Jenntertainment's Weblog

Adventures in children's theatre.

Little Women and Little Men April 28, 2013

Filed under: Jenn-eral — jenntertainment @ 11:44 pm
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     When I was eight years old, I did my very first play, Peter Pan. The director of that play would, in time, become my mentor and dearest friend, and the cast of that play would become the cast of my life, populated by future best friends, boyfriends, and my Maid of Honor.  But this isn’t a story about Peter Pan. This is a story about Little Women. 

     Just today I closed a beautiful production of Little Women the Musical (incidentally, stage managed by my aforementioned Maid of Honor and fellow Lost Boy), to great reviews. Our cast was exquisite, each of them perfectly suited for their role, and passionate about this remarkable story. After praising the performance, every audience member I spoke with would tell me the story of how they came to love Little Women. Each of them – mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters – had their own personal relationship with Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale. They remembered reading it aloud to their children, or listening to the book on tape on long car rides, or reading the chapter with Laurie’s proposal so many times that the pages fell out of the binding. Their stories made me think back to when I first became acquainted with Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy, nearly 20 years ago at a rehearsal for Peter Pan. 

     As I got ready for my first rehearsal, my mom suggested that I pack a book. She said that rehearsals were long, so I figured that the book I brought should be long as well. I grabbed Little Women, the thickest book on my shelf, and went off to Never Land with the March sisters in tow.

     A few weeks into rehearsal, I still hadn’t made it through the first chapter. I would start on page one, get completely lost in the vocabulary by page three, and sit there reading the same passage over and over again. Rhett, one of the teenage boys playing in Captain Hook’s band of pirates, asked me why such a very little girl was reading such a very large book. When I confessed that I didn’t understand any of it, Rhett did something truly remarkable, especially for pirate. He took the book from my lap and began to read it aloud.

     He explained to me that I was reading it all wrong. “You can’t read something like this to yourself,” he said. “There’s too many characters. You have to read it like a script, like a play.”  And so we did. We read each of the characters out loud to each other with different voices and faces, acting out the March family Christmas right there in the hallway. He had a prim, proper-sounding voice for Meg, and a whiny, nasally-toned voice for Amy. His Mr. Laurence was loud and booming, while his Aunt March was derivative of Julia Child. Rhett’s Laurie was handsome and bumbling, just as he was. With Rhett’s help, I slowly made it through all of Jo’s ups and downs. I also developed my first crush.

     Watching the story now, through more adult eyes, I find myself more and more astonished by how our lives turn out. Jo, who swears she’ll never marry, finds herself running a school with her husband. Amy, the young artiste who wishes for grandeur and fame, marries the boy next door. Beth, an angel in disguise, leaves her family all too soon. When I think of my humble beginnings in a community playhouse, I realize that I am blessed beyond measure to have been able to make theatre my livelihood, working right alongside my family and my best friends that I met while rehearsing Barrie and reading Alcott.

     I’ll never know why Rhett, a vivacious boy scout, chose to sit down with a little girl and help her to fall in love with a classic novel. Just like I’ll never know why, ten years later, Rhett would lose his life to a freak accident when his hotel balcony collapsed. What I do know is that he changed the way I saw those little women, and transformed the way that I read books. Like Beth March, he, too, was an angel in disguise.

 

How’d That Happen? and Other Phrases I Use Daily November 7, 2008

     This weekend, the theatre is doing a production of Willy Wonka, Jr. Like all of our class shows, it only runs for four performances, evening shows on Thursday and Friday, followed by matinees on the weekend.
     As we all know, the emotional high of Willy Wonka or Charlie & the Chocolate Factory is the finding of the sacred golden ticket. Every time I watch the snow scene in the movie I feel my insides squeeze together, as if there was some chance that Charlie wouldn’t find the ticket, wouldn’t get to tour the factory after all and that the movie would stop abruptly with a sort of ‘well, you can’t expect a bar of chocolate to solve all of your problems, now can you?’ sort of attitude.
     Knowing this about myself, blocking the famous reveal scene was my favorite part of the rehearsals. Charlie comes down center singing a reprise of Think Positive. The music drops to the suspenseful low hum of violins, Charlie closes his eyes and turns away his head, opening the bar of Wonka chocolate towards the audience so that they see the ticket before he does. He peeks open one eyeball, spies the golden shimmer, and then the stage bursts into color while Charlie sings the classic song I’ve Got a Golden Ticket, which I love even despite the grammatical inconsistency of ‘I have got’ a la ‘You’ve Got Mail.’
     In preparation for the show, my stage managers, Megan and Tyler, and I made three dozen fake chocolate bars to be used throughout the performances.  We cut cardboard, spray painted them silver, printed Wonka labels and wrapped them around the ‘chocolate bars.’ They looked pretty good, if I may say so. Charlie has to unwrap and taste three real bars before he gets the golden ticket, so we also had to buy 16 giant bars that he could actually eat, change the wrappers on all of them to make them look like Wonka bars, hide golden tickets in 4 of them (one per show), rewrap them and discreetly mark the outside so that we knew which ones were the lucky winners. 
     Charlie got to put our chocolate bar system to the test during the final dress rehearsal on the same afternoon as our opening. Figuring out which bars were to go where was like a college-level mathematical equation. One real bar has to be wrapped in newspaper and carried on stage right by Mrs. Bucket for the birthday scene. The second bar has to be hidden under Grandpa Joe’s pillow. The third bar is a gift from the Candyman to Charlie, so it has to be preset in the candy cart on stage left, a genuine chocolate bar amongst a cart full of decoys. To complicate matters further, the fourth and final bar that actually contains the golden ticket is also on the cart, set at the beginning of the show. He and the Candyman have to know which bar to pick first or else the whole scene is blown. Let us not forget the other 36 phony bars littered around the prop table. When we got the formula right in dress rehearsal, I almost fell out of my chair. How’d that happen? We must be the masters of the prop universe! 
     Since we used the bars in dress rehearsal, we know that we have to make another set of four to last us through Sunday’s performance, but that’s no big deal. We have everything set, everyone costumed, every light focused and we are ready to rock! From my perspective, the show is going great. I honestly could not have asked for more from these kids than the beautiful performance that they gave last night. There were things that were always wrong in rehearsal that the cast nailed on their opening, the audience laughed in all the right places and applauded every time we introduced a new character. All August Gloop had to do was walk on stage and he got an ovation – not bad for your first time in a show. Charlie gets one candy bar, then two. Things are going great!
     Of course, you know what’s coming. We’re in the pivotal scene with the Candyman now. The cart is on stage, filled with lollipops, candycanes, goodie bags, false prophets of chocolate and only two real candybars, indistinguishable from the audience. Charlie finds the coin on the ground and tries to return it to the Candyman. He refuses and gives Charlie the third chocolate bar as a reward for being such a nice kid. Charlie takes just one bite, decides to share the rest with his family and puts it in his pocket. Then he decides to buy one more for himself with the shiny nickel he’s just discovered. My intestines are quivering, I’m so excited.
     As the Candyman reaches for the chocolate bar, Willy Wonka (who acts as a narrator and constant presence in the first act) smoothly walks on stage to place another bar in the display and then exits.
     I did not block this to happen. This is not part of the plan. My tummy hurts.
     Relax, Jenn. Megan has it all under control. Clearly, they forgot to preset the golden ticket bar on the candy cart, so she had Wonka walk on stage at the appropriate moment and conspicuously place it right in front of Charlie. The audience will think that Wonka is manipulating the contest, providing Charlie with just the right bar at just the right moment. I kind of wish I had blocked it that way. The other two actors appear to not have even noticed that Wonka was on stage with them, either out of confusion or sheer panic, I’m not sure which. So far, things are great. I tell my intestines to stop tying themselves in knots because the problem at hand has been solved. Then they make one tragic, unforgivable mistake.
     The Candyman does not hand Charlie Wonka’s bar. Instead, he still reaches for the original, completely ignoring the new arrival. Its like watching him choose a felon from a lineup. Why, oh, why must my emotions be so closely connected to my digestive tract? If this were a movie, everything would have been happening in slow motion with Charlie screaming a loud, bassy ‘nooooooo!’ The Candyman shoved the bar into Charlie’s unwilling hands, turned on his heel and exited, leaving an open-mouthed Charlie alone on stage full with the knowledge that he is about to reveal to the audience…absolutely nothing.
     The suspenseful music is playing and my digestive system has come to a complete stop. I fully expect for Charlie to sing something along the lines of ‘I don’t got a golden ticket’  as the show plummets into the dark pages of theatre lore. Decades from now, people will be sitting around at cast parties telling scary show stories, holding flashlights under their faces and saying ‘you remember that show in Savannah where Charlie didn’t get to tour the factory because they forgot to set the golden ticket?’ Young actors will gasp in terror and seasoned veterans will smile and nod. Of course they remember.
     Charlie closes his eyes. What else could he do? He turned away, more out of fear than faithfulness to my blocking. He faced the chocolate bar towards the audience. He lifted the paper flap on one side, hesitated, and slid the bar out of the foil. The audience is leaning forward in their seats and I am standing at a 45-degree angle as though I have not had my V-8 today. The audience bursts out into spontaneous applause as Charlie, in a completely genuine display of surprise, looks down to see a golden ticket in his hands! I think I actually yelped. Then he sings:
‘Look what happened! See what happened? That’s what happens when you’re thinking positive!
I’ve got a golden ticket….’
    
The song continues, culminating in the act one finale. I rush backstage to find my stage manager and Charlie both utterly speechless. There are three golden ticket bars on the prop table. We only made four and we used one in rehearsal this afternoon. How’d that happen? None of us has any clue, but we all know that years from now, at some distant cast party, the lucky kid who played our Charlie Bucket will sit down and say ‘I remember the time…’