What's your tale, Nightingale?
There’s something magical about the 1950’s.
No, I don’t know this from experience--unless you count repeated viewings of Back to the Future. Much as I’d love to hop into that DeLorean and check things out first hand, I’m still waiting for Doc Brown to roll out his Flux Capacitor and get to business.
My dad’s family moved here in 1958, similarly building their own house—Grandpa Ferencie was the maintenance man at Dyment Company in Cleveland, and received a deferment from service in World War II due to his irreplaceable value to his company. They built on Liberty Road, a mile and a half from the Vanderneut homestead. Dad started at Solon High School as a junior and met Mom on the bus. Mom was in the Business program, Dad in College Prep, so they didn’t have any classes together…but nevertheless, they were soon sitting together on the bus every day. They attended both the junior and senior proms together, graduated in 1960, and were married in 1963. They built their home on Pettibone Road in 1968, and two years later, Yours Truly came along.
In the 1950 census, Solon’s population was pegged at 2,570. Still officially a village (city status didn’t happen until 1960), Solon was just beginning to attract the corporate presence which defines the city today. My dad remembers driving through the village on the way to Geauga Lake Park—no stop lights, mostly farmland. Solon Center for the Arts was the seat of village government, also housing the fire department and police station. Roger’s Tavern (Imperial Wok is there now) and Drexel’s (Penn Station) were two of the main restaurants. There was one pizzeria—impressive, as pizza was just starting to become a popular dish in the United States. Rexall Pharmacy (you know it as CVS today) had a soda fountain, where my mom tasted her first cherry Coke.
I asked my parents to describe the 50’s. Dad talked a lot about Solon—the few businesses, the farms, the dense foliage and undergrowth that took months to clear from their land before he and his dad could even begin to build their house. He mentioned the airport (now the Community Park and dual school), and remembered watching cows graze in the Craemer Farm fields outside the high school windows. Mom talked about frustrated dreams—specifically not being allowed to go to college, because her father believed “girls didn’t do that.” Of the decade, the most descriptive thing they could say was “it was quiet.”
The 50’s are almost like a placeholder, a spacer if you will, between the noble sacrifices of World War II and the tumultuous chaos of the 60’s. Surely, the U.S.A. had it share of challenges—the Cold War, the Korean Conflict, Senator McCarthy and the Red Scare. But there definitely was a quiet simplicity to the decade, and I hear that so clearly when my parents talk about those years. It was a time to breathe, to recover from the sacrifices and hardships of the 30’s and 40’s, to enjoy the freedoms and rights that the Greatest Generation fought for so fiercely during the war. And this, I think, is why we romanticize the period, in everything from Happy Days to Back the Future.
Which leads us, of course, to All Shook Up. 1955 Solon is amazingly similar to our fictional “square little town in a square state in the middle of the U.S.A.” The similarities provide an anchor for me, a jumping-off point as we create the look and feel of this town. It helps too as we develop the characters, most of whom are reaching for something they can’t quite describe—they can feel it’s out there, just over the hill, but just out of reach.
All Shook Up is a simple show about a simple time. Really, the script isn’t much more than a vehicle to get from one Elvis song to the next. But everything about this show has a resonance for me, even the Elvis stuff—after all, my parents’ song is “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.”
There's more, of course. But as they say at the end of Back to the Future: To Be Continued...
The Leadership Lab
As we send students to Playhouse Square this week to begin rehearsals for the Dazzle Awards, it seems a fitting time to post this guest blog, written by veteran Drama parent Tom Weyenberg. Tom has been with us since 2006 and watched his sons Andy, Matt, and Jamey play a variety of roles both on and off stage. On May 6, Tom and his wife Laura were inducted into the Drama Club Community Hall of Fame.
This spring I had the privilege of being the only adult backstage during the Solon High School production of Shrek the Musical. Not to say that adults - parents and advisors - didn't help, indeed they were key pieces of the production. What I mean is that once "set for top of Act I" was called, backstage is an all-student production. Some background: because we brought in flying effects, the contract called for an supervisor, which was me. We also had two young-adult SHS graduates on the flying rig. From our flying position behind stage right first legs, I was able to observe the all-student crew and cast put on an amazing musical.
Although I was backstage, what I had was a front row seat to a top-notch leadership training program. Here is what I saw in the "leadership lab"
Sports and academic teams talk a lot about building leadership but they have got nothing on the Drama Club. The leadership skills that these students are learning will be valuable through college and into the workplace. Crew is by design behind the scenes and I don't think it's widely understood what a great experience the crew is getting. My sincere thanks to Kris and Joe for giving students the opportunity to lead and learn.
Yesterday, an alumnus stopped by to visit. It's always wonderful to catch up with our old friends, but a comment she made stayed with me: "This is so weird. I'm used to things being built for me."
This made sense. College theatre majors on an acting track aren't asked to work in the scene shop, other than putting in required hours for a core Stagecraft course. But it's vastly different from our process, in which all members of the club are asked (if not expected) to assist with the creation of our set pieces and props.
These construction sessions are known as Saturday Morning Crew, and on any given weekend you'll find us in the auditorium building worlds. The controlled chaos is so much more than just a chance to make sawdust (although we do make a lot of sawdust). It's necessary to our productions, of course--otherwise we'd be acting on a bare stage. But more than that, it's an opportunity for education, bonding, and donuts.
The design process begins months earlier, often as Joe and I are choosing the season. We discuss elements we have in stock that could be repurposed, and brainstorm new approaches to the specific needs of the script. We say things like "How in the world are we going to build a (fill in the blank)?" And through the season we continue to problem-solve, shaping a cohesive design long before the show is even cast.
The builds usually begin slowly. We share the auditorium with many other groups and events, so our sets are built in component pieces which can be stored efficiently during meetings and rehearsals, or removed entirely for larger events like concerts. To the casual observer, it's often difficult to ascertain the final purpose or appearance of the individual pieces, but there's always a method to the madness.
We're currently approaching that magic date we like to call "when the stage is ours," meaning all other scheduled events are past and the next thing up is our show. This golden day is usually two weeks before the fall play, and about a month before the musical. Once we hit this day, we start the "permanent" installation of any stationary elements and final assembly of the mobile pieces. Base coats of paint are textured and detailed, finishing elements like molding are added, and "dressing" details like window curtains, paintings or foliage are placed to complete the picture.
For Joe and me, each Saturday is like the old Ed Sullivan plate-spinning act as we manage 20-50 students and another 2-12 adults at any given time. We break the workers into small groups, each group working on a specific element. We're always grateful to have parents (and sometimes alumni) join us, as they bring more experienced skill sets and can manage some of the more complicated aspects of construction. But ultimately, the sets are constructed primarily by our students. There's a lot of teaching along the way, from the proper way to use all of our tools to the names of the hardware to the specific techniques for stage construction (while we share the same basic principles as home construction, our houses usually need to move around on 5 1/2" casters).
Participating at crew is one of the more rewarding aspects of the SHS Drama Club. I love hearing the conversation after a performance as a student points out to her grandmother each bit of work she did on the set. I adore the moment when the light bulb goes on for a student and he understands not only why he needs to build a piece a certain way, but also how essential that piece will be to a show. We stress practical, real-world solutions (yes, you can use your geometry lesson to figure out that angle!) and applications (this is how your house is built!). My favorite part, though, is watching a student step up and successfully lead a project...watching an upperclassman pass along knowledge to a newer student...watching students from all walks of life at the high school working shoulder-to-shoulder, collaborating in the creation of something bigger than the sum of its parts.
We hear stories of other schools, other programs, where there is a hard and fast separation between the cast and crew. I believe a young actor is far more likely to trust a set piece he had a hand in building, is far more respectful of the delicacy of a prop she spent hours making. But more importantly, we are a family which works together towards a common goal, and neither group can fulfill its purpose without the other.
With a little more than a month until we open Shrek, there is still a substantial amount of construction, paint, and donuts to come. We'll eat a lot of pizza (thank goodness for Gionino's!), make a lot of sawdust, and spend a lot of Saturday hours building our big, bright, beautiful world. And when the curtain opens April 14, we'll share in the knowledge that we made something that never was before. That's theatre. And I love every screw, paint brush, and flower that goes into it.
Here There Be Dragons
I've never staged a scene with a 26' dragon before.
Oh, there have been lots of other unique challenges in my career. I can tell stories about a man-eating plant, an Egyptian tomb, a magical transformation in mid-air, a vintage 1912 Ford driving across the stage--which should not to be confused with the vintage English roadster that drove across the Solon stage last year--but those are all stories for another time. Because this week, I blocked a dragon.
Ok, so the actual dragon wasn't available just yet. Our girl DeeDee is still under construction, though we've made progress since the last pictures posted here. But in theatre, we learn to make due until the prop is found or the set piece completed--so, armed with a 26' length of clothesline and three enthusiastic stage managers, we staged the song "This is How a Dream Comes True."
"Dream" is the simpler of the two dragon songs. DeeDee is on stage for less time than in her feature number, "Forever," so it made sense to get our scales wet with this one. Fiona sings the bulk of the number downstage center, while DeeDee chases Shrek and Donkey around her keep (castle). So while Fiona held position, I directed the largest scale cat-and-mouse chase I've ever attempted. The stage managers used the aforementioned clothesline to provide a full-length stand-in for the dragon, allowing me to set spacing with the actors. We played with several variations, most of which involved DeeDee playing with her potential dinner, before settling on the sequence you'll see in the show.
In performance, DeeDee will be controlled by four puppeteers who will manipulate the head, wings, body and tail via 6' rods; the dragon will "fly" above their heads, gliding through her scenes. She will be voiced by an actress on an off-stage microphone with line-of-sight to the action, and I anticipate extensive rehearsal time to coordinate the mouth movements with the lyrics.
She'll be stored in the fly tower (the upper part of the stage) stage left. We'll make use of this rig to keep her aloft during construction as well, as she's now too big to be supported by music stands.
Credit parent volunteer Jim Gough and his daughter Kayla (Drama Club senior and Assistant Stage Manager for the show) for DeeDee's engineering and design. While her exterior appearance is meant to be true to the original look of the animated movie, her functionality is intended to be best-suited to our stage and student puppeteers. I can't wait to (literally) put her in the puppeteers' hands and bring her to life!
Some shows we choose for their value to our students, as a vehicle for growth and education. Some shows we choose for their popularity among our audiences. Some shows we choose because they just make sense at the time, based on current events or sensibilities. And some shows...well, sometimes, we pick a show because we've always wanted to do it and the time is finally right.
To Kill a Mockingbird was one of those shows. Yes, it fulfilled those first three criteria when we chose it to open our 2011-2012 season. But Joe and I had been waiting (not so patiently) for the right time after seeing a wonderful production at Baldwin-Wallace University's high school theatre workshop early in our tenure as advisers. Directed by my mentor Jack Winget, the B-W production inspired us as we began exploring the whole Black Box experience on our stage, and though nearly a decade passed in the meantime, in 2011 we finally decided the time had come.
In the handful of days since Harper Lee's passing, I've read and heard innumerable tributes to her work, and the effect Mockingbird continues to have on our world view. When I learned of her death, my thoughts immediately turned to our production, and the journey we took through our own streets of Maycomb County.
Scrolling through Facebook Friday afternoon, I was moved by the comments posted by the cast as they each recalled their experiences with Mockingbird. Each show we do creates its share of jokes and memories, but this one touched us all in a very personal way, thanks in no small part to Ms. Lee's words and images. Just as the whispers of Miss Maudie and Mayella Ewell will continue to echo in the corners of our theatre, the ghostly figure of Boo Radley will continue to watch over two young children as they learn to navigate this complicated world.
Stand up, Miss Jean Louise--your father's passin'.
The Director's Chair
Hey, look, the Solon High School Drama Club is joining the 21st century!
Ok, so most of us (well, the students at least) were already there. And even though it's taken me a little longer to catch up, I'm proud to introduce The Director's Chair, a new feature on our vastly improved website. With the introduction of this format, we've gone from "functional" to "fabulous," and I'm really excited about the possibilities now in front of us. I'm hoping this forum helps shine a light on the often mysterious world of theatre, from audition through rehearsal, performance, and beyond.
We're about a month into rehearsals for Shrek The Musical, and with this first post we begin a virtual backstage tour of the process. Our to-do list for the show is a little more complicated than in previous years, given the Fairy Tale land we're creating. While we're making the usual amount of sawdust and carving up Styrofoam snowstorms (a favorite pastime of all crews, to be sure), other more specialized processes are taking shape. One of our first priorities was "life-casting" the faces of our Shrek and Fionas--creating a negative mold of the actor's face, from which a positive plaster bust will be cast. That bust will be used as a foundation to assure that the prosthetic appliances we create fit the actor's face perfectly. Check out the video below, produced by senior Rachel Horn, for a look at our life-casting adventures:
Mr. Jim Gough, parent volunteer extraordinaire, is leading our students through the many-step process of prosthetic creation. (You'll be seeing Mr. Gough's name a lot in this space, and we're very appreciative of his talents and assistance.) We also need to extend a HUGE thank you to The Monster Makers, a special effects supply company located right here in Cleveland (whose Monster Clay was recently used to sculpt the melted Darth Vader head in a galaxy far, far away) for their guidance and generosity. If you're interested in the next steps of this process, I highly recommend the SyFy series "Face Off," a reality show in which makeup artists compete in weekly challenges and craft some truly amazing effects. The show is a favorite discussion point in Mr. F's Production Technology course, and we enjoy critiquing the designers' efforts from week to week.
Meanwhile, in a different corner of the stage, construction of our dragon puppet is well underway. We'll have more details on this ambitious project in the days to come, but here's a little sneak peak:
Rehearsals resume this week after our successful Evening of One-Acts performances. We're excited to begin choreography on one of the biggest numbers in the show, "Freak Flag." Blocking and staging continue as the actors and I work to shape their characters. It's the meaty part of the rehearsal marathon, the broad strokes which lay the groundwork for all the details to come.
I'm intrigued by this new platform, and I hope you'll join me on this journey--maybe even provide some suggestions for navigation. Post your comments and questions, and I'll address them. Share with your friends the amazing work that's done regularly by our students at Solon--they're pretty amazing people, and I'm grateful I get to sit in their director's chair.