I have had a very busy two weeks interning at People’s Light and Theater! I’m sorry that I did not make more frequent posts throughout my time there but I wrote everything down and will now be posting a longer entry summarizing the highlights of my senior project
My internship at People’s Light and Theater was very exciting and gave me a real flavor for what it was like to work at a theater. Each morning I would walk to the office of Chaz, the production manager, and he would tell me which department I would be working in that day. I went in everyday with no idea what I could be working on and that very much reflects what it is like to work in a theater. There are constantly never-before-seen issues to work out and flexibility is key to not getting too stressed out. I liked the spontaneity and creativity involved in every single aspect of theater – not just with the performers.
I started out in the scene shop working with the technical crew who were creating the set. The designer had already come up with a model for what he envisioned and it was their job to actually build it. The shop was a little overwhelming and definitely out of my comfort zone. The smell of wood and paint combined with the noise of sawing and drilling was not something I was used to. However, the people I met there were very friendly and patient with me as they explained to me what were everyday skills to them. I helped with various small tasks and observed as they explained their work. One morning I spent entirely painting a part of the set, which was very relaxing once I got in the zone. Another day I was frantically running around, carrying wood back and forth, holding peoples ladders, vacuuming, and smoothing wood. It was interesting to see how varied the work is from day to day.
Something that stuck with me from the shop was the element of creativity even in what I had assumed was mundane work. For example, when nailing in the molding, one of the staff members named Eric, explained to me how since the column had been put at a slight angle, it threw off the angle of the molding. He had to figure out how to correct the angle, and take off a part of the column to fix the problem. Since there was no correct was to handle it, had to think on the spot and come up with his own solution. The technical staff as a whole was very skilled at what they did. They also knew how to have fun while they worked. We spent one day listening and singing along to the Disney princess Pandora playlist and it definitely made the day more enjoyable.
One day was devoted to helping out with props. Props shares a small section of the scene shop with the technical crew but also can be seen working in many different places. Liz is the prop master and she is in charge of making sure that all of the props for the show are exactly what the director and actors need. Sarah helps her and does more of the actual building of props. The show we were working on, Dear Elizabeth, has a set with a large elaborate table in the middle with two chairs. Stage right Robert Lowell’s home area with a chair, suitcase, side table, and shelves behind him and stage left was Elizabeth Bishop’s home area with a typewriter, canary cage, small table, chair, suitcase, and also shelves behind her. The table was the most demanding prop to work on for the show, and Sarah devoted the entire two weeks that I spent at People’s Light building it. It had to be spray-painted; as well as go through a complicated process to make it look like it was tiled, among other things. That left Liz to handle almost everything else on her own. Since the show entirely revolves around letters, there are many actual pieces of paper that they use in the show. Liz showed me how the had found different versions of the letters, some of them with the poets’ actual handwriting, some of them typed in a similar font that they would have used and printed mass amounts of them all on different sized pieces of paper. There were three sizes and each had to be folded a different way and I spent the morning folding while talking to Sarah who was nearby working on her table. Once I had folded all of the letters that were written on, I had to fold almost as many in each size that were blank sheets. I then had to make stacks of letters that were cleverly combined blank and written but giving off the impression that all of them were written on. These letters were used at the end of the show at a powerful moment when the poets pull them out of a trunk and the mass amounts of letters is important to the final message. The letters that I folded did not even include the ones the actors use to actually write on or fake write on, and I folded a lot of letters! Sarah told me that while it might seem an unimportant task to simply fold paper, that it was actually essential she really appreciated me doing it to give her more time with her table. She said working in props can vary from the simplest to most complicated task and that each must be tackled with the same mindset because all are necessary for a successful show.
I also got to venture to storage with Liz and the set designer to pull things to fill up the shelves. Storage was full of dusty odds and ends and I helped load everything into boxes for the ride back to the theater. Most of the things we pulled were old books that were surprisingly light as a feather because they had fake insides, mini statues, boxes, and a lamp. It was interesting to see the designer’s thought process as he made sure everything he took made sense with the time period, each poet’s style, and the types of books they would have read.
Later I helped them with moving the props from the rehearsal room onto the actual stage. Some props we had to bring back to storage because they were just rehearsal props, for example the table was replaced with Sarah’s table. It is always a worry that the actors are not used to the new props and sometimes in the middle of tech rehearsal they realize that some need to be changed or added.
The biggest surprise for me on my senior project was how I felt towards watching rehearsal. I had been really looking forward to that because it was something in my comfort zone. I have been to many rehearsals in my life but I thought that this one would be special because it was professional theater. In fact, it was very similar to rehearsals I’ve had, mostly like this past summer at Upper Darby Summer Stage. However, there was still much for me to take in and learn being an observer and not an actress.
The rehearsal room was set up with real props, replacement props, taped spike marks on the floor, and three long tables in front of the fake stage. The first table had the Stage Manager and ASM (Assistant Stage Manager), the second table had the director, and the third table had the Sound Designer, who happened to also be an actor so during rehearsal this table was empty. This play is special because there are only two actors: the man who plays Robert Lowell, and the woman who plays Elizabeth Bishop.
Since the cast was tiny, this gave the actors more freedom to work very closely with the director and collaborate on blocking or movement, beats or emotion shifts, and even give input on props and costumes. It was very interesting to learn how in a way, a huge cast is more simple to work with because mostly whatever the director says goes and the props master and costumers all make every final decision, but that with two people, it is so organic and constantly evolving that everybody else in the other departments have to scramble to keep up with the creativity in the rehearsal room.
On breaks, I got to talk to the director and she thought it was interesting that I told her that when I first read the play I had no idea how it would be staged. This play is very subjective and each different director who worked with it would create very different results. Part of the reason is because it is a new show, but it is also not so much a direct story as a reading of letters and poetry. The director told me she enjoyed working with the actors, especially ones as accomplished and smart as these two because she really valued their input.
Watching the actors in the rehearsal I could definitely relate to their initial scrambling for lines and remembering where they were supposed to be walking. I also enjoyed the special moments in rehearsal that really come together for the first time. I mostly sat with the stage managers at their table and learned from them about their job. A stage manager needs to be constantly paying attention. Whenever the director said anything ever they wrote it down. So that if one actor asked, “What line was it that I stood up from my chair again?” All the stage managers had to do was look down at their notes to find the answer. It was a tiring job because if you daydream for even one second you could be missing vital information. I definitely have a new admiration for stage managers.
Another surprise was how much I enjoyed working in the costume shop. I ended up working there probably the most out of all of the departments at People’s Light. I think part of the reason that it was nice to keep coming back to one department was because I could actually see the growth in my skills instead of being thrown a new set of skills each day. I am definitely glad I got to see all of the other departments but it was also nice being in one place for a few days and really working on a project of importance. I also really got to know the costuming staff and really enjoyed their company.
I got to go to costume storage, which is even more overwhelming than prop storage. There are SO many costumes from every time period imaginable and there are simply too many costumes in too small a space. We went over there after cleaning out the dressing room from the previous show and hanging all of those costumes back up on a rolling rack to take back to storage. I learned how sometimes theaters in the area take loans out of costumes and that sometimes when they return them they never fully put them back in the correct places making for a messy storage area.
Back in the costume shop I got to watch a jacket for Ellen, the actress playing Elizabeth Bishop, being made. They made this green jacket from scratch and it was really amazing to see the beautiful finished product. The steps all seemed so complicated to me at first, and still are, but now at least I understand them better having done some myself on smaller projects.
Going along with the creative nature of the actors having influence on many aspects of their performance, Ellen requested that she wear a sweater vest as one of her costume pieces and sent the costume shop a link online to a specific one she wanted. The costumers then had to order it and hope that it would arrive in time for the technical rehearsal. Also, this particular sweater vest turned out to be a much brighter pink than it was in the picture online and so the costume staff ended up having to dye it multiple times so it would match the outfit. This is one example of how nobody ever really knows what to expect when working in any aspect of theater.
The first few times I came to the costume shop I mostly observed their sewing work while sorting and cataloging costume donations. I learned that some people donate really great pieces to the theater and others end up just giving them trashy old clothes that they could never use. Also it is very common to donate animal fur items, though mostly actors refuse to wear them.
I really enjoyed when I started to work on a sewing project. The costume shop was in the process of organizing all of their materials while simultaneously creating costumes. They had made a bag to hold their rulers but it was very old, on the verge of breaking, and had not been designed well. This lead to a problem whenever somebody needed a ruler, and that was very often working in the costume shop. They had me make a new bag for the rulers out of fabric covered in elephants. It was a seemingly simple project but actually much more complicated than I had imagined. First they had to make their own pattern on brown paper, measuring the rulers and giving extra fabric to eventually fold over the seams. They made sure that there were three pockets matching the three different sized rulers. I then had to trace it onto the fabric with two different colored pencils, and then trace the inside pocket lines with tracing paper and a needle pusher. After cutting out the front and back along the lines, I had to pin in along the edges and sew it down using a sewing machine. I then had to do multiple other steps like press down the edges and use another machine called over lock. I made two elephant ruler holders and they turned out really well. I definitely improved with time even though I also made some mistakes.
My next step was to make a holder for bones that are used in making corsets. This one was much more difficult because there were three pieces of fabric and there were many more pockets that involved turning on the sewing machine. It was enjoyable to tackle the second one after having done the first and watch myself get faster on the different machines.
Overall I loved my project and can’t wait to attend the show next Tuesday night!