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The Mystery of Edwin
Drood Presented by James Madison
University in the Spring of 2005. Scenery by Richard Finkelstein. Lighting is by
Emily Becher and Costumes are by Kathleen Conery. Directing by Norman Hart.
While James Madison University has high
standards and expectations for production, resources available to
achieve said results are modest at best. Therefore great care in
strategy and planning must be taken to maximize results. A case in
point involves the 5 backdrops required for our production. JMU has no
specific place available for painting drops other than the stage floor.
At the same time there is no real shop space and little available
rehearsal space, so all three activities needed access to the
stage. At the same time both funds and labor pool were limited as
One strategy I used to meet the challenges was
to opt for a period use of space reflecting the often small (by today's
standards) stages of the British Music Hall era. At the same time,
our scheme of revealing the "play within a play" coupled with
careful use of the portals allowed us to see over and beyond most of the
drops. In the end the drop sizes (save the front "oleo"
were 12'-0" high by 22'-0" in width. This allowed us to
paint two at a time in the wings while simultaneously accommodating
rehearsal and shop build activities in the central portion of the stage.
We recreated the music hall era here through
the use of 3 portals as framing devices. The first of the portals was
dimensional, with decorative moldings and texturing in the paint. The 2
upstage portals were painted in a rich Victorian pattern. Each portal
opening was smaller than the one downstage of it so as to enhance the
perspective. The portals legs were moved well into the stage
space so that audiences could see around them into "backstage
areas" so as to enhance the "play within a play"
metaphor, and the beautiful red house curtain was draped nicely so as to
ease the visual transition between the architectural proscenium and our
smaller false proscenium.
The orchestra lift was lowered to its orchestra
position and the stage itself was extended 2'-0" downstage of the
natural stage edge so as to increase playing space while slightly
covering the pit for sound purposes. Additionally two side stage areas
were carved out of the pit area, being 18" lower than the stage
floor. Besides adding playing space, these afforded great access to the
house for those scenes where the performers needed to spill from the
stage into the auditorium. The area under these side stages was rendered
clear for musician locations. There were approximately 17 musicians in
the pit along with their conductor.
A Roll drop was designed as a full-stage in-one
oleo curtain but after having difficulty rigging the roll mechanism
properly we opted instead to place the drop on the theatre's valence
line set. Four other drops were created: Jasper's interior, The
conservatory, High Street, and Minor Canon Corner. Scenes like the opium
den and the cemetery, and the train station played against a backlit cyc
and white scrim in 100% fullness. The cemetery scene used three
painted groundrows and a crypt wagon. The train station used a rolling
cut-out train and a flying train station cutout unit.
So much of the activity in this work reveals
the structional/theatrical piece with actors slipping into and out of
character (ironically the "out of character" being still in
the character of Victorian era actors). The set had to facilitate this
constant slipping from one mode/world to the other. Therefore I opted to
create a world where the mechanism would be visible at the
periphery. The show curtain plays an interesting roll. The
audience is greeted with artwork derived from the original illustrations
that accompanied the serialized publication of the Dickens' novel. These
woodcut scenes are framed within the pictorial borders of the
traditional stage; draped curtains, portals, and the like. The curtain
is rendered in shades of grey to reflect the original print publication.
As the curtain rises, however the audience realizes that the framing
devices depicted in the show curtain are not abstract but rather relate
to the actual stage devices, now appearing in color. This scheme
thus extends the play within a play acting style directly into the
scenery itself where the painted scenery reflects the built scenery.
Having worked for seven years on America's only
authentic period showboat (The Showboat Majestic in Cincinnati) I was
also anxious to create an environment where the student performers could
experience a stage space akin to those of actual period music hall type
stages. It was thus easy for me to decide to design the show in a
traditional wing and drop format and in a more restrictive size than is
common in more modern theatres. We then made full use of all the period
devices of staging that we could from the liberal use of in-one staging
to the manufacture of a period cranked wind machine. It was really
fun for audiences to see the instantaneous scene changes that the
masters of the musical hall were able to create with the proper
application of their stage magic.