For veteran designer William Schmuck, the most creative time of his artistic year comes in late summer. By then, artistic director Jackie Maxwell has selected the repertoire for the ensuing Shaw Festival season after securing the rights, hiring cast and crew, staying within budget and bringing the whole package to the board of directors for final discussion and approval.
With previews now in full swing and the first round of opening nights just days away, it seemed the perfect time to have a conversation with Schmuck and take a look at the region’s largest performing arts attraction from the viewpoint of what is required before the lights go up.
During our telephone conversation, much was revealed about the logistics of design planning. “What a lot of people don’t know is that the sets and props are done prior to the first rehearsal. Before that, there has been discussion and buy-in from the director. The input from the actors tends to be more detailed, focussing mainly on what they touch [many of the scene changes are executed by the cast]. That’s no problem with the union [stagehands] whose realm is ‘anything that you don’t see,’” explained Schmuck.
As the plays take shape, changes can be made to the finer details. “At the tech rehearsals I make quite a few notes early on, but there’s a point where you just have to decide it’s finished. If I’ve made the same note twice and not done anything about it, I know it’s time to stop—I don’t want to disturb the patient,” said the wizard of wardrobe and sets.
Schmuck’s skills will be utilized in four of the ten plays that comprise Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 suite. “We’re doing three sets of three—one in each theatre as well as Star Chamber for the lunchtime show. The big decision was whether or not to have an intermission or let the works [each play can stand on its own] blend together,” he said.
There will be a quartet of directors, ensuring a variety of approaches. Jackie Maxwell has assigned herself to lead Still Life, We Were Dancing, and Hands Across the Sea—the utilization of video adds another dimension; Blair Williams will put his stamp on The Astonished Heart, Family Album and Ways and Means; Kate Lynch is at the helm for Star Chamber; artistic director emeritus Christopher Newton brings his life-long experience to the most musical of the bunch: Red Peppers, Fumed Oak and Shadow Play. For those who like their Coward served up all at once, the group of ten will be performed in one day: Mad Dogs and Englishmen – A Coward Marathon can be enjoyed in its entirety on August 8, August 29 or September 19. JWR will be there!
Two plays are scheduled from the Festival’s namesake. The Devil’s Disciple, set in the American Revolution will be directed by Tadeusz Bradecki (who fashioned a memorable production of The Crucible in 2006—cross-reference below) and stars Evan Buliung, Fiona Byrne and Peter Krantz. Eda Holmes returns (last year’s The Little Foxes was a season highlight) to offer her vision of In Good King Charles’s Golden Days. Shaw regulars Benedict Campbell, Graeme Somerville, Ric Reid and Laurie Paton headline the cast.
A king of a much different sort (garbage!) comes to the stage thanks to Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday. The prolific writer/director (ranging from The Diary of Anne Frank to Funny Girl) has set this 1940’s zany comedy in Washington D.C.—never a shortage of regal-minded players there! Gina Wilkinson will put the talented troupe (including Deborah Hay, Thom Marriott and Gray Powell) through its paces.
From Eugene O’Neill’s extensive catalogue comes A Moon for the Misbegotten. Joseph Ziegler (who crafted an unforgettable Major Barbara in 2005—cross-reference below) directs Jenny Young, David Jansen and Jim Mezon in this tender love story.
Those who remember Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects’ stellar production of Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times (translated by Linda Gaboriau) can look forward to Micheline Chevrier’s insight into this one-woman, five actors study of a singular life.
John Osborne’s The Entertainer explores the inner workings of an aging British vaudevillian who is losing more than his engagements. This time, Maxwell’s players include Campbell, David Schurmann and Corrine Koslo. This season’s musical is Sunday in the Park With George. Stephen Sondheim’s pointalistic score (conducted by Paul Sportelli) necessarily lacks the BIG tune, but the picture-within-the-play conceit is a visual tour de force. Alisa Palmer will craft the canvas.
As Schmuck says, his work “always starts with the script, then I try to create a reaction to what the playwright intended.”
With such a diverse offering being painstakingly prepared by such an array of actors, designers and directors, the 2009 Shaw Festival is the place to be. JWR