Many times theatres have faced crises, and, like the plucky heroes of movies, their workers band together to overcome the obstacles. The solutions may not always be pleasant. The answers may not always be the best. But they work.
On March 2nd, an electrical fire broke out in Adventure Theatre/MTC’s Glen Echo Park premises, causing the company to temporarily shutter Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. While the stage itself remained unscathed, the production quickly needed to replace props, as well as repair damages to other areas of the theatre space.
The show reopened in less than a week.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Produced by Adventure Theatre/MTC
closes March 31, 2018
Details and tickets
The theatre community has banded together to help defray costs of the fire. theatreWashington reports money is being raised at these performances: Keegan Theatre’s April 11 performance of Chicago; First Draft’s Pay-What-You-Can admissions for Persephone: A Burlesque on March 27 & 28 and proceeds from an upcoming performance of Robin Hood at Imagination Stage, along with money raised from a donation box in their lobby. Or you have help directly here.
So instead of focusing on Adventure’s own terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, I wanted to celebrate the gargantuan effort that got the show up on its feet in the first place. I had the opportunity to speak with a few key people on the creative production team to get their insight on the world behind the scenes. Cara Gabriel (Director), William Yanesh (Orchestrator/Music Director), Dre Moore (Props and Puppets), Joy Vester (Set), and actor Christian Montgomery had plenty of fun things to say about the process.
They’re only open until the 31st, so get your butt in a seat over there and celebrate the hard work of everyone on this team!
Cara, what’s different about directing shows for young audiences compared to shows for adults?
Cara Gabriel: Not much, actually! I think if all adult shows brought the same level of energy, pacing, and enthusiasm we’d have an even richer, vibrant theatre scene than we already do. Kids are so smart. They can tell if something is inauthentic. They are vocal with their criticisms and their praise. They are the most honest audiences. We should all aspire to be the type of communicative audience members kids are. They are true scene partners, which is the best type of audience–an awake, interactive one.
What do you think is the heart of this play?
Cara: From my statement of concept: “In this production of Alexander, audiences will be treated to a bright, lively, ensemble of supremely talented and delightfully quirky actors. Our production will have elements of imaginative play; a living, moving set; playful costumes; vibrant, colorful lighting; live, Foley-style sounds; and bright, complex new musical arrangements. Thematically, I hope to show the audience the world from Alexander’s point of view and bring to light the many ways in which Alexander feels a lack of control over the large and small moments in his life.”
What’s your favorite moment in the show?
Cara: Oh, how to choose?! I love all of the songs, but I think I’m most in love with the personification of the objects that surround Alexander. There are two little spirits who we’ve named “Terrible” and “Horrible.” They are played by Tiziano D’Affuso and Linda Bard, and, for example, they play the “sink.” They make all kinds of sink, toothpaste and water sounds; the costumes are clever; and they bring real life and humor to everyday moments-gone-wrong.
Were there any particular challenges?
Cara: The two biggest challenges I experienced were: (1) I think Alexander can come across as a bit of a negative whiner. I have a 5-year-old who is often quite similar to Alexander, and who often gets the same kind of negative press and consequently negative attention. I wanted so badly to make Alexander relateable, to make his struggles genuine, and to give him a real voice. Kids deserve to be heard and acknowledged as much as anyone else. (2) I had never worked with musical tracks before. I’m spoiled in that I’ve always worked with live musicians. I was a little nervous about working with the tracks, but William Yanesh, Gordon Nimmo-Smith (Sound Design), April Carter (SM) and the actors were all wonderful collaborators. I felt so supported. It was an awesome team. They made it easy.
Christian, who do you play?
Christian Montgomery: I play Alexander.
What’s something you love about the character?
Christian: … his ability to draw invisible castles
What’s your favorite moment of the show?
Christian: … watching Linda Bard sing “Mother Doesn’t Want A Dog.”
What are some challenges in performing in a TYA show that might be different from non-TYA work?
Christian: TYA shows are in the morning, so you have to sound good singing at 10:30am instead of 8pm, which requires a lot more warming up. Another challenging part of TYA shows is that because they are shorter than full-length musicals, sometimes you have 3 shows in one day, which can be tiring.
When I work on music, I typically have, like…a specific favorite MEASURE of the show. Do you have a favorite piece or moment when you’re singing?
Christian:: I would say my favorite piece of music from the show is in the last number. I get to listen to everybody sing this phrase “bluest of bays,” and the way the cast sounds with Bill Yanesh’s orchestrations is just beautiful.
William, Tell us a little about the score and how you approached it?
William Yanesh: Overall, I wanted it to reflect Cara’s concept of the entire play, which was that we’re seeing everything from Alexander’s point of view. I wanted it to be as true in the musical numbers as it was in the book scenes. Alexander sees the slick shoe salesman as a tapping song-and-dance man, his mom’s impactful advice as a sweet power ballad, his own recurring quip about Australia as a full-blown kangaroo dance party. In one scene, Alexander’s classmates are rehearsing for the school talent show, and in both my orchestration and Jason Arnold’s fabulous lighting we snap suddenly from the drab realistic world of school to Alexander’s fantasy of a fully-imagined musical number. I would compare it to Roxie’s musical daydreams in the Chicago film, as well as the musical episodes of Scrubs and Even Stevens, in which mundane experiences are heightened via musical sequences.
What’s your approach when arranging music?
William: It starts with what the director has asked for in a particular song (e.g., “This one needs to slow down so we can hear the lyrics…” or “I’ve always kind of wished this number sounded more like ‘Twist and Shout’ …”), and from there I look for what I love about the tune. How can I make you in the audience hear what I hear there? Does it need a hit from the brass, a sweep from the harp, a bicycle-horn honk? The better-constructed the tunes are, the less work generally. In Alexander, all the big numbers have such a clear roadmap (rise here, fall here, get out of the way for a joke right here) that I just have to point the way. In the past, I’ve worked on scores in which the tunes are written less skillfully, in which case the director and I have to devise that roadmap ourselves.
Are there any musical moments you particularly enjoyed? (Feel free to get super nerdy and super technical!)
William: The moment that makes my nerd brain the proudest and most excited is the rideout to ‘Shoes.’ (For the uninitiated, the ‘rideout’ is the amped-up section at the end of a big production number in which the orchestra drives us from the last sung note to the final bang—what we call the ‘button’—telling us it’s time to applaud.) In this particular rideout, in 4/4 time, we play a lick in the orchestra that lasts nine eighth-notes (a measure plus one eighth), which gets repeated four times, each repetition gumming up the 4/4 feel a little more until the tension is unbearable by the time we reach the button. It’s off-kilter and jaunty, and kudos to Ashleigh King for choreographing such a weird moment so stunningly.
Do you have a favorite musical moment?
William: I have two, which I love for very different reasons. The first is Alexander’s misuse and destruction of his dad’s office copier: I knew I wanted the entire office scene to be scored with dated, robotic-sounding synthesizers right out of Stranger Things, and in the copier sequence I got to arrange ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ for a phalanx of growling and buzzing machines, which was a thrill. My other favorite moment is the Ensemble’s vocal entry in the show’s finale. The whole cast sneaks in on a unison note, then blooms outward into this spacious Maj 7(9) chord. It was the last arrangement I wrote for the show and getting to hear it come to life in the room was deeply gratifying.
Joy, what inspirations did you bring with you into the design of this set?
Joy Vester: With every show, I try to start fresh and look for inspiration from the text. I read the script and re-read the book and looked at the characters and Alexander in particular. What is he like? Why did he feel so defeated? and how does that translate into the visual world. I saw the set as a representation of Alexander’s personality: quirky, a little off-balance and a little over-the-top.
What sort of things do you keep in mind for designing a set for a TYA show?
Joy: It’s really like most other shows, but the story and characters are much more youthful. This allows for a little more exaggeration as children see the world in a different way – a little bigger, a little simpler and a little more extreme. Also, if the world surrounding the characters more fun to look at, the audience starts out in a more excited place. But above all, the set – like all other parts of design – should serve the story and support the characters in it and is really the result of a collaboration between the director, producers and the creative team.
Dearest Dre, what were the props/puppet demands of this piece?
Dre Moore: The puppet and prop demands of this show were unique. For the props, we wanted to play with scale – for example, the cereal boxes were oversized to have larger prizes revealed, and the blue sneakers with red stripes were comically small in the shoe box. We also came up with the brooms with cars attached for cleaning up the cereal Alexander dumps onto the floor in the kitchen, in order to transition from inside a kitchen to a carpool to school seamlessly.
Originally the script called for two or three puppets for the Australia song, but Cara requested 6 puppeteers with all different animals. I then researched (the more-friendly) animals of Australia, and we settled on one of each: kangaroo, wallaby, koala, emu, cockatoo and kookaburra. I decided to paint some aboriginal art designs onto them as additional detail.
How did you approach making Kangaroo puppets! (Without giving away too many of your magical secrets, of course.)
Dre: I consider any techniques/secrets developed while working on puppets completely shareable – I will happily tell anyone whatever they want to know about how to make puppets! I start by compiling pictures of whichever animal (real or fantasy) I am planning on constructing – so lots of pictures of kangaroos were on my laptop! While sketching the design, I consider how the puppet needs to articulate: does it need flapping wings? A long flexible neck? Or in the case of Kangaroo, lower legs that look like they are hopping?
Once the basic design is approved by the director I make a color rendering to help communicate further the look of the puppet – pink felt right for the scale of the Kangaroo. Using my years of experience (and some guesswork!), I gather build materials; in this instance I wanted the puppets to look like they came from Alexander’s imagination, so I used puzzle floor mats as my main build material. Foam floor mats are also very lightweight, which is a good place to start with puppet construction. Lots of trial and error go into pattern making with puppets, it’s similar to patterning a garment since it’s a three-dimensional shape – I use cardboard as a template and draw on it with Sharpie until it looks right. Once the cardboard templates are correct, I trace them onto the foam and cut it out on my trusty band saw (you can use a utility blade, but they go dull very quickly). To glue the foam together, I used both contact cement (for the seams) and hot glue (for the internal mechanisms and supports). For the shoulders and hips I used cardboard tubing and PVC to make sure the arms and legs will swing freely, and thin rope attached to the arms and legs if they need to be attached to a trigger at the hand holds (for extra movements other than just swinging). I use wood dowels for the hand holds at the head and back, so the puppeteer can manipulate the puppet without having to hold the actual puppet. It takes a lot of time and skill, but puppets are a great form of storytelling in theatre!
What message do you think is imparted to the audience?
Cara: I want to remind our audiences that even after an epic failure of a day, there can still be hope. That even in the darkest of times, love can prevail. That even after something terrible, horrible, no good and very bad, the fantasy of Australia is still just a fantasy. And that if we all just pause to see each other a little better, and listen to one another a little more carefully, and love each other with a little more intention, we can make tomorrow better together, right here at home.