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Months before a show opens at Mary Moody Northen Theatre, the work begins. Fake turkeys are constructed, wigs are coifed and scenes are blocked. Here’s how the cast and crew bring a play to life.

By Lauren Liebowitz | Photos by Jessica Attie

“It’s rainin’ men, hallelujah…”

On the Mary Moody Northen Theatre stage, four young women sing. Some are in costume, others wear sweatshirts to ward off the cold. The theater is freezing without an audience of warm bodies, but the actors still give it their all until Stage Manager Bill McMillan dismisses them from warm-ups.

The cast — eight students and two local Actors’ Equity Association professionals — finish a few last stretches and vocal exercises before heading toward their dressing rooms.

It’s the night before the St. Edward’s University theater production of Under Construction opens. For the first time in his stage career, Director David Long is excited instead of nervous before a play. He takes a seat, jumps up and paces to the other side of the theater, like a child waiting for Christmas.

Backstage, the male cast members wait in their dressing room. “Man circle?” someone asks, a long-running St. Edward’s tradition. The actors gather and hold hands. For 30 seconds, they silently focus on the show.

“Ten minutes,” the stage manager announces.

The lights dim. The actors sprint to their positions.

“Places, please, for the top of the show!” shouts McMillan. In the darkness, actors wheel benches and tables into place. The lights reveal a picture-perfect family from the 1950s over Thanksgiving dinner. A bell dings.

“Amen,” the father says. The play begins.

Seventy minutes and 22 scenes later, the actors gather around a family dinner table that recalls the first scene, this time with a bucket of fried chicken and paper plates. The lights cut again. “The End” is projected on the viewing screens. Nobody moves.

A clap of thunder, the chorus from “It’s Raining Men” and then the actors laugh, breaking the spell. Long is on his feet again, directing the single unfinished part of the production — curtain call.

“Everybody bows,” he says, “then we’re off.”

At Mary Moody Northen Theatre, students work alongside guest artists from around the country under the University/Resident Theatre Association agreement with the Actors’ Equity Association. This means that when students graduate, many have already earned points toward Actors’ Equity membership, which can give them an edge in auditions. Whether students aspire to act, direct or work behind the scenes, the program prepares them with a well-rounded understanding of theater: They perform, build sets and props, and even work the box office.

Here, we take you behind the scenes of Under Construction, the first production of the theater’s 40th anniversary season. Mary Moody Northen Theatre is a theater-in-the-round without a traditional backstage, but one can still slip behind the metaphorical curtain for a closer look at creating a professional show like this one.

Pre-Production

Work on Under Construction began well before the start of the Fall 2012 semester, even earlier than most shows at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre because of the play’s complexity. From scouring thrift shops for costumes to visiting local salvage yards for props like steering wheels (which wound up being built from scratch instead), it’s the groundwork that sets the stage, so to speak, for the actors to come later. 

  1. Lara Hincapie ’14, assistant scenic designer, built this to-scale replica of the stage to test the show’s design components before construction on the full-size pieces began. Under Construction transitions between scenes through the movement of wheeled set pieces, including this assortment of chairs, a doorway and a fence.
  2. During the opening Thanksgiving scene, some props, such as this turkey, are artificial, while others, such as a basket of dinner rolls, are edible. Props Mistress Rachel McGee is responsible for sourcing the pieces and determining what needs to be built by her student team. This production includes hundreds of individual props.
  3. To organize the more than 100 costumes featured in Under Construction — no easy task — cast and crew rely on personalized tags. The show spans several decades, and costumes include ’50s letter jackets and ’80s prom dresses.
  4. Students working in the costume shop alter borrowed or secondhand costumes, like the dress pictured here, and construct new ones.

Before The Show

To bring a show to life, actors must be at the top of their game, especially for a demanding show with more than 20 scenes. Catch a glimpse of life for the cast as they prepare to go onstage. 

  1. Actors can take their time putting on their first costumes, but once the show starts, the tempo picks up. Under Construction calls for breakneck costume changes between scenes (assisted by dressers). Other costume changes, called dissolves, occur in full view of the audience. A dedicated quick-change rehearsal allows the cast and crew to choreograph costume changes before performances start.
  2. Actors apply their own makeup and sometimes fix their own hair. Lindsley Howard ’12 puts the finishing touches on her wig for the opening scene.
  3. Actors warm up before rehearsals and performances with physical and vocal exercises, then run through every musical piece in the play. In the case of Under Construction, that means one full song-and-dance piece and a few shorter interludes.

Dress Rehearsal

It all comes together the week before opening night: tech rehearsals, dress rehearsals and finally the preview. Running through the whole play gives the team multiple chances to work out the kinks so everything runs smoothly during the first performance.

  1. Behind the scenes, actors are supported by approximately 10 people each, from stage managers to makeup artists to lighting and sound designers.
  2. Director David Long’s (right) involvement with the play began almost six months before the production, starting with choosing which scenes out of dozens to include. Once tech rehearsals are done, he prefers to trust his cast and crew, including Stage Manager Bill McMillan (left), to bring his vision to life.
  3. Designing audio for a play includes the obvious, such as running microphones for an ensemble of singers. It also involves what an audience might take for granted: amplifying or recreating the sounds we hear in real life.
  4. Most lighting work must wait until tech rehearsals begin. With its many different scenes, Under Construction required three whole days to test and refine the lighting because the director approves every cue.
  5. For this play, the actors move set pieces (such as these tables and  benches on wheels) between scenes.
  6. Lighting an abstract play such as this one poses a unique challenge because it spans six decades — warm, “Norman Rockwell” lighting for the 1950s and sharper, more colorful lights for the modern era.

Celebrating 40 Years: Mary Moody Northen Theatre

For the past four decades, Mary Moody Northen Theatre has hosted established and up-and-coming theater professionals, onstage and off. Generations of Hilltoppers who got their start here have gone on to great things in New York, California and around the world.

This year, we’re pulling out all the stops, from Shakespeare to American realism, to celebrate our 40th anniversary. Under Construction may be over, but the season is still going strong. Don’t miss William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (Feb. 14–24), Oscar Wilde’s classic The Importance of Being Earnest (April 11–21) or the magical, Tony Award–winning musical The Secret Garden (June 13–30).

Learn more and buy tickets at think.stedwards.edu/theatre, or call the MMNT box office at 512-448-8484.