Monday, December 12, 2011

Director's Note: A Christmas Carol

"A Christmas Carol" is a ghost story. It is a ghost story that reminds us all of the magic of Christmas…but a ghost story, nonetheless.

When I was approached about directing this year's production, I knew I wanted to honor the Christmas tradition Theatre Charlotte has established, which has become a part of so many lives over the past 5 years. At the same time, however, I also wanted to give the audience something a little different. To keep the production fresh and exciting, I wanted to meld tradition and invention… and remind us all that this is a Christmas ghost story.

The invention comes in the form of many new costumes and sounds, and an entirely new set and light design. Chris Timmons' new set plot has allowed for more magic on stage. Our dark moments are darker. Our scary moments are scarier. Hopefully, our happy moments are even happier!

On the first day of rehearsal I asked our cast about their favorite holiday traditions (an idea stolen from previous director, Vito Abate). The answers ranged from the traditional (presents and time with family), to the more unique (Belkie Bears and 104.7). Kevin Campbell, our Scrooge since the first "Christmas Carol" in 2007, proclaimed that his favorite tradition was spending his holiday season at Theatre Charlotte in his favorite role!

As we present our 5th anniversary production of "A Christmas Carol," we hope that spending part of your holidays with Theatre Charlotte has become one of your favorite traditions!
-Stuart Spencer
Director, A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Theatre Charlotte

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Adding More Magic to "A Christmas Carol"

The other day our intern asked me what was different with “A Christmas Carol” this year and apparently word travels because she isn’t the first to ask that question. In a nutshell, the answer is... “much.”

I think the more appropriate question is, “why?” With the same script as last year, why not pull out the set pieces, dust them off and take it easy for a change. Well, I think I have finally found ways to solve some of the problems that have plagued the show in the past. Funny what you can do when you can spend the appropriate amount of time devoted to one production (never mind that this case study was stretched out over three seasons).

At the start of this process, I referred to the previous year’s design which in turn had some modifications from the first year when I was sort of backed into a corner to design the show at the last minute, with no money, the need for levels and little time to develop a clear picture of the show. In trying to modify that design, I soon found that I was complicating the process even further, so the best thing to do was to scrap everything and get back to the basics. What were the most important elements in each scene and how could I make this show transition more smoothly? How can we do a better job of establishing the mood of this play? That isn’t to say that this year’s production will look like a poor man’s “A Christmas Carol,” on the contrary, I think this year will be much more successful artistically and technically.

I don’t want to give a lot away, but let me say a few things about this year technically. At times, there will be more magic in transitioning from one place to another and hopefully more seamless scene changes. There is more attention to detail this year, so while there are a few pieces that will be returning, they have been dressed up a little. With the help of lighting, we will reinforce the mood of the story to create a darker and happier Christmas Carol than we have seen in past productions, maybe dating back to the first year we did “A Christmas Carol” with a different script. However, I would venture to say it was the most successful of the four productions we have done. And did I mention that we hope to showcase our new LED lighting fixtures (thanks to all who donated through Power2Give, you know who you are!)

If you still think you have seen it all in this production, let me conclude by saying that there will be more magic this year. Theatre Charlotte certainly can’t afford to play on the same level as others around here, but we make the most of what we have and you can still create magic by being resourceful and with a little trial and error. Look for a few more “effects” this year that will hopefully leave you wondering about the magic of live theatre, all the while filled with the spirit of the Holiday season.

-Chris Timmons
Set Designer/Lighting Designer, "A Christmas Carol" at Theatre Charlotte

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Theatre Thoughts: The Wells Fargo Wagon is a Comin’

THEATRE THOUGHTS: Notes From the Executive Director

On Saturday, October 29, the cast of Theatre Charlotte’s production of The Music Man reunited to perform 6 songs from the show as the kick off to the Wells Fargo Community Celebration at the ribbon cutting ceremony opening the Wells Fargo Museum. It was remarkable that we were able to bring together 35 of the 41 cast members over a month after the show closed to do this performance. But, it was a tight cast and they were proud of the work they had done and wanted to share it once more.

I had been working with Wells Fargo and Arts and Science Council officials for several months leading up to this, as it was just too perfect for us to lead off the festivities with the song “Wells Fargo Wagon” and the Wells Fargo wagon riding up the street. Originally, the Wells Fargo Community Celebration Day was scheduled for a Saturday in September, smack in the middle of our run of the show. That would have been a great marketing tool for the show as well as for our overall brand. However, Wells Fargo pushed the date back to the end of October. This created some doubt as to whether we’d be able to participate or not. The Wells Fargo team reiterated that they would really like us to perform. So, at the beginning of rehearsals the first week of August, I started getting cast members to commit to the appearance on October 29 and to put it on their calendars then.

The production turned out to be quite good with the members of the cast enjoying the work they were doing together. This made it all the easier for them to keep their early commitment. I made arrangements with the costumer, Jamey Varnadore, to have the costumes cleaned and ready to go for October 29. Ryan Deal, our fabulous music director, and Mike Charlton, the drummer from the show, were also lined up for that day.

We had a scheduled rehearsal for Saturday morning, October 22 with members of the Wells Fargo team on hand to approve the numbers we were going to perform and to time them (these folks were very precise). Only half of those committed to performing could attend this rehearsal. Ryan and I had six songs picked out to rehearse and we would let the Wells Fargo people tell us which they wanted. In addition to “Wells Fargo Wagon,” we sang “Iowa Stubborn,” “Ya Got Trouble,” “Till There Was You,” “Gary Indiana” and “76 Trombones.” The cast members that were there sang beautifully and the Wells Fargo team was so impressed they asked us to do all 6 songs! They said they would work out the timing of the speeches to accommodate the musical numbers.

When I awoke at 5:15 am on October 29, it was pouring rain and was extremely cold and quite windy. I was anxious about whether we would be able to perform outside on Tryon Street. By the time I left at 6:45 am, the rain had stopped, but the wind had picked up and the temperature was in the low 30s (and the cast would be in costumes designed for July 4, 1912 and not two days before Halloween!)

Everyone showed up, got in costume and prepared to rehearse at 8:30. Wells Fargo had a wireless body microphone for all cast members. There were a number of technical glitches, so we never really had a sound check or rehearsal, but the performers were on top of their game. At 9:30 am, my six year old, Chloe, her first time with a body mike—and boy was she excited about that—kicked off the ceremonies with her line, “Papa! The Wells Fargo Wagon is just comin’ up from the depot!” Then the cast began to sing “Wells Fargo Wagon” and as the song neared the end, up galloped the real Wells Fargo Wagon. The cast waved and sang as it approached. The song ended and Mayor Foxx, Kendall Alley and other Wells Fargo officials disembarked and made their way to the podium.

The Mayor welcomed everyone in a short speech and Jay Everette, a Wells Fargo official, began to announce the recipient organizations of $100,000 in grants Wells Fargo customers and employees had voted to receive. As I conferred with Ryan about the upcoming numbers, I heard something to the effect of “and we would like to award $10,000 to Theatre Charlotte.” Well, that was one of the most surprising moments in my tenure as Executive Director! We had not been told ahead of time that we were going to receive this and it came as a complete surprise. And there I was, dressed like a stage hand complete with walkie talkie. Stunned, I made my way to the podium and mumbled to Jay Everette that had I known, I would have dressed differently. He laughed and said it was just fine. We posed for pictures and I floated back to the side of the stage with The Music Man cast. The cast then flawlessly performed the other five songs and the performance was over.

We were treated to a thawing out with hot chocolate and hot cider before we were guided a couple of blocks away to get a group photo taken in front of the Wells Fargo Wagon. And that completed this really rewarding morning and brought The Music Man to a joyous ending!

-Ron Law
Executive Director, Theatre Charlotte

Monday, November 7, 2011

Director's Note: Cuckoo's Nest

Many of us have very fond memories of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. My first introduction was the now-classic film, which I saw the day it opened, without much advanced hype. I was immediately enthralled with its story and acting. Since that time, I was given the chance to direct two productions—both more than twenty years ago. On both those occasions, I steadfastly refused to read the novel, because I reasoned that most of my audience would not have read the book.

This time I have rethought my approach to the material and have returned to Ken Kesey’s masterful novel as my primary source. We have tried with this production to be as faithful to Mr. Kesey’s vision as possible within the confined of the two-act version of the adaptation by Dale Wasserman. The cast has been encouraged to read the novel and have found depth and insight into their characters through the words of the late Mr. Kesey. When possible, we have staged iconic moments, not as they were in the movie, the three-act Broadway original, or the two-act revision, but as they are described in the novel.

We as a cast and production team have enjoyed the journey with Mr. Kesey as our guide. We hope you will also.

-Charles LaBorde
Director, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST at Theatre Charlotte

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Theatre Thoughts: MTA Awards

THEATRE THOUGHTS: Notes From the Executive Director

Awards. Awards for theatre excellence. Competing with other theatres and theatre artists. The Metrolina Theatre Association (MTA) Awards. So easy to dismiss them—until you actually win. Then suddenly you feel a bit like a hypocrite. That was the position I found myself in on Sunday, October 9 at the Metrolina Theatre Awards banquet at the Omni Hotel.

First, some background info for those who are unfamiliar with MTA. MTA represents more than 60 theatre organizations, along with hundreds of theatre artists, directors and producers in the Charlotte region. MTA was established on April 1, 1984. Its mission is to advance member participation through technological innovation, strengthen arts awareness in the community by creating new ways to engage the public and be a strong advocate of the performing arts. Whew. Anyway, one of the ways of helping create arts awareness is the awards process and ceremony. But, I always thought, “Awards? Who’s going to care the day after the ceremony? And competing with one’s peers? Not such a good thing.”

Anyway, The Metrolina Theatre Awards recognize outstanding performances and creative elements in 8 categories - Drama, Comedy, Musical, Regional–North, Regional–South, College/University, and Special Event. The Metrolina Theatre Association organizes more than 80 peer nominators; for the 2010-2011 season, MTA nominators attended 105 adjudicated shows, submitting thousands of nominations. They then completed a preliminary ballot to select the award nominees. The final vote was certified by an independent accountant.

The 2010-2011 Theatre Charlotte season was outstanding, both in terms of revenue and artistic quality. It was the finest in my six years as Executive Director and most likely one of the most successful in Theatre Charlotte’s 83 years. It included ANNIE, STEEL MAGNOLIAS, THE GRADUATE, THE GLASS MENAGERIE and RENT, with bonus productions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR. There was excellent work done by many actors, directors, designers and stage managers. For this work we received over 40 nominations in various categories, including about 10 for our outstanding production of RENT.

In spite of my outward cavalier attitude about awards, I went to the ceremony baffled about certain nominations and the lack thereof, but feeling excited about the chances of some of our nominees. The event itself proved to be a lot of fun. I enjoyed the ambience of the hotel ballroom. I liked being able to socialize with so many area theatre people. Then the awards ceremony began. As the final awards—the MTA Exceptional Awards for Technical Excellence, Emerging Artist of the Year, Theatre Person of the Year and Theatre Company of the Year—approached, I was actually excited about what Theatre Charlotte’s participants had won. Chaz Pofahl, Outstanding Actor in a musical for RENT, Billy Ensley for his direction of RENT, John Hartness for his lighting design of RENT and Ryan Deal for musical direction of RENT, were deserving of the awards, as were Laura Moore, Vito Abate and Marla Brown for their original writing for special events and Ann Israel and Laura Moore for performances in special events. Then the announcement of Outstanding Musical. I expected it to be RENT and it wasn’t. I was surprised at how badly I felt at that moment, considering how much I tried to convince myself awards didn’t really matter. I was not unhappy for the winners, but felt badly for all those connected with our excellent production of RENT.

The presentation of the Exceptional Awards began. It was now time for the Theatre Company of the Year Award and Theatre Charlotte was a nominee (as we had been a handful of other times during my tenure as Executive Director and had never been selected.) After the disappointment of RENT not getting the award, I was not feeling positive about being selected as Theatre Company of the Year. The nominees were announced and the envelope opened and… Theatre Company of the Year…Theatre Charlotte! I have to admit, a jolt of adrenaline surged through me and I bolted from my chair. I don’t remember what I said exactly. I thanked all the appropriate people. And then Michelle Gutt, the Theatre Charlotte Board President and I posed for pictures with the Theatre Charlotte award.

To sum it all up, I am still not totally sold on this awards business, but, I do have to admit, when you win one, it is pretty damn exciting.

-Ron Law Executive Director, Theatre Charlotte

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Theatre Thoughts: Play Selection

THEATRE THOUGHTS: Notes From the Executive Director

Play selection. One of the most important things a theatre does. It is an incredibly time-consuming, yet incredibly engrossing process. At Theatre Charlotte, we pick plays to meet the following criteria: fulfill the theatre’s mission and vision; attract not only audiences, but talented performers, as well; to physically fit our facility; meet budgetary requirements; and not be a recent duplication. Oh, and something else that has become increasingly challenging—being able to secure the rights to produce the show.

At Theatre Charlotte, I am responsible for the selection of plays and musicals to present to the Board of Directors for final approval. Each summer I recruit an advisory committee made up of theatre practitioners, theatre-goers and several board members. In the spring, we survey our patrons and ask them for show preferences. We pay close attention to the opinions of our audience members. After analyzing the survey results, checking the Theatre Charlotte list of productions over the past ten years and checking to see if other theatres have done any of the shows recently, I prepare a list of some 75 musicals, comedies and dramas and send it to the advisory committee for their initial feedback. This feedback usually reduces the list to around 50.

I prepare copies of these scripts for members of the advisory committee to read upon request. I also gather CDs of the musicals for distribution. I begin checking with other theatres in the area to see what might be on their lists. And I receive more feedback from the advisors. By now, the list is down to around 30. This is when I begin to put combinations of possible seasons together. Should this be an opening musical or one that closes the season? Should this be in the traditionally tough October slot or perhaps in March? Is there enough visual diversity in this grouping? How many male actors are in this combination, how many females? What strong roles for men are there? For women? Racial and ethnic diversity? This process reduces the total to around 15 to 20.

Then I begin to see if the rights can be obtained to produce these shows. This has become a very complicated process over the past couple of years—for several reasons. First of all, there are so many revivals on Broadway—and revivals of shows that are traditionally the mainstays of community theatres.
When these shows go on tour, it becomes quite difficult to get the tour producers to release the performing rights. And to top it off, Charlotte has become an “A” list city for these tours. We totally applaud the NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Broadway Lights Series for their success over the past few years—it enables all of us to see high quality productions without having to wait for several years for a tour to come through—but, it does make it difficult to secure the performance rights for some shows.

So far, in putting together FY13 (2012-2013 season), we have been denied the rights to CHICAGO, HAIR, DRIVING MISS DAISY, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. We were denied the first three because of tours and the latter due to a Broadway revival and probable tour. We produced ANNIE this past season after trying for two years to get the rights. After being denied this season, it is therefore imperative that we have a list of back-ups for each slot in the coming season.

We now have put together quite a strong season for 2012-2013 to present to the Theatre Charlotte Board of Directors. Stay tuned for a future announcement of the next season!

-Ron Law, Executive Director of Theatre Charlotte

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Cuckoo's Nest: A Set Design

It’s hard to think of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and not think of a sterile, white hospital setting with patients dressed in white uniforms roaming about the premises. There is a certain comfort in reproducing what people “remember” from a movie or a previous production of the same play, but what is the fun in that?

When Cuckoo’s Nest was officially on the schedule, I knew that we could do something a little more visually interesting with this show. It wasn’t until reading the novel that the first real sparks, so to speak, began. To be honest, I struggled at times to get through the book and wasn’t very fond of it. However, what struck me was one of the hospital’s patients’ descriptions of this machine that was holding him and others captive, while molding them into what society has accepted as normal. His senses overcome by the sound of electricity surging through the walls and the cog wheels grinding and turning. The idea of this giant machine is what I was looking for.

I will have more about the design and also examples of research in the lobby during the run of the show, so I won’t go into details here. I will say that it has been fascinating to research the early years of these giant hospitals and the treatments for the mentally ill (and sometimes not so mentally ill). One doctor took felt that the buildings themselves played a key role in the treatment of patients. Dr. Thomas Kirkbridge documented in great detail how hospitals for the mentally ill should be designed and constructed, from choosing the right spot of land, to the exact dimensions of the windows and doors. Some hospitals built in the Kirkbridge style still stand today, although many have been destroyed or become the subject of ghost hunters and photographers of the macabre.

My assistant, Emily Mazelin, and I have talked extensively about incorporating into the set design, the machine that the patient refers to and elements of these Kirkbridge buildings. The challenge is not only space, time and money, but also staying true to the integrity of the script and subject matter. If we have done our job, the scenery will play together with the lights and the sound, supporting the action on stage while giving the audience a little more to digest beyond white, sterile hospital walls.

-Chris Timmons
Set Designer, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST at Theatre Charlotte

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Final 'Music Man' Musings

I found the entire process of pre-production, casting, rehearsing and performing THE MUSIC MAN to be incredibly rewarding, satisfying and just plain fun. I entered the process somewhat dubiously. I was to be working with a set designer that I had never worked with before (and one who was relatively inexperienced), I had a “minor” heart attack two weeks before auditions, we were going to be delayed in getting on stage to rehearse and to build the set due to the installation of a new rigging system, and suddenly the task of mounting the show seemed huge and daunting. I started worrying (even thought I assured my doctor that I could easily manage my stress level) that we wouldn’t have enough people audition and certainly no one to play the leads. The choreographer, Lisa Blanton, costumer, Jamey Varnadore and music director, Ryan Deal, all worked hard to keep me calm and assured me that we would be able to put together a talented cast.

Well, it turns out they were correct. We had 109 people audition for the show and were able to assemble an outstanding cast (see previous blogs). Not only were the people we cast talented, they turned out to be wonderful, disciplined, dedicated and hard-working. And man, could they sing! And dance (and those that weren’t dancers could move well and worked hard enough so that we didn’t have to eliminate dance sequences from the production numbers)! This tremendous group of folks made my 75th production as director an exhilarating experience.

Rebecca Primm, the previously mentioned set designer, was also terrific to work with—after some minor communication “burps.” She fully bought into my deconstruction concept and designed a wonderful sparse set that nicely outlined the necessary parts of River City, Iowa called for in the script. We decided that we would focus on the people of the town that Meredith Willson patterned after real people from his life in Iowa. With 41 people in the cast and very little backstage space, we didn’t have room for a lot of scenery anyway. I found it amusing that one local reviewer has several times referred to the “budget strapped” set! Ha! Not even the case. It was a conceptual choice and one that is utilized even on Broadway these days. And it is a concept that truly worked for this production in many ways, including fast and efficient scene changes. This put a lot of pressure on the costumer, as the pop of color had to come from the costumes. But, Jamey Varnadore rose to the occasion, providing brilliant, colorful 1912 costumes—for the cast of 41, many of whom had multiple costume changes!

Some thoughts about Lisa Blanton and Ryan Deal. This was the 4th show that Lisa and I have collaborated on. We are now like an old married couple who can finish each other’s sentences. We have no turf issues—if she sees something in the staging or acting, she is comfortable in commenting and likewise, I comment about the dancing! As for Ryan Deal, he is the best music director/vocal coach in this area. He can work magic with the vocal dynamics of an ensemble. They are both fabulous talents and nice people.

The performances were quite consistent in quality, particularly with the addition of audience feedback to the equation. The timing and precision of line-delivery, the energy and vitality of the performers and commitment to the material were solid for every single performance. We did have one interesting performance on the Friday of the closing weekend. The dimmer pack fueling the lighting for the show became temperamental and the lights began to go off and on and off and on with the blackouts happening faster and faster and the blackouts lasting longer. Stagehands had an electric fan blowing on it, cast members flapped their skirts at it and I waved a production photo at it—all in vain attempts to cool it down. Finally, I stopped the show, explained the situation to the audience, asked their indulgence and we continued the show with the work lights. And that night, at the conclusion of the curtain call (and following a standing ovation), Bobby Mauney (Harold Hill) had the audience sit down for an “important announcement.” The boyfriend of Kristin Graf (Ethel Toffelmeier) came onstage, took her out of the ensemble, got down on bended knee and asked her to marry him. She said yes and the audience again stood and cheered. The magic of the theatre experience!

I loved the whole damn process! (Plus, ticket revenue put the show in the top 4 highest grossing Theatre Charlotte shows—bonus!!!!)

-Ron Law
Director, The Music Man