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.
Click HERE to download a PDF of the Audience Resource Booklet for All My Sons, prepared by Production Dramaturg Cohen Ambrose. An accessible eBook will be available soon for download to e-readers, Kindles, and devices.
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.