Category Archives: Theater

Theater projects past and present.

Miss Bennet Opens at MST

Well, the show is open and I’m feeling withdrawal pains.

We had four virtually sold-out previews and an extra rehearsal to adjust the timing and secure the laughs in the final show. Then on Saturday, November 11, 2017 we opened to a lively sell-out audience. People on the waiting list got in because a few regular subscribers were unable to use their tickets.

Energy was high and responses were quick. That almost telekinetic connection between audience and performers was especially evident.  There were obvious Jane Austen fans in the crowd who chortled at every inside joke. At one especially sweet moment, there was an audible sigh from a group in the audience. That response and energy only fed the sharpness of the performances.

Three reviewers have now seen the show. Two reviews have been published and we expect one from the Houston Chronicle shortly.

The Houston Press gave a generally favorable, if slightly tepid review. The main objection being that like Jane Austen’s books and most romantic comedies the ending is a bit predictable. The girl gets the boy. Spoiler alert! That’s what we want.

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/review-miss-bennet-christmas-at-pemberley-at-main-street-theater-9956888

On the other hand, Doni Wilson of Houstonia magazine loved the show.

https://www.houstoniamag.com/articles/2017/11/13/main-street-theater-jane-austen-pride-prejudice-christmas-at-pemberley-review

We will let the ticket-buying public decide. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this could become a perennial favorite for Main Street Theater audiences.

The show runs through mid-December, so contact MST for tickets online at mainstreettheater.com.  Or call the box office at 713-524-6706.

 

Miss Bennet, Week 4-First Preview

This last week has been leading up to our first preview of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley and the introduction of audience to the recipe. It is that ingredient, like yeast, that will make our work ‘rise’, and elevate the rehearsal process to live theatre.

The set is receiving its final touch ups, we are still waiting for one chair that is currently starring in a production at another theater. Props are being adjusted and finalized. Decisions must be made about the exact amount of cranberry juice for color in the ginger ale punch bowl and how much light to throw on the Christmas tree without upstaging the actors. Do we use the incidental music to transition us from one scene to another, and does it end when the lights come up or fade as the actors enter? As the director, I am consulted and involved in all these decisions and processes.

But my primary focus is on the actors and their journey to bring these characters to life. The cast is as widely different in acting and work styles as the characters are different.  One actor is very free and able to commit to even extreme and presentational-performance styles. Another found the core of the character early on but is still trying to find the exact vocal balance. Still another actor must understand the psychological ramifications of every single gesture and inflection to the point of being crazy-making. Some seek me out for private conversations to rationalize a piece of blocking I’ve given. Others seem almost jealous to receive this information second-hand, so I have to reprise the conversation all over again. My detailed notes after each rehearsal are generally taken with eager and good humor, while occasionally there seems resistance to changing anything without extensive discussion. Once in a while, I have to remind a cast member that I’m the one sitting in the audience and seeing the stage picture, and I’m the one whose responsibility it is to fulfill the vision of the play, not just his or her character.

While highly professional, this is a very young cast. I find their willingness to be creative and collaborative exciting. But their equal eagerness to challenge every decision and offer their own insights as to what the play should be, sometimes takes valuable time out of the rehearsal process. A more mature actor would consider it impertinence. But then, I would not have the benefit of the occasional insight that leads to a solution. It is a balancing act.

Sunday marked our first preview. It was an almost full house, which is an advantage because it frees people to laugh. The first audience is so important to the process. It is during previews that we discover whether the humor is working. Do we need to take an extra beat before the next line so as not to ‘kill’ the laugh? Are there lines we forgot might be funny and so the laughter takes us by surprise? Even more gratifying is to discover you have actual Jane Austen fans in the audience who get the inside jokes from Pride and Prejudice. Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have skillfully inserted such references without drawing attention to them.

During the preview, I sat with Artistic Director, Becky Udden, and Carrie Cavins, my lighting designer.

It was exciting to see the eager and attentive faces of our somewhat older audience members. The first preview invariably includes long-time patrons and senior citizens. Any concerns I had about volume of the actors were allayed quickly. Pacing seemed very good, but a few scenes seemed a trifle slow to me. A sign that the actors are still tentative about what they are doing. While pleased with the audience response, I saw all the little things that needed to be fixed.

Carrie, like me, saw only the places where the light was uneven, or an actor was standing just out of light. She can only do so much if the actor cannot feel the light on his/her face and seek it out.

Becky on the other hand, seemed delighted with the show and recognized that any small imperfections can be fixed this week in rehearsal and previews.

Audience response and the buzz in the lobby were very good.  I had a few interesting conversations with patrons.  Later, Shannon Emerick forwarded our first email response from an a longtime Rice University staffer in the audience, who wrote, “It was an absolute delight. Terrific way to begin the holiday season. Helen”

We’re off to a terrific start. The rest is in the details. Next rehearsal on Tuesday. Then three more previews before opening night.

Miss Bennet Rehearsals – Week 3

Over the weekend, we had our ’10 of 12′ rehearsal.  It was exhausting, but productive, and we survived it–as we always do.

Actor’s Equity union rules allow us to have one rehearsal during Tech Week, where we work actors and crew ten out of twelve consecutive hours.  This is usually done in two five-hour work sessions with a two-hour dinner break. Ours fell on Sunday.

Tech rehearsals are a long and tedious, but necessary process where the director, stage manager and designers try to work together to pull a show out of the proverbial hat.  We ask the actors to move through the show from one cue line to another, stopping to build a sequence of light and music transitions.  We track the props through their appearances on stage and off. We make critical decisions on costume pieces and quick changes. The actual furniture is added to the set, final details are completed or painted on the set, and adjustments are made in blocking to accommodate all these elements.

I take second chair to my fabulous stage manager, Lauren Evans. The actors are temporarily relegated to animated mannequins that must walk the same pattern and say the same phrase over and over until all the computerized elements are in sync and as they need to be for the final product. There is a lot of sitting or standing around, while being completely upstaged by the technical elements. It can be very boring and certainly taxing to patience and good humor. The cast and crew of Miss Bennet managed to weather the process with minimal storms and tempests, in good part thanks to Lauren. The product is starting to become visible.

Sunday we made it through Act 1 and part of Act 2.  Monday, we finished teching the show and were able to actually rehearse some scenes with full technical support. This week, we add the costumes and put all  the elements together with the wonderful characterizations that the cast has been developing.  The final push will be to meld all these moving parts and impose a story arc that brings the audience into the world and on the adventure.

The audience is, of course, the final element; the ‘chemical’ reaction that adds the magic, which turns a play into a piece of theatre–and hopefully a work of art.

 

Check out the Houston Press interview with me about Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, at –

http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/preview-miss-bennett-christmas-at-pemberley-at-main-street-theater-9885242

 

Miss Bennet Rehearsals – Week 2

Rehearsals are moving along with the Main Street Theater production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon).  In the first week, we have managed to block the entire show and are working through each act to find the relationships and the overall arc of the character development.  Actors are off book for one act and learning their lines for the second. The ladies are beginning to work in corsets and a pregnancy pad, and the men in their boots. Having accomplished so much, the pictures I snapped on a break may seem deceptively relaxed, but they’ve earned every ten-minute break believe me.

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017, we added two new faces to our number. SHSU students Adonis and Sara are interning with us for this show and will be costumed as servants to facilitate changes.  So, we went back and blocked the transition intermezzos between scenes, where we need to move furniture, establish a change of time or retrieve props before the next scene.

That same day, we were surprised to see that parts of the set had been delivered and were being installed.  Once the palladium windows and built-in bookcases are in place, it will start to look really impressive. Still working on our ‘do-fer’ furniture for the moment. If you are not familiar with this highly technical theater term, it means ‘it will do for now’.

Thursday, we have a stumble through for the designers to make notes for set changes, lighting and music cues, and to track props. Unfortunately, one of my very busy actors has a conflict and will be out, so my stage manager will undoubtedly walk the blocking and read in the lines. This makes giving acting notes difficult.  But the next night, two actors are missing and we are relegated to the rehearsal room in the annex, so I should not complain.

Out of this chaos, it will all come together beautifully. As the Geoffrey Rush character says in Shakespeare in Love, “It’s the magic of the theater.”

Theatre – Post Harvey Update

Between difficult subject-matter-experts at my day job, Hurricane Harvey, and having to redesign my online Film Appreciation class multiple times around the delayed start of the Fall semester, I’ve been very busy and not a little stressed.

But the good news is that this is a busy autumn season for me theatre-wise.  While some theaters were adversely affected by Harvey, causing delays or cancellations, some of the mid-sized theaters are very busy. I’ve tried very hard to make time to support the theaters that are still producing by attending a variety of different offerings. This is a great season for edgy new plays like Ayed Akhtar’s Disgraced at 4th Wall Theatre Company, Wallace Shawn’s  Evening at the Talk House at Catastrophic, and entertaining additions to established franchises like The Ensemble’s Sassy Mamas by Celeste Bedford Walker. But it is an even better season for some wonderful and often over-looked classics like Maxim Gorky’s Enemies at Main Street Theater, George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession at Classical Theatre Company and its upcoming production of An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen.

Last weekend, we launched the eight-month development process on the 2017 winner of the Queensbury Theatre Playwrighting Contest. My cast and I met to do table work and hold an initial public reading of the most recent revision of Gwen Flager’s The Girls Who Sing in the Choir. Gwen and I will meet in consultation over the next few months as she does additional rewrites. Then in February, Queensbury hosts a staged reading of the play. After additional workshops, revision, and rehearsal, the play will receive a full production in the summer of 2018. It is an exciting inaugural project and I hope that Queensbury will commit to making this an annual event.

I’m confident that MST’s production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley will bridge the gap between the lovers of classic literature and edgy new playwrights.  It should prove a welcome holiday alternative to the usual Dickens fare and The Nutcracker.

I am directing this homage to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice characters, as reinvented by playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. Named the Most-Produced Playwright of 2016, Gunderson also wrote Silent Sky and The Revolutionists, which were featured in recent seasons at Main Street Theater.

Our first read-through of the play, held last night, was a “Part of the Art” offering to our loyal MST subscribers and longtime supporters.  People on the MST list serve were invited to experience this sneak preview of the play in its purest form.  Folks attending last night’s table read will be able to compare their impressions to the actual production later and more completely appreciate the journey a play makes before it is fully realized.

Joining the audience and myself were my Stage Manager, Lauren Evans; Assistant Director, Joanna Hubbard; Costume Designer, Deborah Anderson; and the cast: Chaney Moore, Brock Hatton, Spencer Plachy, Laura Kaldis, Heidi Hinkel, Blake Weir, Skylar Sinclair, and Lindsay Ehrhardt.

I like to think that one of my strengths as an actress-turned-director is putting together a dynamic and talented cast. That was reaffirmed by last night’s gathering. While the cast has had their scripts and my research notes for several weeks, most of them have been working hard doing other shows. Nevertheless, the reading showed preparation and thought and was as close to production level as I’ve experienced with any cast in recent memory.  It will only grow and deepen over the next three weeks as we learn to work together and create art.

For me, this is a moment filled with excitement and anticipation, fully appreciating the adventure and the possibilities before us, and not yet overwhelmed by the physical and design demands of the show.

I hope you will join us for the adventure.

Miss Bennet will run at Main Street Theater November 11 through December 17, 2017.  For information, visit www.mainstreetheater.com or call the box office at 713-524-6706.

Claire Hart-Palumbo

Directing MST Production of Gunderson Homage to Jane Austen

Main Street Theater announced its season to include “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” as its second production, following Gorky’s “Enemies”.  I’ve agreed to direct it and am very excited to once again be working with the characters from Pride and Prejudice and the work of Lauren Gunderson.

Having performed in Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky” a couple of seasons ago and delighted in “The Revolutionists” this last season at MST, I am very excited to be involved in this play, which she co-wrote with Margot Melcon. A lovely person and talented writer, Gunderson has become one of the most produced playwrights in America.

To add to my joy, this play is a riff on one of my favorite Jane Austen books. I performed in MST’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (penned by Artistic Director, Rebecca Green Udden) in the 1980s and directed a revised and improved version of that script in the 1990s.  This will be like a holiday visit with extended family.

Which is where the play picks up, two years after Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett have settled their differences, overcoming his pride and her prejudice to become a happily married couple. The lovely Jane has married her Bingley and they are expecting their first child, seemingly at any moment. But they have journeyed to Pemberley to celebrate Christmas with the Darcys, the studious Mary Bennett in tow. The rest of the family is expected to arrive before Christmas day.

More mature and accomplished, Mary is still more comfortable playing the pianoforte or perusing an Atlas than serving tea or engaging in polite conversation. She has come to realize that everyone expects her to be an old maid and care for her parents as they age, but she is not sure she’s happy with that lot in life. A woman ahead of her time, she would prefer the life of the scholar or the professional musician, but those avenues are not readily available to her. (This seems to be a theme in Lauren’s plays.)

Meanwhile, Darcy’s aunt, the formidable Lady Catherine has died, and despite her best efforts, the estate is entailed to a distant cousin named Arthur de Bourgh. A diffident young scholar and scientist, he could not be more uncomfortable with his new role as Lord of the manor. On his reluctant journey to assume his dubious title at Rosings, he accepts Darcy’s invitation to join the family celebrations. Unfortunately, Darcy invited him without telling Elizabeth.

The ‘cute meet’ happens when Arthur arrives somewhat unexpectedly to be greeted rather curtly by Mary, who seems to assume he is more likely a burglar than a guest.  They are just starting to discover how much they have in common and struggling to express their attraction, when first Lydia Wickham then Anne de Bourgh arrive to complicate the matter.

As you might expect, Lydia’s rather patched up marriage to Wickham is not entirely successful. But she is too arrogant and proud to admit they are anything but happy, until she thinks she might latch onto a rich Lord for a lover.

Anne, the almost invisible and sickly daughter of Lady Catherine has emerged from her chrysalis upon her mother’s death. Unfortunately, her new gregariousness has a decidedly snippy and privileged tone very like her mother’s.  Unwilling to wait for Arthur to get around to arriving at Rosings, she arrives at Pemberley in the middle of the night to root out her cousin and stake her claim as his fiancé.

Needless to say, mayhem ensues.

I have cast a wonderful group of actors and am anxious to begin the rehearsal process in October. Meanwhile, I’m working with the talented designers at MST to create the world of Pemberley on MST’s thrust stage.

Keep the show in mind when you are trying to find things to do around the holidays. Opening in early November and running through mid December, it should be a delightful alternative to the usual Scrooge and Nutcracker offerings.

For more information visit the Main Street Theater website at www.mainstreettheater.com

Claire Hart-Palumbo