How the Show Goes On
Spring 2010 Issue | By Emily Frandsen
Looking up at the stage, it’s easy to get lost in early 19th-century London, filled with beggars, women of ill repute and criminals.
And that’s exactly what the actors on the stage during Idaho State University’s Threepenny Opera want — an audience that experiences the story without thinking about the hundreds of hours of work that happens behind-the-scenes.
What the audience doesn’t know is that everything, from the choice of which performance, set in which time period, to the number of stairs on a stage platform, is a conscious decision made with the audience in mind. And, for months before the audience is invited into the theatre, students and faculty are working hard.
For the actors, there are hundreds of hours spent in rehearsal, from workshops in singing and dialect to acting and singing on stage. First in jeans and sweatpants with binders in hand, then later in full costume, actors becoming the characters they play.
For the orchestra behind the set, there are hours of practice both with and without the actors. It takes precision and skill for actors and musicians to complement each other.
There are costume designers who carefully analyze each piece of fabric on a dress and strand of hair on each actor’s head to make sure it matches the styles of the time period, and dressers who make sure actors look appropriate and get to the stage on time.
There are set designers and builders who work with the director to make sure the scenes on the stage not only create a good atmosphere for the audience, but make it easy for actors to perform their best. There are lighting designers, dialect coaches, stage managers and more.
For the more than 50 students working both on stage and behind-the-scenes, it’s a wonderful learning experience, says director Diana Livingston-Friedley.
“It’s so fun to see people working on one of the most important works of the 20th century,” she says. “I get chills.”
Music director and general director of ISU Opera Kathleen Lane chose the Threepenny Opera because of its historical significance. The opera, written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in 1928, was adapted from The Beggar’s Opera. It has been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times. The opera also requires singers of varying levels of vocal ability, making it accessible to more students. It’s an important opera for students to study, Lane says.
Auditions for the Threepenny Opera, which opened in April, were held in January. Livingston-Friedley and Lane double-cast many of the lead parts, with different actors playing the same roles on different nights.
“We had double talent,” Lane says.
Along with weekly opera workshops, the actors were on the stage early, learning their parts. By early March, Livingston-Friedley expected them to have their parts memorized and their scenes ready for fine-tuning.
“I need you out of the books by next week, folks,” she says as she moves across the stage, putting one man’s arm around a woman and moving actors into precise positions based on where pieces of the set will soon be.
It was early in the rehearsal schedule — about five hours per week. By showtime, rehearsals are nearly a full-time job.
“It’s not too crazy yet,” says music education major Liz O’Brien, who played Lucy Brown.
O’Brien is a veteran of ISU performances. She loves being on the stage, and loves her role as Lucy.
“I just love performing,” she said. “It’s dark, but it’s funny.”
While O’Brien and fellow cast members are learning music, others are building sets, sewing costumes and procuring props. Costume designer and theatre faculty member Tara Young works with — approximately 70 hours per week of student help, creating 1830s-period costumes for the cast of 31.
Young began designing the costumes in December, researching appropriate clothing and looks for the time. By February, she was building the costumes, with the help of her basic and advanced costume construction classes. For each class, Young says she always tries to take students to the limits of their abilities.
“At every level, I push them,” she says.
Young has the help from three students who serve as dressers and an assistant costume designer, who make sure everyone looks perfect for opening night. Or, in the case of the Threepenny Opera, filled with the underside of 1830s London, Young makes sure everyone looks a little less than perfect.
“You’re too pretty,” she tells a student playing a woman of ill repute as she unstraightens a street beggar’s tie, with 5 minutes to go before the show starts. “I want you to look a little nappy.”
After the opening scene, two student “dressers” work quickly in the dark to help actors change clothing and make last minute adjustments. Theatre education major Afton Knight and theatre major Tamara Shepherd don’t mind that the public doesn’t know about the work they do, as long as the cast appreciates their hard work.
Knight has worked both on and behind the stage, and she enjoys both.
“I just like to be a part of it,” she says.