The playbill proof was waiting to be approved. We had an hour to approve and send it back so that the 700 playbills would be printed in time for our upcoming production of A Christmas Carol. It was perfect. But what kept us from approving it was doubt.
In it contained a “Coming up next from hobnob theatre co….” and a silhouette graphic of Victorian men and woman behind the title A Woman of No Importance. We doubted if it was the right choice for our next show. We doubted if Butler would embrace Oscar Wilde’s serious side. We, ourselves, were sure of it: the play was funny, deliciously word-filled, and meaningful. Not only would it make people laugh and entertain them, it also served as a conversation starter…a story that audience members might be thinking of for a few days after seeing it.
When you run a theatre company, you need to keep several factors in mind: Will actors want to audition for this show? Will the public want to come see this kind of play? Will we be able to do this play justice? It’s a lot of pressure!
We doubted. But finally, we approved the proof and the playbill for our 700-member audience of A Christmas Carol and actors and future audience members alike expected us to move on this, now that it was in print.
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We have spent the last two and a half months recreating Oscar Wilde’s drawing room comedy characters and conversations. The witty banter, jokes on life, marriage, society, and questions about family ties, lies, and secrets came to life by so many talented people.
Leslie, our costume designer, created and built costumes that were perfect for each person. Whether it was a borrowed costume or one she built from scratch, the costumes framed the actors perfectly. This is the second show she has worked on with us and she is a gem! She knows the time periods so well…knows when a child would wear tights, or a dowager would wear gloves, and when they wouldn’t. Both Kenny and I have worked with her as directors and it’s so liberating to allow the costumer to show you their creations and know that they’re perfect, and everything you imagined for the characters.
(Photo of Kenny, introducing the play to an invited audience at our dress rehearsal.)
Kenny directed this show, and he brought together a cast of actors who fit so well together, and who took over their roles with ease. I watched Kenny toil behind the scenes, outside of rehearsal, on weekends, and in the wee hours of the morning to make this the production he had in his mind the first time he listened to it. He was enamored with the script at first read, then listened to it several times and knew that he wanted to produce it. He never let the cast see his detail-oriented self get frustrated. If your director doesn’t give you direction, doesn’t guide your character choices to fit his/her vision of the show, and doesn’t also encourage you along the way, what is the point? Anyone can shuffle people around a stage reciting their lines. But a good director works with each of their actors and allows them to create and have fun with their lines all the while encouraging them in their craft. I think Kenny did this perfectly. He was always very supportive in our choices, and when we interpreted lines or blocking in a way he thought didn’t bring out the best in our character, he guided us elsewhere. But gently. I’ve been in far too many companies where the director sits and yells, throws up their hands and yells, gets frustrated and yells…never communicates. How can you help guide the creativity of a group of artists by being a drill sergeant?
Like so many of the great playwrights (I’m including Shakespeare, and then the more modern Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde, Shaw, and then even more modern, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Stoppard, Friel, and O’Casey) you can’t just start blocking and running scenes. There needs to be included in the rehearsal schedule a time to discuss, talk about, and play with the language that is on the page. Wilde’s characters have so much fun just talking to each other. The actors needed to be having fun with each other, just like their characters were.
In A Woman of No Importance, Wilde weaves together two stories over the course of four Acts. The play starts off like a scene from The Importance of Being Ernest…character introductions of the plays funniest characters. As the play progresses, a serious storyline is introduced, some humorous scenes are then sprinkled throughout, and the play closes on a completely serious note. The audience goes from laughing constantly, to being completely silent as the drama unfolds.
I was honored to be an actor in this show, and I was challenged from the very beginning straight through to our closing performance. The talent that I was able to work with urged me on to be better, work harder, and be more real. I played the role of a mother of a grown son. It isn’t so far fetched, as my own three sons are growing rapidly. I wasn’t able to fully employ method acting in this role as I have no “grown son” experiences to pull from. But it wasn’t difficult to connect with my character at all: a woman who loves her son more than anything else in the world. What I did find difficult about this character was the ability to put myself into this set of societal rules in which the story takes place, and remove myself from my 21st century frame of mind. My modern view would ask, “Why on earth couldn’t she just move on with her life and her son and although it would be painful at first, forget about the man who left them in the first place?” But Rachel Arbuthnot’s society scripted her life for her: she really WAS disgraced, dishonored, and ignored if she didn’t lie about her “dead husband,” and if her secret, that she had a child outside of marriage, was found out. Not even the sweet Lady Hunstanton would call her friend. What I still can’t connect with was her choice not to forgive. Until the bitter end, she is unforgiving towards Lord Illingworth. Perhaps her Archdeacon’s sermons never touched on the topic of forgiveness. Or she didn’t listen. I think Oscar Wilde has a very dramatic ending, and it works well for the stage. And again, the fact that she has no forgiveness, and even hate, for this fellow human, can be what the audience mulls over on their walk home from the theatre. But it was and still is, something that I never full connected with in my character.
I also don’t know how other theatre owners act in their own shows over and over. We are a small theatre company. We’re certainly not getting rich on it (we call this a very expensive habit), and that’s not our goal. But we do want to be able to create characters in our own shows from time to time. I enjoyed so much to be able to act again (after 15 years!), but I will wait a while to act in a hobnob performance. The stress of partnering with the producer and director AND being ready to walk on stage as a character with a lot of lines was rough at times. I will be so glad to work with these actors again on stage, but perhaps in a different company.
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We struck the set yesterday: a beautiful spring, sunny Sunday morning. This show was staged in the Art Center: a huge wood-floored building where artists give pottery and painting lessons, and local artists display their work. The audience sat on three sides of the stage, and the actors entered and exited using their aisles. This wasn’t a framed moving picture that a proscenium stage gives. The scenes thrust themselves into the audience so that the audience was privy to a private drawing room conversation. This is hobnob’s fourth full-length play, and the other three were produced on the Succop stage, so this experience was completely different. The Art Center isn’t set up to be a theatre, but there is a large open space in the Gallery section where Kenny decided, along with Aaron, his set and lighting designer, to stage the show. Coming up with backstage areas, locations for the lighting trees, and the stage manager “booth” was our first challenge. Then actually getting enough theatrical light to work in the “round” was another challenge. Tech week was exhausting, as usual, but the actors were so grateful to finally be in the space, working with our real set pieces, props, and costumes. This was so helpful as the technical aspects (especially lighting!) needed the crew’s full attention. By our preview audience/dress rehearsal, it was all worked out, and the show was ready for an audience.
We still wondered how this small town would provide an audience for us. We had five performances, and four of them were sold out. Some of those sold-out performances were over-sold, so we set up extra chairs. We sold over 240 tickets for this show, which was more than we imagined. But overall, I think we feel that we did this play justice. The actors brought to life each character perfectly. The audience feedback was humbling and encouraging, and the people that worked with us behind the scenes, on the stage, and at the Art Center were truly grateful and complimentary.
It’s the perfect storm, the trifecta, the trinity of theatre: an experience that unfolds on stage beautifully, behind the scenes seamlessly, and keeps all parties wanting more. We are so grateful for the people that work with us on our shows. You can’t put a show on a stage, charge for tickets and call it a great experience if you don’t toil to make it one. The creation of a moving story takes crafting, special care of the parts, and using our fullest ability to create at every turn. Theatre engages so many different creative channels. It’s amazing watching all of the creativity poured forth on stage and behind the scenes in our shows.
So, our gratitude and awe goes out to all of you who participated in this show – behind the stage, on the stage, and as audience members. We need not doubt in the future! Thank you!
(Click on each picture for a fuller view. Karl Kobil and Wynne Jenkins are our amazing photographers!)