Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Location, Location

Timur Kocak
ASC Set Designer and Technical Director

The world of a play only begins to take form in the words.  In order for an audience to be drawn in, to suspend disbelief and accept that what is on stage is worth being part of, the creative team must construct a context for the dialogue, a place where characters can come to life.  While the actors and the director will give life to the action, the action must be situated in a physical and atmospheric location that makes sense for that play and the director's vision of it, and it is the set designer who must create the first part of that locale.

For the ASC, the set design relies on Timur Kocak's sense of magic, which, he says, come from a kind of creative flying by the seat of his pants.  "The sets I'm happiest with depend as much on improvisation as any guiding principle," he says.  "I try to create sets that are flexible and, when necessary, invisible."  He aims to have the scenery show off the costumes and keep the audience's attention on the action as it unfolds rather than on his set. 

Many a designer will spend much time discussing with a director what the concept of the play will be, but Colette Rice, the Play Master at ASC, prefers to play to the text rather than to a concept, and the process is a bit different in her collaborations with Kocak, with whom she has been collaborating since 2000. 
Kocak''s last sketch of design and floor painting for Merchant of Venice (2008)

"For example, in the case of MACBETH (2012)," Kocak says; "Colette knew she wanted a stage in traverse, i.e., with the audience on opposing sides; she wanted a bowl of blood and a bowl of water at either end.  It was up to me to come up with set pieces that could create the desired settings: interior, exterior, castle or heath."  If we were outside, the minimal set had to clarify that, and when we were indoors, the set had to bring the audience into the castle.  According to Kocak, to create that effect, he required that floor be painted in colors and patterns that could let the audience imagine a muddy road or the great hall of a medieval castle, and then he worked with Lighting Designer Paul Hudson to get the most out of the effect.  

"All the paint colors and finishes that I use of course depend on lighting for their effect."  In true theatrical tradition, despite coordinated efforts begun well before the rehearsal process began, last-minute adjustments were necessary on Kocak's part.  When lights were fixed, it was clear that he would have to darken the floor and plinths a few degrees. . . "which I achieved with the application of a glaze."

Finding the appropriate set pieces was a challenge for Macbeth because of the director's specificity, but, with perseverance, the set designer triumphed. "It took much searching up and down the Bowery to find large bowls for the blood and water, glass in appearance, but sturdy and resilient.  For the plinths on which the huge bowls rested, I tried to create a faux finish to match photos of the Stone of Scone, which rests below the coronation thrown in Westminster Abbey but comes from the historical seat of Scottish kings, as mentioned in the play's last scene."
Michael Basile as Macbeth, with the Blood Bowl

One of the things Timur Kocak appreciates about working in the West Side Theater is that his sets cannot achieve their desired effect without the engagement of his audience's imagination and their complete submission to the conceit he presents.  He explains, "Settings must be suggested rather than presented in a small space like ours." And, given the vicissitudes of the pursuit of artistic excellence in the economic climate of today, budgets are necessarily small, so the set designer is forced to be more creative.  "I believe," he asserts,"that it is very important not to violate the world of a play.  That is to say that nothing must look, sound or even smell out of place.  If an actor steps onto a platform that is shaped as and painted to look like a tree stump, for instance, it must not sound hollow like a wooden box.  Nor should the smell of cleaner or fresh latex paint intrude on the notion that we are watching say, the French nobility carouse in their camp, the night before the battle of Agincourt."  

"In telling stories," he says, "details are important."   The minutia can make or break an audience's allegiance to the imagery of the scene.  "Small things like zippers and other often misplaced technology, the wrong car (I am from Detroit after all) and even casual contemporary phrases like "you guys" or "...I'm just sayin'... " in a period script can bounce me right out of an otherwise compelling story.  I especially appreciate the show Mad Men for its attention to detail.  I find myself searching every corner of the screen for something from my grandparents' house or wardrobe."  

Mad Men notwithstanding, Kocak believes that large set and costume budgets do not necessarily protect a production from huge mistakes.  The annals of theater and film are rife with those, and Timur Kocak is keeping track.

"My wife has forbidden me from starting my own 'Stage and Screen Historic Anomaly Blog' lest I ruffle the wrong feathers - or just appear silly." 

No theater (or film) director would think him silly. . . continuity matters!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Company Woman

Cindy Boyle
Cindy Boyle is the consummate company player.  Erudite, well-trained, astute and deeply talented, she is in every way a company woman.  Moved by their devotion to the theater in general and to Shakespeare in particular, she and Colette Rice -- along with nine other like-minded artists -- founded the Actors Shakespeare Company in 2000, in Hoboken, NJ.  Twelve years later, despite the never-ending financial woes that come with the territory, Cindy remains the Bard's willing acolyte, committed to the mission she and her founding brothers and sisters created for themselves, determined to see the work nurtured so that the Company may prosper and grow.

Cindy Boyle as Eleanor of Aquitaine
At the start, Cindy was an actor, and her primary focus was her own growth as an actor.  She was very impressed with Producing Artistic Director Colette Rice's fidelity to Patrick Tucker's First Folio approach to the text.  Tucker, who introduced a production of As You Like It at the RSC with the claim that the play was "written and directed by William Shakespeare," developed a method for finding the direction from the playwright in the text itself.  "You might find it in the punctuation," Cindy says smiling with the delight of swishing the words around in her head.  She stands and demonstrates as she goes on,  "Or you might find it in the phrasing or in the juxtaposition of words or even in the spelling or in Shakespeare's choice of words.  For example, if my line has me addressing you as 'thou,' I am directed to move closer, but if I call you 'you,' that's more formal, and I am told to move away. It's a vitally illuminating way to dive into the text!"
Cindy Boyle, as the Duchess of Gloucester,  and
Terrence MacSweeney,
as Edward, in The Lear Project 2011

"The other thing I love most about this company is that we use scrolls.  Scrolls!"  Scrolls, of course, are the scripts of Shakespeare's time, on which actors find only their own "sides," the individual actor's part with no more than a cue from another actor.  At times they even performed from the scrolls without rehearsal, just as they might have in Shakespeare's Rose Theater.  "It's thrilling!"  Boyle enthuses.  "Except for the entrances, exits, dances and fights, nothing is really predetermined.  Anything can happen.  And that can be terrifying . . . but what a rush!"

In the acting resume compiled at the ASC, Cindy has played Twelfth Night's Feste, King John's Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hamlet's Gertrude, Romeo and Juliet's Lady Capulet and others, all roles appropriate, as Boyle points out, to "a woman of a certain age."  But, in the manner of one who is certainly far more youthful than that remark would imply, Boyle has developed a number of other skills and has made herself a vital part of her organization.

In a previous life, Cindy Boyle worked as the Assistant Office Manager and Receptionist at the Rogers and Hammerstein Organization.  "It was a dream job," says Cindy; "Especially for one so deeply steeped in theater." At the Rodgers and Hammerstein office, Boyle was responsible for greeting and situating luminaries from Julie Andrews to John Bon Jovi, for creating and overseeing much of the day-to-day bookkeeping and theatrical contract development, for maintaining the office and for seeing that fire department regulations were met.  "It was great training for working at the ASC.  When they eliminated my position in 2009, I was only too happy to take my skills to the Actors Shakespeare Company."

At ASC, since 2009, Cindy has been the Operations Manager at ASC, responsible to assist Colette Rice in all aspects of running the theater company.  She is also the Secretary of the Board of Directors, and it is her job to schedule meetings, distribute materials, take and distribute minutes from meetings, and do all the event planning.  She is also the Company's Wardrobe Mistress, responsible for the remarkable inventory of costumes the ASC has, thanks to their Costume Designer Eva Lachur Omeljaniuk.  "The woman is incredible," raves Boyle.  "We are so lucky to have her.  And we have the most amazing costume inventory I know of.  Truly a gift!"

In addition, Cindy is the Company Photographer, and her photos are the mainstay of publicity efforts, marketing outreach, etc.
Striking Macbeth
Photo by Cindy Boyle

When the ASC experienced financial difficulties, Cindy took it in her stride and stepped down from her paid position, but she has not flagged in her allegiance to the Work.  "I grew up on a farm in upstate, central New York," says Boyle.  "We raised horses.  I can handle just about anything that comes my way.  I know that there's work to be done, and I'm there to get it done."

A large part of the work that must be done is fundraising.  "It's the only thing I hate about this theater company -- that we have to constantly beg for money.  We have a topnotch product, and we should be at least securely ensconced at NJCU, but we are not.  Is anyone in today's economy?  Certainly the economy's been unkind to all nonprofits, so we're not unique in that way."

As part of the effort to take the Company's message to the public, the ASC will be returning to various venues in New Jersey to present All the World's a Stage, where actors from the ASC present a potpourri of Shakespearean roles and excerpts for audiences in the Hudson County area.  The next presentation will be at Congregation B'Nai Jacob, 176 West Side Avenue, Jersey City, NJ 07305.

Cindy Boyle will be there, reprising roles she's played before -- Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Adam (As You Like It) and Mistress Ford (Merry Wives of Windsor) -- and hoping that the audience catches the enthusiasm of the Company.

"I love the Company factor of our company,"  Boyle says with a deep sigh.  "Aside from my addict's need to be onstage, I have a deep and abiding need to be part of a real company.  It's where I got my theatrical start with George Morrison at the State University of New York at Purchase.  And the ASC is a truly safe place to be because of the Company itself.  We are free there.  Free to be ourselves, free to make idiots of ourselves if need be in the pursuit of something truly fantastic.  We get to let go of Self and just be entirely in our moment on stage."

Boyle laughs a bit mischievously.  Then she adds, thoughtfully, "Isn't that the key to creative freedom?"

Saturday, March 31, 2012


It's Saturday, March 31, and you've got just two more chances to see MACBETH at the ASC.

                                       Today (3/31)               3:00 PM
                                        Tomorrow(4/1)          3:00 PM
                                            At the West Side Theatre
Tickets and information at http://www.ascnj.org/box-office/ or by calling 201-200-2390

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dressing the Show

ASC actors Colin Ryan, Patrick Harvey and Elizabeth Belzoni in Costumes by Eva Lachur-Omeljaniuk
Photo by Cindy Boyle, Boyle Images
In her review of ASC's Macbeth, Ruth Ross cited the costume design by Eva Lachur-Omeljaniuk, complimenting the designer's choice of "appropriately medieval" garments worn by the authentically 11th C characters and citing how the "addition of a tabard, a cloak, a hat or a robe" creates the illusion of an actor changing roles entirely.  Ms. Ross has astutely brought attention to one of the more salient backstage roles in any theater production, that of the Costume Designer/Mistress.

Eva Lachur-Omeljaniuk Adjusts a Costume for A Midsummer Night's Dream
Photo by Cindy Boyle, Boyle Images
 Often a director will choose to set a Shakespeare play in another time or place than that which was designated by the playwright, and it is important for the costumes to reflect the director's vision of the play as well as the underpinnings of the characters .  Having conferred with the director, it is the costume designer's responsibility to know each of the roles in the play well and to research setting, then to find a way, within the strictures of the budget allotted for costumes, to create a costume plot, a series of costumes that are "in character" for this particular production.  The costumes must fit the both the text itself and the direction of the play as well; that is, the costumes must enable the actors to play their scenes authentically while they are maneuverable within the confines of the director's blocking so that they never get in the way or draw attention away from the action of the play.

Costumes do more than simply create resonance of time and place.  They serve to enhance characters' personalities, pointing out taste, mood, social class, maturity, mores, etc., in such things as color, fit, and style of the garment.  An effective costume designer must be creative, knowledgeable, skillful and collaborative.

Working in concert with one another, the costumer,  the lighting designer, hair dresser, the set designer create the world of the play, enabling the audience to suspend disbelief in order to be swept away from their "real life" world and into the life on the stage.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Music Man

What makes for a thoroughly satisfying theatrical experience?

For the most part, whether you love a production, are lukewarm about it or hate it entirely rests on your own taste.  But the goal of any producer is to get a universal word of mouth that drives traffic to the show and puts "bums on seats" for every performance.  The success of a production, then, must be embraced by at least the majority of its audience members and critics, and there are elements that are critical to achieving that goal.  The next few blogs will take a look at some of the people who help drive the success of any show, and we'll begin with the music direction.

Anthony Bez, Musical Director of ASC
Audience members who truly love a show may not be aware of what is making them enjoy themselves.  Typically, the experience depends on sensory input, and the more effectively the senses are engaged simultaneously, the richer the enjoyment of the play.  The textures of the sound, if blended well into the production, will move the plot along, deepen the emotional resonance of the play and draw the audience in, helping them to react to the stimuli of the visuals onstage.

Sound design is a new discipline in theater.  Up until the late 1960's, a Stage Manager would be expected to find the appropriate sounds to support a production.  The SM would gather sounds for on and offstage, and it was rare that a nonmusical production would have the kind of "background" music that we associate with film.  But in the last 40 years, with the great advances in sound technology and equipment, the Music Director has become an invaluable contributor to the life of a play, creating all whatever layers of music and sound effects are appropriate for the presentation.

A talented music director will produce a flexible, complex, inexpensive integration of sounds that will influence the actors' action and the plays feel.  Collaborating with the director,  the sound will blend with the director's overall vision of the piece and complete it.
Anthony Bez and Colette Rice in Collaboration
Photo by Cindy Boyle, Boyleimage

Anthony Bez, Music Director at ASC, has been collaborating with Colette Rice long enough that he can, in some ways, anticipate her esthetic and present ideas already at early production meetings, which hastens the construction of each production.

Go see Macbeth, and try to notice the various sounds as well as any music that envelopes you as you hear the play.   Notice how the music of the drums, for example, augments the suspense of the thickening plot.  Notice how the witches' evil is captured in what you listen to as much as in what you watch.

Then thank Anthony Bez for enhancing your experience and making it memorable.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Your Last Chance to See Macbeth at the ASC

Friday evening, at 7:30, closing weekend begins for our production of Macbeth at the West Side Theatre.

 Tickets are onsale at the box office for Friday (7:30), Saturday (3:00) and Sunday (3:00) shows.  Don't miss this exciting show!

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Work Behind the Scenes - Thank a Stage Manager

Jennifer America 

Jennifer America, ASC Stage Manager, deserves a huge round of applause.  She is the stage manager, responsible for a flawlessly smooth production, where props are where they are supposed to be, actors make entrances on cue, lights illuminate at exactly the moment they are needed, stage is a safe place for actors to work, scenery stands still when it needs to and moves when appropriate to do so, etc., ad infinitum.  A multitude of tasks comprise the Stage Manager's job, and she must be a master of many trades to do it well.  There is no more critical person in any play than the Stage Manager.

Ask any high school theater director, and h/she will tell you that the single most consistently and successfully employed graduate of the program is the kid who learned how to be a responsible, dedicated Stage Manager.  The youngster who graduates from high school and enters a tech ed Bachelor's program and dedicates him/herself to the arduous work will never ever want for a job.  
horizontal line
 The stage manager's work often begins in the preproduction planning and audition process, where s/he is important to the director in all kinds of ways. The SM is likely to be the one who organizes all the auditions, contacts all the actors to return for callbacks, and creates and keeps track of every schedule for every member of the company.

In rehearsals,  the director and stage manager work side by side.  The stage manager records the director's blocking and notes for the actors, which s/he will later compile into the production book, the director's book and the SM's book.  The SM keeps track of logistical and scheduling details and communicates what goes on in rehearsals to the rest of the team. This enables the director to concentrate his or her full attention on staging the show and directing the actors.

Stage managers' key responsibilities include:
  • scheduling and running rehearsals
  • communicating the director's wishes to designers and crafts people
  • coordinating the work of the stage crew
  • calling cues and possibly actors' entrances during performance
  • overseeing the entire show each time it is performed
  • marking out the dimensions of the set on the floor of the rehearsal hall
  • making sure rehearsal props and furnishings are available for the actors
  • attending all rehearsals
  • notifying the designers and crafts people of changes made in rehearsal
  • keeping track of hours worked, abiding by union rules if applicable, keeping pay records

    In rehearsals the stage manager also records all blocking, plus all the light, sound and set change cues, in a master copy of the script called the prompt book. The information in the prompt book also allows the stage manager to run the technical rehearsals, calling each technical cue in turn to determine precisely how it needs to be timed to coordinate with the onstage action.

    The stage manager and the technical director also work out a smooth and efficient plan for the stage crew to follow during set changes. Furniture and prop plans for complicated sets are drawn up by the stage manager and technical designer to show exactly where the furniture and props are to be positioned on stage at the beginning of each scene and  sometimes in the wings.  The stage manager directs the crews' movements and tasks in much the same way a director directs the play and the actors.

    Once the show opens, the director's work is essentially complete, and the stage manager takes over, making sure that every aspect of the production runs just as the director intended time after time, until the production closes.

    Most schools with extensive drama departments offer training specifically toward becoming a Stage Manager.  Equity has a membership category for stage managers.

     Jennifer America, ASC's resident Stage and Production Manager, is a graduate of the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she also studied directing and design.  She often serves as Play Master at the ASC and directs plays in neighboring theaters as well.  She is a member of the Actors Equity Association.

    Photos of Jennifer America, by Cindy Boyle, Boyleimages.com