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Backstage at Portland’s theaters

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By Timothy Gillis, journophotalist

By the time the opening night audience is seated, the curtain raised, and the lights brought up on any local stage around town, another cast of characters has already played their parts — vital, but behind the scenes. Well before the first line is uttered, designers, managers, and technicians have already created this dramatic world. Those in the theater business are well aware of their value, but to many a theatergoer, they are a lot like an official in a sports contest, only noticed if there is a mistake.

Arts of all stripes are in financial danger these days, with federal threats of funding cuts, and increased local competition for an audience. Many theater companies aim to appeal to the younger set, offering pay-what-you-can rates and price reductions. And theater techs get paid, but the money is not the source of their affinity for the genre and the labor involved to make a play come off without a hitch.

“These people are who make it happen, but they don’t get the credit they deserve,” says Craig Robinson, technical director at Good Theater, the theater-in-residence at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland, where he’s worked for all of its 15 years. The playwright has an idea, a vision, as does the director, but these theater technicians make this vision become a workable play. “When a theater company decides to do a play, two equally important teams are assembled, he said. “There are general scenic descriptions, and then we come in. From that first meeting, the play takes on parallel lives both onstage and off.

Scenic and lighting designers consider the physical stage space, in conjunction with the stage manager and technical director, he says, outlining the myriad decisions made before opening night. And there’s a ton of decisions that need to be made before that arrives.

“The scenic design is created and offered to the director, technical director, lighting designer, costume designer, and scenic painter. The director discusses staging and blocking. The technical director evaluates the physical details and safety of the design within their theater space. The lighting designer gathers the needs of all the others in the team to begin the lighting design and cues. The costumer begins design. The technical director does a take-off from the design plans to order lumber, paint, and supplies from local vendors. All these things have to happen before the build team is even called in.”

 

Robinson has been involved in building 90 or so sets, he reckons, for Portland theater companies. He also takes performance pictures, B-roll, and pre-shoot publicity shots for area newspapers.

“Performance photos show the play from start to finish and keep a photographic history of these productions,” he says. The Portland area had only a handful of theater companies when he started out. “Now there are up to 15 or 20, of different sizes, with some stages designed solely for kids. It’s developing. More people are involved. It’s increased its exposure to more people, with more new productions written by local playwrights. And there’s a sharing of resources, especially by tech people. More than it used to be.” When necessary, tools, lighting structures, and costumes are resources that might move between companies. Human resources are the commodity that they also share.

Stacey Koloski is a director, set and props designer, and scenic painter. She’s a company member at Mad Horse Theatre and the Theater at Monmouth, and has worked as a freelancer for the American Irish Repertory Ensemble (AIRE), Dramatic Repertory Company, Lorem Ipsum, Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble, and the South Portland community theaters: Lyric Music Theater and Portland Players.

Between these several companies, she’s seen this type of sharing of resources throughout the theater world, increasingly imperiled by funding problems. She believes that the network has come about primarily because of the people involved and the number of theaters in the area that do not have their own physical spaces and storage.

“Many places accumulate stock, like costumes, props, and furniture — the number one request I get — that can be used by others. And in all cases, it doesn’t come with a price tag. People are willing to lend things out, knowing that when they need something, they will get it.”

Currently, Koloski is working on designing a set for the family show at Theater at Monmouth this summer, My Father’s Dragon, which opens in July. She started working on it last December. “We assembled the team for the show (the director, designers, tech directors) and held design meetings by phone in January,” she said. “The first draft of set designs passed back and forth between me and the director and were due in March to the theater, where the staff there reviews it in the context of all five of their summer shows, look at them together for what’s in stock and the costs if approved. They send the designs back. I then refine the color choices and furniture. In June, the guys in the shop build it.”

Once considered disloyal by their theater bosses, freelancing techs are also a shared resource, and are better able to support themselves by working several gigs, and the theaters always seem to need need their help. In addition to technical directors, a successful set needs master carpenters, electricians, prop masters, scenic painters, and production assistants. The physical construction begins, and walls, doors, windows, platforms, scenic elements, and masking are built. The props are gathered or made. The scenic painting is done as set construction allows. The stage manager gets the backstage space set up with tables for props, hooks for costumes, and carpeting for muffling backstage passage.

In addition to creating an environment, a great device for bringing a bygone age to life is an effective costume. But creativity has to compensate for cost. Anna Halloran, a costumer who has worked with Mad Horse Theatre Company, Lyric Music Theater, and children’s theaters, tries to track an idea down before resorting to cutting new cloth.

“A lot of it is locating costumes, going through stocks, finding something that matches your vision, “ she said. “If I can’t find it, I’ll make it. The theaters I work with tend to have limited budgets — $300 or less — which means I can’t custom-make pieces for each actor. Often times I’ll ‘shop in actor’s closets’ by borrowing staple pieces they might have. If the show is set in recent eras (from the 1980’s to now), I’ll source a lot from Goodwill or Wal-Mart. For pieces set in much earlier times, I will go to Lyric or Mad Horse costume stocks and search there. Both Mad Horse and Lyric have fabulous antique garments, some dating back to the 1920’s, so there are options out there. The great thing about fashion is it cycles every 30 years or so, meaning I can take outfits from different eras and add or subtract to make them more appropriate.”

She enjoys the challenges from plays such as Lysistrata, the interpretation of which by Mad Horse Theatre Company (in 2015) reflected many different time periods, instead of simply the traditional Ancient Greek.

“In Kimberly Akimbo (also from Mad Horse two seasons ago), the lead character is a young girl with an aging disease, played by an older woman. The best part was finding a childlike outfit for someone who wouldn’t necessarily wear it. It was cool creating the illusion. I did a lot of shopping for that one.”

Halloran started out as an actress, her first performance at seven years old on a children’s show called Tumbleweeds. “It was my birthday, me and my sister and a couple other kids my age,” she said of her early foray in theater and then its shift in point-of-view. “I started costuming in middle school — for comic book conventions, then I started doing it for the stage. My senior year of high school I costumed the senior musical, Pippin,and from there just kept going.”

The theater community is strong, and it seems that there is little friction between the acting troupes and the techs that support them.

“I have never worked with a cast that wasn’t grateful for their tech crew. It’s harder to feel the same gratitude from audiences. Often times if people aren’t talking about the costumes I take it as a success because it means the design fit the show enough that it didn’t distract,” she said. “When I costume, I put a lot of thought into depicting the character’s story arch through color choice and style, so, selfishly, I would love to hear what people think, and if audiences pick up on such choices.”

Ted Gallant, the technical director for Portland Stage, has been with them since 1987, but he never would have predicted it. He was a foreign language major visiting a friend who worked there when he was offered a job as a carpenter. “I had no interest in working in theater at all,” he said. “I thought it would be a nice part-time job until I found a teaching position.”

After 15 years as assistant technical director there, he said he grew “tired of working for people who knew less than I did,” and approached Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage, and asked for the tech director job.

In terms of changes in the business over the years, Gallant said he can only speak for Portland Stage, and that “since Anita took over, it’s a nice place to work. She fosters an environment where we can use our strengths. She adapts the job to our strengths.”

Theater sets are quality made constructions, but they are often quickly crafted. “We have between two to three weeks to build the set. Then we start loading the set into the space on a Monday morning and by Wednesday it is pretty much done,” he said.. “We focus lights on it Wednesday night so that’s why it must be ready by that time. Actors are on stage Thursday around noon.”

Some of the greatest challenges to theater techs are being able to reproduce Mother Nature indoors. “Water on stage is always a challenge,” Gallant said. “Making it rain. Water could either come from some pool of water you’re drawing from with a pump so the system recirculates or you could draw from an outside source, like the scene shop (located directly behind theater).” Between scenes, stagehands literally mop up after the actors.

When the last performance of the play run has ended, the “strike,” or deconstruction, of the set begins. All the technical people then work into the wee hours to clear the entire stage of their creation. Then the stage is empty and set for the next creation.

Theater companies strive for individuality of design, but the resulting stages are often different by other factors.

“Anita Stewart designs most of the shows at Portland Stage,” Gallant said. “I am not sure how it looks to someone outside of theater, but I notice a certain style that she has. Outside designers offer different styles, but often the play dictates the design. And that design often reflects the budget.”

In fact, a theater’s size and fiscal strength often determine the very plays they chose to produce. “Shows are often chosen, in part, by the cast size. The design has little to do with which shows are chosen,” he said. “Obviously, a large musical is out of the question for most small theaters. But it has less to do with design and more to do with the expense incurred with the cast, costumes, and musicians.”

“The proposed cuts to the NEA will affect all of us,” Robinson said. “When everyone is striving to survive, year to year. This is not a moneymaking proposition by any means. We do it for the love of it, not the income. If we spent as much for the arts as on warfare, that would be nice.”

Squashwatch

By Timothy Gillis

photo credit Joel Bolton2.jpg

When Greg Born’s son, David, was in high school, he was a dominant tennis player, mowing through many opponents and, as a sophomore, playing 3rd singles on a team that made it to the state finals.

But when he went off to Bates College, he switched sports to join the nationally ranked men’s squash team there. He had begun playing the sport only two years prior but was able to transfer some of his tennis skills to the new sport, something that would be a stretch for most athletes. Perhaps most importantly in his switch, though, was his dedication to academics and a similar commitment to practicing and mastering the he new sport.

The Portland Community Squash hopes that type of academic structure and athletic discipline will help give Portland youngsters a model for success.

Greg Born, Barrett Takesian, and Sandy Spaulding are founding members of the new facility on Noyes Street, and within the year, they hope to start a national program called “Urban Squash,” which will focus on a specific set of promising but underprivileged local kids. They plan to incorporate the US Squash’s National Urban Squash Education Association, which introduces squash to new players while providing academic support, mentoring and help with college placement.

“I reacquainted with Barrett and Sandy four years ago, having known them through collegiate squash,” said Born, who is an assistant coach at Bates.

Born picked the sport up just over a decade ago but really made his mark as a table tennis player. He was state champion twice, in 1994 and 1997, and half of a doubles team that won the states six times.

When asked about the move to squash, he says it was a necessity, not a choice as it was with his son.

“They took away our Ping-Pong tables at the YMCA,” he said. “There was nothing else to play there (besides squash). I got hooked.”

The same type of magnetic attraction has filled the courts already at PCS in just a few months of operation. The planning of expanding squash options really began in 2008, with efforts to organize the group of players that were already playing the sport.

“When I realized how much it costs to build and open a squash facility, I knew it wouldn’t be something I could do,” Born said. “But we tried to make it so others could come along and see the market opportunity. We focused on growing the sport in hopes that, with greater numbers, someone would recognize the demand.”

There are approximately 20 squash facilities in Maine, but half of these are in private residences, including eight on Mount Desert Island.

To create a place that was accessible to kids who wanted to learn the sport, PCS repurposed the former Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh.

PCS is funded with private donations—$1.5 million to buy and renovate—and is a 501(3)c non-profit. The building was purchased in October of last year. PCS was able to open this past January, 98 days of renovations from start to finish. They worked with Wright-Ryan, a local contractor on the work, which renovate the main hall, and added locker rooms, showers, and a fitness center.

“For a non-profit like us, they were unbelievable to work with,” Born said.

Volunteers worked on the other half of building. One father/son team knocked down a wall to help create classrooms that are now used for yoga, community meetings, and potluck suppers. A local string quartet practices there.

“We really are an entity that makes our city better. That’s the goal,” Born said. “The focus is primarily on kids, with the mission heavily supported by adult members.”

Memberships are $73 month for individuals and $113/month for family. The fee gets you unlimited squash (based on reservations for available courts), use of the gym, including plenty of opportunity to give as well as get.

“Part of idea of being a member is you’re not just buying the services of an athletic facility. You’re joining a community,” Born said. “Members are encouraged to volunteer their time, helping kids learn squash, wellness, yoga. We want you to be part of academic support sessions and help mentor. We encourage kids to seek a balance between athletics and studies, and to learn things beyond just squash, to be more mindful of their bodies and surroundings.”

PCS has a three-pronged approach. In addition to adult memberships and a junior program, they plan to add “Rally Portland” for students in grades 6-12, modeled after NUSEA. It’s designed for children whose families are not able to provide much help for them as they approach the college application process. Some of these kids will be the first in their families to even consider college.

“We want to provide academic support and guidance, and a structure,” Born said, “We end up being a liaison between kids, families, and schools to help make sure their homework is done, and assist in areas where they need it.” The long-term hope is that these capable youngsters go to college and return to their communities to become leaders there.

There are also some obvious health benefits to the sport. One has to be fit, strategic, and mindful of his or her surroundings.

“It’s a thinking person’s game,” Born said. “Unlike table tennis, which is ‘twitch reflex,’ squash rallies tend to be longer, especially with higher level players. Some rallies are more than 100 strokes long.”

And it’s a lifetime sport, as Born knows too well. He faced off against Charlie Butt (for whom a court was dedicated this past weekend) when he was 82 years old. Butt was a member of the Chinese Olympic team in two sports—basketball and swimming. He won 22 national squash titles.

“He’s a legend,” Born said. “I loved playing him. He was twice as old as me at the time, and it was humbling to be on a court with him.”

The PCS center hopes local kids who pick up the sport will find a similar lifetime of fun, health, and the discipline that propels them to realize their own potential.