Feature Story

The Play Is the Thing

From musicals to Macbeth, Nazareth's theatre students get professional-level experience putting on a show.

by Robin L. Flanigan

Shane Heidecker’s heel has fallen off.

Under ordinary circumstances, this might not be an emergency, but considering it’s an hour before showtime—the musical theatre major is playing three characters in this seventh and final performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth at Nazareth College—he makes a mad dash to Allen Wright Shannon, M.F.A., assistant professor of scenic design.

“Get me a hot glue gun,” Shannon instructs Heidecker ’15, who, when he returns, lifts his left black boot for repair for the second time in three days.

“I have hot-glued whole costumes together” in other shops, Shannon asserts as he investigates his handiwork a few moments later. “There. It blends right in. The magic of theater.”

Putting together a performance from start to finish is a major collaborative undertaking. Nazareth does it four times a year, with 60 or so students—two-thirds of them theatre arts majors—participating in some form or another. Two of the four productions are musicals; the others pull from a broad spectrum of styles, including comedies, tragedies, and period pieces.

“I’m positive audiences don’t have the foggiest notion how many hours we put in,” says Matthew Ames, Ph.D., associate professor of theatre and director of Macbeth. “They often say things to the actors like, ‘Wow, how did you learn all those lines?’ That’s certainly a big job, especially if you’re playing Macbeth in a 2½ -hour show, but it’s also just step one. There’s so much more to do after that.”

Rehearsals take up 15 hours a week—five weekdays after classes—followed by “tech week” practices near showtime that add 10- to 12-hour weekend run-throughs. Besides the main director, the vision and responsibility for each production is shared by the technical director and, depending on the show, musical director; designers (sets, costumes, lights, and sound); costume shop manager; carpenter; stage manager; selection committee; actors; and other volunteers.

Nazareth emphasizes the Stanislovsky method, which “basically takes any scene and boils it down to an objective tactic, to what the character wants,” explains Matt Allen ’15, a musical theatre major who starred as Jeff in I Love You Because, a comedic, modern-day musical loosely based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. “All Jeff wants to do is find this chick, get laid, and go about his day,” he says. “But he doesn’t say the right words, and he tries to be this really cool, smooth guy and he just isn’t. It’s so much fun to figure out what a character wants.”

That goes for all characters, even the musical’s backup singers.

“Stand closer and look at each other,” advised Kerry Young, guest director for I Love You Because, during a rehearsal weeks before opening night. “It’s fun, but there’s an edginess and dryness to it. Find the cynicism.”

Young frequently works with multiple theater organizations in Rochester and is president of TheatreROCS, a networking consortium of local theater companies including Geva Theatre Center, Blackfriars Theatre, Downstairs Cabaret Theatre, and others. There are differences between directing professional and student performances; for the latter, Young offers more insight into her decisions so students understand why some choices, such as the best movements to serve a character’s motivations, are more effective than others. Nazareth also prepares students for the professional environment by running rehearsals, tech rehearsals, and performances within the Actor’s Equity Association work rules and guidelines. Students rehearse several more weeks than professionals, however, given the time they have to carve out for classes.

Yet Young is impressed with the competency level of her collegiate cast. “The students are incredibly professional in their attitude,” she says. “Nazareth is doing a wonderful job of helping them understand what’s expected of them now and what will be expected of them in the real world someday, like being on time and being prepared for rehearsal.”

Young familiarized herself with the script before meeting with designers to discuss the color palette (mostly black and white), costumes (pops of color), and how to work economically with limited resources (the same futon serves as a bed and a couch in different scenes), among other things. Rehearsals lasted about six weeks. The first week was dedicated solely to working on the music, followed by a read-through and general blocking, a term used for an actor’s movement and positioning on stage. Then the layering begins: What is the character’s motivation? Where has the character been? Why is the character making a particular move?

“It’s easy to make assumptions about what you can and can’t do because you know the script, but the audience is coming at it fresh every time,” says Young. Consider this: If the script has one character asking for a cup of coffee, the character assigned to serve the coffee can’t grab the cup out of habit before hearing the request. “There are so many layers. The closer we get to the performance, the more we get into the subtle aspects of finessing things. Is the scene moving too quickly? Is it being dragged out like taffy?”

At recent auditions for the play Circle Mirror Transformation and the musical The Secret Garden, about 50 students who’d been given access to the scripts a month before vied for spots that would eventually be filled by only half of them. If they go over 90 seconds on their monologue, they get cut off, and they have only 32 bars of a song to make a good and lasting impression.

“We have open auditions so they can learn from each other. A freshman can learn a lot from watching a senior work,” says Lindsay Reading Korth, M.F.A., professor of theatre arts.

Students at the afternoon call-back had to learn a jig—even if they weren’t auditioning for the musical—just for the experience, adds Korth, who acknowledges auditions can be stressful.

“They have to be so professional,” she says. “You could be a wonderful actor, but if you cannot look right and behave correctly and be ready in an audition, you’re not going to get work. This is an enormous part of our training, and the pressure is hard. It’s really hard.”

Jessica Pappalardo ’16, who played Lady Macbeth and will play a teenager in Circle Mirror Transformation, describes that pressure: “The hardest part about the business is auditioning. It’s a lot of self-sabotage. Right before auditioning for Lady Macbeth, I had to take a second before going on stage to tell myself I was meant to be there.”

Outsiders have taken notice of her talent, and she’s not the only one to be recognized recently. Pappalardo, Allen, Alexus Maxam ’17, and Amanda Popeilarz ’15, for example, have all been nominated for The Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship, and Emily Mullin ’17 was awarded a Certificate of Merit for Stage Management through the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

Once work on a show gets underway, the design process alone takes about 12 weeks and commonly starts with the director providing an overall concept for the production, according to Yuanting Zhao, M.F.A., chair of the Theatre and Dance Department, professor and costume designer. “Sometimes we disagree, which is why we have so many production meetings ahead of time,” she says.

The first thing everyone does is read the script repeatedly without judgment, just to get the story in their heads. Then they start looking at details. Zhao uses a highlighter and sticky notes to mark places that require a special wardrobe piece or costume change. If scene two takes place two days after scene one, for instance, characters need to be in different clothing.

When a play is written for more characters than there are available actors to play them, students take on multiple roles, requiring Zhao to know what each character should wear at all times and “to make him or her look different without killing them backstage.” She’s referring to backstage costume changes, which can be fast and frenzied. An actor playing several characters may be clean-shaven in one scene, sport a fake beard in another, and show up with a goatee and hooded cape in yet another.

“It’s tedious and frantic, but that’s what I have to do to put on a really good performance,” musical theatre major Kit Prelewitz ’17, playing three roles in Macbeth, says of the costume swaps, which happen with assistance. “And it’s nice knowing you have people to rely on for help.”

Meanwhile, Shannon is engaged in a significant amount of research.

“I need to understand the world of the play so I that I can create a place for it to happen,” he says. That means for Macbeth, he not only read up on Scotland in general, but on the succession to the Scottish throne and the country’s geological landscape, including what sort of stones are found there. “I tell all my classes: Actors have to know a lot, directors have to know more, and designers have to know everything. Everything will have an impact.”

What follows are deep discussions with other designers and the director about the quality of the actors’ movements. In Macbeth, some of the talk centered around the soles of shoes and the surface of the stage to make fight scenes as safe as possible. “Just knowing that they had to move quickly, with sharp staccato movements, informed the choices I made,” Shannon added, “so I didn’t use any sealer; only flat paint that would have that little bit of tooth to make the floor easier to grab.”

Safety is a top priority with every aspect of a show. The authentic swords used in Macbeth were regularly inspected and filed down to keep blades blunt. Students who played the witches practiced movements in their gauzy costumes and oversized veils to make sure their feet didn’t get caught in any material, and wardrobe adjustments were made when necessary.

Before the final performance of Macbeth, most of the actors sit in front of brightly lit mirrors, putting final touches on their stage makeup. “I got the ‘be skeletal’ note, so my eyes are sunken and the bones are highlighted more,” says acting major Francis Grunfeld ’15, explaining the deep mocha-tinted foundation that contrasts with the lighter powder on his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose.

And let’s not forget the drama that takes place off stage—before the drama begins on stage.

“Something always goes wrong, and when it does, you fix it as fast as you can,” says Shannon. “You just figure out a way.”

And hoping for a little divine intervention doesn’t hurt.

As Heidecker walks out the door with his heel newly affixed, Shannon calls out: “Say a prayer!”

Robin L. Flanigan is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York.



    It’s not unusual for performers to have pre-show rituals. On the music front, Leonard Cohen drinks whisky and chants in Latin, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin brushes his teeth, and Keith Richards eats a shepherd’s pie (and has to be the one to break the crust).

    At Nazareth College, some affiliated with the Theatre and Dance Department share their own pre-show rituals:

    Matt Allen '15

    Musical theater major Matt Allen ’15, listens to a “really smooth, quiet, and calm playlist that puts me in a very central place.”

    Allen Wright Shannon

    Allen Wright Shannon, assistant professor of scenic design, always incorporates an intentional flaw into his set. It is a way to honor his first design professor, a Cherokee. The Native American tribe believe “the great father is perfect; mankind isn’t, so even in their blankets they weave in an intentional flaw.” For Macbeth, Wright Shannon painted a set of stones upside-down in one of the walls, then arranged to have a light hit them in the opposite direction as the rest. Whoever finds his flaws receives “a six-pack of their favorite beverage.”

    Jessica Pappalardo '16

    Theater arts major Jessica Pappalardo ’16 shakes off her nerves—literally. “I definitely take a moment right before I go on stage. I shake my hands and my legs and tell myself that ‘character’ is just a figment of my imagination. I am that character.”

    Matthew Ames

    On opening night, “I used to put on my suit, go out for something to eat, have a couple of drinks, and make a little speech to the cast beforehand,” notes Matthew Ames, associate professor of theater. “I still do all of that, but don’t have the drinks. By that time, it’s really not my beast anymore.”

    Francis Grunfeld '15

    Francis Grunfeld ’15, an acting major, meditates “to bring all the energy in” and then “stomps around to give it a release.”