Monthly Archives: March 2014

“All My Sons”: Designing Realism

All My Sons websiteAt an early production meeting for “All My Sons,” Intrepid’s Season Five opener, lighting designer Curtis Mueller studied a picture of the set design.

“Can we put a curtain in that window?” he asked, pointing to the second story of the onstage house façade. “It will help with the mood we’re trying to create.”

If you have ever wondered what it is like to be a designer on a production of an Arthur Miller play, the answer lies somewhere between realistic authenticity and sneaky, subliminal messaging.

“We’re in the subconscious of the audience,” says Curtis, referring to all of the production design elements that go into making a play come to life onstage. “But hopefully, they won’t know it.

The audience, says Curtis, is not supposed to notice something in particular, like his lighting design. Hopefully, he says, it just blends in with all of the other elements to help tell the story.

Costumer Kristin McReddie sketches out 1940s fashion

Costumer Kristin McReddie sketches out 1940s fashion

For the last two months, while actors have been rehearsing lines and blocking, the designers have been busy creating the world the characters will inhabit for the run of the show. Costumer Kristin McReddie has been scouring vintage clothing stores, Etsy.com and costume rental shops all over town. Prop designer Bonnie Durben has been researching the look and design of 1940s household items. Curtis has been paying a lot of attention to the play of the light throughout the course of one day.

“The play is going to be a slice of life post WWII,” says Kristin. “Hopefully, the audience will take away [from the show] what it looked like and felt like to be alive in that era.”

Set in 1947, “All My Sons” explores the dynamic of the Keller family and their neighbors as they navigate a post-war life and all of the hope and loss entailed in that particular time period. It is one of Miller’s most emotionally gripping plays.

But in order for that emotionally-charged story to unfold, it is necessary to ground the setting in a very realistic place. This means careful attention to detail on the part of the designers who are creating this onstage world.

Properties Designer Bonnie Durben focuses on accurate details

Properties Designer Bonnie Durben focuses on accurate details

“This time period is right at a cusp,” explains Bonnie. “There are still people that are old enough that remember the time period, so you have to be very careful about the type of props that you get – that the glass pitcher looks like the glass pitcher their mother had.”

Bonnie’s script is full of notes on these details, the specificity of each item that the characters handle throughout the story. For instance, when a newspaper appears, it is Bonnie’s job to make sure it is exactly the right one.

“The funny papers were different then,” she explains. “They were all in color and they were all brighter and boxed differently. It’s the little things that, really, you don’t notice, but the people in the audience are going to look at it and say, ‘That’s not right. That’s not how I remember it.’”

The search for period-appropriate costumes is just as specific, says Kristin, who had to research, not only the look of that decade’s fashion, but also how wartime permeated even the closets of these characters.

“In the 1940s, everything was tailored to be more fitted towards the body,” she explains. “They had to use less fabric because all of that wool and cotton was going to the war effort. So it’s going to be interesting to see how the actors are going to adapt their blocking to the costumes and the clothing.”

Lighting Designer Curtis Mueller finds inspiration in depictions of daylight.

Lighting Designer Curtis Mueller finds inspiration in depictions of different types of daylight.

Arthur Miller extends this specificity into the story’s lighting design as well, having confined the play’s action to a 24-hour time period. This means that Curtis has spent a lot of time contemplating his role as the show’s timekeeper.

“The lighting design is going to drive the entire show forward because it takes place in one day,” explains Curtis.  “When you think about it, time doesn’t stop, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the pacing of the show corresponds to where we are in time.”

Despite all of this intricately detailed work, at the end of the day, success for the designers means that their contribution does not stand out on its own, but rather gracefully augments the storytelling of the play.

“I think what makes a successful show in general is something that people can always relate to,” says Curtis. “I think this show does a great job of doing that along with providing an emotional story. I hope the audience leaves feeling everything that we put out there for them.”

–Tiffany Tang

All My Sons plays March 27-April 20 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theater on the campus of San Dieguito Academy. 800 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas.
Tickets can be purchased here

The Dark and Deep of Neil LaBute

In a forest dark and deep Widget“In the beginning, there is lightning.”

Francis Gercke is thoughtful as he tries to describe the tone of Neil LaBute’s most recent theatrical offering, ‘In a Forest, Dark and Deep,’ which will be read Monday evening as the next installment of Intrepid’s 2014 Staged Reading Series at the Encinitas Library. Fran is set to direct and perform in this two-character, one-act play.

“The play opens with lightning,” he continues, “so the whole thing contains a sort of electric pop.”

While this 2011 play may not yet be as widely known as some of LaBute’s previous work, such as ‘reasons to be pretty’ or ‘The Shape of Things,’ it nevertheless contains all of the hallmarks one would expect from this particular playwright’s M.O.: compelling dialogue, intimate relationships and that general sense of dis-ease which permeates a seemingly everyday storyline.

“LaBute tends to write about regular people on the extremes,” says Fran, “and he does it without the audience ever really knowing where he’s going.”

Francis Gercke

Francis Gercke

In this play, these “regular people” happen to be siblings, which is a very interesting and very specific relationship. Brother and sister Bobby and Betty meet up in the woods because Betty has urgently requested her brother’s help to clear out her cabin that she has been renting to a student. Together, they box and bag, sort and pack. And, as with any family relationship, this activity of “cleaning out the stuff” does not solely refer to piles of books and belongings. Soon, the past begins to filter into the room as well.

“What is unique about this play is that both siblings rely on and then deny the memories they have of one another,” explains Jessica John, who will be portraying Betty. “As an audience member, you find yourself wondering which one of them has the more accurate story and then wondering whether they are manipulating one another or simply remembering things in a skewed way. It’s a terrific device for story telling because it is so disorienting and completely fascinating.”

Fran agrees. “As the play rolls on, you‘re trying to figure out who is telling the truth about the past and who has accurate information about what happened,” he explains. “The way LaBute writes is so compelling. Things are never explained; they are only suggested. The play holds both potential and surprise.”

As both Fran and Jessica have siblings in their own lives, they are quick to agree that a unique bond exists within a family dynamic. Jessica especially understands this bond, perhaps, because she is a twin.

Jessica John

Jessica John

“There is nothing like a sibling,” says Jessica, identifying her sister as the “living scrapbook” of her life. “She remembers things about me that I don’t remember! I find that kind of creepy and awesome all at once. But, they are also her memories of me and thus flawed in that way.”

“As sibling, we all share the same DNA, but we are all so radically different,” says Fran of his own brother and sisters. “We have had such different responses to different situations.”

It is the manipulation of these assumptions that perhaps challenges the audience’s expectations of this story. This is a familiar theme in LaBute’s work, and one that is not always embraced.

“With every play that he writes, there is a thrilling reception and also a wide criticism,” says Fran. “It’s the sign of a writer who is not afraid to enter into conversations that may not be ‘polite.’ He tends to touch upon subjects that not many playwrights tackle.”

“He seems so drawn to the darker sides of the human condition,” says Jessica. “So there is a ton of cringe-worthy, can’t-take-my-eyes-off-of-this moments in all of his plays. The thing I like about this work, in particular, is that he actually seems to be exploring the more human sides of people in a dark situation.”

This exploration is painstakingly detailed, amplified by the fact that the entire play takes place in one evening and in just one setting. The Aristotelian unities of time, place and action may not be regularly applied in contemporary playwriting, but Fran believes that the rigidity of this structure compels the right energy for this story.

“[The playwright] has basically nailed his foot to the floor and said, ‘I can’t leave this room and neither can these characters, so we are going to figure this out right here, right now,’” says Fran.

“There’s a sort of ‘slow motion car crash’ quality to his work,” adds Jessica. “With LaBute, audiences can always be prepared to see character studies of truly watchable, messed-up, interesting and complex people.”

“His writing also makes me laugh inappropriately,” Fran admits.

But as these characters move through the action of the story, it is that inappropriate laughter and that ‘car-crash’ tension that truly charge the tone of the play with the electricity that keeps audiences riveted.

“Just like any good thriller or horror movie,” says Fran, “it’s not the ‘scares’ that frighten you. It’s the quiet, quiet moments, when you’re one step closer to something unexpected happening.”

‘In a Forest, Dark and Deep’ by Neil LaBute, a staged reading. Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, March 24. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. $15. Rsvp to boxoffice@intrepidshakespeare.com and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase a reading series subscription.

Encinitas Library

The Life of ‘All My Sons’

All My Sons BWThe theater is quiet as Savvy Scopelleti says the last line of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. And then, for a few moments, no one moves. Finally, scripts are closed, chairs are adjusted, and deep breaths are taken.

It is the first read-through rehearsal for the cast of Intrepid’s Season Five opener, and even though it is also the first time this group of actors has come together, already there is an undeniable feeling of camaraderie here.

Already, it feels like family.

Christy Yael-Cox concludes the read-through with a few parting thoughts – about Miller, about wartime, about freedom from the past. The actors adjourn, minds and hearts full of Miller’s poignant dialogue.

“This play is so important and still so relevant today,” says Christy, “which is both sad and fascinating.”

imgur.com

imgur.com

Written on the heels of World War Two, All My Sons opened on Broadway in 1947 and put Arthur Miller on the map as a legitimate voice in American theatre. Inspired by a story he heard about a young woman from the Midwest who turned in her father for manufacturing and selling defective aircraft parts to the U.S. Army, All My Sons carefully navigates the aftermath of wartime through a handful of small town neighbors discovering that soldiers are not the only ones who bear battle scars.

“We tend to romanticize the past,” says Christy of this particular post-war era. “This play tells a different story, and Miller’s ability to craft the language to tell this story is just stunning.”

Arthur Miller’s personal experiences are also palpable in the telling of this story. Even though he never served in the war (he was rejected from the Army for a medical condition), Miller wrote amply in his memoir, Timebends, of his own disconnectedness to his society while battles were raging overseas.

Arthur Miller by Arnold Newman, NY, 1947

Arthur Miller by Arnold Newman, NY, 1947

“I was walking through the city in wartime feeling the inevitable unease of the survivor,” he writes. “The city I knew was incoherent, yet its throttled speech seemed to implore some significance for the sacrifices that drenched the papers every day.”

Eventually, this disconnect would manifest itself into the creation of a play. He describes himself during that time as “a stretched string waiting to be plucked, waiting, as it turned out, for All My Sons.”

The reception for the Broadway opening of the play was charged. While it received a New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1947, citing its “frank and uncompromising presentation of a timely and important theme” and Miller’s “genuine instinct for the theater,” it was also banned by the Civil Affairs Division of the American Military Government from being presented overseas. Word was that Miller was accused of trying to attack American capitalism, which was a message that could not be exported in this particular era of anti-Communist intensity.

However, Miller’s extraordinary use of language and the honest portrayal of the world he creates in All My Sons has enabled the play to survive through and past the history into which it was born. Christy sees this universalism as a touchstone for Intrepid Shakespeare Company.

“The characters are relatable and realistic because they are so deeply and humanly flawed,” she says. ”In this way, the writing reminds me of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s themes and the humanity behind his plays are still so resonant for us. This play is the same.”

“Also, it’s funny,” she adds. “There’s a lot of humor. It’s a very human thing, that even in crisis, we can find things to laugh about. Shakespeare understood that. And so did Miller.”

– Tiffany Tang

All My Sons plays March 27-April 20 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theater on the campus of San Dieguito Academy. 800 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas.
Tickets can be purchased here

All My Sons Page