“Atmospheric entry is the movement of an object into and through the gases of a planet‘s atmosphere from outer space. There are two main types of atmospheric entry: uncontrolled entry, such as in the entry of astronomical objects, space debris or bolides; and controlled entry, such as the entry (or reentry) of technology capable of being navigated or following a predetermined course.” – from Wikipedia
I’ve been back from Alabama for four days now, and I guess you could say it’s a controlled re-entry. The trip from Montgomery by car takes twelve hours and change, and at this stage in my life I refuse to drive for 12+ hours, particularly after a week of performances and closing festivities. So I took the most expedient route home (avoiding I-95 because I hate it so), drove for eight hours and then stopped for the night at a motel on I-81. That night on the road gave me a chance to detach from Alabama and fix my thoughts on home.
I really enjoyed my time at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Aside from a some minor quibbles with the artist housing (a TV set so dated that I couldn’t attach my beloved Wii game and a ceiling that leaked during the frequent ferocious Alabama thunderstorms – really, I’ve lived in far worse), I was comfortable and happy. I missed my husband and I missed my house and my garden, but that’s the price you pay for working away from home.
It was interesting revisiting the role of Ursula, too. Aside from the tentacles and the basic hoopskirt format, the costume was very different. At Olney, Pei Lee’s costume design resulted in a sleek, scary Ursula, and the makeup design (executed by fellow cast member and airbrush whiz Gracie Jones) lent an harsh and somewhat alien aspect to the character. Due to the configuration of the stage, I only had two practical tentacles (you can read more about them here) and only two eels (Nurney Mason as Flotsam and Robert Mintz as Jetsam) to help manipulate them. At ASF, Brenda van der Wiel’s design provided SIX working tentacles, more cleavage, and a towering wig that was three parts Marie Antoinette and one part Paula Deen. My makeup design, by David Rowland, featured lots of glamour and glitter. Ursula’s look wasn’t all that was different: in addition to my Flotsam and Jetsam (Jeremy Pasha and Brandon LaShawn Curry), I had a six-member eel ensemble which swirled and twirled and essentially did my evil bidding in both my big numbers:
I found, once I got into the ASF costume, that Ursula began to change. She wasn’t nearly as sinister as her Olney counterpart; she giggled and flirted and preened like a true Southern belle. I had the same navigational difficulties that I had at Olney – too big to fit through doors and too bulky to sit in a chair – only this costume was even bigger and heavier, weighing in at a whopping 36.5 pounds. Once again, when not onstage I had to sit off by myself, out of everyone’s way (in this instance, on a stool in the scene shop behind the stage right wing, where all the set pieces were kept – I got to be good buds with the crew).
When not performing, I spent my time in my apartment writing (still banging away at Book #3 in my fantasy series while my agent tries to find a publisher for Book #1), or reading (I think I roared through nearly twenty books in two months), or I’d go out for a stroll in the Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park (where ASF is located). The park was quite lovely, with ponds and trees and walking trails and even the occasional bird. The Southern heat took some getting used to; by the time I left we were averaging 95+ degree days with high humidity, which made the outdoors feel like a swamp and the air-conditioned indoors feel like a freezer.
On my days off I explored the area, mostly looking for good birdwatching, but the summer heat really put a crimp in that activity, not just for me, encumbered with my binoculars and camera and birding bag, but for the birds, who I’m convinced had left town for the mountains. I really didn’t see much that I hadn’t already seen, even on an overnight trip to Dauphin Island off the Alabama coast. (I’d love to go back there during the spring migration, though – I bet it’s amazing.)
Because my mom’s home isn’t more than a five-hour drive from ASF, my mom got to see the show. This was especially exciting because she hasn’t seen me perform since 2009. Her friend Sandra drove the both of them down, and they really seemed to enjoy the show. I even managed to get Mom up onstage with me post-performance for a photo op. I got a similar shot with John when he came to visit, and after that it seemed like the doors were flung open and EVERYONE wanted a post-show picture with Ursula! I didn’t mind (I got to take pictures with some absolutely adorable kid-relatives of various company members), and David Rowland (who was also responsible for my wig) and my dresser Ruth Fink were always very patient and gracious about waiting for me, not only for these photo ops but also when I did a post-show discussion (which was at least once a week).
Graciousness was a large part of my Alabama experience. Everyone was so courteous and helpful – from our company manager, Crystal McCall, to the stage management team under the leadership of Hannah Jean Farris, to the crew members (especially stage op Tony Gordon, who got me into my flying harness, as well as into the air, for every single performance). Everyone in admin, front of house, box office – even the security guys – were just as enthusiastic and supportive as they could possibly be. And I never for a minute felt like their many kindnesses were anything but genuine.
And I can’t say enough good things about the cast of ASF’s Mermaid: hard-working, cheerful, consistent and just plain fun to be around – especially Jeremy and Brandon, the nicest eels a Sea Witch could ask for.
So as I head back into my more cosmopolitan (and perhaps slightly more jaded) existence here in the DC Metro area, I’m hoping to keep a little bit of that Alabama sweetness with me – by passing it on. Mean ol’ Ursula’s doesn’t just have a spangling of glitter, she’s got herself a sugar coating, too. Y’all better watch out.
As some of you may know already, I’m reprising one of my favorite roles this summer: that of Ursula the Sea Witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. This time it’s for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, AL. It’s always fun to revisit a role, and here’s the really fun part this time around: Ursula gets to FLY.
(Bear in mind that since Ursula is an octopus – sort of – that her scenes are water scenes. This means that her flying is actually more of a grandiose floating, a wafting, a gentle settling on the ocean floor. At least that’s the goal.)
I’ve always wanted to learn the art of stage flight, but I’ve never been cast in a role that called for that special skill. Fortunately, the director for this production of Mermaid, Geoffrey Sherman, is a man of singular vision and exquisite taste – meaning he agreed with me when I said I thought Ursula’s first appearance should be aloft.
Five of us will be flying in the ASF production of Mermaid: me, Michelle Pruiett as Ariel, Billy Sharpe as Scuttle the Seagull, and ensemble members Danielle Marie Gregoire and Andrew Eckhert, who are the stunt doubles for Ariel and Prince Eric and will also be performing some aerial gymnastics in “Under the Sea.” Michelle has flown before, but the rest of us had not, so there were varying degrees of nervousness involved as we all gathered early one Tuesday morning for “Flight School.”
Our flying director was Daniel Kondos of ZFX Flying Effects, who spends some 300 out of 365 days of the year traveling from venue to venue to instruct actors and crews in the fine art of stage flight. First we were all fitted for harnesses: Michelle, Andrew and Gabrielle were put into somersault harnesses, which gives them the freedom of movement they need for their swimming sequences (as well as allow them to rotate 360 degrees!). Billy and I were fitted for simple seat harnesses, which will basically allow us to be raised and lowered.
The harnesses had to fit good and tight. Once we thought we were well and truly buckled in, we were required to squat and the straps were tightened even more. There was a certain amount of wincing and groaning as we all got used to binding in unusual places. One’s flabby bits tend to get shoved up around one’s ribcage or down by one’s thighs. The somersault harnesses were trickier to fit, as the center of balance has to be just so.
Billy was first in the air: with Dan’s instruction and the assistance of fly crew, he performed some basic up-and-down, back-and-forth action and then hurried off to dance rehearsal (Scuttle not only flies, he tap dances!).
Next up was Michelle, who was very relaxed and graceful in her rig (she’s played Ariel before, as well as Peter Pan). She took a few practice twirls and somersaults before determining that the swivels weren’t in quite the right position, so while her harness was being adjusted, I got ready to become airborne. It would be fun to say I was nervous and jittery, but to be honest, I felt like a little kid at Christmas – I was so thrilled I couldn’t stop grinning. Here’s my first flight, with Dan directing:
The original idea for Ursula’s entrance was that I would get rigged up off stage left and be lifted above the proscenium level. Then I’d be flown into position above the set (out of the audience’s line of sight) and be lowered in for my Big Entrance. Unfortunately, with all the lights in the way, I couldn’t be lifted high enough to be hidden. A rethink was in order, and while that was going on, Danielle and Andrew took their first spins in the harness (literally: Dan had them do a couple of somersaults to see how their rigging fit). Here’s a look at their maiden voyages:
It was great fun watching everyone dipping and swirling around the stage, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the air again. Finally the big set piece representing Ursula’s Lair was brought into position and after a brief confab with Geoffrey, Dan and the flight crew, I was lifted into the rafters off stage left (about 30 feet up). With a slight up-and-down motion reminiscent of an octopus bobbing through the briny, I was lowered to the stage area just to the left of the Lair.
It was good, but not quite good enough. After another confab, we repeated the journey, only this time I alighted briefly on top of the Lair before being lowered to my landing spot on deck. Much more effective! When we added the entrance lines and music, plus my rehearsal skirt just to get a sense of how it would all look, I think everyone was happy:
So this old dog learned another new trick and is feeling pretty happy about it. I can’t wait until we get into tech, so I can get back in the air again. I’m eager to experience what happens when I’m completely tricked out in Full Ursula, tentacles and all. Meanwhile, my dreams are all full of flying!