August 9, 1999
The actors and actresses in the WHS production of Oklahoma! for the Fringe Festival, as well as the stage crew, are responsible for setting up and taking down the sets.
Photo by Mary Karr.
by Pam Williams, special to the Weekly
British Airways Flight 48 to London will be winging sixty Woodinville High School drama students toward the fulfillment of a dream on Aug. 10.
After a year and a half of organizing, fundraising, rehearsing, and performing, they will take their show on the road to the largest theater festival in the world. Their production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! will have been condensed, rebuilt, broken down, boxed up, and loaded onto a jet. Next performance? Sunday, Aug. 15, at the International Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Moving Oklahoma! from the boards of Woodinville High to the Churchill Theater in Edinburgh has been a mammoth task, accomplished detail by detail. Director Hjalmer Anderson trimmed the full-length production to the two-hour time slot allotted all 18 American high schools invited to perform at the Fringe Festival: 15 minutes for the stage set-up, light, and sound cues; one-and-a-half hours to perform; and 15 minutes to dismantle the set and carry every bit of it offstage. (Rumor has it that any performances running overtime will simply have the lights turned off.)
Susan Bardsley, Oklahoma's music director, and choreographer Chris Nardine collaborated with Anderson to shorten scene changes, dances, and music bridges. Once the musical fit the Festival time requirements, the production crew got to work on the set and props to scale them down from the 40-foot Woodinville proscenium to the 28-foot church-turned-theater in Edinburgh.
Every Thursday night this summer, Anderson, his theater tech students, and some dads labored on their two-pronged mission: to re-size the scenery and to make it all portable. Everything would fit into a box, and each box would travel as a second piece of luggage for a cast member.
Anticipating this, the original Oklahoma! skins (painted fabric) were screwed, not glued, onto their frames. After the show closed in May, these skins were cut into two-foot panels and attached to new 4x4-foot frames. These new flats (the vertical walls of a set) could be bolted to wagons (the movable platforms flats are attached to). One dad engineered folding wagons; the tech students hinged the porch railings on Laurey's farmhouse and the Skidmore Ranch.
All these collapsible structures require lots of hardware to keep them together during a show. Brady Reed, co-producer with Anderson, says WHS drama cleaned out Seattle's theatrical supply house of loose pins and coffin hinges (used in another business to make compact, waterproof, secure joints).
The stage crew has an extra supply of hinges and all other imaginable hardware in their tool boxes. They've already seen what happens when the batteries for the nine screw drivers aren't charged. No screw guns means no set, so one student's job is to transport two sets of batteries for each gun, the battery charger and converter for Scotland's 110 volts, and to keep it all charging in his room at the Pollack residence hall at the University of Edinburgh, where WHS will be housed.
To ensure that each piece of scenery and each prop gets to its proper place on the Churchill stage, the production crew made it a box, then assigned that box to a student or chaperone. Each of the 45 boxes has a name, along with a label such as "Laurey's house flat five," "window and sash," or "two rails from the Skidmore Ranch front porch."
The costume mistress's box hides a corset, garters, a pair of red drawers, and a bottle of smelling salts. If British customs opens other boxes, they'll discover a butter churn, saddles, a stack of cowboy hats, a carpet bag and a carpet beater, picnic hampers, a hot water bottle, and lariats.
Guns are important props in the musical, but none will be shipped. Reed says even a rubber stage knife will be given lots of attention by British authorities. WHS drama will rent fake revolvers, a knife, and a starter's pistol in Edinburgh. It was decided to also rent Aunt Eller's rocking chair, benches for the farmyard, a table and chairs for Jud's room, plus cordless microphones for lead singers.
Live Arts of Charlottesville, Virginia, provides a technical advisory team for the American schools, and thankfully, they have the connections in Edinburgh to make such arrangements. They have also informed the Oklahoma! crew that there is no room for any stage left exits (one reason the show had to be reworked); AA batteries for microphones are "exorbitantly expensive" in Scotland, so bring your own; and there is no room in the wings for the Skidmore Ranch wagon.
Grommets had to be set in the backdrop so it could be roped up and the Skidmore wagon rolled under to the back of the stage. The 76-pound, student-painted windmill and cornfield backdrop travels in its own box, too.
The tech crew and chaperone dads put in countless hours designing a box-carrying system that incorporates web straps, riveted buckles, and PVC pipe handles. Just last week, each box was reinforced with tape, and the contents and all empty spaces cushioned with bubble wrap.
Dad Leonard Hansen says the multi-step process has been an eye-opener. "The tech kids are so wonderful. I was so impressed with their ideas, their flexibility and hours of hard work, and their willingness to help."
All that behind-the-scenes genius has worked. Director Anderson has already clocked his students setting up in 15 minutes and taking down in even less. They proved themselves at their farewell performances July 30 and 31, borrowing the smaller Inglemoor High School stage for its similarity to Churchill Theater.
A bus picked up the cast at Woodinville high, each in costume and lugging their assigned box, just as they will be transported by bus to the theater in Edinburgh. Upon arrival, long-skirted and pantalooned girls joined cowboys and techs all in black in sliding boxes off the luggage rack and hauling them to the stage.
Everyone has a job to get the set assembled and props positioned. Chaperone Jack Brand (Laurey's house platform and wagon) says he has barely learned to do what the kids have been learning all year. "They point me to a job and I do it. They're the experts."
But it won't be easy in Edinburgh. The technical advisors have provided a Xeroxed "magic sheet" for the light technicians, giving the available lighting areas. "Remember," they warn, "your two-hour load time includes setting light cues ... so the simpler, the better."
The actors know there will be practically no space in the wings. The dancers have to guard against tripping over the wagons during their big "Kansas City" number.
The musicians will have to get a feel for the acoustics of the theater as they warm up, as well as meld with a new first clarinet and flute. Susan Bardsley (music director and pianist) arranged for two local musicians, currently accompanying the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan society's The Grand Duke in England, to join the Oklahoma! group in Edinburgh. The Seattle area will be nicely represented in the British Isles this summer.
Grabbing an audience from among the half million or so Fringe visitors is another job WHS students must do. They'll take with them over 1,000 flyers and advertisements to hand out during their street performances ... snippets of songs, dances, and dialogue to entice Festival crowds to see Oklahoma! Short (and lightweight) programs also travel in someone's extra luggage.
This amazing amount of planning and preparation follows a year of an incredible amount of fundraising for the Soaring To Scotland kids and their parents. It has been the biggest project most of them have been involved in and probably ever will be.
But, says Gayle LeVasseur (head chaperone, tickets, passports, health forms, luggage, and chaperone assignments), "It's amazing--the camaraderie, the teamwork, the way the kids are pulling together. If one needs help, another goes over to help."
Should you happen to see WHS drama waiting at the airport for Flight 48, tell them to break a leg, show the world how good Oklahoma! can be, and for pete's sake, get to the Churchill on time!