“Dark” Designs at the Cloverdale Playhouse

By on 30 September, 2013 in Art, Fun, Greg Thornton with 0 Comments

 “Truth in the theatre, as the masters of the theatre have always known, stands above and beyond mere accuracy to fact. In the theatre the actual thing is never the exciting thing. Unless life is turned into art on the stage it stops being alive and goes dead.”  -Robert Edmond Jones

Wait Until Dark, by Frederick Knott, has been considered a classic thriller of the American theater since it opened on Broadway in 1966.The production starred Lee Remick and was directed by Arthur Penn. It then continued to terrify audiences as a film starring the luminous Audrey Hepburn and the extraordinary Alan Arkin. We are thrilled (yes, that word) to be honoring the tradition of the Montgomery Little Theater with this 45th year anniversary production. When MLT produced this play, in their 1967/1968 season, Eleanor Davis, an up and coming actress in the area, was cast as the understudy for the lead character of the blind woman, Susy Hendricks.

Eleanor commands a different role in this production as director of a fine and very talented cast featuring Rhonda Crim, Mark Hunter, Scott Page, Greg Babb, Stephen Dubberly, and Miette Crim, who just so happens to be Rhonda’s daughter. Jason Morgan and Rusty Bailey fill out the cast. Eleanor is joined by a terrific set designer, Ed Fieder and a gifted technical director, Layne Holley. The set for this production is probably the most extensive and challenging that the Playhouse has built yet. Ed and Layne very graciously gave of their time to discuss how all of the “smoke and mirrors” have come into place onstage and backstage.

Greg Thornton: You both have been involved in theater for some time as actors and designers. What is it that drew you to the theater?

Ed Fieder: My interest in theater began as early as elementary school when our class would put on some skit or musical program. Performing wasn’t my strong suit but I soon was introduced to the world of set design and building when I watched short documentaries on movie making and the art of making “make believe” look real. I’ve been intrigued ever since.

Layne Holley: I stumbled onto the theater when I was in college. Neither an athlete like my brother nor an outgoing cheerleader like my sister, I was quiet and shy and more of a problem solver. So, having always enjoyed watching productions, I took a theater improv class my freshman year. The people were wonderful and welcoming, and, it was soon revealed, there are a lot of problems to be solved in the theater. I constructed an easel for a production, and I was hooked. I went on to be a part of many more productions, both behind the scenes and on the stage.

Greg Thornton: When you think about how a production might look, where do you start? Research, sketch a plan, models, photos?

Ed Fieder: I wish I could say that all of my ideas were straight out of my incredible and unbridled imagination. But truthfully, when designing a set I tap into many sources. Thanks to the Internet, research is much easier. Depending on the period of the piece, I can download all sorts of info and images from real life or study how the production was interpreted by other companies. 

Layne Holley: Research is always first: When and where is the story taking place? What are the lifestyles and circumstances of the characters in the play? That will tell us what their homes, offices, clothes and props look like. I love sketches, but I’m a bit of a perfectionist and can get caught up in getting it right, so I often rely more on descriptive text, with rough sketches if necessary. Pictures are great for that, just a little scrap book of notions – sort of old-school Pinterest. Models are great for very intricate or elaborate productions, but there’s not often time for modeling in community theater – oh, how I wish I’d paid more attention to AutoCAD when I worked in the architects’ office! But it’s not just about the look and feel of the set. You have to keep in mind that the audience needs to believe that the characters actually carry out their lives in the spaces you design and decorate.

Greg Thornton: Wait Until Dark has very specific requirements that come into play: Time period, locale, special effects. Does that limit you in terms of its design or do you find it focuses you in a certain way?

Ed Fieder: As I read through a script and take inventory of all the essential elements of a play, I have to pay close attention to the limitations of the theater. The biggest question is how we can include all these elements in a limited space and still maintain the integrity of the story. Open communication with the director and other production staff is very important. One’s imagination and creativity is definitely put to the test.

Layne Holley: A little of both. It might be easier to just create a workable space, but you want it to be as representative as possible of the period in which the action takes place, and it needs to facilitate the action. You can’t always find exactly the right piece of furniture or prop, so you have to rehabilitate something to make it into what you need – or you build it. On the other hand, focusing on such specific requirements puts nearly everything else into perspective for you throughout the process. Once you’ve anchored the requirements like the special effects in this show, other pieces begin to fall into place around them. It’s that problem-solving that’s so appealing to me, and that’s a constant part of what you do in theater, whether you’re building a set or building a character as a performer. It’s all about choices and what will accomplish the goal while looking as authentic and natural as possible.

Greg Thornton: Is there a lot of collaboration between you as designer/technical director and the rest of the production team, specifically the director and lighting and sound designers?

Ed Fieder: As I said before, communication is very important but respect more so. It is gratifying whenever all departments work together and create something special. That’s not saying there aren’t disagreements or differences of opinion. But that’s why we have Directors to act as the referee of sorts. Audiences don’t pay to see a play because of the great set or the great lighting design. They expect to see a collaborative work by ALL involved.

Layne Holley: There has to be collaboration for real success. As the technical director, I had to understand Ed’s vision for the set design and support him in realizing it so that it served Eleanor’s (the director’s) ultimate vision for and the action and actors’ needs. Meanwhile, you’ve got to account for lighting and sound; for instance, I can’t put a critical set piece grouping where major action takes place in a spot on the stage that the lighting designer can’t get light to (in the instance of spaces where it’s a challenge to match the light grid with the playing space), and I have to work with the sound designer to create practical sound effects in such a way that they meet the needs for authenticity and location. In the instance of this production of Wait Until Dark, many of the special effects rely on light and sound to complete the illusion and make the audience believe it’s real, so we have to collaborate to develop a choreography of sorts.

And then there are all of the wonderful volunteers who come in and help you execute, but who also contribute smart and creative ideas and solutions – they’re collaborators, too. Also, in our work, we have to play the “ghostman” for the author and the audience. What was the author’s intention here? What will be the audience’s needs and expectations? So, we had to collaborate with each other and with people who weren’t there (the author) or weren’t there yet (the audience).

Greg Thornton: It seems every set and every production has a particular “bugaboo” or set piece or element that just takes forever to work. Is there a particular one for you in this production, at least, that you’d care to share?

Ed Fieder: “Bugaboo” huh? In spite of the fact that Wait Until Dark is a virtual “special effects spectacular” in a stage sense, these were pretty much solved with little difficulty. However, my particular gremlin comes in the form of the common door hinge. You wouldn’t think a hinge would be such a problem but I have lost my religion on more than one occasion because a door wouldn’t close right.

Layne Holley: In Wait Until Dark, there are so many special effects and specific requirements – on top of being a period piece – that the whole thing could’ve been a bugaboo if we hadn’t approached it with a good sense of organization. I won’t share some of them to save the plot for audiences, but I will say that having a timed and controlled fire onstage was a bit tricky!

Greg Thornton: What about the Playhouse itself that you find particularly challenging as a design space? Does its intimacy hinder you or help in any way?

Ed Fieder: The Playhouse certainly has its share of, say, “quirks”. We learned from the production of Cabaret earlier this season that the stage floor slopes down stage right. Adjustments to any set have to accommodate that slope. The size of the play space is not an issue but offers more of a creative challenge. I’m just glad I’m not on the play reading committee. I trust we won’t be doing The Sound of Music any time soon. But the limited size of our stage allows our performances to have a more intimate experience with our audience. With the production of Wait Until Dark, we have demonstrated that the Playhouse stage can accommodate a full scale, complex yet realistic set.

Layne Holley: Nearly every space will have its unique challenges. The playhouse is, indeed, intimate, but in its initial rehabilitation from church to theater, the Playhouse team made some very good decisions with regard to working with the existing space and with enhancements.

Greg Thornton: Ed, you designed a beautiful set for The Clean House. Layne, you were terrific as Phyllis in Season’s Greetings. We are truly blessed to have you in the Playhouse family. Can you share a bit of your background? Where you’re from and maybe what drew you to Montgomery and in through the Playhouse doors?

Ed Fieder: My father was stationed at Gunter Air Force Base in 1965. It was there, at the Gunter Little Theater that I began my theater “career”. Many years and local theaters later I volunteered to help with the iconic Montgomery Little Theater when they moved their popular summer productions to the then new, outdoor stage of Jasmine Hill in Wetumpka. That began a relationship with MLT as one of their set designers for the next twenty years. I can’t express how glad I am that The Cloverdale Playhouse was started. Who knows? Maybe I’ll stick around for another twenty.

Layne Holley: First, thanks! Season’s Greetings’ Phyllis is one of my favorite roles to ever have landed! She now shares my favorites space with Mrs. Drudge from a college production of The Real Inspector Hound directed by Steven David Martin, who was then at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

I grew up near Montgomery and graduated from Auburn University Montgomery, where, as I mentioned, I got my real start in theater and decided to minor in theatre arts. Montgomery was my theater home for many years, performing mostly at AUM, but also on the stages at Faulkner and Huntingdon. I worked on the technical team at AUM and also did a good amount of building at Montgomery Little Theater. I love to see live theater and will always happily take part in bringing it to life.

After college, I moved to New York. I didn’t do one theatrical thing (outside of Skit Nite on our rooftop), but I did get to see a lot of amazing and interesting productions.

When my little family moved back to Alabama seven or so years ago, my better half and I got involved in several of the Wetumpka Depot Players productions. It didn’t hurt that I’d married someone who came from a theatrical family, so that became a big family activity for us.

Once the Cloverdale Playhouse opened, I saw a host of wonderful new opportunities and fun challenges. The River Region has a tight theater community. Many of my old and new friends from other theaters were active at the Playhouse, and I followed them to join the fun. It’s been a terrific experience, and the Playhouse has been a wonderfully welcoming new addition!

COMING UP AT THE PLAYHOUSE

  • Wait Until Dark, September 26-October 6. Performances: Th/Fri/Sat. 7:30 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.
  • Auditions for Holiday Memories, Sunday and Monday, October 13 and 14, 6-9 p.m.
  • The Joe Thomas Jr. Third Tuesday Guitar Pull October 15, 7 p.m.
  • Coming in early November The 2014 Season Announcement
  • Holiday Memories, December 5-15. Performances: Th/Fri/Sat. 7:30 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.

For further info please call: 334.262.1530. cloverdaleplayhouse.org

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