News Column

Producing the play 'Xanadu' fast is not for the fainthearted, when roller skates are involved

June 15, 2014

By Barry Courter, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.

June 15--EDITOR'S NOTE -- The Chattanooga Times Free Press has followed the two-month process of producing the musical "Xanadu," after the Chattanooga Theatre Centre got word it could not produce the already announced "Pippin."

Seventy-five minutes before "Xanadu" opens in Chattanooga, director Scott Dunlap is anxious and fidgety. Everything seems done.

"It's an hour and 15 minutes to go and I don't have anything I have to do," he says on the evening of June 6. "I think that has happened twice before."

Just a few minutes earlier, he was gluing pieces of material to the horse end of a centaur, and later he takes a few minutes to help an actor with his angel wings. But now he's just standing in the backstage hallway with nothing to do.

"It scares me to death."

An hour later, as the audience enjoys a preshow reception in the lobby, he sits in the theater, watching the nine-member cast run through the song "Have You Never Been Mellow." They are dressed in street clothes, laughing and joking with each other. When that's completed, they gather in front of Dunlap for last-minute instructions.

"All I can say is, 'You know this. You've got this,'" he tells the cast. "Now, just do it. Trust yourselves because you are good and it is good. Remember to breathe."

At intermission, Dunlap is again backstage and he's clearly pleased that his confidence in the cast and the show was rewarded. The first act of the goofball musical -- which includes dancing on roller skates -- goes off as planned, a remarkable feat given that two months earlier the plan was to present the play "Pippin."

It's not often that a theater company has a show yanked so late in the game, but when a national touring company decided to produce "Pippin" in Nashville, it triggered a noncompete clause for the planned -- and announced -- CTC show. The theater is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year by reproducing shows it has done in the past, and "Pippin" was to be part of that. George Quick, who manages the Theatre Centre, was literally heading out the door on March 26 to pick up printed materials related to the "Pippin" auditions when he got word of the cancellation.

He turned immediately to Dunlap, who was set to direct "Pippin," taking him onto the Theatre Centre's patio overlooking the Tennessee River to deliver the news and come up with a replacement.

"We had about 10 minutes to rally," Dunlap says a few days later.

Dunlap, who started his career at the CTC in the Youth Theatre Program and has directed dozens of plays over the years, is accustomed to wearing a lot of hats. On any given show, he might direct, choreograph, handle the lighting and step onstage in a lead or supporting role.

"He's not just multitalented, he's multiskilled and he's multidisciplinary," Quick says."He is able to conceptualize something and realize that same thing."

Dunlap is also accustomed to thinking on his feet so, after discussing their options, he and Quick make a decision and call to check the availability of "Xanadu," the over-the-top romantic musical comedy based on the 1980 movie starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. It's available.

With the rights secured, Dunlap starts figuring out how to present the musical in the venue's 175-seat Circle Theatre. Over the next two months, he will bring the show together, design the costumes and the set, coach the actors, choreograph the dances and add his personal touch to the musical.

"From the moment it ["Xanadu"] came out of my mouth, I thought 'Oh my god. What have I done?"

TWO MONTHS TO GO

A week later, Dunlap is focused on other things -- directing the youth production of "Sleeping Beauty," which he also wrote, and designing the costumes for "Pump Boys & Dinettes." "Xanadu" isn't given much thought. But sitting in the theater's conference room, he says he will spend the next few days allotting the parts of his brain that aren't thinking about the other productions to "Xanadu."

"I'm pretty good at focusing on what's in front of me," he says. "When I was a kid, I ate one thing on my plate at a time."

He's also good at keeping his emotions in check. Throughout the process, he is firm in his critiques of the cast, but he's always mindful to let the actors come up with their own bits and ideas. He tells them on a number of occasions to trust their instincts. He will say later that much of his calm demeanor is the product of a good cast that handles its business.

The story of "Xanadu" -- both film and play -- revolves around an artist named Sonny who cannot find his "muse," or creativity, because he's forced to crank out dreck instead of "real" art. A muse from Mount Olympus comes to Earth to inspire him, but falls in love with him in the process, a no-no under the rules of Greek mythology.

While the movie -- considered a cult classic because it's so wretched -- plays all of this straight, the stage production does anything but, changing several plot elements to jack up the sheer ridiculousness of the whole thing, especially Sonny's plan to invigorate his art with "something athletic" by opening a roller disco.

On April 2, Dunlap has a meeting with music director Jason Whitehead to make sure they are on the same page with the production. Whitehead teaches theater at the Center for Creative Arts and has directed "Xanadu" in the past.

Before that conversation takes place, however, the pair audition actress Stefanie Oppenheimer, who is trying out for one of the three muse roles, and who will be out of town when official auditions take place. In one of the studios, a large square room with chairs around the edges, three pianos and a couple of folding tables, Whitehead spends a few minutes with Oppenheimer, going over a verse from the song "I'm Alive." They run through it a couple times, then Oppenheimer sings the bit herself with Whitehead on piano. She's auditioning for her first musical and is a little tentative; her first attempt is quiet and somewhat timid.

"You have to have confidence, as if you are a Juilliard grad singing this badly," he tells her.

Dunlap enters the room and asks Oppenheimer to read a few lines from the script. "Now do it with an Australian voice," he says. "Now do it with a funny voice." Oppenheimer complies. More confident with this than her singing, she has fun with the accents and, 10 minutes after it begins, the audition is over.

Whitehead and Dunlap move to a nearby conference room, a long, narrow space with bookshelves on the wall opposite the door. At one end of the room is a whiteboard, at the other is a cart with a TV, VCR and DVD player. Opposite the bookshelf is a giant calendar detailing audition and show dates for coming productions. They briefly discuss Oppenheimer's audition.

"This is her first musical," Dunlap says. "She's not afraid to be ugly, and she could sell it. She will sing it big and ugly. She's that person who is not afraid to go to prom with a fake butt."

Mostly what he likes is her attitude. "She's a good person, and she is not here for conflict," he says.

Considering that rehearsals will take place from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Friday and that the play will run through July 6, it's important that everyone get along.

"Attitude is important," he says. "I audition from the moment a person gets out of the car. If they are a brat and not listening to mom, they won't listen to me."

"Xanadu" calls for a cast of nine people -- four males and five females. Throughout the audition process, actual talent is discussed far less than cast compatibility both on and off the stage. Dunlap and Whitehead have strong feelings about who will audition and are already making plans based on those assumptions. It becomes clear fairly early on that the role of Sonny will be played by Bobby Burkich, a 20-year-old student at Chattanooga State Community College.

Casting Burkich creates somewhat of a domino effect, though. Because of the age difference between her and Burkich, one actress is instantly dismissed from the role of Kira, a muse who disguises herself as the human Clio and becomes Sonny's love interest. Burkich is dating Kirsten Neal, a high school senior who will later be selected to play Kira. The ages of the applicants are a big deal to Dunlap and Whitehead, though not because of the roles they might play.

"With high school players come high school issues," says Whitehead, and even if "Xanadu" was serious instead of lighthearted, drama needs to be from the play itself, not the cast's personalities.

Still, he's confident the people he thinks will audition are going to work well, both in the play and together. Three are in high school, three are in college and the remaining three are 40-ish adults. Easy to handle.

Dunlap likes to tailor his productions to the talent he has to work with, playing to their strengths and not asking them to do something they can't.

"I'm not really worried about who auditions. I do like working with new people, though, because they haven't developed any bad habits. It's really about tradeoffs. Can they sing, or dance or talk or have big personalities? They don't always have all of them."

In their initial meeting, Whitehead and Dunlap discuss whether the show will have an intermission ("We sell more concessions if we do," Dunlap says), the roller skating ("I'd love for all nine to be on skates if possible," he says) and microphones ("I'd love for everybody to be miked," he says ).

They also decide it would be cheaper, and better for the feel of the production, to have the performers sing along to recorded tracks rather than a live band.

"It gives it that disco feel, and we can get them [tracks] for iPads so that what they rehearse to is what they will perform to," Whitehead says.

It's also a little cheaper.

Dunlap also plans to show the original movie to the cast as a group.

"I think they need to watch the original to get the jokes," he says. "You really have to understand that it's bad, but everyone knows it's bad. I will tell them, 'Don't make it your own. They have to mock it their own.' What makes it funny is if they really sing it. It's hard to sing bad music well."

"It is stupid, but you can't be stupid," Whitehead says. "Once you laugh, I won't."

The full auditions take place April 7-8. Sixteen people try out for the nine spots. In comparison, a week later 153 audition for the CTC production of "Les Miserables."

After the auditions are over, Whitehead and Dunlap find chairs in Dunlap's office, which is packed floor to ceiling with books, CDs, posters, knickknacks and a couple of lava lamps. They seem happy with the casting options.

A few days later, Dunlap is back in the conference room with set designer Sarah Miecielica and lighting director Bill Banks, talking about the production's technical aspects for the first time. The CTC is one of the few theater companies that owns its own building, which houses not only the Main and Circle theaters, but offices, rehearsal spaces, a huge set-building workshop, a costume-making room and storage space.

Whenever possible, everything is repurposed in the center. Doors, platforms, columns, furniture, whatever, is repainted or reshaped to suit the needs of the next play. Dunlap keeps a mental catalog of what's in the building and is already thinking of how he will use certain items for "Xanadu." Some curtain material hung in the lobby for a fundraiser will be dyed and used in the costumes, and what was once a bench will become the base for the flying horse Pegasus, which will have wings made of plywood and castors on its feet so it can be wheeled around with Kira on top. The set also will include a discotheque that doubles as a roller rink and Mount Olympus.

And it all must fit into the small Circle Theatre.

"In the original (play), the floor lights up," Dunlap says. "We can't do that, but with the right paint and lights, it could be cool."

The trick in both design and timing is planning ahead. The same piece can't be used for plays running concurrently, "and you have to be concerned about using parts and not robbing from the next play," Dunlap says.

SEVEN WEEKS TO GO

On April 16, the cast meets for the first time, sitting in chairs in a semicircle around Whitehead, who is at a piano. They introduce themselves. Greg Rambin Jr., who, among other roles will, play the siren Thalia, says he's never done a true musical; Beth McClary, who will play the muse Melpomene and the snake-haired Medusa, tells everyone she sings for fun. When Whitehead says the goal is to have everyone on stage in skates, she lets out a laugh.

"Not gonna happen," she says.

Each actor has a notepad, which they refer to throughout the process. The books provided by Music Theatre International contain lyrics, music and margins wide enough for notes. MTI also provided musical charts and tracks for the show. The group will spend the next few rehearsals working with Whitehead on the music.

Dunlap's book has a layout of the stage on each opposing page and he uses a different colored marker to represent each character onstage. The drawings look sort of like a football playbook.

"I don't have any trouble remembering which color is which actor," he says.

On April 24, they all gather in the conference room for the first read-through of the entire script. Dunlap tells everyone that, on this night, he is not concerned about pronunciation or mistakes.

"I'm not worried about the wrong 'emfassiss' on the wrong 'sillabbel' for now," he says, dramatically emphasizing the mispronunciations. "This is the place where we circle things and try to figure it out."

In all rehearsals, most of the cast arrive early and, while there is some small talk, for the most part they get straight to work. In later rehearsals, the three actresses playing the muses tend to gather together to work out choreography and timing, while Greg Rambin Sr., who plays Zeus and real estate mogul Danny McGuire, tends to find a corner to work on his lines. Everything is fairly business-like and surprisingly calm.

As they read through the play for the first time, however, it becomes evident that some have practiced on their own a bit more than others. It's evident that Rambin Sr. and Burkich, for example, have worked on the timing and inflection of their lines, and Neal introduces her Australian accent that Clio uses when she's disguised as Kira.

FOUR WEEKS TO GO

On May 9, about halfway to opening night, Dunlap is dressed in his customary T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, painting columns for "Sleeping Beauty" in the Circle Theatre and getting ready for the next night's Backstage Bash fundraiser. He has not started making the set or the costumes for "Xanadu" or put much thought into the choreography, but he's not worried.

He has been trying to buy some roller skates, and says he's happy with the cast and how they've gotten along. The feared "high school drama" has not materialized.

"Other than being asked to hem a prom dress, it has been great," he says. "I said no to the dress, by the way, just because I couldn't do it.'

"It's weird maybe, but if you are doing a youth play, they [teen actors] act like high-schoolers, but if you are doing an adult play, they act like adults."

Five days later, the entire building is crawling with people, youth and adult, for various classes and rehearsals; the "Xanadu" cast must wait outside the rehearsal space for another group to finish.

Once inside, various strips of colored tape are placed on the floor to indicate pieces of the set. Dunlap tells each actor where to stand and how to move about. Instructions are kept pretty basic because of the skating, which is featured in some way through most of the production. They also go over their very '80s-ish, "Saturday Night Fever" dance moves, which will be done on skates.

"I know the choreography is stupid, but that's what makes it funny," Dunlap tells the group. "You have skills. Trust them."

On May 15, the skates arrive and several cast members -- not everyone skates -- make plans to go to a rink on Saturday to test them out and hone whatever skating skills they may already have -- or not.

The following Tuesday, they are back in the studio. Though rehearsal won't start until 7:30 p.m., the skates are on by just after 7; Neal keeps hers on the entire rehearsal. Burkich is already proficient on skates, but they're new to the younger cast members, so not only are they learning dance moves, they must do them on skates.

It shows. Not only is the skating wobbly, the dance moves often appear as an afterthought to just staying upright. It gets better with time, but only Burkich looks completely comfortable. By design, the choreography Dunlap comes up with requires little more than forward skating in a slight arc. There are a couple of falls, but nothing serious during rehearsals.

TWO WEEKS TO GO

Little more than a week later, Dunlap is alternating between the costume shop, where dresses are being made from the repurposed curtains, and the set-building shop, where Pegasus is getting his wings, and the Circle Theatre, where Banks is making adjustments to the lighting. Dunlap enters the theater and begins taping off the floor to paint the disco pattern.

"Sleeping Beauty" wrapped on Sunday, and work began on "Xanadu" as soon as the set was taken down. On Monday, Dunlap realizes he's behind schedule on costumes and a brief moment of anxiety sets in. He takes his concerns to Quick and, after some discussion, more volunteers to help with cutting and sewing are called in and things get back on track.

Getting behind "can happen," Quick says. "The important thing is to speak up."

Even on the eve of opening night, there's still plenty to do. The cast works through technical rehearsal, and afterward Miecielica and Dunlap stay until 2:30 a.m., painting the set. Dunlap then heads home to work on the preshow house music until 4 a.m. Earlier in the day, a volunteer must completely reconstruct Kira's dress because the fabric is shredding.

OPENING NIGHT

Dunlap arrives around 10 a.m. and sets to work ticking off items on his to-do list. Costumes need tweaking and the muse paintings still need brick shadow lines applied. The mural wall and Pegasus get a final coat of paint. All of it gets done 90 minutes before curtain.

As the cast trickles in, a few of them exchange gifts as per theater tradition, then fall into their own pre-show routines. Burkich plays video games on his cellphone, and later he and Rambin Jr. chase each other around on their skates.

Just before show time, each cast member takes a few minutes to go out into the theater's seating area and place the props they'll use in certain scenes; they do the same in the center's hallways, which they will use to enter and exit the stage. Each character will change costumes several times during the production, often in the same scene. They talk to the volunteers who will help them in and out of their costumes, making sure everyone knows where items need to be and when.

"We worked on that on Monday," Dunlap says. "They have to get the timing right. It can be tricky."

Opening night goes off without any noticeable hitches, though there are a few stumbles by a couple of actors on skates. Even then, they do their best to follow what they've been told from the start and act like it was on purpose. The audience laughs in all the right places, a result of hours of work, trial and error and repetition. In all, almost two dozen people -- cast, staff and volunteers -- worked to bring "Xanadu" to life. The audience, of course, sees none of that.

"It's supposed to look easy and, when we all do our jobs, it does," Quick says.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

___

(c)2014 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

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Source: Chattanooga Times Free Press (TN)


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