Meet the woman who “painted the roses red”- Video Designer, Stephanie Busing

August 7th, 2014 No comments

Have you ever met a Video Designer? The Who’s Tommy, at ZACH Theatre, is a prime example of wonderfully clever video projection used to aid a story on stage. Here, Video Designer Stephanie Busing tells us about her process and inspiration:

1.  How does the role of a projection designer work with the set and lighting designers? (moving projections change the ambiance of the set, or have meaning in some way etc., or fill the gaps where you can’t express something with a prop or lights, things like that)

Projections can serve many roles in theatre: as scenery, lighting, or as performer (in the instances where an actor is featured in the projections or the projections are describing narrative with text or imagery). The projections in Tommy served as all three:

As lighting at the top of Act 2 when Tommy and ensemble members were silhouetted by the light of video behind them.

As scenery and prop, when Tommy plays pinball for the first time and video of the inside of the pinball machine towers above him, a big pinball zipping around inside the machine.

As character, when a troupe of silhouettes distort Young Tommy’s reality as he falls deeper into the rabbit hole of deaf, dumb, and blindness.

Integrating the projections into The Who’s Tommy involved being part of the design process from the very beginning and being in communication with the director, Dave Steakley, about what was to be received by an audience in each scene on stage. I collaborated with the other designers of the show in order to integrate the video into the full design aesthetic.  I took photos of various props in order to extend their presence on stage into the projections.

An example of this was four flower umbrellas that are spun by dancers on stage while images of the flowers spin behind them on the projection screen. I am not sure which happened first: my animating the flowers to spin or choreographer Robin Lewis having the dancers spin the umbrellas in unison with the animated imagery. Such overlapping in process, in my experience, is quite common in theatre and is indicative of good collaboration.

2. What inspired you for this show and what is your favorite element?

The correlation of the two stories, The Who’s Tommy and Alice in Wonderland, was the most inspiring part of this production for me. While initially it seemed a hearty challenge to link the two, Dave Steakley’s vision was very clear and helped guide the team to portray a solid correlation between these two very big stories. Setting Tommy’s fantasy world squarely in Wonderland narrowed the concept down and necessitated bold, whimsical, and succinct design choices.

I especially enjoyed filming roses being painted red for the Acid Queen turned Red Queen scene in Act 1. I carefully transported ten white roses from a florist to my studio/living room, set-up a green-screen back-drop, and filmed the roses for a few hours as I dripped and brushed red paint over their petals.

3. How does someone become a projection designer?

My background is in scenic painting and scene design. I love the immediacy of paint and how forgiving it is and I decided to study scene design during my undergraduate studies because it allowed for control over the color and textures being reproduced by scenic artists on stage.  I grew to love the power of storytelling and what design could add to narrative. And in time, I developed an interest in how projection design could be used in conjunction with scenery to extend physical space and to add movement and flexibility to backdrops. That wonderful flexibility and forgiveness of paint I also found in projections. Once a piece of scenery is built it is difficult to change its form, but if you have a moon in a starry sky projection and you want that moon to move two feet to the right, it is relatively easy to do that.

I think every projection designer has their own origin tale, rooted in prior interest or some interesting story about being brought on to a project to design lighting, sound, or scenery and being fatefully asked to design projections, too. And the skills that projection designers accrue typically have to do with what interested them in projections in the first place. I, for example, am particularly interested in animating digital paintings and collages.

While there are several skills and computer programs that are important to learn in order to build and program content, the most important part of being a projection designer, in my opinion, is understanding how projections can serve a production. Can they describe space? Can they show passage of time? Can they help support a character, giving context for their actions on stage? In a time where the horizontal screen can distract us from most of what we experience in reality, it is important to determine what information is most pertinent and deserving of that screen when it is incorporated into a live performance.

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Thriving Imaginations At ZACH Summer Camps By Cassadie Petersen

July 31st, 2014 No comments

Cassadie Petersen

Summer is half-way over and by now, you’ve probably had your fair share of trips to the pool, outdoor bbq gatherings and maybe even a watermelon seed-spitting contest or two…But what about indulging in that which is at its most rampant, magical and free in the summertime? Your imagination! At ZACH Theatre’s camps, creativity is in full swing this summer and we’re celebrating with wizards, dragons, Shakespeare, Broadway and more!

This summer, I have traveled to a far away magical circus with a group of amazing ‘Imagination Exploration’ campers, seen a rock band and a pop band join forces in their very own rock opera during a phenomenal week of ‘Create-A-Play’ camp and helped a band of fairies and magical forest creatures help lull Queen Titania into a magical ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ as part of a ‘Shakespeare Intensive.’ And those were only a few of the weeks I have taught this summer!

Although my official title at ZACH this summer is one of a teacher, I feel like ‘guide’ would be better suited to the role I have played in these amazing week-long camps. I am always overjoyed to introduce the campers to specific skills that make them stronger performers,such as movement for the stage, techniques for warming up and projecting their voices or analyzing Shakespearean text. However, it is when I hand over the reigns to them to develop and create their own work that I truly see these campers delightfully take charge and begin to employ their new theatrical skill sets.  I have been consistently in awe of the freedom of creativity and brainstorming that I have witnessed in camps this summer, from creating entire plays about singing pickles to imagining deep sea worlds and spending the week exploring them.

In our ‘Imagination Exploration’ camps, the focus of the week is not to have a performance by week’s end but rather to invite our campers into a themed-week where they spend their days devising a world of their own imagination and a character within that world. They then solve problems and challenges throughout the week that require theater skills, fun risk-taking and most importantly, stretching their imagination! In a week ‘Under the Bigtop’ I had a group of ‘circus wizards’ develop their own wizard-characters and magical powers and by Friday they had used them to brake a sneaky sorceress’s curse which mixed up all the circus acts! During our final class, parents and friends were invited to watch them undo the final part of the curse and transform from their wizard selves into the circus acts! Seeing the campers in awe of the journey they had traveled  and what they had accomplished made us all feel truly magical indeed.

The focus on teamwork, creative problem-solving and being open to your own outrageous ideas and the ideas of others is at the heart of every week-long ZACH summer camp. In our rock-star themed week of ‘Create-A-Play’ I watched multiple groups of campers write and perform their very own rock musicals (with original songs!) over the course of just one week. The shows ranged from stories about a pickle-hungry girl to an overzealous pop star and her DJ panda sidekick to a battle of the bands that involved witches and wizards and every story was a completely collaborative effort. Although the performances were stellar, I was most blown away by the ‘devising sessions’ in which the campers developed their stories and turned them into scripts and songs with the help of their teachers and a professional musician.  The students built upon each others’ ideas, were supportive, took storytelling risks and improvised scenarios to write dialogue. This process of developing original work, which often takes months for theater professionals, was accomplished in just one week because of the remarkable teamwork these campers exhibited.

With so many campers and teachers indulging their imaginations all summer long, the energy that develops around ZACH theatre during camp is truly contagious. Teachers are humming along to songs the campers have created, professional staff can’t help but comment on how much fun everyone seems to be having and sometimes campers show up in homespun costumes for the day much to the delight of their fellow campers because they ‘felt like it.’ While watching a Friday sharing of one the rock musicals, a camper who’s rock star alter ego was named ‘Heavy Metal Jimmy Hendrix, Jr.’ leaned over and whispered to me in his thick, faux-English accent. ‘When do you think I should come back?’ ‘To camp, you mean?’ I whispered back to him, inquisitively. He nodded intently. ‘When would you like to come back?’ I asked. He took a moment to thoroughly consider it. ‘As soon as possible, I think,’ he whispered confidently. ‘As soon as possible.’

Cassadie Petersen is a regular teacher here at ZACH during our Summer Camp season and a familiar face to those of you who saw The Cat In The Hat. You can read about her experience as “the fish” of The Cat In The Hat here.

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The Deaf Dumb and Blind Kid: Q&A With Young Tommy

July 23rd, 2014 No comments

If you’ve seen The Who’s Tommy here at ZACH Theatre you already know- the cast is, without exception, incredible. One of the standout roles in this action-packed and very emotional show is that of Young Tommy, played alternately by 10-year-old Will Sendera and 9-year-old Diego Rodriguez. While they may be young, each are stage veterans and posses a skill set and talent level that rivals many actors twice their age. Currently, Will Sendera is tied with Meredith McCall for “appearing in the most shows at the Topfer Theatre” and Diego was adored by holiday audiences in his role as the hysterical little brother in this season’s A Christmas Story. We caught up for a Q&A with the boys and their families to learn more about their experience staring in The Who’s Tommy:

How long have you been involved in acting and with ZACH Theatre?

Will Sendera: I took my first dance class when I was 5 and my first acting class when I was 7.  I really liked being on stage.  I took some more classes and then was in a show called 50 Years of Broadway in the ZACH’s Performing Arts School.  My first professional show was in ZACH’s production of Ragtime when I was 8.  Now I am 10 and I am tied for the most number of times performing at the ZACH Topfer Theatre!

Diego Rodriguez: I have been acting since I was 5, so for about 4 years now. I’ve been at ZACH since October preparing for A Christmas Story. Tommy is my second production at ZACH.

Michael Valentine and Will Sendera

What has your experience been like preparing for this show, both for you two boys and for the parents?

Will Sendera: Rehearsals are long but really fun!  There are really nice people in the cast and crew and I love meeting new people and making new friends.  It makes everything that you do at rehearsal fun even though it is hard work.

Will’s Mother, Heather Sendera: Will loves being at the ZACH!  He grumbles every once in awhile when he is missing something fun with his friends but when he is there, we struggle to get him to leave.  It is always us standing by the door while he talks to one last person.  Even the late nights are fun for him…he loves being able to stay up late and thinks it is fun to tell his friends that he didn’t get home until midnight…every 10 year old boy’s dream!  We were a bit worried about the dramatic content in the show but the creative team was incredible about communicating with us beginning immediately after he was cast.  And they have handled every aspect of it with grace, respect and care for the young actors.

Diego Rodriguez: The experience has been very hard and very fun and kinda of confusing at times because there is so much going on at once. Say in “Acid Queen” or “Pinball Wizard,” for example, there are so many people on stage doing different things, different dancing. The fun part is that the whole play is just a good play. I’m going to say that – I love the play. There’s so much action on stage, there really is. When we do the part in the first act with the shrinking door and the doctors, I get to eat dove chocolate from an ice cream sample thing.  One of my favorite parts is Cousin Kevin because it’s fun to be a human jump rope, and I love the trash can part, that can never not be fun for a kid. It never gets old. I like that he’s supposed to also be the Cheshire Cat. It’s exciting – it’s like being a stunt-man.

Diego’s Mother, Kate Rodriguez: We live in Georgetown so it’s a bit of a haul to come to Austin every day and it’s a ton of work but he LOVES it. To be 9 and have a true passion is amazing. My daughter acts as well. He loves the people and the process and I can say that as his Mom, some of the content in the show is very adult. We talk with our kids about the show themes and the Uncle Ernie scene in kid-appropriate language. We watched the rehearsals and my mind was placed at ease. The cast and crew have bent over backwards to make the boys comfortable and I can see why he loves it. It’s a huge time sacrifice, but this is what he loves and anything good takes a lot of work. It’s been a great experience.

Diego’s Father, Art Rodriguez: Initially we were both concerned with the content and his participation, but the ZACH staff, Victoria (Victoria Coady, Production Stage Manager) and Dave (Dave Steakley, Producing Artistic Director) and Lisa (Lisa Goering, Stage Manager) and everyone told us from the get-go that this would not be an overtly sexualized version of events for Young Tommy. It’s all tactfully done and they created a very safe environment for Diego and that provided Kate and I with a lot of comfort in the way they handled the material.

Diego Rodriguez, Michael Valentine and Will Sendera

What’s your relationship like with the cast and creative team?

Diego Rodriguez: It is just probably one of the best things in my life. Everyone is so nice and treats me great. I have to say that for my Mom and Dad too – I think they both agree. They are nice and they will do anything to keep me comfortable so I won’t have anything to worry about when I’m doing the acting. Whenever you get to know a cast it makes them easier to work with – I’ve learned that from past shows, so this is easier than I thought it would be because I knew everyone so well.  It is weird to be the only child on set with so many adults. We have different personalities because of our ages and I don’t know what adults do to kill time. We made The Candy Club – I’m the president and Mr. Michael, (Michael Valentine who plays the Adult Tommy) is the Vice President. We bring in candy, we discuss candy and we bring some for everyone to share.

Kate Rodrigues: The cast and creative team are wonderful with him. There is no other classroom with such incredible inter-generational learning opportunities.

Will Sendera: I knew a lot of the creative team and crew before we started so it was nice to work with them again.  The cast is so enthusiastic and everything that they do is so cool.  I love to see how much hard work they put into all of this.  They are all really fun people but really hard workers.  Backstage the cast talks and acts silly and plays games.  It is fun in the green room but sometimes I’m there alone because everyone else is onstage and then it is lonely but I listen to them on the speakers.

Heather Sendera: This is Will’s 4th mainstage show at ZACH and he has been part of the education department for almost 3 years now so he knows lots of people on the creative team and behind the scenes.  He thinks of all of these amazing people as his friends and the ZACH really is his second home. And the cast has been just fabulous with both of the young Tommys…they have so much fun with everyone and the cast is very sweet and protective of them.  We are moving to Pittsburgh at the close of the show and it is going to be very hard for us to leave the amazing team at the ZACH!

For the boys – What is your dream role? Is it a specific character or show? Something with singing and dancing?

Will Sendera: I really wanted to be Chip in Beauty and the Beast.  That was one of the first shows I saw and I couldn’t believe how lucky he was to be on stage and he was only 8.  That was what really made me want to take more classes and learn more about acting.  But now I might be too old to play Chip!  So maybe I could be Tommy someday and then I would have been both Young Tommy and Adult Tommy!

Diego Rodriguez: I would like to be in the show Newsies and be Jack Kelly because I think that would be an interesting role. I don’t know why – maybe the dancing and that it’s so athletic and I want to do that when I grow up.

Michael Valentine, Diego Rodriguez and Will Sendera

What’s your favorite part of the show?

Will Sendera: It is either the scene where Cousin Kevin beats me up or any of the scenes where the cast does acrobatics. There are so many cool tricks in the show.  The cast is really amazing!

Heather Sendera: I love it all!  The show really draws you in and the interaction between the cast and the audience is perfect.  I love watching the reactions of the audience because so many people know the Tommy album and to see them get into the music while watching the onstage action is just fantastic. And, emotionally I love the end of the show because you really see the story come full circle.

Diego Rodriguez: My favorite part is probably Cousin Kevin, when he rolls me in the trash can.  That really is fun.

Kate Rodriguez:  There are so many. There is one scene I love, whether in rehearsal, with Will or with Diego. Right before Cousin Kevin, when Adult Tommy, comes up behind Young Tommy and sings “See Me, Feel Me,” and Diego puts his little head on Michael’s his chest, I can see any child in that chair and really connect to that. It’s a very heartfelt moment, to see that connection between the Adult Tommy and the Young Tommy.

Art Rodriguez: I enjoy the finale – the young boy being a man, the forgiveness. It’s inspirational.

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The Director’s Notes: The Who’s Tommy

July 14th, 2014 No comments

At ZACH Theatre, each show’s playbill includes a note from the production’s Director.  The notes often offer insight in to the Director’s inspiration for their directorial approach on the production, or perhaps some historical context.  All of which can assist you in your enjoyment of the show you’re about to see.. Starting with The Who’s Tommy, you’ll be able to read the Director’s Notes here in our blog as well.

Dave Steakley is the Director of The Who’s Tommy, and ZACH’s Producing Artistic Director. Shares his unique vision for our production which is partly inspired by his own life …

TOMMY has lent itself to differing interpretations by directors since it was first created by The Who as a rock opera concept album in 1969.  From the original Tommy concerts, to Ken Russell’s trippy mid-70’s film, to renegade college campus and nightclub productions, to the stark post-modern early-90’s Broadway musical, the framework narrative and substantial instrumental passages have created the opportunity for multiple directorial visions of how to tell the story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy who rises to international fame once discovered as a pinball playing savant.

I first directed Tommy at ZACH 16 years ago and my concept was, and is, that when Tommy witnesses a life-altering event as a child, it sends him reeling inward on an amazing journey down the rabbit hole of his imagination on an Alice In Wonderland-inspired voyage.  This escape into a favorite childhood story is inspired in part by my own experience of coming home from first grade and witnessing my mother have a heart attack and die.  I was a very shy 6 year old who retreated into the story of Mary Poppins, which was the last movie experience I remember having with my mother.  I loved that film and over a period of months my Mom bought me the Disney album, an illustrated copy of the book, and a Mary Poppins umbrella, which also had on it an image of Alice in Wonderland.  My world turned upside down and the fantasy of Mary Poppins coming to the rescue with a spoonful of sugar helped me navigate what I could not understand.

I chose Alice in Wonderland for young Tommy to disappear into because it was written by Lewis Carroll, a British author, whom I thought resonated with Who composer Pete Townsend, and whose story was immortalized by another 60’s band Jefferson’s Airplane in their song “White Rabbit.”  As I dug into Alice, I found strong parallels between the characters in it and Tommy, which made it even more compelling to me as means to handle some of the dark themes of Tommy’s life.

So why return to Tommy now?  I love this music, it is the most fun I’ve ever had in the theatre, and I think it delivers an emotional experience that facilitates transformation, forgiveness and self-realization.   My initial foray with my terrific collaborators Michael Raiford (scenic design) and Leslie Bonnell (costume design) on Tommy was so satisfying, and yet I’ve always had this nagging voice in the back of my mind because at that time I was not able to achieve the complete vision I had for the piece with the resources available.  The Topfer Theatre creates a new opportunity for me to finally bring you the version I’ve been living with in my head for the past decade, with the extraordinary and imaginative collaboration of our entire production design team, and the amazing work of our choreographer Robin Lewis, who I am delighted to welcome back to ZACH!  This version of Tommy is highly interactive, just as it was on the Kleberg Stage, and I want to bring that kind of experience where we use the entire theatre and audience space to the Topfer.  You won’t see this version of Tommy anywhere else because it is theatre made of, by and for Austin.

Have a wonderful trip!

Dave Steakley, Director of The Who’s Tommy

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3 Months to Spike!

July 14th, 2014 No comments

Those who came to enjoy our recent production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike are familiar with Spike’s “body of work,” – an accomplishment that took three months of training for actor Michael Glavan. The rigors of the role have even been documented in the New York Times. Below, Michael tells us about his work with Castle Hill Fitness Trainer Erin Truslow, and Erin describes Michael’s journey to that fantastic Spike physique.

What was it like for Michael Glavans?

Erin has been hugely instrumental in my process for this production at ZACH Theatre.  I was cast in the role of Spike who prides himself chiefly on his looks.  With Erin’s intense workouts, I was able to get my body in shape, which helped me gain better access into the character.  I have never been anywhere near this level of fitness in my life.    She gave me a confidence I’ve never had in myself; and in this role particularly, such confidence is imperative.  Erin worked with me from abroad when I was living in NYC – emailing back and forth with progress and new workout routines.  Upon arriving in Austin, we have had regular training sessions where she coaches, corrects, and facilitates workout programs that she has taken the time to design herself.  On off days – she recommends classes at Castle Hill Fitness.  It has been a real blessing getting to work with Erin.

And what was it like for Erin Trunslow?

Over the past 3 months I have been watching the physical changes in Michael Glavan as he prepared for his role as Spike in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at ZACH Theater.  He has been amazing to work with.  He did everything I asked and more, from watching his diet, to adding in extra cardio on the weekends.  The combination of Cardiovascular work with both light weight, high reps and heavy weights with low reps was exactly what he needed to make his body perfect for the part of Spike.

When I was first introduced to Michael via email, I had him send some “before” pictures so I could see what I had to work with. At first I was not sure of how much muscle I could put on him in a safe way without having him get puffy.  We had a good base, but needed to really work the Chest, Back, and Core for the stage. Fortunately, with this strong work ethic we were able to watch the weight, but get enough protein in without adding too much water weight and puff.

I remember Michael mentioned that he was totally new to lifting weights and really didn’t know what to do.  So I sent him a very detailed set of workouts to get him ready for the types of workouts we’d be doing here in Austin.  Having Michael start his program early was necessary, but difficult as I was not able to see his form or monitor his weight choices.  Once he got to Austin I was able to turn up the heat and dial in some of his form.

It is really incredible to see just how strong he is now and how much more weight he can lift.  We also added in some “boot camp” type classes twice a week and the occasional yoga class to help him stretch out and recover faster from the harder and heavier workouts.  For fun on the weekends I would have him do a long run and get in a Kayak or Stand Up Paddle on the lake for his active recovery.  I knew he would have fun doing those activities, but I also knew want an incredible core workout they would be.

I am going to miss working with Michael now that he is going on to other parts and plays. But I know that he has learned a lot and can keep this new body going for a long time.

I just want to thank Michael for being on time for every workout and coming with a “can do” attitude. For proving to me that if you do everything I ask, it really does work and huge changes can be made in a short period of time. And for being awesome to work with, it’s been a fun 3 months.

Keep up the good work!

Erin Truslow – CPT, USAT & USAC
Master Personal Trainer & Coach

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One Set, Many Stages

June 4th, 2014 No comments

The work you see on stage at ZACH Theatre sometimes acquires a unique career of its own, traveling to other theatres around the country. Such is the case of the spectacular set created for ZACH’s production of Les Misérables and designed by ZACH’s Award-Winning Set Designer Cliff Simon.

The design and creation of the set and properties was a co-production of ZACH Theatre and McCoy Rigby Entertainment, one of the world’s premier theatrical production companies headed by Executive Producers Tom McCoy and Cathy Rigby.  Recently, ZACH’s set was featured in the Stage Scene LA’s review of Les Mis at La Mirada Theatre. You can view a short video of their lead performing in front of the set here.

What’s next for this incredible piece of artistry? The set is scheduled to move on to Anchorage Alaska where it will be on stage at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts!

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May 13th, 2014 No comments

Pictured: Rommel Sulit. Photo by Kirk Tuck.

To the delight of families and school children across Austin a fresh new interpretation of Pinocchio is playing at ZACH Theatre through May 24th. From script to stage, this brilliant show was developed under the guidance of Director, Nat Miller, who shares his thoughts with us below.

Five years ago, I went to my very first Children’s Theatre Festival in Cleveland, OH, and it completely changed the way I think about theatre for young audiences.  The work coming out of Denmark, England, Australia, Iceland, and Scotland, is not just great theatre for kids, it’s great theatre in general.  It’s funny, poignant, beautiful, and moving.  I was so inspired, as a theatre artist, to do work with this kind of emotional depth, risk taking, and creativity. That’s our goal with the ZACH Family Series, and I feel that Pinocchio is a wonderful example of what we’re capable of.

Last year, as I was researching interesting fairy tales, I came upon Pinocchio and was fascinated with why this old man would want to make a boy out of wood.  I thought, “Why doesn’t he have a son of his own?  Who is Geppetto?” This question became really intriguing to me and after brainstorming with Andrew Windler, our playwright, we decided that Geppetto does not have a son because he is a shut in and has never ventured out into the world.  He makes puppets, clocks, and toys, and lives in the world of his imagination.

I was inspired by the image of Pinocchio turning into a real boy and leading Geppetto out into the world. This was an opportunity to position the child as the one who is wise and helps bring about change for the adult.

From there, we decided that the adventure and action of the story would all take place in Geppetto’s workshop.  The whole story takes place inside of his mind- going on imaginary adventures is how Geppetto deals with his fears.  Our interpretation of the story is new.

It has been such an honor to work on this play and hear feedback from teachers, parents, and children. I love to hear about the emotional impact our work has on them.

We still have a lot of catching up to with international work, but it is incredibly rewarding to create work that stretches our perception of theatre for young audiences.

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Straight from the Fish’s Mouth!

April 23rd, 2014 No comments

Photo by Kirk Tuck

A fantastic peek into the world of Cassadie Petersen, the actress and puppeteer behind the bossy Fish of The Cat In The Hat here at ZACH Theatre:

I distinctly remember reading books as a child and feeling like the worlds in the stories became my worlds too. I imagined the characters would play ‘pretend’ with me, I dreamed of my bedroom transforming into the places in my books and I would lay in bed at night wishing that my favorite stories would come to life.

When I was cast as the ‘Fish’ in The Cat in the Hat as part of the Family Series at Zach Theatre, I was overjoyed by the amazing opportunity to bring the famous storybook to the stage in the way I had dreamed of as a child. However, as an actor and Dr. Seuss fan, I was also a little nervous about whether I could truly make the Fish ‘come to life’ for the thousands of young people seeing the show. Our director, Nat Miller had the unique and wonderful idea to keep me visible as an extension of the Fish, as both a performer and character in the story. This way the audience can see both of us (myself and the Fish) reacting to the Cat’s crazy antics throughout the show. It definitely took a lot of practice to match all of my expressions, breath and movement with the puppet but it is wonderfully challenging and fun and I think it makes for a funnier and more dynamic character!

The Fish is really the only authority figure of sorts in The Cat in the Hat but he spends most of the show stuck in a teapot unable to stop the Things from causing a ruckus, which makes him a great foil to the kooky Cat. It is the contrast between the uptight and anxious Fish and the freewheeling, clowning Cat that creates a lot of the humor in the show. As a young female, the uniqueness of this role is not lost on me and I really treasure it; there is often a tendency for younger actresses to get typecast in theater and playing the gender-neutral, quirky, sometimes bossy and always loud Fish has broadened me as a performer and is more fun than I can even say!

My favorite part of the whole process has definitely been the reactions children have to the show. In this age of immediacy, media-overload and literal storytelling, it is so important that children are exposed to the magic of live theater and are given chances to suspend their disbelief and engage in the world of a play. Theater (and puppetry especially) is a wonderful tool for strengthening the imaginations of children while encouraging them to observe and think critically. When the actors meet the audience after shows, I am always excited to see how children react to the Fish because often they don’t know whether to look at me or the puppet! Although most of the children can recognize that it isn’t an actual fish, most still respond to it as though it is very much alive and talk to it directly. I love when they look right past me and only at the puppet because it means this character is no longer something on the page to these children but rather a dream brought to life. A few weeks ago, a child who had just seen the show came up to me in the lobby and said hello to the Fish. Then she looked at me and asked me ‘how do you and the Fish talk at the same time?’ I smiled and told her that the Fish and I have a very special connection, and we truly do!

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National Alliance for Musical Theatre Spring Conference at ZACH

April 3rd, 2014 No comments

This weekend, ZACH Theatre is honored to host the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Spring Conference here in Austin. NAMT is a phenomenal organization uniting the very best musical theatre organizations from around the country.  We’re excited to show off our spectacularly creative city, to introduce our colleagues to our beautiful Topfer Theatre, and to share The Gospel At Colonus. Most of all, we look forward to learning from one another over the course of the next three days.

Our keynote presenter, SXSW Interactive founder Hugh Forrest, is a wonderful embodiment of the innovative spirit Austin is known for. Local food trailers Hey Cupcake, NutterBuster BBQ and Lamberts Foodapalooza will be on site to give our guests a taste of our city, and you can’t beat the view on a sunset cruise around Lady Bird Lake. Our guests will also be treated to a special reception and performance of The Gospel At Colonus in our new theatre, something we’re very proud to share.

While there will be no shortage of entertainment through the conference, it’s all balanced by a robust schedule of educational presentations and breakout sessions with leaders in our industry. This is a time when we can learn from each other’s challenges, celebrate and share in each other’s success stories and grow as individual arts managers and as organizations. It’s a whirlwind three-day schedule and we can’t wait to join our colleges this weekend for what’s sure to be an inspiring Spring Conference!

You’re welcome to follow along in the online social media conversations using #NAMTSC14.

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Chat with Court Watson, Scenic & Costume Designer

March 26th, 2014 No comments

As we look forward to The Gospel At Colonus, we caught up with Court Watson, Scenic & Costume Designer, to learn more about his approach to this epic musical:

Artistic Director, and Gospel Director, Dave Steakley first approached me about designing Gospel late last summer. For us, the show is about “coming home.” Oedipus is at the end of a long and tragic life and is looking for rest. The ZACH has a history with the show, having first performed it eighteen years ago. With the Topfer Theatre as the ZACH’s new home, the show itself is coming home. When we sat down for our first design meeting, neither of us knew what the show would “look like,” but we knew what it “felt like.” The soaring score of evangelical pentecostal gospel music in the show and the “meeting tent” outside of the theatre inspired us to look for a logical place where the show could happen. In fact, we found a stunning photograph by an Austin photographer of an abandoned revival tent and a stormy sky. It seemed to make perfect sense, and to our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has taken this approach to the show. It seems like a perfect fit to us.

We wanted the show to feel “at home” in the venue itself and within the city of Austin. The curvature of the set and the chorus risers reflect the audience seating, as do the lanterns strung over the stage and the audience, inviting the audience to feel as if they are seated within the tent throughout the show. Upstage of everything is a sweeping Texas sky that can be sublimely beautiful or haunting and dangerous when painted with Michelle Habeck’s glorious lighting.

I always create a scenic model of the set. This allows everyone to make sure the space is going to look the way we are all visualizing it before beginning actual construction and painting. The model is also a valuable tool for the Director and Choreographer, the brilliant Christa Oliver, to “pre-stage” the show before rehearsals begin. The carpenters and painters then use the model as a guide, along with technical drafting to construct everything onstage. For this show, we have been immeasurably helped by Production Manager Paul Flint and Technical Director Alexis Tucker; they have figured out a complicated rigging system to allow the fabric walls of the tent to “dissolve” before our eyes. Aaron Bell has lovingly carved dozens of limestone boulders and carved an entire hillside for our choir.

We have worked to keep the set in a subdued world of color, allowing the costumes to “pop.” For me, it is always important that the audience be able to follow the narrative of the story, and being able to focus on the actors always helps this. The structure of Gospel created two Ismenes and two Antigones, using a convention of ancient Greek drama. We have our two Singers in dresses and our two Evangelists in church suits and church hats, or “crowns.” The Antigones are in matching yellow and the Isemenes in blue. (Color also plays a part in the resurrection theme running throughout the show, but I don’t want to give away the surprise!) We have nearly fifty people onstage, including the band and choir, and they are all costumed. Blair Hurry is our Costume Shop Manager and has worked tirelessly to coordinate ordering hundreds of costume elements and helped fit our cast so they all look their very best. We have even worked with Sound Designer Craig Brock to build cordless body microphones into the ladies’ hats, a first for ZACH!

At the end of the day, we are a community of skilled artists and craftspeople working together to create a living, breathing community onstage. This show, maybe more that others, asks us to invite the audience to be part of that community. I, for one, am very excited to be part of it!

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