by erin thursby, photos by a.m. stewart
Long before the first whiff of face powder and the spotlight shines on the stage there’s a beehive of activity that not only goes on backstage on opening night but also for weeks, and sometimes months. There’s a cadre of professionals and volunteers who design and build the sets, sew the costumes, fine tune the lighting and sound systems. But even before that, the show’s ringmaster is the producer who coordinates all the elements, selects the shows and manages the production.
players by the sea and the road to sweeney todd
Since 1966, Players by the Sea has been offering quality community theatre to Jacksonville Beach. They’ve grown since those gypsy beginnings, when they traveled from venue to venue to put on their shows and they’ve weathered disaster when their first established theatre burned to the ground in the 70s. These days they’ve got two theatres onsite and a loyal patronage that looks for both the avant-garde and the tried and true.
This month, the often controversial but newly popular musical, Sweeney Todd, will be gracing their stage. In choosing the season, Players by the Sea tries to gauge what the volunteers and the community wants.
Says Executive Director Joe Schwarz: “I make the process very transparent…people knew that we were considering Sweeney Todd a long time ago. The reason that I do that is because I want their input.”
“We throw the net very wide,” explains Schwarz. “We look to the community, the talent and we also look to our patrons [to] find out, what do they want…I wouldn’t have necessarily picked Sweeney Todd, if a lot of people hadn’t wanted us to…You can’t do a play without actors…in a community theater.”
Lee Hamby, who is directing the show, says that their choice was guided by knowing the talent in the city.
“People were questioning, do we have the talent to do it? I have to say yes,” answers Hamby “I’ve done theater in many towns…and we have some of the best talent around.”
“A lot people that are well-known in the theatre community come back from the professional world…just because it’s community theatre doesn’t mean the talent hasn’t been there, done that.”
Like some of the talent in the show, Hamby is a veteran of the New York acting scene. He came back to Jacksonville because of a family matter and ended up staying on to direct.
“People say, ‘Why aren’t you in New York?’ Well, I was in New York, I did National Tours. I just love doing theatre, no matter where it is.”
“I have Matthew J. Campbell playing Sweeney and he’s a professional actor. He’s lived in New York…he’s traveled with regional theatre. Same thing with my Mrs. Lovett. Dana Brant, she’s gone and done things elsewhere…Just because it’s community theatre doesn’t mean it’s Joe Shomo working in an office somewhere wanting to do community theatre.”
But finding talent wasn’t Hamby’s first concern when Players was considering doing the show. Instead, it was a technical issue: the infamous barber chair, which collapses to slide the bodies of Sweeney Todd’s victims through a trap door to the meat grinding area below.
“That was my number one concern from the get-go…if we can’t do the chair; we can’t do the show… My first thought was to get the chair from someone who’s already used the chair and knows that it works properly and can explain it to us. But the more I did research on it, nobody had a good-looking chair…They all looked out of scale…I called people in Georgia, even up to Atlanta. Nobody had one that I really liked. David Paul, our technical director at Players by the Sea, he is so good…He’s built some crazy things that you can’t find anywhere, so this was the perfect job for him…He got on it, built a prototype…We did lots of research on what other people did.”
His main concern was keeping the actors safe, not only because he likes his actors, but because understudies can often be in short supply in community theatre.
“It works famously. We love it…and it works. We are doing something a little different. I don’t want to give away the secret, though…You can’t do something completely different because people expect certain things.”
Hamby enjoys the pace of community theatre because there’s often more time to fine tune a show. “Community theatre is just the opposite of professional—[for professional] you’ll have two weeks to put up the show, and then months of the run…[in community] you rehearse for a couple of months and then just do a couple of weekends of the show…As an actor you have more time to perfect your part more so than you do in professional theatre.”
The production of Sweeney will be its own creature, not a slavish copy of the movie or the Broadway revival. Hamby and his cast have worked hard to give the people what they want, while still putting their own unique Players by the Sea stamp on things.
“Sweeney Todd hasn’t been done in this town for 25 years. The last…[theater] that did it was River City Playhouse…Everyone’s been talking about doing it, but no one really had the nerve to do it…It’s one of the most difficult shows in musical theatre…People saying that we can’t do this just makes me more excited to do it.”
what we want at the alhambra
According to Tod Booth, executive director of the Alhambra Dinner Theatre, public desire drives the season choices for his theatre.
“We’re a commercial theatre so we pick our shows based on what we believe the public is interested in and will support, because we’re not endowed by any grants…So we have to very concerned about what we pick being marketable…”
They look to more than one type of market in the Jacksonville area, so you’ll find different types of shows on their roster. “We plan a very diverse schedule…some [shows] appeal to families, some to older people, some to school groups, others appeal to just children.”
The majority of the shows are produced onsite, with just 10 days to stage the show. The Alhambra holds auditions or calls actors in to do the shows they have scheduled. The theatre is responsible for housing the out-of-town actors and helping them to find transportation while they’re in town. Only one show this year will be a traveling show; the rest were produced right here in Jacksonville. The Alhambra does it all, from the casting to building the sets and constructing the costumes.
Sets are built at their scene shop, which is not on the same site as the theatre building. Not only do they build sets for their own shows, but they build sets for other theater companies as well, among other things.
“We also build sets for movies shot in Florida [and] television shows…we’re doing Westside Story for the symphony. We also do theme parties for the resorts in Florida and the local companies that have theme parties. We build the decorations for the parties.”
The Westside Story set is reportedly going to be several stories high. At the moment, the scene shop is working on that, plus two other projects at their 10 thousand foot warehouse. They don’t lack for costumes either, and have about $250-300,000 worth of stock costumes.
The only show they won’t be producing this season is Mama Mia, it’s almost ABBA, which will be a performance show from the top ABBA tribute band.
“They perform all over the world,” says Booth “[at] football games with 50 thousand people. That’s one of the reasons they love performing here, because it’s so intimate.”
Upcoming shows for this year include Moon Over Buffalo (September 3 – October 5), All Shook Up (October 8th – November 30). Check their website for a full schedule through 2009 at alhambradinnertheatre.com/index.htm
FCCJ artist series pop quiz!
EU quizzed executive director Dr. Milton Russos on the upcoming FCCJ Artist Series season…
EU: When do you start working on what will be playing in a season? How do you attract so many great shows to Jacksonville?
Dr. Milton Russos: We come up with a working list. It’s really a two-year process, sometimes even longer from when we first see these things. It took us almost ten years to bring The Lion King…It really amounts to…[the availability] we have here in the Times Union center and the routing of the shows…There’s lots of performing arts centers in Florida, so they like to come to Florida, basically in the winter, because they want to get away from all that snow…About 15-20 years ago when there were some major snowstorms in the mid-west and north-east, the trucks were having a hard time moving. Back then when we were dealing with 10 semi-trucks it was huge. Today we get in 20 plus many times.
EU: What criteria do you use to choose the line-up for the season?
MR: We try to get the hot shows. We try to make sure we have one of the big [Tony] winners. Last year was Spamalot, year before was Lion King, this year is Wicked. And we try to balance it out. Happy Days is a brand-new musical based on the sitcom…
EU: What are you excited about this season?
MR: I think our Broadway series certainly has some great shows. Wicked is going to be a huge, huge hit…It won the Tony Award…and it’s a great show with lots of humor…Fiddler on the Roof and [actor] Topol. It’s a rare chance for people to see the guy who originated the role [of Tevye] in the movie. He was…years younger than he needed to be when he made the movie. They needed lots of make-up to make it work. Today he doesn’t need to use as much make-up. He’s…closer [now] to the age of the role…He’s someone who’s really known for playing this part.
valued volunteers at theatre jacksonville
As with most community theatres, volunteers are the engine that drives Theatre Jacksonville. Michael Lipp, who has directed nine shows for Theatre Jacksonville, has enjoyed working with many volunteers. For Lipp, the integrated web of staff and volunteers makes it “a great place to work…it’s like a family…a tight knit community.” Michelle Simklet, who has often served as a stage manager for the theatre believes that these volunteers and the attitude of Theatre Jacksonville towards those volunteers makes it both a great place to work and a powerful force in the theatrical community.
“The staff and the board consider volunteers an asset. They really allow volunteers to be empowered…and invested personally. That investment pays dividends,” says Simklet “These aren’t the folks that get the applause…They build sets, work the boards, develop the sound…without the same recognition that the people on the stage get.”
Even if they don’t get direct applause from the audience, Theatre Jacksonville certainly understands the value of these dedicated workers. Simklet, like the rest of Theatre Jacksonville, knows that “We’re here because of the tremendous willingness to volunteer.” For more info about their upcoming shows visit theatrejax.com
three questions for theatre jacksonville
We asked Sarah Boone, executive director at Theatre Jacksonville, about how a play reaches the stage and her pick for the upcoming season.
EU: How do you choose the season?
Sarah Boone: We have a repertory committee that I put together every year that reads plays…We meet in the fall to come up with a season by February for the year before. I also travel to New York and see plays, visit with colleges to find out about new scripts and things.
EU: After choosing a show, what do you do next?
SB: First the design team has to be created. I have a season and I will hire directors for each show, then we have to have costume designer, lighting designer, set designer. Those plans happen months out…A month before the show opens we start building the set…that’s when the volunteers come in to help.”
EU: Is there a particular show you’re exited about this season?
SB: The Beaux Stratagem. It’s a brand new script that has not been published yet. It’s an adaptation of a restoration comedy that Ken Ludwig who’s one of our outstanding living playwrights in America. We’re one of a very few theatres that are going to do it.
behind the scenes in st. augustine
Within a few minutes drive you can be delighted at the ever-growing variety of culture in St. Augustine. It’s really a treat to enjoy an entertainment outing of music, good theatre and great dining in the peaceful atmosphere of the nation’s oldest city.
“Arts and cultural programs provide more than quality of life to a community. They provide valuable economic benefits …[for the community].” states Philip McDaniel, president of the St. Johns County Cultural Council. “On behalf of the St. Johns County Cultural Council and the cultural institutions in historic St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and greater St. Johns County, we ask that you continue to experience life to the fullest by supporting …[arts and culture]. In doing so, not only do we learn more and feel better, but we contribute to the local economy while increasing our wonderful quality of life here in Northeast Florida.”
One of the real jewels in the crown of the Oldest City is charming Limelight Theatre. According to Beth Lambert, Artistic Director at the Limelight “these are exciting times. We’re making huge step to make the theatre more visible on a national scale…like a grownup theatre” The Limelight has grown over the years with their success due in a large part by their Limelight Guild, a volunteer group of 130 women “who do just about everything” boasts Lambert.
“We try to bring in shows that are fresh and not recently seen on stage locally. We bring comedies – I love Neil Simon, dramas, at least one musical every year and also something that is new. I read a lot and have a recommendation committee that helps me tremendously. We even have patrons that bring playbills of shows they’re attended elsewhere.”
“Our 2008 season brings the New York Critic’s Award winner, Intimate Apparel by Lyn Nottage and for the very first time we’re presenting Shakespeare at the Limelight with The Tempest which is directed by Gray Cadweller.”
That’s just a sampling of what’s happening on stage. But there’s a lot more to the mission of the Limelight. “We now have a full-time education director, coordinating school groups and running the kids workshops.”
“Last year, probably our best show was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the round. It was the perfect cast and was really great. Raisin in the Sun was Broadway quality and our recent comedy Perfect Wedding was delightful.”
“One thing that is unique at the Limelight is that we’re the only theatre in town that pays our actors and directors. They are a great bunch and for the season opener You Can’t Take It With You, the entire cast is donating their fees back to the theatre”.
Beth and Theatre Director Emily Carpenter love to see new faces in the audience. The Limelight Theatre is located at 11 Old Mission Ave. in St. Augustine. For more information call 904-825-1164 or visit limelight-theatre.org.
choosing the season at thrasher-horne
Leading the pack in keeping culture alive and thriving in Clay County is the Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts at the St. Johns River Community College campus in Orange Park. Tony Walsh, the Executive Director stated “Our 5th season is exciting. I’ve found a mix with our programming. It’s very community oriented and I take my lead from the audience. What they want and expect and something new at the same time. Our motto is: celebrating the arts in our community and the community is in the arts.”
Because of that, they invite the community to participate as much as they can, which is often a big hit with audience members.
“We discovered, quite by accident, during our holiday presentation of Peter Pan [something our audience loved]. We invited a bell choir to entertain as the audience arrived…[and] our audience loved it. This year we’ll bring in A Clay County Christmas with a holiday sing-along followed by Babes In Toyland.”
Walsh stays very aware of what strikes a chord with his audience.
“Last season we also enjoyed a great crowd reaction from Piano Man with Jim Witter performing tunes by Elton John and Billy Joel. Our audience loves tribute shows and this year we’ll present Love Me Tender, an Elvis inspired music event and Sweet Baby James with the music of James Taylor. 100 Years of Broadway by Neil Berg will be a big hit as will the Russian National Ballet doing Sleeping Beauty.”
Thrasher-Horne has been selected to host the entire new cast of Annie. “They will be here for over a month. They’re casting the show in New York and bringing cast to THCA for rehearsals and the first performances will be here before the company’s national tour.”
This newest offering of the tales of Annie, Miss Hannigan and Daddy Warbucks is being directed by Martin Charmin, who penned the original score. The idea of creating a musical based on Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip originated with lyricist/director Martin Charnin. Playwright Thomas Meehan and composer Charles Strouse were initially skeptical of the idea, but Charnin quickly won them over with his enthusiasm for the project.
“Each year our audience keeps building” said Walsh “and now we have a series of exciting kids workshops designed for exposing kids to live theatre, that’s the future. We’ve got good involvement and community support with a dedicated group of teachers and volunteers.”
Many of our area’s community theatres are facing serious financial complications brought on in large part by the State of Florida’s cutbacks for funding culture and the arts. According to the 2007 “Economic Impact of the Arts”, non-profit cultural organizations in greater Jacksonville served nearly 1.5 million admissions, employing nearly 1500 full and part time jobs and generated a $105.68 million dollar impact on the local economy. It’s up to us, the audience, to show support for our local theatres by attending a show. You’ll be significantly delighted and you’ll return for more. From the producers and the actors on stage, to the lighting tech and the prop department each part of the puzzle must come together seamlessly. These are hard working, dedicated artisans. It’s the muscle that makes the magic.
by erin thursby, photos by a.m. stewart