10 Things I Wish I Knew as a Freshman Theatre Major

10 Things I Wish I Knew as a Freshman Theatre Major

While it's only been a couple of years, find myself already waxing nostalgically about my freshman year as a theatre major. That year was a great growing experience but also incredibly difficult, so this one is for all you baby theatre students wandering wide-eyed into the world of university theatre. 

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Directing Part III: So Many Balls in the Air

Dee Dee O'Connor

  • OnStage Washington State Columnist

Nothing can prepare you for doing something quite like doing it, and so it is with directing. Back when I decided I wanted to try my hand at it, I worked hard towards the goal. I talked to other directors, read about it, stage managed shows, and shadowed other directors as an assistant director. My two goals were to do a credible job of it and enjoy the process. I lined up the best crew I could find, complete with a mentor as my assistant director. I read the play many times, studied it, intellectualized it, and did my production analysis. I knew my characters and had a vision. On top of all that, I had unlimited enthusiasm, good organizational skills, and enough confidence to go through with it. My technical experience in lighting and set building would be an asset. I knew that it would be a huge learning experience but I am also a quick study on anything I am passionate about. 

One of the great things about community theatre is that it provides opportunities for people like me who have discovered the love for “making theatre” later in life. It’s a learn-as-you-go process, however, and there have been times when I feel the lack of more formalized training. The same is true with directing. You see, as prepared as I was going into the process, there have been things that have caught me by surprise. As I wrote in my previous article on blocking, that was much harder than I expected…although admittedly it got easier as I went along. But no sooner were my blocking rehearsals over then I had to focus on the acting, scene changes, costumes, set issues, props, lighting, and sound.

Even with an awesome crew to back me up, being the director means I’m ultimately responsible for all those things. About a week ago, in the midst of a rehearsal, my stage manager asked me about a costume change between scenes. I had this deer-in-the-headlights moment and I thought, You mean, in addition to paying attention to the blocking, the acting, and mentally making notes about set pieces and props, I have to think about costume changes too? Laughing at myself, I pushed that whiney thought aside. Of course, I had to think about that; I have to think about EVERYTHING! But I realized then what it meant to keep all those balls in the air and how dropping just one could adversely affect the play. 

The most slippery ball that I juggle is effectively communicating with my actors. I have no problem intellectually explaining what I want, but getting to the emotional heart is much trickier. You see, I’m not an actor. There are some who believe that directors should have some acting experience and there are those who say, it’s not necessarily required. I would say that being an actor probably makes directing easier if nothing else. Not that this was a surprise in and of itself but perhaps, it was a bit more of an issue than I expected…like blocking. (Note to self: get ye to an audition.) Thankfully, I have a great mentor who is aware when I’m struggling and uses those moments to teach. I will be forever grateful to her and to my talented, supportive cast who understands that this is a learning process for me and yet grants me the attention and respect they would a more experienced director. 

In case I’ve led you to believe otherwise, I really do enjoy the juggling act that is directing. It takes a sort of fearless, can-do attitude that I find very satisfying. Sure, I have moments of anxiety where I worry that I’m not giving my cast and crew all that they need and yet, I believe that because I have those moments, I’ll be a better director for them.

Photo: Elizabeth Holzman and cast in rehearsal for "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" at Capital Stage Company. (Photo by Barry Wisdom)

My Directorial Debut: Part I Ready For Auditions

Dee Dee O'Connor

  • Washington Columnist

I’m about to embark on my directorial debut. It’s just a few days before auditions and I am both extremely excited and just a little nervous. The play is “A Shayna Maidel” — a script I love and believe in. I have a fabulous crew backing me up and I’ve done all my homework. All that’s left remaining before I hold auditions is some photocopying…and a little nail biting. I have friends who are good actors planning on auditioning, some for the same roles. Like most community theatres, we are a close-knit bunch so the fact that I have friends auditioning is not surprising. It’s just a little nerve-wracking.

Obviously, I can’t cast everyone. I’m going to have to leave friendship at the door and cast the best actors for the roles. I’ve given this advice to other directors in the past and now I must follow my own advice as difficult as that may be. There’s some solace in the knowledge that, as far as I know, no director ever lost a good friend by not casting them.

My play is a drama…and a good one. But as we all know, dramas don’t attract the biggest houses. I’m fine with that, actually even though I think it’s an absolute shame that more people don’t show up for dramatic plays. I just want the people who do come to see “A Shayna Maidel” to walk away knowing they’ve seen a great production and to be touched by the story. And that makes it imperative to cast well.

As a friend of mine told me, “Even if only you fill half the house for a drama, that still means around a thousand people have seen the show. There’s nothing wrong with that.” So in the ensuing days leading to my auditions, I’ll focus on my excitement, squelch the angst, and enjoy the process.

Volunteers Wanted — Part 1

Dee Dee O'Connor

  • Washington State Columnist

Volunteerism is the lifeblood of community theatre. Without good, solid volunteers, community theatre would come to a grinding halt. To have and maintain a strong corps of volunteers requires both diligence and vigilance. Community theatres must actively and consistently recruit new volunteers and recognize the ones who stand out.  Equally important (although rarely done) is the removal of those who have been positions too long, or are in jobs for which they’re not suited. It takes time, commitment, and it’s not always easy, but it is absolutely necessary if you want your theatre to thrive. In this three-part article, I’ll talk about recruiting, retaining, and if necessary, replacing your volunteers.

It’s a no brainer that new blood is vital to any organization. Your theatre will grow stale and bog down if the same people do all the work year in and year out. But don’t assume that people will flock to your door to volunteer. Some will come to you but others will need to be asked. So be proactive and encourage volunteerism. Let people know you are seeking new volunteers by placing a notice in programs and announcing it in pre-show speeches. On your audition forms have a section listing other areas actors can get involved in if they don’t get cast. You’d be surprised at the number of people who will volunteer to be stage managers, assistant stage managers, stage crew members, and light operators, just to name a few. Motivate current volunteers to spread the word. Tell folks how much fun it is to be involved in theatre. What originally hooked me (someone who, up until a few ago, had never been involved with theatre except as an audience member) was a house manager who asked for volunteers during the pre-show speech. He made it sound like fun and mentioned that “no experience” was required. I signed up on the spot and it changed my life. 

If you don’t already have a person in charge of volunteers, get one. This person will the face of your theatre so he or she should be friendly, outgoing, and genuinely interested in recruiting volunteers. Make it easy for folks to sign up and get involved. Don’t just put their names on a list! Evaluate their skills and determine what they’re interested in. If they want to pound nails on the set crew, don’t sign them up to usher. If they want to direct but don’t have experience don’t poo-poo their idea. Explain how they might actually get there. Next, put them to work as soon as possible. Don’t make them wait. Nothing is more frustrating than to be excited at the prospect of volunteering and then having to wait around for someone to call you in. If you can’t put them to work right away, invite prospective volunteers to a tour of your facility or to a rehearsal. Introduce them to people who are involved with their areas of interest. Let them know you are interested.

Make your theatre inviting to new faces. You never know who your next outstanding volunteer will be.

In Part 2 I’ll talk about retaining volunteers and in Part 3 I’ll take on the all-important (and equally uncomfortable) topic of getting rid of dead weight.

Kids & Theatre: A Star…or Stage Manager is Born

Dee Dee O'Connor 

  • OnStage Washington State Columnist

With theatre programs diminishing in schools everywhere, it will be up to community theaters to help foster the next generation of actors, directors, stage managers, and techies. That means encouraging young people to get involved. It also means recognizing, utilizing, and grooming their nascent talent. Which brings me to a story about a young man, I’ll call “Paul.”

Paul, a middle-schooler, auditioned for The Miracle Worker and got the part of Percy, a young servant in the Keller household. Although a smaller role than some of the others, Paul seemed to instinctively understand that there are no small roles in theatre and gave it his all. He wasn’t afraid to ask questions or make decisions. He took director’s notes with grace, respect and always a thank you. He was even able to apply his make up like a pro after one lesson. He paid attention to all the details and after a few weeks it was difficult to believe that this was his first play.

But that wasn’t all. With Paul’s sharp attention to detail, he quickly became our de facto Stage Manger during rehearsals. Of his own accord, he took on the responsibility making sure each scene was set correctly, wrangled actors, and was always eager to help. He took his responsibilities seriously in a way more adults would be well-served to emulate. Once our Stage Manager and Assistant Stage Mangers were in place, Paul showed them the ropes and continued being an integral part of the stage crew.

This is such a great story because it illustrates how theatre can help kids grow in unexpected and wonderful ways. As for Paul, well he tried out for his school play and got the lead. His mother says he is hooked!

Photo: Peter Cawley

My Journey in Lighting Design

Dee Dee O'Connor

  • OnStage Washington Columnist

After my first attempt at lighting design (read my post My Gateway To Lighting Design), I decided to learn everything I could about this new addiction…er…passion of mine. I read (and continue to read) several books and online articles on the subject, took a couple of workshops through The American Association of Community Theatres (AACT), and downloaded a free light plotting software program called LxBeams. When I am in the audience, I pay close attention to a show’s lighting design, sometimes at the expense of losing a bit of the story. I chat with my mentor (and often his mentor) about lighting…a lot. I assist with other lighting designers at every opportunity and light op whenever I can. (You can learn a lot about lighting by sitting in the light booth show after show.) But I learn the most just by doing. Some of the more technical aspects are still just beyond my reach, but they get closer all the time. 

Since that first show, I’ve designed lights for A Christmas Story: The Musical—where I tried too hard, shifting the lights several times during a number, and was never fully satisfied with the show; The Rabbit Hole—where I learned the beauty of subtly and still consider it one of my best; and Spamalot—where I threw everything I knew into the mix, was happy with most of it but struggled with a couple of scenes where I never quite got it right. Each show taught me something, helped me better grasp those technical aspects, and fueled my creativity. With these shows under my belt and my confidence at an all time high, I was eagerly looking forward to my next project, Anything Goes, which ended our 2015-2016 season.

The set was a white ship trimmed in red and blue against a cyc and lots of white sailor’s costumes. I love color and I thought that this set would be great to bounce a lot of color off. So I gelled my incandescents with Roscoe #51 Surprise Pink—a favorite for musicals because it is a happy color—and spent several days with the director working on my color pallet for the LEDs we use for color washes and the cyc. Man, those colors looked great bouncing off the ship and I was really happy…until the actors stepped on stage. To my (and the director’s) horror all of their complexions turned this sickly yellow green under the lights. In all the shows I had been involved with at our theatre, this had never happened before. So I dug in and tried to figure it out.

Noticing that some of the LED colors were casting green and yellow shadows, I reworked the color scheme, removing all green and yellow from my LED colors. It helped some but not a lot. If it wasn’t the LEDs than it must be the incandescents and my gel choice. I researched on line and found absolutely nothing. The Foster Sutton version of the play on Broadway also had a white ship but they used spot lights to light the actors. Since we only have one spotlight, that wasn’t an option. I talked to my mentor as well as the guy who mentored him and they had never experienced anything like it and didn’t have anything to suggest. So, in keeping with the happy theme of a musical, I re-gelled with a no color pink. That made everything worse. I was miserable, my director was unhappy, and we were getting very close to opening night.

My frustration was nearly beyond the limit and for the first time, I was really feeling my inexperience. Seeds of doubt crept in as to whether or not I should even be doing this lighting thing at all. But the show had to go on and I didn’t have the luxury of wallowing in self-doubt. I began to think that a no-color blue might be the answer but I wasn’t taking any chances. I called PNTA, our theatre supply store, and they recommended a color correction gel to take the temperature of the incandescents down to that of the LEDs. I used GamColor CineFilter 1529 1/2 Blue CTB. And it worked. The feel of the lighting was cooler than I wanted but the actors were no longer yellow, which of course was the whole point. Doesn’t matter how pretty the lights are if you’re actors look the living dead. For all the aggravation, Anything Goes ended up being my best show to date. It taught me a lot.

There are times when I wish I had a more formal training in lighting design then I realize I’m having way too much fun learning as I go. It’s an amazing thing, really, to think that four years ago, all I knew about lighting was how to flip the switch in my kitchen. I guess I’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Yet with all there is to learn about light design, I know it will never become mundane. 

My Gateway to Lighting Design

Dee Dee O'Connor

  • OnStage Washington Columnist

The way in which lighting helps tell the story on stage has captivated me from the moment I stepped into the light booth as a light board operator (light op) when I first started volunteering at my community theatre. Night after night as I ran the light board, I was fascinated by the subtleties of timing, particularly when the cue was on an action; the way light told the time, and set the mood.  I loved it so much that I light op’d all but one show that season. 

The Crucible @ Henderson State University Stage Lighting Design by Douglas Gilpin

The Crucible @ Henderson State University Stage Lighting Design by Douglas Gilpin

Being a light op was my gateway drug into lighting design. There is something visceral for me as I help shape the story through lights. When I get it right, I can actually feel it with my entire being. My training for light design has been entirely “on the job,” thanks to a wonderful mentor who is generous with his time, supportive, and encouraging.  Now, heading into my fourth year designing lights, I’ve learned so much, but I also understand that I have only scratched the surface. Getting it right takes a lot of work and is not without trial and error.

My first light design was for The Women of Lockerbie by Deborah Brevoort, a fabulous, poetic drama that takes place during the course of one night and ends with a slow sunrise. Up until the end of the play the design was relatively simple—deep blue on the cyclorama, alternating dark blue gels and bastard amber gels for the face light so I could have the amber dimmed lower for night and the blue dimmed during the sunrise. I began the play with the lights very dim at about 40% and had a slow 6 minute fade up to about 80% so the audience got the sense that it was nighttime but by the time fade was complete, they still had the sense of night without having the actors on a dark stage for 70 minutes. The sunrise needed to slowly rise for about 10 minutes at the end of the play and took me a very long time to design. I spent days looking at photos of sunrises and scouring the web for images of what others had done with the play. Then I spent untold hours in the light booth working on that sunrise: getting the LED colors just right from my night blue transitioning through purples into the lovely orange, coral and pink color of a sunrise and finally to a bright cheerful morning. In the end I was very happy with the result. But it was my first show and so I was a little nervous…or a lot depending on the day. As we were going through tech rehearsals, some of the actresses told me they could actually feel the warmth of that sunrise against the cyc when they were on stage and that it helped them get through the heavy emotions of the play. I was thrilled! When the play opened I was almost afraid to sit in the audience and watch it. Of course I did and I was very proud of that show. I received a lot of compliments and was riding pretty high.

But not everyone liked it. An online local theatre blog sent a reviewer who skewered my design. It was the first show where we used LED par 64 fixtures for cyc lights because our old incandescent bays were huge monstrosities that took up a lot of circuit space and sucked power. While the pars weren’t ideal, they allowed a lot of flexibility with color. It seems this reviewer sat in the one seat in the house where that blue cyc was, in his words, “blinding.” And that was the kindest thing he said. I allowed myself a couple of hours to be totally crushed. I talked to my mentor who told me not to worry about it as it was only one person’s opinion and reminded me of all the reasons the design was solid. Women of Lockerbie went on to win several of our theatre’s annual awards, including “Best Lighting Design.”

Since then I have branched off into other areas of technical theatre but lighting is something I always come back too. Whether it’s designing a show, assisting another designer, or just being part of the light crew, I am never away too long—you might even say I’m addicted.

Community Theatres—Serve Some Broccoli Once In Awhile

Dee Dee O'Connor

OnStage Washington Columnist

Lets face it, dramas are the broccoli of the theatre world…especially community theatre. Chestnut plays (musicals, comedies, etc.) put butts in seats and dollars in the bank. Dramas, particularly those that don’t leave an audience feeling good at the end, tend to fare less well and generally get only one slot in a season. Understandable, but unfortunate because there are so many wonderful plays to be seen but won’t because they are riskier for community theatre to produce. But it’s a risk community theatre should take every once in awhile.

My community theatre recently put on a stunning production of August: Osage County, the Pulitzer-Prize-wining masterpiece by Tracy Letts — and a play rarely done in community theatre. At 3-1/2 hours long (with two intermissions), this caustically funny but seriously heavy work about a severely dysfunctional family is not everyone’s cup of tea. The New York Daily News described it as “…  laced with corrosive humor so darkly delicious and ghastly that you're squirming in your seat even as you're doubled-over laughing.” Strewn with f-bombs and situations that are often taboo in community theatre, it was definitely a risky play to include in our season.

Bellingham Theatre Guild’s production of “August: Osage County”  David S. Cohn

Bellingham Theatre Guild’s production of “August: Osage County”  David S. Cohn

I sat on the play selection committee when this play was submitted for consideration. While everyone agreed “August” was a fabulous play, there was, understandably, some squeamishness about putting it on. There were those on the committee who believed that we stood a real chance of offending our core members and season ticket holders to the point where they just might jump ship and turn their backs on us forever. But there were also those of us who thought they weren’t giving our audience enough credit and that we stood a very good chance of attracting a newer, and perhaps younger, audience as well. It would also give actors and crew an opportunity for meatier work than the standard fare.

In the end, the strength of the play won the day. The committee voted to include August in the season line up and the Board of Directors gave its stamp of approval. Even so there was still some handwringing that we were pushing the envelope a hair too far and there were several who expected ticket sales to be light.

Over 60 actors auditioned for the show. The director cast a powerful ensemble of top tier actors from the community and gathered a strong production crew committed to making August a success. (I should probably mention here that every person in or on the show was a volunteer.) Rehearsals were hard and often grueling given the enormity and power of the play. The set was huge and the set crew put in extra hours to complete it on time. Once the publicity campaign was underway, language and adult theme warnings went up on our website and in our social media. As a final firewall, warnings were included in the house manager’s speech at the beginning of each performance. We gave our audience every opportunity to know what it was in store. 

Ticket sales started off slowly, but then they usually do. Still it was a bit nerve-wracking. Then we had our Friends and Family Night where we offer a free preview during one of the last dress rehearsals before we open. We held our breath and crossed our fingers. That audience was riveted and blown away by the performance A local reviewer said it was the best production he’d ever seen at our theatre, while another avid theatre goer that night said it was the best production she’d seen locally in many years. Word of mouth quickly spread and by opening night we had sold over three-fourths of the house. For many, it had been their first time in our theatre. That’s what every theatre wants, right? New audience members. Not only did our supporters and members not bolt, many concurred that t it was the best thing we’ve done in years. And several patrons suggested we should do more shows like it. We received many positive messages and comments on our Facebook page. And, to almost everyone’s surprise, we received very few, if any, complaints about the language or content. Those who felt that the play was too risky were pleasantly surprised.

By taking this risk, we ramped up our game a bit, garnered new respect, and learned something about ourselves. Chestnut plays are important but so are the more serious, riskier works. They may not fill the house but they can pay off in other ways.

Photo: WSCTA

Clear Space Youth Repertory: Bringing Youth’s Voices to Lynden

Tess Nakaishi

  • OnStage Washington Columnist
  • @TessNakaishi

~~~~~~~

For young theatre artists, it’s common to feel as if one lacks control. Are you forever fated to flit from audition to audition, hoping someone else sees something in you? Must your life be controlled by seasons picked by Boards of which you are not a part? Is there no way to address the theatrical issues you alone seem bothered by in your community?

Fortunately, there is hope for young artists having a more direct voice in their community, and Clear Space Youth Repertory is here to prove that. Located in the small town of Lynden, WA, Clear Space is the first ever youth led theatre in the town. Their first project is a festival featuring short plays written by both local and national playwrights. Auditions for the festival take place May 17th and 18th at 7:00pm and the performances themselves run June 23rd-25th at 7:00pm. Both events occur at Lynden’s Claire VG Thomas Theatre. 

I discussed Clear Space and the challenge of starting a new theatre company over coffee with Clear Space artistic director Mijo Buiskool-Price, a theatre student at Western Washington University. Clear Space has been remarkably fortunate in terms of the support they have had thus far. The idea began when Mijo and technical director Spenser Stumpf were talking backstage about how Lynden needed more theatre for young people. As Mijo put it, there was a “need in the community theatre world because we are retiring a lot of artists and there are not a lot of artists rising up to take their place in leadership.” After voicing this concern, the Lynden Performing Arts Guild agreed to sponsor the creation of Clear Space. It is a wonderful situation in which Clear Space is receiving monetary support and a rent-free theatre space while also retaining creative control. Mijo would like to extend great thanks to the Guild for their incredible support.

The goal of Clear Space is to encourage creative expression for young theatre artists and “develop Lynden and surrounding areas into a destination for theatre.” Mijo noticed aspects of theatre in her community she thought could be improved upon, such as tendency to “focus mostly on entertainment value instead of…wow, theatre can be used to evoke so many different feelings and ideas.” As someone who began theatre at the high school level, she also noticed athleticism being glorified while artistic kids often felt left out. Instead of prioritizing one over the other, Mijo would like to “foster this community where athleticism and the arts can be seen as equal in accomplishing in the end the same goal of being together in a community.” In short, Mijo and the other founders of Clear Space identified the problems with their theatrical community and made the bold decision to go do something about those issues.

When I asked Mijo about advice for other young artists looking to expand their opportunities, she said, “Networking is literally the most important thing.” If it weren’t for Mijo and Spenser’s involvement with the Lynden Performing Arts Guild, they would never have been offered this amazing opportunity. The connections you form with other artists are absolutely crucial to your success. Time management and professionalism are also key, particularly when you are young. The six weeks between Clear Space’s auditions and lights up on their first show are already meticulously planned out. This is an organized, intelligent group who not only know what needs to get done but how to accomplish it in an efficient fashion. 

Part of crafting a professional persona is bringing the right attitude to the table. Mijo says she likes to work with “people who realize that theatre is a gift instead of people who would use it for their own self gain. We want people who are interested in doing theatre for the sake of theatre rather than for the sake of puffing themselves up.” Community theatre truly is a labor of love, and egos should be checked at the door. Mijo added that she and Spenser are the first to admit they aren’t all-knowing, and they approach Clear Space as a “growing process.” No one can run a theatre company singlehandedly, and it is important to learn how to “delegate and trust other people.”

Clear Space Youth Repertory

Clear Space Youth Repertory

While Mijo originally wanted to be an actor, she soon realized directing is her real passion. In the future, she hopes to teach drama at the high school level. With that in mind, we discussed her goals as a director and future teacher. Her experience with high school drama was “mixed” and she wants to offer future generations of students an alternative experience by “taking the time to teach my students and making sure their voices are heard.” It is important to her as an artist that theatre remains a collaborative art and no one is silenced. As Mijo aptly put it, “You cannot hold onto your vision with such a clenched fist because you have to make sure it has room to live and to breathe and to grow, and that is forever important for actors and technicians.”

We also talked about some big picture issues regarding the theatrical world at large. Mijo expressed the idea that “there are some voices that are overused” (think Disney) while other voices, such as the LGBTQ community and female playwrights, don’t get enough opportunities to be heard. Mijo said, “We can’t ignore the things in our nation and in our world that are going wrong, and theatre has the power to address that.” Theatre truly is a powerful tool and, if wielded properly, has the potential to create more unity in a world sharply divided. 

The biggest challenge Clear Space is facing is “assuring people we are legitimate.” Clear Space may not be a professional company on Broadway and its members may be young, but their passion and commitment to the craft make this theatre every bit as deserving. Mijo described Clear Space’s importance by saying, “it’s an artistic project that will benefit the community because culture makes things beautiful.” If you are in the Lynden area, I strongly encourage you to support these hard working artists by attending auditions, workshops, or their festival.

But whoever you are, wherever you are, Clear Space serves as an inspiration to young artists everywhere who sometimes feel helpless. It may not be easy or guaranteed, but it is possible to take direct action to change your local theatre environment. Mijo concluded her interview with what could very well be a rousing battle cry for theatre artists everywhere: “See theatre!”