Harriet Meyer: May I ask, just how exactly did Oberlin present Tennyson's The Princess? Did someone turn it into a play script, was it a reading, or something else? Were Walter & Lilia et al included?
Was Tennyson's poem really germinated at a gathering such as he describes?
Rica Mendes: A subject upon which I could discourse for hours . . . (and have . . . and will yet again . . .)
As resident 3P rep (I was in the cast and A.D.), I can break it down as simply as possible:
Part I - A reading of Tennyson's poem by several readers and music by (as resident blonde, I have forgotten the composer's name - my involvement with the poem was minimal) sung by a small ensemble.
Part II - A production of Gilbert's play with music by Offenbach and others (the pieces that Gilbert had intended to use) plus one originally composed piece by a fellow 3P cast member.
Part III - A full, non-stop (literally) production of the opera.
At least, this was what was intended. All 3 shows were performed (?) back to back in one day.
I suppose that you also want to know why this is a thorn in SavoyNet's side. <sigh> Here it goes . . . <prepares by pulling out ulcer medication>:
All three shows, believe it or not, went off pretty much flawlessly in Oberlin, even on the one day all three were performed in one day (the schedule was Friday Poem + Opera, Saturday was Play + Opera, Sunday was all 3). Save some frustration here and there, again, the production went well. It should be kept in mind that the performance space was significantly smaller than in Philly, we had the audience sit on either side of the stage, and we had the full month of January - and I mean at least 12 hours a day for 28 days in a row - of rehearsal with nothing else going on (Winter Term Project) (Well, except that I had taken on costuming about 1.5 weeks before the show - and all costumes save one were made and designed from scratch.). So, somewhere along the line (I cannot say when for confidential reasons) it became a reality that we were going to Philadelphia in July.
That was great news. Except for the fact that between the close of the Oberlin production and the festival our director, (I will leave him anonymous for the newbie), was going back to NY to resume his full time job in the newspaper world, out brilliant music director (Chris Ertelt) was going back to Philadelphia to continue his string of successful shows, and we, the cast, were about to start our second semester and then go on to our summer activities, which included nearly 65% of the original cast going to study in Italy. Because of this trip, and an Oberlin-related summerstock program that wouldn't allow anyone to take two days off from the program (CLOC - formerly the G&S Players of Oberlin), we lost a significant portion of our cast, including 3/4 of the leads in the play, and had great difficulty in re-casting the show. It is also fair to say that a good portion of the company, including people on the production team, were completely burnt out with the show and very sick of working with the director. Scheduling rehearsals during the semester were hell, though the ones we managed to squeeze in went well. Problem was no attention was paid to re-learning the play and a number of "fill-in" cast members, including the play's Cyril (who was fantastic) and Hildebrand, were professional/semi-professional actors cast in NY and PA between April and, yes, 1.5 weeks before the Festival (which made me, the costumer, thrilled to death, let me tell you.) It also killed OGASP's Spring show Yeomen of the Guard (which had problems on its own, but when 98% of the organization was involved with 3P and the director was incredibly weak, there was no support system for the show) which got morale to an all-time low. So, all in all, nearly all members of the cast, save a small handful, were completely stressed out about the show.
So, by the time the semester let out, we had only had 3 or 4 full rehearsals of the opera (having no idea what it would be like in the actual theatre as the Opera Theater department refused to let us use the auditorium closest to the Philly theater - which, I might add, was originally built for the G&S Players), one half-assed rehearsal of the play due to lack of time and lack of cast, a couple of casting vacancies, the college (NANCY DYE) stiffed us several THOUSAND dollars promised to us (as was published in the alumni magazine singing her [undeserved] praises), and the enthusiasm level of -50.
By the time we got to Philly, we had exactly two days to rehearse 3 shows that were untouched for 2 months. One of our leads, Psyche in both the play and the opera, was ill. Several leads (Arac in the play/Sacharissa in the opera, Hilarion in the play, Gama in both the play and the opera, Hildebrand in the opera etc) were recovering from jet-lag. Several cast members drove all the way from Oberlin to Philadelphia lugging all the sets, props, etc in a truck in a 9 hour straight drive. One A.D. missed one full rehearsal day begging his "Hamlet" director to let him go to Philly. The other A.D. was still sewing costumes for people cast within the month, trying to learn her role as Florian (she had been begging for music and help from the directors to no avail) and trying not to break down into hysterics and a serious drinking binge keeping people together mentally and physically.
So, during the two days of rehearsal, there was no run through of the play, no rehearsal time in the theater, and literally 16-18 hours STRAIGHT of rehearsal time - two of us were chastised for leaving at 8:00 one night (after being in rehearsal since early morning with no break save one 15 minutes one) to take a break to see South Anglia's Yeomen after shelling out the cash for the tickets. In addition, the director wisely chose to push off any kind of costume run-throughs and tech-run-throughs, which we paid for dearly - one person quite badly.
The morning of the show, after being in rehearsal until after midnight, we were to be at the theater at 7:30 am ready to work. It was then that we had a rehearsal of the play. Surprise, surprise, Florian could barely stay awake let alone remember her lines making a fool of herself (anyone who says otherwise is lying). Everyone who wasn't suffering from serious jitters due to fear of the audience and lack of set/rehearsal/etc was too exhausted to realize what was going on. The backstage hands of the theatre were KICKED OUT. There were props and set pieces we had never seen or touched before. And, in the middle of trying to work, all the people involved with the poem had to duck out to perform. The rest of us tried to get through rehearsal with no director (as he was involved with the poem). The person in charge of getting us food forgot until the last minute, ordering pizza - a great thing to eat when about to sing and wear satin gowns and very clean costumes. We got word while getting ready that the poem was running late. So we sat trying not to break down entirely. The poem people came running in, tempers high, and needed to make a quick change out of concert garb into costumes and make-up. The play started. And flopped. We were running out of energy. We didn't have enough water backstage. We were dying.
Play ends (late) and opera is about to go up in what felt like 5 minutes (anyone know how long it was? I honestly can't remember - all I remember after the play is that I wanted to sleep). At this point, the most rehearsed and cleanest leg of the production was being performed by 60 run-down, exhausted 12-22 year olds working on one or two pieces of pizza and a bit of water for nourishment.
And then things got worse. Though I can't judge the performance (it should have been good!), I can judge technical problems. During "Do you know the kind of maid" Cyril is dancing around with a big, huge, Italian glass wine jug - and doing a good job. So the song ends and time for the "you dog!" line, which Hilarion follows with a good punch to the chin, sending Cyril to the ground (which was supposed to happen). However, as that glass jug had never been practiced with, Cyril, wearing a bright blue satin gown, began his prat fall - with his hand still holding the huge glass bottle. He then landed, all his weight, on his right hand - which was still holding the bottle, which, surprise, surprise, shattered into pieces all over stage left and into his hand. It should also be kept in mind that nearly all of us were in ballet shoes and were about to be invaded by the rest of the cast. None of us knew for sure how badly cut Cyril was (I think I was the closest to him at the time of the accident), but the scene went on and Cyril bit his lip and continued.
Now, in a real show, between acts, there would have been an intermission. But, if you were paying attention, there was no intermission. Also, the people who ran the backstage were kicked out. So, between acts, we had to find brooms, fix Cyril and get ready for the last part of the show. There was a good lag. Then the show (finally) ended.
Just in case you were concerned about Cyril, he ended up being fine - very lucky as he nearly cut through his wrist. I did find out why no one saw him bleeding until later, though - he had his hand hidden in the folds of his gown, which I found, bloody, in a pile of clothing after the show.
Leta Hall: Rica - It sounds horrific. However, it does you all great credit that the cast didn't throw up their hands en masse and walk out muttering "Hell with this." Perhaps in later years in addition to class reunions you all can have 3P veterans reunions and compare war wounds (physic for most, actual for Cyril, I guess) and drink a toast or two.
I'm sorry that all that hard work and team spirit didn't turn out as well as could be hoped, but you all deserve great praise for getting that ship in those storms to any port.
Rica Mendes: Actually, the director nearly did upon arrival when rehearsal arrangements didn't meet his approval. A couple of us, including his Assistant Director, was chomping at the bit to re-stage the show, along with at least one other cast member who shall remain nameless.
I think most of us who were doing serious swordfighting had (and still have) scars - m'self included. (TIP: If you are training people and you tell them to wear good gloves, don't forget a pair for yourself! I can't tell you how many times I cut up my hand - I still have scars).
Samuel M. Silvers: Our collective sympathy for the Obies brings to mind, I believe, a greater lesson:
We should encourage the great G&S directors, like those who have been nominated or won at the Festival, and discourage the directors who have been seen to be bad.
Now that we have this forum that allows us to give thumbs up and down for G&S performances that can be seen by all in person and by videotape, why shouldn't we be as critical (I mean, as in critiquing) of G&S directors, just as we are of movie directors, in order to improve the performance of G&S generally. In fact, why not put on the Archive reviews of directors so that groups trying to find a good G&S director in their areas can shop for them with some frame of reference and benefit from experience. In the absence of this type of information, the most aggressive, self-promoting people get hired instead of the best ones.
Let's all learn from Oberlin's biggest mistake - being taken in by this seemingly impressive person - and give everyone in the G&S world a great resource!
Sara Frommer: Rica - An amazing tale. My Oberlin days were before winter terms began, but the project sounds wonderful, if exhausting. The second production, though . . .
We now attend operas at Indiana University and often hear people saying what a shame it is that a production has only a few performances, and wouldn't it be nice if the cast could do it again somewhere else. Next time someone says that to me, I'll tell them a short version of your story.
Marc Shepherd: I appreciate Rica's full telling of the Philadelphia 3P's fiasco. As Robin Oakapple would say, "I had no idea it was anything like that."
Some of the problems with the 3P's were unavoidable. I think it's extremely difficult for a student organization that did a show in January to re-organize for a one-time-only repeat in mid-summer. This would be true under virtually any circumstances.
However, it was clear that these kids were victimized by their director. Anyone who's done theater knows the sinking feeling of trying to put on a show that's desperately in trouble. Yet, this director dismissed the Festival's professional technical stage staff, saying, "I don't need any help from any f---- Brits." So, here was a director in deep trouble booting out the very folks who could have helped him. Need I tell you that the lighting was extremely amateurish?
Plenty of people have already commented on the folly of making such a point of dividing the opera into five acts, then performing it without intermissions. Some people joked that the reason this was done was to prevent the audience from leaving after before it was over. (Plenty did that anyway.)
Rica says she doesn't remember the length of the interval between the play and the opera. I know it was long enough for a number of us to go across the street, eat a Chinese dinner, and make it back to the theater in time for the end of the overture. I'd put it at about 45 minutes.
The most revealing comment came at the end of the day, when a friend observed, "I never would have imagined that the reading of the Tennyson poem would be the highlight of the day."
J. Donald Smith: Thanks, Rica, for giving us "The Rest of the Story!" for those who weren't there, here is my report of what the Oberlin Ida looked like from the other side of the footlights (except that there weren't any footlights.)
Thursday, July 25, 1996 Philadelphia, PA
The Three Princesses (Tennyson's The Princess; Gilbert's The Princess and G&S' Princess Ida) read and performed by Oberlin College G&S Players proved the only disappointment of this part of the Festival. It was an intriguing concept of presenting the same story through three very different literary creations, but putting the concept into action proved well beyond the capacity of the director Gayden Wren to create even the minimally-competent productions.
Tennyson's The Princess provided the background for Gilbert's two "respectful perversions." Dramatization was carried out by seven readers who presented a section of the poem in turn, interrupted by effective musical performance of the songs - two with settings by Sullivan. After the three-and-a-half-hour event we adjourned to the Merriam Theater for The Princess. It is a farce which means that timing, above all else, is critical. While is was interesting to listen to familiar lines in an unfamiliar setting, the under-rehearsed production was a disappointment and we adjourned for the short break before the opera with a sense of foreboding.
After a strong overture, and the musical direction was about the only thing which gave any sense of credibility to this production, the curtain rose on the opening scene: all of the women were on their hands and knees scrubbing the floor. Apparently the Director's concept was that in medieval times women were treated badly so this was his way of showing it: noblewomen and servants alike scrubbing. That several well-endowed young ladies wearing low-cut dresses with inadequate foundation garments created a spectacle for the audience was hopefully unintended. The production went downhill from there.
With all of the cast having been in "The Princess" and some in the Poetry Reading as well, it was impossible that they could have had much left for the opera. In addition, other companies had a full day to rehearse and adapt their production to the large stage. This group obviously did not, so that instead of restaging exits and entrances to use the full stage, all were made through a black curtain at the back, making a chorus exit look like nothing so much as a rugby scrum. No one backstage even bothered to open the curtain for them so there was much groping for the opening.
While there were a few original thoughts in the production, they were so badly staged as to render them meaningless. Princess Ida sang "Minerva" to the new students as a quasi-religious ceremony. But the sight of several attractive women changing clothes on stage (to the students' uniforms) distracted from what was the best sung number of the evening. At the end of the Act III battle Hilarion was the only one left standing - an interesting interpretation. But after scanning the carnage around him, he dejectedly walked to the back of the stage and assumed a head-down position which looked for all the world as if he were peeing against the back wall. It was that kind of production.
One of the more polite lines heard after the very long day (12:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. with only two 30 minute breaks, no intermissions in the play or opera, and some of the same performers in all three casts, this after a 15-hour rehearsal the day before) was "This amounts to child abuse." Another line heard: "Who would have thought at the beginning of the day that the best activity would be a reading of a Tennyson poem?" There was some good raw talent in the cast which a good director could have brought out. As it was, the cast will have to bear the stigma of the production for something which was not their fault.
Page created 10 May 1998