From onstage to backstage

From onstage to backstage McGill University

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McGill Reporter
February 21, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 11
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > February 21, 2002 > From onstage to backstage

From onstage to backstage

The room goes dark. People stop squirming in their seats and an anticipatory hush settles over them. What happens next is anybody's guess, but it took days of sweat and toil behind the scenes to get the production to this point.

There's more to theatre than meets the eye. You need a play. You need a space to put it on. You need actors, sets, props, lighting and costumes. Directors have a vision and tell people what to do. Stage managers make sure it all happens smoothly, and call the cues during a show so the lightning flashes and thunder booms when it should.

Photo Students prepare to take the stage to perform Valparaiso
PHOTO: Owen Egan

English professor Myrna Wyatt Selkirk teaches performance and directing in her department's theatre program. She directs one of the two open-audition English department productions that take to the stage each year -- the other is directed by a professional.

"One great thing about McGill's program is there are a lot of small classes; students have a strong voice," she says.

Selkirk emphasizes it's not a professional program like Concordia University's, but the wealth of extracurricular theatre opportunities at McGill gives students a chance to nurture whatever talents they have.

Venues include Players' Theatre, the department's Moyse Hall and the department-funded Tuesday Night Café in Morrice Hall. At any of these you could see traditional drama, improvisation, rollicking Gilbert and Sullivan, or quirky puppetry.

Some drama students have decided to do their undergraduate degree in something they love, explains Selkirk, before moving on to a professional degree. "I can't name one thing [our students] go on to, there's such an interesting variety." Former students do law, teach, design for the opera, manage theatres. Even the props get around -- a huge skeletal puppet from one of Selkirk's favourite productions, Tooth and Nail, has a spot in the annual New York City Halloween parade.

Players' Theatre president Kathryn Fullerton states right off, "I don't act.

"I'm in more of an administrative position, which is good for me because I'm in management, and going into accounting."

So how did a numbers-oriented management student get involved with footlights and thespians? In her first year, a friend roped her into running sound for a show. Four years later, she manages budgets, fills tight schedules and organizes busy students -- about as easy as herding cats.

The role has helped her develop her leadership skills and her understanding of "how to be political.

"You learn about dealing with people, talking with them, writing letters, how to be thankful, how to ask for help."

Next month, Players' will host the McGill Drama Festival, staging six student-written one-act plays.

History and political science student Dror Yuravlivker says, "I actually leapt off the chair and broke the chair I was sitting on" when he found out his play was accepted.

He was given the opportunity to direct it, which he jumped at. "When would I have the chance to do this again? Probably never. It's amazing to see people read what you write and interpret it completely differently." He says his play is "like Seinfeld, but not as funny."

Players' recently put on Euripides' Medea. Director Kathleen Grace, who is studying literature, art history and theatre, has been doing community theatre since age 10, and when she came to McGill from Texas, she worked in the costume shop, as a stage manager, and was an executive for TNC and Players'.

With behind-the-scenes experience under her belt, she figured she wanted to direct. Her analytic appreciation of Medea, which she studied in class, blended well with her creative background.

Grace brought along art books when she met with the set and light design team to give them concrete examples of the textured and contrasting look she wanted -- think sun-bleached Greek coast. Also "Medea is a foreigner, and we wanted the audience to feel as though they were in a foreign area, to really change the theatre."

So, seats were placed around the stage and the audience area -- chairs, floor and walls -- was swaddled in burlap.

"Going through the art history bookshelves, I found a book on textile art," says Grace, explaining her burlap obsession. "It's cheap, it's textured, it's exactly what I wanted." Canadian Tire gave her a deal on the 60-80 rolls she bought.

"Part of the fun has been watching everyone come together," Grace says of her cast and crew. "They're all separate at first, then you get to see them interact."

Grace plans to move to New York City next year, but because theatre funding is low at the moment (post-September 11, people are donating to organizations like the Red Cross, rather than the arts), she plans to work in publishing for a bit. Her long-term goal is to return to the theatre. "I've gained a lot of skills in terms of working with different people and learning how they work together in an intense, short period of time."

Typical of theatre folks, Katy Pederson wears many hats. She studies literature and social studies of medicine, recently starred in Medea, and is also the education director of TNC along with Kerith Johnson.

Born of arts journalist parents in Halifax, she got into the acting biz young. After a lousy day involving the kind of bitter fight with a best friend only a 13-year-old girl can have, her dad said, "I'm going to go watch mime tonight, do you want to come?"

She tagged along and her dad schmoozed with the director of a local production of Annie. One audition later and Pederson held the role of Orphan # 6. "I got to hold up a rat."

When she was young, stage life for her was "very much an escape. I didn't really fit in with anybody else in junior high." And even after those awkward adolescent years, "theatre gives you a community."

Pederson admires the abundance of theatre-related activities at McGill. "You're given a lump of money and told 'go.' And it works or it doesn't work, you're responsible and you learn from your mistakes. A lot of excellent stuff comes out of it."

Drama student Laurent Duval and political science student Caroline Roy head the only French theatre company on campus, Théatre Grenouille. They've been working together for 10 years (which means since before puberty) and last November, they directed On Purge Bébé by Georges Feydeau.

"Theatre has brought to me a way of seeing things," says Duval. "As an actor, theatre lets me fulfil the desire of playing a role everyday; I get to become other roles."

Moyse Hall is a gem of a theatre space in cream and gold, with a colour-filled ornate ceiling, and muses and zodiac signs high on the walls. And production manager Spike Lyne is its master from catwalk to crawl space.

A lighting designer and so much more, Lyne books the hall, negotiates all the rental schedules and manages the theatre on a day-to-day basis. "It's an expensive building to run. We pretty much cover our costs through our rentals."

Keith Roche is head carpenter of the Moyse scene shop, sound specialist and is Statler to Lyne's Waldorf. He supervises the set construction for the department shows, and minimizes the hammer-to-thumb damage done by students.

Lyne ensures all the equipment works (lights, workshop tools), builds props and furniture, hires workers from technicians to ushers, and balances the budget. He's also an advisor for Morrice Hall. "You have to be ready for distractions, be able to switch focus." He can be typing up the budget one minute, then helping Roche lift 50 pound equipment 60 feet up on the catwalk the next.

Lyne makes sure safety regulations are adhered to. "Safety's a big thing, because it's an easy thing to get hurt." Working 14-16-hour days just before a show opens and running on adrenaline and caffeine, can impair judgement if you don't take it slow and safe.

Lyne and Roche are both hands-on for the English department productions. For their current show, Valparaiso, Lyne designed the set, lights and poster; Roche designed the sound and video. They also often end up "helping renters with that stray dog look," Lyne says. Like those who "wanna do Cats or Phantom, and they've got five bucks to do it with.

"I didn't discover theatre till I got shipped off to boarding school. I found this thing that was incredible and amazing. Then someone said you can go to school for this stuff, you can get paid for it!"

There's a good deal of stress in the theatre world, where "a deadline is a deadline. If you don't laugh and don't enjoy it, you're in trouble." By getting the students relaxed and happy, they can do their work better. "They lose the stress about climbing up ladders." Sixty feet off the ground is not a good time to be nervous.

Beneath Moyse Hall, Catherine Bradley did what most costume shop heads merely dream of. When it came time for renovations, she planned the space with McGill architects. It took five years of fundraising, but they now have a terrific shop. The room is set up in mirror image, so two shows can work comfortably at a time.

There are two each of three different kinds of sewing machines. Plenty of natural light and table surfaces and changing rooms. All this means that she can comfortably book the space out to other companies in town with out losing sight of McGill's needs. She gets a lot of repeat customers. "Once someone's here once, they come back."

With the fetishistic, cyborg PVC costumes for Valparaiso out of the way, Bradley switches gears to take on upcoming projects. Costume sketches hang on the wall. Bradley works on a long white furry coat that will scream 'Liberace' when she's done.

She shows off the dye room, "the most expensive square footage in the Arts Building," she beams. "It's probably the best-equipped dye room in town." A 160-gallon industrial soup kettle makes a handy dye bath. And the ventilation is superb, crucial since dyes can be nasty chemical stews. Outside the room is probably the only eyewash stand in the building, too.

The storage room is a trove of fabricated riches with racks of costumes from all eras. Bradley's fave production for costumes? A toss-up between the sumptuous velvets and painstaking craftsmanship of Twelfth Night -- students took home Elizabethan ruffed collars to work on over Christmas -- and The Duchess of Malfi, which Bradley designed. "You know that special thing you're saving for that special production? Duchess was it." She imaginatively used flexible window screen, black net with painted-on gold flowers and antique gold lace.

"I don't like watching theatre," Lyne confesses. "I spend too much time analyzing it, but I love the process, watching the dynamics. When it's working, it's great. When it's bad, it sucks. And there's nothing more amazing than when a show works and you feel it in the audience."

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