a production of The Wizard of Oz when, after the tornado generated by the tech crew with lighting and sound effects, the lights came back up—and there sat Dorothy's house, with the legs of the Wicked Witch sticking out from under one side!   It was impossible!  How did that house get there?  It was, indeed, magic!  I was probably 6 or 7 at the time.

[The production manager, also sometimes called the stage manager (although occasionally there’s both), named in McLaughlin’s article, Bradley Cooper, is not that Bradley Cooper (the popular movie actor).  Bradley C. Cooper’s been Production Manager at Imagination Stage since 2011 and was previously Assistant Stage Operations Supervisor at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company and stage manager at the Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk. Writer and composer Alyn Cardarelli and Steve Goers are creators of the popular musical How I Became a Pirate, adapted from Melinda Long and David Shannon's picture book and staged at Imagination in 2010. Kathryn Chase Bryer is Imagination Stage's Associate Artistic Director. She’s helped develop new scripts and directed over 30 shows in the last 18 years.  Jonathan Atkinson was last seen at Imagination Stage as the Prince in Rapunzel and has been seen in the Kennedy Center's national tours of The Phantom Tollbooth and Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka. Justine Moral was last seen at Imagination Stage as Lucy in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, which received five Helen Hayes Award nominations, and she has performed in national tours of South Pacific and Les Miserables.  James Konicek is a well-known voice artist in the Washington area, recently recording a series of national radio ads for GEICO.  He’s performed in many District-area productions, most recently Our Town (Ford's Theatre, Washington) and A Trip to the Moon (Synetic Theater, Arlington, Va.). Michael John Casey has performed in several shows at Imagination Stage, including the Helen Hayes-nominated The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe and Rapunzel. Angela Miller is a graduate of Washington’s American University.]

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[This article was originally published in a section called “Playing Outside The Box” in the New York Times on 19 July 2013 (sec. C [“Weekend Arts II”]).] 

To say I am not an avid outdoorsman is a gross understatement. From my perspective, civilization as we know it dates to the invention of air-conditioning, and the whole point of living in New York City is the opportunity it affords to bypass nature completely and its many discomforts and outright perils.

So you might conclude that Shakespeare in the Park, the beloved summer institution created by Joseph Papp and going strong some 50 years later, would have me grumbling about bugs, heat, rain and a paranoid fear of falling tree limbs. (Not so paranoid, that, which is why I remain immune to the vaunted charms of Central Park.) I’ll cop to some resistance born of unhappy experiences, like the insufferably muggy night that I sweltered through “The Skin of Our Teeth,” and a performance of “The Merchant of Venice” that stretched until midnight after the skies opened midway through the first act, necessitating a 45-minute pause during which the audience huddled under the theater’s narrow eaves.

But I have come to appreciate – even look forward to – the undeniable pleasures of the experience, particularly in recent years, as the Public Theater has raised its Shakespeare productions to a generally high standard. The comedies in which natural realms are benign, healing influences play particularly well outdoors. Having a real forest (or what can pass for one) portray the role of the Forest of Arden in “As You Like It” sweetens the atmosphere of that play. Ditto “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” wherein the heart’s confusions are sorted out as the lovers tear through the woods surrounding Athens. I have no idea what the shores of Illyria were like, but watching “Twelfth Night” unsheltered by protective covering helps usher us into the experience of the play’s shipwrecked characters.
Seeing Shakespeare outdoors turns the playgoing experience into something more elemental and primal than it usually is, reminding us that this art form was born in outdoor auditoriums in ancient Greece and flourished anew during Shakespeare’s day at theaters like the Globe, which were not enclosed spaces, either. The lesser folk – groundlings – who stood to watch performances at the Globe would brave whatever weather came their way. They still do today at the facsimile constructed on the South Bank of the Thames – a hugely successful enterprise.

And, for many, seeing Shakespeare outdoors frees it from the suffocating air of elitism – or cultural homework – that can often cling to it. The most responsive audiences I’ve ever been a part of have been those at the Delacorte, most of whom, I suspect, are not regular theatergoers punching a cultural ticket, but people who simply come because it’s free and it’s fun – an unbeatable combination. Attending Shakespeare in the Park feels more like going to a baseball game, where you expect to be engrossed but are free from the threat of edification. Many of the more high-minded, assiduous (and deep-pocketed) theater lovers I know shrug and demur when urged to go see something at the Delacorte; they can’t be bothered to stand in line to score a ticket.

These days, more often than not, it’s their loss. (Unless Al Pacino happens to be involved, in which case they can placidly wait for the transfer to Broadway.) Having been charmed by the first offering this summer, a buoyant, 1940s-set production of “The Comedy of Errors,” I am excited to see the second, which begins Tuesday: a new musical adaptation of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” featuring songs written by Michael Friedman, the house composer of the enterprising young company the Civilians.

So consider me a convert, a cheerleader, even a proselytizer at times. And since I live downtown, attending Shakespeare in the Park performances brings an added benefit. I visit the Upper East Side almost as infrequently as I go hiking. (Yes, it’s happened on rare occasions, and I’ve spent the whole time fearing ticks and rock slides.) A 15-minute stroll from the Delacorte brings me to one of the best bars in the city, Bemelman’s at the Carlyle Hotel, where I can ponder the merits of the performance with a martini at hand, while savoring the fundamental pleasure of being safely indoors again.

[While I generally agree with Charles Isherwood’s assessment of the outdoor-theater experience, I have some reservations about the way he feels that being outside during the performance of plays like As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream enhances the understanding of the play.  Frankly, I think he’s copped to the hype of outdoor theater.  (Isherwood makes a point that the original Globe Theatre was open to the elements, which is true—but only so far as the sky was concerned.  Like most theaters in Elizabethan times, the Globe, on the south bank of the Thames, was not in a sylvan setting, surrounded by nature, but in the city of London.  Furthermore, Shakespeare’s plays were also performed at the King’s Men’s winter home, Blackfriars, which was indoors and entirely enclosed.)   Nonetheless, the facts of Isherwood’s description are basically true even if you quibble with the repercussions.]

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