From 2006 to 2019, I volunteered for Northumberland Players in a variety of roles behind the scenes. I was not gifted with acting talent. Instead I got the unsexy list of skills that are useful but invisible: attention to detail, technical writing, problem-solving and decision-making, etc., essential for managing anything but boring. So I was a stage manager for many productions, and then stepped further away from the action to produce, a total of about 15 productions. However, I did find opportunities to be creative, to do the quirky, fun, but still unseen tasks that embellish a production.
Steel Magnolias, my first production, presented challenges to the actors and the costumers. Six women are on stage, with a substantial passage of time between scenes. A team of dressers and hair-stylists were in the wings for quick changes between scenes in Act 1 and Act 2. The biggest challenge was Annelle, a naïve young woman at first but who is very, very pregnant in the final scene. Director Chris Worsnop wanted the young actor to act and move like a pregnant woman. Time for some creative costuming. A bump was not enough. I borrowed from the design of the Empathy Belly™ used in pre-natal classes to give expectant dads an idea of how it feels to be pregnant. The Players’ DIY version began with a 5kg bag of sugar, some foam and some polyester quilt batting. I dusted off some geometry to draft a pattern to sew the dome shape. A cheap padded bra served to hang the dome in place and appropriately boost the actor’s bust and ties at the bottom went around her back so the belly would not sway. I challenge anyone to wear that and not “feel pregnant”! The change was rapid and Annelle went back onstage in the dark. The gasps from the audience when she stepped out from behind the sink proved that it worked and only a few of us knew how. I wish I had a picture.
It’s a Wonderful Life was a significant production for me – it’s a long story. As stage manager and set designer, I spent a lot of time looking at the set. Garth and I had an idea to improve the set and also cheer on the actors. At the dress rehearsal, I asked each of the cast and crew who were onstage to sit for an individual photo in front of the window curtain in the dressing room, I asked for a pose typical of the 1940s “glamor shots” like the samples I provided. Whatever reason I gave was enough for them all to be silly for a few minutes, generating a lot of teasing and laughter. The next day, the afternoon before opening night, I selected and printed the B&W portraits and we put them in very cheap black frames. Garth and I hung the portraits on the side walls of the “radio studio” set. As usual when each of the actors and crew went to the set as they arrived to make sure that their scripts and props were properly placed. As they noticed their portraits on the wall, they were pleased and laughing, a great way to warm up for Opening Night. In 2014, there were some new cast members and they all asked for their portraits to be on the set.
Les Misérables was rehearsing at the same time as I was producing James and the Giant Peach. When I asked why James’ teddy bear kept migrating from our props table I was told that Éponine needed a doll and the Players did not have one. I offered to produce a suitable doll, one that was affordable for the family but well loved. She had a handmade cloth body and was dressed with attention to detail in costume of the time sewn on for durability. Her hair was wool yarn that was a bit matted from exposure to moisture and time. I added evidence of a repair to the neck and patched clothes because I think boys have always teased girls by throwing their dolls around. And her bonnet was lost ages ago. That was my story for a doll that appeared on stage in a couple of scenes. The audience would not notice the details, but I hope the young actor had a sense of how precious the doll was to Éponine.
When Dave Clark stepped in to read the part of Charles in Blythe Spirit, the portrait over the fireplace had to be updated. Spoiler alert – the portrait falls at the end of the play. There was no time to bring in our production photographer so someone quickly took a photo of Dave in suitable costume in front of the bookcase on the set and sent it to me to create an Impressionist-style portrait using an app on my iPad. Only when I had finished the portrait ready to be printed to fit the special frame Jack Boyagian needed for the effect did I look closely at the details. Over Dave’s left ear among the books was Bergosian’s “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll’, published in 2008. I am not gifted with painting talent either, but I was able to blur the book title. Nobody noticed the blur when the portrait fell beautifully at the end of every performance.
Garth and I once attended a performance of a play where the set was the side of a building and the characters came to the windows to speak. After the performance, at the Talk Back, an actor talked about the challenge of acting from the waist up. They explained that the actors were given shoes appropriate to their characters early in the rehearsals because shoes affect how we move. The shoes were not seen by the audience but the actors knew, and that knowledge enhanced their performance.
Attention to the details of sets, costumes, props, and effects by so many behind-the-scenes volunteers adds immeasurably to the quality of the productions by Northumberland Players. I was happy to be part of that. You have set the bar very high.