Tag Archives: Beth Merriman

Designing Denmark…Sean Fanning on Setting HAMLET’s Stage

Sean Fanning, Set Designer for Hamlet

Sean Fanning doesn’t like scenery.

This may seem strange, considering he is the set designer for Intrepid’s current production of Hamlet, but when you hear Sean’s take on bringing Shakespeare to life, you might understand.

“It’s all about the words,” says Sean, a statement that is music to Intrepid’s ears. “You could do Shakespeare the way it’s written on a bare stage and it’s powerful because it’s so imaginative.”

To that end, Sean has created literal space on the stage at the Clayton E. Liggett for the “rottenness” of Denmark to play out. With the mere suggestion of a finished room, the landscape of the stage serves multiple purposes throughout the production without the necessity of changing sets or disguising scenery. Soaring colonnades meet ceilings which disappear into thin air, both uplifting the regality of the space as well as suggesting the distemper of the action to come.

“I see other plays that are more contemporary that rely so much on having to actually show people in location,” says Sean. “In Shakespeare, yes, it’s episodic, and yes, we’re going from place to place, but we don’t rely on all the typical conventions.”

In other words, Sean lets the audience have a say in each location, projecting their own ideas of the graveyards, the ships, the secret rooms of the palace, and the sites of hauntings onto the canvas of his design.

“Shakespeare demands so much,” he says. “If you really tried to physically transport people from location to location, you would lose some of the magic.” Best to rely on the words to carry the scene, he says. And based on the high praise he has already received (local press has hailed Sean as an unsurprisingly “in-demand designer”), he’s obviously on the mark.

“Shakespeare is one of my favorite things to do,” says Sean, who also designs all of the MFA productions at The Old Globe in Balboa Park. Hamlet is his inaugural show at Intrepid.

Sean’s design for Hamlet also captures the challenge of the thrust stage, where the audience is closer to the action, rather than gathered behind the fourth wall of a typical proscenium stage. This adds to the tension of the play, as actors have the space to move through and around the set’s dimensions without the necessity of facing all of the viewers at all times. Sean has ensured that the actors always have what they need, providing built-in places for them to sit, lie down, and hurdle over. The actors help create the locations, and Sean emphasizes, “that’s what’s so magical about it.”

“There is a sense of barrenness that the actors can fill with the words,” says Sean. “So, to me, some of the most beautiful sets are bare stages.”  – T.T.

Catch a quick interview with Sean Fanning and see his path to creating Hamlet:

Hamlet runs through February 17 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas.  Tickets can be purchased here.

Trappings and Suits…Beth Merriman on Costuming HAMLET

Beth Merriman, Costume Designer

Beth Merriman always has a change of clothes with her. Granted, it might be a vintage dress that she would like Jennifer Eve Thorn or Debra Wanger to wear onstage, but nevertheless Beth’s bags are usually stuffed with outfits.

As the costume designer for Intrepid’s upcoming production of Hamlet, Beth is used to toting wardrobe with her at all times – at the moment, the pieces in her pocket range from flowing and feminine to military and structured – all reflective the 1930s. This will be the ninth show she has designed for Intrepid, and she admits that one of the best parts is mixing things up with different historical eras. Thankfully, the Bard provides a backdrop against which the design choices at Intrepid have plenty of room for creativity.

While the basic palate for the company’s Shakespeare productions has always been modern,”we’ve started experimenting with different time periods,” says Beth. “It’s always a challenge and I never know what’s going to happen.”

One of her favorite productions to design for was the recently successful A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical, which was set in the doo wop era of the 1960s. Hamlet will be created in a world of the 1930s old Hollywood glamour.

Carole Lombard as Gertrude inspiration

“Christy [Yael, the director] wanted to give it a little bit of a romantic feel,” says Beth. “That Hollywood image really makes the story shine.”

It is an important part of the Intrepid’s mission statement that nothing interfere with the language of the plays – the story is created through the text first, only to be supplemented with production design. In this case, this pre-war era adds to the story, rather than distract the audience’s understanding of it. “We all kind of know Hamlet – vaguely for some people and intimately for some other people,” says Beth. “This design helps make it comfortable for us to go and enjoy the story. We don’t want the costumes to get in the way.”

With the parallels between the Danish royal family and golden-era movie star celebrity, the costuming choices can illuminate the story through the recreation of this familiar period in our history. To dig into this era, Beth had to delve deep into her research books and the internet, picking and choosing images that would help inspire her wardrobe choices. (View Beth’s Pinterest page for Hamlet to see some of her inspiration.)

The choices also help support the idea that this is a closed set – the characters who live in the palace exist apart from the rest of the world and move entirely within in their own circles of influence, free from outside interference. Similarly, the claustrophobic bubble of Hollywood fame can elicit a feeling of isolation that is pertinent to movement of the plot.

Sketch of costume design for the Gravedigger

The costuming also helps illuminate each character’s journey through this story – the palates changing and shifting with each twist and turn. “We do play with color and we do take each character’s arc in the play into consideration,” says Beth, alluding to the fact that no one really ends up in the same place that he or she started, especially in Hamlet.

To support this, Beth chooses color very carefully. “I always have to check with the set designer beforehand,” she says, in this case referring to talented Sean Fanning. “Since the set is very monochromatic, I wanted brighter colors onstage so that the characters pop a bit.”

Giving life to the canon of Shakespeare plays is always a different experience, depending on the play and the company. Having worked at theaters in Wisconsin, and locally here at The Old Globe and at Asian-American Rep, Beth is happy to have found a creative home working with Intrepid.

“It’s always a challenge and it’s always fun and I get weird texts in the middle of the night,” says Beth. “But Intrepid is a place where I’ve really been able to spread my wings.”  - T.T.

Hamlet opens February 2 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas.

Tickets can be purchased here.

My Kingdom for a Dramaturge

Dr. Gideon Rappaport sits at the end of a long table onstage at the Clayton E. Liggett, head bowed in concentration. On his left, the new Arden Edition of Hamlet, edited by Harold Jenkins, lies open on the table. On his right, a working draft of the script for Intrepid’s upcoming production of Hamlet is stacked neatly. Pencil in hand, he glances repeatedly from one to the other, flipping pages, making small notations, and nodding his head. But most of all, he’s listening.

On the other end of the table sits the cast, who have come together for the first read through of the play that will be mounted at the end of January. Even though this is technically their first rehearsal together, relationships and intentions have already begun to develop. The actors spend the evening trying out the words, pronouncing them trippingly on the tongue, and looking to Gideon, who will act as dramaturge for this production, for any adjustments. By the end of the rehearsal, he has individual notes for each player, as well as a few technical reminders for the whole cast: “Don’t hit the helping verbs. Seek out antithesis. Don’t emphasize pronouns.”

Prof. Rappaport in the zone

While most of the actors are Shakespearean veterans, Gideon is more than qualified to deliver his instruction. Currently an English teacher at La Jolla Country Day School, he has also taught Shakespeare in hallowed academic halls around the country, including on the campuses of Hamilton College, SUNY Cortland, Concordia University, and the University of New Hampshire. His Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Brandeis University doesn’t hurt his reputation as a Shakespearean guru, either.  Neither does the quote from the Bard that serves as the outgoing voicemail greeting on his cell phone.

Gideon’s stint as Intrepid’s dramaturge comes at an auspicious time. He is currently putting together a new annotated edition of Hamlet for students, teachers, actors, and directors which will feature Shakespeare’s text on one side, with his own commentary on the other.  This commentary will feature everything from thematic notes to definitions, language insights, contextual analysis, and other relevant information.  Needless to say, Gideon is currently fully entrenched in this project, and will therefore quickly and easily impart his readily available Danish prince knowledge upon anyone within earshot. “Just tell me when to stop talking,” he says often, and with a smile.

The first read of Hamlet

So, what exactly is it about Hamlet that makes this play so discussion-worthy? Easy. “It’s the single most misunderstood play of Shakespeare’s,” says Gideon. “People over the years have gone wrong about what it is really about.” He attributes this misunderstanding to the shifting priorities of society and the changing relevance of religion and spirituality.

“It’s a deeply spiritual play,” he continues. “It’s Shakespeare’s examination of how to live well in a morally complex universe where the choices seem unclear. How do you do the right thing when there seems to be paradoxical explanations of what that is? Hamlet’s story is a test case which generalizes to universal significance.”

Of course, that is a lot for a new cast to take in on the first rehearsal, and after some lengthy discourse on wood carving metaphors, the nature of evil, and revenge play traditions, Gideon finally takes a breath. “Of course, we have plenty of time to talk more about all that,” he says.

Aside from the questions of spirituality and universal significance, Gideon acknowledges that there is always one question on everyone’s mind when they are trying to unravel the tangled layers of Shakespeare’s longest play: Is Hamlet mad?

Well, Dr. Rappaport?

Gideon smiles the cryptic smile of a teacher who knows the answer but doesn’t want to give his students too much information.

“He definitely flies into passions,” he says carefully. “But, he also has moments of reason…”  We get it, Professor.  We’ll talk after the show.  — T.T.

Hamlet previews on January 26 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas.  

 

 

 

‘Twas the Night Before Previews…

 

Dateline:  Rehearsal.  Wednesday, August 29, 745 pm

Looking handsome

‘Twas the night before previews

And in the Clayton E. Liggett

Were just the sounds of fine-tuning

And a director shouting, “I dig it!”

 

Ropes and bowers and trees!

The rope swings were hung

From the stage grid with care

In hopes that “knot spacing”

Was finally secure.

 

Patrick was tucked

In the sound booth and gave

Life to the piano

Patrick Hoyny, sound guru

When Taylor would wave.

 

And what was there left

on the list to complete?

Sharon just smiles and says,

“I can’t feel my feet.”

 

The actors run round

Savvy Scopelleti, en wing

In costumes and curls

Rehearsing their harmonic

Poetic pearls.

 

It was nigh around eight

When the last rehearsal began

The bower finally hung

Sean Cox, rope and bower master

As the actors filed in.

 

The company’s final attempt

To make everything right

Knowing tomorrow’s first preview

Would be a memorable night.

- T.T.

 

 

 

Previews begin tonight!

 

A Day in the Life of a Superhero Stage Manager

The lovers hold their sleeping positions while lighting cues are programmed around them.

Once a show opens to the public, it is every theatre company’s hope that the performances seem effortless and smooth. However, the road to awesome is paved with…well, technical rehearsals. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical, has been fairy-wing-deep in tech rehearsals all weekend as we prepare for our first preview on August 30. For the non-thespian crowd, tech days are the very last of the rehearsals – the ones right before the first preview and right after the actors have completely finished setting their movement on the stage. During these final days, the lighting cues, sound cues, and any other technical elements of the show are layered in. These rehearsals are typically lengthier than any others, as it takes time to – not only decide what works best for each and every moment of the play – but also to actually make each and every moment happen.

Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Basically, it looks like this:  actors waiting around to take their places on stage for particular scenes, production crew members randomly popping out of lighting grids, sound cues filtering through the speaker system at odd times during the three or four or eight hours in the theatre that day. The stage is always dark, except for the lekos and fresnels blinking through programmed cues. The stage is also quiet, so those who need to convey information to the directors or stage manager from all corners of the theatre can do so efficiently. The actors give way to the production team, who are coloring and creating the world in which they all will be living for the next four weekends.

Sharon dons coal miner headgear.
“The better to see the script with.”

To give a real behind-the-scenes glimpse into a technical rehearsal, though, there is only one person you need to talk to: the stage manager, aka the boss of the show once it opens. We caught up with Sharon Strich, Intrepid’s resident stage manager, and asked her to give us her moment to moment schedule from one day in her life on this technical rehearsal weekend. She obliged with one caveat:  “This post might scare people.” How crazy can one day of rehearsal be? Well, for one thing, we forgot she had other things to do – like a day job.

Hold onto your seats, folks.   – T.T.

A Day in the Life, by Sharon Strich – Saturday August 25, 2012

1:30am (yes, you read that right) – Wake up to do pre-rehearsal work on script and other paperwork.

4:00am – Leave for work at Starbucks.

9:20am – Finish work at Starbucks. Head to the theatre with really strong caffeine in hand.

9:45am – Set up the theatre for tech rehearsal, including my tech table, where I will live for the next few days.

10:00am – Tech rehearsal officially starts.

10:38am - Mic fittings, check fairy sound cues, organize company.

11:30am – Begin cue to cue lighting and sound rehearsal starting with Act II, scene i.

12:33pm – Break. Place glow tape on the set so the actors don’t kill themselves in the dark.

12:44pm - Continue cue to cue rehearsal, starting with Act II, scene i.

2:08pm – Break. Safety walk with John (Oberon) through his path to the catwalk during Act II, scene ii. Treacherous.

2:24pm – Continue cue to cue rehearsal, starting with Act II, scene ii.

3:21pm – Break. Check progress of the set in the shop. Coming along nicely!

3:27pm – Continue cue to cue rehearsal of Act II, scene ii.

3:54pm - Costume time!

5:00pm – Dinner break. Run for Starbucks, altoids, and chocolate; eat a sandwich for “dinner”; prep the ropes that will be moved later; talk through lighting cues with Curtis (lighting designer); talk about Puck’s pants with Christy (co-director) and Beth (costumer).

6:20pm – Continue cue to cue rehearsal, starting with Act III, scene i.

7:39pm – Break. Talk through more lighting cues with Curtis.

7:51pm – Continue cue to cue rehearsal, starting with Act III, scene ii.

9:04pm – Break. Work lighting looks for the chase sequence.  Very cool.

9:18pm – Continue cue to cue, starting with Act IV, scene i.

9:46pm – Actors released. Scenic work begins with awesome members of the crew.

9:50pm - Work through lighting shifts for the chase. Magical!

10:15pm - Re-hang two upstage ropes, discuss the plan and pick a paint color for Titania’s bower, paint the wood on the ladders and the Puck nest, cover the stairs in fabric and jute, paint the floor, start to dress the Puck nest, realize we need more jute for Puck nest, hang the front curtain.

2:30am – End of day. Head home.

3:15am – Once home, write rehearsal report and send to production staff, send any necessary production related e-mails, work on paperwork.

4:00am – Find my pillow before I hit the floor, pretty sure I will hit the snooze button when my alarm goes off in two hours.

Notes, iPad, script, water, caffeine, snacks, and aspirin make for a happy technical rehearsal.