From page to stage
One play’s journey from auditions to opening night
Why was I the only one who seemed nervous?
It was opening night at the Blue Room Theatre, but you wouldn’t have known it watching the cast, crew and director as they went about getting ready for the night’s performance. Families and various local theater types were streaming in from the chilly autumn night, making their way up the two flights of squeaky wooden stairs before quietly settling into their seats in the little black-box theater. Meanwhile, over in the “Wood Room,” the wood-paneled production/rehearsal space on the opposite side of the building, everyone was doing “The Hokey Pokey.”
The impromptu song was, of course, a way of letting off steam and bringing everyone together, but even before they all started putting their “left foot in,” this cast of the stage version of The Little Prince hardly seemed fazed by the fact they were minutes away from having to hit marks and remember lines in front of an audience for the first time.
One of the leads was walking around, smiling at passersby and reciting to himself. A member of the ensemble was selling refreshments at the snack bar in full costume. And the 18-year-old stage manager, while looking fairly serious, was the picture of calm as she fiddled with her headset and shouted to the cast scattered around the production room: “Five minutes to places!” “Thank you!” they responded before returning to texting, dancing and rolling around on chairs before starting “The Hokey Pokey” a mere minute before they found their pre-show spots.
But I knew better. At least I thought I did. For nearly six weeks, I’d been eavesdropping on these people and this production. I followed along from the cold readings of the open auditions, through weeks of alternately ragged and magical rehearsals and technical preparations, all the way up to the final week’s frantic tech- and dress-rehearsal schedule. And even though I was outwardly rooting for them to nail it as I said “break a leg” to each of them, inside I was thinking it’s very possible that opening night would be a rough one.
Chico really is a theater town. If you were to plan on going to an entire season/year’s worth of every locally produced play by the seven community theater companies—Blue Room, Chico Theater Company, Rogue Theatre, California Regional Theatre, Theatre on the Ridge, Birdcage Theatre, Ensemble Theatre of Chico—as well as those by Chico State and Butte College, you’d be calendaring about 40 different plays over 12 months. That’s not even counting the high-school productions, or the community theaters’ youth programs, or for that matter the touring Broadway productions that Chico Performances brings to Laxson Auditorium and the one-off special events like the annual Butcher Shop festival. All told, you could see an average of about one play per week in Chico over the next year—if you were very motivated.
Of course, those numbers pale in comparison to the math behind the curtain. The mind boggles when one stops and thinks about all of the actors, directors, set builders, costume designers, prop makers, light and sound techs, and all of the other unlisted organizers, office workers, volunteers and more who make these plays happen. That’s especially true considering the fact that all the local people and resources are being spread out among so many theaters, working for weeks and sometimes months on each production. It seems nearly impossible that so much theater could be produced in the Chico area.
It was with all that in mind that I decided to approach one theater—the Blue Room, now entering its 19th season in downtown Chico—and ask to tag along to see for myself what it takes to put on just one play.
The Little Prince is the first play of the Blue Room’s 2012-13 season, and it’s also the first main-stage production since Fred Stuart came aboard as the theater’s artistic director last summer. “I have been volunteering my time helping the Blue Room re-group managerially and artistically while also volunteering as a kids’ theater teacher in my spare time,” he explained.
Stuart—who also works full time for Theatrical Rights Worldwide, a licensing company for Broadway and off-Broadway shows—would also be directing the play, and he was more than happy to offer access to the process. Tryouts for the first production would happen over two nights, Sept. 16-17, and Stuart recommended coming to the second.
Of course, the process had already started earlier in the summer, when Stuart worked with the Blue Room to put together the schedule for the season.
Given the fact that they brought him on board during the summer, the Blue Room board forwent its preferred “slow-cooking” approach to curating (where plays are chosen only after a rigorous series of multiple readings), and chose plays for the season from works that Stuart had worked on before and would fit with the season’s theme of “Civility.”
The Little Prince, adapted from the beloved French children’s book by Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry—and featuring an Aviator stranded in the desert with his downed plane far from civilization and a little prince who has many questions about modern man’s empty pursuits—fit the bill nicely.
“I like when people read ice cold,” Stuart said as the actors filed in on night two of auditions. He said that 17 potential actors had shown up the previous evening. This night’s open audition had 12, ranging from a 10-year-old Lili Shrestha, a student from the Blue Room’s summer youth-theater camps, to 38-year-old Jeff Burkhart, a local musician who just made his acting debut in a Butcher Shop one-act this past summer.
Unlike a traditional closed audition, where someone is coming and reading alone for the director while the other actors sit in the hallway waiting their turn, the open audition has them all in the same room, where one or more can be called upon at random to pick up a script and do a cold reading, alone or together.
“It’s a trick of watching how they interact once they hear the rhythm of the scene a few times,” Stuart explained, adding that in the process he’s looking for “just a certain spark.”
The play requires two main actors: a kid to play the Little Prince and an adult to play the Aviator who meets up with the mysterious young prince in the desert after crash landing his plane. There are also a flexible number (10 or so) of ensemble parts to be handed out.
Before beginning, Stuart ran the group through a few games together in order to stretch out their speaking muscles and to get them to begin reacting to one another.
The first was called “What are you doing?” and it started with one person miming an action, and the next person asking them “What are you doing?”—to which they responded by describing an entirely different action than the one they were demonstrating, at which point the one who asked the question had to start acting out what had just been said. So, when the player who was killing cockroaches responded with “I’m ice skating,” the highly energetic young boy who asked the question immediately started sliding and spinning around the room like a junior Brian Boitano.
As they progressed through a couple more of these exercises, what had felt like a nervous energy running through the room early on was put to good use as most of the players eagerly jumped at the chance to shake off the jitters and start to play.
After warm-ups, the first pair called to read together was Shrestha and 31-year-old Sean Constantine. As they slowly read through the brief page of dialogue, Stuart wasted no time jumping right in to give them notes. After she had been stopped and re-started a few times and was urged to pick up the pace and to respond—not just read the lines—the young Shrestha, unfazed by the interruptions, calmly worked up to hitting her stride.
“That’s it! You feel that rhythm?” Stuart asked. “It’s so much happier when it builds.” And Stuart continued on this way, pairing up players and putting them through the motions, and sending them on their way a few at a time saying that they’d be receiving an email in a couple of days one way or the other—“We’ll be in touch.”
He kept Shrestha around for a while, pairing her up with a handful of the actors. While she wasn’t as quick as the young adults at reading the script, she did seem quietly at ease with each scenario Stuart tested her with. After she was excused, her mom gave her an enthusiastic “Nice job!” as they walked out.
“We are pretty much all over the board as far as experience level,” Stuart commented, adding that he felt that the less-experienced actors actually gave the best line readings.
After the audition, Stuart said that, except for the Aviator part, he already had a good idea who he was going to select. He also said that he was toying with the idea of casting two Little Princes—“one to act, and one to narrate”—possibly Shrestha as well as a kid named Jackson who he said had a great rehearsal the previous night. But he still needed to find his Aviator. And he knew just where to look.
After the cast list was sent out, and the varied schedules of the 13 actors sifted through, the first rehearsal was scheduled for a Monday night, Oct. 1, a week later than originally planned. In addition to the normal work and school conflicts, many of the actors were still winding down their commitments to other productions in town, including California Regional Theatre’s Oliver, and the Blue Room Young Co.-produced Fiddler on the Roof Jr. (which Stuart also directed) at Laxson Auditorium.
As a result, there were a few actors who couldn’t make it to the first reading, but the Aviator was there. The first person I ran into was board member and Blue Room co-founder Denver Latimer, whom Stuart had convinced to play his adult lead. For his part, Latimer said he was looking forward to working with Stuart and getting a closer look at his process.
The rest of the players filed into the Wood Room and around a table set up with scripts by stage manager Maddison Heffley, and after settling further scheduling issues, and with no fanfare, they jumped right into reading the script.
“Let’s turn to seven and begin.”
Stuart did opt for casting two princes—with Shrestha being tasked with miming most of her role and 11-year-old Jackson Indar in charge of the bulk of the dialogue. From the first word, Indar was on. He read with energy and breezy confidence, as though he already knew the part, and had the collected ensemble smiling along.
And as they jumped around and got familiar with the different sections, Stuart was intensely engaged, throwing out brainstorms for stage direction, making the appropriate sound effects and complimenting or commenting on every nuance of delivery.
“If you’re out of the way of this material,” he said, “we’ll have success.”
Only one additional rehearsal was scheduled for the first week, that following Saturday morning, and Stuart started it off by talking a little bit about how The Little Prince isn’t a Disney sort of children’s story. It’s a tragedy, and he wanted to play it as such, with the little man’s crisis building to a catharsis.
“Unless our audience is hard-hearted,” he explained, they should feel it and hopefully leave the theater with questions in their head.
He then separated the cast, with the Aviator and two princes going over lines on the main stage, and the ensemble going to work in the Wood Room.
After leading the ensemble in some body and vocal stretching (“Puh-ti-cah! Bu-di-gah!”), Stuart explained that they would be doing a lot of physical work, namely in the creation of a few set pieces on what would be a mostly black set. He also said they would be distributing the various smaller roles among the ensemble as they moved forward.
For the time being, they were to work on the first and most important of the set pieces—the Aviator’s airplane.
“This will teach us how to do every bit after,” he said, before leaving them on their own to figure out how to create a plane using their bodies. “Once you guys start, it’s your world.”
With stage manager Heffley reading lines for them and jotting down potential blocking as the plane came and went in various forms, they enthusiastically went to work, with everyone talking at once, throwing out one idea after another:
“Is someone going to flutter a scarf?
“Is this a bi-plane?”
“How am I going to put my head where my butt is?”
Fred then returned and read the Aviator’s line that would be their cue: “‘I learned to pilot airplanes’—Boom! That’s the beat.”
With no hesitation the 10 of them scrambled into the form of a plane, before crashing and scattering bodies across the floor in mock wreckage.
“It’s very childish,” Stuart exclaimed as he surveyed the scene. “I like it!”
“Now we’re in terrible-ville.”
Stuart was sort of joking. It’s not that things were any more terrible for The Little Prince than they would be for any other play in the middle of its rehearsal schedule. However, in the two and a half weeks since they started, thanks to various schedule conflicts, there had been only five rehearsals (half of what had been planned).
Still, the basics of the story’s structure were fully understood, all the ensemble players had been assigned their additional roles, and with the exception of Latimer, whose Aviator has the most dialogue next to the Little Prince, most of the lines had been memorized. But the real, painstaking work was beginning in earnest. The final two and a half weeks would have three times the number of rehearsals, and much of that time would be spent examining every detail of the actors’ performances and making adjustments and experimenting with how to move through the story.
“I don’t want to be a tyrant,” Stuart said. “It’s my job to be completely critical of their performance [and] teach a group of people how fun it can be to throw convention out the window.”
And it is a group with a wide range of backgrounds. In addition to the child actors, Stuart is working with two high-schoolers and one college freshman making their theater debuts, plus Karin Hoover, a set builder and mother of a teenage actor making only her second stage appearance. Then there’s infrequent actor (and full-time lawyer) Latimer and Constantine (very experienced, but 10 years removed from his last role), plus four fairly accomplished younger actors—ages 18-20—including Livy Gomez and Allison Parker, formerly of local The Troupers youth-theater group, and now teaching musical theater in the Blue Room’s Young Co. (in addition to doing clerical work for the theater).
“I’m very happy to have a group of inexperienced actors,” Stuart said, relishing in the work and adding matter-of-factly, “This is theater.”
“Volcanoes, you can take five.”
Stuart was still working out the details, and he had the Rose, a digital projection, and a last-minute light cue in his laser site.
“Back up one light cue, please!”
The actors playing volcanoes had been excused so that he could focus on getting the correct projected image on the giant white sheet and coach The Rose—Pleasant Valley High School junior Shivany Condor—to dip her head at enough of angle in order to get the correct blooming effect when she raises it as the light cue comes.
It’s tech week, the final week of rehearsals, when all of the lights, sounds, special effects and actors rehearse together in an effort to get synced up for opening night.
There has been a lot of action these final couple weeks. With the help of Chris “CB” Burkhardt, one of Chico’s go-to lighting and set-design specialists, Stuart put together a simple but attractive set featuring large swaths of white fabric draped at different angles, creating a disjointed frame around the completely black set.
And compacted into the final days of tech, Stuart worked on the final CD of the play’s soundtrack and ruthlessly edited down the number of images to be projected on the big backdrop. Meanwhile, Burkhardt designed the lights and programmed (and frequently re-programmed) the lighting cues.
And through it all, the young unflappable stage manager, Heffley, a graduate of Inspire School (and whom Stuart reverently called “exactly the model of a Broadway stage manager”), kept things in order while also learning how to operate the light and sound boards for the first time—two days before opening night!
“Tech week is where we actually realize we’re in a show,” Heffley joked.
The day of the show, I called Stuart to see how he was feeling about opening night, and he said he thought the final dress rehearsal was encouraging and that he was eager to get the production in front of an audience to see how it was going to play. He also admitted, “I’m terrified that Denver won’t know his lines,” and said that the two of them talked at length after rehearsal and he reminded him to listen to The Prince. For his part, Indar knew his part forewards and backwards, and in addition to driving the play through rehearsals, he slyly nudged Latimer into place when needed.
A few minutes later I called Latimer and asked him about it and he said that even though he knows he’s been struggling with lines, he felt like he was “getting there” and that he was “hoping for a breakthrough tonight.”
My stomach was jumping as the house lights came down and Latimer ambled out from the shadows into the spotlight at center stage.
What if he had spent so much time working on his other lines that he blanked on the opening ones, I thought? What if the laptop showing the backdrop slides froze up? What if one of the first-timers missed a crucial cue? How in the world were they actually doing this?
I wished at that moment that I could somehow un-see the behind-the-scenes work of the play’s journey to opening night and just experience it as one of the patrons settling in from the cold to be warmed up by some community theater.
But then the Aviator spoke his introduction, with clarity and earnestness, and when the ensemble entered on his cue—“I learned to pilot airplanes”—and neatly assembled themselves into the form of his aircraft to the audible delight of the audience, I exhaled.
Not everything went so smooth on opening night—there were a handful of missed technical cues, and some rough line deliveries (which I’ve been told have been steadily smoothing out with each performance)—but Latimer somehow, some way had his breakthrough, and overall all the trippy fun of their unconventional adaptation came through. If I had come in cold, and was just reviewing the show, I might have said something like: When the house lights went down, the cast and crew successfully transported the audience from the cares of the outside world into the fantastical realm of The Little Prince.
After the show, I went back to the Wood Room, and of the actors I congratulated and spoke with, only ensemble player Angel Berlanga—a junior at PV who also played the Snake—admitted to being nervous before the show. And now that the first-time actress is on the other side of her debut?
“I’m so excited. I don’t want it to end now.”
As the play’s Fox character (played to the hilt by Constantine—who nearly stole the show) famously says, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” and from the director on down, I witnessed a lot of heart poured into this play.
Through it all, it was seeing the transformation of this disparate group of people—some strangers, many who had never worked together before—into a work of art that most resonated. That’s the so-called “magic of theater,” I suppose. Although “magic” isn’t really the right word.
“No, there is no magic. None,” said Stuart afterward. “It is done by the cast, crew, lights, sound, terror and mostly the dramatic intent of what we worked on over many rehearsals shin[ing] through. No magic—[just] hard work and focus.”