Preparing the stage
Behind the scenes of the Liberty theater production “Meet Me in St. Louis”
When most people see a show at the theater, they often take in the spectacle before them without realizing the amount of work and preparation that goes into putting that show on the stage.
For the cast and crew of Liberty University’s Department of Theatre Arts’ production of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” it was about a four-and-a-half to five week process, both in rehearsals and in production, prior to beginning performances, according to director Chris Nelson.
The cast and crew met for the first time Oct. 12, where the director and designers presented their concepts and ideas to the cast.
“As a director, it’s my job to tell (the story) as dynamic, exciting, believable and truthful as possible,” Nelson said. “It’s my job to bring all the design elements on the same page — to have a concept, a unifying vision, for what we want to do.”
For this show, Nelson decided to focus on the strong bonds binding the Smith family, the main subjects of the show.
“(The story is about a) family having roots in St. Louis and having relationships that run deep,” Nelson said.
Nelson also used the image of a music box to guide his inspiration for the show.
“When you’re in the design aspect, you use things that inspire you or that you connect with,” Nelson said. “The idea of a music box connected with us. The turntable (on which the set is built) houses the home, but just the sides of it. The roof comes up which is like a music box because you lift the lid and the music plays and life begins inside.”
The idea for the turntable was a process.
“We originally tried approaching this not using a turntable,” Connie Hecker, assistant theatre professor and scenic designer, said. “One of the biggest challenges is how we get from inside to outside (of the house.) I came up with the idea of using a turntable and having a central core from which radiates the locations inside the house, which then ties into the movement of things at the Fair, such as the Ferris wheel or carousels.”
After the initial design meeting, the individual designers begin their separate processes, meeting once a week to discuss their progress.
“You start off with the director’s point of view, which is how I see the world and the ideas behind it,” Nelson said. “The designers take that and come up with their own ideas. We keep meeting, collaborating and solving problems. (At the meetings,) everybody has an opportunity to say, ‘Here’s where I’m at.’ Many challenges get worked through at that point. That’s the beauty of it, if you speak and communicate clearly on the front end of a project, the back end is so much smoother.”
Budgets and manpower are additional topics discussed at the meetings.
“People talk through their budgets and what they are going to spend,” Nelson said. “We have to first make sure after we get the design, (we answer questions such as) ‘What will it cost?,’ ‘Do we have the time and manpower to build?,’ ‘Do we have facilities to build and store things?’”
Immediately after the initial design meeting, the cast began rehearsals, working on vocals with David Hahn and Samuel Wellman, both professors in the School of Music. After a week of vocal rehearsals, the cast spent a week learning choreography from Liberty theatre alumna Rachel Osterhus. Before moving from the rehearsal room to the Tower stage, they worked with Nelson on figuring out where to enter and stand and when to exit the stage.
The final step in the rehearsal process is moving from the rehearsal room to the stage, which serves as a chance for actors to become acquainted with the new space and account for differences between the settings before opening night. One of the challenges this show provides the cast is navigating a two-story set and simulating that in the rehearsal space.
“When you have a turntable with three different sets on it, how do you replicate that in a rehearsal room?” Nelson said. “Theatre usually tapes out the set (and the tape) is colored, so people can know what’s what. The problem is, there’s only one floor and when you have somebody up high, they’re still on the same plane as the (person) on the floor. As a director, you have a hard time keeping the image clear. You have to remember one person’s up high, they’re not on the same level.”
Nelson is not the only one affected by the move.
“The students don’t get an idea until the turntable and house are built,” Nelson said. “They can get somewhat of an idea, but it really is a relearning process because we have to make adjustments. Maybe something isn’t as wide or tall as we thought it was going to be.”
Another challenge Nelson stressed dealt with the technical components.
“We will have to work out the turntable,” Nelson said. “Somebody has to run it. We have to know where it starts and stops. When we fly things in, we have to know where they stop and where they go and set their limits. When it comes to the trolley, it’s actor-driven, so (we have to figure out) how do we do this safely without crashing into the audience?”
Commenting on the challenges of the trolley, Hecker noted the size of the cast and limited stage spaces as issues from the scenic perspective.
“(Nelson) needs 20 people on the trolley and we have such limited stage-left space,”Hecker said. “How do we put something in there that can move from one side of the stage to the other and back again?”
According to Nelson, overcoming obstacles and learning how to manage stage space and actors is all a part of the pre-production and rehearsal process in order to ensure the best possible outcome for opening night.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” opens Dec. 4 at the Tower Theater and runs through Dec. 13. The show dates are Dec. 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 5 and 12 at 2:00 p.m. and Dec. 6 and 13 at 3:00 p.m.
For more information about the show or tickets, visit liberty.edu/theatre.
Maurer is a feature reporter.