During the organized chaos that is rehearsal for a musical stage production, all the players — cast and crew — are still working out how to put their own pieces of the puzzle in place during the first technical run-through.
For the Bloomsburg University Players’ production of “The Rocky Horror Show,” it is a compelling picture of collaboration. The lines between teacher and student fade as everyone gets ready for an audience in less than a week.
Dialogue, dance, lights, props, singing, costumes, marketing, sound, music, stagecraft — it is a staggering amount of work for just four public shows.
Stage manager Sara Tessarvich, a senior theatre major, gives ushers and crew a backstage tour, telling them how to dress and what to do on performance nights. “You must be dressed completely in black. You are supposed to disappear.”
Technical director Ethan Krupp, the university’s director of theatre, is on stage with senior theatre major Titus O’Neil, whirring away with a drill on a piece of uncompleted set.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an actor, designer, director or technician,” says Krupp, an associate professor who has worked on more than 25 BU shows. “We each start with a piece of information, a script, and analyze it, based on the job we need to do. We create a world. Then we have to communicate what we’ve created to an audience in a way that is creative and energetic.”
Sixteen actors, wearing only hints of costumes and wireless microphones for the first time, test their voices for the sound crew. “It’s not a fun thing,” says sound designer Heath Hansum, a professor on loan from Bucknell University. “But it’s pretty much darn necessary.”
Musical director David Tedford, the university’s director of orchestras, runs through some sound checks of his own from a platform high above stage left, working with a rehearsal pianist. For the public shows, there will be a six-piece band.
Bruce Candlish, associate professor of theatre, returns to the digital light board with a Subway sandwich and waits for his part of the tech rehearsal to begin. A veteran of more than 50 BU Players productions, Candlish describes the set and light design for “Rocky Horror” as his most elaborate. Finally, the curtains close as actors and technicians, students and faculty alike, find their places and prepare to run through the play non-stop on stage for the first time.
Samantha Norton, the endlessly energetic guest director for this production, is an adjunct professor at both Bloomsburg and Bucknell universities, with a background in opera and stage fighting and experience as a stage and television actor. She is up and down from her seat on the sidelines all night, scribbling notes — no point of praise or imperfection will be too small to discuss with the cast backstage after the run-through is done.
Choreographer Julie Petry, associate professor of theatre and dance, makes her own notes about how the actors move and manage their dance numbers. She will also have notes to share later.
“There’s a whole lot of work going on here that no one sees on stage,” Norton says later in a calmer moment. Actors and crew are all asked to research the history of the play, to study what was going on in the 1970s when it was written, and to consider how those times might be similar to now.
A camp classic
“The Rocky Horror Show” may be the epitome of energy and campy creativity. After BU staged two dramatically “heavy” productions last season, the off-the-wall musical was deemed a good choice for fall 2016.
Most know “Rocky Horror” in its “Picture Show” incarnation — the 1975 film starring Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon that immortalized the original English musical. But the theatrical version continues to play non-stop on stages around the world.
For the uninitiated, here’s the plot: A straitlaced young couple, Brad and Janet, seek shelter from a storm and find themselves in the castle of a cross-dressing bisexual alien mad scientist intent on creating a buff bodybuilder lover. (It helps to know that this rock-and-roll spoof of B-horror movies was never intended to be taken too seriously.)
But the synopsis doesn’t begin to explain the cult following the show sustains. No performance or screening is authentic unless fans intimately familiar with the dialogue come in costume, talk back to the actors and employ props they bring from home at specific points in the plot.
It also steams with sexual imagery as the “sweet transvestite” Frank N. Furter seduces both Brad and Janet in one night.
“We’ve been trying to explore the relevance of the show,” Norton says during rehearsal. “Whether it’s a matter of finding your identity, who you are, or whatever.”
Adam Tidridge, who plays Brad, says theatre allows an audience to experience topics “that are too much of a taboo to bring up in normal conversation.”
“I think it allows the community to really have to think about the human condition and how life really is,” he says.
Like most other BU Players productions, “Rocky Horror” is staged at the Alvina Krause Theatre, home of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. Performing on the BTE stage for a couple of weeks each semester gives students a chance to connect with a professional company and plug directly into the community.
“It’s right in the middle of downtown,” says Krupp, lowering the barrier for local residents to attend. “We are all ‘Bloomsburg,’ but the more we go off the hill, and the more they come up the hill, the better off we all are as a community.”
A major in problem solving
BU offers a bachelor of arts in theatre arts, with performance and design technology tracks and an integrated theatre studies option for students pursuing careers in theatre management or educational theatre. Both Norton and Krupp live and breathe the concept that theatre prepares students for more than just entertainment industry jobs.
“If you strip away the special skills, we are teaching collaboration, communication, storytelling,” Krupp says. “These are pretty fundamental building blocks of success in almost any career.”
Students develop marketing skills promoting the show, Norton says, and manage money as they find a way to make, build or buy props within a set budget. “This is hands-on work from the ground up,” she says. “Everyone is working side-by-side-by-side … It mirrors the professional world.”
Krupp completes the thought. “It’s the ability to solve problems, it’s time management, it’s personal communication, it’s interpersonal relationships.”
“Everything is on such a deadline, and you can’t fake it,” says Norton
“The show is going to open when it’s going to open,” Krupp says. “It has to get done by the deadline. You can’t just put it off. That’s translatable across all disciplines and professions.”
These life lessons are not lost on the cast and crew of “Rocky Horror.”
“Theatre is all about problem-solving,” says Tidridge, a sophomore majoring in interpersonal communication . “You are given a script and then have to memorize that, but then begin to answer questions within the script so you can truly understand the show and put on a great performance.”
“You not only form a great work ethic, but you learn how to work for the good of other people, because as much as you may enjoy doing the show, there are people counting on you to make them the best they can be to an audience.”
And then there’s that connection to the public.
“I think that’s absolutely what theatre is all about and always has been about,” says O’Neil, a senior theatre major who for this show has been a key crew member — hanging lights, building the set, running the spot light.
“Working on a play in any way, shape or form is an incredible experience,” O’Neil says. “It is one of the most teamwork-oriented careers that exists. Regardless if you are tech crew, an actor, marketer, or a designer, everyone has to be on the same page.”
The collaborative experience with faculty has been important to O’Neil.
“I learned so much in this process, and if I had been treated as just a student, I would not have gained that knowledge. I love that the faculty is always so willing to match what you give them. If you want to excel, they are overwhelmingly supportive and ready to give you a push.”
One of the challenges for faculty, however, is balancing the need to let students learn with the need to step in and keep things going in the right direction. Or as Krupp puts it, “the break point between process versus product.”
“Process is the most important part of it, because we’re educators,” he says. “But theatre is the public face of the university, and the product should be at a certain level of quality.”
“Rocky Horror” seems to have met all those goals. Tickets sold out a week before opening night, with a waiting list of about 30 people for each show.
“We had a wonderful demographic of ages in the audience,” Norton reports. “Many people, who grew up in the mid to late ’70s, came ready to play.”
Before the success of the production even has a chance to sink in, Krupp and his colleagues — students and faculty alike — are already deep into the spring production.
“Harvey,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy about a fellow who befriends an invisible 6-foot rabbit, is scheduled to take the stage in March.
“That’s another thing that’s pretty beautiful about my job,” says Krupp. “There’s always something new.”•
Kim McNally de Bourbon ’77 is a retired newspaper editor now working as a freelance writer and editor in Delaware Water Gap, Pa.