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Archive for September, 2008

Brittany A. Little, Production Dramaturg:

Let me tell you, this has been a fantastic experience for me–hectic and a little intimidating, but fantastic. Being a third-year History major at the University of Chicago and an artist, the chance to really dig deep into a work like Kushner’s, with a cast and production team as wonderful as this one (Charles Newell and E. Faye Butler…what more can you ask for in life?) has allowed me to bring my academic and artistic lives together.

I’ve been working with Court for a while now. I started as an intern in the Development office (hey guys!), went on to work as the Assistant Director of last season’s The First Breeze of Summer with Resident Artist Ron OJ Parson (One of my favorite people) and then I found myself trusted with this position, one usually handled by someone older and with a lot more experience than I. But that’s why I love Court–they give younger people like me, the opportunity to learn new things and grow under their guidance.

So, it was either sink or swim and I was determined to swim because I could not let Court down. I must admit, it was daunting at first. I had to balance a fellowship with a theater across town, make time to wrap my head around all of the complex themes that are featured in Caroline, and present them in the most informative and beneficial way possible.

Complexity is a feature of Tony Kushner’s work and Caroline is no exception. This musical touches on so many topics that are rarely seen in theater that my job was difficult (rarely, for instance, do we see African-American women at the heart of a full-scale show). With Caroline, I found myself elbow deep in books, microfilm and documentaries trying to find images and written accounts of these silently suffering Southern maids who seldom got to tell their stories. Add that to other themes like the Civil Rights Movement, racism, segregation, poverty, JFK, Jewish/Black relations, music of the 1960s, the Jewish American, Louisiana and domestic appliances and you end up with stacks and stacks of some of the most interesting material that a Dramaturg could ask for.

To work on such a huge show with a cast and crew this experienced made me nervous, and I rarely doubt my abilities. How much is too much and how much is too little? These worries plagued me until I sat down with Charlie and realized that he liked his research short but informative. Answer his inquires, send out anything that I find interesting to the team and give the actors a 20-page packet with lots of great pictures. Charlie gave me freedom to explore and share my findings and I really began to fall in love with the material.

By the time rehearsal came along, I was so excited that I was ready to share everything with the cast (whether they were interested or not). So, I put up a table full of books and historical research in the rehearsal room but honestly thought that the cast wouldn’t even glance at. I was wrong–they actually checked items out and wanted further information! That is what is so great about having an extraordinarily talented and intelligent cast. They really worked at their characters so that they could present the best show possible. They asked such fascinating questions that I was excited to find the answers for them. The cast and the entire production process motivated me, as a student and an artist.

There is nothing like watching the indescribably fabulous E. Faye Butler and Music Director Doug Peck work through a song note by note, Kate Fry find the subtlety in a phrase, Harriet Nzinga Plumpp flow effortlessly between characters, Iris Lieberman execute perfect comedic timing or the child actors scramble through their hilarious first act number. Being able to add to that experience in my small, complicated way feels amazing. As I sit and watch the final product, I can see a little Martha and the Vandellas in the Radio, know the significance of the oil that fries the latkes, and understand the desperation in Caroline. It makes me realize how much insight Caroline, Or Change has to offer to the audience.

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I read somewhere once that the health of a society can be measured by the health and behavior of its frogs. When the frogs are acting out of character, something is up. I don’t remember where I read that…I assume it’s bunk, but it’s a compelling image.

Anyone seen a CAROLINE preview yet? What’d you think?

For those who haven’t, we’ve got photos coming up, and a post by our production Dramaturg.

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The preview process at Court Theatre is my favorite part of working here. If you’ve ever seen a Court show twice, once in early previews and once later in the run, you may understand why. If a Court show doesn’t change wildly during previews, it’s an anomaly–I can’t remember the last Charlie show I saw where the ending at the second performance was the same as the ending at opening. The first ten minutes of Titus were completely rethought in response to the first audiences’ experience (if you caught that show in early previews you saw a glitzy party of decadent youths, which by opening had transformed into a highly ritualistic military exercise), and the ending of Arcadia (and thus that show’s final communication on the subject of its themes) was different almost every night during that first two weeks (I’m personally still dubious about the dramaturgical justification for the two eras’ dancers connecting so directly in that moment, but of the choices we tried, it was the strongest by far).

I wonder sometimes if preview audiences get how necessary to the process they are–some patrons look on previews as “less-than” or incomplete, but actually I think they should be considered a totally different experience from seeing a show after it opens. Audiences during the run are, of course, directly participating in the creation and sustenance of a piece of live, four-dimensional art, and the theater does not exist without them. But preview audiences are participating in the building of the piece, teaching the cast and designers how the show works. When you’re bored, or engaged, or offended, or moved, we know it just by being in the room with you. And the audience is never wrong.

Caroline starts previews in just under a week. And to encourage you to think about preview performances as not just a less-expensive ticket for a less-polished show, I am going to give away a pair of tickets to a first-week preview (Sept. 11-14). In order to get these tickets, post a comment with the names of the seven Court Theatre productions represented at the top of this page. That’s right: A CONTEST!! The first reader to get all seven will get two free tickets to help us figure out the ending (or maybe the beginning, or maybe the big Channukah party scene) of Caroline, or Change. TO THE COMMENTS!

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The set is built, hung, and painted. It is gorgeous–I can’t wait for you to see it. The cast starts working on it Thursday afternoon, spending one day getting used to the space, and then we’re in technical rehearsals starting Friday, integrating lights, sound, costumes, and props.

What follows is my condensation of the design concepts presented at first rehearsal, with images of the set model by Scenic Designer John Culbert, and renderings by Costume Designer Jacqueline Firkins. Caveat: this description is based on notes I took way back on August 12th. Staging ideas have undoubtedly developed, changed, been scrapped and rethought since then.

The anchor of the set design is the central location of the basement, a sunken cement square that can also function as, for instance, the kitchen in the Channukah Party scene. In order to accommodate the band and still have floorspace for all the staging the show requires, the design includes a wide balcony space, on which the Radio ladies and the Moon will also do the bulk of their work. The stairs upstage center will be Stuart’s primary domain, evoking his characteristic sense of being trapped in a state of transition, unsure of where and how to land.

Set model by John Culbert

Set model by John Culbert

Notice the image covering the rest of the floor. This is a photograph of the early-evening Louisiana sky, taken through the trees. The disorienting up-is-down effect and the high contrast of the light blue sky and dark green foliage create an abstracted theatrical space in which a variety of locations can be evoked through simple furniture and creative staging. While initially, as you can sort of see in the photo, the design called for a photo-realistic painting, the gesture has since simplified into a more painterly, abstract pattern, which will be covered with a high gloss. The center ceiling panel contains some surprises that I won’t spoil here. The bottom face of it will be covered with the same painted image as the floor.

The costume design incorporates gestures from two different worlds. The first is, of course, the standard historical realism of 1963. This is mostly what you see in the photo.

Costume renderings by Jacqueline Firkins

Costume renderings by Jacqueline Firkins

But take note of two images: the man in the far right-center of the photo, and the woman in the gown in the middle, surrounded by reference photos. The man on the right is the Dryer, and he, along with the Washing Machine, is being dressed in a vocabulary reminiscent of early-century work clothes, with a few theatricalizing surprises thrown in (spellcheck doesn’t recognize “theatricalizing”, but if it’s not a word, it should be). In the center we have the Moon, in elegant evening attire that sets her apart from the other characters, both “real” (Caroline, Dottie, Noah, etc.) and anthropomorphized (Bus, Dryer, etc.). This dress connects the Moon somewhat with the similarly-stylish Radio, whom you can see sitting in the center of the balcony in the set model (by the way, in case you didn’t notice, the figures in the model are built from copies of Jacqueline’s renderings–the woman just upstage of the basement square with the headdress? That’s the Washing Machine).

Charlie Newell: “One of the biggest design challenges inherent in the show is this question about the Washer and Dryer. If you put an actual washer and dryer on stage, does that make it easier for the audience to understand, or not? Because then you’ve got the actors on stage singing and you’re asking, who the hell are those people standing next to the washer and dryer? And most of the time the actor is saying ‘I’M A WASHING MACHINE.’ So that’s kind of a clue. We’re in two worlds: 1963 and the world of ‘What is human about these other characters?'”

Jacqueline Firkins: “These are people, they have human qualities, and they have sensibilities. So we want them in clothes, we don’t want to say this is not a human, this is not a soul.”

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Hi, I’m Harriet Nzinga Plumpp. I am the Washing Machine and the Moon in Caroline, or Change.

Well, let’s see….where to begin. First off, I want to say how happy I am to be back on my feet in rehearsals. My son is 11 months old and I have not done a show since my first trimester with him in the Winter/Spring of ’07. Our cast is full of parents so I feel a great sense of support–Yay to that!  It’s an even bigger delight to be in rehearsals at Court Theatre.  Caroline, or Change is my third musical at Court (I had the pleasure of working on Man of La Mancha and Raisin).  It is great to be back.

Just yesterday I was conversing with Melanie Brezill, who plays Emmie in the show.  We were discussing how valuable the rehearsal process with Charlie Newell is for us as actors. At Court, the musical is treated first and foremost like a play.  This theatre definitely strives to present a strong, focused point of view. Many of us have been in this business for many years and have experienced a rehearsal process that does not allow time to explore and to ask questions about who you are as your character.  It should be natural…second nature. For me as an audience member, it’s much more enjoyable to follow an actor’s journey when every breath, every gesture and thought has intent behind it. Oooweee, don’t get me wrong, this is not an easy feat–but, it’s a great thing to strive for.  In rehearsal, Charlie gives us this time to explore. Which is, as Charlie says, “fantastic!”. So, hopefully, by the time you see the show our instincts are settling in. You can feel our anguish, our joy, anticipation etc… This takes a lot of energy, focus, and patience from everyone and can be exhausting.

We did our first run-thru of the show two days ago and I was exhausted afterward, in a good way;-)  Because I am playing the Washing Machine and the Moon I need to figure out how to separate the two vocally, mentally, and physically.  This past weekend it dawned on me that whatever energy Caroline (E. Faye) has I must feed off of it for the Washing Machine to work.  The W.M. is truly a part of Caroline.  Once that clicked, I was able to start taking the W.M. and the Moon on their own separate journeys.

I’m off to rehearsal now, so I look forward to seeing you in the house.  Enjoy the show!  I have a great feeling that you will.

Peace, Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

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