Upheaval behind the scenes

`Tintypes' set as first performance at new black box theatre in HCC's Horowitz center

October 27, 2006|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN REPORTER

During rehearsals this week of Rep Stage's next production, characters onstage explored the social and political upheaval of the turn of the 20th century while workers behind the scenes confronted the upheaval of breaking in a brand-new theater.

The professional theater company in residence at Howard Community College is producing Tintypes in the black box theatre at the college's new Peter and Elizabeth Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center.

In the show, which runs tonight through Nov. 19, a five-person company performs a string of musical numbers featuring songs from the late 1800s and early 1900s - including patriotic, ragtime, spiritual and vaudeville numbers. The music and speeches from key figures of the time paint a picture of the rapid changes influenced by immigration, technology, art and industry.

"The burgeoning century is the theme of the whole show," said director Carole Graham Lehan. "That's what's happening with the theater. There is so much potential in the future. ... It's very exciting because every day is a discovery."

Some of those discoveries are pleasant, like the ease with which the company can remove railings and use a balcony as acting space, a ventilation system that quickly clears away "fog" used as a special effect and an unusually large two-room control booth.

But with any new space, there is a learning curve, said the company's production manger, Brett Ashley Crawford. The lighting system is new and the delivery of the sound system was delayed. The seats and risers arrived this week, and little things, from a coffee maker to a box for ticket stubs had to be installed.

"I haven't felt what the space is like as of today," Lehan said four days before the show's opening. She said the addition of chairs, curtains and scenery has changed the acoustics as the rehearsals have progressed.

"We'll be in a discovery period for the next couple of days," she said.

The term "black box" refers to a flexible space where the stage and seating can be configured in many ways. The walls, floor and ceiling are traditionally painted black so they can be decorated for any type of production.

"The good part about [a black box] is you can make your choice for each production what kind of relationship you can have between the actor and the audience," said Daniel Ettinger, the scenic designer for Tintypes.

In this case, he worked with Lehan to create a two-tiered stage with audience seating on three sides. The stage is made of wooden planks to suggest a dock where passenger ships arrive. The backdrop uses an image of the Statue of Liberty.

Ettinger designed a staircase up to the theater's built-in balcony. After working in the college's much smaller Theatre Outback, he said, "it is so much more pleasant to be in a black box that has the height. This really does give them a lot more opportunity to play."

The fact that everything in HCC's new theater space is new and up to date is a plus as well.

"It's a challenge because it is new, but it's a fabulous space to work in," said Crawford. "We're playing with a new toy."

The three-sided seating arrangement will remain for HCC's Student-Alumni Arts production of You're A Good Man Charlie Brown and then, Crawford said, in the six days after that show closes, the theater will be prepared for the opening of Rep Stage's The Santaland Diaries.

In keeping with tradition, Michael Stebbins, Rep Stage's artistic director, said the first and last shows of the group's season are in the Smith Theatre, which is a larger, traditional, fixed-seat space. But he said the black box will be useful for a variety of productions in the future.

Stebbins said the whole feel of Tintypes is a good fit for unveiling the new space.

"I was thinking something celebratory, something American," he said. "Tintypes sort of spoke to me in that regard in terms of the opening of the space."

Information and tickets for Rep Stage: www.repstage.org or 410-772-4900.

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

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