Friday, September 28, 2018

Behind the Scenes of Between Riverside and Crazy at American Stage Theatre

"The role of live theater is to bring people together through the power of a story. It creates a connection...and opens our hearts and minds to other experiences." So said Stephanie Gularte, Producing Artistic Director of St. Pete's American Stage Theatre, at the behind the scenes talk about the theater's season opener -- Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis.

The 90 minute talk featured Gularte, Professor Emerita Dedee Aleccia, director Benjamin Ismail and production manager Jerid Fox. It was an educational whirlwind -- not to mention a lot of fun.

Stephanie Gularte -- and costumes for Lulu and Oswaldo
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play revolves around Pops, a former New York City policeman who retired due to an on-the-job injury. Thanks to rent control, he lives in an expansive four bedroom apartment on Riverside Drive with his son and some other quirky characters. They are facing eviction.

Aleccia shared some great tidbits with the group. We learned the play has an autobiographical element. Like Pops' son, Guirgis moved in with his ailing father to care for him. When he needed help, some of his friends pitched in. The character of the drug-dealing Oswaldo is based--loosely--on one of Guirgis' own buddies.

Guirgis' description of the set makes it clear the apartment is another character in the play. No "pre-war apartment on Upper West Side" for Giurgis. He tells readers of the play -- and the production team -- that the formerly beautiful apartment has fallen into disrepair since the death of Pops' wife. "Still, the place retains dignity and charm, "Guirgis wrote, "And the comforting aroma of decades of pot roasts and chicken dinners...It's a rent-controlled palace ruled by a grieving despot King."

Jarid Fox on the set
Needless to say, getting a peek at how American Stage is bringing the apartment to life was a real treat. Jarid Fox walked us through the challenge of converting a relatively small stage -- with no wings or fly space -- into an expansive apartment.

To say the team is making the best use of the available space is putting it mildly. The wall with the bookshelves will drop down and become Pops' bedroom. On the other side of the set a rooftop will be created where characters will go to dream about the future.

The topper, though, is a 20' revolving turntable with the kitchen on one side and the living room on the other. This portion of the set will revolve not mechanically, but through "apprentice power." With the assistance of a marine wench, Donovan Whitley will turn the 1200-1800 pound set by heaving on a thick rope. Somehow, Whitley is also playing Oswaldo.

Benjamin Ismail
And what would a behind the scenes session be without hearing from the director?  Ben Ismail is clearly thrilled to be at the helm of this production. He talked about Guirgis' ability to convert profane and mundane language into poetry. Yes, there will be some profanity, but it's a counterpoint to the heart and soul of the characters. The challenge will be for the actors to make the language their own.

Ismail has also taken on the role of sound designer for the show, which he calls "a nuanced part of the storytelling." The music will reflect Pops' point of view -- think 70s funk-- but Ismail also wants to tip his hat to today. So in the transitions between scenes, the audience will hear "Picking Up the Pieces" by Average White Band and "Have You Seen Her?" by The Chi-lites. (The latter is a song Guirgis requires to be included.) But we'll also hear current music like "I Like It" by Cardi B, a song Ismail suggested everyone has heard on the radio. (Obviously, he lost track of his demographics for a minute!)

The session was a great primer for Between Riverside and Crazy, which runs from October 3 -- November 4.  Each performance includes a prologue 30 minutes prior to showtime for those interested in hearing a bit more about the play. For information and tickets, click here. I can't wait.

1 comment:

  1. Here's another production I'm sorry to miss. I really appreciate how you take us backstage. I've copied the quote by Ms. Gularte on the role of live theater. I'm going to think about that every time I go.


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