Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Wave: Memo from the RTC: Backstage at “Gypsy”

So I am so involved with the play, the usual education stuff I put up on Ed Notes is taking 2nd place even though I think about the issues all the time - and in fact have written dozens of blog posts -- in my mind -- they disappear almost immediately. I have been deeply involved in all the MORE stuff but haven't had a chance to write much about it. And who actually reads this stuff? It seems more Unity people than MORE people read Ed Notes. What I love so much about the RTC is the number of teachers involved -- the lead is a high school guidance counselor, the 2nd lead is an elementary/middle school teacher. But teachers who are so involved with the theater seem to have little interest in union matters, so I spend no time talking about it.

Friday night's sold out performance got a standing ovation. Some of my friends came out to see it. Some of the theater people commented that my (very brief) performance actually is getting better -- how doing nothing can get better is beyond me - but they tell me I look more relaxed on stage. I'm not doing the next 3 performances (tonight, Sunday matinee and next Friday) but will be back next Sat night and the Sunday afternoon finale.

My column in the July 25, 2014 edition of The Wave.

Memo from the RTC: Backstage at “Gypsy”
By Norm Scott

I know we are considered community theater, but we are so much more than that. – Susan Warren Corning, Director of “Gypsy,” speaking to the cast backstage minutes before opening night.

Packed audiences cheered and whooped it up at last week’s opening sell-out weekend of the Rockaway Theatre Company production of “Gypsy” at Fort Tilden. One audience member reportedly said, “I saw Ethel Merman in the original and Tyne Daly and Pattie Lupone (who won a Tony) in the revivals and Louisa (Boyaggi) is better.” Another said, “Better than Broadway. I’d be willing to pay a hundred dollars.” For twenty bucks (and free parking), there is no better deal in Rockaway. Or on Broadway.

I’m very fortunate to participate in this production in a number of ways. Working with Tony Homsey and his set construction crew from Day 1 ¬¬– striking the set from the last show down to bare stage and watching the new set go up . Frank Caiati, who is directing “Godspell” (opening at the RTC Sept. 12), designed this set so as to simulate backstage at a theater that could morph into a hotel room and even a Chinese restaurant, mostly by the creative movement of scenery. Oh, the details involved in putting on a show. One day Director Susan Corning told me to remind Tony to put up two hooks to hang the massive paper mache cow head so it is easily reachable in the dark by the actors (John Panepinto and Matt Smilardi) playing the cow. Sorry animal lovers, despite the awesome acting, Caroline is NOT a real cow. But there are real dogs playing Chowsie.

I get to see many of the shows upstairs from the lighting booth as part of the video crew along with Jim Peithman – shooting above the sound booth (in the rear corner of the theater.) Cat McEntee is the mistress of the sound booth. She not only has to manage the multiple wireless microphones from the actors, but also must deliver on cue all the sound effects (phones ringing, announcements, etc.) Lighting is controlled from upstairs by a highly sophisticated programmed system designed by Andrew Woodbridge.

I spend a lot of time in the lighting booth, especially last weekend when there were no seats in the theater. Director Susan Corning is up there working with Stage Manager supreme Nora Meyers, who communicates by walkie talkie during the show with the sound booth, backstage with Frank Verderame to announce set changes and with the person controlling the curtain. Nora also is in charge of communicating with all the performers on every single aspect of the production. It is an awesome task and no one is more respected or relied upon or loved than Nora. Nora teachers elementary school so she is used to juggling 10 jobs at once. Nora also does the lighting cues, along with her husband Patrick, who handles the spotlight. While taping I can hear Susan and Nora chatting and making notes.
So much of what one sees onstage is managed from behind the scenes. One thing I’ve learned is that the Director handles the play mostly before it opens. The Stage Manager pretty much runs the show after that.

I have a small part in the show and get to spend time back stage where organized chaos reigns. Actors running in and out, changing costumes on the fly, numerous props being grabbed and put back in order, all managed by Prop Mistress Arlene Aron. And the team led by Costumier Extraordinaire Kerry O’Connor managing the amazing costumes. There are about 50 people in the cast, including a gaggle of children who must be dressed, undressed, organized, moved in and out. OMG. As a former elementary school teacher I appreciate what this takes. Parent wranglers help make it all work. The kids are delicious to watch.

All scenery changes are managed by the actors who have defined assignments posted. So not only do they have to be onstage when needed, they also need to be aware of the scene changes. Actors range in age from early 70s do 7.

Organizing and overseeing the entire project is Susan Corning, who has spent months making a life-long dream come true. She played Louise in college and 30 years later she is making Gypsy happen again. In a musical you need music and musical director Richard Louis-Pierre works spends months working with the singers. And the choreographer, the dazzling Catherine Leib, does the same with the dancers while also delivering a notable performance as Mazeppa, the trumpet-playing stripper.

I’ve left out so many people. The gorgeous Kim Simek, who turns from mousy Louise into the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. One minute I’m chatting with school teacher Kim backstage and the next she is taking off her clothes on stage (and backstage too during costume changes). And I could do an entire column on David Risley (Herbie) who takes on so many roles at the RTC. And whatever is left over to do, Producer Susan Jasper does it.

Next time I’ll tell you about the young kids and teens in the show and how being involved in the RTC is not just community theater, but real community.

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