Sunday, November 9, 2003
If you think you're familiar with the Crafton-Preyer Theatre, you might be mistaken.
When the University Theatre production of "Cabaret" opens Friday, attendees will be in for a surprise. The large proscenium-style stage has been transformed into Stage Too! for the upcoming show.
Rather than entering the massive auditorium in the traditional way, patrons will be escorted through the "bowels of Murphy Hall" and enter the Stage Too! world of 1920s Berlin night spot the Kit Kat Klub.
"What we have basically done is a building inside a building because our stage is so large we can accommodate that," director John Staniunas says.
Using risers, balconies, boards, welders, sweat and tears, the University Theatre scene shop has converted the 1,200-capacity Crafton-Preyer to an intimate space that accommodates an audience of 320.
"This world is made up of audience on all sides," Staniunas says.
Construction of Stage Too! began three weeks ago. The addition is not permanent, but it will provide a more intimate setting than that offered in Crafton-Preyer and will seat a larger audience than the black box-style William Inge Theatre. Crews are constructing temporary walls that extend out of the stage, and the auditorium seating in the regular theater no longer will be visible.
"We decided that we really needed to cement a third theater space," says Jim Peterson, technical director for University Theatre. "The theaters we have don't always fit our production space."
Staniunas is still raising money to pay for the $50,000 stage. Student Senate earmarked $5,000, the theater department earned $4,000 at a garage and costume sale and Staniunas' inventive $6.32 campaign has raised about $3,800 so far.
To construct the new space, the scene shop has employed industrial risers, traditional flip-down theater chairs and standard table's and chairs.
"The risers can be put up or taken down relatively easy for productions," Peterson says. "The commercially made risers also have a high degree of safety for the audience and can be easily stored. This was an advantage."
Another feature of the new space will be a spiral staircase ascending to balcony seating. Although this was specifically built for "Cabaret," it can be used in other productions if necessary.
"The balcony is probably the best seat in the house because you really get a bird's-eye view of the whole stage," Staniunas says. "It is not as intimate, but you get the overall picture more."
Although "Cabaret" is the only production this season scheduled for Stage Too!, the manageability of the risers will allow the stage to be recreated when needed.
"The idea is we can take these risers and chairs and build any kind of environment we want," Staniunas says. "We just get to use it once this year, but we might possibly use it again in the summer. I'm hoping that we use it at least once or twice every season."
In addition to creating a third production space, Stage Too! also will benefit students in the theater program.
"It allows our actors to experience a mid-size house," Staniunas says. "Stage Too! gives the opportunity to train in a mid-sized space which is what they will encounter in most repertoire theaters."
'It will be fun'
The critically acclaimed "Cabaret," written by Joe Masteroff with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, will be the first show to be staged in the new space. Set in the political turmoil of 1920s Berlin, the main action of the musical takes place at the Kit Kat Klub. The musical deals with the rising of Hitler's Nazi regime and its far-reaching effects.
This will be the second time Staniunas has directed the Tony Award-winning musical. He's had time to reflect since his first go-around with the show about 10 years ago and can, therefore, stage the show as he has always envisioned it and concentrate on the messages he wants to convey.
"I think whenever you do any theatrical piece, you have to deal with its topicality," he says. "This particular musical is relevant, and will always be relevant, because this really did happen in our history."
Rehearsals began six weeks ago, and Staniunas has been spending a great deal of time preparing actors for their roles.
"We did a lot of research into the period," he says.
KU senior Chris Wheatley plays the role of Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer who comes to Berlin and falls for the troubled cabaret singer Sally Bowles.
"After discussing with John the direction he wanted the character to take, I did a lot of research about Berlin at the time," says Wheatley, whose character is the only American in the cast. "Then I had to decide how to approach the issues with an American mentality from that time."
Another key role in the production is that of the Kit Kat Klub emcee, who brings the audience into the action. Matthew Simon, KU senior, had to explore new territory to bring this eccentric character to life.
"A lot of time has been spent getting into shape," Simon says. "A lot of time has been spent dancing and moving around. I have also been learning cane tricks, how to fit a monocle in, period movements of the time. A lot of physical work."
After weeks of hard work, the cast and director are ready to take the new stage.
"As a member of the scene shop, I have been helping directly with the production of Stage Too!, but I can't wait to see it and the audiences' response," Wheatley says.
The cast and director are confident both the classic musical and the new space will delight theater patrons.
"We have a lot planned," Staniunas says. "I can't give it all away, but I promise it will be fun."