By Katie Gorsky, Hofstra ’18, Playhouse on Park Summer Intern
In the days leading up to opening night of “A Chorus Line,” the cast was still hard at work putting on the final touches during their last few rehearsals. Over the past few weeks, the group has spent long days and nights preparing for this massive production, and all of that work has paid off as the show’s run is well underway on the Playhouse stage.
A typical rehearsal usually begins with a thorough dance warm up by choreographer, Darlene Zoller, where cast members get their bodies ready to start the day with a series of stretches and strengthening exercises. Next, dance material is reviewed in depth to ensure that everything from last rehearsal can be perfected, followed by a fresh batch of new choreography and scenes.
Even though rehearsing five days a week and eight hours a day sounds like plenty of time, when there’s only three weeks to get ready for the show, every minute must be used carefully.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a rehearsal when the cast was working on the show’s iconic finale scene, “One.” When I walked into the studio space I was pleased to see everyone chatting and joking together like they had known each other for years. (Of course, considering they had been spending nearly every waking minute together, it wasn’t too surprising). Despite having a good time together, when it was time to start rehearsing, everyone was able to successfully put their conversations aside and focus on the task ahead.
Being able to see a rehearsal in person really put into terms how much of a challenge putting on this show truly is. I could tell that the biggest trial for the actors is how demanding and precise the choreography is for something that must be learned in a matter of weeks. Not only must the cast be able to remember every step and formation, but they also must be aware of every leg angle, pointed toe, and hat movement. In order to achieve those sought-after moments of impeccable synchronization, everything must be picture perfect.
Make sure you secure tickets for A Chorus Line (running ’til July 31) so you can see how this demanding rehearsal process translates into a phenomenal show!
By Kaitlyn Gorsky, Hofstra ’18, Playhouse on Park Summer Intern
Get your jazz hands ready and your top hats on because we are less than two weeks away from Playhouse on Park’s summer premiere of “A Chorus Line!” With only two weeks of rehearsal time, twenty-five actors, and the challenge of putting on one of the most iconic musicals of the twentieth century, this performance will surely be one of the largest and most rewarding premieres that the Playhouse has ever seen.
Set in the 1970s, “A Chorus Line” follows the individual stories of Broadway hopefuls as they audition for parts in the chorus of an upcoming production. As cuts are made and only seventeen candidates remain, each begins to tell their stories of what brought them to audition in the first place. Featured in the production are many notable musical performances including, “I Hope I Get It,” “One,” “I Can Do That,” “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” “At The Ballet,” “The Music and The Mirror,” and many more.
However, before the actors can take the stage of this highly anticipated production, there is much to be done. And like those auditioning in “A Chorus Line,” we all have to start at the bottom to reach the top. That’s where I come in.
This summer I will be interning with the Playhouse and documenting my experiences behind the scenes. Over the next few weeks, I will be attending rehearsals, speaking with actors and directors, and working behind the scenes to see just how this musical can go from songs on paper to an enormous live performance.
In the past I have attended a few of Playhouse on Park’s musical performances, and was absolutely blown away by the sheer talent of the actors and the genius that went into each show’s direction. Because of this, I have high expectations for what the Playhouse has in store for us in their rendition of this classic musical and am so excited to see what twist they put on it.
Make sure to keep checking in for updates on the progress of the show, and I can’t wait to see you at the Playhouse when “A Chorus Line” premieres on June 17th!
By Taryn Balchunas (Assistant Grant Writer/ Contributor)
“Who would have known that buying a Groupon would allow me to find this amazing place?” states Dorene Sikorski, a Playhouse on Park Main Stage Series subscriber since 2011 and loyal supporter of our local professional theater in West Hartford, CT. Dorene used to attend the Bushnell in Hartford, a different experience compared to our small, intimate three-quarter thrust theater. What makes Playhouse on Park unique, says Dorene, is that attendees are able to “see a spectacular performance only miles from home that I would need to take a train or drive to NYC to see. Many of the shows I have never heard of and are not duplicated at the Bushnell.”
As a Main Stage Series subscriber, Dorene has the ability to choose her desired seats for the season. She also is guaranteed tickets for each show on the same day for each run and has the option to exchange her tickets for another night within the run at no extra charge. She also has the opportunity to dine on a discounted rate at local restaurants before or after the performance at Playhouse on Park on a Friday or Saturday night. Dorene has savored many meals through our dining partners, even indulging in dessert at A.C. Petersen Farms next door. “I find the night out very reasonable. Where else can you enjoy the best ice cream sundae and a leisurely walk outside after seeing a breathtaking performance?” Additional Main Stage Series subscriber benefits include occasional treats from A Little Something Bakery and trial weeks at a local gym. Even with the perks, Dorene doesn’t feel like she’s receiving special treatment for being a subscriber. As with every attendee, the Playhouse staff acknowledges her when she arrives. “I am greeted with a hello and a smile every time I come…the people who work there are super friendly and helpful and I feel part of a community of artists that love what they do.”
What makes Dorene a devoted subscriber is her choice to attend shows numerous times throughout their run. For example, Dorene saw the production of Cabaret twice. Our choreographer, Darlene Zoller, was voted CT’s best choreographer in 2013 by broadwayworld.com for that production. In Dorene’s opinion, Cabaret was memorable because of the journey the audience experiences and how it evoked different reactions from the audience. “I giggled a bit when the actors were mingling with the audience only to be quiet and almost speechless at the end of the amazing performance.” Dorene has had numerous experiences at Playhouse on Park that she and her husband still discuss to this day. Notable performances include their close proximity to Art Garfunkel when he performed at our theater, as well as the production of An Enemy of the People, which left Dorene and her husband thinking for days. Dorene can’t choose a favorite production or specific season, although Around the World in 80 Days will always hold a special place in her heart, the performance that made her “fall in love with Playhouse on Park.” While she is already a subscriber, she donates when she can.
Pictured: Dorene and her husband, Paul
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By Taryn Balchunas (Assistant Grant Writer/Contributor)
For me, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is one of those shows that makes my mouth hurt from smiling so much. I first saw the production on Broadway as a freshman in high school when our acting teacher and current Artistic Director at the Playhouse, Sean Harris, took the drama department to see the show. He was invited to be a guest speller, we had the privilege of attending a session with the production’s understudy for Marcy Park, as well as the privilege of seeing Jesse Tyler Ferguson play Leaf Coneybear. That was the first show I saw on Broadway and it was a magical experience.
Since, I’ve never forgotten Spelling Bee. I didn’t hesitate to see my friend perform in Clark University’s production of the show, and I revisit the music when it strikes my fancy. I was thrilled to hear when the Playhouse announced they would put on this production to close out our fifth season. I knew it was going to be a fabulous run and wanted to be a part of my favorite musical somehow.
On opening night, I was signed up to be a guest speller. Perhaps wearing overalls was an advantage in getting chosen. I digress. Being a guest speller is a wonderful way of having the opportunity to participate in Spelling Bee. I had to answer a few questions before I was selected, a short bio that the moderators could use to poke fun at the guest spellers as they’re called to the mic. Those selected were given a list of reminders to help prepare us for our participation onstage. We were able to sit in our audience seats until the guidance counselor called us for a conference at the beginning of the show, reminding us of the rules and handing us number tags to wear around our necks to match the spellers in the cast. Then we were ushered onstage, where the spellers directed us where to sit on the bleachers. I sat next to Marcy Park, who was convincingly portrayed as intense and intimidating by Maya Naff. I hummed instead of sang along to “The Spelling Rules,” one of the moments where it was hard to not break into one of the songbook’s infectious tunes. Guest spellers were encouraged to be ourselves and not overact or be a ham, anyway.
The first word that I was selected to spell was “apoop.” As I was directed to, I asked for the definition and for Vice Principal Panch to use it in a sentence. What tricked me was the sentence, “Guido the seasick Italian sailor said, “Excuse me boys, but I have to go apoop.” The stereotypical Italian accent and Panch’s initial delivery of the word prompted me to spell the word as “poop.” Panch repeated the word for me after I finished spelling and allowed me to spell it again, probably to save me from the humiliation of getting out of the competition so early. The second word that I had to spell was “crapaud.” Since I was familiar with Spelling Bee’s adult content, I was prepared for some adult humor from the word selections. However, being unfamiliar with the word, I heard it as “craphole” and spelled it as such. When I was mulling over how to spell the word, I tried telepathically communicating with Panch to see if he really wanted me to utter the word “craphole” out loud. And no, telepathically pleading with an actor does not work. Panch looked at me stoically and patiently before I gave my final answer. Being a guest speller is nerveracking, even with the forewarning. I was cut from the competition because of my dirty mind.
While onstage for the majority of the first act, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience. I jumped from my seat when Mitch Mahoney turned to the spellers and pounded his chest in a threatening way. “Pandemonium” was literally pandemonium when the spellers shuffled the guest spellers along the stage, even rolling us on the bleachers like an amusement park ride. I wasn’t too disappointed when I was disqualified and received a certificate and Hi-C (not apple juice) juice box, a sugary “juice” my mother refused to purchase when I was a kid. Viewing the rest of the show from my stage left seat of the three-quarter thrust was a treat in itself.
I’ve always regarded being a live theater actor as one of the toughest professions, due to the consecutive performances and repetitiveness their job requires. Luckily, Spelling Bee has the advantage of allotted room for improv, allowing for something different at every performance. I decided to see this show at the Playhouse a second time near the end of its run, in order to watch it from my audience seat in full as well as see the progress it has made since opening night. Since we extended the show’s run, the cast has been able to work on their portrayals at every performance, improving more and more. And when I saw it a second time, I was not surprised to see an excellent and compelling performance. When I saw the determined and focused look in Maya Naff’s eyes, I knew she has delivered as Marcy Park every performance. When I heard Natalie Sannes hit that very high note during “The I Love You Song,” I knew she can reach it every time without difficulty. And when I witnessed Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre get disqualified, I knew Hillary Ekwall’s tears were real. The main differences I noticed only were the order of the words chosen for each guest speller, the time at which the guest spellers took a photo with the cast, and the type of relationship between Rona Lisa Peretti and Vice Principal Douglas Panch. Though, the reveal in Peretti and Panch’s epilogues about Panch’s restraining order being undetectable throughout the show might be the fault of the playwrights and not the actors.
The great thing about Spelling Bee is that even in this fictitious world, the characters come to life. Steven Mooney did a wonderful job at convincing me to like William Barfee, although some would argue that Barfee isn’t supposed to be a likable character. I was also happy to see Steven’s hair grow back to resemble Barfee’s curly hair. Costume designer Collette C. Benoit did a terrific job with the costumes, bringing out each character’s specific quirks from Olive’s silk top to Logainne’s star-spangled canvas shoes. The characters were zany, heartfelt, and the actors’ love for them was definitely apparent. I could see why they would want to sign on to play teenagers for a little over a month. Spelling Bee creates a world that feels human. We laugh, we cry. Even as an audience member, it’s a world that’s hard to leave.
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By Jane Weber Brubaker (Freelance Writer)
With California Chrome dominating the sports news as the latest contender for the Triple Crown, another legendary horse comes to mind when contemplating the history of Playhouse on Park, celebrating its fifth anniversary this month. The story of Seabiscuit depicts three people whose lives and aspirations intertwine and converge in their pursuit of a shared dream. The three founders of Playhouse on Park had a big dream of their own five years ago: to found a professional regional theater in Connecticut.
Five years is significant in the life of a new theater. “Everybody we spoke to in the early days said it takes five to seven years for a theater company to stabilize, when you know you’re going to make it,” says Tracy Flater, executive director. “As we hit five years, so much hard work is paying off,” she added, noting the increase in season ticket holders and growing interest from corporate donors.
The work began in early 2009 when Flater and co-founders/co-artistic directors Darlene Zoller and Sean Harris formed a partnership and began to shape the vision they believed would take three to four years to fully realize. An unexpected opportunity shrank the schedule from several years to a few weeks: Park Road Playhouse in West Hartford went out of business.
Zoller had been looking for a venue to stage a show that would demonstrate their vision for potential investors. When she approached Catherine Denton, the landlord of the bankrupt theater, Denton suggested that they take over the space. Despite the recessionary times, the three founders believed they could beat the odds. They agreed to lease the theater and moved in on June 1, 2009. The venue was renamed Playhouse on Park, signaling a change in identity from a community theater to a professional theater. Their goal was to provide high-quality entertainment and a diverse selection of offerings at affordable prices.
Like any startup, Playhouse on Park had to overcome countless obstacles in the early days. “The night before we moved in somebody stole many of the lights,” said Flater. “From the moment we moved in we had such amazing hurdles,” she added, recalling a benefactor who promised them a $25,000 grant and then reneged a few days later.
In spite of these and numerous other setbacks, the founders forged ahead full speed, staging an ambitious lineup of eight shows in the first year. They backed it down to a more manageable five the following year, and gradually added more shows in subsequent years as their finances and reputation grew.
The founders of Playhouse on Park: Darlene Zoller, Sean Harris, and Tracy Flater (photo credit: Rich Wagner)
In the upcoming season Playhouse on Park’s main stage will feature seven plays including Angels in America, Altar Boyz, Proof, The Dining Room, The Importance of Being Earnest and Hair. “All the plays we chose for next year have great roles for every actor,” said Harris. “They are all immersive pieces.” The stop/time dance theater rounds out the season with its annual dance musical revue. Playhouse on Park is the only professional regional theater in Connecticut with its own resident dance company.
The theater seats 160 in a “three-quarter thrust” u-shaped arrangement. The last row is just four rows back, giving every audience member a birds-eye view of the stage and the performers. The layout creates a heightened sense of intimacy for both actors and audience. “The three-quarter thrust lends itself to an amazing theater experience because no one can hide,” said Zoller. “The actors can’t hide from the audience, the audience can’t hide from the actors, and the audience members can’t hide from each other.”
The interactive experience begins even before the play, when one enters the small but comfortable lobby, furnished with cozy leather couches and walls covered with colorful production shots. The three principals are on hand to welcome first-timers and greet season ticket holders. Performances are prefaced with friendly, engaging “curtain talks” from the founders, offering inside information about the play and the playhouse. Many performances feature a talkback with the actors after the show, giving the audience a chance to ask questions and give feedback. Playhouse on Park feels hospitable and personal. “Everything is about the community,” said Harris.
Highlighting the community aspect, Playhouse on Park casts all shows using both Equity and non-union professional actors. The hybrid model, inviting participation from professional community actors as well as union actors, is a source of pride for the founders and exemplifies their mission to embrace the community, and be embraced by it in return. This commitment extends to youth in the community, from kindergarten through college, with Theater for Young Audiences performances, educational experiences and internship opportunities that give students an immersion in theater arts.
On Tuesday May 20th, Playhouse on Park honored the ‘Founding Five,’ the five individuals who have supported the theater from the beginning, at the Governor’s residence: Ron Roy, David Wurzer, Chuck Coursey, Catherine Denton and Jeff Dornenburg and Tod Kallenbach of Dornenburg Kallenbach Advertising.
Playhouse on Park invites you to join the celebration at its 5th Anniversary party on Thursday June 5th from 6-10pm at the Pond House Café, 1555 Asylum Avenue, Hartford. Tickets are $50 (cash bar). Visit www.playhouseonpark.org or call 860-523-5900 ext. 10 for more information.
Jane Weber Brubaker is a freelance writer living in Wethersfield. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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By Kat Iacobucci (Contributor)
I am here with the cast of Higgins in Harlem, who has been kind enough to sit down with me, just minutes before tonight’s performance. So thanks for that – I know you have a lot to do. If you wouldn’t introducing yourselves please?
Janelle: I’m Janelle Robinson: I play Mrs. Higgins
Vanessa: I’m Vanessa Butler: I play Clara Hill
Kevyn: I’m Kevyn Morrow, and I play Henry Higgins
Bob: I’m Bob Johnson and I play Conrad Pickering
Q: And this is an adaptation of Pygmalion I understand – and would one of you please explain and how it relates to My Fair Lady, which is perhaps the more known version of the story?
Kevyn: It’s based on the original Pygmalion play… it’s actually darker, and may not have the ‘happy’ ending that everyone expects… it’s much more real.
Janelle: It’s about relationships, and how people depend on each other or not… it’s refreshing.
Bob: They’re all very original characters
Vanessa: One thing I really love about this piece, is that I feel like there is not enough light shone on the complexity and the spectrum of African Americans in society today. I feel like a lot of modern culture… focuses on the poorer classes of African Americans
Vanessa: … there is nothing about yourself or your culture that you are denying with upward mobility. And we have this idea that blackness goes hand in hand with the lower class. It’s all a class thing, but somehow it gets wrapped up in race
Q: So your identity gets wrapped up somehow, in this class consideration, which is almost implied, and this is a great play to explore this, right?
Kevyn: I don’t want to imply this is only a black thing. If you are learning to speak ‘correctly,’ those of your culture will question you.
Q: So he’s not the benevolent soap opera version of the wealthy gentleman who comes in and saves the day?
Kevyn: He’s very focused on his work, very passionate about it… he’s very headstrong, and he’s very blind… talking with audiences in the talk back – they always want to know – what happened? Some agree with the ending, some want to know more.
Q: Could we just talk with the setting a little, and your own personal experiences with it, because you live close by, correct?
Kevyn: One of the very interesting things about the setting is that it takes place in Sugar Hill, which is where I currently live in New York. And this is during the Renaissance (sic: of Harlem) in 1938. I live one block away from my character. Part of the life I’m living now in Harlem… is watching the neighborhood change, and the new gentrification which is happening, but I prefer the word Renaissance for it, as there are so many different cultures.
Q: How would you describe what the culture is, for someone who hasn’t been there?
Kevyn: Harlem has been traditionally the black part of New York: the urban part of New York. … if we can keep the flavor, the history, that would be great.
Janelle: And Bob? What’s your history there?
Bob: I came to the area in the 1970s, and although at that point the Renaissance was very much over, and at that time Abyssinia, Mother Zion, and Convent Avenue Baptist were very much into the music culture and had concert seasons…
Kevyn: Those churches still exist and are very strong.
Bob: … I remember during the week people were working, but on Sunday I saw mink stoles, hats… many in top hats… and now I’m reliving that (sic: with this play).
Janelle: The one thing about Harlem that I hold to… is that regardless of your class, there is always a sense of pride, so if you were the owner, or if you worked in a barber shop… or if you were a lawyer – on Sunday? It didn’t matter who you were. There was a sense of pride in the community that covered the community. I love the pictures of the Harlem Renaissance because you see that in the pictures… and it’s coming back now… and that pride is there.
Kevyn: People still dress in Harlem. When the time is right, you put it on, and people are very prideful. What I’ve always loved about my culture is that whatever you have – people always take care of it. No one seems to mind in terms of ‘who’ or ‘what’ is living next to them, as long as they are taking care of their own.
Janelle: That’s one of the things I love about this show is… how we’re dressed! What we see in this show is a great deal of pride, regardless of whether you’re Doolittle, or Mrs. Pearce, or Mrs. Hill.. or.. *pauses, laughter*
Q: Except if you’re one of the more difficult characters
Kevyn: well, we try *laughter*
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By Jane Weber Brubaker (Freelance Writer/Contributor)
Playhouse on Park interviewed Valerie Webster, costume designer for Higgins in Harlem about what goes into designing for a new show. Valerie has been the costume shop manager at the Long Wharf Theatre for ten years and is also an independent costume designer.
Where do you begin the process when you’re designing costumes for a show, particularly a world premiere?
I start by reading the script and talking to the director about his vision for the show, how he sees it coming out. I generally approach everything with, what would the realistic version be? A show like this is very realistic. You know it’s a funny tale. But we’ve set it in such a real location. It’s a real time and place that is within people’s memory. There are people alive who remember 1938. We want it to be real and honor that period as much as possible, but within theatrical bounds. The clothing helps tell the tale, picking the right garment for the character.
For a show like this, we have photographs. We have living memories. I look through my collection of books and the Internet and find images of what people really looked like. Because this show is so real, I try and stick as close to reality as possible for these characters.
There’s a lot of music specifically referenced in the show so I did a lot of searches on those musicians. What kind of people went to their concerts? I looked at images of Harlem in the Great Depression because a couple of characters have that look.
When do you usually start the process?
Normally I like to start the process 2-3 months before the actors start.
How did you refine your vision?
I selected my favorite images for individual characters and I made a collage of those images to show to the director – these are the kinds of things I think Eliza would wear; these are the things that Higgins would wear. We used a lot of adjectives to describe those characters. The director responded to the images he thought were good, and others weren’t quite what he was imagining. We discussed the pros and cons of styles and costumes and formulated a plan – how many costumes do we need, what time of day is it.
A lot of it comes down to when I meet the actors for the first time. I take their measurements and spend a lot of time thinking about what shape would be good on them. We want them to look good unless there’s some reason to make them look unflattering.
What is the emotional relationship between the costumes and the actors?
A lot of actors have a very emotional relationship to their costume. When they first meet their costume and they put it on, they say, “this is perfect, I’m in my character.” If the actor’s personality is like the character, it’s a little easier for them. Sometimes it takes time for them to get used to it and the more they wear it, the more it feels right. Most actors have a piece by the end of the run that they’re really attached to that helps them get into character.
How did the actors in Higgins in Harlem react to their costumes?
Kevyn, who is playing Higgins, put on his tuxedo and it was such a specific look and so unlike anything anyone else in the play has that it kind of sold the moment. Another place it happened was with Clara. She put on her dress for her evening look and said, “Oh, I look so silly.” I told her, “You’re supposed to be playing at being elegant.” She said, “I feel like I’m playing dress-up, and it’s just the right thing.”
Did you find there a difference between what a black person would wear to a formal occasion vs. a white person at that time?
I did a lot of research on the difference in clothing between the white version of New York and the African-American version of clothing. It’s an interesting period because it’s not that different. In 1938, black people were trying to fit in to white society and wanted to be viewed as equals.
We did have to have conversations with actors about hair. We have a very natural movement in hair right now. In 1938, anyone who had any money relaxed their hair. You don’t want to interrupt an actor’s personal life too much. We couldn’t ask the actors to relax their hair. But what can we do to suggest that, to show the audience the difference?
How did you approach the clothing for Eliza and Alfred, her father?
I researched the images of the Depression, how the Depression affected Harlem, and what people looked like who suffered through the Depression in Harlem. I went with that look. It’s a slightly older 1920s look, like they’ve had their clothes forever or found the clothes in the charity shop or in the rubbish bin. They’re a little more out of style by about 10-15 years. And they’re dirty. Their clothes are patched and repaired and re-patched. They’re realistically dirty. They probably only have one set of clothing and they wear it every day.
These photos were used to inspire the costumes for Alfred Doolittle.
How many different costumes are there in this show?
We’re telling a lot of the passage of time with clothing so they do change a lot. We have 9 actors and each of them has 2-3 costumes, so maybe 18-25 costumes in all.
Was there anything that you found surprising about this show?
I learn something on every show, and I definitely learned a lot about what it was like to be black in 1938 – the hoops that people would have to jump through just to survive. Even though they are wealthy people. They’re wealthy by a standard that isn’t a white person’s standard. They’re wealthy by black people’s standards. It feels so long ago, and yet not long ago. It’ll be interesting to hear what the dialogue is coming out of the play. While it is funny and it is entertaining, I do think there’s a larger conversation that can happen.
Higgins in Harlem premieres March 5th and runs through March 23rd at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. Call (860) 523-5900 for ticket information and show times.