Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre (SSMT) is going into its 31st season this summer. When one thinks of a musical, what usually comes to mind are the actors on the stage not the back of the stage infrastructure. Over the past eight weeks, Go Blue Ridge Travel has had the opportunity to sit down and meet these infrastructure players (not actors) that make the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre happen each summer. Each week I have interviewed a key player in moving a musical from the planning stage to the first night live performance.
“Most people think that our summer music theatre is produced by Shenandoah University students. Our four productions each summer are professional theatre for the Shenandoah Valley. We hire the best professional directors, scene designers, costume designer, technical directors as well as actors who are equity members. The summer theatre is a great time for serious students to pick up great apprenticeships under these leaders in the industry. Each year we attend the Southwest Theater Festival where we hire the best skilled technicians and artists as well as the apprentices to work under them we can afford. All staff are paid in the summer.” said Sue Robinson, Managing Director for SSMT.
What has been a surprise to me is that each of these professionals I interviewed were very happy with their career choices? As Mac Bozman, Scene and Lighting designer said, ‘I have not been unemployed a day in my career. Plus I love what I do? To get paid for this and have this much fun is amazing.”
My first interview for GoBRT was with the Costume Designers. Like with other areas, there are two who each are assigned to a particular musical. I stepped into Cheryl Yancey’s office and found her deep into researching the design for an upcoming play. “The first step is to read the play (musical). Having been in theater for many years, I know many of the works I am going to design but I still go back and read the play. Then my next step is to talk with the Director for this production and get ‘their vision’. The reason a great play can be done again and again is because the director’s are allowed to bring their creative freedom to the production. For example, some plays offer the opportunity to change the setting to more modern times. This is what you often see with Shakespearean plays because their themes applied yesterday and today.” said Yancey. “What is most important is that we do not copy someone else’s idea. Theatre is an art to be created.”
Then Yancey armed with the director’s vision is off spending hours researching the period. She begins sketches on the computer with color changes. “Color is crucial to the success of my design. What color I use sends messages automatically to the audience. When the actor steps on the stage it is the costume they see first before the actor even speaks. For example in our culture – red equates to bad girl and blue is both calming and strength. I also have to know the body of the actor playing the part.The costume has to accommodate the dancer, singer, or actor. It is actually easier to do a new play than to do an older one. When you are doing a play that is well known everyone is looking to see how the designers and directors have made this production one they own,” said Yancey. “Budget is the big guideline. How much time do I have to get these costumes constructed and what will be the skill level of the stitchers (the seamstress to the layman).
Many people think we rent these costumes,” said Sue Robinson. “Like a truck pulls up and we unload the set design and the costumes, then the musical opens!”
I asked Yancey how she got into theater. “I was a history major as an undergraduate. As a child I loved sewing and was designing without any training. One of the courses I took in college was an acting class. Life just sometimes falls together without a lot of help. What could be more perfect than designing costumes for different periods of history – both my passions,” said Yancey.
SSMT’s second costume designer is Jennifer Adams. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence, she had to do tech work as part of her degree. She got her love of sewing from her grandmother and loves vintage clothes. “I was fortunate to spend my senior year in Italy studying art history and fashion design.” said Adams. “Fashion design is all about selling the look. In theater, your design is about selling the character. This summer I will go from designing distressed costumes for Man of La Mancha to the big fun with Mary Poppins where statues come to life. I will be working with at least 4 stitchers and 5 dressers to make these costumes. It is a team building experience.”
Just like Bozman, Adams loves her work. “I am happy. I do what I love and I get paid for it! The Arts are both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. I am forever grateful to my parents for begin supportive of my career,” said Adams.
As I left the university, my mind kept going back to the happiness I experienced in talking to these two women. Both extremely talented but not competitive of each other. In each person I have talked to the words ‘collaborative art’ has been repeated.
Theater 2014 Blog Series #2 – Scene and Lighting Design.