Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2010


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Building a Doll´s House

Building a Doll´s House
Director Julia Berman ´10, right, talks to actors during a rehearsal for ´A Doll´s House.´ All photos by Andrew Nathanson ´13

Directing adds a little drama to the final semester of Julia Berman ´10

by Phoebe Hall

The making of “A Doll´s House” at Connecticut College began a year ago, when the theater faculty accepted a proposal by Julia Berman ´10 to direct Henrik Ibsen´s 1879 masterpiece.

“They only pick one senior” each year to direct a main stage production, Berman says. But her selection was both an honor and a challenge: Her senior thesis — about the play, its production history, and Ibsen and women — was due May 6, 2010: opening night. Finals started a week later.

Then there was the little matter of producing a three-act play with only five weeks to rehearse, build sets, create costumes, get props, and complete the myriad other tasks integral to staging a play at Connecticut College.

“I´m the last word on everything — which is exciting and scary,” Berman says.

8 weeks until opening night

On the second night of a full read-through of the play, Berman is already exercising that power.

“No more shaving!” she exclaims, good-naturedly, when Charles Cochran ´10, who plays Krogstad, walks into Palmer 202 with a smooth face.

The read-through gets underway; Berman doesn´t interrupt as the actors, seated around tables arranged in a circle, read from their scripts. “Awesome, guys!” Berman says at the end.

Before the cast scatters Berman outlines the rehearsal schedule, which will pick up after spring break and run nonstop until May 6. Then she gives them the bad news: Tech Week — the last week of rehearsal — begins the weekend of Floralia. Groans all around.

“Don´t worry, you all have Saturday off,” Berman says, “but we´ll have a long day Sunday.”

Berman; the stage manager, Lucy Bryan ´10; and an assistant stage manager, Eric DelGizzo ´10, stay behind to check out a set design sketched by Tim Golebiewski, the College´s scenic designer and Berman´s faculty adviser. The sketches bring the play to life for Berman, as does the read-through: “It´s exciting for me to hear it aloud.”

5 weeks until opening night

Before the crew´s first production meeting, Golebiewski reviews his design sketches with Berman. The Victorian-era parlor will be stuffed with furniture. Golebiewski acquired much of it during break and on weekends (“I´m a busy shopper”); the College owns other pieces, but they may need refinishing or reupholstering. “The settee has been in more shows than many of our actors,” he says.

All theater majors and minors must work as a crew head for a College production. “We make everyone do a little behind-the-scenes (work) so they get a feeling for the other side of things,” Sabrina Notarfrancisco, the College´s costume designer, explains later. At the end of the production she and Golebiewski, both lecturers in the theater department, will evaluate the students´ work for credit.

Notarfrancisco passes out job sheets to each crew head: makeup, sound, costumes, publicity. Golebiewski says to Ryan Cameron ´12, the props crew head: “Ryan, you and I are going to be very close buddies. You will hate me later.”

4 weeks until opening night

Using Golebiewski´s groundplan, Bryan and DelGizzo have taped off the set on the worn beige carpet of the rehearsal space, a large room in a former children´s science center near campus. An artificial Christmas tree occupies one corner of the set; a speaker stands in for the stove. A small sign identifies a stack of boxes on a chair as the piano.

Meg Dolben ´12, who plays Helene, the maid, slips a petticoat over her dress and dances around the room. “I just got it today! It didn´t need a lot of alterations,” she sings.

Berman, Bryan and the assistant stage managers sit facing the set; the actors sprawl on the floor on either side. Berman directs Liz Buxton ´13 (Nora) and Alex Marz ´13 (Torvald) as they enter the scene: “You open the door for her. OK, you go over to the right.” She interrupts to tell them to change places so Marz, who is taller, is upstage of Buxton. They take it from the top; when they stand in the same positions, Berman reminds Marz in a stage whisper, “Upstage of her!”

3 weeks until opening night

In Tansill BLACK Box Theater, where the theater department´s four annual productions are staged, only a few of the set´s walls, called flats, are standing; the frame of another lies on the stage. Alex Wolf ´12, the lead carpenter, and Stephen Wolff ´10, the technical assistant, don safety glasses as they prepare to attach a sheet of paneling. They don´t bother with gloves — they´ll dig out the splinters when they get home.

Their boss is Rodney Dumond, technical director of Theater Services. Dumond, who worked for theaters around the country before arriving at the College in 1999, says professional theaters typically have four to six weeks to build a set. “We have two weeks,” he says, “but really only one week — because we´re working only four hours a day.”

Backstage, the fresh air coming in an open door can´t quite counteract the stench of the paint stripper that Cameron´s using on a gold-painted chair. Golebiewski tackles it with a scraper, then suggests Cameron apply another layer of stripper. He´ll need to stain the chair and several other pieces a rich cherry brown for the show.
“It´s a challenging show for the props head because … the parlor is cluttered, and intentionally so,” Golebiewski says.

Cameron, crouched by the chair applying the second layer of stripper, grins and shouts, “It´s working!”

2 weeks until opening night

Golebiewski and Leah Lowe, associate professor and chair of the theater department, attend the second full run-through to observe and take notes, which they´ll later give to Berman.

“The one thing I´m noticing is actors are getting caught at the back, near the stove,” Lowe says during a break between acts 1 and 2. “They need to be more toward the front of the stage so the audience sitting off to the side can see them.” Golebiewski says a “slight tweaking” of the furniture will enable more movement.

Miming is still a part of rehearsal; in a scene between Nora and her two children, Buxton plays hide-and-seek by herself, giggling; the two boys who will play her sons won´t start rehearsal until that weekend.

At the end of Act 2, Marz sits at the stack of boxes and mimes playing the piano while Berman plays a tarantella on her iPod and Buxton dances, tapping a tambourine. When she finishes, everyone applauds.

All the flats are up in Tansill, covered with a gold brocade upholstery fabric Golebiewski bought in New York City. He scrutinizes the walls. “It´s actually killing me how flat the fabric looks on the set right now,” he says. “I wish I´d picked something busier.”

Wolff stands on a ladder, attaching molding over the window seat. He looks at Golebiewski, who´s standing back from the stage, his fingers digging into his short, ?blond hair. “If you had any hair you´d be pulling it,” Wolff observes, dryly.

1 week until opening night

Buxton emerges from the dressing room in the costume shop, on the second floor of Palmer, wearing a corset over a white tank top, black tights and heeled ankle boots. Grant Jacoby ´13, the costume crew head, starts lacing the corset with instruction from Notarfrancisco.

“I guess I would hold onto this and tighten this until it gets down to the bottom,” she says. “How does that feel, Liz?”

Nora has four looks, each one consisting of multiple pieces. Jacoby helps Buxton into her Act 1 costume: a floor-length skirt; a lacy, high-necked blouse; a bustle; a jacket; and an overcoat. She´ll also wear a hat, which Notarfrancisco hasn´t made yet, and a petticoat.

“Woo!” Buxton says, fanning her face with her hand. “I´m a little hot.”

As Jacoby helps Buxton change, Adam Berard ´11, who plays Dr. Rank, stops by for his fitting. “Look at you, fancypants!” he says to his costar. “Nice corset!”

Two days lateR Notarfrancisco and Gabby Salvatore ´13, an employee of the costume shop, work on Nora´s Act 2 jacket. The lights will go down on Buxton at the end of Act 1, then come up on her at the start of next act — leaving mere minutes for the costume change. To help Jacoby, the button-fronted jacket will actually close with Velcro.

Jacoby rips seams on a pair of pants for Cochran, which Notarfrancisco bought at a thrift store and needs to shorten. Notarfrancisco scans her to-do list: find an overcoat for Cochran; let out a jacket for Marz; create costumes for the two boys. For one she will transform a tan suit she bought at Walmart into a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, with lace trim and knickers.

“There´s an expression, ´Done is beautiful,´ when you´re down to the wire.” She points to the little tan suit. “That´s what it will be with this.”

Tech run

Six days before opening night, the crew assembles in Tansill for a dry tech run. Andy Smith ´11, the lighting designer, has created a preliminary light plot, determining where the lights will focus, and now refines that plot while Bryan notes his cues in the margins of her script.

As they talk quietly, the stage lights dim and brighten almost indiscernibly. “A lot happens (at dry techs), but they´re really boring. … It looks like nothing´s happening,” concedes Lowe, who´s in the audience.

Finally, some action: Talia Curtin ´13, an assistant stage manager, wearing a white cardigan and cherry red skirt, walks back and forth across the stage, making figure eights through the furniture. “They´re looking for evenness of lighting and also depth,” Lowe explains.

Dress rehearsal

The first full dress rehearsal takes place three days later. This is Bryan´s first stage managing job, and it´s her show now: She´ll call light and sound cues and communicate with her assistant stage managers via headsets, “like traffic control,” Lowe says. Berman will watch from the audience. “It´s so different to be making all the decisions,” Bryan says. Referring to Berman, she adds, “It´s like my other half is missing.”

Bryan goes downstairs to the dressing room to check on the actors. Jacoby is still dressing Buxton; the others are in a circle, singing warm-up exercises. Notarfrancisco, a few feet away, leans in behind Ariella Cohen ´10, the nanny, to straighten her apron sash.

The rehearsal starts at 8:17, a little later than planned. Notarfrancisco, Golebiewski and Lowe are in the audience, along with Berman, Bryan, Smith, and the sound and light board operators, Garrett Brown ´13 and Ben Zacharia ´13. Golebiewski, paper coffee cup in hand, jumps up repeatedly to talk to Berman and Smith or to check the lights.

The rehearsal goes smoothly until Buxton, in Act 1, eats a macaroon. It´s the first time they´ve used actual cookies, which Bryan baked that day. Buxton tries to sustain the dialogue — but her mouth is full and she can barely get her line out. In the audience, Bryan doubles over with laughter.

Opening night

It is a balmy spring night. The theater is two-thirds full, and Berman sits near the back, curled up on her seat. Though she was nervous yesterday, and is still anxious today, she says later that as Tech Week progressed and the production improved each day, her confidence grew. “A director can try so much, but if you don´t have a good cast, you don´t have anything.”

She does have a good cast — and a good crew. The play goes without a hitch, and as the actors take a bow, the audience claps and cheers. “I was so very pleased,” Berman says later, beaming. “I was so proud of them.”

Epilogue: Strike the set

After the applause dies down and the house lights go up at the sixth and final performance, on Sunday afternoon, the actors — who first set foot on the Tansill Theater stage only one week ago — strike the set with Acting 1 and Tech Theater students and Theater Services employees.

Berman doesn´t have to help, and is glad of it: “It´s a really upsetting thing.”

Flats and platforms are disassembled and what can be reused is saved for future productions; costumes, props and furniture are stored. In a few hours, all traces of “A Doll´s House” are gone, the empty stage a blank slate.

“It takes you four weeks to build a set,” Alex Wolf observed three weeks earlier, “and four hours to tear it down.”

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