Archive for March, 2012

Manage This! Profile of a Stage Manager

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

by Darren Callahan

Lene Hardy observes fight training from far back in the light booth.

Lene Hardy observes from the light booth while Jessie Mutz assists Zack Meyer with fight training. Also shown: Kim Boler and (part of) Maggie Speer.

Star Wars. Drupelets. And a little show with the clever title of FupDuck. These are just a few of the dozen recent shows that Lene Hardy has stage managed. If you didn’t know, being a stage manager is like being a bass player – you’re always gigging. Stage Management is a special talent. It requires attention to detail, responsibility, ability to influence and please a great number of various personalities, and it requires most of all a love of theatre. Lene Hardy has those qualities in spades.

With Polarity Ensemble Theatre of Chicago’s spring 2012 production of Tom Jones, adapted from the Henry Fielding novel by playwright David Hammond and directed by Maggie Speer, stage manager Lene Hardy brings her best game, including her skills at prop design. So let’s learn more about this fascinating contributor.

Oh, and Captain Neat-o Man. We mustn’t forget him.

If you don’t know how all the roles of theatre fit together as a perfect working machine, perhaps we should start with what a stage manager does. This often unheralded role is actually one of the most critical to a smooth-running production. Often the director can’t be there at every show, so a dependable stage manager is hired. This person is the liaison between the director and the backstage crew, which includes the actors. Present at every performance, the stage manager (or SM for short) keeps the schedule, the logistics, and most of the director’s entire vision intact for every performance. It’s a demanding job for something with little spotlight. Starting in the 17th century, the role was defined and has been leveraged at countless performances over hundreds of years – the SM is a tradition that goes as deep as roles in costuming, design, or stage combat.

Chicago theatre is always clambering for talented SMs. “I came to be SM after the position was advertised on,” says Ms. Hardy. “The posting had a link to the theatre’s website, which helped me get a feel for the theatre as well as the play. I’m new to Chicago and eager to contribute to the theatre scene, so I e-mailed over my resume and met the director for an interview within the week.”

Like finding a bass player who can also sing, Lene was quite the discovery for this production of Tom Jones. She is also the properties master, or the person who designs, acquires, and keeps track of all the necessary objects used within the production. Hardy explains: “When I took on the stage management position, a props master still hadn’t been found. I volunteered since I think the mechanics of props should be worked out early in the rehearsal process instead of coming as a surprise later. By this token, I’ve assembled props for a lot of the shows I’ve stage managed. I’ve worked with productions in the past that get started with just a director, the cast, and me, with the expectation that designers will be found later. In these cases, most of the designers found are also me. Sometimes even having a props master, the rehearsal props I bring in end up being in the final performance. The task can be daunting at times, but I do enjoy the creative aspects of construction, as well as the knowledge that I alone shoulder the responsibility, and if a prop is not finished I have no one to blame but myself.”

For Polarity’s production, Hardy is certainly not alone. To realize Fielding’s immense novel, there is a large cast of 17 actors, who represent even more characters.

“Communication can be difficult,” she admits. “No matter how articulately a statement is worded, the more people hear it, the more chance there is that it will be misunderstood. A lot of my job involves relaying information, which sometimes means asking five or six people the same question and getting answers that seem almost deliberately contradictory.” Hardy compares it to the class game of ‘telephone’ – where a phrase or idea is round-robin’d to determine what’s lost in translation. Hardy is the operator. How to handle this challenge?

“I try to break down the actors into various lists: who needs rehearsal clothes, identify schedule conflicts, even who has to be at what rehearsal. Despite the number of scenes with crowds or large groups, there is a great deal of rehearsal time devoted to principle characters, and it’s a bit tricky coordinating when people will be needed and when their time is going to waste.”

This enormous effort by Hardy is doubled with her props role. The process of prop construction is ongoing. This is particularly true of the props used in stage combat: a cane, a stick, two swords, and three rifles. Here, Hardy is helped immensely by the fight choreographer, a talented costume designer, and the actors themselves. Often, actors are left awkwardly grabbing or getting rid of a prop that hinders more than helps, but this will be cleared up when the blocking is solidified and the set is complete. “Our chief media is paper, a material I enjoy. Each article must contribute to the landscape while remaining functional, with attention to practicality and, more importantly, actor safety.”

Hardy is beholden to the wishes of director Maggie Speer. When handling a specific vision, Hardy’s job is to support all that happens around her, and drop as few (if any) balls of the hundreds in the air at any given time.

As the production moves headlong towards its opening night, the excitement and suspense is something that requires superhero nerves to control. Maybe someone like Captain Neat-o Man! I hate to leave the reader on the hook, but I tell you this – go see Tom Jones, appreciate the fun, the passion, and the craft of the production, brought to you by a great Chicago ensemble. Then, after the performance, sneak backstage and shout, “Ms. Hardy!” The woman who answers will know the identity of Captain Neat-o Man. Guaranteed.

“A week has not gone by without a member of the company making a brilliant point that never would have occurred to me,” laughs Hardy. “And just when it looks like approaching disaster, I am surprised by the generosity and enthusiasm that makes this a truly engaging ensemble.”

Tom Jones performs at 1500 N. Bell Street in Wicker Park through April 29, 2012. Tickets are $19. Senior discount tickets (age 65 and older) are $15, and student discount tickets are $10 with valid ID. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Seating is general admission. Click here to purchase tickets online or call the box office at 800-838-3006.

TOM JONES Lives! David Hammond Channels Henry Fielding

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

by Darren Callahan

David Hammond

David Hammond

Playwright David Hammond has waited patiently for twenty-five years to realize his perfected adaptation of Henry Fielding’s classic novel Tom Jones. “I wrote the first version in a great hurry, as a last-minute replacement in the repertory of the now-defunct Valley Shakespeare Festival in California. I arrived to direct a production that had been canceled due to rights issues, so we brainstormed about what to do, and I agreed to adapt Tom Jones.”

Luckily for Hammond, Fielding’s 18th century novel, The History of Tom Jones, A Founding, was one he knew very well. Mr. Jones’ navigation through high- and low-society, with its exploitative streak of bawdiness, was a defining novel of English literature for centuries after publication. Along with War & Peace, it is a story Hammond has read and re-read more than any other work.

In three days, Hammond had written enough pages to begin rehearsals. The speed of the writing, while exhilarating, had also left Hammond feeling the material deserved a more measured approach. “The show was a hit and we did a successful tour, but I knew that some of that first adaptation was smoke-and-mirrors. There were places where I’d patched things together or glided over inconsistencies and missing circumstances, but the arc of the thing, and its spirit, somehow captured Fielding. All that summer, I kept telling myself that I would get back to the script and push it through to real completion.” Little did he know it would be decades before he could again find time for Mr. Jones.

With its spring 2012 production of Tom Jones, Polarity Ensemble Theatre of Chicago continues its mission of producing new works (such as Ghost Watch, The White Airplane, or Kabulitis) alongside classics (A Streetcar Named Desire, Hamlet, and recent 2011 DCA Storefront hit production of Peer Gynt.) Hammond recalls, “The old script sat in my files until a year ago when, out of the blue, two different theatres called asking about the rights. One of the theatres was Polarity, where Maggie Speer, who was my student at the American Conservatory Theatre thirty years ago, is Managing Director. Maggie called my agent in New York asking about the play. She didn’t know at the time that I was the playwright, because I had written that first version, as I wrote everything I did in those days, under a pen-name. Similarly, although Maggie’s name rang a distant bell in my mind, I couldn’t figure out how I knew her. It was quite a moment when we finally met up by email and identified each other!”

Polarity has a solid reputation for respectful insights on rewriting, as evidenced by their annual festival The Dionysos Cup, where new plays receive a high-quality showcase. Hammond leveraged the new interest in Tom Jones to finish his initial vision. “I asked if they could give me a month to rework the script one final time before sending it. They happily agreed, and I pulled out the script and Fielding’s novel. It felt like going home. I had a deliriously happy month working on it. The original structure still held, but I was able to solve things I had avoided the first time around, clear up some loose ends that didn’t really match, further define characters, follow through on details of circumstances, and make an altogether more organic and cohesive work out of it.”

Hammond also brought into the play more of Fielding’s wry humor. The third-person narration of the novel being a challenge, Hammond spent considerable time on retaining the original version’s energy while sharpening the dialog and tightening elements of plot. The novel is over three-hundred thousand words (longer than the last Harry Potter novel!), so to create a tighter, stronger, and funnier version than first existed was a call to arms for the experienced playwright.

“I think the trick was to capture the multiple levels of conflict in the story,” adds Hammond. “There are so many elements: the personal nature of Tom’s and Sophia’s journeys, the different but equally colorful worlds of town and country, the contrasts of wealth and poverty, decadent sophistication versus youthful innocence and idealism, society versus the outsider. And there are also levels of morality: are we answerable to some hierarchical code, not only here on earth but in the eyes of heaven? Are human beings basically good or basically evil? Are weaknesses of the flesh forgiven if the heart is basically well-intentioned? Does God view us with a twinkle in his eye if He knows we try our best? And how do we find a way to live productively and not torture ourselves if we take a wrong step? I think Fielding thinks there’s good in everything if we take things with an occasional grain of salt.”

David Hammond has written adaptations of works by Euripides, Moliere, Beaumarchais, Chekhov, Ostrovsky, Gay, Wedekind, and E.T.A. Hoffmann, as well as several original plays. Hammond has taught on the faculties of the Juilliard School, the Yale School of Drama, and the American Conservatory Theatre Advanced Training Program and is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill. He currently teaches for the American Repertory Theater/Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard and is Professor of Theatre Studies and Arts Division Chair at Guilford College.

Tom Jones performs at 1500 N. Bell Street in Wicker Park. Previews begin March 20th, with press opening on Thursday, March 22nd and a Gala Premiere Night Friday, March 23rd. Tickets are $10 for previews, $19 for regular run, and $35 for Gala Premiere Night which includes a post-show reception. Senior discount tickets (age 65 and older) are $15, and student discount tickets are $10 with valid ID. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Seating is general admission. Click here to purchase tickets online or call the box office at 800-838-3006.