March 11, 2010

Cedar Falls, IA and Our Adventure in Brainerd, MN

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 7:10 pm

I’m a little behind. Here’s a wrap-up of our last two venues from earlier this week.

Cedar Falls

I barely remember Cedar Falls, which is weird because we were only there three or four days ago. What I do remember was our hotel, a Holiday Inn with an indoor atrium containing a pool and an arcade. The day we arrived there was some kind of convention. I think it was the Society for the Promotion of Screaming Running Children and Drunken Parents, but I might be mistaken. Anyway, the rooms had full-wall windows facing directly onto the atrium (mine formed one wall of the arcade) which didn’t quite get completely covered by the curtains, and the beds were closest to the window. So it was very noisy and a bit concerning to one’s privacy.

In comparison to the hotel, the venue (at the University of Northern Iowa) was a breeze. It was a very large theatre (1,600 seats) with the most amazing acoustics we’ve ever encountered. A little too amazing at times, as from my calling position in the down-left corner, I had to be really quiet because my calls could be heard onstage. It was a really beautiful and convenient space. The most unusual thing about it was that for our student matinee they had a big projection screen that flew in, on which they projected excerpts from the show and R&J trivia while the kids filed in and waited for the show to start.

Brainerd, MN

TRIVIA: Brainerd is one of the settings of the movie Fargo (it’s where most of the murders take place, and where the infamous woodchipper scene happens). This was one of those venues where we saw nothing outside the parking lot of the venue, so I don’t have any fun stories about that.

This one was an adventure, but one with a happy ending. When we arrived at 8AM for our load-in, there was no crew. By maybe 8:15 or 8:30 we had found somebody to let us in, and we had one crew member, Josh. Josh, while a big strong guy, was not quite capable of replacing the 15 people our tech rider requires. Without knowing what we were dealing with, we couldn’t even begin to start loading in. Some people were assembled from every corner of the college, but we didn’t have many (any?) people who could work the whole day — most could only work for an hour or two at a time between classes and other things. After some phone calls to the office, we determined that we would do the show somehow, though we definitely wouldn’t have time to attempt to put up the whole set.

Last year, you may recall, we performed Henry V twice without the set. On those occasions we did it on purpose, in venues that were simply too small to fit it. We also knew in advance that we would have to do the show that way, and weeks of planning went into it. It also required about five hours of rehearsal. Eleven hours before the show, we had no plan for how to do R&J on a bare stage, aside from our one-hour version, which could be adapted into the full version, but not without much rehearsal.

I’m going to talk at length about our decision-making process, because while I hope it’s a decision nobody else ever has to make, things do happen on the road and one of the most difficult and most important things about touring is being faced with a situation that looks impossible at first glance, and figuring out how to put on the best show possible.

At first we were kind of stumped. We sat on the bus and tried to brainstorm. The fact that it was 8AM probably didn’t help our minds to work any faster. We had several options immediately, none of which we really liked:

  • we could do the regular show on a bare stage, which would require a very long, probably painful rehearsal
  • we had the one-hour show ready to go, but people have paid to see the whole show, and it seemed like a cop-out
  • we could do the full show with costumes, but using the one-hour staging, but there are some significant differences between the two shows, which would have to be carefully worked out

One thing that we kept hitting upon was that the show can stand well on its own, but the one thing that Romeo and Juliet really requires, that audiences expect to see, is a balcony. Somehow we had to create a balcony, even if it was low to the ground. Jason, our wardrobe supervisor, I think had the idea of using one of our balcony pieces on its travel wheels (the balcony and the stair landing each have four giant casters with brakes that slide into the bottom corners so they can be wheeled for travel). That was the best idea we had so far.

In order to know what we had to work with, here’s a picture of our set as it normally is:

The staff was just arriving at the New York office (at 9AM their time) when we began our ordeal, but once we were able to fill them in on what was happening we began working amongst ourselves to decide what exactly to do. The first step was to call Corey, who is the staff director, and responsible for the artistic decisions on the road. I filled him in on the very quick-and-dirty version of what was going on — that we couldn’t put up the whole set and we had to decide what we could do, and it would probably involve a lengthy emergency rehearsal. Corey immediately began arranging for a cab to get to the theatre.

While he was en route, the rest of us continued racking our brains for a good solution. Bobby continued assessing how much we might be able to accomplish, as more workers showed up. We played off the idea of using the balcony landing on its wheels as the only real set element, but Bobby offered to put up the whole balcony.

“You could do the walls, and the platforms and the escape stairs?” I asked.


Now we had something that was functional. Somebody else, maybe Olivia, chimed in, “that would also give us the hobbit hole.” The hobbit hole is the tiny door under the stairs, that’s part of the same wall set that the balcony door is in. Having both the balcony entrance and the hobbit hole would give us most of the distinct areas that exist in the show and help to distinguish the setting for each scene.

With the two farthest stage-left walls in place, the only other entrance we needed was the up-right door, which ideally requires access from upstage center. There was some miscellaneous masking hung, and I concocted a scheme whereby we took one of the curtains and essentially used it to form the rest of the wall between the balcony and the stage-left side of the up-right door, thus giving us an entrance that was identical in function, although it would not be enclosed on the stage-right side. Upstage of it would be a black traveler, which would mask the escape stairs. Because the “wall” curtain wasn’t angled like the set is, the offstage space was a little narrower, but the lack of physical walls upstage actually gave us more space because the area under the escape stairs was open for prop storage, quickchanges and passage by actors and crew.

As we were finalizing this plan, Corey arrived. We proposed our solution, and he agreed it seemed like a very good idea. My favorite part of it was that it didn’t change the blocking at all. Once the actors were introduced to the concept of “this curtain = this wall,” they could go about their business as usual. Corey and I agreed no rehearsal was necessary, and by the time he left had scaled back our estimate of bringing the cast in an hour early, to 15 minutes early. If all went well with the installation, it literally changed nothing.

The set construction went well, as did lighting focus, thanks to the cool drivable Genie they had, which Devon drove around like a kid in a Toys R Us commercial. The main problems we had to solve involved the fact that the proscenium is only 13′ high, and the drops are correspondingly short. Our set is 18′ high, which creates a problem: the drops don’t reach the floor before the pipe hits the set. By like, a lot. Like three feet. So we took some spare legs and pinned them to the bottom of the legs that were there, to extend the length of the downstage “wall” masking, and used some black fabric we bought for the New York run to do the same for the upstage traveler. It wasn’t as pretty as if they had been a single piece of fabric, but under stage lights they looked pretty nice.

We had one gap up-right where the side masking didn’t quite meet up with the upstage traveler, but it was better than some venues we’ve played. Unfortunately that was the side the dressing rooms were on, so cast, crew and dressers were going to be crossing through the gap all the time. We were brainstorming how we could build a flat out of our unused pieces when the venue staff offered to paint one of their stock flats black for us. Problem solved! They also built a very nice railing for us for the downstage side of our escape stairs, which normally don’t need a railing because there’s a wall. I was determined that we had to have some kind of makeshift railing at least on the upper half of the stairs, even if it was made out of spare pipes and cheeseboroughs, but what we got was much more sturdy and appropriate than I had hoped for.

In the late afternoon, when the set and masking were finished, I took this picture and sent it to the cast and Corey, with a basic explanation of how it worked, so they could begin to get used to the idea.

When the cast arrived they were great sports about it. Ray (Friar Laurence) saw that “his” side of the stage, including his favorite offstage chair upstage of the hobbit hole, were completely intact, and decided that as long as that was the case, all was well!

Christine (Lady Capulet), however, is a little more attached to the stage right wall of the set, which often represents the Capulet house, and lamented that somebody had burned her poor house down!

It took very little explanation for them to get used to the idea of the set, and nobody had any concerns to raise about things that wouldn’t be possible with it. Every time we arrive at a venue we do a walkaround right before fight call, where we quickly sketch out the parameters of how the show functions in the venue: which wings are dead, which have hazards like floor-mounted lights or cables, we confirm which wing Tybalt’s body goes off into, and where Fred the Platform (we have recently learned his Equity name is Frederick von Bedthoven) lives offstage. The boundaries of all the pieces of the set are drawn in paint pen on the marley, so I pointed out to the cast that they could look down and see these marks if it helped them with spacing. The process took a few minutes longer, but the cast is used to having to adapt somewhat for every space, and there are alternate plans in place for a lot of things, that we already have a shorthand for (i.e. “we’re using Guthrie masking,” “Fred is onstage similar to the Baruch position”).

And here’s a picture of the set under lights:

The happy ending to the story was that not only was the 284-seat theatre sold out, but they were turning people away at the doors, and crammed every last person they could into every empty seat that was unclaimed at curtain time. When that kind of thing happens, the lucky ticketholders see the commotion at the box office and tend to get really excited about the show they’re about to see. They really enjoyed the show, and were a more vocal audience than we’ve had lately. At intermission I was told that about 80% of the audience had never seen Shakespeare performed before, which was amazing to me given that they were following the show so well. At the end of the show we got a full standing ovation, which has only happened once before. So we left having had a great time, and clearly still were able to educate and entertain our audience.

1 Comment »

  1. […] our Adventure in Brainerd, we moved on to Hartford, WI, where we enjoyed hotel rooms and a day […]

    Pingback by Hartford, WI « HeadsetChatter Blog — March 13, 2010 @ 2:33 am

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