Doug Ham is directing “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” for Teen Musical Theater of Oregon (TMTO), opening this Friday, Dec.12, at The Craterian Theater in Medford. Throughout his career, Ham has delved into many aspects theater including acting, directing and designing. One afternoon, we met at Boulevard Coffee in Ashland to discuss his latest project.
DH: It’s a really nice, different approach to “A Christmas Carol.” It’s all there, but adding musical and dance numbers just gives it more oomph. There are 49 Teen Musical Theater of Oregon students in the cast. It’s a 90-minute show with tons of scenes, tons of costumes and tons of choreography.
EH: What is it about Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol” that rings so true?
DH: It shows that at Christmas you can let loose of all of the stuff around you and just see the joy of it. It’s a time when everybody gets together.
Gwen Overland and Doug Warner wrote and directed the “Old Time Traveling Radio Show,” which continues with the Next Stage Repertory Company Friday and Saturday at the Craterian Theater in Medford.
With a doctorate in theater arts and clinical psychology and a master’s degree in music, Overland teaches psychology at Rogue Community College and works as an expressive voice coach. We visited at Boulevard Coffee in Ashland one afternoon.
The highly successful production of The Decorator by The Next Stage Repertory Company (at the Craterian Theater in Medford)featured the delightful Arlene Horwitz Warner, along with Doug Warner and Presila Quinby. Arlene, an energetic, inventive, and skilled actress, was already a successful graphic artist in the San Francisco Bay Area when she decided to expand her horizons and develop her acting skills. We met for lunch at Organics on Main Street in Medford.
EH: How did you train as an actor?
AHW: I took an improvisation class, and I loved it. I love the whole concept behind improvisational theater. I think it’s a great help in life, because you don’t know what is going to come up. It teaches you how to respond to situations in the moment. It’s an opportunity to just let it go, find humor, and be yourself. While studying improvisation, I also enrolled in The American Conservatory Theater Studio Program in San Francisco, then some private acting classes, and a summer theater program through the Royal National Theatre in London.
Theater combined a lot of my interests: from psychology, to performing, to the visual art of the sets and costumes, and how everything worked together. It was a great outlet for me.
Designer and director Doug Ham’s recent work has included some remarkable set designs.
At the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, his design for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” consisted of colossal, colorful, multi-dimensional pyramids on which were played wide-ranging scenes in far-flung locations. The Next Stage Repertory Company’s “Tally’s Folly” was set in an exquisite, delicate and decaying boathouse to portray a pervasive psychological landscape. “Chicago,” at Ashland High School, was placed in a cavernous speakeasy with an orchestra on bleachers center stage.
Ham is preparing to direct “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” at the Craterian theater, and is designing sets for “The 39 Steps” at Ashland High School. Last week, we chatted at Bloomsbury Coffee.
EH: What makes a good stage set?
DH: If an audience can look at it, understand it, accept it, and know where they are, then it becomes a backdrop for the actors. The most important thing is that the set is an establishment of the location but doesn’t overtake the show. Every show is a new challenge: to do the research, figure it out and understand how it’s going to work for the space. In a small space, you have to be imaginative to make a show work. I designed for a professional company in California with a 50-seat theater. I put a two-story set in there. You have to be creative.
When I read a script, I start imagining where it’s at, what it looks like and what I can do to give the director a lot of choices. As a director, you want different areas, different levels on which to place the actors for a more dramatic scene. If you just have a plain stage and you don’t have a way for them to move to another level, the stage pictures can get boring.
For “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” there are six characters, but I will add an ensemble of 12 more, all Charles Schultz’s characters, like Pig Pen and Peppermint Patty. It will be visual choreography — some fun stuff. It will have a pen-and-color feel to it. I want it to look like the comic strip. There will be a level stage, but upstage I will have a stair unit for the glee club scene. When they’re at the ball game, I can use it as bleachers.
Next Stage Repertory Company, housed in Medford’s Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, is the brainchild of Artistic Director Doug Warner, formerly the producing director of Camelot Theatre; Peter Alzado, former artistic director of Oregon Stage Works; Kate Sullivan, co-director of Ashland Children’s Theatre; and Stephen McCandless, executive director of the Craterian.
The new theater opened with a three-day run of Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly” this month and will offer three more shows for its first season.
I chatted with Warner one afternoon in the spacious lobby of the Craterian.
EH: What is it about theater that we find so stimulating?
DW: I think it is storytelling. What happens in the process of telling stories and hearing stories told is that you identify with the characters. With good stories, you identify with what the characters are going through. And by the end of the story, you’ve got some clues about your own life that you can apply. When I direct or act, I approach it from that angle. It’s never about the surface structure of the story; it’s always about the psychological underpinnings. “Death of a Salesman” (which I did years ago) was called, “Inside Willie’s Head.” That was the original name. Of course that is not a great title, but it does tell you that the fathers of modern theater, people like Arthur Miller, thought of the stage as a psychological space.
A great way to go in putting a story together is breaking down the psychology and then presenting it. Then the audience is actually getting something that’s deeper than just entertainment. They’re getting something of value that they can actually walk away with, something tangible. There’s nothing wrong with a good belly laugh or good, solid entertainment; but theater can be more than that. It can be something that you can savor, and use, and hopefully could improve the quality of your life.
Great stories are compressed, bigger than life, concentrated. There’s usually some big change that takes place. In directing I try to make sure that every actor is aware of where they are in the beginning of the play and where they are at the end. If you set it up right, the audience can also go through a change. Theater is unusual in that sense. Hopefully theater can offer more than straight entertainment.
On the other hand, I think theater has gotten a little too full of itself — a little too pretentious. It tends to attract post-graduate-educated people instead of the face of the community. We’re trying to overcome that by making sure that you will be entertained. First and foremost, you should be entertained.
Right now Medford might be on the edge of a cultural awakening or reawakening in the downtown area. It’s pretty exciting to be part of that. Hopefully we offer something a little bit different than what we see in Ashland and around the Rogue Valley.
Peter Alzado (Oregon Stage Works’ former Artistic Director) is engaged in the creation of a new theater called the NEXT STAGE Repertory Company. One afternoon, we met at Medford’s Craterian Theater, where Alzado is currently in rehearsal for Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, “Talley’s Folly.” We then settled down with tea at nearby Grilla Bites.
EH: What makes a good director?
PA: I think great directors want an ordered world. They need to be able to have a real feeling for space, and how to communicate through space. They need to have an empathetic response to their actors. And they need to have a real sense of literature, and how to communicate those themes through the words that the writer has given them.
I’m not a big fan of, “Let’s do a concept.” I can see the value of it on occasion, but I’m much more aligned with getting out of the way and letting the material speak. If you find a way to allow the material to speak for itself the ideas that you have will enhance the material, and you’ll be dealing thematically with what the play is about. If you do that, I think you’ll have a real visceral impact depending on the writing and the themes. If you don’t do that, the impact and the audience response is intellectual and self-congratulatory. I sometimes find it off-putting. It’s like having somebody in an audience laugh at everything a friend does. I think that directing now is very much aligned to the technical aspects of the theater and less so to the acting.
The recent series of plays at Oregon Stage Works, “Things We Do,” portrayed the effects of suspicion, prejudice and the tragedy of war waged upon civilians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I met with Peter Alzado, artistic director of Oregon Stage Works, in the theater’s store front office on A Street. Peter spoke to the controversy surrounding the presentation of “My Name is Rachael Corrie,” one of the plays in the series, which included “The Jewish Wife” by Bertolt Brecht, “Masked” by Ian Hatsor and “A Tiny Piece of Land” by Mel Weiser and Joni Browne-Walders.