|Vol. 17, No. 16||Jan. 8, 1998|
TFans of old movies may remember when Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney would announce "Let's have a show," and suddenly, like magic, an old barn was converted into a theatre filled with talented performers, acting, singing and dancing. It doesn't work that way in real life, according to Sanford Robbins, director of the UD Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP).
"Although many people think of the theatre as glamorous, emotional and temperamental, just the opposite is true," he said. "Being in the theatre is like being involved in athletics-to succeed takes stamina, strength and discipline or you don't last very long. Producing a play on stage eight times a week requires commitment and hard work."
A behind-the-scenes look at PTTP, which has won enthusiastic kudos from audiences in the region and from those in the world of theatre, reveals the meticulous planning and preparation that goes into each production from selecting the plays to the finished performance.
Although several factors enter into the selection of plays, the driving force is the students enrolled in the program, Robbins said.
"Our program is cyclical. We train a class of high caliber, talented students in the traditions of the classic repertory theatre for three years. The fourth year we recruit new students and have special productions with alumni and others, and then we begin the process again. We select plays that will develop and advance students in their skills and training. Currently, there are 34 students enrolled in acting, six in stage management and nine in technical production, and we look for plays that will involve all of them," Robbins said.
Suggestions for plays, which can range from Greek to modern classics, are made by PTTP faculty and forwarded to Robbins, and then the selections are made.
"The process works like intersecting gears-what plays mesh with our students' talents and give them opportunities to grow professionally, how many lines each part has, what plays match the faculty or guest director's expertise, the budget and the requirements for staging different dramas, especially those that go on the road," Robbins said.
For each cohort of students, Shakespearean plays are the foundation of the program for the first year, beginning with historical plays where clarity of plot is important before moving onto the more difficult tragedies and comedies where self-expression is important, Robbins said.
Selecting a Shakespearean play is not easy, he pointed out, because several of the plays, such as Julius Caesar, have few or insignificant roles for women.Recently, PTTP simultaneously offered A Midsummer Night's Dream, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Once the play is selected, then the casting begins, with different students doubling up and playing the same role during different performances.
The director consults with the designers to determine the physical appearance of the play-what is required in the way of sets, props and costumes. Blueprints are made of sets, which are then converted into scenery in the scene shop. Props are made in the shop when possible or rented or bought. Costumes are sketched and designed and sent out to be made.
Robin Payne works with directors and stage managers in designing the sets and properties and teaches students how to produce them. "One of our biggest challenges in designing sets is a quick turn-around, where one play is performed in the afternoon, followed by another play in the evening," she said.
"In PTTP productions, the emphasis is on the words being spoken, so the scenery is functional, but the key is to keep it fresh and appropriate," Payne said. "For example, we use the same basic scenery in Two Gentlemen from Verona and The Merry Wives of Windsor, based on the design of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre stage. By changing windows and doors and other details, we convert the scenery from Italy to English Tudor. Midsummer's Night Dream uses a more abstract setting where we try to create a mood where magic can happen."
Props require creativity, verisimilitude and durability, Payne pointed out. Weapons play a big part in Shakespearean productions, and these are usually purchased, and the actors taught how to use them convincingly and safely. In Merry Wives of Windsor, a buck basket or neighborhood laundry basket, big enough to hide Falstaff and take a lot of wear and tear, was needed, and Payne finally tracked one down from a Shakespeare company in Washington, D.C.
"We also make many of the props," she said. "For instance, we had to create a magical flower for Midsummer's Night Dream, and the ordinary silk flower from the craft store just wouldn't do. Another special effect required an arrow protruding from an actor's backside."
Details are important. For example, when notes are exchanged on stage, they say what they are supposed to and use the calligraphy of the period. The audience may not be aware of this, but it is important in the staging, Payne said.
The director also works with the student stage manager, who essentially runs the show, under the guidance of Rick Cunningham, who heads stage management. The PTTP production manager is Gerald Reese who must coordinate all facets of production and ensure that everything is on schedule and on budget.
Lighting and sound also are planned and tried out, with recordings and special effects. Lights cannot be changed for each play but have to be adapted to each for the different special effects required.
When rehearsals begin, the director discovers what ideas and innovations work and which should be discarded.
The logistics of scheduling rehearsal space at Hartshorn Hall and performance times for three different plays pose another challenge, Robbins said.
As in any enterprise, there are occasional glitches. For instance, in a production of Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw, the smoke effects needed for Don Juan in hell repeatedly set off the smoke alarm. The building had to be vacated, and the fire company notified. Finally, the system was adjusted, Robbins recalled.
Summers are reserved for summer stock, which offer different opportunities for students. Directors from Shakespeare festivals and repertory theatres come on campus to audition and interview students. Almost all PTTP students receive offers of summer employment, Robbins said.
Students who complete the three year program are in demand. "Our goal is to train American actors in the classic tradition. We are not trying to create Hollywood stars, although many of our former students are in films or on television. The Union of Professional Actors reports that 43.2 percent of its members are employed. Our graduates more than double that number with 87.3 percent employed," Robbins said.
While PTTP is training professionals for the theatre, it is also training tomorrow's audiences. In addition to performing for the University community and the general public, the plays are presented to area school groups, and the students have an opportunity to talk to the actors after the performance.
Future PTTP productions for spring include School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht, which parodies the rise of Hitler in a Chicago gangster setting, Getting Married by George Bernard Shaw and The Country Wife by William Wycherley.
PTTP also has commissioned playwright Jeanne Walker, English, to write an original play, which will give students experience and involvement during the writing and play reading process.
-Sue Swyers Moncure