Those who attended Eckerd’s recent production of “Scenes from Metamorphoses” might’ve been caught off guard by the sudden shower they were given mid-play. It took the audience a second to realize that, somehow, the pretend pool on stage wasn’t so pretend.
“I thought that would be a fun, great surprise,” Professor of Theatre Cynthia Totten said. “It was just delightful!”
According to Totten, who directed this rendition of “Metamorphoses,” the play usually features a full-size swimming pool that occupies most of the stage. Getting a whole pool onstage should be a difficult process, but Technical Theatre Coordinator Rick Tetrault managed with a deceptively simple solution: a hidden kiddie pool.
“I try my best to give the directors what they want,” Tetrault said.
The process of theatre—from blocking to performance—requires imagination, teamwork and above all, tons of planning.
“It takes everybody’s efforts to do any production, since it involves so many different people,” Totten said.
This process started a year in advance with licensing. Unless the screenplay can be found in the public domain—like, for example, Shakespeare—each team must first get permission from whatever licensing agency owns the rights before anything else can occur. In the case of “Metamorphoses,” playwright and original director Mary Zimmerman still owns the rights, and it’s her agency which Totten contacted.
According to Totten, getting permission to perform usually costs at least $100 upfront in rights and royalty fees. This includes getting permission for gender-blind casting, a necessity for Eckerd in particular due to the imbalance of female players to male players.
Sometimes the rights are denied due to there being no available script. Sometimes they’re denied due to another nearby production of the same play. The legal logistics are a battle all on their own. That done, the director’s job begins.
Directors create a prompt book of the script. This means analyzing the script, interpreting it and creating all the blocking—the movement patterns on stage. Depending on how much freedom the director is given by the play’s legal requirements, these aspects of the script can be stretched as far as their imagination allows.
“We are responsible as directors for the vision of the play,” Totten said. “I obviously choose a script because I love it. It speaks to me in some way… I read it to see how I could imagine putting it up on stage.”
This is where the set designer steps in. Working with the director, the set designer brainstorms how the stage could be built, what props could be used and how these things could meld into the overall story.
For “Metamorphoses,” Eckerd reached out to set designer Kyle Ransbottom, a freelancer in the area whose experience includes working with Disney in Orlando. Ransbottom started working with Eckerd during the fall semester of 2017, and has since been an integral part of the team.
“Because Eckerd Theatre is really driven by the work of the students, it’s been a unique opportunity,” Ransbottom said. “Other than Rick and the other faculty members, the students build and paint everything. It’s all about finding a balance of a design that is achievable by students but will also challenge them.”
As he works off-campus, communication between Ransbottom and the rest of the team comes through email and the occasional visit. But Eckerd is more than happy to take this extra step.
“He’s a wonderful set designer, and he loves to dream,” Totten said.
Once a more concrete idea of the play has formed, the practicalities of set and costume design step in. Tetrault takes his work scholars and the students from the theatre production class to Home Depot to buy all the standard carpenting ingredients: wood, nails, and any other equipment they might need. Professor of Theatre Jessica Thonen, the costume designer and production manager for “Metamorphoses,” does the same on her end with fabric, thread and budgeting sheets.
These various branches meet regularly to discuss budgeting, staging and set progress. If something looks unviable, it either gets reworked or thrown out. If a new idea comes up during rehearsal, it gets included. It all has to do with what the team is capable of, both in terms of skill and logistics.
And the logistics are very important, particularly for a small college like Eckerd. For example, one set can act as multiple different locations. This minimalist ethos is one that Eckerd takes advantage of, meeting the limits of its relatively small budget and personnel with creativity and intermingled labor.
Senior Kyla Dreffer, who has done everything from acting to set construction to costume design, has seen this firsthand both on and behind the stage. Where a bigger college might have multiple programs for all the different aspects of theatre, Eckerd has the one, something which challenges everything from design to casting.
“I wish I could see shows with larger casts,” Dreffer said.
The small size affects production on the back end as much as it does the front. According to Tetrault, the theatre production class gives each show the bulk of its workers, and having a singular class for everything means that the skill on hand is always in flux.
“We never know from one semester to the next how many people we’re going to have or what level of engagement we’re going to have with them,” Tetrault said.
To compensate, students like Dreffer jump between departments, something with isn’t the norm in other productions. According to Dreffer, this might limit opportunities for specialization, but it helps students appreciate and learn both sides of the curtain.
“I’m going to miss getting both of those at the same time, because you can’t really do that in the ‘real world,’” Dreffer said.
Some of that experience includes precarious loads and the use of heavy tools. Tetrault deals with students who might be inexperienced or simply unlucky, and so he stresses safety whenever possible. According to him, the worst injury he’s seen in his ten years at Eckerd is a small nick with a jigsaw blade, one which didn’t even need stitches.
“That’s something I take a lot of pride in. Theatre is important, but it’s not worth losing limbs for,” Tetrault said. “At least, not to students. To me it is… but it’s also what I do for a living.”
The date of the play set months before, it can sometimes feel like a scramble to get ready as the deadline nears. But come show time, the team can stand proudly behind their finished set, the actors in costume, the audience filtering into their seats.
“That’s always the biggest shock to people. Theatre is hard. It’s a lot of hard work,” Tetrault said. “We all take this seriously.”
Totten agrees. While things might look easy and natural once the lights come on, she and the rest of the team know the amount of work that went into each show.
“Other schools might have more budget, so they might be able to have more bells and whistles,” Totten said. “We have limitations in budget, we have limitations in personnel, but within that what we can do is just magical.”