Category: Uncategorized

WAR PAINT – Looking Back (Part Four)

The 10/12 rehearsal days continued from February into the beginning of March and our first preview was looming large on the horizon. That date – March 7th – also marked the official start of the term of the year-long contract most of us had signed. (I know – it’s weird that the contract didn’t start with the first day of rehearsal back in January, but apparently that’s SOP on The Broad Way.) Our days were mostly spent working specific scenes, and after the dinner break the company would try to do a run – initially of the acts, eventually of the entire show.

“Necessity Is The Mother of Invention” from Act II, with all its banners. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Two big issues still dogged us as we moved toward the 7th: the set and the length of the show. In regards Issue #1, it was still a question of too much set in too little space, and the transitions from one scene to the next were taking too long. The intermission changeover was particularly problematic. The Nederlander simply didn’t have enough rails to accommodate all the banners, signs and other pieces that needed to be “flown” into the set, and replacing the Act 1 fly rail items with those for Act II was a tedious process that had to be achieved by hand; i.e. untying all the unneeded banners and rolling them away neatly, then tying the new banners on. During the first full run of the show, that changeover took 30 minutes.

Everyone was working so hard on streamlining those changes, and for Patti Cohenour and me, that meant many hours of standing in for the two stars while transitions were rehearsed. Complicating matters for us were our costume fittings. Patti C. had some usable costumes from War Paint‘s Chicago tryout, but I was being fitted not only for an entire set of the Helena Rubinstein costumes, but for wardrobe for my three ensemble tracks as well. Sometimes my fittings were away from the theatre, at the studios where the costumes were being constructed, but more often Patti C. and I had our sessions with costume designer Catherine Zuber and her staff in the VIP room of the mezzanine lobby.

The VIP room was not a big space to start with – it was designed simply as a place for celebrity guests to wait before the show and during intermission, so they didn’t have to mingle with the hoi polloi. Now, filled with costume racks and sewing machines, it was cramped and stuffy. It was also, unfortunately, the only way for some of the Nederlander staff to access their offices, so we were frequently interrupted in the middle of a fitting by someone needing to pass through. Most of my fittings ran between an hour and a half and two hours, and were usually scheduled first thing in the morning. It never failed, however, that halfway through the fitting I’d be standing there in my underwear and towering show shoes, with costume parts pinned all over me. when an assistant stage manager would burst in with an urgent summons to the set: “Michael needs Donna NOW.” We’d rush through the rest of the fitting, I’d yank my clothes back on and report to the stage, where I’d run transitions until the director was ready to move on. I didn’t mind – I was much happier on my feet working than sitting in the mezz – but it made Cathy Zuber crazy and once again, I wasn’t getting my scheduled breaks. I finally spoke to the stage manager, who advised me to take a break after my fittings even if I was wanted on stage. That translated to hiding in the mezzanine ladies’ room with my aching feet propped up and a cup of water in my hand for ten minutes, because if I went into the house, I’d be spotted and put to work.

War Paint’s Understudies on Opening Night. L to R: Patti Cohenour, Tally Sessions, Barbara Jo Bednarczuk, Tom Galantich and me.

As to issue #2 – the length of the show – cuts and changes continued apace, through tech and right into previews. Every day there were little nips and tucks: a line deleted here, a musical interlude eliminated there. Some of the ladies of the ensemble began to look glum as their specialty bits and solo lines were sacrificed on the Altar of the Clock. (I was particularly sad to see the demise of a gloriously liquid harmony section sung by the Arden Girls as the prelude to “Step On Out,” the big first-act dance number led by John Dossett and Douglas Sills.) It was hard on everyone, keeping up with these changes. Once we’d had our first preview, the rehearsal day changed somewhat: five hours of rehearsal, which led into the dinner break and thence to the half-hour before curtain. Most of the cast brought their meals, ordered in or ran out to grab a bite, then tried to get some rest. Both Patti C. and I had sublet apartments a few blocks from the theatre, so we were able to go home to eat during the break. The stars had their own dressing rooms, of course, and the ensemble men (all three of them, plus the two male swings) had a dressing room equivalent to the one the eleven ensemble women shared, so they were fine – but the ensemble ladies and the crew weren’t so lucky. It was common to see people stretched out in one of the theatre boxes, or on the floor of the mezzanine, or a sofa in the upper mezz lobby. The little fold-out foam mattress in the ladies’ dressing room was always in use, as was the elderly chaise parked on the 5th floor landing.

Eventually, as the show got tighter and smoother, the rehearsal hours got shorter – for the rest of the cast, that is. For the understudies, our day was still just about as long, because when we weren’t called to stand in for more transitions and tech work, we started being called for understudy rehearsal. Now, at last, I got a chance to step through the ensemble numbers and scenes I’d only been able to watch. It wasn’t the same without the rest of the cast and our time was limited since the crew often needed the stage for work calls – but at least it was something. During the preview performances the understudies usually watched from the back of the house, along with the directors, designers, creatives and producers. That was a show in and of itself. If something went wrong – a set piece was late, or a lighting cue was missed, or someone’s body mic started feeding back – the people at the back of the house would pace, or curse, or huddle together by the door and hold a heated conversation in what I can only describe as a screaming whisper. I always tried to slip into the shadows when that happened.

But eventually, after a solid month of previews – we arrived at our April 6th opening night. I went to the theatre early in the afternoon, to put cards and little gifts on my fellow cast members’ stations (an opening night tradition), then returned that evening with my husband John, during a torrential downpour. I signed in at the callboard, climbed the stairs to the fifth floor, looked at the cards and presents that had been given to me and wished everyone well, then retreated to the house, where John and I, along with the other understudies and their spouses/dates, were seated in the mezzanine. It looked very different from the place where we’d spent the last month and a half. The show was well-received by an enthusiastic audience, and the after-party at Gotham Hall was splendid, but everyone was tired. The tech and preview process had been long and exhausting, and for the two stars, the work was far from over. Both Ms. LuPone and Ms. Ebersole had been giving interviews and making appearances in the run up to opening, and that wasn’t going to stop for a while yet. In addition, the onstage cast would be summoned to the recording studio all day Monday, April 17th to record the War Paint cast album. Oh, and by the way, the show had opened a few weeks before the Tony Award eligibility cut-off date of April 27th, so the show would need to be at top form while it was under the nominators’ scrutiny.

It was good to be finished with the long, long days in the mezzanine. Yes, my costume fittings were still ongoing (only about half of my Rubinstein costumes were finished), and we’d be having understudy rehearsals twice a week, and I’d still have to be at the theatre for every performance, but it was all going to be so much easier now. All the ladies I understudied were doing well and sounding great, and I heaved a sigh of relief and got ready to settle into something resembling a routine. I wasn’t worried at all.

I should have been.

Next up: “You’re on.”

The Christmas Foxes in January

There’s been so much interest in the foxes I wrote about last month that I figured an update (with more photos) was in order.

To begin with, there are a few more foxes visiting the yard than I realized. If you read my previous blog, The Christmas Foxes, you already know some of the dramatis personae, to wit:

PatchPATCH: a handsome, very red fox with a bare spot on his right shoulder. Patch appears to be a more mature fox than the others who’ve visited my yard; he’s bigger, with a beautiful brushy tail and a full coat. At first sighting I thought the bare spot was mange, but on closer examination, I believe it may simply be the remnants of an old wound, as he’s not showing any other signs of mange. I’ve also determined Patch is a male, as he is constantly lifting his leg to mark territory in the yard. Fox pee is rather rank, as is fox poo, and it seems to be a habit for foxes to literally “shit where they eat” – in other words, to mark areas where they’ve fed. Fortunately it’s been extremely cold lately, and it’s easy to flick away the rock-hard bits of frozen poo.

WispWISP: a mangy and rather down-at-heel fox, sex undetermined. Wisp is more or less denuded from the ribcage down, with a naked tail that gives it a ratlike look. Wisp is looking a bit better these days- I’ve seen her/him eat the medicated food, there’s a lot less frantic scratching going on, and in general the shaky, unthrifty look is gone although Wisp is still a straggly creature. I have my fingers crossed that he/she will survive the abnormally low temps we’ve had for the past week.

HopHOP: a fox with a very bad limp. His/her left hind leg is either broken or very badly dislocated; in any case, it can’t seem to bear much, if any, of the fox’s weight. Hop also has very distinctive “half-moon” muzzle markings.

KinkSHINE, aka KINK: For a while I thought these were two different foxes, but now I think they’re one and the same. I’d remarked in the previous blog about Shine’s very bright coat; Kink has the same vivid, pale red coat, but on closer examination has a distinctive kink about two-thirds of the way down her tail. (I say “her” advisedly, as I initially thought I’d glimpsed male genitalia on Kink, but she and Patch are always together these days, and I am wondering – since fox mating season is nearly upon us – if Kink and Patch are a pair. They have certainly been playing together like a pair, as you’ll see in the video below.) I’m going to stick with the name Kink for this fox – it’s more specific.

1.2.8 New Mangy Lame FoxHOT MESS: I’ve only spotted this fox once, and only then because it was captured on my new trail camera – a Christmas gift from my husband. Even though I’d like to spend all day watching for foxes, it’s just not possible, so the motion-triggered camera lets me keep an eye on the critters without my being glued to my deck window all day. All night, too – its infrared lens capability lets me film them after dark. Hot Mess is not only mangy (although the fur loss isn’t as advanced as Wisp’s), s/he also has a bum left rear leg. In the video Hot Mess is painful to watch: the halting gait and the furtive air makes me so sad. I am hoping Hot Mess will make another appearance so I can determine how to help him/her.

The most frequent daytime visitors to the yard have been Patch and Kink. I feed birds (I usually have about a dozen feeders going at once), and that means that I also feed squirrels, whether I want to or not. I’ve managed to baffle the feeder poles so the squirrels can’t get into them, but the birds usually knock out enough seed to keep the squirrels coming back (plus there’s an oak tree on the south side of our house, so even if I stopped feeding birds, I’d still have squirrels). Patch and Kink are both very fine squirrel hunters. In my previous blog I recounted an incident of seeing Patch right after he’d made a kill. I was fortunate enough to have my Samsung WB350F camera handy (it’s got a zoom lens that even an idiot like me can use), and that Patch made his kill only a dozen feet from the deck, so I was able to get some very good photos of the aftermath:

Patch with Squirrel kill 2

Immediately after the kill.

Patch with Squirrel kill

Getting down to business.

Patch with Squirrel cleanup

Washing up after a messy meal.

Wisp showed up in the yard as Patch was carrying off the remains of his meal, and Patch became quite aggressive, baring his teeth and physically shouldering Wisp until Wisp retreated. The following week I watched Kink stalk, chase down and kill two more squirrels, and a few days after both Kink and Patch were hunting in the yard, although as near as I could tell, they weren’t pack hunting. Kink was in the bushes at the northeast corner of the yard while Patch was about thirty feet to the south under a tree. Both were watching a squirrel feeding near the middle of the yard. Kink began to stalk the squirrel and finally rushed at it. The squirrel ran toward the southwest corner of the yard, then suddenly veered north, toward the tree where Patch was sitting, with Kink on its heels. Patch made a dive for the squirrel, but it eluded him and was able to scramble up the trunk to safety, leaving both foxes looking after it:

Kink and Patch

There goes lunch: Patch in the foreground; Kink looking after the squirrel.

Right after I took this photo, Kink bared her teeth at Patch and the two separated. At this point I was still fairly certain Kink was male, but I keep seeing Patch and Kink together, and just yesterday the two of them spent nearly an hour playing together. I was lucky enough to get some footage of that encounter:

The two were in and out of the yard most of the afternoon, usually together, so we’ll see what happens – although I may not get that chance. Work began this morning on my next-door neighbor’s house (they’re putting on an addition), and I fear the construction noise may keep the foxes away. Don’t get me wrong; I want them to stay wary. They always hurry away when any humans are near, and I’ve made every effort to keep them from associating me with food, but having the opportunity to observe and photograph them has been a gift – Christmas or otherwise.

Stay tuned.

My Best Reads for 2017

reading-clipart-6I’m a voracious reader. I read fast and I read a lot. Everything is grist to my mill: literary and genre fiction, all kinds of nonfiction, magazines, newspapers and the myriad offerings on the internet. Heck, I’ll read a cereal box if there’s nothing else handy.

But this year has been a particularly big one for reading. Since late January 2017 I’ve been understudying a Broadway musical, and after the show finally opened and the dust settled, I found I had a lot of time on my hands. I have to be present backstage for every performance, which translates to a lot of sitting around, waiting. Since I must always have at least part of my attention on the show, that means I can’t really listen to music, watch movies or play computer games. Reading was the logical – and for me, the most natural – way to pass the time.

By my count (and backed up by my Goodreads reading list) I’ve wolfed down more than sixty books this year. One or two were a struggle to finish, a few more were merely so-so, a larger amount were enjoyable, a fair number were very good, and a handful were truly outstanding reads. Here are my top five reads this year:

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunderslincolnbardo

An extraordinary story, part history, part fantasy, set in the cemetery where little Willie, Abraham Lincoln’s young son, has just been laid to rest in a family friend’s mausoleum. The cemetery is populated by ghosts of those both recently and long dead, and by Lincoln himself, who cannot bear to let his little boy go. It’s Saunders’ first novel, and stylistically it’s such a departure that you almost have to train yourself how to read it. (After the first two chapters, I backed up and started over just to be sure I understood the way the story was structured, and if that sounds like drudgery to you, I assure you it was not.) It’s a beautiful study of grief, love and the afterlife that I cannot recommend enough.

 

americanfireAmerican Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land, by Monica Hesse. From 2012 through 2013, a series of inexplicable arsons rocked the blue-collar community of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. More than seventy fires (often more than one a night) were set in derelict buildings across Accomack County, a once-prosperous area that has suffered a significant economic downturn in recent years. Hesse’s crisp, efficient prose is the perfect vehicle for this story of dogged firefighters, determined investigators and finally, the arsonists themselves and the strange motive behind their crimes. (Note: I visited the Eastern Shore last fall for a birding festival, and found it an intriguing, evocative landscape – so much that I’d like to go back there, even though it was rife with mosquitoes. Author Hesse captures the moodiness of that landscape perfectly.)

 

shepherdscrown

The Shepherd’s Crown, by Terry Pratchett. I was a latecomer to Sir Terry Pratchett’s rollicking Discworld fantasy series, starting it only after Pratchett’s 2015 death and the subsequent outpouring of sorrow from his fans around the world. There are some 40 books in the series and yes, I’ve now read them all. The Shepherd’s Crown is the last of them, and the fifth of Pratchett’s books featuring YA heroine (and witch-in-training) Tiffany Aching. It’s not as crisp as some of Pratchett’s earlier books (in his last years he suffered from Alzheimer’s, and the story lacks some of his usual polish and verve), but it’s still a warm, wise and wonderful story, and gives a fitting sendoff to my favorite Discworld character (hint: it’s not Tiffany).

 

hardtimesWelcome to Hard Times, by E.L. Doctorow*. A western so bleak, in a style that’s so terse, at times it’s reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s work. I think this is one of Doctorow’s most successful books; his stark but beautiful prose is particularly effective in this story of a doomed town and its stubborn survivors.

*I must add that I worked with Doctorow on the 2009 Broadway revival of the musical based on his masterwork Ragtime. Of a company that included luminaries like playwright Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, only Doctorow’s presence left me shy and stuttering. Flatteringly (and somewhat comically), he kept mistaking me for our star Christiane Noll, and that only endeared him to me more.

 

killershepherds

The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, by Douglas Starr. An exceptionally good nonfiction book about the crimes, the hunt for and trial of 19th century French serial killer Joseph Vacher, set against the rapidly developing science of criminal forensics. Fast paced and fascinating. **

**I just noticed something rather interesting. Of my five books, two involve shepherds. I’ve actually read a fair number of books involving shepherding this year (among them Amanda Owen’s The Yorkshire Shepherdess, William Henry Hudson’s A Shepherd’s Life, and James Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. I also follow Ms. Owen (@AmandaOwen8) and Mr. Rebanks (@herdyshepherd1) on Twitter (you should, too – if only for their photos). All the foregoing was a form of research for Books 3 & 4 of my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone (I have a supporting character who was formerly a shepherd), but it seems that research has crept into my everyday reading as well.

I said those were my top five reads this year. I should add the caveat: so far. It’s only October. With a few more months left in 2017, there’s still plenty of time for more reading and more great books.

What were your favorite books this year?

Becoming Ursula, Part Two – Body of Work

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The Ursula costume – the beginning.

My first encounter with Ursula’s “body” was a brief one, occurring just after I’d completed the publicity photo shoot for the production back in October.  With designer Pei Lee leading the way, we ducked into the costume shop, where I was shown the very beginning of work on the creation:  a dressmaker’s form draped in a substantial-looking black fabric.  Pei informed me that the dress would be built largely of neoprene, which is the same substance wetsuits are made of.  I hefted a piece of it, afraid it would be heavy, but it wasn’t.  With a slightly slippery surface and a matte sheen, it would give Ursula the “slimy” look Pei was aiming for.

It wasn’t until rehearsals started a few weeks later that I saw Pei’s rendering of the costume.  I wish I’d had the sense to take a picture of it; it was a work of art, and I think someone was presented with it on opening night, gosh darn it.*  It featured two long tentacles sprouting just above each hip, which could be manipulated by me as well as the two actors playing Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula’s eel henchmen.  A second pair of tentacles protruded from beneath the dress in the rear, the third pair would run up the front of my dress and coil neatly on my bosom, and the final pair would be the sleeves of the dress.

ursulacostumesketch

Pei Lee’s original design for the Ursula costume.

(*Turns out Pei still had access to a copy of her rendering and was kind enough to forward it to me from halfway around the world.  So here it is, so you can see just how close she was able to stay to the original design. Thanks, Pei!)

"Rehursula" - an old ball gown and flexible aluminum duct.

“Rehursula” – an old ball gown and flexible aluminum duct.

I realized early on that I would need a mock-up of the costume for rehearsals so I could get accustomed to handling the tentacles.  Pei and her crew kindly provided me with a rough version, constructed from an old ball gown (I recognized it from the production of Cinderella I’d done at Olney two years before) and flexible laundry duct, with a hoop skirt and a bumroll underneath to make it stand out.  (For the uninitiated, a “bumroll” is a fashion accessory dating from the 15th and 16th centuries – a crescent-shaped pad worn to accentuate the hips and give the illusion of a small waist.)  We named this creation “Rehursula.”  It was a struggle getting into it and once in, it was difficult to sit – a harbinger of things to come.  The duct scraping along the floor was also noisy as hell, but it served its purpose, letting us stage business that otherwise would have had to wait until we moved onto the set.

IMAG1495I was also provided with my show shoes fairly early on, for which I was grateful.  Pei wanted me to look quite tall in comparison to other characters, so several pairs of outrageous drag queen platform boots were ordered for me to try out.  Problem was, since they were built for men whose feet are usually wider than women’s, my foot shifted around in them, making me feel wobbly and unsafe.  We finally settled on a sneaker-style pair with a four-inch wedge.  They had a somewhat Frankenstein-esque appearance, but they gave me the height I needed and were surprisingly comfortable.  You can see them at right; I’m also wearing them in the Rehursula photo.

 

A dressing-room shot of the incomplete Ursula costume - at this point lacking the rear tentacles and some additional sequin trim on the collar.

A dressing-room shot of the incomplete Ursula costume – at this point lacking the rear tentacles and some additional sequin trim on the collar. Just beneath each hand are the moveable pair of tentacles, without their cute striped cozies.

Once we left our rehearsal studio and moved onstage, it became clear that the design of the rear tentacles would need to change.  Flotsam and Jetsam’s costumes included Heelys – those sneakers with a skate wheel built into the heels – and the trailing tentacles would present a tripping hazard for them.  Pei tried to puzzle out a solution while dealing with another unexpected problem:  the purple and black sequins that formed the underneath of the two moveable tentacles looked great, but they snagged on the neoprene, creating long horizontal pulls that interfered with the desired slimy look.  As a temporary solution, long narrow bags with drawstring openings were built to cover the tentacles during rehearsals so they wouldn’t do any more damage.  The wardrobe interns referred to them as “cozies” and their striped fabric added an incongruously cheery note to the Ursula ensemble.

The ensemble also included a pair of elbow-length black gloves, worn beneath the tight sleeves of the costume.  The sleeves were so tight that I couldn’t take off the gloves without partially disrobing.  The aforementioned hoop skirt and bumroll used for Rehursula were also present beneath the costume, joined there by a very puffy crinoline.  All these layers made me very wide indeed (as well as unable to go to the bathroom).

Looking rather like Mother Hubbard, Ursula weighs in. The moveable tentacles are bunched up in my arms; you can just see one of the rear tentacles peeking up in the back.

By the time we went into previews, I was still lacking a rear set of tentacles, although the sequined sections of the offending moveable pair had been covered by a fine black netting, which did away with the snagging problem.  The final pair of tentacles arrived two nights later – Pei still had them protruding from the back of the costume, but rather than trail on the floor, they ran up the back of the dress and ended with an impudent little curl.  They weren’t all that heavy – certainly not compared to the moveable ones, which were rather like dragging around a pair of bolsters – but I could still feel the additional weight.  It made me curious as to exactly how much the whole costume, tentacles and headdress and all, weighed.  A few days later I brought in a bathroom scale and got the verdict:  twenty-three pounds.

Ursula reading her Kindle and enjoying a refreshing beverage in the Sub-Lair.

Ursula reading her Kindle and enjoying a refreshing beverage in the Sub-Lair. The stool I’m sitting on is completely hidden beneath the costume.

I quickly realized that the sheer mass of costume was going to make sharing a crowded dressing room problematic.  Even sitting on the stool provided me (I couldn’t use a chair), I took up a lot of valuable real estate.  And in the green room, no matter where I stood, I was in the way of stage crew, wardrobe staff, musicians and my fellow cast members.  I also couldn’t take the stairs to the stage in such a bulky outfit (well, I could, but it would have been a complicated affair).  Fortunately the Olney mainstage is equipped with an elevator, so getting to the stage level was solved, and it so happened there was a nice little nook just in front of the elevator on the lower level where I could sit (on yet another thoughtfully-provided stool) and be out of everyone’s way.  It had enough light for me to read my Kindle (turning pages in a regular book while wearing gloves proved difficult) and there was a old prop piano nearby to hold a water cup, tissues and other items.  It was cold there, but I was so snug in my neoprene and gloves that I didn’t mind.

Maneuvering backstage was another story.  The elevator took me into the stage left wing, but all of my entrances in the show are from stage right.  There’s a crossover hallway behind the stage area, but for our production it was being used for the ensemble’s quick changes (and they had a lot).  After having to push past half-naked cast members a time or two, I determined that I’d need to come upstairs early for my scenes to make that backstage cross when the crossover wasn’t being used as a dressing room.  Fortunately the wings of the Olney mainstage are pretty spacious, so once I’d made the cross I was generally able to find a spot to stand where I wasn’t in anyone’s way.

At the time of this writing, The Little Mermaid has opened to great reviews (check my News, Notes and Upcoming Gigs section for pull quotes) and we are settling in for our holiday run.  I’ve developed a routine now:  Gracie and I come in an hour early and she starts her own makeup while I pincurl my hair.  Then she does the airbrushed portion of my makeup and I put the finishing touches on eyebrows, eyes and mouth, then put on my mic belt, pin the mic into my wig cap, and get into my shoes and layers of underpinnings.  I tromp across the green room like some sort of deranged Black Swan, where Taylor or Kelsey or Joseph (or a combination thereof) are ready to help me get into the costume and headdress.  The costume is too heavy to hang; it’s bundled into an old grocery cart when I’m not wearing it (fortunately, neoprene doesn’t wrinkle).  Togged out, I retreat to my Sub-Lair with my Kindle and a cup of water (equipped with a straw so I don’t spill and ruin my makeup).  There I wait, reading quietly until it’s time to go upstairs and wreak havoc on unsuspecting merfolk.

Here are some production photos so you can see costume and headdress (and me) in action.  These were taken by the gifted Stan Barouh during first preview, so I’m still down a pair of tentacles.  Even so, you can see that it’s an astonishingly effective costume – worth every bit of trouble it gave Pei Lee and her dedicated costume crew.  Here’s to all of you!

With Flotsam and Jetsam and the Magic Shell.

Plotting with Flotsam, Jetsam and the Magic Shell. (with Nurney Mason and Robert Mintz)

Really  happy with the Shell.

Clearly up to no good.

Giving poor Ariel a hard time. (with Laura Zinn)

In front of my Lair, giving poor Ariel a hard time. (with Laura Zinn)

Becoming Ursula, Part One – Getting A Head

ursulaeels

Who wouldn’t want to play a Sea Witch? With eels, no less?

I’ve been fortunate to have had a long and rewarding career in musical theatre.  I’ve done Broadway, a National Tour and countless regional theatre productions.  I’ve appeared in world premieres, revivals and revisals, in roles dizzying in variety.  In 2014 alone, I played an aging stripper, a Jewish mother, an amoral British money-lender and the mother of artist Georges Seurat.

But there’s one kind of role that’s always eluded me:  a shrieking, mugging, scenery-devouring, terrifying-funny psychotic.  I’m talking, of course, about playing a Disney villain.  More specifically, a villainess – since the few major Disney bad guys pale in comparison to their female counterparts.

So when Olney Theatre Center announced that they were producing Disney’s The Little Mermaid as their 2014 holiday show, I was beside myself.  I love Ursula.  She’s a slinky, slimy, sexy sociopath.  Her big number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is brilliant.  (Side note:  Ursula is one of the few Disney villains who actually sings.)

Since the role is such a plum, naturally many of my fellow actresses were interested in it as well, but I was shameless in letting the good folks at Olney know that I really, really, REALLYREALLY (really!) wanted to be seen for the role.  To their credit, they did not shy back in horror at my eagerness, and when auditions rolled around I was called in to read.  As it turned out, shameless was exactly what director Mark Waldrop was looking for.  To my delight, I was offered the role, and accepted with greedy alacrity.

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With Tracy Lynn Olivera and Jamie Kelton, in Pei Lee’s costumes for Olney’s 2013 production of “Cinderella.”

Becoming Ursula, though, was going to take more than just me being eager.  The Sea Witch is a grand creation:  part human and part octopus, she’s an undersea nightmare that has to be translated from the anything’s-possible world of animation to a flesh-and-blood actress treading the all-too-solid boards of a theatrical stage.  It’s a major challenge, but when I discovered that Pei Lee was going to be designing the costumes for Olney’s production, I knew I was in good hands.  Pei and I have worked together in the past (that’s some of her work on Olney’s 2012 production of Cinderella to the left) and I’m a huge admirer of her creativity and attention to detail.

 

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Ursula’s headdress, a work in progress.

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A noble profile, in the making.

Because Olney’s PR department wanted to do a publicity photo shoot in October, Pei got in touch with me in late July to start work on the Ursula costume, specifically on the character’s headdress, which would be featured in the photos.  We met so she could make a wrap of my head (a complicated process involving plastic wrap, scissors, felt-tip markers and a LOT of tape), and approximately a month later I went out to Olney for a fitting.

Even unfinished, the headdress was amazing.  It had the shape and flow of Ursula’s hair from the animated feature because it’s made of a lightweight fabric called FossShape (which can be sewn and then “frozen” into place using heat).  It fit like a dream and was even comfortable. Pei had included details like reversible sequins (which can be shifted from white to black) and during the fitting, roughed in “sideburns” to complete the look.  We were both tremendously pleased with the results.

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Halloween $13-off ticket promo ad.

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Menacing the Mermaid.

Since the photo shoot was going to focus on head and shoulders, we also had to do a makeup trial.  The day of the shoot I came in early, and we played with both water and creme-based makeups for about an hour.  Rather than the purple-skinned Ursula of the cartoon, Pei wanted a paler version with just some gray-lilac shading beneath the cheekbones, with teal, black and purple around the eyes and bright red lips.  While we liked the translucency of the water-based makeup, applying it with a makeup sponge was tricky and the results somewhat uneven and streaky.  Since the photos would be edited and the publicity team, along with our Ariel, Laura Zinn, were waiting, we decided we’d revisit the makeup issue down the road.  I got into the now-completed headdress, a rough mockup of the Ursula costume (which was far from ready) and we did the shoot.   The photos turned out great.

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In front of the green screen.

Our second makeup trial happened during the third week of rehearsal, when we needed to shoot a green-screen video for a special-effects moment which occurs late in the second act.  The costume was still being built, so the rough mockup was called into play again.  For the makeup, we had a little more detail this time, including some whacked-out tinsel false eyelashes I happened to have in my kit.  However, we still weren’t happy with the streaky results of the water-based foundation, but didn’t want to sacrifice its translucence for a smoother but opaque creme-based makeup.  (We also decided that the lashes, while fun for the video shoot, were a bit too pale and fragile for eight shows a week.)  After the video shoot, I scrubbed my face and went to rehearsal.  While talking over the shoot with fellow cast members, I mentioned the makeup issues and our dissatisfaction with the streaky application.  One of our Mersisters (Gracie Jones, who plays Andrina) looked thoughtful.  “Why don’t you try airbrushing?” she asked, and on being quizzed further, showed me photos of airbrushed zombie/ghoul/ghost makeup designs she was currently producing for Markoff’s Haunted Forest in Dickerson, MD.  (Great article about the Forest here, if you’d like to know more.)  “I’d be happy to do your makeup,” Gracie added.

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A little too zombiefied.

 

Well, you can bet I pounced on that offer.  I texted Pei, and 48 hours later we were into Ursula Makeup Trial #3.  Pei, Gracie and I (well, Pei and Gracie – I just sat there) experimented with the airbrush technique for a good hour.  The application process was super-smooth and even, and took half the time of the previous sponged-on trial.  Our first version ended up looking a little too ghoulish, so I washed off and we started again.  This time I pincurled my hair, as Pei wanted to see the finished makeup with the headdress.

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Success! And in half the time!

 

With a little lighter hand on the shading, Gracie was able to produce the results Pei wanted.  She was also able to lay down a base of teal and purple for the eyeshadow, and using a template of Pei’s design, even swooshed in Ursula’s wildly arched eyebrows.  The smoothness of the application, not to mention the time saved, was cause for celebration.

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The finished product.

 

With Gracie’s work done, she cleaned up while I added the fine details (yes, I actually did something more than just sit there the whole time).  I finessed the brows, applied a thick, sturdy set of lashes, lined my eyes a la The Black Swan, gave myself a full cupid’s-bow mouth in bright red, and for the finishing touch, added Ursula’s signature beauty mark.  Pei brought in the headdress, we popped it on and voila! URSULA!

(Side Note:  One of the problems we’d struggled with in earlier iterations of the design was my own eyebrows interposing themselves into the mix.  Using my brows as the line of demarcation between the teal and purple shadows, along with Gracie’s airbrushing, made that problem literally disappear.)

To say we were three happy campers would be the understatement of the year.  At last Ursula’s face was in place!

Up next:  Tentacles, et al.

The finished Ursula and her creators:  Gracie Jones, me and Pei Lee.

The finished Ursula and her creators: Gracie Jones, me and Pei Lee.

 

 

Adventures in Bread Baking Part 2: The Baguette

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Everybody RISE! RISE!

For my second whirl with the Vatinet baking book, I wanted to try something a little more flavorful but not complicated (I wasn’t quite ready for the Kalamata or Beaujolais recipes just yet).  I also wanted to try out my new couche, so I decided on a whole wheat recipe flavored with just a touch of honey, shaped into baguettes.  This involved a certain amount of flipping back and forth between the recipe and the baguette-forming instructions, as well as some adjustments on my end to make up for my less than industrial kitchen.  For example, Vatinet wants you to bake the baguettes on a big stone, but a big stone I hava no.  What I did have was a brand spankin’ new Chicago Metallic baguette pan, so that was going to make its debut as my baking vessel of choice (I also have CM’s French bread pan – damn those Amazon “frequently bought together” deals).

The dough creation process was more or less the same as in making the boule.   The big difference was the addition of whole wheat flour and that little touch of honey.  My honey had crystalized, so it needed a brief nuke in the microwave and then time to cool before it could be used, so I reviewed recipe, kneading technique and proper baguette formation and assembled the ol’ mise en place while I waited.

Because of the whole wheat flour, the dough was a good bit stiffer and took a little longer to work this time, especially using Vatinet’s pinch-and-pull kneading method.  The results were still very pleasing – this dough smells good.  I popped it into its floured bowl and left it to rest.  Once again, it didn’t rise as much as I thought it should (this could be because John and I keep our house on the cool side), but after an hour it had doubled, just barely, so I forged ahead.

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Voilà le pain en la couche.

Forming the baguettes was fun.  First you form the dough into a rectangle (and Vatinet is very specific about how you do this, just as he is specific about every step in the baking process), then you use your fingers to create a kind of dog-bone shape, and then both hands come into play as you roll the dough longer, into the traditional baguette shape.  I wished for a larger working surface, such as a big table, but I was NOT going to prep bread on the Stickley.  The longest counter top in my little galley kitchen had to suffice.  Then I put the two baguettes on the couche, lifting a couple of folds between the loaves.  The couche was big enough to then cover both baguettes for the second rising.

(A note.  Every time I try to type couche in this blog, I type douche instead.  I don’t know what that says about me or my typing skills, but it’s making me giggle.)

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Pan for le pain.

The baguettes didn’t rise a whole lot, but then, they’re baguettes and compared to the boule recipe, use very little yeast.  They looked adorable – so adorable that I spent time admiring them instead of taking their photo, once they had been panned and slashed with the trust razor blade.  A photo of the brand spankin’ new baguette pan will have to suffice.  Pretty, no?  I wish you could have seen those baguettes cuddling in it, side by side.  Adorable.

Since I didn’t want the baguettes to over-bake, I used my instant-read thermometer to test them for doneness.  They baked very quickly and smelled spectacular when I took them out of the oven to cool.  Well, in theory they were supposed to cool, but when I showed them to John he demanded hot bread, then and there.  Vatinet does NOT want you to eat hot bread.  He wants you to let it cool completely before you eat it.  Well, in our house Vatinet was swiftly outvoted and John and I ate one entire baguette, hot,  and it was DELICIOUS AND WE WOULD DO IT AGAIN.  We had half of the second one with our dinner, cool, and it was delicious as well but not DELICIOUS.

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DELICIOUS, I tell you.

So I highly recommend A Passion for Bread to both the novice and experienced baker.  I did find some of Vatinet’s methods a little too persnickety for a casual (and often irreverent) baker like me – I did not bother with a dough log, weighing the ingredients or tasting the dough for salt, for example – but I found his kneading method effective and will probably use it again.  The banneton, couche (yep, did it again), Chicago Metallic pans and even the humble razor blade did their jobs well, so they were worth the not-much I paid for them and have been added to the plethora of specialized cooking implements in my already stuffed-to-the-rafters kitchen.  I’m looking forward to trying more involved recipes, just as soon as that confluence of time, ingredients and inclination hits again.

Crass Commercial Announcement: GYPSY!

I have been remiss, I know, in keeping the ol’ blog updated, but today I had to share this video, produced by Signature Theatre, in which strippers Tessie Tura, Electra and Mazeppa (that’s me) show you HOW TO UNWRAP A CHRISTMAS PRESENT.  Enjoy!

GYPSY opens Tuesday, December 17 and runs through January 26th, 2014.  Go to Signature Theatre’s website to order tickets!