Sunday, November 27, 2016

Behind the Scenes of FST's "Million Dollar Quartet" -- Part 2

Cast of Million Dollar Quartet on set at Florida Studio Theatre
Another Behind the Scenes class at Florida Studio Theatre has drawn to a close, and I'm already missing my weekly fix learning about getting a production from the page to the stage. Each session is as different as the plays themselves. And while I thoroughly enjoyed last season's series on "Outside Mullingar" and "Alabama Story," the energy and terrific music of "Million Dollar Quartet" made it the most fun so far.

The class culminates with a panel discussion with the actors. It's not mandatory for the cast to attend, so the fact they do is indicative of their respect for FST's process. We talked with the MDQ cast for 90 minutes as they shared their journeys both on and off the stage.

Ben Williams in foreground as Carl Perkins
Director (and Behind the Scenes leader) Jason Cannon kicked off the discussion by asking what their largest obstacles and juiciest discoveries were.  Ben Williams, who plays Carl Perkins, jumped in first.  His discovery had occurred the previous night when he played his most technically accurate performance since the show opened. He was a bit surprised that he didn't feel it was his best show.

"There's so much magic in the show about these icons," he said. "We don't have to be perfect so much as perfectly connected."  His comment recalled Sam Phillips' own philosophy of "perfect imperfection."

Joe Boover as Elvis on vocals
Joe Boover came to his role as Elvis directly from playing the part in another production of "Million Dollar Quartet."  For him, the greatest challenge was letting himself discover the role in a fresh way with his new cast members.  "I had to give into being present with these people and create the show with them," he said.

A lot was said about Jason and FST's approach to the show. Theaters often focus almost exclusively on the music instead of delving into the characters. The result is a cast filled with impersonators rather than actors. FST wants audiences to both enjoy themselves and come away with a better understanding of these young musicians on the cusp of making it big.

Brandyn Day on piano (literally) as Jerry Lee Lewis
Brandyn Day, who plays Jerry Lee Lewis, said he's auditioned unsuccessfully many times for the role. The feedback he's received has been either that he doesn't play the piano well enough (what???!!!!) or that he wasn't "cartoonish" enough. He admits to freaking out a bit when Jason specifically commented at the read-through that he didn't want the characters to be played as cartoons.

As the rehearsal process progressed, you could see Brandyn taking a step back as he settled into his still-flamboyant portrayal of Lewis. (Having said this, he cracked the lid of the piano when he jumped on it during the dress rehearsal. Luckily, the piano is bolted down onstage to protect against injury to the performer.)

Joe Boover and Joe Casey
Joe Casey rounds out the quartet as Johnny Cash. (When he introduced himself at the read-through, his voice resonated through the studio.) Not surprisingly, Cash's "Walk the Line" is one of the songs in the show. Jason shared the significance of the song in the context of the musical with us, something the cast had discussed during their table work. Cash, who's informed Sam Phillips that he's leaving Sun Records, is reminding him of the good times they had together making the hit. He's giving Jerry Lee advice to not be out of control. He's wishing Elvis and his new girlfriend good luck in their relationship. And he's reminding Carl of the fun they had cutting the record.  While the audience is unlikely to catch these nuances as they enjoy the song, it gives more depth to the performance. 

I could go on and on sharing what we learned. The set, for instance, was designed after study of the museum which Sun Records has become. A conscious decision was made to include posters promoting black musicians such as BB King to recall their contributions to the music made by the quartet. The checkerboard floor fades to black to facilitate the ability of Sam Phillips to step into the past as he tells how he met each of the singers. The door is painted to appear dirty around the knob where people would have touched it over the years.  The attention to detail is impressive.

The bottom line is that the class was a blast and the show is too. "Million Dollar Quartet" runs at Florida Studio Theatre through January 8th.  Go see it! 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles

I admit to some reluctance to picking up Amor Towles' "A Gentleman in Moscow." I can't say why for sure. Perhaps it was the weight associated with Russian novels. Maybe it was because the cover didn't speak to me. Whatever the reason, I finally gave in at the urging of friends whose opinions I trust. And I am so glad I did. It is a true gem of a book.

The story begins in 1922. The place is the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, where the 32-year old Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov has been living since his return to Russia after the Bolsheviks came to power. The Metropol is where the Count will continue to live for decades, as he has been placed under house arrest for having "succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class." He will be shot on sight if he sets foot outside of the hotel.

I was instantly enamored with the Count and his laissez-faire attitude towards his change in circumstances. He quickly learns he will no longer live in the lavish suite in which he was comfortably ensconced. Instead, his home will be three floors up in tiny quarters with one small window the size of a chessboard.

The Count's first task is to decide which of his belongings will make the journey with him. The rest will become the property of the State. The bellhops groaned at the prospect of moving his treasured desk. But the Count is unyielding. "A king fortifies himself with a castle," he observed, "A gentleman with a desk."

Amor Towles
As he departs his suite for the last time, the Count reflects on leaving a good portion of his belongings behind.

"From the earliest age, we must learn to say good-bye to friends and family. We see our parents and siblings off at the station...we marry, or travel abroad. It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow by the shoulders and wishing him well...

But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if we were to? We wouldn't welcome the education. For...we carry them place to place...allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance. This armoire, we are prone to recall, is the very one in which we hid as a boy...and it was with this handkerchief that she once dried her tears, et cetera, et cetera...

But, of course, a thing is just a thing." 

And so the tone is set for a life the Count lives to its fullest within the confines of the Metropol.

He makes great friends. He falls in love. He raises a child. He finds satisfying work as a headwaiter. (Food plays a surprisingly large role in the book.) And he does this all with great dignity and kindness and a good dose of humor. He is the epitome of class.

Towles' writing of the Count's story swept me away. It is as elegant and clever as the Count himself.  And why wouldn't it be? I get the strong feeling that Towles is much like the Count. Having (subsequently) read his "Rules of Civility," it's clear he places a premium on good manners and charm, an increasingly greater rarity in this day and age. There's much to be learned from his approach. 

"A Gentleman in Moscow" is a book for anyone who loves good writing and a good story. For a truly charming trailer for the novel, click here. Happy reading! 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Chalk Festival 2016: Love and Peace

The Chalk Festival is always a highlight of the season. This year artists from more than 40 countries descended upon Venice to create amazing traditional and anamorphic (3D) pavement art.  And it all will go away with the first hard rain.

It's the third year the Chalk Festival has been held in Venice (rather than Sarasota), and the first in which all of the art has been at the airport location. In years past, most of the traditional pavement art was downtown while the 3D works were on the runways.  Being in one spot made for a less disjointed--if a bit more crowded--experience.

Dorrit and I followed the recommendation to start with the 2D art, which seemed to go on for miles. People clearly had a lot of fun with this year's Love and Peace theme.

There were multiple works featuring the Beatles (individually and together). John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Bed-in for Peace was represented. Janis Joplin and Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley and the Dalai Lama also made appearances. And there was plenty of other art harkening back to the psychedelic '60s -- a VW beetle and a bespectacled Woodstock love child were among my favorites.

But not all the art was '60s-inspired. There were also madonnas with children and cartoon characters and animals. I loved the updated "Girl with a Pearl Earring," which melded a classic work of art with the Love and Peace theme.  Instead of a pearl, her earring bore a peace sign.

While the work of these traditional pavement artists was phenomenal, Dorrit and I agreed that we like the 3D works we could be a part of the most. And there were plenty of those to enjoy. 

The first interactive painting we came to was actually a 4D work that required the viewer's participation to make sense. It really turned my perspective on its head. In order to get this shot, we had to lay on the ground, which was painted to look like a tall building. The park into which we were about to plummet was painted on a plywood wall from which the "building" extended. 

A volunteer stood by to take pictures, giving each group two minutes. I loved watching people get into it with arms and legs akimbo. One woman in a wheelchair didn't let her limitations stop her from getting in on the fun. Her companion held onto the wheels of her chair with one hand and her sunglasses in the other to simulate the sense of falling. 

I'm not sure what this work had to do with Love and Peace -- perhaps it represented the terrifying feeling you get when you're falling in love???? -- but it was lots of fun.  (Note to self--and Dorrit:  Don't wear white to the Chalk Festival.) 

Since this was our third year going to the Festival, we are old hands at how to get the most out of the 3D art. Many of the works have footprints painted nearby to show you the best viewing location. A few (but not nearly enough) had chairs or stools to stand on to get more of a bird's eye view. Although you might have to wait a few minutes for your turn, it's well worth it.

And what nobody tells the newbie is that the works look more three dimensional through the lens of a camera than with your naked eye.  It's always fun to hear someone exclaim when they see the three dimensionality for the first time.  Often they're halfway through the works, which makes me hope that they--and their companions--have the patience to start over. 

The one thing I did miss this year was interaction with the artists. Instead of going over the week-end, we went on the official viewing day. The benefit was that all of the art had been completed. The downsides were that we didn't get to see the works taking shape and that most of the artists had departed that morning.

In an ideal world, multiple visits are the way to go. But with time at a premium, I just couldn't get there more than once. The good news is there's always next year. Mark your calendar for  November 10-13, 2017. I'm already looking forward to it. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Peek at the Costumes in Asolo Rep's "Guys and Dolls"

Designer Brian Hemesath
"Clothes make the man," the saying goes. In the theater, this might be doubly true. A character's costume speaks to the audience before the actor has said a word. 

Asolo Rep is kicking off its season with a revival of "Guys and Dolls." I recently attended a brunch with costume designer Brian Hemesath, who shared some of the costumes and tricks of the trade. It was a blast.

Brian ended up working on this production in a slightly unusual way. Each year, Broadway Cares hosts an event called "Broadway Bares."  (I'm sure you get the picture!)  "Guys and Dolls" director Josh Rhodes and scenic designer Lee Savage were in New York for the event. Brian designed the costumes for one of the numbers. He compared the designs to those used in "The Full Monty," which trick the audience into thinking it sees more than it actually does. Josh and Lee quickly realized that Brian's skills would be perfect for their production (which--spoiler alert--includes some burlesque numbers).

One of the costumes we had the chance to see was the dress from Adelaide's "Take Back Your Mink" number. (It's one of nine costumes she wears during the show.) The dress includes 150 yards of netting that gives it the shape at the bottom.  The sash across her waist has a hook that Adelaide releases to drop the dress to the ground. (A snap would run the risk of coming open while she's dancing.) Because the stage in the strip joint in which she wears this dress is so small, the choreography for this number was created using the actual dress.

Adelaide then appears wearing a bustier. As an aside, the numbers 35/24/33-1/2 were written on the mannequin. When I asked Josh if those were the actress' measurements, he obviously recognized the dismay in my voice. "She's in her 20s," he said reassuringly. "And it's her job to be little."

The bustier is held together with a knitting needle that can be pulled out easily for the a "jaw dropping" reveal.

"She goes from very classy to very naked very fast," Josh said with a laugh. The cast and crew gasped during rehearsals when they saw the number the first time.

Brian credits his background working in a costume house with an Italian tailor for the 16 men's suits he designed for the show.  "I enjoy the architecture of a suit," he said.

His ability to create his own patterns comes in handy when designing danceable suits. The underarms include gussets to allow actors to raise their arms without the jacket hiking up as well.  The pants are cut high to allow dancers to kick and lunge without tearing out the crotch.

Brian took full advantage of Asolo Rep's in-house costume shop when designing his costumes. Almost every costume you see on Asolo Rep's stage is made by hand. In the case of this suit, the work included creating the pinstripes using an almost lime green embroidery thread. This embellishment ensures the stripes will be seen from the back of the balcony. This process alone took three-four days.

We learned that mock-ups of costumes are first made from inexpensive material--typically muslin--and fitted to the actor before the fashion fabric is cut. The difficulty of outfitting understudies was acknowledged. The female understudies are more or less the same size, so a quick nip and tuck would make the costumes work. The male understudies would wear their own suits rather than copies of the suit designed for the principal actor.

The challenge of cleaning the costumes was discussed as well. Whenever possible, slips are worn underneath the dresses. The slips can be cleaned after each show, with the costumes sent out once a week. The same goes for men's shirts and suits.

Then Brian shared a tip that caught the group's attention. Apparently, a solution made of vodka and water is "the original Fabreze."  It also has the benefit of serving as a disinfectant.  Since the ratio is about half vodka to half water, Brian recommended using an off-brand vodka rather than, say, Grey Goose. 

As always, getting this glimpse behind the scenes of the show will make me appreciate it all the more. I can't wait.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Surviving a Monoprint Workshop

Barb Albin explains the process
Here's a tip. When an art instructor tells you "anyone can do it," don't believe it. I fell for this trap when I signed up for a monoprint class at the Visual Arts Center with the wonderful Barbara Albin.

Monoprints are a blend of painting and printmaking. (The painting part of the description should have been my first clue this wouldn't be in my comfort zone.) When I talked with Barb about the process, she explained it involves painting over an image that's under a piece of plexiglass. She analogized it to creating an artwork from an adult coloring book. (This should have been my second clue. My lone adult coloring experience was filled with stress as I tried to figure out which colors would look good where. I wish I were kidding, but I'm not. I think it's fair to say I am distinctly left-brained.) 

Nonetheless, I registered for the class and showed up bright and early on Monday morning. After selecting the images we would be recreating, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. Everyone else in the room was a veteran artist. Admittedly, Belinda Duclos is a master metalwork jewelry maker rather than a painter, but she is firmly an artist.  One woman had injured her right (dominant) hand so was giving it a try left-handed. The introductions did not make me feel more comfortable.

Sandeman's "Still Life with Jugs and Berries"
I selected Margot Glasgow Sandeman's "Still Life with Jugs and Berries" for my reproduction. It seemed to be one of the "simpler" works, with some broad shapes. Then we had to choose our paints. Not surprisingly, there isn't just one green or blue or even black. There's a veritable rainbow of colors, even without mixing (the thought of which made me break into a cold sweat). 

I started to paint, outlining the basic forms as we had been instructed to do. So far, so good. Then I got to the point of having to work on some details. It sounds like this should be about 15 minutes into the class, but a good 90+ minutes had elapsed. By this time I had realized I didn't like the color palette of the painting I'd chosen. In fact, I despised its muddiness and resented the thought of having to spend another two hours striving to recreate it.

The big reveal
I mentioned this to Barb, and she agreed that the colors didn't really seem like me. (And I don't think she even saw my over-the-top orange guest bath when she visited my color-filled home.)  We decided it would be okay for me to just do what I wanted.  Frankly, it was the only way I was going to get through the session.

I eschewed the greens and browns in favor of magenta and bright blue. I did a little mixing and realized that when I combined the two, I came up with purple. Now it was getting interesting.

As Barb circled the room, I heard her murmuring "that's nice" or "you're going to really like that" to my fellow students. When she came to me, she said, "It looks like you're having fun."

My one--and only--monotype
Once we had completed our paintings, we laid damp watercolor paper over the image ever so carefully. The transfer process was quite low tech -- two people held the paper in place while the artist moved a wooden spoon in small circles across the page.

Then it came time for the big reveal.  The artist would slowly and carefully lift the paper from her painting.  The results were really quite amazing. 

Even keeping in mind that the image is the reverse of the original, I think it's fair to say my monotype bears no resemblance to Sandeman's painting. And that's okay with me. The Matisse-like colors are much more my style.  And who knows? It might even find a home in my orange bathroom. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Beyond Beyonce: Music Bringing Art to Life

DJ Jay Boda shows off his moves
It's not often that you hear people laughing in the Ringling Museum's galleries. After all, the collection of works by Old Masters invites contemplation rather than mirth. And dancing?  Forget about it!  But the galleries were filled with both when Morgan Szymanski led a talk focusing on parallel themes in the music of Beyoncé and artwork in the Museum.

The talk was part of the Student Spotlight series led by Ringling Education Interns. The program gives interns both a fuller museum experience and a chance to hone their public speaking skills. And it gives Ringling patrons the chance to look at the collection through a different lens. 

When it came time for Morgan to put together her presentation, she was a bit stumped. Maureen Zaremba, head of Adult Programs, asked Morgan what she loved (besides art). Beyoncé was her response. And so Morgan took the themes from four of Beyoncé's top songs and headed to the galleries to find corresponding artwork. 

Morgan with "Roman Courtship"
The first pairing was "Halo" by Beyoncé and "Roman Courtship" by William Ernest Reynolds-Stephens.As we gathered in front of the painting, Morgan told us each combo also had its own power move for us to execute. Cue the nervous laughter. We started off by learning the "fist pump for fate," which involved putting your arm in the air, clenching your fist, and pulling it down while moving your hips a little bit.

Once we'd perfected the move, Morgan told us "Halo" is about putting faith and love and trust in your significant other. The couple in "Roman Courtship" are asking the gods to accept their love. Cupid hovers over them to urge them on and a garland of roses lies at their feet. Sadly, Atropos is also on the scene.  She's the fate responsible for determining a person's lifespan and is readying herself to cut the string of life to one of the pair. So there's no happy ending despite the couple's abiding love.

From there we moved on to "King Candaules Shows Gyges His Wife Queen Nyssia" by Jacques Stella and Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable," a song about taking your loved one for granted and being unfaithful.  Our power move was the "unfaithful thumb" (which had to do with moving hubby to the left and kicking him out).

When you take a close look at this painting, you'll see a peeping tom over Queen Nyssia's shoulder. What makes it creepier than your run-of-the-mill voyeur is that he's there at the King's invitation. The tale comes from "The Histories" of Herodotus. Candaules was apparently so taken by his wife's beauty that he wanted to share it with his servant Gyges. But when Nyssia found out, she didn't take it as the compliment intended. She gave Gyges two choices: either she would kill him or he would kill the King for taking her for granted. It wasn't a difficult decision. Nyssia and Gyges eventually married.  I don't know if they lived happily ever after. But I bet he didn't assume he was irreplaceable.

Two paintings of "Judith with the Head of Holofernes" by Francesco del Cairo and Fede Galizia, respectively, were up next. The song was "Single Ladies" with its lyrics praising the single life and urging women to be proud of who they are. The move was the "single lady slap," which was kind of like the royal wave. 

If you're not familiar with the story from the Book of Judith, the Assyrian general Halofernes took over Bethunia. Judith was keen to save her town. But how?  Luckily, Halofernes had the hots for Judith. He invited her into his tent for a romp. After he passed out from drinking too much wine, she beheaded him. The town is saved. Judith is proud.  Beyoncé surely would be too.

Last up was "The Judgement of Paris" by Lodovico David and "Crazy in Love," a pairing which cried out for the "crazy roll" power move. "Crazy in Love" is a song about being so in love you act out of character. There's a lot of craziness in this painting, as each of Aphrodite, Hera and Athena work to get the shepherd Paris to declare her the fairest of the three. Paris was unable to make a decision while the goddesses were clothed, so they stripped to give him a clearer choice.  After much consideration of the goddesses' appearances and enticements, Paris chose Aphrodite. After all, she had promised him the world's most beautiful woman.  In his eyes, this was Helen of Troy.  The pair got together and the Trojan War ensued.  Once again, not exactly a happy ending. 

After putting all of our power moves together for a quick dance, our tour was over.  While the connections between the songs and the paintings were a bit of stretch, I appreciated the creative approach. Besides, it was just plain fun. I left with the realization that I should take the time to learn the stories behind the artwork in the Ringling's collection. While this era of art isn't really my thing, it can be pretty captivating when you know what's going on.  Kudos to Morgan and the Ringling's Education Program for helping me see these works in a new light. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Behind the Scenes of FST's "Million Dollar Quartet" -- Part 1

It's no secret that I love theater. It's all too easy, though, to consider a production for a few minutes after the curtain has dropped and move on with my life. This is one reason I enjoy the Behind the Scenes classes at Florida Studio Theatre so much. Hearing from the director, production manager and dramaturg, seeing the first read-through of a show, watching the production develop -- it gives me a much deeper appreciation of how many moving parts there are in bringing a play to the stage. Plus it's a ridiculous amount of fun.

"Million Dollar Quartet" is the third production for which I've been taken behind the scenes. While I'm not a fan of any members of the quartet -- Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash -- I thought it would be fun to watch a musical take shape.  It has been a blast. 

Jason Cannon
Associate Artist Jason Cannon has been charged with leading the Behind the Scenes program. He also happens to be the director of "Million Dollar Quartet." Jason shared with us the background on the show and why it was selected to kick off FST's Winter Mainstage season.

The appeal, of course, is the music. If you don't know the story, Carl Perkins had a recording session with Sam Phillips at Sun Records on Dec. 4, 1956. Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis ended up joining him on the recording. Johnny Cash also stopped by that afternoon, but only for about ten minutes. So Cash's inclusion in the recording session in the show diverges from history.

This "memory play" in which Sam recalls his history with each of the singers apparently wasn't particularly well-received in New York. FST believes this is because it's a show best performed in a smallish venue like FST.  With only 237 seats in the Gompertz Theater, audience members will feel a part of the recording session.
Sam Phillips

We learned about Sam Phillips' role in the start of rock 'n' roll. Phillips wanted to get the records of African-American artists on radio stations, but the public wasn't ready. So instead, he found white musicians with a similar sound. This led to an interesting discussion of music appropriation -- think white rappers and German raggae artists.

Phillips was known for wanting "perfection imperfection" in his musicians. He wanted the music to be real and gritty. The phrase "go cat, go" in "Blue Suede Shoes" was not originally in the lyrics. But it came out in the recording session and Phillips decided to keep it.  (While on the topic, I also learned that "Blue Suede Shoes' was written--and first performed--by Carl Perkins. But Elvis hit TV with the song first on the "Ed Sullivan Show," so everyone considered it his song.)

Michelle Pruiett (Dyanne), Kroy Presley (Brother Joe)
 and Joe Ditmeyer (Sam)
We had a fascinating discussion with James Ashford and Jason about casting and Actors' Equity Association rules. FST generally casts a show about eight weeks out from the start of rehearsals, with auditions both locally and in New York. While that might seem to be cutting it a bit tight, actors can quit a gig on two weeks' notice for a better job. If they walk two weeks or less before the show opens, the actor has to pay the theater. But further out than that, the theater has to scramble.

While FST has a strong track record with its actors, it's not because they're getting rich working there. As a smaller theater, FST has a LORT (League of Resident Theaters) D classification. On average, actors at FST make about $650/week (plus housing). I'm stating the obvious when I say that's not a lot of money. Jason shared that one actor got a barrista day job once his show had opened to supplement his income.

Brandyn Day (Jerry Lee), Hunter Brown (Fluke)
and Joe Boover (Elvis)
FST had an ample number of actors to choose from in casting the show. FST's goal was to find actors who had the "flavor" of the icons but who wouldn't play them as cartoons. More than 35 actresses auditioned for the role of Dyanne, Elvis' girlfriend at the time. Michelle Pruiett got the nod.  Joe Boover, who plays Elvis, has been cast in the role in two other productions. Kroy Presley on bass has done the show before as well. The rest of the guys are new to "Million Dollar Quartet."  At a recent rehearsal, Brandyn Day was blazing on the piano as Jerry Lee Lewis introducing Sam and the other guys to "Great Balls of Fire." I can't wait to hear the rest of the cast in action.

"Million Dollar Quartet" may not be the most thought-provoking show you'll see this season, but it will be lots of fun. (Have you gotten the sense yet how much I'm enjoying this class?) Stay tuned for more "behind the scenes."