There's more to theatre than mainstage

There's more to theatre than mainstage
The cast of "bare"
The cast of "bare" in rehearsal. (l-r) William Dunn, Shannon Kraemer, Maria Reed, Ian Turnwald, Stefanie Sambrano, David Bashaw, Stephanie Gettings.

At OU, not every theatre student is involved in the program’s five annual mainstage shows, but they all have the opportunity to work on at least one production every semester, by participating in a Second Stage production. Performers, designers and technicians can be hands-on even in their first semester, which is not always the case in a larger, less student-centered program.

By November and December the work is done and the students are ready. The show the public sees may not be as complex as a mainstage production, but the faculty never loses sight of the fact that presenting before an audience is essential to our students’ growth as artists. However, these productions are about more than stage time. Working on a Second Stage show has specific educational benefits that allow students to develop their skills.

This semester, our students are working on a diverse range of theatrical experiences. On November 12 and 13, a group of BFA musical theatre majors will present an offering of songs from the twentieth century American Songbook Fred Love, who heads up the musical theatre program, believes these “standards” are an expression of the American identity. Admission to these presentations is free.

The students in Company Class, offered every semester, are working on a play a world away from ours in tone and time, and yet the characters are forced to question their religious, philosophical and moral beliefs just as we are when drama strikes our own lives. Visiting professor of theatre David Gram is working with his students on ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford's seventeenth century macabre revenge tragedy about forbidden love.

Gram has freshmen and sophomores in the class, with everyone assigned an acting role, but also allocated to a production committee with responsibility for one of seven aspects of the show. Each student is working on scenic, lighting, sound or costume design; props and special effects; marketing; or stage managing the show. The aim is for the students to take ownership of the production and start to discover and develop skills that will allow them to take control of their careers. Gram believes that today more than ever, actors may need to self-produce a show, or even start their own theatre company.

In a mainstage production, actors might research their own characters, but a dramaturg would do much of the preliminary work on language, historical and cultural background, and other necessary research. Gram said in Company Class he shifts the focus by introducing dramaturgical methods and having the students apply them to the play’s background. It’s preparatory work to develop skills outside of performance, just as the production assignments are.

‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore will be presented on November 14, 15, 16 and 19, with the audience asked to pay what they wish at the door.

There are also two classes working on Second Stage musicals. One will present bare: a pop opera on November 28 and 29. It’s an emotionally charged story about a group of teens wrestling with issues of identity, sexuality and religion, and features a pulsating rock score.

Ian Turnwald, a senior musical theatre major, is working on bare, and since he also played a lead role in the mainstage show The Scarlet Pimpernel this semester, he’s in a perfect position to consider the differences.

“In a Second Stage production students get a chance to experience new things,” he said. “[in bare] We have scenes that are student choreographed, scenes that are student directed and we have a student lighting designer.” Theatre instructor Don Brewer, who is teaching the class, asked students what they aspire to do in the future and assigned them matching tasks.

Turnwald asked to work on publicity. He’s done different things over the years and he thinks that’s essential. “I believe that to have real respect for what everyone does, you have to do it.” For a previous second stage show he worked on projections. “Finding the right images that reflect the right time of day is so hard. Figuring out how to change the images with filters took so long. Through these experiences you definitely learn to have respect for what everyone does.”

There are aspects of production Turnwald thinks he could never do, like choreography, but he loves to watch those who can do that work. “You can see they have pride in what they have created. You can see people feel ‘this is mine’ and their possession of the work makes it better.”

Turnwald thinks the Second Stage productions are wonderful. “The performances are just as good [as a mainstage production]. We spend a lot of time on character, rehearsing how to move and how we sound.” The actors are able to do this because the production uses scaffolding and projections. “We are not going to be waiting on scenery,” said Turnwald, “because we have that already set. It’s a little less intricate, but you will get the same performance quality. We take out the fluff but we keep all the stuff!”

On December 4 and 5, the class that is working on the musical Alice will present their end of semester production. The show is “liberally adapted” from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. It has a soaring score which sets the stage for a richly dense comedy about finding inner strength and happiness amidst the chaos.

Junior musical theatre major Olivia Ursu is playing Alice. She worked on the Second Stage show The Theory of Relativity with Associate Professor Fred Love last year and it was such a great learning experience she decided to take the class again. “The production is a group effort,” she said. “The students help brainstorm how we want to flesh out the show: why are we telling this story and how should we tell this story?” Both the shows she’s worked on in class are new works which leaves them open for interpretation.

This version of Alice is set in today’s world with music that is kind of “Disney meets Sondheim” according to Ursu, though not Disney enough for children! The action is set in a dreamscape that’s created by projections which Ursu is responsible for. She brought three ideas to her classmates and together they refined the idea that made most sense to the group.

This team building aspect of the work is important to Ursu. “The Second Stage shows are not so grand,” she said, “but it’s cool to go in and see fellow classmates in the opposite class. When I go in to see bare, I’m going to know how much work they put into it and how connected they are to that story.”

A Directing 2 Class is running this semester, which David Gram is teaching. Each of the five enrolled theatre students is working on the interpretation, casting, staging and rehearsing of a one-act play to be presented on December 2 and 3. The students start by working through the beginning of this process with a completely different play chosen by Gram. They discuss the world and language of that play, its themes and metaphors, before they begin to interpret and assess their own. And once they begin rehearsals, they bring back issues and problems to discuss in class. The emphasis is very much on process for the directing students, but for the volunteer actors who successfully audition for the five plays, it’s another opportunity for stage time and performance experience, and they are happy to cram the last minute rehearsals into their schedules.

Juniors and seniors have opportunities for independent study leading to performance. This semester Professor Karen Sheridan has students working on a three-character play.

Technology and design students have opportunities to work on productions outside the theatre schedule, sometimes alongside a faculty member and eventually undertaking a project of their own. This semester they will contribute to the performances by Oakland Dance Theatre and Opera Workshop, both in early December, as well as the Second Stage shows.

For theatre students, stage time is the key to building confidence in their own abilities. For tech and design students, the opportunity to work on real projects offers the same benefits. There is no substitute for real life experiences and there are lots of them available in the OU theatre program.