The Joy of Working on Period Shows

Jennifer Butler

OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

I have recently discovered that I enjoy working on period shows as opposed to modern shows. More specifically, the early 20th Century is my favorite time period, and if you want to get more specific, just take a look at my resume. That just seems to be what’s in tow this theater season and in the local theaters around me. But I can’t say that I complained at all. It also doesn’t help that my favorite show is Finding Neverland and I love J.M. Barrie’s original play Peter Pan.

In the past, I really enjoyed working on both Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap and Enchanted April by Matthew Barber. Prior to that I worked on period shows that included Ken Ludwig’s The Games Afoot and Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Both Table Manners and the first show I worked on in community theater Deathtrap weren’t modern but they weren’t the eras that I received the most enjoyment out of working on. The most modern show that I worked on was Getting Sara Married which in itself was a funny show but finding the costumes and stuff weren’t as much fun to hunt for.

There is something about the thrill of the chase in finding the right props for the show. Going to place after place to find a tea pot that will pass for being both British and 1922 or finding the right champagne glasses that will pass for 1940’s Connecticut is exciting to me.

I also think that is because I love learning. And the period shows give me something to research and gain knowledge from. I feel that with any show there is always something to be learned and fun ways to do so. For example, I started watching Downton Abbey because it was recommended to me by someone to learn the accent but shortly into the first season I fell in love with both the show and the story. Then for my most recent show Enchanted April, the director also recommended us to watch the show and I thought to myself “how great it was that it didn’t seem silly to re-watch my new favorite show if I called it research for the theater production I was currently working on”.  Not that I needed the reason, but it did make me feel less silly when talking to others.

However what I really enjoyed most was researching very specific time periods for a show to recreate a prop newspaper for the characters to use.  For example, I needed the newspaper headlines that I made for The Mousetrap to be changed from February 1947 that related to the show because it was a murder-mystery type show to be changed to the newspaper for Enchanted April because that show took place in 1922. Double the research may seem crazy to some but it doesn't bother me one bit. I wanted both of these newspapers to be accurate to the time period of the show. I am not saying it was easy, because it was nowhere near easy, but in the end it was worth it, to see it up on the stage fitting in with the show. 

We all love what we do or else we wouldn’t be involved with theater and the same goes for me. I will take any opportunity to work on any show that will give me experience, but just as it is in life, we all have things that interest us and perhaps might be why sometimes we enjoy working on some shows more than others.

Photo: 'Little Women' Northwestern University