Filling Big Shoes – Nina Wahl

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Nina Wahl has big shoes to fill. Her grandparents were vaudevillians; she is the neice of a radio writer and sister of a playright so she has been interested in theater all her life. Blessed with a beautiful voice, Nina was, for many years, a choral singer in New York City, performing in Carnegie Hall at least twice a year. In addition she worked in the art world and in advertising and marketing including a stint as the Advertising and PR Director for Van Cleef & Arpels in the United States.

Cast as Martha in The Santa Diaries, Nina wants to make Martha a recognizable character–—sympathetic but not pathetic. Her character provokes thoughts about emotional issues that impact most of us, especially at the holidays. Laura and I teared up the first time we heard her read. She brings a wistfulness to the role that we love. She’s filling those big shoes.

Nina hopes that The Santa Diaries will become a classic in the repertoire of many theater companies. Laura and I can only dream!

Spotlight on Dale Rauch

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Dale Elaine Rauch, mother of Casey Rauch who is the male lead (Will Hawes) in The Santa Diaries, has an impressive list of acting credits. Among them are performances in The Wire, Failure to Launch, Wedding Crashers and Syriana. However, being an elementary and middle school teacher for 30 years put her on stage daily. We would be willing to bet that she made learning fun and all the boys had crushes on her.

In the play Dale plays Frisbee, one of the three carpenters/actors involved in putting on the town’s annual Christmas play. In the original script these three characters also made appearances in a dream as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Yesterday we rewrote that dream sequence at the request of Director Tim Weigand and Producer Liza Ledford. Now Dale additionally plays the ghost of Will’s deceased mother in this new scene. Tonight’s rehearsal will be interesting as the actors will just be receiving the script changes.

Changes in the script ripple forwards and backwards. Rewriting this one scene meant we had to tweak some earlier scenes and some dialogue that happens after. I’m getting ready to print out my new (latest) copy. Is there a point when changes have to stop, I wonder?

We asked Dale what she hopes people take home after seeing The Santa Diaries, and she replied, “a lighter heart.” We applaud that wish.

It Takes a Small-town

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Rehearsal 11-25-12: More people are becoming involved as The Santa Diaries becomes the project of Easton, our small-town.

Laura and I sit toward the back of the auditorium. Behind us is a door to the alley and a bearded guy is going in and out. I don’t know his name, but I think he is one of the set people and perhaps the father of one of the child actors. I’ve seen him at previous rehearsals. Sometimes he’s using a circular saw with the door partially open and the cold air blows in on us. Sometimes the door is almost closed. In any event he’s trying to be as quiet as possible, but like everyone in the theater he has a job to do.

On stage behind the actors a guy is at the top of a really tall ladder. He’s using a portable drill to attach something to something we can’t see. The actors are ignoring the distractions and are running their lines, incorporating some changes Laura and I were asked to make two days ago. This is a good sign. It means the actors are really focused on their characters.

A little later the ladder guy moves to the side of the stage apron and begins drilling. A long roll of something white is at the very back of the stage. Can this be part of the scenery project we’ve been hearing rumors about?

Behind us Marie is putting the finishing touches on outfits for kids and adults walking in the Easton Christmas parade next Saturday evening. In the Avalon entrance hall Cavin Moore is rehearsing a dance sequence. Cece Davis with her new love, Ralphie, a French bulldog in a holiday sweater, is at the sound board inserting sound effects (a door bell, a drill that shorts out, a Santa ring tone, background music) into the scenes—sometimes where they belong, often missing the mark. This is what rehearsal is all about.

But all those details are being worked on and progress is being made. I have loved watching locally produced theater, but I now have a much more realistic appreciation of what is involved behind the scenes of creating a play. This doesn’t take a village, it takes a small town.

Use Your Imagination: November 18, 2012

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Use your imagination. Can you see it? The costumes, the scenery, the acting, the live animals? It’s The Santa Diaries!

Yesterday afternoon the Avalon Theatre sprouted walls from electrical cords and a metal ruler laid on the stage and doorways materialized from pieces of masking tape. In the back of the auditorium Marie U’ren was fitting cast members into costumes, and a dog waited patiently for his walk-on during the second act. Al Bond and Jessica Rogers were on a laptop working on sets and scenery which they told us would be like nothing that has been done at the Avalon before, and cautioned everyone not to say anything. We can’t because we have no idea what they’re doing, but Jessica promised spectacular.

On stage Director Tim Weigand was doing the first run through of the whole play. Assistant Director Cecile Davis and Producer Liza Ledford were tracking lines and reading the parts of people who couldn’t make rehearsal. All in all it was chaotic, but you can begin to see what it’s going to be like. Actors had a hard time remembering that the metal ruler represented a wall so it got stepped on alot as people transported themselves through the invisible walls. We heard actor’s calling out, “Where’s the door?”

Cece Davis posted a photo gallery from rehearsal on The Santa Diaries Play FB page. When she took off her Assistant Director hat and put on her photographer hat, she took some beautiful black and white pictures

Most of the people are off book by now, but not quite 100%, so there were some improvised lines. That’s a problem when the line you are supposed to say is important to the dialog that follows. Cues get missed.  Picking up the pace is an ongoing issue. It will be helpful when people know where the walls of the set are, but despite all the moving parts we could feel a coalescence of the effort of so many people. We are using our imagination and the costumes, the scenery, the acting and the live animals will all be where they are supposed to be when the play opens on December 16th.

Actor’s Toolbox: Think About When the Cat Died!

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At the last rehearsal Harper Lee (who plays teenage Tallulah) was trying to summon up enough sadness to be tearful. It just wasn’t happening until her younger sister, Halle (who plays Tory), shouted out, “Think about when the cat died.” All actors need a really sad moment in their actor’s toolbox to be able to call up difficult emotions and Halle nailed that for her sister. Those of us in the audience cracked up.

Assistant Director Cecile Davis talked to the actors about the need for pauses in acting. She said it was sometimes hard not to step in to “help” a fellow actor if you thought they had forgotten their line, so actors were instructed to call “line” if they forgot what they were supposed to say. As writers we imagine those pauses, but we are not the actors or directors, so only occasionally do we offer a suggestion. The character needs to feel where the pauses should be.

At this rehearsal we were back on the main stage and did a complete run through of the first act. There were a couple of actors missing and others had to stand in for them, but it gave a pretty good idea of the running time (about 47 minutes which is right about what we’d hoped for). There are still some blocking issues when we have everybody on stage.

When the run through was completed, Tim gave “notes” to the actors. Then he turned to Laura and me and said, “Ladies, we need a better transition between Scenes 4 and 5. He was right. What we had written was too abrupt, so today we wrote a small bridge scene which gave us the opportunity to show the emotional change happening to Will (Casey Rauch). We’ll get to see it at Sunday’s rehearsal. Our being at rehearsals and seeing the progress makes us better able to fix this sort of problem. In the long run, the play will be better for the fixes and the actor’s toolboxes re-opened.

Spotlight on Hannah Zerai

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Fourteen-year-old Hannah Zerai’s part was written into the play when she showed up to audition and sang. She has a gorgeous voice and Laura and I knew just how to showcase it. Her part isn’t long, but provides a pivotal recognition for our main character, Will Hawes, about the talent available in the small town he left behind. Hannah’s brief role is important.

Hannah’s first time on stage was in the Avalon’s Curtain Call summer camp in 2010. She enjoyed that so much she did the 2010 SummerFame camp as well, and found she enjoyed dancing and singing. She started voice lessons with Suzanne Chadwick at the Academy Art Museum last year and began ballet this fall.

It didn’t take long for the community to recognize her talent. She sings with the Easton Choral Arts Society and was invited by its director to join the Christ Church Choral Scholars program. Recently Hannah was nominated and auditioned for the 2013 American High School Honors Performance Series at Carnegie Hall. Out of thousands who auditioned, she was one of 270 finalists chosen for the 2013 choir.

We asked Hannah how she would know if she was successful in her part in The Santa Diaries and she replied, “There’s a cerain feeling you get when you’re walking off stage after performing well. It can’t really be described, but I’m sure everyone’s felt it. If that happens, I’ll know I’ve done it right.”

A Busy Avalon – Sunday Rehearsal 11/4/12

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The Avalon Theatre is a busy place. On Sunday afternoon there was a Mozart concert performed by Easton’s Choral Arts Society on stage, and the Cinema Society met Sunday night and needed the main stage AND the Stoltz Listening Room at 4:30. In fact, the stage won’t be available for rehearsals all this week and weekend as a Waterfowl Festival event is being setting up in the auditorium. Hopefully all will be back to normal next week.

So on Sunday rehearsals were limited to adults in Stoltz from 2 – 4:30. One of our characters sings with the Choral Arts Society so she couldn’t be there. Rehearsals are a huge commitment of time and accommodations to people’s schedules are constantly made.

The acting instructions continue to be fascinating. Assistant Director Cecile Davis brought some of the character books  she had created for productions in which she has appeared. The books had pictures of what she thought her character looked like, the backstory she imagined for her character, comments and direction from the director, and magazine photos and research from the time period of the play. She encouraged the Santa Diaries actors to create their own character books.

Cece recommended two books to the actors. The Enneagram Made Easy by Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele, and Trusting the Actor by Brian Astbury.

In a previous blog we mentioned the directors putting the actors through an “anger run”. It seems there are all kinds of acting “runs.”  Cece did a “spoken thoughts” run with Casey Rauch (Will) in which she followed closely behind him speaking the kind of thoughts that might be going through his character’s mind. It must have been hugely distracting, but Casey stayed focused got through his long speech without a hitch. Then she did an excercise with Jenny Madino (Jessica) in which she had her do a scene using a variety of emotions (anger, sadness, happy, childlike), louder and softer, faster and faster. We could all feel the energy this created. Note to Jenny from the authors: it’s The Night Before Christmas, not The Nightmare Before Christmas. LOL.

At one point Cece referred to The Santa Diaries as “our play”. Laura and I got goosebumps. The more ownership everyone feels the better the show will be. The Santa Diaries is OUR community play.

p.s. On Sunday Laura and I left rehearsal early because we were going to Baltimore for theater. At Tuesday night’s rehearsal we learned that Cece had two of the leads doing a scene while doing push-ups. So sorry we missed that!