Sean O’Skea, professor of scenic design at Southern Oregon University, designed last spring’s brilliant production of “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” directed by Jim Edmondson. “Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika” will play Nov. 14-24 in SOU’s Main Stage Theatre. I met O’Skea in the lobby of the newly expanded Theatre Arts Building on the SOU campus.
EH: What’s your process of designing a play?
Sean O’Skea: It’s the same with all the designers, actors and directors. We start with the text and get a sense of what the play is trying to say. Designers are always sort of subordinate to the director’s vision. There are an infinite number of possibilities of ways that a play can be interpreted, especially good, rich, meaty plays. In an ideal situation, it becomes a nice collaborative back and forth. I’ll show some imagery, and the director will respond to it, and I’ll have a second pass at it, and we’ll go through that.
It’s always different depending on the venue, where it is, the time frame and budget. It changes a lot. There are so many variables as to how you get from the idea of the set to the actual set, and only some of those have to do with your artistic vision. If you go in with your dream of what that show wants to look like, and the director has an entirely different direction, it can be heartbreaking sometimes. It’s all part of the process.
Deborah Rosenberg, professor in costume design at Southern Oregon University, is enjoying her 20th year as a faculty member of the SOU Theatre Program. Rosenberg acted in college and found herself in costume design, when she admitted to a director that she knew how to sew. I visited with Rosenberg in her office in the university’s newly expanded Theatre Building.
D.R.: I discovered that costume design gave me some distance from the stage pictures, whereas with acting, you’re in the middle of it. I found that my temperament was better served by being able to see the whole picture rather than the immersion experience from within. I could easily see that costume is too light, and that costume’s too dark, and I need more red on the rest of the stage.
We often get students who are interested in performance and discover lighting design for the very first time. It’s a glorious thing to watch a young person say, “I didn’t even know about this. And now I must know everything.” Or we have someone who comes in as a quiet, very shy person, and we watch them just grow in confidence, strength, skill and interest, and they’re standing center stage. It’s fun to watch the transformation of young people, of where they come from, mentally, emotionally, physically, to where they get to in just a few short years.
JE: The scope of the play is huge. I assigned the cast to study subjects such as: Civil Rights; the House Un-American Activities Committee; Roy Cohen; the history of drag, and leather bars in America; the early medical and political response to the epidemic; Rock Hudson; the plagues of the 13th and 17th century. The Angel brought in charts of the structure of heaven. It’s been interesting to research the clothes of the early ’80s, and how strange they were.
The play is interesting because it is so political, so religious, so compassionate and so despicable. The range of experience is great. It’s so enormous in its scope: that you’d have ghosts and fantasies, and historical figures. Kushner was very daring to put all that into the same world.
Jackie Apodaca, a professor of theater at Southern Oregon University, has co-written the book “Answers from ‘The Working Actor’” with actor Michael Kostroff (best known for his five seasons on HBO’s ”The Wire”). Taken from the actor’s trade paper “Backstage,” the book gives a fascinating picture of the complex and confusing world of the acting profession.
Written in the style of advice to the lovelorn, “Answers” consists of years of words of wisdom given to struggling actors who have written to them, signing off with such names as Frustrated, Beyond Confused, Confused Yet Determined, and Lost in La La Land. They offer solid research and techniques to navigate the ins and outs of such a daunting environment. I chatted with Apodaca over lunch at Greenleaf Restaurant in Ashland.
EH: What is your best advice?
JA: There’s no one answer to any question. The only people you can trust are the people that say they “don’t know.” If they say: “This is what you have to do,” they’re lying. In the book I’m constantly saying, “I think this, but some people say this,” or “Here are the 15 different paths you could take.” I try to frame everything in that mind set. Hopefully if people can take away, “Don’t believe anything anyone tells you. It’s going to be different for you.” That’s probably my best piece of advice. Continue reading Dear Working Actor, What’s the path to acting success?→
Southern Oregon University Professor Eric Levin has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship. Levin will teach for the 2017-18 academic year at the University of Ireland in Galway and participate in the University’s International Eugene O’Neill Conference. I met with Levin in his office on the SOU Campus.
EH: Tell me about your Fulbright project.
EL: The purpose of the Fulbright is to increase academic interaction internationally and to exchange cultural views. We’re trying to create relationships with schools in Europe. I’m hoping to travel in Britain and the Continent to sample some of their theater techniques. I’m going to explore the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and I want to meet with the Accademia dell’Arte School in Italy. There are lots of possibilities; I just have to lay groundwork for all of them.
EH: What does a piece of music have to have, to make it a great piece of music?
EW: Not much. Think of “Amazing Grace,” just a simple melody works. People have forgotten what arrangers do: You’ve heard this melody a hundred or a thousand times, but the arranger can change anything about it except the melody. You look for rich chords. A good arranger can change the chord, the mood, the tempo. I love to hear strings in pop music, let alone in classical music, backing simple melodies or simple themes. A theme is just a high-fluting musical history word for the melody.
Do you want slow, lyrical ballads? Do you want that powerful dramatic movement? So often, the best works will have both. That’s why symphonies and string quartets will have more than one movement; they give you different moods to respond to. And that’s what’s nice too: In a symphony, a string quartet, a piano trio, you’ve got three or four movements, each in a different mood. Who ever thought that up, did it right, long ago. That’s been with us since the Renaissance. They would have a fast dance and a slow dance on the same tune, or sometimes they would be different tunes, but they would pair dances of different moods. That’s when we started getting the concept of a single work having very different components. We’ve run with it ever since, thank goodness.
EH: How does one develop an understanding of classical music?
EW: Find things that you like and start moving out from there. That’s the trick. It’s tougher now because classical music has basically disappeared from media. It’s not part of the popular culture any more. The Chamber Music Series gets the world’s best string quartets, piano trios, piano soloists, and so on.
I try to ride two horses in the notes that I write, and the talks that I give, because I’m always conscious that there might be someone who doesn’t know much about classical music. I keep my language simple. I also want to surprise people who have heard Beethoven’s Fifth a hundred times — to find a little nugget, that maybe they don’t know about Beethoven that influenced that work.
If you really like a piece of music, and want to understand it, and start breaking it apart: “What chords does he use? How does he shape the melody? What’s the overall shape of the piece?” You are documenting an interest. You are documenting a love affair.Ed Wight
Kyle Haden, the new artistic director of the Ashland New Plays Festival, follows the legendary Doug Rowe, who retired after spearheading ANPF for many years. Haden served as an actor and educator at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a faculty member in Theater Arts at Southern Oregon University.
EH: What is your interest in developing new theatrical works?
KH: I want to tell a story in the most interesting way possible. The playwrights are the genesis of that. What we’re focused on at ANPF, is helping the playwright find that story. We are the first step on that journey.
The main focus of ANPF is our Fall Festival. We solicit scripts from playwrights around the world. This year we had a cap for the first time: We took the first four hundred that submitted. We have a ton of volunteer readers. Each play is read by several people. Folks get together in small groups and discuss the plays.