Category Archives: Theater

Theater projects past and present.

Opening Night, Private Lives

Well, Saturday was the climax of our journey toward realizing this play. We made it! And with a sparkling crowd of loyal patrons, illustrious board members, and dignitary guests, we did it up right. The food was sumptuous, the audience well dressed, and the martinis flowed as only in a Noël Coward plot. We were more than  ready to enjoy ourselves by the time the lights came up on this labor of love. And believe it or not, they loved it as much as I do.

The cast was equally jazzed and eager to show their stuff. Everything went smoothly. We reveled in the bright and brittle barbs and witty repartee as well as the overweening and unforgiving excesses of love.

Evidence to that effect is to be found in the rave review from Natalie de la Garza at the Houston Press. “Noël Coward’s not considered the master for nothing. . .. he’s one of the greatest British playwrights ever, but a viewing of Private Lives will give you a pretty good idea, too. . . . But the real magic of the play is in his craftsmanship. It’s in the whip-smart, unforgiving dialogue. The clever mirroring. The depth. All of which demand a strong-handed director and a talented cast. Guess where you can find both.

“….Hart-Palumbo skillfully leads the actors through this second act wind-up, ratcheting up the tension between the two characters through barely contained barbs, foot stomps, lid slams, newspaper openings until no word [catchprhase] can stop the surge of vitriol and violence. And not for nothing, it’s a testament to Black, Brincks, and Hart-Palumbo that they were able to keep a play that includes honest to goodness domestic abuse so light.”

Houston Press review

This should sell some tickets, along with the word of mouth from sold out performances on Saturday and Sunday. Call for tickets soon, before they are all gone. Main Street Theater, 713-524-6706.

Photo above courtesy of Pin Lim and Main Street Theater.

First Preview for MST’s “Private Lives”

Sunday, July 14, 2019 was our first preview for Private Lives. Sunday matinees are their own animal, and our loyal subscription base comes out in full force for previews. The lobby was abuzz with a sold out crowd. There are always familiar faces, and this time was no different.

I talked to a couple of people who had attended our first read through and were excited to see what we’d done with the show. Several people asked after one or the other of my actors. One charming lady said, “We always know we’re in good hands when you direct.” Very re-affirming and comforting to know that some audience members actually do pay attention to who directs and designs a show.

As noted before, our fearless leader, Becky Udden was backstage doing some last minute tweaks to garments she’d pulled when our costumer failed to deliver everything promised. Luckily, her character only appears in Act III, so she had two acts to do whatever needed to be done. But in the end, all actors were appropriately clothed and ready to perform.

And they did just that.  The show went very well, and though I took a few notes, most were minor technical concerns.

First preview audiences are our guinea pigs, if you will pardon the expression. Most are long time subscribers who have been drawn to the less expensive ticket prices for our three previews. They know our theater and what we do and are an enthusiastic audience. But they are the litmus test as to whether our timing is on point or if we are missing our laughs for one reason or another. After each preview, I continue to give notes, to try to adjust for laughs we didn’t expect and capture ones that we expected but did not get, or only got a tepid response.

After the show, the buzz in the lobby was full of compliments and shared laughs over favorite moments. It was reassuring to know that this very sympathetic audience was charmed by the performances and Coward’s language. It will build the confidence of my cast and lead to even stronger and more solid performances. We have a week to burnish the gold in this lovely play before our gala opening on Saturday, July 20th.

Finishing Tech Rehearsals of Private Lives

Well, every fabulous experience must have a down side I suppose.

The fly in the ointment here has been my costumer. I’d never worked with this woman before, but she had solid credentials in the fashion industry and had worked for the Alley Theatre off and on over the years. We started our tech/design meetings for this show over two months ago. I brought ‘inspiration’ pictures to the first meeting, which she dutifully photographed on her phone. We talked color palette and character. After that meeting she brought some fabric swatches to the next meeting and then did not show for the next couple of meetings. We were told she had difficulty with Webex and could not even phone in. Having received no sketches, I called her and set up a meet. I drove to Sugar Land for her convenience. Again the fabric swatches. She had no sketches or any indication of where she was doing with the costumes. Her phone had died and she lost the pictures she’d taken previously. I made sketches of what I thought they should look like on napkins from the restaurant and promised to forward the original pictures to her new phone. She agreed to order the fabrics the next day and build the pajamas for Act II before our publicity photo shoot in two weeks.

At the publicity shoot,  she showed up 45 minutes late because of traffic. She had some clothes she’d pulled from storage, but the promised pajamas she had not been able to finish because a tree had fallen on her studio and she couldn’t get into it until a friend came over with his chain saw to clear the debris. This was two weeks before rehearsals began.

At first read through, which is open to our subscribers, we usually ask the designers to be available to talk a little about what the designs will be. My scenic designer was there with sketches. The costumer came with the same fabric swatches I’d seen at least twice before and nothing more. I reported my concerns to the company manager.

One week into rehearsal we had a ‘stumble through’ of the entire play for the designers. she told my stage manager she wasn’t aware she had to come to the designer preview. When she showed up late, she slept through the first two acts then left before Act III.

She failed to meet my leading lady and myself for a wig fitting, promising by text to see us later that day at rehearsal. She never showed though actor fittings were scheduled. After dozens of texts from my stage manager, she responded late that night to say her ‘dog is dying’.

Two weeks into rehearsal and at the beginning of techs, she did fittings of ‘pulled’ costumes on one actress, then she cancelled other fittings, not once but twice.

Artistic Director, Becky Udden returned from vacation to join our rehearsals as the maid Louise, just before tech rehearsals began. She addressed my concerns and took over direct communications with the costumer.

The evening of first dress rehearsal, she was an hour late arriving with costumes she had borrowed from the Alley Theatre storage that day. After the run through in ill fitting and often inappropriate clothing, I began tech notes. Her response to my question about one of the costumes in Act I was “Oh, that’s just a temporary costume. The fabric is being dyed for that dress.” I was stunned. The fabric, which she supposedly ordered over a month ago, was just now being dyed in order to be cut and sewn together—four days  before our first preview.

Becky switched into high gear. She dragged the woman back to our costume storage, where they pulled more appropriate clothing for the men and dresses from our last production of Private Lives eleven years ago. Fortunately, my Amanda and the previous actress are very close in stature and size. Ultimately, even Becky lost patience with the woman and on Saturday before our first preview, the costumer was fired and Becky essentially took over.

We concluded dress rehearsals with clothes for everyone, mostly pulled or borrowed but looking fabulous and very nearly the right period. My costumer had missed every single deadline. The fabric she supposedly ordered and had Main Street pay for may or may not have existed, certainly she had nothing to show for the money she’d spent and the time she’d wasted. But fortunately, Becky pulled a rabbit out of the hat, as she has had to do on numerous occasions over the last forty odd years. So when you see the show and the wacky maid comes on briefly in the last act, give her a little extra applause.

10 of 12 rehearsal for Private Lives

If you are in the theater, you know what a “10 of 12” is. For those who are fans of theater, but not practitioners, it is one very long day allowed by Actors Equity and the other trades, when all the designers, cast, crew, and director try to work through adding the technical aspects of the show. We work ten hours of a twelve hour span.

This Sunday we started at 10 am with a ‘paper tech’, where the stage manager (Julie Pare), lighting designer (Eric Marsh), sound designer (Yezzmine Zepeda) and sometimes the set designer (Dylan Marks) collaborate on the cues for light, sound, and special effects. Both designers had previously built their individual plots in their respective computers, so it was a melding of the two into the stage manager’s call sheet. The company manager, tech director, and senior tech joined us. I always choose to be there, but the director is really extraneous at this point if communication has been good throughout the process. Because Private Lives is not a particularly tech heavy show, (aside from props) we were able to finish in a little over an hour.

Actors arrived at 11:00 am for what should have been a costume dress parade, where I get to see the costumes under light and work with the costumer to make notes on what needs to be adjusted, completed, or added. Our costumer was not quite ready and begged an extension, so I spent an hour giving actor notes from the last two rehearsals. Crew members and interns were also called for 11, and the stage manager worked with our newly assembled stage crew to walk through the major set turnover between Acts I and II and the prop changes between Acts II and III.

I assigned my iPad to my directing intern Isabelle Rogers, who played photographer during the whole long day.

By 12 noon, we were able to take a quick break and begin tech rehearsal. Often this is when we use the actors as props and just move from cue to cue rather than actually playing the whole scene. It’s beneficial to the technical staff  but doesn’t help the actors very much. But because the lighting cues are generally long and slow progressions of light and the sound cues are very specific in timing, we were able to work through a run of the entire play, including set turnovers by 4:00 pm, when our dinner break was scheduled.

Some of the crew chose to have a pot luck/take out picnic in the green room. A number of us walked over to a little French crepe restaurant in the Village and spent our break together, then wandered back to the theater at our leisure.  At 6:00 pm, we started all over again from the top of the show. During the second run, we stopped only occasionally to work out a rigging problem that we had discussed, to work business with a break-away prop, or to adjust the actors positions to be better lit, etc. During the act breaks I consulted with the prop master about a punch list of final props that are still outstanding and fabrics for reupholstering the furniture.

We finished a little after 9 pm. Light and sound designers were able to leave, knowing my technical notes would come to them from my stage manager. The set designer and shop crew worked to resolve a few issues and the running crew began to organize the back stage storage of furniture and props while I gave actor notes. When I finished shortly after 10 pm, we had almost an hour in our scheduled 10 of 12 rehearsal to work or rework some scenes, but I chose to let everyone go home a little early, knowing the set designer was waiting to continue painting the floor and we would be sharper and more creative in our solutions after some rest.

All in all it was a very successful tech. But it does bring home how close we are to opening the show.  Our first preview audience will join in the fun next Sunday, July 14 at 3:00. Hope you will consider joining us.

For more information and to buy tickets call 713-524-6706 or go online to www.mainstreettheater.com

 

From “Private Lives” rehearsal

With a jewel of a play like Noël Coward’s Private Lives, rehearsal is a bit like faceting a diamond.  The gem is there in the rough, each crystal trying to gleam from under layers of physical choices, extraneous movements, vocal generalities, and the mysteries of a time gone by. But with a talented professional cast such as mine, it is a labor of love.

As actors, we may be limited by our understanding of the time and setting of the play. That is why, I encouraged my cast to watch several films from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Bringing Up Baby and The Thin Man are both American films, but they capture the bright brittle repartee and some of the playfulness of this style of comedy. I also encouraged my cast to watch Downton Abbey, which is currently (and conveniently) being reprised on public television.

For a better understanding of the British upper class tradition of the ‘house party’ and the ‘grand tour’ there are a variety of novels and short stories by contemporary authors such as E.M. Forster. Personally, I recommend checking out Rhys Bowen’s upscale period cozy mystery series “Her Royal Spyness.” The books are set in the 1930s, featuring am impoverished, aristocratic young lady moving in the circles of royalty and the wealthy in England and on the continent. They are delightfully funny, easy to read, and very well researched.

My cast is working hard on their Standard British dialects and looking at portraits to better understand the fashion, demeanor, and mannerisms of the upper classes, and trying to cram what they’ve learned into their vocal and physical representation of Coward’s brilliant words. But, in the midst of rehearsal I like to pause to ask a question or pose a scenario, so we don’t become all style and no content.

“How curious would you be about your new spouse’s previous marriage? Is it idle curiosity or self-preservation?”

“What would it feel like to suddenly meet the love of your life again, years after a vicious and vindictive divorce? What kind of courage or Narcissism would it take to flee from a new relationship with your acknowledged soul mate?”

“How would you react to discovering that your new spouse has absconded with an old flame at the beginning of your honeymoon? How vulnerable would you feel, abandoned in a foreign country? While tracking down your missing mates, would the ordeal bring you close to the other person’s spouse? Or would you blame them for not controlling their partner?”

Watching a cast of extremely talented actors explore such questions and incorporate the new knowledge physically and emotionally into the life of the characters they are building is exciting. I find it enormously satisfying to be able to facilitate that kind of discovery and be a small part of deepening the characterization and the life of the play.

I hope you will join us when we bring this wonderful script to life in its latest incarnation at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, Houston, TX.

For show times and ticket information, please check out Main Street Theater’s website www://mainstreettheater.com or call the box office at 713-524-6706.

Notes on “Private Lives”

When I last directed Noël Coward’s Private Lives in 2008, I wrote the following article for the program notes. When Shannon Emerick, Main Street Theater’s Marketing Director reminded me of it, I decided to republish it here. What I wrote eleven years ago, is just as true today.

A Deeper Look at Private Lives

In many ways Private Lives is an extraordinary play. The Twentieth Century equivalent of the Well-Made Play, it is elegance personified. There are only a few characters, each representing a specific social type while remaining quite believable. The characters of the play are from the wealthy leisure class. Although not specifically aristocratic, they are quintessentially British upper class. No mention is ever made of professions, work, or money. Yet everything indicates a life of privilege; the 1930’s version of the Jet Set.

Ironically, the play opened only weeks before the crash of 1929 which ended the world it documents.

Private Lives is written in brilliantly caustic prose. The language is erudite, intelligent, and delightfully witty. While working on it, certain lines find their way into daily conversation because the characters speak with a wit and charm to which we can only aspire. The language is not only charming, it is as profoundly challenging for an actor as Shakespeare or Shaw.

The entire plot revolves around a specific premise: what happens when two intelligent but volatile personalities meet years after they were madly in love? Act I establishes the characters, the relationships, the conflict, and the EVENT. Act II explores the relationship in the light of their actions and the mayhem that ensues. Just as things become explosive, their actions catch up with them in the form of their abandoned spouses. Act III is the charming and witty ‘resolution’ of their dilemma. Coward moved in such circles. He was a popular addition to many a ‘weekend house party.’ He was an integral part of the coterie of young people sometimes referred to as the ‘bright young things,’ a group represented in more recent fiction in Brideshead Revisited.

Historically, this is the generation that was ravaged by World War I. Many young Englishmen died in the war, but an extraordinarily high number of young aristocrats did not return. World War I was also the first war to be declared on the civilian population. Battles were no longer only fought on battlefields between two armies. Suddenly, death rained from the skies and poisonous gas drifted from battlefields into communities. Out of the randomness of that war and the ensuing ennui came new ways of looking at life as expressed in a variety of philosophies and artistic and literary movements, including Expressionism, Symbolism, and Existentialism. Writers such as Hemingway, Beckett and Sartre found their own ways of expressing these ideas.

It may seem odd to compare the seemingly ‘trivial’ and superficial comedies of manners that Coward wrote with the writings of Hemingway, Sartre, and Becket. But in a very real way Coward documented the same questioning melancholy that found expression in contemporary society as agnosticism, lost faith, and a rejection of more traditional lives and societal roles. He chose to write in a more familiar and recognizable style, with humor, wit, vivacity, and charm, but his characters express the same doubts and questioning with an elegance that is inevitably entertaining and astonishingly memorable.

Claire Hart-Palumbo, director (Summer 2008)

For information about my new production of Private Lives at Main Street Theater in Houston, go to MainStreetTheater.com.

Revisiting “Private Lives”

As many of you know, Noël Coward has been something of a specialty for me over the last twenty years. This summer will mark an even dozen productions of Coward plays that I’ve been involved with over my career.  Private Lives is perhaps my very favorite play of all. I played Sybil in my very first paid summer stock production, and again in my second show I appeared in here in Houston.  I was lucky enough to direct a brilliant cast in a Main Street Theater production in 2008.  Now, eleven years later I get to direct it once again.

We secured our wonderful cast months ago, including Elizabeth Marshall Black as Amanda, Alan Brincks as Elyot, Skylar Sinclair as Sibyl, Joel Grothe as Victor, and our own Artistic Director Rebecca Green Udden as Louise the maid. When we started rehearsals this week with a Part of the Art first read-through in front of our MST die hard fans, it was my first chance to hear this cast say those brilliantly bright, brittle, and witty words. I’m more excited than ever to be returning to this jewel of a play.

Rehearsals Tuesday through Thursday were spent rough blocking and working on refining character choices that the cast had made in preparation for rehearsal.  Today, we went back to work the scenes and moments of Act I.  I was thrilled with the progress we made today. But when on our way out of the theater at the end of a long Saturday, my stage manager Julie Paré said, “I love our cast,” I knew it was not just my own love  of the script. The show is already coming together. Which is great, because two and a half weeks is a very short time to put together a play of this complexity, especially a comedy.

French playwright Moliere’s last words reportedly were “Tragedy is easy. Comedy is hard.” I couldn’t agree more.  Comedy is all about the timing.  The placement of a breath can make or break a sure fire laugh line. A muddy gesture can weaken a moment. A well timed arching of an eyebrow can bring the house down. All this is true of any comedy, but it is more intensely true of a comedy of manners and high style, like Coward.

It promises to be a roller coaster ride, but I’m thrilled to be in the front seat, and hope to see you all in the theater seats when we start previews on July 14, or after we open on July 20, 2019. Come be part of our art!

For information on show times and tickets, call 713-524-6706, or visit www.mainstreettheater.com.