Playhouse on Park

Ask the Cast with Higgins in Harlem

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

Janelle: Stereotypes

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.

Vanessa: Take Higgins for example. In our culture, we have this idea that if you have more money, you have more integrity… and the character of Higgins – he’s a jerk!

Higgins photo

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.

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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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Interview with Higgins in Harlem Costume Designer, Valerie Webster

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.

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doolittle blog 1

 

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.

 

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World Premiere Coming to Playhouse on Park in March!

Higgins in Harlem, an adaptation of Pygmalion featuring an all-African American cast opens March 5th at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford

By Jane Weber Brubaker (Freelance Writer/Contributor)

Bill Cosby and Henry Higgins share a disdain for those who do not speak proper English. “Why can’t the English learn to speak?” demands an exasperated Higgins in My Fair Lady, the musical comedy based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

An annoyed Cosby echoed Higgins’ sentiments at the 2003 Emmy Awards. When host Wanda Sykes, hectoring him a little, asked what made The Cosby Show so successful, he replied, “We spoke English.”

Connecticut playwright, director and author Lawrence Thelen was watching the Emmys that night. “I got the idea of staging an all-Black Pygmalion,” Thelen said. Eight years later he wrote the adaptation. “I had to replace the cockney English dialect in Pygmalion with language that made more sense for African American actors,” he said.

Thelen set the adaptation in 1930s Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance when prominent black artists, intellectuals, writers, poets and professionals flocked to Harlem in droves.

The Jazz Age was in full swing. Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Billy Holiday were in their heyday, and performed to packed houses at the Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom. Jazz and jive were synonymous, and jive talk evolved as the language of the hepsters. “Are you hep to the jive?” sang Cab Calloway in his hit song.

To Harlem’s black literati, fighting for recognition in a white dominated world, the emergence of jive talk was not a positive development.

Higgins photo

Pictured: Kevyn Morrow as Henry Higgins and Geri-Nikole Love as Eliza Doolittle.

Enter Eliza Doolittle, a homeless Harlemite in search of a better life. She spots a stranger on the street (Henry Higgins, a phonetics expert) writing notes about her in a notebook and confronts him:

What you got against me anyhow? I ain’t done nothin’ wrong. I ain’t no dusty butt [prostitute]. And I ain’t no juicer [drunkard].

As in Pygmalion, Eliza avails herself of Higgins linguistic talents and is gradually transformed under his relentless, bullying instruction from a ghetto girl to an African princess. Instead of ‘the rain in Spain’ it’s ‘take the A train.’

Paralleling the original story, Eliza no longer belongs in her old life but isn’t sure if she’s ready to stand on her own in her new life. Will she return to Higgins in this adaptation of the story?

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.

 

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Students Come Alive with Literature Alive

By Taryn Balchunas (Assistant Grant Writer/Contributor)

Imagine children walking out of a musical about math into a theater lobby that is adorned with their own artwork on the walls, numbers hanging from the ceilings. “That show was awesome!” one cries. This is what students experienced at The Main Street Kids Club: A Mathstart Musical at the Playhouse in November through our Literature Alive program.

Literature Alive is a program for students ranging from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, middle school, and high school. It is an opportunity for students to engage in a theatrical experience both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Teachers who want to participate in the program are sent a study guide two weeks in advance which may include writing, activities, reading comprehension, and a copy of the script. For example, the Mathstart Musical activity guide included sections on shapes, math, and geography, with examples directly taken from the play to prepare the students. A week before the show, a representative from Playhouse on Park will come to the school to conduct a thirty to forty-five minute workshop which teaches students about theater etiquette (being a quiet and respectful audience, the appropriate times to enter and exit the theater, and the appropriate times to applaud the actors) and certain elements of the production. The class travels to the Playhouse for the production and either a meet and greet for the younger students or a post-show discussion for the middle- high school students.

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Pictured: The cast of The Main Street Kids’ Club: A MathStart Musical, a production that participated in the Literature Alive program in November.

Young students then have the opportunity to write a letter to the actors, often including a picture of their favorite part of the show. A memorable letter from the production Miss Nelson is Missing! (2012) from student Nashda illustrates a colorful Miss Nelson and obedient student at her desk. “Dear Miss Nelson is Missing! Actors, My favorite part of the show was when Miss Nelson came back and the children were good.” Most letters usually depict the same favorite moments, notably funny ones from the performance. Older students are encouraged to write a response to the show, incorporating what they learned about design elements.

This program is beneficial and affordable, costing six dollars for young students, ten dollars for older students, and no cost for chaperones. The shows follow some of the Common Core State Standards and Art Standards for the state, fulfilling requirements for teachers. Last year, over three thousand students participated. This year so far, about twenty-two hundred students have signed up to participate in Literature Alive. Schools have traveled from Avon, Canton, Hartford, Simsbury, Somers, Vernon, West Hartford, and Windsor.

Dawn Loveland, Director of Education at the Playhouse, shared an anecdote with me about an enthusiastic student who saw Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Enemy of the People last year. “That was the best show I’ve ever seen!” he exclaimed. When Dawn asked why, he said, “It’s the only show I’ve ever seen.” With such a positive response after one show, wouldn’t you want your school to take advantage of this program? Higgins in Harlem, appropriate for students in middle school and high school, runs from March 10- 21; A Year With Frog and Toad, appropriate for elementary school students, runs from April 28- May 9.  For more information about getting your school involved in the Literature Alive program, please contact Dawn Loveland (860-523-5900, ext. 15) or visit: http://playhouseonpark.org/pop/20132014Season/education_literaturealive.html

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Ask the Cast with The Hound of the Baskervilles

By Kat Iacobucci (Contributor)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEqZAS-8tRA

Q: I’m over at Playhouse on Park, which is located on Park St. in West Hartford, and I’m with the entire cast of the The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Would you gentlemen please introduce yourselves?

Brennan: Hi I’m Brennan Caldwell: I’ll be playing the part of Sir Henry Baskerville and some other parts.

Rich: I’m Rich Hollman: I’ll be playing the part of Sherlock Holmes, the Butler Barrymore, Mrs. Barrymore, Stapleton, Cecille Stapleton, Station Agent, and Yokel Three.

Tom: I’m Tom Ridgely, the Director

Sean: I’m Sean Harris: I’m playing Dr. Watson, as well as Yokel One

Q: Tom, would you mind telling us a little bit about the history of this play, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as well?

Tom: Sure, it’s actually a comeback story for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle… he wrote a prequel called The Hound of the Baskervilles.  There’s a legend surrounding this hound which is killing all of the heirs to the title and the estate.  A local doctor comes to London and enlists Holmes in solving this mystery in Dartmoor.

Q:  What is the screenplay like?  What can the audience expect to see as you bring this to life from the novel?

Tom: It’s a three actor adaptation from a British company called: People Like Us.   A lot of the fun is watching the actors take on the challenge.  There’s a virtuosity required in taking on the play and seeing the actors rising to the challenge.

Q:  How do you handle having so many different characters?

Sean: I have two so… I basically am Doctor Watson.  Yokel One is for about thirty seconds.

Q:  It seems like Yokel One would be a very important part

Sean: It is! *laughter*

Rich: I think for me a lot of the challenge is offstage.  Because at points a man exits stage right and enters seconds later as a women.  Making it seamless backstage is tough and requires precision.

Q:  So, when you go into this theater, really what you have is the stage and four rows of seats.  There isn’t a whole lot of separation.  How does the fourth wall play into this?

Sean: The theater is quite immersive.  The audience gets very involved with us, and we with them, as we break the fourth wall for quite a bit of the play.  It should be really interesting to feel that energy between us as the actors, and then us and the audience.

Tom: The Playhouse is such an incredible theater.  It’s really the ideal sort of space.  There isn’t that sort of marriage of material and architecture happening anywhere.

Q: It’s not the sort of novel (Hound of the Baskervilles) that people would think of turning into a play, either?

Tom: It’s a lot like 39 Steps in that they took this big dense material and turn it into a small cast adaptation.

Q: It is a British novel and a British adaptation, so are you going British or doing an Americanized adaptation?

Sean: All the different characters have different British dialects…

Brennan: …the cockneys, the British upper class…

Rich: It’s pretty clear from Sean’s creation of Yokel One, that Yokel One’s father is from Liverpool

Q: I feel like most people would pick up on that naturally?

Rich: If there’s anything that will be clear in this production, it’s the family lineage of Yokel One. *laughter* I feel like if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had lived longer, he would have created an entire series on Yokel One.

Brennan: Perhaps even named him at some point!

Sean: All joking aside, we do play around with different dialects.

Q: If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was alive today and came to opening night, what do you think his reaction would be to this material?

Tom: Dismay… *laugher* …no, he would have loved it.  Because the show loves Sherlock Holmes, and it’s apparent that the guys love these characters.

Q: I think a lot of being Sherlock Holmes is the character being able to improvise… use small details… and use what’s at hand.  And that’s a lot of what you all are doing here.

Sean: There is a lot of improvisation with the show.

Q: What about the costumes?  Do you make any special wardrobe changes?  Are we talking about full Victorian bonnets and so forth?

Rich: I don’t know how much I want to give away for the illusion’s sake, but we have an amazing costume designer, Erin, and we have done shows with her before.  She has a way of making costumes that are perfectly period, really beautiful on stage, but rigged to be like stripper pants, and rip off quickly.  I will always be wearing Sherlock Holmes as the base, with everything else on top.

Q: What about the fourth wall?  When you break character do you stay British?

Brennan: No, actually, quite American for those parts.  In the first production the names of the actors were listed for the parts where the fourth wall was broken.

Q: Well thank you so much, and could you just tell us the technical details of where and when people can come see this?

Sean: So we technically open tonight (December 4th) and the first official night is Friday, December 6th and we run till the 22nd of December, we run Wednesday through Sundays.  Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm.  The Sunday show is a matinee, at 2 pm, and we have a talk back with us, which is really cool.  You can check out: www.playhouseonpark.org, and we also have student rush, and we want to get as many students and lovers of Sherlock Holmes as possible, so we are offering group rates.

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Kathy 911

A Playhouse on Park Volunteer Tells her Story

By Taryn Balchunas (Assistant Grant Writer/Contributor)

How does one earn the nickname Kathy 911 at Playhouse on Park? By providing a corn cob pipe and a train whistle a few days before the production of Around the World in 80 Days started. By using her studies in Egyptology to paint hieroglyphics for the production of The Mystery of Irma Vep.  Kathy Kuckens, volunteer, is the Playhouse’s most reliable volunteer when it comes to lending her unique talents and personal belongings.

Kathy's train whistle as featured in Around the World in 80 Days

Actor Jeff Canter in Around the World in 80 Days with a train whistle borrowed from Playhouse Volunteer Kathy Kuckens.

A Literary Consultant in the Commissioner’s Office by day, Kuckens is a mother of two and costume designer for Pops ‘N Jazz at Hall High School. She followed Darlene Zoller, former choreographer of Pops ‘N Jazz, to the Playhouse where Zoller became one of the artistic directors. As a volunteer, Kuckens has lent props, repurposed costumes, and even housed an actor.

TB: Where do you acquire all of these props?

KK: I like thrifting, going to rummage shops and tag sales. I pick up anything I think I can use someday. I have a big house with an open room with lots of closets on the third floor. I like to use the odds and ends in the house.

TB: What has been your favorite item you’ve contributed?

KK: Recently, I contributed Mr. Bones. He’s a skeleton that was sitting in the audience holding a beer with a hat during Mama D’s Outrageous Halloween Romp. I provided all of the Halloween decorations for Mama D’s. I used to put on a huge, serious haunted house. People used to come from other towns like Wethersfield and Hartford. I’ve stopped since my sons have grown up and moved out, so I’m glad I could put these decorations to use.

TB: Has there ever been a time when you haven’t been able to provide props?

KK: The first time I was called up to provide props, they were looking for a wooden leg, which I didn’t have, but I had other unusual props they needed. Recently, I was asked if I had a Rubik’s Cube.

TB: What have you done as a volunteer other than props and costumes?

KK: My husband and I housed an actor for the first time over the summer. Damian Buzzerio, who was in Cabaret. We were very nervous at first, but we loved it. Everyone came and went as they pleased. I would consider housing an actor again.

Playhouse's Star Volunteer Kathy Kuckens

From L-R: Playhouse’s star volunteer, Kathy Kuckens, board vice-president Julianne Roth, and executive director, Tracy Flater.

TB: What has been your favorite production at the Playhouse so far?

KK: Irma Vep. It was so funny and silly. I painted the hieroglyphics to say things that only I knew. The most stunning production was Cabaret. It was devastating. And Equus was amazing. I’ve been to almost every production.

If you want to join Kathy Kuckens and the rest of our wonderful volunteers (and would like to earn a quirky nickname of your own), please visit our volunteer page or email info@playhouseonpark.org!

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Ushering at Playhouse on Park

By Jenna Levitt (Contributor/Actress & Kindergarten Teacher)

In all honesty, my true creative passion is musical theatre.  Not only performing, but as a member of the audience, as well.  What better way to spend my free time than going to see live theater?  Now, budgets can be tight, and I’m the first to admit that I am often pinching pennies.  Problem?  Not so much!   Playhouse on Park offers the public opportunities to usher for their productions and then see their shows for free.  I have ushered several times, and plan to continue to do so as much as I can.

PoP Volunteers

Two of our wonderful volunteers
(Melissa Shannon and Courtney Woods) at Playhouse on Park.

Ushering is actually a LOT of fun.  There are different jobs to do, including tickets, seating, and concessions.  All of these jobs allow you to mingle with the patrons and help them with whatever they may need.  I mean seriously folks, what’s better than volunteering an afternoon or evening of your time to help people within the community AND getting to see a top quality theatre production?  It’s extremely rewarding to be able to give back not only to the community but also to the Playhouse.  Check out the volunteering page on the POP website… you will not be sorry you did!