Director's Blog: Oklahoma!
Directors's Blog #3 - It's Not What You Know....
There are only seven days until the curtain goes up on our production of Oklahoma! Students are attending the final rehearsals before production week; the wardrobe ladies are making minor adjustments to costumes; and the finishing touches are being made to the set.
The ANZAC Day holiday gave us the rare ability to take stock of where we are at with a week out; to plan effective strategies for the days ahead; and to reflect on what it has taken to get to this point. Every year we are praised for the “professionalism” of our productions and we accept this compliment with good grace; however, it is by no stroke of luck that we achieve this praise. The story of this year’s Oklahoma! set is a good example:
Every year, in the first week of December, you will find me at a Main Beach café with my designer, Nick McCallum. Nick is a long-standing parent at the school, who just happens to be a professional set designer for both the stage and the screen. You might know his work on films like The Black Balloon and Sanctum. After reading the script, we get together to throw ideas about amid coffee cups, wine glasses and the chatter of the Tedder Avenue elite.
Oklahoma! was based on the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lyn Riggs, and was the first collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. It centres around settlers in Oklahoma Territory in the early 1900s and tells the story of cowboy Curly McLain and his tempestuous relationship with farm girl Laurey Williams. Knowing this, Nick and I both research the era and bring with us as much information as we can to the meeting. We look at past professional productions, old photos, newspaper articles, old advertisements, posters - anything that may trigger interest. This year the trigger came from an old Oklahoma flag.
At the time of the play (1906), Oklahoma was readying itself to be included in the Union and this is an event that the characters in the play proudly sing about in the title song near the end of the play. Oklahoma was admitted to the Union in 1907, and the Oklahoma legislature created a red flag emblazoned with a white star, which was imprinted with the number “46″ to signify Oklahoma as the forty-sixth state to enter the Union. It was called the Oklahoma Warriors’ Shield Flag. I was intrigued by it as soon as I saw it and Nick suggested that we use it as a backdrop for the show. I wasn’t so sure of that idea – it is usual to have a backdrop of blue sky and corn – so after chucking around ideas it was decided to use it as a floor. The red was perfect to reflect harsh land and the star served as an ever present reminder of the underlying ambition of all Oklahoma Territorians at the time of the play.
We decided that the flag should be painted onto the floor immediately, so that it had time to wear out over 13 weeks of rehearsal, making it look like it was very old and worn. As soon as the school year started, our resident groundsman and set builder Linsdsay Valentine set about covering the black floor.
Now you might think that the rest of the Oklahoma! set is pretty much standard fair - a farm house, a smoke house, corn fields, windmills, fences and the like - and you would be right. But the question is how natural do you want it to look? We decided very early on that we wanted to reflect the harshness of the settler life.
With expert direction from Art teacher Jackie Bennett, the creative crew set about creating Oklahoma 1906 on our stage. Jackie and Lindsay designed Laurey’s farmhouse, Jud’s smokehouse and sourced old timber for its construction. Our wonderful props mistress, Julie Wode, another Performing Arts parent, searched far and wide for authentic props such as old butter churns, farm tools, rope, crates and the like for the cast to use. To my astonishment she returned with an amazing array of goods, for very little outlay. What a great shopper she is! Another parent, Sandy Gore, introduced us to Robyn from Cinderella Carriages, who generously loaned us a hay cart and a surrey for the production, and parents Mike and Lisa Lang assisted us in obtaining 500 silk corn stalks from China to enhance and soften the set. Nick put us onto professional scene painters Rob, Nicholas and Buster who painted our backdrop and tabs over a four day period. Apparently the demise of Channel 7’s Terra Nova was to our advantage! All this activity proved the old adage - it’s not what you know, it’s who you know - to be correct.
At the end of Term 1 it looked like we had broken the back of the set and that the run home to production week would be a smooth one. How wrong we were!
On Friday March 30, there was an incident in the Performing Arts Centre involving the fire system. Whilst inspecting the fire system, a technical glitch occurred which meant that a considerable amount of water was dumped onto the stage and orchestra pit through the deluge pipe at the front of the stage. Whilst the damage could have been considerable, the quick thinking of those involved meant that the water damage was contained to the floating floor of the stage. We were lucky that more of the curtains, electrical sound and lighting equipment and props and set for the musical were not affected. The floating floor, however, was lifted, inspected and sections of it replaced. The clean- up task was orchestrated brilliantly by the efforts of Theatre Manager Marshall McAdam, Jackie Bennett, Lindsay Valentine and Phil Taber and we were back on track in two weeks. This delay meant that the full day rehearsals were compromised and that work to dress the set had to be cancelled until the floor was repainted. Lighting design and plotting was delayed until all this work was completed. And, of course, the floor doesn’t look as old as we wanted!
A professional looking production does not come easily. It is the culmination of many creative talents in design and construction; it relies on the generosity of College parents and staff and the connections they bring to the process. I, for one, am very appreciative of our wonderful College family.
Director's Blog #2 - The Sacrifices Made in the Name of Art! 20 April 2012
Every year I am asked questions like: How do you choose the musical? How do you cast the musical? What qualities do you look for in the students who end up in the lead roles? How come my child didn’t get a part??!!
These are complex issues and they are all interrelated. The process of choosing a musical starts about a week or two after the last one has finished. We look at what we have done before so that we don’t repeat the style of show too frequently. There is no use in doing a Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein production every year. Those shows are particularly good for whole school musicals, however, as they have large casts and are fun to do.
We look at the students we will still have to perform in the following year. That is not to say that we cast before auditions – not at all; but we do have to know that we can fill all the parts with at least a couple of alternatives. There are exceptions to this rule. We chose to do The King and I a few years ago without even knowing where the leads were coming from. We chose it because we had a lot of wonderfully talented students in the Junior School. Luckily Declan Nicholls walked into the role of the King straight from the UK and Jessica Roundtree, who was waiting in the wings, took on the role as Anna. Both performed with aplomb. There is at least one example every year of a student who unexpectedly comes out of the woodwork to great acclaim in the musical. Last year it was Hayden Zhai who played Ching Ho in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
This year we originally wanted to do Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music but, after lengthy discussion, we decided that there weren’t enough roles for our fabulous male performers. The likes of Tim Crisp, Brenton Baily and Declan Milne would be underused in The Sound of Music. In the coming years, we will have to look for female dominated shows as we have an overabundance of fabulous performers in Year 10. Let’s hope that Mamma Mia comes into amateur rights in the next year or two!
I am thrilled with the cast of Oklahoma! They are capably led by the aforementioned males and by Courtney Tarlinton, Myora Kruger and Christine Foote. It is so important that these students lead by example, especially in a musical with very young actors. None has done more in this area than Tim Crisp.
Tim is a product of the College’s Instrumental Music programme. He started Speech and Drama lessons, learning the Flute and Vocal instruction in the Junior School and has kept up those lessons throughout his time at the College. He served his apprenticeship in musicals as a duckling in Honk and a croquet ball in Alice; as a Noble chorus and Astro Boy in The Mikado, a Prince of Siam (chorus) in The King and I, and a Sailor in Anything Goes; before starring in The Pirates of Penzance and Thoroughly Modern Millie. Both roles were critically acclaimed, and he was awarded the Best Actor in a School Musical at the 2010 and 2011 Gold Coast Area Theatre Awards for his role as Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance and as Jimmy Smith in the Senior School production Thoroughly Modern Millie.
These awards are well deserved and come about by total dedication to his craft. Tim takes direction well, always asks questions about character and motivation and spends hours on his lines at home. He mentors the younger actors and treats everyone with respect in rehearsals.
His commitment to the dramatic process was tellingly expressed by his willingness to get a perm for his role as Curly. This was always going to be a factor in taking on the role – you can’t have a straight haired Curly! So over the holidays, whilst other students were having fun at Dreamworld or the movies, Tim was sitting in the local hair salon for a few hours transforming his look. The next day he had to front up to the rehearsal and endure the friendly taunts and laughter of the rest of the cast.
Onstage, however, the transformation was immediate. He was no longer Tim, he was Curly. The stance completely changed – he walked taller, was bolder in his movements. His fellow cast members were impressed as was the production team. This often happens. For young performers to make the character complete, they often need to change their appearance. There are many examples of fat suits, beards and moustaches doing wonders for a character.
This is just one example of the sacrifices made by the students to be part of the musical. Others forgo work opportunities; take time off their sporting commitments and the like. Parents make sacrifices too; the “taxi driving” duties are doubled and some spend countless hours supporting their child’s interest by becoming part of the wardrobe, props or makeup departments.
It takes a lot of people, making lots of sacrifices to create a piece of theatrical magic. For students like Tim, it starts in Year 3 and continues throughout their education at A.B. Paterson College. I, for one, appreciate the efforts of these students and their families.
Director's Bog #1 - Putting it Together 13 April 2012
Our production of Oklahoma! is only a matter of weeks away. Sets are nearing completion, the wardrobe ladies are sewing the final accoutrements on an array of period costumes, the rehearsals are becoming more complex and frantic and the box office is doing big business. It is a normal April in the world of our school musical.
There are many pressures involved in putting on a musical show. Stephen Sondheim even wrote a song about it entitled, Putting it Together from his musical Sunday in the Park with George.
Bit by bit, putting it together
Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art
Every moment makes a contribution
Every little detail plays a part
Having just a vision's no solution
Everything depends on execution
Putting it together, that's what counts.
There are always issues in casting, teaching music and songs, dance steps, costuming and set design matters, making sure everyone gets their name in the programme and that it is spelt correctly (I always seem to mysteriously fail on that one!).
For many people not associated with theatre, the process of putting on a show is a mysterious one. The creative process is locked away behind the closed doors of the workshop area, rehearsal room and ultimately the stage, until the curtain goes up on opening night. It doesn’t help when your child comes home from rehearsal and you ask, “How was it?” and you get a non-committal “Oh yeah…okay” before they lock themselves away in their room!
Therefore, this series of blogs over the next few weeks is an attempt to demystify the process of putting on a musical. I hope you will find the creative concepts and the stories contained within them an interesting read.
So let’s begin!
Wednesday 11/4 was the beginning of “putting together” our production of Oklahoma! My production team and I have been working with the cast, consisting of students aged 9 to 17, three times a week for the past 10 weeks to ensure that they were ready for this important day. Lines were learnt and blocking, well…. blocked! The set was somewhat ready – more about that in another blog – and the backstage crew knew where to place them – to a degree. The costumes, whilst not quite there, were serving their purpose to get the students into the “feel” of early 1900’s Oklahoma. After 70 hours of rehearsal, I felt the students were equipped to begin rehearsals with the orchestra.
Now you might think this is a simple process. Not so! Up until now the lead actors and chorus have learnt to sing the brilliant Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers with the assistance of a repetiteur and piano accompanist by their side. If a mistake is made then they’ve stopped, discussed the issue and continued. Of course, the longer the rehearsal period goes on, the more the confidence grows and the less need to stop. The process is duplicated with each of the 12 songs in the show. Add the choreography to each song and it becomes even more complex.
As you can imagine, the orchestra sounds completely different to the single piano accompaniment. We have an orchestra of 30 players, comprising instrumentalists of varying degrees of expertise. There are a handful of Music teachers who are charged with mentoring the student players within each section of the orchestra and they are conducted by the Music Director. This is held together by the piano accompanist, who has been to every rehearsal and knows the tempo of each number, the cuts and additions made to the score and the “feel” of each piece. She is the lynchpin between the cast and orchestra.
Being down in the orchestra pit, there are also sound and communication issues with the cast onstage that need to be addressed. This is the responsibility of the theatre manager and his technical crew. This rehearsal is important to start to iron out microphone issues, the plotting and exchanging of the cordless mics and the frequencies to use. Local traffic such as taxis and trucks can play havoc with the transmission and, as the theatre is next to a four lane road, issues abound.
Each scene change has a music accompaniment to it and this is the first rehearsal where we begin to move the set around to the music. The set is bulky and, although there are not many changes, they can be lengthy and boring for the audience. We have a backstage crew of 15, and a properties crew of three who are choreographed to change the set within the timeframe of the music set by the score.
As you can imagine the concept of putting together a show is not a simple one and it would not surprise you to know that in the seven hours of rehearsal on Wednesday, we only “walked” through Act 1. The process is a stressful one; it can be repetitious and tiresome for the students; however it is also incredibly fun and exciting. So the response to your question, “How was it?” might have been, “Fantastic!” or, “Boring!”, depending on how much your child was involved. But rest assured that much was accomplished.
There is much work still to be done but all the signs are that it will be a great production.
Next blog: The sacrifices made in the name of Art!