What is a heath?

 A heath generally refers to low, open wetlands. The word heath is more closely associated with Great Britain, South Africa, and Australia, but heaths exist worldwide. In America, the words marsh, swamp, and glade (or everglade) refer to the same types of land. 

In Lauren Gunderson’s The Heath, the playwright juxtaposes the struggles of her own grandfather, when he is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, with those of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In Lear, the king rushes from a fight with his daughters into a raging thunderstorm on the heath. The elderly king proclaims the storm and the barren heath to be like the “storm” in his mind. Shakespeare makes the point that all humans, even kings, are vulnerable to the overpowering forces of nature, according to one source at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

In an interview with MRT, Gunderson explains her use of King Lear and the play’s storm in relation to her grandfather: “The storm represents the tumult and uncertainty of my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease, the damage that it can do to a family, the unpredictable sadness and ‘natural disaster’ of dementia.”

Since Shakespeare’s time (King Lear dates to 1606), the heath has served as a symbol of a haunted, bleak wasteland for countless British novelists, including Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Arthur Conan Doyle (The Hound of the Baskervilles).

For more on The Heath, visit Lauren’s Tumblr page at theheathplay.tumblr.com, full of  research and notes.

 

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath

Miranda Barnett on Learning the Banjo for ‘The Heath’

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Actress and classically trained musician Miranda Barnett arrived in Lowell for rehearsal last week with banjo in hand––a difficult instrument she must learn for the first time for her performance in The Heath. A South Carolina native, Miranda and her husband, Aaron, and their two-year-old son, Wilkes, reside in Greenville.

Had you ever played the banjo before?
I had never even held a banjo until six months ago. I have beginner- level experience with guitar, and took cello lessons for a few months, but primarily I am trained as a pianist and singer. So, this prospect was certainly intimidating, but because I began studying music when I was four years old, and music had been around me my whole life, the challenge has been exciting.

How did you acquire the banjo?
When I received the offer to do the play, I borrowed a banjo from a friend, so that I could start tinkering immediately. Then MRT allowed me to shop around for an instrument that I could learn on and carry into the production. I found a beautiful vintage banjo from the early 70s at a shop in South Carolina. It had one owner, who bought it from that same shop, and when he passed away, his family brought it back for consignment. I love it, and I am grateful that I could bond with it before taking it on stage.

How did you go about starting to learn the instrument and the songs?
My husband, Aaron Brakefield, who is also an actor and musician, plays a number of––I’m not sure if I should be proud of this or not, haha––YouTube has been my greatest resource. For the gospel tunes, I found tutorials of arrangements in a Scruggs’ style that I liked and learned by watching and reading the tablature. For Lauren’s original songs, I’ve just followed her lead sheets and listened to a recording of her playing them during a workshop. Peripherally, I’ve also listened to the great players. Lots of Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny, etc.

And how is it going?
I would say I’m feeling pretty good right now! There’s only one song of Lauren’s that I’ve put on hold until we start rehearsals, because I’m just not sure what to do with it, but I think I have a good grasp on the others. I appreciate that she lets me off the hook by declaring right in the script that, “I don’t play that well.” There’s no expectation of virtuosic playing, thank God!

 

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath

Q&A: Playwright Lauren Gunderson

“I felt like my PawPaw, even though he was physically there, was no longer really there.”

Lauren Gunderson_smWhat compelled you to write the script? 

I started the script before my PawPaw died as it occurred to me that the only reference I had for his condition was the literary figure of King Lear. My PawPaw was suffering from extreme dementia and could no longer recognize me. I lived in California, far away from him in South Carolina, which made that worse. When he died I was instantly regretful of all the time I didn’t get with him and started writing this play. It’s a love letter to him, an apology, and a reckoning, as well as a chance to discover a man I thought I knew so well.

What does your mother, PawPaw’s daughter, think of the play? 

Mom has seen me perform it! She was moved and, I think, a little nervous. But the point of the play is to come together, to honor her father, and to confront the darker instincts we have, to turn away from illness and death. But by confronting them (even laughing at them as The Heath does), we can digest and dispel them.

What was the most important thing you learned in researching and discovering your grandfather’s life after he died?

So much! His war history is truly profound to me. What he managed to survive was unreal. I had never read his letters that he wrote from inside a POW prison during the war, which were chilling. I also never knew he called my grandmother “sugar babe” when they were courting. 

How did the addition of the banjo and the songs come about?

I was inspired to add banjo to the play when I remembered how much PawPaw loved Flatt and Scrugg’s bluegrass music. It felt like a crazy challenge to myself. The songs are simple but full of emotion and heart. The big ending song, Storm Still, was the most cathartic to write. It really allows me to say, “I love you, I miss you, I’m proud of you,” to my grandfather.

How does the raging storm in King Lear figure into the story?

The storm represents the tumult and uncertainty of my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease, the damage that it can do to a family, the unpredictable sadness and ‘natural disaster’ of dementia. It also represents what I feel as my betrayal of my grandfather by not showing up for him enough when he was sick. His disease and death was a storm, and survivors like me are often left with the emotional wreckage afterwards.

What goes through your mind when you realize that someone you’ve loved and known your whole life no longer remembers you?

It’s pretty shocking and terrible. I felt like my PawPaw, even though he was physically there, was no longer really there. He wasn’t the same man any more. In many ways I felt terrible for him because I know he’d not want to be remembered in such a state. It’s heartbreaking. This is the reality and urgency of Alzheimer’s and dementia research. If we could find a solution to these deteriorating diseases of the mind, it would be such a gift to the world. It would give dignity back to so many. It would save so many lives and families.

What advice would you offer a friend if she told you today that her grandfather had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s?

Show up. Be present. Play music. Tell stories. Get them talking and record it. Say I love you. Take care of yourself.

 

 

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The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

mrt.org/theheath

Q&A: with Playwright Wendy MacLeod

“A Metaphor for Marriage”

wendy macleodPlaywright Wendy MacLeod is best known as the author of Women in Jeopardy! (an MRT audience favorite from the 2016-17 Season) and as a writer for the TV cult sensation “Popular.” She has also earned acclaim and awards for the plays Schoolgirl Figure, The House of Yes, The Water Children, and Juvenilia. The film version of The House of Yes, starring Parker Posey, won the Sundance Award and international acclaim. A professor at Kenyon College and Northwestern University, MacLeod regularly writes for The New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, The Washington Post, and “All Things Considered.”

What inspired you to write Slow Food?

The play was inspired by a family trip to Palm Springs, where we found ourselves waiting endlessly for dinner late at night in a Greek restaurant, trapped there because it was the only restaurant still open. Our waiter was maddening, and yet his need to be king of this very small kingdom was fascinating. I was reminded of how we become our best selves once we’ve been fed.

Is there a message you hope to impart to audiences?

As far as a “message,” I’m with George S. Kaufmann, that “if you want to send a message, call Western Union.”  A comedy
should entertain, and it does that by being recognizable—the audience needs to see themselves in the characters or the situation. I don’t pretend that I’m communicating “important ideas.” Rather,
I’m creating opportunities for gifted comic actors and allowing an audience to experience the joy of shared laughter.

How would you describe Slow Food?

This play is very much about middle-age and mortality. I call them Woman and Man because the play can’t just be about one couple trying to figure out how to be lovers again after being parents for so long. Over the course of a marriage we all can find ourselves careening between being lovers, co-conspirators, parents, friends, rivals, and adversaries. Being trapped in a restaurant, waiting to be fed, is a metaphor for marriage.

 

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Slow Food runs January 9 – February 3, 2019.

mrt.org/slowfood

COHORT REPORT: What does a Stage Manager do?

Rehearsal picture (9/15/2018) house left to house right: Gabriel Marin (Pablo Del Valle), Brendan Conroy (Prop Manager), Vivia Font (Tania Del Valle), Maegan Alyse Passafume (SM), Navida Stein (Virginia Butley).

This article provides first an overview of Stage Management followed by a Q&A with Maegan Alyse Passafume, Production Stage Manager for the Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) production of Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías.

The credits page in the playbill lists the playwright, actors, designers, director, producer, and someone called a Stage Manager or Production Stage Manager. If you’re like me, you wonder what a stage manager does and why they are listed in the credits, but not enough to actually look into it.

Truth be told, I didn’t actually look into it until I attended rehearsals for Native Gardens and observed the Stage Manager (SM) and Production Assistant (PA) in action. It turns out the SM is that cool-headed problem solver with foresight and all the right knowledge, supplies, and connections that you want to have around when you’re heading into an adventure. They function as both the navigator and the journalist of your travels. A theater production of any complexity would be a chaotic comedy of errors without them. Sean Daniels notes, “a bad stage manager can sink a show.” He also noted that for a musical, the SM “has to have rhythm.” Sean Daniels is the Artistic Director at MRT.

Before we continue, let’s look at what is meant by “stage.” During a performance, the theater is split into two areas: the house and the stage. The “house” encompasses all aspects of the performance space used by the audience. The “stage” encompasses the rest of the performance space, including the actors, scenery, costumes, props, lights, sound, crews, dressing rooms, etc.; all managed by . . . the SM.

The SM officially starts work on the production the week before the first rehearsal and remains involved with the production until the show closes, following the final performance.

One of the most important jobs of the SM is to compile and use the official record of the production, called the prompt book or calling script. The prompt book will be discussed in a separate article. For now, suffice it to say the prompt book contains the script of the play marked up with the movements of the actors; lighting, sound, video/projection, and special effect cues; and cues for the movement of scenery.

The SM is also responsible for:
• Scheduling pre-production meetings, rehearsals, costume fittings, calls
• Running meetings and rehearsals
• Reading the script and making lists of needs (props, costumes, sound, lighting, etc.)
• Setting up the rehearsal space
• Marking out the set footprint in the rehearsal space
• Publishing and circulating schedules
• Keeping track of refinements in the director’s vision and anticipating needs
• Alerting the proper departments of changes and needs
• Recording and publishing rehearsal/performance reports
• Recording rehearsal/performance notes and giving them to the appropriate person(s)
• Advising the director
• Ensuring the director’s version of the play is recorded and maintained during performance
• Making sure everything is ready for opening night, and all other performances
• Maintaining a congenial environment
• Cuing the performance
• Crisis management

As you can see, this job is a critically important one and it is a shame more people don’t appreciate what it entails when watching a performance.
Now for the Q&A with Maegan Alyse Passafume, Production Stage Manager for Native Gardens at MRT:

Q: What is the difference between a Stage Manager and a Production Stage Manager?

A: There actually isn’t a difference at all. While they are two different titles, the refer to the same position and person. I’ve definitely been called both!

Q: What does the Production Assistant do at MRT?

A: While we are in rehearsal the production assistant (PA) is responsible for helping maintain a clean rehearsal room, being on book and taking line notes as the actors stop relying on looking at their scripts, setting up props and rehearsal costumes in the rehearsal room for the actors, and generating tracking paperwork – where props and scenic elements enter from, exit to, and which actor is using them. When we get into tech and performances, the PA is in charge of the backstage area. They take the tracking paperwork they created in rehearsal and use it to arrange props backstage. They make sure the SM knows when the actors are in their places and ready to start the show. They help the SM troubleshoot any issues that arise while the show is going without letting the show stop. And in addition to all that they have to be at the theatre about an hour before the show starts making sure everything onstage is ready for the beginning of the show, and about an hour after the show is over cleaning everything up. It’s a big job!

[Note: “Being on book” means following the script in the prompt book; in this case, to prompt the actors. “Taking line notes” means making a note for each flubbed line. Paul Smith was the PA for Native Gardens. He is a member of the MRT staff (listed together in the playbill).]

Q: You were Stage Manager at MRT for The Royale and Chill in previous seasons. How did the three productions differ from a stage management perspective?

A: When I worked on Chill, I was taking over for the original stage manager who had to move on to the next show she was working on. It was crucial that I maintain the artistic integrity of the show that she had worked with the director to build, learn the cueing sequences quickly and correctly, and make sure the cast and crew trusted me and knew I that I was there to support them without changing anything.

The Royale was my first full show at MRT, and it was very special to me. It terms of the purely technical, it was very straightforward – not a lot of moving parts or tricky sequences. But it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who saw the show that the playwright is a drummer; those boxing scenes are really percussive, and they have a rhythm that I had to become very familiar with to be able to call the show. And while the show takes place a century ago, there are overarching themes that are still so relevant today, and I wanted to make sure my cast felt supported so they could do the great work they do. And on a purely personal note, The Royale was also special to me because my fiancé proposed onstage after one of the shows!

And now here we are with Native Gardens, which has a little bit of everything! I always enjoy working on a production that stretches multiple stage management muscles, and I wasn’t disappointed here. Relevant content, special effects, intricate cue sequences, and lovely personalities. Before we had an audience I had to hone my timing, especially on the vignettes. The majority of the cues are called to music, so I have to count. And we wanted one door closing on one yard at the same time a door was opening on the other, so I have to know the rhythm of my actors. My director and designers have given me a true gem of a show to take care of, and I absolutely love it.

Q: You got your BFA in Stage Management. What excited you about stage management as a profession?

A: As with many people, I found my way to theatre through acting; I got all the way to college without knowing a lot about what a stage manager does. But when I started working as my friend’s PA on a student production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, there was something about the job that made me infinitely happier than acting did. I enjoyed the paperwork and running around backstage. I loved the collaboration with my team, and my team’s collaboration with the cast, designers, and director. As a professional it makes me feel like the conductor of an orchestra or an airplane pilot – shepherding a group of people on a journey through time, space, and feeling. I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else!

Q: What did you like about working with Director Giovanna Sardelli?

A: Giovanna and I discovered really quickly that we had the same sense of humor! And she sets a super friendly tone in the rehearsal room. She was also willing to take input from me and my team when it was time to problem solve in rehearsal. Where does the hose come from? How should we set the acorns so they don’t all roll away before the fight? What else can we give the landscapers to do in this vignette so an actor has more time to finish a costume change? If we had thoughts she would listen and being able to help your director brainstorm is such a great feeling.

Q: Is there an aspect of the MRT ‘Native Gardens’ production the audience should savor?

A: All of it! Seeing a show is such a different experience from person to person that everyone who sees it is going to focus on or take away something that the person next to them didn’t even notice. Savor the whole thing; everyone who worked on it did an amazing job of telling a cohesive story that’s meant to be taken in as one.

Q: For what other plays will you be Stage Manager during the 2018-2019 season at MRT?

A: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, The Heath, and Cry It Out

Q: Have you worked with any of those directors before?

A: Not as a stage manager. Of course Sean and I know each other, but we haven’t worked together yet. And I was the PA on Muckrakers at New Rep, which Bridget Kathleen O’Leary directed.

[Note: Sean Daniels is directing The Heath by Lauren Gunderson. Bridget Kathleen O’Leary is directing Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.]

Q: Do you have a favorite stage management war story?

A: Oh man, it’s so hard to pick just one and they’re all too long for this. Here’s what I will say: every good stage management war story is absolutely not funny as it’s happening. You only learn to appreciate the humor after the event has passed and everyone made it through. But that’s what makes it a good story.

–Backstage with Local Drama Club Geek

 

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Native Gardens runs September 12 – October 7

mrt.org/nativegardens

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