Ready to Play
Director Deb Kinghorn’s vision for the production of Museum inspires student actors, designers, composers, and audiences.
During the first read-through the cast struggles to make the play come alive off the page. Museum, written by Tina Howe, is a collection of vignettes about people and modern art that all takes place during the last day of an exhibition. The wit is quick and the pacing critical. About halfway through, the script calls for the museum guard to “out of nowhere sing a long rather mournful note. ”
When the guard sounds her note it resonates with the despair of someone who has lost all control yet must go on. It makes everyone smile. Especially Deb Kinghorn, director and chair of the theatre and dance department, who fully appreciates the actor’s performance.
Museum is a vocal tour de force, featuring 40 parts played by 18 actors, many with three roles. One couple goes from a silly conversational duet in French to chimpanzee noises. Another actor leaps erratically about the stage while fabricating an outlandish story that goes from shrieks to licking sounds. Sometimes the challenges are subtle, as when a student character marvels aloud about a sculpture that is “reality grounded in illusion.” The actor’s line must sound both sophomoric and sincere.
In 2010–2011, the University embraces the past and enriches the future with a celebration of 50 years of art in the Paul Creative Arts Center, and sets the stage for continued great works. Museum one of the many events that have taken place this past year. And, there are more to come! ›› Learn more.
“This play walks a tightrope,” Kinghorn explains to her cast. “You have to play it for real. You can’t burlesque it. Each character has difficulty understanding modern art. They all overthink it. So, you as actors have to find the truth of each character’s quest. Each one is a work of art.”
Kinghorn introduces three student designers who will present their work to the cast. Kinghorn has worked with them for the past six months and clearly she’s been delighted with the collaboration.
Three designers, one composer
Costume designer, senior Victoria Carot asks the cast to “pretend you're in kindergarten.” Their response is instantaneous. Suddenly, they’re all squirmy little children clustered in front of Carot. This seems to be the way theatre students are—magically suggestible, on full alert, and ready to play. As Carot shows them paintings that are emblematic of their characters and costume sketches, she and Kinghorn discuss their decisions.
“For the artist Michael Wall, we chose heavy cowboy boots. He’s very charismatic,” Carot says.
Immediately, someone whistles the intro to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It’s perfect and funny.
Kinghorn laughs and gently brings the focus back. “We want you to study these paintings. We think they speak to these characters and can help you to develop their complexity and depth,” she says. “Even if your character doesn’t speak, come to rehearsals. All of the characters have a life, and we have to feel it in these rehearsals.”
Next senior Justin Morin, the set designer, places a model of the stage set onto the table. “OK, here it is! I’m visual!” he says.
The cast applauds.
Morin points out key set details—the mushroom-shaped benches and placements for sculptures, paintings, and windows.
Kinghorn notes, “The Hennessy is not an easy theatre to design for. Before the show begins, the audience will be able to walk around the stage and look at the art. They really become a part of the show.”
Following Morin, lighting designer Erin Kelly, also a senior, presents her approach: “Well, the lights are going to take up a lot of circuits and when the secret gets revealed there’s going to be some ‘Whoa lighting’ effects timed with the music.” Kelly adds, “It will be good.”
Then Kinghorn describes the work of student composer Jeff Heim. “His piece will replace the short excerpt of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor…” Someone sings the first few notes.
“Yes, that's it,” Kinghorn says. “But I wanted something more modern and ‘epic.’ So, Jeff has composed an orchestral piece on the computer and created a high-quality recording of it for us to use.” Listen to the audio preview here.
To bring it all together one must, as Hamlet advised the players “suit the action to the word and the word to the action.”
Weeks of rehearsals follow the first read-through, ranging from blocking, to the “stumble-through,” to running scenes. All rehearsals begin precisely 6:30 p.m.
For example, in Museum an older couple becomes miserably tangled up in their shared audio guide’s head set—on what bench will they collapse? Blocking resolves that question.
At the “stumble-through,” movement and dialog are combined all the way through for the first time.
“Running scenes” happens for many more nights. During these rehearsals, the director, working one on one with the actors, refines dramatic tensions and timing.
Aimee Blesing, a theatre lecturer, substitutes for Kinghorn one evening and coaches the actors: “Bring up the competitive tension between those two. Yes? Cool.”
“When do you first see the paintings? When are you amazed? Yes, that’s right… Better!”
By now it’s 8:45, and the “laughing ladies” go through their three-minute scene for the sixth time—they laugh and laugh and never stint.
Behind the scenes
As “tech weekend” begins, Hennessy Theatre is quiet. Stand-ins wait for instructions. Assistant technical director Dan Raymond and assistant professor Szu-Feng Chen, whose specialties are costume and set design, observe everything closely as the set takes shape.
The stage floor is a soft gray. Morin’s benches and the sculptures created by the UNH Student Art Association are carefully placed. Kinghorn meanders about the set looking at the sculptures, which are—true to the script—fierce, feather and bone concoctions.
Kinghorn looks at Morin. “They're wonderful,” she says.
Taking a seat, Kinghorn turns to Kelly who wears a headset that connects her to the lighting booth. “All set” she asks.
The lighting sequence begins and Kinghorn’s directions are authoritative: “Take it down 30 percent. Now 50. Let’s do 50 and see how it works at dress rehearsal.”
“So the whole set brightens when the French couple comes in?" Kinghorn asks. “That’s good."
Simultaneously in the costume shop, Carot continues with fittings. The cast’s schedules have been jammed-packed. Consequently, Carot has just one speed—fast. Her lists include myriad individual requirements: the actor with allergies to nickel jewelry, the one with very small feet, another who must make three rapid costume changes, and so on.
Opening night is in five days and nerves are taut. As they say in theater—Break a leg! Touch wood!
After the first few performances, Kinghorn will let the play run under the able direction of her stage manager, sophomore Danielle Pancoast. Though the run will be short, just five nights, the performances promise to be wonderful.
For Kinghorn, her work as a director is always multilayered. “You always begin with an idea or a script, the creative impulse of one person’s unique vision,” Kinghorn says. “A director then gathers a group of people, including designers, actors, technicians, musicians, choreographers, visual artists: whoever is necessary to bring the idea to life.
“Like sculpting, each group’s contribution creates more depth and meaning to the piece, until you bring in the last group: the audience. And then, and only then, the work is complete. Yet, how many lives have been touched by it! Art is life.”
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