A 5-6-7-8

Alexis Kreusch
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After dancing for a total of fifteen years, I finally got to experience the Broadway dance style. I have always wanted the experience but have never been able to try it until our trip to Stratford, Canada. One of our workshops was a singing and dance workshop working with two of the professional dancers from both Guys and Dolls and HMS Pinafore, Devon Brown and Nicholas Nesbitt. 

Our group had seen Guys and Dolls and HMS Pinafore before the workshop and had high hopes of what to expect. We instantly recognized Devon Brown as the dancer who stole the dance numbers with his amazing solos and tricks. I was so excited to meet him and ask questions of the theater world through the eyes of a dancer. 

The guys decided to teach us the choreography to the ending of the song Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat sang by Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Steve Ross. They picked this dance because it repeated a lot. However, it was very fast paced. I learned that this show choreographer preferred to teach movements to words rather then counts or beats which really can make a number amazing. 

The guys were so nice and patient with our group and went over steps again and again until everyone felt comfortable with the motions. We even learned the words and tried to say them ourselves but with concentrating on the next step usually forgot. The time came to try with music and we thought we were ready but the music was from a past production of Guys and Dolls and much faster then the current pace of the song. 
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We attempted and muddled our way through the crazy fast music not knowing when to start and occasionally forgetting whats next, but that is not what matters. Dance to me is joy of moving one’s body and feeling freedom from it. I got that chance I always wanted and enjoyed every moment of it. 
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You Can’t Miss It

 

          Theatre is an art form that only exists in the moment. While scripts, costumes, props, and playbills might live on in an archive, it is the performance that exists solely in the time between curtain calls. That is what makes it so captivating. Theatre is composed of fleeting and exclusive moments. What an audience will not see is the wealth of work and artistry that comes outside of the performance. Thousands of hours of costume design, property design, lighting work, set construction, choreography, rehearsal and much more. This is the world mostly hidden from the audience, they will only see the fruit of their labor for a limited time. This is what I was most excited to discover while visiting the Stratford Festival.

            While the world-class classical acting is the first thing you might notice in a Stratford production, those working behind the scenes match or sometimes even surpass the talent of their onstage counterparts. The festival handcrafts new costumes for every single show in each season. The craftsmen who design and sew these costumes are among the best that can be found in the world of theatre. Starting out as simple sketches, it is their jobs to bring iconic characters to life through their wardrobes. Speed, as well as craftsmanship, is an essential skill for these artists. As a final test of will for aspiring Stratford costume designers, they are given a full six hours of sewing and crafting work. Then they are told they have just four hours to complete their task. The pressure of world-class theatre applies to everyone involved. Those in the properties department are uniquely talented, as well. The name of the game in prop design in creative solutions with limited resources. Those with an uncanny knack for thinking outside the box are often the most successful. Vitally important props might be created with pool noodles, coffee table legs, and pacifiers. Designers are complimented by some of the most professional and experienced directors, choreographers, technical producers, and scholars in the business. So next time you see a show, take the time to appreciate the brilliant artistry that exists in and around the show’s production. You can’t miss it.

-Andrew Puthoff

Horses, and Other Gifts Not to Look in the Mouth

Esther Sorg

In the Archives of the Stratford Theatre, unexpected treasures can be found. Expected treasures, too, of course, but treasures unlooked for are often the most delightful. The warehouse of the Archives contains a veritable library of costumes, props, set designs, scripts, recordings of performances, and a surprising number of horses.

Here’s one of them, a carousel horse from the 2015 Stratford production of Carousel.

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She’s lovely, as if crystal were caught in a canter, but made out of mere plastic. Many of the props in Stratford shows are made out of material you could find at a dollar store. The props department has the incredible task of creating glorious props out of humble origins.

More horses! These two stand in the Desmond Healey exhibit, bedecked in horse blankets that cover their metal frames. They were jousting horses for Richard III in 1979, later returning to the stage in 2011 for Camelot.

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The Archive director is a Scotswoman named Liza Giffen. She is tall and funny and intelligent and I want to be her when I grow up. She told us in our tour that the huge horse head and torso in the downstairs exhibit is only on the first floor because it’s too big to fit up the stairs.

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Isn’t he magnificent? He’s from a 2002 production of The Two Noble Kinsman. His fierce mien allows him to stand out in the crowd, head and shoulders above the rest.

Dr. LaPerle was kind enough to model this horse’s head for me as we waited for our tour of the Costume Warehouse.

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That horse head shares a space with a horse made of straw, though calling it a strawhorse may be a bit harsh. It’s a costume, meant to be worn by an actor, but now it rests high on a shelf above an alligator, surveying this small, close introductory room with a kindly air of age and warmth.

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The straw horse’s opposite can be found amongst the racks of costumes:

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This dead-eyed rocking horse, unlabeled and uncannily, rests (as much as it possibly can be restful) in a row of lightly-used furniture. Our tour guide didn’t know where it came from. We could not find a tag. It might have been in Peter Pan. Perhaps Liza knows, but I didn’t think to ask until it was too late.

Liza worked in the UK until three years ago, when she moved to Stratford to accept the position of Archive Director at the Stratford Theater Company. In the UK, she worked in business and publishing house archives, dabbling in every possible genre of her craft. She talked about the Archive like some people talk about church. Like it’s a sacred place. A library of memory. She’s from a town in Scotland between Glasgow and Edinburgh, called Falkirk. She says it’s a terrible place, and I suppose she would know. The horses in the archives probably don’t faze her.

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This one is from a 1997 Camelot production. It is very similar to the Richard III horses. It has a mechanism called a hydraulic break attached to its post. This suctions to the floor and holds the horse in place on stage so it won’t slide all over while it’s supposed to be standing at attention.

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And this horse is another Carousel retiree, though it came from a 1997 production. The differences between the two almost mirror the differences in style and costume that the actors and production designers go through with every new imagining of a play. A show can change drastically over time, and the Archives have a record of that, too. It’s like a snake, shedding its skin, according to Liza, and the Archivist must come along behind and pick up that skin, and preserve it, and keep it in a little library next to all the other snake skins. This metaphor was less creepy when Liza was using it.

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I think we all took away something from the Archives. Some came for paper, for memories of ink and parchment. Some came for costumes, for cloth on their skin and lace itching their throats. I came with no expectations other than to find something incredible, and I found eight horses hiding in the haystack, and the woman who keeps them all company.

What’s in a suit?

Dylan Freeman

Full disclosure here: I love costumes. Everything from the dollar-store Halloween masks that you can barely breathe in to professionally-crafted armor seen in Hollywood blockbusters. There’s an allure to being able to put on some new clothing  and become a different person entirely, and as such, it was a joy to visit the costume warehouse on this trip.

The costumes and props present in Stratford’s warehouse align well with Tom Patterson’s philosophy of having the best of theater will bring out the best in actors. The majority of what was seen in the warehouse were props, and while they pass muster with the audience, they fare worse up close, as seen with the food below; the liquids in glasses become clearly painted on, seams in paper are seen on candy, and adornments on trophies become spoons.

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The costumes themselves are a different matter entirely. Half of the warehouse is rows upon rows of costumes, hung up on racks, organized by what era they’re meant to represent, from antiquity to Elizabethan to more modern times. The quality of the costumes reflects Tom Patterson’s philosophy of the best actors in the world will come as a result of the best facilities, which includes the best costumes.

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What I looked forward to most in the tour, however, was the opportunity to actually wear some of the costumes (or replicas of said costumes). The very first play I saw at Stratford was a production of Camelot, and at the beginning of the tour, our guide informed us that most of the costumes from that production had been sold, save for a cloak worn by King Arthur. I was given the opportunity to wear this cloak, and the photograph speaks for itself.

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Camelot was easily one of the best productions I’ve seen at Stratford, and being able to wear something from it was an amazing experience. Part of me wishes that they had kept Merlin’s robes from it as opposed to simply the King’s Cloak, but overall, just being able to see the hundreds of costumes felt amazing.

 

Dress Up and Coffins

Rachel Hampton

As a very fashion-minded person and an enthusiastic character designer, you can imagine my delight when we got to enter Stratford’s costume warehouse – and it was positively massive. Our tour guide provided the very Canadian analogy that the warehouse was roughly six hockey rinks large with a mezzanine for even more space. Rows and rows and rows of costume pieces, organized into specific categories by type of clothing and era the design would fit in and subsequently further organized by color from dark to light. The warehouse uses a very in depth system for sorting and cataloging – necessary, for the clothing pieces are still in use and even up for sale or rent to the so-inclined.

Though anything on the racks was meant to remain untouched on the tours and so it’s hard to inspect them in detail, there are curated outfits or pieces of outfits removed from the hangers and set up in displays to be appreciated fully. These displays varied from selections of impressive hats to gorgeous, intricate dresses.

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And as promised, gorgeous, intricate dress

The warehouse does keep some outfits from local productions to be stored and retired from use. One of these well-preserved outfits was one of their displays when we went down (pictured below). This particular beautiful outfit was worn by Ms. Lucy Peacock (who magnificently plays Maria in Twelfth Night and Agave in Bakkhai this season) in a past production of Wanderlust at Stratford. It sits proudly in the waiting area as one of the first things tour-goers can inspect.

The warehouse is also home to props, though. Those were much more hands-on for the tour and offered the oddest halls one would ever walk down. Our tour guide kindly warned us after an aisle of coffins that there was a corpse at the end (fake, of course,) in case that could be disturbing to some. She was certainly not lying, but those weren’t words I’d imagined hearing at any point. He was, of course, accompanied by a bear very close by. It was certainly a roller coaster.

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A good bear friend

The props were also quite interesting for the creativity and industry that they often seemed to require. A trophy shown in the beginning of the tour was built of various objects like spoons and a baby pacifier, none of which were obvious at first glance. Portraits later on in the warehouse were made of the actors in their given plays by printing photographs and blurring and altering them to look like paintings.

Both the costumes and the props showed immense workmanship and ingenuity. It made it all the more clear going through the warehouse why Stratford is known for the sheer quality in their productions.

The Art of Obtaining the Audience

Rachel Hampton

We recently had the pleasure of learning more of the inner workings of the theatre. This time, though, instead of getting to witness the magic behind the scenes that brings the productions to the stage, we learned of a not often considered craft that helps bring the audience to witness the art once it’s there: marketing.

While perhaps not the most flashy trade to most, what the marketing people are doing is invaluable to keeping the festival alive. A production needs viewers, after all.

Stratford Festival’s own very knowledgeable Maria Williams (pictured) guided us through a brief overview of what the marketing department undergoes. With fifteen years of experience in the industry, she had much to share with us about both marketing in general and marketing specifically with the Stratford Festival.

Theatre is quite a challenge to market for, it seems. It only appeals by default to a specific audience and even then, it isn’t the cheapest hobby to have. Tackle on a time-consuming nature and a social stigma about the perceived elitism of “theatre people” (and who wants to be seen as stuffy?) and theatre becomes a hard sell to make to the general population. But the challenge isn’t insurmountable, and we learned about both the “core” demographic that comprises the majority of ticket sales and how to appeal to various other demographics that might not even have a preexisting interest in theatre at all.

The most tickets are sold to people over 55 years old – they’re called the “traditional” audience – and that demographic, like any other, requires their own specific catering in advertisement. One of these tactics that Maria Williams shared with us was the use of printed, punchy reviews on advertisements for productions. This wouldn’t be used for any audience, even if it might at first glance seem logical to include.  A smaller demographic called the “commercial” audience is those who go see the big, popular shows because, well, they’re big and popular. In those cases, the inclusion of reviews just isn’t as necessary. Instead, the focus in advertisements is simply placed on iconic imagery to draw them in, as this particular audience will already know the plays they’re interested in are popular and don’t need to see reviews to know that others think it’s good.

The other demographics we primarily focused on in the workshop were the niche audience and the “play-on” audience. The niche audience was an interesting one, because, well, as the name suggests, they’re unique. They’re extremely hard to locate and sell to, as a result of this special quality. We were taught that the best tool for niche audiences is word of mouth – such as reaching out personally to the target audience and letting them spread the news among their own communities.

The “play-on” audience, however, was a demographic most of our class fell into, encompassing 16-29 year olds. The challenges for marketers there are plentiful, also. Our general lack of free time and money makes it hard to convince that we want to spent our time and money on shows, especially when there are other far more convenient avenues to walk down. (A generalization that none present, of course, refuted.)

To prove this difficulty, though, we had the main activity of the workshop. We were given image stills from Romeo and Juliet and put into groups to pick what we would consider the most appealing picture to the play-on audience and caption it accordingly to draw their attention. I can happily report that even as a member of that demographic, I still found it supremely difficult to figure out how to sell something to my fellows!

…And that was only figuring out how to appeal to one specific audience chosen for us for one specific show. In reality, there are so many more audiences to consider – even the ones briefly mentioned here are only a small sampling – and which target audiences to consider per advertisement per production must be decided. The art of drawing an audience in is surely no simple matter. But, it should certainly be all the more appreciated for it. Their hard work (and hard it sure seems) sells tickets, fills seats, and helps keep theatre alive.

Talking Back with André and Mac

Esther Sorg

We saw The Bakkhai on Saturday. It was An Experience.

I’ve read the play, studied various interpretations, and argued with classmates about who these characters are. The part  of me that took two courses and decided that I needed to minor in Classical Studies cackled with glee at the opportunity to see Euripides’ tragedy, translated by Anne Carson and newly imagined and produced on the Stratford stage. I was invested, you might say.

It was breathtaking.

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(photo courtesy of Alexis Kreusch)

Throughout the entire play, I felt like I didn’t blink even once. The intensity of this show cannot fully be described with words, but it was a bit like what standing on your porch during a thunderstorm feels like. The hair on your body stands up. Your eyes don’t know where to look. Within seconds, your heart is pounding and you’re leaning forward to get closer, without even meaning to.

It was kind of like that.

After the show, we had the chance to talk to a couple of the actors: Mac Fyfe, who played the disgruntled and vengeful god, Dionysos, and André Morin, who played the unhappy survivor and servant of Pentheus.

It wasn’t quite as intense as the show, but it was close.

Mac Fyfe has eyes that could stare into your soul. It would have been intimidating except that he was so genuinely nice that I forgot to be nervous. He plays Dionysos so comfortably that even the arguably awkward and overtly sexual scenes seem natural and easy. André Morin plays what is essentially a stock character in Greek theater with a depth that goes beyond the text. He was charming and cheerful and incredibly well-spoken.

It was a pretty lively talk-back. We asked about character choices, about staging, about the text the production uses. I think they were almost as excited as we were. At one point, Mac came out of his chair, and André was nearly bouncing in his. It was funny and fun and we learned a lot about character development and the process of the production, as well as the actors’ research into the play and the characters.

Mac Fyfe said that playing Dionysos’ gender-fluidity is “really fun.” He was clearly invested in and thrilled about his character. Dionysos is pretty vicious in this play, and Mac was reveling in it. André Morin gets to deliver some of the most dramatic lines in the play, the news of Agave murdering his master, Pentheus. On stage he is first serious and then grieving after the murder. Off stage, he was all smiles. They were both charming and kind, answering our questions thoroughly and with enthusiasm, even though they must have been exhausted and we kept adding, “just one more thing!”

Our talk-backs are a great privilege and opportunity, so we were determined to pull as much out of our time as possible, and Mac Fyfe and André Morin rose to the challenge. We didn’t have a thunderstorm indoors, but it was a good time anyway.

Where the Magic Happens

Jessica Falkner

On July 1, 2017, I had the pleasure of doing a backstage tour of the Festival Theatre in Stratford. Our tour guide was a gentleman named Roger, a retired teacher and excellent storyteller.

At the beginning of the tour, we got to see the start of the stage change of the previous night’s play, Twelfth Night, to be replaced with the stage for Guys and Dolls. Approximately ninety minutes later, the stage was in place and we witnessed the light check. The speed with which the crew worked to change the stage was impressive, given that the entire floor of the stage was altered.

Roger was very knowledgeable regarding the history of the Stratford Festival. The idea for the Stratford Festival began with Tom Patterson when the diesel repair industry, which employed the majority of Stratford, declined rapidly. Patterson thought that it would be good for the community to invest in a festival that celebrated the works of Shakespeare. The town agreed to give the festival $125 to sponsor the idea. It turned out to be quite a good investment for the city, as the festival has proven to be quite successful, with a 2017 budget of $61 million. Only around 6 percent of this budget is provided by the government; it is estimated that the government receives seven times that amount in tax revenues gained from those visiting the Festival.

The Festival Theatre also contains an entire staff dedicated to creating costumes. The staff consists not just of seamstresses, but also those who create other aspects of costumes. This includes milliners, cordwainers, and wigmakers. There is also an entire department that contains stage weapons which are locked behind glass reinforced with steel bars. It was at this location in the tour that Roger told us one of the most interesting tidbits. Queen Elizabeth II came to a play as part of a dedication ceremony. The play she attended contained a scene with a single gunshot. The MI5 told the actor that if there was a second shot, they would fire upon the actor. Luckily, the actor’s gun fired without any incidents that evening!

Roger’s tour impressed upon me the amount of unseen work that goes into any theater show. While I knew that there was a lot of behind the scenes work, seeing the different departments of the theatre really made the work come alive, giving me a new appreciation for the work it takes to stage a theater show.

Stratford Combat Workshop

On our third day in Stratford, Dr. Carol Mejia-La Perle arranged for us to participate in a combat workshop with two actors trained to engage in safe  yet believable combat on stage. Our hosts for this workshop were Johnathan Sousa, who appears in Twelfth Night, and plays the roles of Careless in The School for Scandal, and Valere in Tartuffe this season, and Emilio Vieira, who appears in The School for Scandal, as Curio in Twelfth Night, and as Damis in Tartuffe. Right away we learned that stage combat was very physically draining, and if not properly handled, actors can either hurt themselves or others while engaged in fighting.

Although this workshop was great fun, we also learned that safety comes first. We were instructed to pair up with a classmate, to stand 6-8 inches apart, to use our legs, and to pretend there was an imaginary pane of glass between us. Emilio explained that this allows the actors to be safe during combat while maintaining the illusion of actual combat from the audience’s perspective. He asked us to practice wiping this pane of glass on the wall to get the feeling that we were to extend our energy outwards, away from the target. This pane of glass analogy was helpful as we faced our partners and were instructed on how to punch, slap, and pull hair without actually ever harming them.

The illusion of violence was achieved through the use of the appropriate angle and stance, and through the aggressor’s and victim’s facial expressions and use of the body to indicate pain and impact. Johnathan and Emilio explained that the sound of violence is achieved by a “knapp.” A first person knapp is achieved by the  aggressor as he “slaps” or “punches” his victim by quickly slaps his own hands or cupping his open hand to his chest.  A second person knapp is achieved by the victim who makes the noise appropriate to a punch or slap at the exact moment the aggressor makes contact with the slap or punch, and a third person knapp is achieved by neither the aggressor nor the victim making a noise to indicate a punch or slap, but is instead made by an actor outside the altercation.

Timing is everything.  I found that there was a lot to remember as we took turns with our partner being the aggressor and the victim. This gave me a whole new respect for the actors and reminded me of Roger’s discussion of combat training during our tour of The Festival Theatre: “For every second of combat, each actor practices for one hour!” Now, that’s dedication!

Oh, Canada 2017

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Spending July 1—Canada Day— in Stratford, Ontario provided an unforgettable experience of tours, history, food, performance, and…horses.

We started with an extended Festival Theater tour with Roger, a 20 plus year volunteer with the festival. He was a wealth of information and a gifted storyteller! What a treat as we got a view of a change-over on the stage from Twelfth Night to the New York nightlife of Guys and Dolls. We also had a chat with renowned Stratford actor and director, Graham Abbey.

After trying out some street food in the newly renovated “Market Square” of downtown Stratford, we found our way to a city tour via a carriage ride with two beautifully decorated horses. We saw the remnants of mid twentieth century Stratford as a thriving industry town. As it sought to reinvent itself in the face of economic challenges in the 1960s, Stratford looked to Shakespeare theatre to educate and enrich the lives of its citizens. Despite its humble beginnings, the festival is now in its 65th season. For 2017, the budget is over 61 million dollars, with only 6% coming from any government funds. It is a wonderful story of culture driving the economy while maintaining a deep commitment to creating a beautiful community.

Evidence of this community is everywhere today. To celebrate this special national holiday, many Canadians brought their whole family, especially lots of children, to enjoy Treasure Island at the Avon Theater. With pirates, sword fights, music, dance, and incredible twists in plot, the made-for-stage version of this childhood classic entertained all. The performers also shared their pirate booty: giving out chocolate coins to the young fans (and not so young professors) on their way out.

With so many events to take in— such as a concert, parade, and fireworks to end the festivities—Canada Day was pretty good, eh?

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