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FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2014

Offbook: Herding Cats

by Jeff Sprague

Well, readers, we have come to September and the beginning of the 66th Season at Colonial Players. Rocket Man opens this month, and I was fortunate enough to see the invited dress rehearsal. As last season’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone also did, this slightly odd (in a good way) piece deals with the questions of existence and search for meaning that have been with mankind since the caveman days. While not overtly mentioned, and I suppose open to interpretation, there is also an underlying theme of mental illness or, at the very least, unhappiness, that I think is pretty pertinent in light of some recent events in the national news. I refer to the fact that there always seems to be discussion about “needing to do more” for the mentally ill (usually after some horrible gun tragedy). Of course, the unexpected suicide of comic legend Robin Williams has also made those who love acting more and more aware of how happiness can be elusive even for those who seem to have it all. I’m not Sigmund Freud, so I don’t want to spend too much time talking about this; however, I was struck by how the protagonist in Rocket Man (Donny, played excellently by Ben Carr) does not seem to visibly fear the unknown after experiencing periods of misery in his life. Some people use religion to curb apprehension, but his understanding of the vastness of the universe, in its natural state, seemed to be what brought him some sense of catharsis. It’s evident that this is not always the case, but I’m not spoiling the plot.

The show’s second act is particularly interesting, and while I won’t reveal anything of consequence, I found myself reminded of the 1990s television Sci-Fi show, Sliders. That’s the one where the chubby kid from Stand By Me is grown up and travels with Sallah from Raiders of the Lost Ark from universe to universe. Sometimes, the changes in the universe are subtle (a green traffic light means stop), and sometimes they are intense. This is what came across my mind as Rocket Man played in front of me. It sort of made me think about how theatre can be a gateway between universes. The space at Colonial Players has had some changes over the years, but it’s pretty much the same core floor plan for every show. Despite that, it gets transformed into various settings where things like time and mortality don’t matter. We can show you what the afterlife looks like, we can take you to the middle of the 19th Century, and we can take you to a world where Depression-Era orphans sing upbeat songs for no logical reason. I know that this isn’t unique to Colonial Players, but it certainly is pretty cool.

While we can probably all gab ad nauseum about some of the finer subtext of our new show, what can’t be disputed is that new director Scott Nichols has assembled a talented cast of veterans, and the technical elements are sure to produce a few “wow moments” for anyone with a pulse. I encourage everyone to get out to the theatre during the show’s run and see this great piece.

This is going to be my last blog post until at least November. I am off to herd cats. Not singing ones, as this blog is free of them. No, I am well into rehearsals for A Few Good Men and am going to be very busy in the next few months with managing my huge cast and the technical elements surrounding the ambitious production. Of course, I am dealing with the anxiety that goes with directing, but while I liken the management of such a large group to herding cats, I should mention that they are all very talented cats, and that we’ll have a show worthy of Colonial Players come our opening night. So, go buy tickets for Rocket Man and double down with a set to A Few Good Men. Both reference the male gender of the human species in the titles. What more can you want?

Until we next shall meet, my friends…

~Jeff

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FRIDAY, AUGUST 22, 2014

Offbook: Summer Months

by Jeff Sprague

Happy August, readers!

This is certainly a month of mixed emotions for many of us. On the one hand, it IS still summer, and the early weeks can be just as much fun as those carefree July days of just a few weeks earlier. There are still vacations to take, and for the kids out there, still trips to the pool and long sleep-ins during the week. Of course, it does signal the creep towards fall and the ringing of school bells yet again. So, for those of you still young enough to enjoy summer (because when you become an adult, the months don’t matter), I hope you will indeed continue to have fun in your remaining weeks of freedom. That goes to all of our educator members as well. In a previous entry, I noted how we have many teachers who volunteer at Colonial Players. Let us all wish them a happy transition month as well!

As far as the theatre goes, August is our only true “dark” month this year. We have just concluded a successful run on the One-Act festival, and our 66th Season kicks off next month with Rocket Man. The theatre is in the midst of a complicated renovation of our lighting system, so we can be sure that productions next year will benefit from the technological improvement. While we may not be producing any shows this month, you can be assured that we are well underway in prepping for when we will. Both Rocket Man, and our second show of the season, A Few Good Men, have been cast, staffed, and entered into the rehearsal period. There is no time to sleep for our intrepid volunteers.

All that said, I’m wondering where my 12 readers went on their summer vacations? More importantly, did you enjoy any theatre while out and about? I tend to think that visiting other places, in general, is perspective-broadening. With respect to our theatrical involvement, seeing other shows, either professionally or with other community companies, can give us an idea about what we might like to produce (and how to produce it) in the future. Even if what we saw will not have amateur rights available in the near future, we might be influenced in stage, lighting, or costume design, which can all translate into better productions for our theatre.

So, I’d like to hear in the comments where you guys went and what you saw. Did you enjoy any outdoor theatre? That is a staple of the summer months in this area and beyond. Maybe you saw our friends at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre? There are many CP members who have tread the boards over by City Dock, myself included. I’ve done three productions there, and can tell you that you haven’t really lived until you’ve tried to sing and dance, dressed in full drag, when it’s over 90 degrees and humid. Maybe you visited the Outer Banks of NC for your vacation this year? That’s a typical area of respite for us here in the DMV. Did you see The Lost Colony? That’s an outdoor production of fairly epic proportions, and it’s been around, I think, longer than CP has. Andy Griffith got his start there as a young actor! Maybe you didn’t see any outdoor shows, but you ventured the 3.5 hour train ride up to the city that never sleeps. New York is a bit far, at least in my book, for a day trip (although some of you might disagree). Nonetheless, there is no denying that it is one of two theatre Meccas for the English-speaking world. Did you get up there for a day or two? What did you see? Anything that might work at Colonial Players in the future?

Most of the membership probably got the email from Mickey Lund, our play selection coordinator this year. I encourage everyone, after you comment on here and tell me what great theatre you saw over the summer, to contact him or our Artistic Director, Carol Youmans, and give some suggestions about what you might like to see in the 67th Season or beyond. They are already hard at work trying to figure it out, but input from the membership is always valued. Be persistent if it isn’t selected this year. Colonial Players has been around for almost seven decades, and it's a feature of Annapolis that will outlast most of us (or so I can hope). If you have an idea for a show that isn’t ultimately selected and produced right away, well, as the Chicago Cubs fans remind us, there’s always next year.

Let’s hear about what you saw...comment away!

Until next month,

Jeff

Webmaster's Note: Our apologies for the late posting of this blog. The light grid renovation consumed much of our summer volunteer resources so a few things fell behind.

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SUNDAY, JULY 6, 2014

Offbook: Interning at CP

by Michelle Edwards
with an introduction by Beverly Hill van Joolen

I’ve had a pretty typical CP/drama teacher year...I wrote two shows, directed four, did hair and make-up for a fifth and sixth, costumed a seventh, served on the Board, stepped in to manage a vacated position, watched my daughter graduate and to end the season...I’m prepping our house to sell as we are moving to Boston! A banner year true but still one typical of the opportunities embraced by the all-volunteer cast, crew, staff, and Board of Colonial Players. We all have second lives, but because we believe in the magic that theatre can bring to both CP members and our audiences we are happy to be a part of the community theatre family. So, it was with great pleasure that my last official duty for CP was to mentor our end of the season intern from Calverton School, Michelle Edwards. Michelle got very involved very fast and like the rest of us, jumped in with both feet. She did a great job and finished her internship as guest writer for July’s Off Book. My thanks to Michelle and my thanks and best wishes to my CP family for the amazing years of creating star-studded and award winning theatre.

Cheers! Beverly

Hello Readers! I'm Michelle. I interned with the Colonial Players for two weeks as part of my high school graduation requirements. I chose to intern at CP because of my interest in theatre (I’ve been in at least two shows a year every year since seventh grade, and I’m planning on sticking with theatre when I go to college in the fall, of course).

During my time at CP, I got to attend rehearsals for Dead Man’s Cell Phone, usher for These Shining Lives, watch These Shining Lives, attend a board meeting, volunteer on light hang day, help out with subscriptions, pack 'thank you for your patronage' gift packets, and immerse myself in the community by talking with CP veterans and newcomers about their experiences. I got a lot in for such a short amount of time! I got to meet a lot of amazing people and learn about the day-to-day of running the theatre.

One of my favorite things about my time interning at CP was seeing how the theatre is basically the same wherever you go. There were many things that made me think of my time spent in my school’s theatre. Inexplicably a prop goes missing, and equally inexplicably it will reappear after an announcement is made that it was gone, but nobody seems to know anything about where it’s been. There are those inside jokes that are made during rehearsals that last long after the production is over; applause that starts too soon, the line for the bathroom after a performance is over. There are so many more examples I could give!

I think the biggest similarity is that the theatre fosters a community of caring people around it. People spend their free time in a variety of ways, striving to make a production work -- whether it be performing onstage, running the tech booth, or sitting through an hour and a half show. Although I haven’t been able to pin down what it is, I feel like the communities that form around the performing arts have a unique quality to them, one that I know CP has. I wish I lived closer, otherwise I would have continued to volunteer all summer, but I definitely look forward to when I can stop by for a show.

Our regular monthly blogger, Jeff Sprague, will be back in August, so stay tuned! And as always, we welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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TUESDAY, JUNE 3, 2014

OffBook: The Process

by Jeff Sprague

June is here, and Colonial Players is getting ready for the last production of the season! Once again, we’ve had an eclectic and balanced mix of old favorites and challenging pieces, crossing all genres of modern theatre. Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which opens this month, is our last Arc offering of the year, and it’s a quirky contemplation on mankind’s connectedness in the 21st Century. Somewhat of an existential piece, the show borders on the absurd as we follow Jean, the protagonist, through her journey to get to know Gordon, a man who she finds keeled-over dead in a bowl of lobster bisque. Perhaps not to the level of Edward Albee in weirdness (no offense to Mr. Albee or his fans), it is certainly not the most mainstream of our offerings this year. Nonetheless, it is hysterically funny and very well-written. If you were a fan of last year’s In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), which was also written by Sarah Ruhl, you will probably be a fan of our new offering. At any rate, it should certainly appeal to the targeted “Arc” of our subscription base for which it is intended.

Well, now that the plug is out of the way, let’s dive in to this month’s topic! But what will that be, you ask? I’ll be honest; I’ve had a hard time figuring out what to write about this month. I’m not sure why. Maybe I’ve been at this for too long and am running out of stuff to say about community theatre. I mean, I’ve talked ad nauseum about our diverse offerings and how we, as a theatre, are very lucky to produce different types of shows that appeal to different audiences. So, I went on to Facebook and asked for some ideas. I had a bunch of good ones, with folks asking me to talk about next season, about how to prepare for an audition, and to discuss how we are able to get such creative sets out of such a limited space. All good stuff! Gene Valendo, who was featured in our production of 1776, and who has done several shows with 2nd Star Productions in Bowie (He is currently starring as Horace Vandergelder in their production of Hello, Dolly), asked me to comment on how a director approaches a show once he or she has been selected for it. He asked me to talk about the famed “process” involved in directing. After reviewing the other questions, that one seemed to both grasp the artistic and technical themes that were suggested by some of my Facebook friends. As someone who is jumping into directing for the first time (outside of One-Acts), I thought it a particularly interesting and pertinent question as well.

First off, a director has to be selected by the Artistic Team (AT) to helm one of the shows. For the upcoming season, the AT tried something new which I hope they won’t end up regretting. I’ll get to that in a minute...

Generally, a Play Selection committee picks a slate of shows for the upcoming year, and that slate is referred to the AT. The AT votes yay or nay, and then sends the slate to the Board. Once rights are secured for the plays, the AT advertises for directors, and interested parties submit a package with their vision and ideas for the show to a Director Selection committee (made up of folks from the AT). There are interviews, and then a director is selected from the pool of applicants for each show. As I said, this year there was a little tweak, and that’s how I ended up becoming one of next year’s directors. Essentially, while play selection was on-going, the AT asked for interested applicants to pick one of their favorite shows - which they felt would be appropriate for production at the theatre - to be considered by the Play Selection committee. The caveat was that the applicant must be interested and willing to direct the play, should it be selected. Thus, for the first time, an interested potential director submitted his or her vision for a play that may not end up on the final slate. I submitted my all-time favorite drama, A Few Good Men, and was selected to direct it after an interview process. I’m hopeful that this play/director application will occur again in the future, but that is dependent on if I royally screw it up with my show this fall. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen!

Anyway, I mention the selection timeline because that is how, at least for me, a director begins his or her process. The script is read, the technical elements are imagined, and the challenges are outlined. For my show, I need a huge cast of male actors who can look like members of the Navy and Marine Corps. There are also a lot of scene changes that have to be made with lighting, so I needed to get a pro for a lighting designer (with Shirley Panek, I’ve got one of the best). These are thoughts that I have to start with, and from there, I start to get a concept of what my “vision” for the production will be. The next thing to do is to get a production staff on board.

As I’m new to directing mainstage productions (my previous experience is with the 2010 One-Act Festival), I know that I will need to rely heavily on a strong producer who knows the ins and outs of the theatre. The first person I asked to be on board, even before I knew that I was getting the show, was my producer, Beth Terranova. Having worked with her in several shows, I know there is no one better at getting s#@t done than her. Excuse the French, but that’s the best way I know how to put it. She’s awesome, and I was very happy she agreed to get on board. Once I got her, the next thing I did was get some of my artistic and technical partners to agree. Theresa Riffle will be my Assistant Director and Sound Designer. As I noted above, Shirley Panek is handling the very complicated light plot. I also have Terry Averill for set design and Lois Banscher as my Props Mistress. As a new director, this makes me very excited, because these folks are the cream of the crop. I am still looking for a costumer and stage manager, but I know that all will turn out well.

Ok, so I’ve been selected by the AT, got a preliminary “vision,” and have most of my production team on board. What’s next? I will have a production meeting to discuss technical and artistic matters with my team, and also, we’ll talk about how a rehearsal schedule might look. Once that’s over, the next thing is the audition. I’m obviously not there yet, but it is the most exciting and, for me as a director, the most challenging part of the process. At least for me, I want it known that I do not want it to be stressful for the actors. I’m looking for good people who want to be part of the show. I want it to be fun and for actors to show me their best stuff. The reality is, of course, that it is a somewhat stressful experience. I mean, as an actor in our community theatre, I have been in the “chairs” many a time at our Annex. I’ve had success and failure, and have been a nervous wreck while waiting for the people in the conference room to “deliberate.” Oh, we all know how it goes, right? You sit there talking with your fellow auditioners, and you say things like “he/she was really great [I WAS WAY BETTER].” There’s also “if I don’t get this, I won’t really care [IF I’M NOT IN THIS, THIS DIRECTOR HAS THE VISION OF MR. MAGOO].” I kid, I kid... kinda.

The truth is, there are usually many talented folks at an audition, and I know it’s clichéd as hell to say, but at least for me, I think that a good director should want to have the problem of not being able to use everyone who shows up. That director should encourage good actors who might potentially work to come to the audition. Even if those actors aren’t ultimately used, they help to challenge the rest of the group. Of course, that means that tough choices have to be made sometimes. I’ve been on the positive and negative end of that as an auditioner. There’s no good way to tell someone that they weren’t picked, and I don’t look forward to that at all. All that said, having to say “no” to strong actors means that there was a lot of talent there, and I can be pickier about who best fits my “vision” for what the show should be. Keep in mind that this often has nothing to do with ability or anything that is within the auditioner’s control. It’s all about subjective and ethereal things like “fit.” That inherently has some stress in it, but it’s not about power or anything nasty like that. For anyone coming out to audition for me, I want them to know that I want him or her to do their best and to succeed. I want to see how they take direction and how they get into a character. I would ideally like them to have some familiarity with the script, but if not, I want them to not be afraid of asking questions and being collaborative. I want them to know that if they aren’t picked, it probably has nothing to do with their talent. Picked or not, I want them to have a pleasant and positive experience that will encourage future participation in our theatre. Collaboration and teamwork, combined with talent, lead to a strong production. I want people who share the same philosophy, and luckily, that’s most of the folks who do shows at Colonial Players.

In short, I guess after all that blabbing, the best way to answer Gene’s question is this: As a director approaching a show, I craft a vision by trying to understand how the playwright’s words will translate into our space, and then I do everything I can to surround myself with the best possible people to make that happen. Then, we work as a team to bring the show to fruition. That is my “process.”

We’ll see how it goes, right?

Some of you who have directing credits under your belt, what is your answer to Gene’s question? What is your “process” in approaching a production? Leave a note in the comments so that we might keep this discussion going.

I will not be blogging next month, as we have an intern on board who will be letting us know of her experiences working at CP. The One-Act festival kicks off after Cell Phone closes, so be sure to keep an eye out for that event. The One-Acts are a great way for new actors and directors to get their feet wet in the theatrical world, so let’s all be sure to come out and support these folks. Auditions for Rocket Man will be later this month, and yes…just in case you thought I wouldn’t mention it, auditions for A Few Good Men will be at the end of July. Those interested should keep an eye out and mark your calendars.

See you in August-

~Jeff

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WEDNESDAY, MAY 7, 2014

OffBook: Doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs...

by Jeff Sprague

May is upon us. Soon, we’ll be almost halfway through 2014. Wasn’t it just the 1990s last week? Seriously, I graduated from college in 1999 and just got word of my 15-year reunion coming up this fall. What?!! 15 years!! When did I become my father? Getting old sucks.

As much of a cheerful thought as mortality can be, this month’s topic was suggested by our Board Vice President, Beverly Van Joolen. She recently helmed our very well-received production of “Bat Boy,” where she directed our Education Director, Ron Giddings. Ron, of course, was all over the local media getting rave reviews for his portrayal of Edgar (the titular - that word makes me giggle - Bat Boy). Beverly tells me that Ron posited the idea that the only difference between good professional theatre and good community theatre is that professional actors are paid. I guess that’s true in some regard, although not universally. I think some of Colonial’s performances would fare well in comparison to smaller professional venues, but even with the luxuries we have as a community organization, we’d be hard-pressed to compete with the budgets of Broadway and many Off-Broadway houses. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the point of the comparison, though. Indeed, if we look at acting without the bells and whistles, a good community theatre actor can be every bit as talented as one who pays the bills with his or her performances. Talent is only one component of it, though. Without dedication and a very thick skin, even the best community actor might not be ready for the jump to greener pastures.

Since, whether good or sucky, we as community theatre people do not choose to try and earn a living in the theatre, Beverly asked me to comment as to what it is that we do to keep us busy in the daylight hours. How do we pay our bills and still have time to act, direct, and stage manage for free? Do we all have creative jobs? Well, some do, but probably not the majority. Indeed, I’m reminded of an article I read in “The Onion” a few months ago, which encouraged people to “follow their passion on nights and weekends for the rest of their lives.” I’m paraphrasing, but it was something to that effect, and the article was both funny and (as “The Onion” tends to be with its satire) so brutally honest as to be a bit uncomfortable. No, most of us are not so lucky as to have a wonderfully creative job that we adore. Some, no doubt, are utterly in love with their jobs, but the truth is that many of us simply tolerate them because we need to work like everyone else. People need to eat.

I’m an attorney. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it. I’ll say that I like it alright, and that it pays the bills. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three other attorneys in our membership, so it must be a popular profession for the artistic. You know, on nights and weekends.

Who else do we have? Teachers. My dear lord, there are a ton of teachers. These folks are saints with some of the stuff they deal with on a daily basis, and I think the allure of a theatrical catharsis is very high with this group. My lovely wife, while not currently acting, did a bit of community work within the last 10 years at other theatres. She teaches First Grade, and is just one of the 9,000 educators I have come into contact with while doing community theatre. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever been in a production that didn’t have at least one teacher either in the cast, crew, or production team. They really seem to be the glue holding us together.

Who else? I went ahead and did a quick glance at some of the programs of past shows. I found a magazine editor, a chiropractor, an otolaryngologist, a welder, a few Department of the Navy people, a budget analyst, a non-profit fundraiser, an interior designer, an architect (not Ted Mosby), private music tutors, military officers, a corporate trainer, and pretty much everything else under the sun.

We’re your neighbors and the professionals that you use every day. That’s all there is to it.

We also like it when you recognize us on the street. Well, I’ll just speak for myself here, but I get a kick out of hearing “Hey, weren’t you in that show?” Some of the people who work at my dentist’s office have recognized me in this way, and when I call about a cleaning, I’m always asked “Oh, Mr. Sprague, are you doing any more plays?” That’s what really makes community theatre special. It’s not just that we don’t get paid to act. It’s that we are just as much a part of the community as the audiences we serve. Anyway, I know I’ve probably yapped about this topic before in some shape or form, but it certainly can’t hurt to repeat it.

We do have a comments section enabled, but no one seems to be using it. Just for fun, if you are one of the 12 who read this and have done a show at CP before, tell us about your day job in the comments. Be proud of your profession and let us know how it is represented in our membership. Also, I’d love to hear a few lines about what it is that makes you put that day job away for the chance at a few hours on stage. Comment away, folks!

Until June...

~Jeff

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