We're moving our blog over to blog.seattlerep.org. We're bringing it a little closer to home. I hope you'll come join us!
We're moving our blog over to blog.seattlerep.org. We're bringing it a little closer to home. I hope you'll come join us!
On Saturday, November 21 at 5pm in the rotunda, I get to sit down with one of my very favorite theatre artists in the world, Bill Rauch. I've known of Bill for years, mainly through his amazing work with Cornerstone, a community-based theatre company that has inspired and awed me for years. I met Bill in person at a conference a few years back, and was able to take a theatre workshop with him, learning first hand how he elicits such incredible performances from professional and non-professional actors alike. When he took over at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I was intrigued, wondering what he would do in a "regular" theatre company. The news coming from Oregon has been good--lots of interesting initiatives (e.g. American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle) and great art (e.g. Equivocation). On Saturday, we'll talk about OSF, Cornerstone, world premieres, Shakespeare and anything else that comes to mind. Please join us for this hour-long conversation. I promise I'll leave time for others to ask questions too.
Seattle Repertory Theatre turns to music as a central theme with playwright Michael Hollinger’s hilarious, moving, and insightful work Opus at the Leo K. Theatre. The play offers a detailed look into the frenetic existence of the imaginary world-class Lazara Quartet as they begin preparations for the gig of a lifetime at the White House. They have only one week to prepare the monumental Beethoven string quartet Opus 131 with brand-new violist Grace (Chelsey Rives), a fresh-faced, idealistic young woman who presents a stark contrast to the world-weary companions who have made music together for decades.
Hollinger’s insight as a violist who has played many string quartets was obvious; judicious name-dropping, high-brow insider’s jokes and the occasional below-the-belt one liner were present throughout, and even when the play got more serious as it moved toward the climax there were countless, genuinely hilarious moments. His portrayal of the volcanic frustrations and sometimes uncomfortable intimacy thrust upon men of mercurial temperament who have worked together so closely for so long, on something as personal as this music, never comes off as anything other than sincere. The love, cynicism and rancor between the men, and sometimes between them and their music, paints an honest, multi-layered portrait of these complex relationships.
The delivery by the five actors was by and large extremely convincing, and their timing was impeccable in the oft razor-sharp repartee called for by Hollinger’s dialogue. Of particular note was Allen Fitzpatrick’s brilliant performance as Elliot, the harried, antagonistic first violinist who is tormented by the fact that his lover Dorian (Todd Jefferson Moore), who is a much better musician than he, had been relegated to the viola despite Dorian’s superior skills, his ability to “hear things that we don’t,” as the second violinist portrayed by Shawn Belyea puts it.The structure of the work is non-linear and consists of many flashbacks that flesh out the circumstances behind Dorian’s mysterious disappearance, shortly after erratic behavior forces his ouster from the quartet at the beginning of the play. One feels genuine sympathy for the plight of this bi-polar genius whose unpredictable personality dooms any attempt to seal the rifts in his disintegrating relationship with the maddeningly self-absorbed Elliot. Rapid-fire changes of the minimalist set served to highlight the quick firing-off of the flashback sequences, and the soundtrack was poignant and familiar; lots of Bach, and Beethoven. Hollinger succeeds marvelously in portraying the passion, love and conflict the characters feel toward their music and each other; indeed one of Hollinger’s stated purposes was to use the intimacy of the players as an allegorical tool to portray the inter-play between the instruments in a string quartet.
One might have liked a bit more (indeed, any at all) finger-movement by the actors as an added verisimilitude, but thanks to Hollinger’s clever writing, the time-span in which the audience watches the group ’play’ music without moving their fingers across the neck is relatively short. The structure is such that the play takes about 90 minutes and is uninterrupted by intermission, so that by the time the shocker at the finale takes place, the audience is breathless and wondering if it’s actually over. The standing ovation was well-deserved.
I attended Opus on opening night at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Before the show, my trio – The Bella Trio, performed some dangerously light classical music to polite applause in the rotunda. We sat in the second row, two violinists and one cellist. I could use every cliché term in the book to describe how accurate the dialogue is, “it really hit a home run,” “hit the nail right on the head,” “hole in one.” The play is truly perfect. The neurotic first violinist, bow tie and eye wear; the slightly lecherous, yet well meaning second violinist, in a shabby brown bathrobe; the laid back cellist, with deep pathos; and the two violists, one young, female and beautiful and one crazy and wildly gifted. Stereotypes are based in reality and Michael Hollinger took what he knows of musicians and created the beautiful and fragile world of a string quartet.
Each scene reminded me of moments from my own chamber music career. Anger, laughter, tears and even, a little bit of love. It truly is the greatest experience and provides the strongest most intense relationships. The people who you make music with are the people in your life with whom you share the most. It makes sense to talk about your love life on the way to a gig and it equally makes sense to pour your own sadness into the music.
I played the second movement of the Bach Double Concerto, the Largo, at the funerals of both my grandparents. When the first violin enters on the f-natural and the universes collide, softly, there is peace for a moment. The movement rises and falls in dynamics and yet the phrase carries throughout. I have never played that piece and not thought about life, death and my many blessings.
Every musician should put down their instrument and run to see Opus.
The general concept with a CNC Router is that you use a computer and motors to move a cutting tool around a table. The cutter can move in all three dimensions allowing you to cut anything from straight lines to intricate carvings. Once we had found some plans and an on-line forum to guide the build, we were set; we had 3 weeks and a limited budget but we were determined to get it right. We decided that we should be able to process full sized plywood and other sheet materials, so our cutting bed needed to be large enough for that, and we would probably want to carve architectural details and various shapes out of foam so we needed several inches of cutting depth. With our basic requirements in place we started ordering the legion of parts we would need, from simple things like steel tube and MDF to more complex things like stepper motors and controllers. While we waited for those to arrive, we pored over plans for our machine and learned everything we could about CNC machines in general.
In addition to the physical machine, there was the software and control system to consider. Typically in CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining, there are several steps in making a plan into a reality. You start with a drawing of the thing you want to make. This is drawn in a CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) program and then that file is loaded into a CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) program that turns it into code that the CNC machine can understand. My research led us to some flexible and affordable CAM and CNC software and we built the control system from components recommended on-line.
As soon as the machine was completed it started earning its keep. The machine has cut parts for three theatres already, and we’ve found new ways to use it that save us time in the scene shop and create an excellent finished product. The machine is capable of cutting with accuracy in the thousandths of an inch (for reference, a piece of paper is about 4 thousandths of an inch thick) and the ability to cut repetitious parts without variation is fantastic.
The project has been one of the most fulfilling I’ve worked on at the Rep or anywhere. I was able to engage my interests in mechanics, computers, and building all at the same time, and the product allows us to add even more creative solutions to scenic challenges to our arsenal. The intricately textured walls onstage for Opus are a small glimpse into what we can now create quickly and efficiently in the shop, and we’re still learning more ways to use the CNC Router nearly everyday.
To learn more about how our new CNC router came together and get a look at photos from every stage of the process, check out the forum that Brian worked with here.
Preparing Costumes for The 39 Steps
A typical show of The 39 Steps is pretty regimented. In terms of prep, or “day work,” we press all of the base costumes (shirts, slacks, vests) and steam suit coats and dresses. We check the costumes for any repairs that are needed or interim cleaning/lint rolling. All of the pieces that are added on remain on racks/tables backstage. We make sure the costumes are pre-set to where they need to be for top of show, and make sure they're all in ready and working order.
We start our presets a little before an hour before the show, and are standing by, ready to dress at 5 minutes to show. There are three tracks—meaning there are three dressers backstage, four people if you count hair. It’s a pretty heavy track because there are constantly quick changes all throughout the show. All of the changes are done backstage—many of them in the wings—as the cues are so fast."
Made to Change
Many of the costumes are rigged for quick-change. Most "vests” and “shirts" are actually shirts or collars made in to dickies (a detachable insert made to look like a shirt), snapped to a vest that velcros up the back or front. Most bowties are rigged to snap on and off, and many of the costumes are ready to be put on, and taken off, very quickly. However, there are a lot of clothes (jackets, basics, hats) that look up close just the way they look on stage.
During the Show
The changes are very intense. Most people don't realize that all of the things that happen backstage (including set pieces and props) are choreographed just a closely and specifically as the action on stage. All of the changes are rehearsed laboriously, planned and talked through, so they are cued down to the second. A few of the changes toward the end of the show even involve three people to one actor—that's how fast things are happening.
There is a lot of presetting and under-dressing that allow the changes to go as fast as they do (dressing one costume underneath another one) so you just have to remove something instead of remove and add something else. The actors are great to work with, and I think are fantastic sports for how much running around and changing they need to do! It's been a very fun show to work on, even though it's a lot of work.
Pictured above: Ted Deasy, Scott Parkinson, Eric Hissom and Claire Brownell in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps, playing in the Bagley Wright Theatre September 25 to October 24; photo by Craig Schwartz.
Here at the Rep, we’re proud to be part of the thriving theatre and arts community that Seattle is known for. In the interest of adding to the dialogue about the work we produce, we’ve invited several theatre artists from the Seattle area to be among the first to see our production of The 39 Steps and offer their responses to the show on our blog.
Actor and performer Chris Bange has appeared in a number of Seattle theatre productions and has taken his own shows on tour throughout the United States and Canada. in today's blg post, he offers his take on the top notch physical comedy that make up the heart of The 39 Steps.
One of the actors in the talk back session after the show described it as a vaudeville play! It absolutely is, in the best sense. Every comic gag in the book is thrown at the audience in rapid fire succession, from pratfalls to puppets shows. I think vaudeville play is a good way to describe it because, as in vaudeville, the main language used in The 39 Steps is a physical dialogue between and the actor and their fellow actors, and the actors and the audience. As an actor, when you play 70 some parts your physicality has to be very precise and clean, so that the audience knows exactly who that character is right when you meet them. With so many characters to play there is very little margin for error, especially when you only see some of the characters for a few seconds each.
There are also several strokes of stylized physical movement brushed throughout the play that put a very original stamp on The 39 Steps as a production, movements that physically draw out and heighten the moments of comedy or drama. Many of these movements are very much in the style of theatrical melodrama. A melodrama has essentially three iconic characters: the hero, the villain, and the victim, and usually the iconic character traits are traded off and on, giving the story twists and turns. Melodrama has a negative connotation as of late because most action movies today are essentially melodramas. Action movies give melodrama a bad name because they follow the basic character structures but it is so thinly done that it is often unbelievable to the audience or “melodramatic.”
The 39 Steps uses melodrama to great effect as the actors very physically play the life and death stakes of the scenes and you believe it. The struggle for life or death is the backbone of the story of this play, and this drives the comedy and drama to even greater heights because it is so immediate. These physical and emotional heights create a visceral reaction between the audience and play - in others words, when you laugh (and you will most certainly laugh) you will laugh hard! The 39 Steps is a rollercoaster of a play, to borrow a great quote, “You may pay for the whole seat…but you will only need the edge!"
Our first recommendation is to see the show again, but we’ll cop to a bit of bias there.
For those of you who just can’t get enough, may we suggest the Hitchcock film festival this weekend at SIFF? You can see the original film version of The 39 Steps along with five other classics from the Master of Suspense the way they were meant to be seen - on a big screen, accompanied by a theater full of people on the edge of their seats. And every show is a double feature, which means you get to check out two films for the price of one!
For more info and to get tickets, check out the SIFF website here.
Todd Jefferson Moore, Chelsey Rives and Charles Leggett exercise the oft-neglected bowing muscles. Photo by Keri Kellerman.
It's practically impossible to discuss The 39 Steps the play without discussing the classic Alfred Hitchcock film it's based on. And when you're discussing the juncture of film and theatre, you'd be hard pressed to talk to anyone more savvy than blogger and arts aficionado Warren Etheredge. We're excited to bring readers Warren's take on the production, direct from The Warren Report. And if you can't get enough of him here, don't fret. Warren will be presenting our pre-play discussion of The 39 Steps here at the Rep on October 15th at 7 pm in the rotunda. Be sure to join us that evening for what's sure to be a night of lively entertainment both on stage and off.
It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. It takes a tougher man to tenderize Hitchcock. Steely scriptor Patrick Barlow has pounded and punched up The 39 Steps, transforming Alfred’s 1935 flick into a frivolous 4-person stage show — now marinating at Seattle Rep — that prioritizes silliness over suspense. This is an acceptable bargain given the light touch of the original and the wisdom of creating a new vision rather than just replicating the old. (Gus van Sant’s virtual shot-for-shot remake of Psycho proved that there is more to Hitchock’s genius than simply mise-en-scene.) Bravely, Barlow not only wrestles Alfred’s ghost, he also tangles with Charles Ludlam’s specter. Surely within this re-imagining there is more than a pinch of Ludlam’s presentations at The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. And it is in this context that these 39 Steps have, surprisingly, more difficulty competing.
Barlow boasts chutzpah and craftsmanship. With the audacious assistance of director Maria Aitken, this adaptation unspools energetically on stage. The technical cleverness of the production is worth the price of admission. How often will you see a train-top chase or North BY Northwest’s bi-plane rundown materialize below a proscenium arch? No question there is enough flash to stun theater-goers and to appease movie-lovers. But what about the laughs? Barlow recognizes the humor in the time-honored. He re-plays the screenplay’s set-ups at 78rpm, an obvious and successful student of the louder, faster, funnier school. He also indulges the cheap seats with shouts-out to many of Hitchcock’s most famous titles, allowing even the dimmest patron to feel in on the joke/s. However, both creator and cast have trouble nailing the essence of camp, thus far, failing to transition from note-hitting send-up to irreverent, yet earnest, homage. Ludlam’s genius was his ability to satirically deconstruct classics while secretly celebrating their enduring magic. Ludlam, with partner Everett Quinton, could plunge a dagger into Shakespeare’s back while smilingly shaking his hand and being honored to make the acquaintance. It is conceivable that this cast will eventually come closer, but at the preview I saw — the first, I believe — the actors appeared preoccupied with hitting their marks moreso than embracing the duality of their roles. Camp is best when its players can maintain the veracity of the characters while still engaging the audience by luxuriating in the theatrical artifice and textual tomfoolery. (I suspect that Scott Parkinson and Eric Hissom, already amusing, will come closest to fully embodying the spirit.)
The 39 Steps surpasses the two cinematic remakes (1954, 1978) and provides a diverting night-out capable of making me neglect — never forget! — Hitchcock while pining for the absence of Ludlam.
Since The 39 Steps features fast paced costume changes and is designed to be enjoyed by audiences of all ages, our first guest blogger is elementary school teacher and freelance costume designer Emily Carlsen.
The Seattle Rep’s The 39 Steps is an enjoyable caper into the world of Alfred Hitchcock, a world which is very much aware, and sure to remind you, of its Hitchcockian influences. The team of four actors (Claire Brownell, Ted Deasy , Eric Hisson and Scott Parkinson) take on many a character to tell the tale of Suspense with a capital ‘S’. The ensemble cast is strong and cohesive; the four seem to be of one mind with their clear, stylized physicality. They keep the pace of the show moving, and it is clear they are having a blast doing it. The action on stage is supported by spot on, period costumes and flexible set design by Peter Mckintosh that is simple yet effective. It takes great acting to completely switch character simply by adding a hat, but you might as well have a great hat while you’re at it.
The 39 Steps is a great vehicle to introduce young theatre goers to physical comedy akin to the old vaudevillian talents, skills decidedly absent from venues in modern pop culture. Sitcoms, blockbuster movies and reality TV shows are not about watching what people can create, but what they have and can blow up. When you can go to the theatre and witness tightly orchestrated scenes, with more recognizable characters than actors present, these are the skills that truly celebrate what live theatre is all about.
Who doesn’t chuckle at a good Scottish accent joke, flying spittle and all? And everybody loves shadow puppets. The tween next to me was totally laughing, like, really hard. When actors occasionally wink to the audience and acknowledge their ridiculousness you can’t help but smile at the connection, and you can’t get that from Youtube.
This I know: We’re announcing today that The 39 Steps is extending. We’ve added five dates to the end of the run because ticket sales are so strong already. I loved the play when I saw it. You will love it too.
The 39 Steps, a la Hitchcock, is a favorite movie of mine. It presages what was to follow as Alfred’s career unfolded. It heralds North By Northwest and its epic chase. It is torqued like Psycho—seriously twisted. Start with this fact: Salvador Dali was the production designer on the flick. That’s a huge statement on Hitchcock’s part—what you’re about to see is in the realm of the surreal. Risky choice.
Here’s the point. The 39 Steps is an adaptation for the stage. This adaptation draws more generously from the original novel than from Hitchcock’s movie. So, here we have a stage adaptation based on the book and filtered through the lens of Alfred Hitchcock.
And our adaptation is just one of what seems like a confluence of theatrical adaptations playing now or soon in Seattle. We have Wicked, a musical play based on a book, which itself is loosely based on a seminal movie (The Wizard of Oz), which itself was based on Frank Baum’s still treasured books. We have Book-It doing a stage adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces (I cannot wait to see Brandon Whitehead in the role). And in the spring the Rep will present an original adaptation of The Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare from Robert Fagles’ definitive English language adaptation
What do these things have in common? Easy. Hitchcock was a storyteller. Homer was a great storyteller. Fagles, Baum, the Rep, Brandon, Book-It—we’re all storytellers. Some stories are worth telling again and again. Great stories, universal stories deserve to be retold and respun into all kinds of different narrative structures.
Though his body of work includes everything from dark farces like The Trouble with Harry to horror classics like Psycho and The Birds, Hitchcock was perhaps most in his element working in espionage. From The Maltese Falcon to The Bourne Identity, thrillers and spy films across the spectrum owe a debt to the Master of Suspense.
Among Hitchcock’s first and finest works are his classic spy thrillers, featuring secret societies and treacherous plots, icy assassins and smoldering femme fatales, double agents and triple crosses. Films like The 39 Steps and Foreign Correspondent are cinematic classics that still feel fresh and contemporary decades later.
Click here for a primer on Hitchcock’s finest espionage films—six movies where the acclaimed filmmaker’s mastery of the carefully timed reveal and the perfectly placed twist are at the top of their form.
The house opens and the audience starts shuffling in. We would've been grateful for half-full on our first night, but they just keep coming until we're sold out--who are all these people? who wants to come to the theater at 10PM? We love them!
A good first performance. We're still working out a few kinks, but Renata was in very fine form. In the midst of all this chaos and with very little rehearsal time, she somehow managed to rip it up out there. Her ability to simultaneously be inside the characters, expertly telling the story, and yet always seemingly aware of herself in space, incorporating subtle shifts we've talked about, and maneuver through new blocking patterns we've just set hours before--this juggling act is the mark of a truly gifted stage actor.
One down. Four to go.
If you're in NY this week, you can see the complete performance schedule and get tickets here. And read our first review here.
It's definitely summer around here. No less busy in the communications world, but fewer blog- worthy items (and, OK, our intern Kiki is gone and the blog just isn't the same without her).
I did want to make sure you know about our upcoming costume sale, though. It's Saturday, June 6, from 10 am-4 pm here on the Bagley Wright stage. I went down to check out some of the costumes, and there are some amazing pieces that are reasonably priced. I was eying an amazing Rapunzel wig for $20.
Other things I saw: Oberon's cape from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Queen Elizabeth's gown from Beard of Avon, and couple of cool before and after costumes--Napoleon's fancy suit and the duplicate torn up after he's been shot.
Lots of different sizes, and we'll take credit cards, cash or check, with all proceeds benefiting the theatre.
We've only had one other sale in Seattle Rep history, and that was in 1974. So who knows when the next might be?
More info here.