While stage-managing the Broadway production of Biloxi Blues by Neil Simon in preparation for taking the First National Tour on the road back in 1986, I had the good fortune to work closely with both Mr. Simon and Gene Sacks, the Broadway director. We opened the tour in Palm Beach to an audience “dressed to the nines”. It was a fun-filled night, excitement in the air. The young actors playing the World War II recruits were on their game and had a great time. However, after the performance, Gene Saks gathered the cast and stage managers around him in a closed-door session. He was not pleased. He told us that we played for laughs – and that this was not, in any way, the intention of the author. These characters were, in fact, all terrified young men going off to a war from which they may not return in one piece, if at all…and then he spoke the phrase that has stuck with me for all my days:
“This is NOT an army comedy.”
This phrase, in and of itself, was a master class in Neil Simon given by his best and most trusted colleague. To play Simon properly one must get to the heart of the characters in the play. It is as important to play for the truth in Simon, as it is in Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Shakespeare, or any of our revered playwrights. For it is in the truth that we find the comedy. We held a special rehearsal the next day and Mr. Saks was satisfied with the renewed dedication of the actors to playing this truth. The result was a very successful year-and- a-half long tour, of which we were all proud.
I tell this story to reflect on the career and success of Neil Simon, perhaps the most important and prolific writer of comedy the American Theatre has ever produced. Over the course of five decades Mr. Simon wrote 34 plays and countless screenplays based mostly on his theatre work. He has won more awards than any other playwright in history. There even used to be a New York City truism, that if you had the good fortune to work with Mr. Simon, you might just get the “Neil Simon” summerhouse, or the “Neil Simon” apartment. Such was the cache and the popularity of his work. His commitment to his art, his voice, his culture and his colleagues has inspired generations of theatre artists including myself.
But to say that he was a funny writer with a gift for gags misses the point entirely, I think. It is his heart, and his insight into human nature – the way we relate to one and other – that is his true gift. Play after play, he confronts relationships, betrayal, cultural identity, loss, great sorrow, friendships, loyalty, and a host of topics inherent to the human condition. His great gift is that he finds a way to laughter even in the darkest of times. For we all see the light in the darkness, and we sense the dark in the light. Neil Simon’s great gift to us all is that we can, and must see both – that life is not only an “army comedy”.
The Montana Repertory Theatre
1967: the year of LOVE, Flower Power, 490,000 troops in Viet Nam. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, LBJ, Twiggy, the Six Day War, Riots in American cities, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde. The cost of a new house $14,240, a new car $2,700, the First Super Bowl, AND…
The Montana Repertory Theatre was founded.
Visionary theatre professional and professor Bo Brown founded the Montana Repertory Theatre to bring theatre to rural Montana using students from the training program at the University of Montana. The first productions in 1967 were The Devils Disciple, Julius Caesar, and She Stoops to Conquer. There then followed a decade of growth and development with productions of world classics. In 1977 James Kriley, in an audacious move, converted the company to professional status committing the company to hiring professional actors, directors, designers and technicians to work alongside University of Montana students. The company then toured mostly western states. In 1996 with their production of To Kill A Mockingbird, the Montana Rep went national, touring from California to Maine, thus completing the process begun in 1967. The Montana Repertory Theatre is now one of the premier national touring companies in the country, logging more miles and more performance dates than any other professional touring company in the USA, keeping alive the valuable tradition of touring professional theatre to all corners of the nation.
In 2017 The Montana Repertory Theatre will stage Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, the fifth of Simon’s iconic plays the Montana Rep has produced. This show will premier in January in Missoula and tour nationally into the spring. Barefoot was first produced on Broadway just over 50 years ago, and the Montana Rep is delighted to produce this play in our 50th year!
The Role of the Montana Repertory Theatre, a professional theatre imbedded in the training program in the School of Theatre and Dance at The University of Montana, is unique in that the school and the theatre are intertwined in a mutually supportive partnership, pairing professional actors, directors and designers with our students, giving the students invaluable exposure and opportunities in the professional practice of making theatre.
In 2017 we will be celebrating this unique and very successful experiment begun 50 years ago. The Montana Repertory Theatre remains vital, visionary and strong; the dream begun many years ago is alive and well, as we continue to create quality professional theatre, for the nation, the region, the state and Missoula, while supporting opportunities and training for new generations of Montana students.
Over the past few months, Artistic Director Greg Johnson and I have been waxing lyrical on this blog about Montana Rep, our ethos, our taste in literature, Arthur Miller’s centenary in October, 2015, his legacy in the American theatrical canon, many in-depth features about the production of All My Sons, and interviews with the All My Sons directorial and design teams. It’s been a journey since the production team launched its work nearly a year ago with casting in New York and in the Northwest region last winter, design meetings in the spring, the set build in the summer, ongoing conversations and dramaturgical preparations through the Fall, and, of course, rehearsals, which began January 4th, 2016.
I want to take a few paragraphs to review the last few weeks and months of ideas and information, and share a slideshow of some recent rehearsal photos:
Arthur Miller’s breakout play in 1947, All My Sons launched his career as a playwright. The play spoke to various universal values to mid-20th Century America, including returning World War Two veterans, large and small manufacturing businesses, various renditions of a confused sense of the American Dream, mixed values about allegiances to country versus family, and many more communities and ways of thinking. The play continues to speak to large universal questions about familial relationships, war profiteering, the dangers of excessive pride, and other major themes we face in our rapidly changing society.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been in and out of the Montana Theatre on the University of Montana campus to sneak a peek and take some photos of the rehearsal process. Directing Jere Hodgin has been carefully working with the actors and the design team to craft the Kellers’ world, their backyard, and their kingdom. He continues to speak of Miller’s play like it’s a boxing match, reminding actors to stay at the ready, to perch on the balls of their feet, ready to pounce at any given moment; to encircle and to corner one another in order to get what they want from each other or to prevent the truth from being revealed. During a recent rehearsal, in a conversation with Mike Boland, who plays Joe Keller in the play, I heard Jere compare Joe to Bernie Madoff, the fraudster and former Wall Street stockbroker and financier: he said something about how Joe, like Madoff, is somehow able to pull the wool over his own eyes just enough to justify his actions. Incidentally, in an unconnected interaction this morning, a student of mine turned me on to an article in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine in which Hollywood film star Richard Dreyfuss was interviewed about playing Madoff in the ABC miniseries Madoff, which is set to premier Feb. 3. He says about Madoff: “If you want to understand Bernie, read [Arthur Miller’s play] All My Sons. If he didn’t get caught early and didn’t blow his brains out, [Joe Keller] would have grown into Bernie Madoff. And would have handed his son the company.”
The cast and crew of the Rep’s production of All My Sons are fresh out of the oven of creative discovery and having an audience will likely prove the ingredient they need to fully uncover the immense complexities this play has to offer them and their audiences. Make sure to order your tickets and come see Montana Rep’s 2016 National Tour of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons in Missoula before it heads out on the road.
CA: How do you go about designing lights for a touring production?
MM: The National Tour doesn’t bring its own lighting instruments, so every place the tour goes, adjustments must be made. Each venue is different and their lighting inventory and positions vary tremendously. So when you’re designing lights for the tour, you have to think about what it’s going to be like in all of the locations. You have to be aware of which lights you can cut and still keep the production looking right. We don’t want it overly simplistic, but we want the design on the road to be as close as possible to what we see in Missoula. So design choices made are in the best interest of both the show here and what is seen on the road.
CA: What were your initial reactions to the script?
MM: The single day in which everything happens is the microcosm of the Kellers’ life: of who they are, how they learned, developed, and grew, and, at the end of the play, separated. I was familiar with the play, but it had been a long time. It is so enjoyable to read and when you see it onstage you realize how wonderfully crafted the words are. As you study it more in-depth, you realize the importance of everything the characters say throughout the play. It applies just as well now as when it was written in 1946, and it will continue to apply because it’s about humanity at its core. I love the play and I’m really enjoying the performances as the actors bring these characters to life. One of my favorite aspects is the relationship between father and son. It is written in a way that I think all sons could see their fathers throughout the stages of their lives. As a boy, your father is one person; in your teenage years, your father becomes a different individual because the relationship changes; and then you get to a point where you surpass your father and the roles reverse. So this single day in which All My Sons takes place is, to me, the evolution of the relationship between father and son.
CA: What kinds of initial research did you do to develop your design?
MM: In my early research, I looked at skies, clouds, trees, and vernacular architecture and scenes. What I think is so elegant about Mike’s [Fink’s scenic] design is that it’s this vernacular, everyday, common home that could be anyone’s house in any location. I hope to reinforce that sense with the lights so that the tone is that of an everyman’s place. For example, I love putting texture onstage with lights. I like to paint the stage with texture and quality that is more than just visibility. Knowing where the characters are, knowing where the light is coming from, knowing what the light had to get through, and what the light had to accomplish in order to actually be in the space. What is outside of the set that we don’t see? In reality, light is bouncing off a number of surfaces: it’s coming off the ground, it’s coming off of trees, it’s coming off of walls, so you’re going to get reflections, colors, and qualities that are coming from many areas and I like to justify in my mind of where light is coming through so that there’s a reason for it to be there.I can choose that reason. I can choose where the sun is coming from. For the most part, the cues in the production are mostly smooth, transitional, and would be what you expect during the day in which the play takes place. I’d like people to not notice the lights are changing, but realize that, for example, the day has changed.
MM: Jere and I seemed to be, more or less, on the same page from day one. The main thing we talked about was really capturing how the time of day reflects the mood of the play. As the characters get into the ‘fight’ – the big moment at the end of act two – the clouds are moving in, some stars come out. At the beginning, they even talk about how there’s not a cloud in the sky, but we don’t stay there, we move into something that’s darker, moodier, and the oncoming storm is reflective of the storm that’s occurring onstage. We talked about what we were going to do on the cyclorama and decided that we wanted to accomplish the look everyone is looking for with lighting instruments and not have to bring in projected media. We also discussed the transitions from one point to the next. What the lights look like in one cue and what they look like in the next cue are important, but to me, evolving from cue-to-cue is just as important, if not more so, than the look of each cue itself. The movement of light is a very important quality. With the exceptions of the moments at the beginning and end of each act that serve as a prologue and a button on the storytelling, the transitions are all very smooth and realistically motivated.
CA: What colors and patterns can we expect to see onstage?
MM: We will see a lot of deep, dark blues for the nighttime scenes. We will see a lot of tree-leaf patterns. While we have color picked for the show, it is an organic process-it’s really easy for the lighting designer to change color. Repainting the set is tedious and expensive, changing costume fabrics is impossible at this point in the game, but pulling color media in and out of lighting instruments until you get it right is relatively easy. The play is also set during summer in the Midwest and the trick I’ve struggled with when trying to emulate heat onstage is that it is difficult to accomplish without making it really bright. You have to somehow capture the qualities of light of a hot summer day. To me, hot is a hazy, brutal yellow, but many yellows can be atrocious onstage. So, it kind of comes down to direction. I try to bring light in at different angles so that the eye becomes aware of it, as opposed to making the actors’ faces brighter, which only reads as intensity. I try to create a strong directional light that is suggesting deep, hot, sun rays. I have a hot amber that I’ll use, but also knowing that it’s a hot day that is filtered by clouds and trees helps me justify avoiding making it look like the Sahara Desert.
CA: What do you listen for in the first readings in order to help generate ideas?
MM: I listen for how the actors are interpreting their characters, but there’s not always a lot I can get from a reading. What I get the most from is watching the initial run-throughs of each of the three acts after they’ve been staged. In those rehearsals, I get a better sense of Jere’s boxing ring concept, and, currently, for example, in the staging there are moments where people are getting cornered in the yard, as if in a fight. So it’s fun to watch people get stuck in corners and battle to get out. Because of those staging choices, I am able to make some strong decisions on how I was lighting the stage. If a character seems to get lost in a corner somewhere in a shadowy, reflective state, I can choose to reinforce that with shadowy, reflective lighting. The staging is a lot more important than the language to me because the pace and transitions in the movement all influence how I need to pace and transition the lights. The lights have to support the movement onstage.
CA: How does light contribute to the storytelling in a play like All My Sons?
MM: The light contributes to the storytelling in All My Sons by helping connect us to who these people are, where they are, and where they’re going. My goal is to add the element that finishes making everything beautiful, beautiful in the sense of correct, appropriate, and elegant. There are moments I can bring in that help the production and the audience connect – a light on in the cellar, for example, can be foreshadowing as well as establishing location and time of day. Lighting can make the last and important step of turning this production into a complete piece of theatre. Scenery can look great, costumes can look great, sound can be great, acting can be great, but if the lighting isn’t bringing it all together, if it doesn’t reinforce the wonderful choices of the rest of the team-those things can all get lost, muddied, or displaced. So I want to be able to take all the work everyone else is doing and give it that final nudge.
MF: When I first read the play I remember really identifying with Chris Keller’s outlook. I myself am terribly idealistic and being so tends to strongly define my perspective at times. Issues can become so polarized that everything appears in pure black or white. I think there’s a sort of starkness to that perspective that elevates the play – to that idealistic realm. It creates the possibility to make a show that focuses more on who we want to become rather than creating a portrait of who we were.
CA: What kind of initial research did you do to get inspiration for your design?
MF: For this production, one of the first images I started with was this watercolor by Wyoming artist Dean Mitchell. In the back you can see other houses and sort of get this sense of encroaching suburbia. The color is subdued and the house is a little off-kilter. I’m reminded of artists like Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. I like the verticality of the farmhouse – this kind of big, monolithic structure out there standing in opposition to the ground. In my mind the house takes on the personality of Joe [Keller].
CA: What kind of architecture did you research for the Kellers’ house?
MF: I really wanted to find that iconic image of American architecture. What I ended up with is kind of an amalgamation of American Foursquare and Gothic Revival. We’d know which for sure if we actually saw the roof, but I really like that we don’t. These houses now – compared to Modern Architecture – are bastions of American character and charm. What’s interesting though is that, at the time, they were being commercially distributed – you could buy houses in the Sears catalog! Something about that resonates with what Miller might be saying here about Modernism – the Keller’s factory, the industrial, the machine of war.
CA: What other aesthetic elements did you want to incorporate into your design?
MF: When I started sketching I was really attracted to the fence. The fence is the thing that we see all the neighbors through and the thing that Joe puts up both to keep others out and to hold his family in. The downstage portion is angled the way it is to make the entire scene feel a bit off-kilter and exciting. I love the straight cut line – an obvious line – like our gaze is slicing their world open. My design makes use of realism to create a sense of texture and weight but it departs from the convention at its edges. It’s ethereal but tangible. With the sky I wanted to create a sense of depth, continuing thought, legacy, or horizon. I also liked the idea of these characters entering the stage in a really two-dimensional way. It’s somehow alarming in its efficient plan for movement with all these strong and straight lines of attack.
Christine Milodragovich on designing costumes for All My Sons
By Production Dramaturg, Cohen Ambrose
Back in October, I sat down with the Costume Designer for Montana Rep’s 2016 National Tour of All My Sons, Christine Milodragovich. I wanted to offer the Rep’s audiences some insights into Christine’s process as a designer, how she approaches a period play, and what her reactions were to Arthur Miller’s classic drama.
CA: How did you begin the design process for All My Sons?
CM: I have done other plays in this same period, so I started throwing things into a file for women’s fashion – anything I saw that captured what I needed to know. I put together a similar file for men, based mostly on advertisements from the period. [Director] Jere [Hodgin] and I looked at all of these files together and bounced ideas off of one another before making any firm decisions.
CA: What were your first reactions to the script?
CM: The first time I read the script, I was distressed by how trapped [the characters] were so I tried to convey some of that entrapment through my costuming choices. For example, in my design for Kate [Keller’s] housedress, the neckline is very high. She is trapped in that dress. It’s not a show that a costume designer can ‘play’ with a whole lot. You’re trying to present real people who lead fairly ordinary lives. There are no overly flamboyant characters – they’re ordinary folks in an extraordinary situation.
CA: What is it like to design for a play of this period?
CM: In terms of the evolution of fashion, a huge amount of change occurred between 1945 and 1950. Women’s clothing changed from the very military look of the war years with broad shoulders, skirts that didn’t use much fabric – utility kinds of clothing – but then in 1947, Christian Dior came out with the New Look, which was a very feminine look with a full skirt, and in some cases a corseted bodice – really fitted and curvy compared to the severe look of the war. [All My Sons is] kind of right in between those, but we can begin to see the loosening of silhouettes. I wanted to find that right mix between the severity of the war and a more feminine attitude for the women. “Fashion is evolution, not revolution,” as the old adage goes, except when some major catastrophe like war intervenes, so here we are in 1947 trying to pick up the pieces from almost a decade earlier, which makes this a very exciting, but subtle period to design for.
Yesterday afternoon, the company of Montana Rep’s 2016 National Touring production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons came together for the first time to read and discuss the play. Sitting around a large rectangle of tables in the stage right wing of the Montana Theatre, just beside the nearly completed set, Scenic Designer Mike Fink and Costume Designer Christine Milodragovich both offered the group some more insight into their designs. Fink was simply able to point at his work standing onstage while he shared some insights into the set’s influences, including the paintings of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. Milodragovich alluded to the costume fittings the actors had been attending all morning in the costume shop. It was Lighting Designer Mike Monsos and Sound Designer Zach Hamersley who gave their initial, and to the rest of us, brand new thoughts about the early beginnings of their work. Monsos shared a bit about using the upstage cyclorama to extend the set out into the sky in order to establish the movement of both the time of day and the movement of the quality, tone, and feeling of the play itself. Hamersley began by explaining that, typically, a script gives a fair amount of insight into the soundscape of a play, but that Miller only specifically notes two sound effects. He cited two main composers that he and Director Jere Hodgin wanted to bring into the production: the quintessentially American composer Aaron Copland, and Polish contemporary jazz pianist and composer Leszek Możdżer.
After the designers gave their presentations, Hodgin asked Assistant Director Joel Shura to read the opening stage directions and the first read through of the play began. First readings are always an exciting, nervous, and telling process. Actors’ various working processes become apparent right away. Some actors come prepared to offer up fairly nuanced and rehearsed portrayals of their interpretation of their character, while others come with a more skeletal and unrehearsed rendition, waiting for an intuitive connection to blossom with the other actors. Either way, Hodgin’s casting choices seemed to click together with a refreshing seamlessness and the first reading produced a wonderful sense of cohesiveness between the actors. In a truncated, two-week rehearsal process like the National Tour, many of the actors had already begun to memorize their lines, but only just enough to stay fresh and open to responding to the work of their collaborators. The reading gave Hodgin an opportunity to get a sense of each actor’s energy – the qualities of their personality, physical, vocal, emotional, and intellectual – that they brought to their character.
As the final lines were read, Shura didn’t bother reading “End of Play” or “Curtain.” Instead, everyone slowly looked up, and a long, silent pause of knowing hung in the air. Glassy eyes gazed around the circle and Mike Boland, the Connecticut-based actor playing the play’s patriarch, Joe Keller, began to slowly give his fellow actors an applause. The whole company joined in and as the applause subsided, Hodgin remarked with a broken voice that if the first reading could be so powerful, he was confident that they would have wonderful production to share with audiences around the country.
After a break, the company returned to discuss some reactions to the play. Hodgin and I gave some dramaturgical, historical, and contextual insights into the script itself, focusing mainly on the play’s social and moral critiques, its structure, and its indebtedness to the influences of Aristotle and the the great Greek playwrights Aristophanes and Sophocles, as well as to Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen. I explained that at the time of the play’s writing, Miller was set on writing a play that “was first of all clear,” and that he revised it over and over until it was “as tight as a drum.” I commented that the play is masterfully structured, like his other great plays, to deliver a sledge-hammer blow at the climax: the car crash at the end of Death of a Salesman, Eddie Carbone’s knife to the gut at the end of A View from the Bridge, when John Proctor tears up his signature of confession at the end of The Crucible, and the fatal gunshot we hear from the cellar at the end of All My Sons are all built on a classic Greek tragic structure. This is tragedy that is built upon the ways in which the characters progress in some way from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge, producing irrevocable feelings between them, and subsequent, inevitable actions leading to either their demise or their rebirth. We marveled at how the play is, what Miller himself called, “a revelation of process,” whereby the play’s events come together “a stitch at a time…in order to weave a tapestry before our eyes.”
Stay tuned and look for more rehearsal blog posts like this one. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for photos, videos, and more.
CA: You are the draper on the Rep’s production of All My Sons. What does a draper do?
SF: The draper is the person who takes the costume designs from the designer and figures out how to make the pattern that will make the garment into a real thing. [Costume designer] Chris [Milodragovich] gave me her designs, which were quite clever actually. They came from these vintage pattern images. However, these are not complete patterns, so I had to figure out how to interpret each pattern and make an actual garment out of them. The really nice thing about using pattern illustrations is that it’s a really easy thing to follow, as opposed to a costume rendering or illustration, which is more about the designer’s emotional responses and telling the story of the character. But by assigning a specific pattern to a character, as the draper, I know that someone has made this pattern into a garment before, so I don’t have to guess. In this case, the communication between the designer and I is a lot simpler because we know what we’re looking at. Because this process has been so clear-cut, I patterned one of the dresses, mocked it up in muslin, we fitted it on the actress, the pattern has now been corrected, and it’s ready to go into final fabric already after only one fitting, which is very rare. Usually, you have to go through two or three incarnations of a pattern before you can go to final fabric, but because Chris was really clear about what she wanted and she was able to give me a really functional illustration, I was able to make quicker, more educated choices. So that’s what the draper does: they say, “Okay, this is what the designer wants, now I’ll make it functional.”
CA: In what ways are you including students in this process?
SF: At the beginning of the semester, I was able to get through all of the builds, but I was optimistic that some of the students would be advanced enough to be responsible for all of the initial fittings, pattern truing, and constructing the final garments. Additionally, it looks like we might have some student volunteers who will also be taking on projects. We’re hiring some advanced costuming students for the production. I’m really excited about seeing what they produce. My little teacher heart-strings are all a-twitter.
CA: Tell me a bit about your costume construction and design background.
SF: I’m primarily a technician. I have a bachelor’s degree in costume design with a focus in costume tech from an interdisciplinary program at Western Washington University. I focused on pattern-making, which is pretty rare. Most undergraduate programs don’t have a pattern-making focus. Then I interned at the American Conservatory Theatre where I was a stitcher. I worked on a whole bunch of touring productions while I was there. I worked in the industry for four years before going to get a postgraduate certification at the London College of Fashion with a focus in industry standard pattern-making, which was more focused on High Street production. Then I worked as a stitcher in Seattle, when I got a position with a company called Teatro ZinZanni, which is a circus company. That was really fun. I was the head pattern-maker for the company there. I worked on a lot of really weird costumes there – a lot of stretchy things with sequins for acrobats. Then I was also teaching in between jobs, which I really loved and realized that I love teaching even more than I love pattern-making so when this job came up, I thought “Oo! I can make patterns and teach all the time,” so I came here. Another interesting fact is that the person who trained me at WWU, got her Master’s here [at UM] and she was trained by Chris.
CA: How do you build a dress for someone who is not present to be fitted?
SF: Well, we hope that the person who took their measurements and sent them to us did a really good job, which is not always the case, and then you use common sense. My fashion background really helps there because in the Rep’s model when you don’t always have immediate access to actors, you have to make standardized sizes for people and you always put in more fabric. Just make it bigger and assume you can take it out. You can always take it out but you can never put it back in. You just trust the measurements and make a choice. I feel okay about it in general because I’ve done it a lot. That’s why we go to school and that’s why we have internships, so we can get good at it. One of the great things about Teatro ZinZanni was that I got to work with the same performers over and over again, getting to know their bodies really well. Luckily, for All My Sons, the fabric is soft, so there’s some wiggle room. Chris wants them to look “soft” and “lived in,” which are her catchphrases for the feel of the costumes. So that gives us a little more room for less precise fittings.
CA: What kind of creative authorship do you have as a costume-builder?
SF: You get to a point where you can tell when a drawing or rendering is going to look wrong or look terrible in reality. Luckily, Chris is really skilled technician as well as a very fine designer, so talking to her is really easy because we already have the same vocabulary. For example, if anyone but Chris had given me this illustration, the problem with this line on this garment is that there is no way that a bust will actually fit in a garment this way. It’s physically impossible for a garment to actually be cut this way. This is a very ‘50s illustration that way. So there has to be a seam that goes over the bustline. But I tried anyway because you never succeed unless you try something. I tried a whole bunch of things to see if I could get it to do that – I cut it on the bias and I tried other things. So that’s the creative part of building costumes: what different techniques can I try to see if I can accomplish the thing? What I always tell my flat-patterning class is that the miracle of pattern-making is that you’re trying to make a flat thing fit a round thing. So, you have to figure out how to make a flat thing round, which is inherently creative.
A conversation with the company of the Rep’s 2015 Montana Educational Outreach Tour
By Cohen Ambrose
A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with the company of Growing Up in Wonderland,the Rep’s 2015 Montana Educational Outreach tour production, written by Dr. Jillian Campana, Head of Performance & Practice area of UM’s School of Theatre & Dance. Three 2015 graduates of the acting program, Hannah Appell (HA), HanaSara Ito (HI), and Sean Kirkpatrick (SK) spent nearly three months touring the state of Montana, visiting schools and communities, offering workshops, discussions, and their production of Growing Up in Wonderland.
CA: What were some of your favorite parts of the tour, overall?
HA: Traveling around Montana and getting to know more of the state was one of the best parts of tour. You go from Missoula all the way to the very Eastern part of Montana – we went to Sidney and Glendive and all the way over there – and it gives you the idea of how big Montana and different it all is. Even though I grew up in Roundup, it was great to experience so much more of the state.
HI: I think it’s great to watch the connections the kids make about the way theatre can help them in their lives – to talk to kids and hear them say, “Oh, I never thought about that,” or “Oh, is that what empathy is?” Most of the teachers would talk to us about the “Aha” moment that kids get why they make connections. And to watch that happen at a new school almost every day is really cool. It’s rewarding to tell a kid, “this is a job and you could do this for a living,” and have them go “What, really, I can do that?” It’s really nice to be able to touch lives like that.
SK: I agree and it was also really cool to meet not just the students, but all the adults that took
us in. Like the people in Sidney. We got done packing up at ten or eleven at night and this woman just invited us to her house and made soup and bread and rice crispy treats, and talked to us about how
they bring in theatre because they don’t have an established theatre group there. So it was cool to realize that, yes, we go to schools, but we’re also bringing live theatre to communities across Montana that otherwise don’t get to experience live theatre very often
CA: What were some of your favorite stops on the tour?
SK: Glasgow was great!
HI: Glasgow was really cool.
SK: We were celebrities in Glasgow.
HI: Yeah, a bunch of people came up to us in the IGA and said, “Good job!”
HA: Glasgow was the first place we went to that really gave us the small-town feel of Montana. No one was afraid to come up and talk to us. It was very “Montana” in its way of welcoming us.
HI: Miles City was great even though the audience was seven people.
SK: Which was cool because, yeah we only had seven people, but they were engaged and wanted to be there. And Ronan was really great because we got to hang out with recent alumna of the School of Theatre & Dance, Tristen Davis, who just got a job teaching there right after graduating from the theatre education program. We got to sit in on a middle school drama class and watch a scene that some of the kids wrote themselves.
HI: Butte was really nice too because we performed at an alternative high school. The students were some of the best we had because they were so helpful, and the workshop was great because they were goofy and having fun, but they were also willing to listen and be serious about Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, and critically think about social issues. Like one kid came up to me – a big kid with a deep voice – and he said, “well, I think this could, like, help me when I get really angry, you know…” That was really cool and the same kind of thing happened at Linderman Education Center in Kalispell – those students were great as well.
CA: What did you learn about yourselves as performers?
SK: I learned how important it is to me to be able to center myself before going onstage because, in this format, most of the time we didn’t have time to do that because we’d have to do a show, pack up the set, drive forever, unpack, do a workshop, put up the set, do the show, etc. and there was not always enough time in between to center myself. Those times
we did have time to center ourselves, though, were the times I performed the best. So I learned how important that time is.
HA: It’s nice to be able to do everything it takes to put on a professional-level show – to have to learn all the aspects of production, rather than just acting. Hana and I, for example, didn’t know anything about lighting before the tour, but now we know a lot about lights. This project helped me grow as a general theatre practitioner.
HI: It’s cool because we’re all primarily trained and experienced as actors, but Hannah is an actor who became a company manager, I am an actor who became a stage manager, and Sean is an actor who became a workshop manager. So it was a great sense of accomplishment to look back and go, “Wow, we did all of that and there’s only three of us!”
CA: What did you learn about yourselves as teachers?
HI: Usually when you teach you have the opportunity to build a relationship. In a workshop you just have 45 minutes, so you have to really gauge the kids and get a sense of what they can handle. We all have different specialties: Sean’s is improv., Hannah and I have a lot of experience with Theatre of the Oppressed, and watching what the kids got out of each of the workshops was really rewarding.
SK: I learned a lot about learning how to connect with students who didn’t necessarily choose to be there. I learned that in order to engage those students, we couldn’t do it as a lecture, they had to be up on their feet and engaged. Everyone is going to be participating.
HI: We learned that side coaching was really important: get them on their feet and talk to them as they’re doing the exercise. Keep them engaged, ask questions, show them examples, show them that we’re willing to do what they’re doing even though it’s 8:45 a.m.
HA: Yeah, that was really important. If we got up and got really over-the-top goofy and ridiculous, then they’d be willing because they’d be like, “Well, I’m not going to look as stupid as you, so I’ll be fine.”
HI: Watching the teachers watch their kids and go, “Where did that come from?” was so fun.
CA: What did you learn about yourselves as collaborators?
SK: We had a good talk around about the first or second week. We had a workshop where all three of us were leading a workshop and we weren’t on the same page about who was leading and what we were doing. So we had a conversation in the car about having one leader per workshop in the future.
HA: We also found that when that one thing cracked in the workshop, it was also cracking onstage, and just relationship-wise. At that point, we got into the truck and I was fuming so I turned to Sean and said, “We have to fix this.” And we did, which was really positive and that translated from the workshops, to the performances, to loading the set in and out.
HI: Yeah, you can’t go into moving big set pieces around with feelings of resentment or someone is going to get hurt.
HA: We also had this fun saying that developed over the tour that went, “You’re right, but I’m not happy about it.” All three of us are know-it-alls. For example, one of us would have an idea about how to make something work better and another one of us would think about it and go, “Well my idea was good, but her idea is better,” and then just have to suck it up and admit it by saying, “You’re right, but I’m not happy about it” and then do their idea because it was better, which helped each of us let go a little and focus on the greater aspects of the experience.
CA: Is there anything else you want to share that I haven’t asked about?
SK: One of the biggest things for me was talking to students during the talk backs who would see that we were doing something that we loved doing for a living. For example, one kid asked us, “What would you say to someone who is chasing their dreams but doesn’t have support from their family?”
HI: Yeah, after one performance, this mom was there with her daughter who wanted to be an actor and she said to her, “See, this is Hannah from Roundup and you could be Amy from Plains!” And I was like, “Ah! Way to go, mom!” Also, there was this kid in one town who came up to us after a performance and said he had a few suggestions about how we could make it better, which we welcomed, and he proceeded to suggest all these ideas straight out of the Tim Burton film version of Alice in Wonderland.
HA: Yeah, but he was very serious about all his suggestions. So we told him that he had great ideas and that he ought to write them down and write his own script, and he was like, “Oh, really, I could do that?”
SK: Yeah, I don’t think the thought had occurred to him that he could write and produce his own play. He was really excited.
HA: There was another girl who we met that talked to us about how much she related to Alice and how she didn’t want to grow up either and that maybe that was why she got picked on a lot. She was very sweet and it was great to see how some kids really related to the story and maybe even learned something about themselves.
A conversation with Jere Lee Hodgin on directing All My Sons
By Cohen Ambrose, Production Dramaturg
A few weeks ago, I sat down with the director of Montana Rep’s 2016 National Tour of All My Sons, Jere Lee Hodgin. I wanted to offer the Rep’s audiences some insights into Jere’s process as a director, how he approaches a classic text by a such a staple of American drama like Arthur Miller, and how he will go about working with the actors when rehearsals begin in early January.
CA: What is the first step you take when you prepare to direct a play?
JH: I always start by identifying the major elements of the play. I begin with the most basic structural devices. What is the incident that begins the conflict of the play? What event occurs that acts as a turning point? And of course, what is the climax of the play? In All My Sons, the inciting incident is when Chris reveals to his Father that he’s going to propose to Ann. That event sets forth all the motion of the play. The point at which the play turns in a direction from which there is no return is more obvious and that’s when [Ann’s] brother George arrives, having just visited their father in prison, with the intent purpose to stop Chris and Ann’s marriage. Like many characters from the Greek tragedies, he comes in with a vengeance. Had he not come in, it would have been a different play, it might have worked out okay, and I think Miller was trying to write a tragedy that was an outgrowth of who we are today and not who we used to be. Joe’s flaw is that he thinks he can get away with his crime. George’s insistence on the truth being told, to right a wrong and avenge his father, is what ultimately leads Joe to the step that he takes at the climax of the play. He cannot live with his own guilt. He has been living through denial, but when he is no longer allowed the luxury of self-denial, he cannot live with the effacement that that’s going to produce in him.
CA: What is your concept for the Montana Rep’s production of All My Sons?
JH: The play is a boxing match. I think Miller adopted a real robust straightforwardness with this play. It is all set in Joe Keller’s backyard. There are no interior or private scenes. Everything is there for the whole community to witness, and so when I began talking with the set designer, I saw that the play is like a boxing match. I wanted there to be a “ring.” The characters have to get into the ring, so to speak. They spar with one another until George shows up and starts throwing blows. It was important that even in the front of the set, there would be a fence – it’s only suggested, but it’s there nevertheless. It’s containment – there’s no escape from this yard. Joe is a brawler. Even when Kate confronts Joe at the end of the play and tries to convince him to face his guilt, they go into the yard, into the empty ring, as it were, with no one else there, and she really takes him down to his knees. Then Chris comes in and reads the letter, which is the total knockout. There’s no recovery for Joe. He cannot get up.
CA: What will you do in the first rehearsals?
JH: Part of what I’ll do in the first days of rehearsal is to determine how the energies of the actors fit together. I’ll be keenly studying the actors and from that, I’ll determine how I want to rehearse the play. I’ll work out a rough rehearsal schedule beforehand based on how the play is structured, but that will be tempered by who the people are. The cast will not meet one another until the first read-through, so I’ll also be watching their reactions to one another. I also like to try to work out what each individual’s rhythm is and how that rhythm can coincide with the character’s rhythm, or what the character’s rhythm is going to be as a result of the actor’s rhythm. For example, Joe Keller is a blue-collar man who has risen above that level, but he’s a hands-on man. Therefore, his energy has to be big enough that he can be in control – how he reads a newspaper will even tell us a lot about his rhythm. Dr. Bayliss is restless, so I want Scoob [Decker] to be forward-moving and quick. I think George [Mason Wagner] has to have a very fast, flailing rhythm. There would be a considered rhythm – no wasted energy or movement for Chris [Colton Swibold]. Chris is grounded. I’m going to work with each actor on activities and their physicality to help them establish and bring out their character’s rhythm.