August 28, 2009
Court Theatre snagged some Jeff nominations! Here’s what went down:
Best Production of a Play [Large] - “The Piano Lesson”
Best Production of a Musical [Large] - “Caroline, or Change”
Best Director of a Play - Ron OJ Parson for “The Piano Lesson”
Best Director of a Musical - Charlie Newell for “Caroline, or Change
Best Actress in a Principal Role (Musical) - E. Faye Butler in “Caroline, or Change”
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Musical) - Malcolm Durning in “Caroline, or Change”
Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Musical) - Melanie Brezill in “Caroline, or Change”
Best Sound Design - Darron L. West (SITI Company) for “Radio Macbeth”
Best Music Direction - Doug Peck for “Caroline, or Change”
Also a hearty congratulations to Court regulars Tim Kane and Mary Beth Fisher for their nominations for “Rock n Roll,” directed by Charlie Newell at the Goodman!
A complete list of the nominees can be found here. Winners will be announced Monday, October 19 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. Fingers crossed!
August 27, 2009
Ma Rainey calls out “I’m trying to listen to my voice mail!” Levee, nearby, has discovered middle G on his trumpet and is plugging it long and hard. Meanwhile, Cutler is having less luck with his embouchure, producing a sound in his trombone that sounds something like dying water fowl.
On any given day, the rehearsal room for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom sounds less like a room full of professional actors and more like a room full of eager 5th grade band students. That’s because none of the actors in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom actually play the instruments their characters play (except our Ma Rainey, Greta Oglesby, who does actually sing in the performance, and quite beautifully too). All of the instrumentation will be dubbed in using a sophisticated sound design.
That may seem like the ultimate cop-out in a play all about the blues and authenticity. But as Ron has pointed out, it was always more important to August Wilson that the play be done by actors first, musicians second. “If you can get an actor who can play, that’s great,” says Ron, “but not a musician who’s not an actor, because these characters are deep.” In one production he saw, the director used actual musicians who could really play the music, but it compromised getting the right actors for the part.
Still, these actors need to know how to convincingly appear to be really playing their instruments. Enter Mwata Bowden.
Mwata is the Director of Jazz Ensembles at the University of Chicago (his faculty page is here). He’s best known around Hyde Park as the Director of the Jazz X-Tet, an ensemble of university students and Chicago professionals who tackle innovative and experimental jazz pieces. He showed up at the end of yesterday’s rehearsal to give each actor a crash course in their respective instruments. The cast seemed delighted to have him there, and soon Mwata began giving style tips. (AC looked over the moon when Mwata taught him how to spin his upright bass.) “It’s all about the body language,” explained Mwata, and he directed actors to find a groove where they could improvise and feed off each other like real musicians. It turned out that details like eye contact and body language are much more convincing than finding the correct string to pluck. I’ve not yet seen Mwata with his own band, but in his afternoon at Court, he proved to be a natural theater director!
August 25, 2009
At the university’s Fifty-Third Street Blog, Kadesha has an update (sort of) about the fate of Harper Theater. The University of Chicago purchased the property in 2002, and when I was an undergraduate, the talk on the quads was always that the Harper would be soon renovated into a real movie theater again (it still hasn’t happened). Of course, what I didn’t know then was that before it was a movie house, Harper Theater was a play house. It was opened in 1964 by Bruce Sagan, then-publisher of the Hyde Park Herald. Here’s Sagan speaking to Richard Christiansen in A Theater of Our Own:
“We [Sagan and his then-wife Judy] knew a little bit about the off-Broadway movement in New York… We had even invested in a show there, and we thought it might be possible to create a kind of off-Broadway theater here, especially after Bob Sickinger had started things at Hull House. The Harper had a proscenium stage, a fire curtain, and exit signs, so I knew we would be all right with the building codes, and we went ahead.
The Harper didn’t last long, though it did house a brief repertory of Second City shows, including Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard directed by the late Paul Sills and Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park directed by Sheldon Patinkin. After the Sagans’ ventures with off-Broadway productions, they began producing a dance festival there that attracted many well-known international dance companies and choreographers. In Hyde Park today, there’s little to no indication of the history of the place. Hyde Park Progress rightfully asks, is Harper Theater really historically significant? However, you can always count on the Regenstein Library’s Special Collections Research Center to have something, and indeed they do: this playbill from the very first Harper Theater production, Pirandello’s Enrico IV.
The playbill gives a brief but utterly bizarre history of the theater:
The Harper Theater was built in 1914 as a vaudeville house. The architects were H.R. Wilson and Company. The theater originally had 1200 seats. The balcony has been closed off and the coffee house built in the rear of the main floor.
The lobby and entrance were remodeled in the 1930’s, changing the entrance from 53rd Street to Harper Avenue. The Harper closed as a movie house in 1956 [!]. The rear half of the main floor, (under the balcony), was walled off in 1964 to create a coffee house.
The lights over the lobby counter were the original store lights for Finnegan’s drug store.
Fixtures in the coffee house are from Finnegan’s drug store, formerly located at 55th Street and Woodlawn Avenue. The fixtures were built in Boston in 1911 and then shipped to Chicago and installed in the drug store where they remained until being moved to the Harper last year.
The grill work in the lobby and coffee shop is from the fire escapes of the Hyde Park Hotel, 51st and Lake Park Avenue. The French marble of the counters came from a Fred Harvey restaurant at Canal and Madison Streets. The lobby’s stained glass windows are from a Dorchester Avenue home in Hyde Park demolished by Urban Renewal.
The chandeliers in the theater are believed to be original and were electrically rebuilt and rehung. (p. 134)
Apparently there was some marketable nostalgia for Finnegan’s Drug Store and its sublime light fixtures. One can imagine a newly renovated Court Theatre of the future that sports bricks from the Medici, a tech booth made from the old pipe organ in St. Stephens Church on Dorchester, and the 55th Street Walgreens’ LED screen.
Naturally, the best part about the Harper Playbill is not the play notes but this *money* advertisement for the Shoreland Hotel (which was subsequently a university dorm until last year; now it’s a MAC property):
August 20, 2009
I thought I’d add a few notes to those pictures of John’s set model I posted the other day.
The scenic design has three spaces: on the right side (stage left) is the recording studio proper, on stage right is the band room (located in the building’s basement), and above is the entrance to the building. The entrance is rarely depicted in most designs for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and here I think it gives the set a “third leg” that offsets and unfolds the space quite elegantly.
One of Ron’s goals for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is that the audience get a full-bodied sense of the 1920’s. For most people, it’s a difficult decade for the imagination to grasp beyond flapper girls and the Charleston. As John points out, most productions of Ma Rainey realize a set that resembles something close to a modern recording studio: a window separating the studio from the technician booth, an intercom, high-tech recording equipment, etc. In fact, the recording industry was so very young that many of its most recognizable conventions hadn’t been adopted yet. John’s idea is that the play’s recording studio is rather primitive and makeshift—the kind of operation that Sturdyvant, the producer, would put together with the cheapest materials possible.
In keeping with this concept, John and Ron’s idea is that the recording studio is built into a “found space.” Can you guess from the picture what kind of building it is?
August 19, 2009
The first two days of rehearsal for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom have been a blast and everyone is excited about diving into the world of the blues and 1920’s Chicago. In any rehearsal room, the line between actor and character often can often become indistinct, but Ma Rainey in particular breeds a dynamic in the rehearsal room that is in many ways strikingly similar to that in the play. Much of the play takes place in the band room where the members of Ma’s band rehearse (or avoid rehearsing) before the recording session. They are artists preparing for their performance just like the actors in Court’s show, and this similarity of circumstance makes it especially easy for the world of the play to melt into the reality of the rehearsal room. The actors tease other with the same language that their characters use, and I caught Greta (Ma Rainey) already playing the mom as she tackled the dirty dishes in the sink. It will be interesting to see how not only the scenes develop as the actors get on their feet, but also how the relationships and language of the play continue to influence the vibe during rehearsal.