Arts and Culture 2011

Amy Holtcamp



Behind the Scenes: Inside Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Posted 3/29/2012 5:54:00 PM

I live a bit of a double life. When I’m not traveling the state seeking out new artists and attending events as the S.C. Arts and Culture Insider, I’m a South Carolina artist myself.

Right now I’m directing a production of Tennessee Williams’ Southern classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Workshop Theatre in Columbia, one of the many wonderful, small theaters in the state. And I want to give you an insider’s look at what goes into putting on a play.

Nine Months until opening

My work as a director begins as soon as I found out I’ll be directing the play. I read and reread the script until I know it inside and out. It’s my job to try to figure out what the playwright wanted the audience to take away from the play. Over the coming months, I’ll communicate that idea to the actors, designers and production staff working on the play so that every element of the production helps tell the same story.

This is the second time I’ve directed a play at Workshop, and it’s a wonderful place to work as a director. The theater was started by a group of directors, and that focus remains tightly embedded in the theater’s DNA.

“We’ve been in business for 44 years,” explains Workshop’s Executive Director Jeni McCaughn. “We had 13 directors at Town Theatre and they decided that they wanted a theater that was solely for directors – where directors could pick shows that they loved and had a passion for. So those 13 people mortgaged their homes to start Workshop Theatre. That’s how much they loved it and believed in this theater.”

Today, the people who do shows at Workshop display that same love for and belief.

Hunter Boyle, who plays Big Daddy Pollit in Cat in a Hot Tin Roof and has acted on the Workshop stage since 1988, says that acting at Workshop “…feeds the artistic part of my soul.” Boyle, who has an MFA in Acting and has worked as a professional actor across the country, has a special place in his heart for his hometown theater. “I consider it my theatrical home.”

It’s a sentiment that’s shared by Samantha Elkins, who plays Maggie in the play. “When I moved to South Carolina, this was the first theater where I worked. It kind of feels like home here. Working here … it’s like coming home again.”

Two months until opening

If you’ve seen the movie Waiting for Guffman, you might expect that auditions at a community theater would be little more than an endless parade of colorful, local weirdos who have never stepped foot on a stage. It’s a great movie, but Guffman couldn’t be further from reality here in Columbia.

In fact, there are so many great actors in town that casting is always difficult. “Columbia has an incredible group of people that are so talented … it’s just really electric sometimes,” McCaughn says.

Actors are asked to prepare a monologue (a short speech from a play) and perform it alone on stage. I might also ask them to read something from the play to see if they’re right for a certain role, or to try to get a feeling for their ability to play different parts. Over the course of two nights I saw nearly 50 actors for eight adult roles. It is a blessing and curse to have more qualified and talented performers than parts, but after some tough decisions, we are able to notify the actors and post the cast list.

Six weeks until opening

Rehearsals begin with a table reading. The whole cast gathers around a conference table and reads the script out loud together for the first time. This is when I start to get really excited; finally the play is not just words on the page but is being brought to life by the cast.

Luckily, the cast shares my enthusiasm for Tennessee Williams’ play. “When I first read the play, I, of course, fell in love with it,” says Jason Stokes. Stokes plays Brick, the alcoholic, ex-football player at the center of the story. “The language is incredible and when you have a really talented cast who can pull it off, it’s a lot like Shakespeare for Southern people in that you can read it and get part of it, but to see it the way it’s supposed to be done … it’s just an incredible piece. And it’s a moving piece.”

After the read through, I go home happily looking forward to rehearsals. I pull in the driveway and notice a text on my phone. It’s from McCaughn and it’s bad news. The woman who was playing Mae (a.k.a. Sister Woman) has dropped out of the play because of a scheduling conflict and, as it turns out, our leading lady, Elkins, has called to say that a new conflict has arisen for one of our performance dates.

Over the next week we work to fill the two sudden vacancies in our roster. McCaughn and I reach out to local actress E.G. Heard. She didn’t originally audition because she had a conflict for one of the performance dates, which luckily do not overlap with Elkins’. Although it’s a little unorthodox, we decide to double cast these ladies as Maggie, the role Elizabeth Taylor played in the film version.

Four weeks to go

Thankfully we’ve replaced the Sister Woman and have a full cast once again! While the set is being built at the theater, we are over at Workshop’s classroom and rehearsal space, the Kristen Davis Studios. (Davis, who played Charlotte on Sex and the City, is a S.C. native, an alum of Workshop’s theater school and a generous donor.)

These early rehearsals involve a lot of staging, or figuring out all of the actors’ movements on the stage. As a director, I’m somewhat of a traffic cop, looking out for collisions and trying to make sure there’s a fluid motion to the play. We don’t have a set at this point, so we build makeshift scenery: folding chairs stand in for a sofa and an old, plywood platform is a bed.

In general, we rehearse six days a week for four hours a day. Outside of rehearsals, the actors have to find time to learn their lines. Though the time commitment is something akin to a part-time job, most of the people in the production are volunteers.

It’s really wonderful to be part of a show where everyone involved is there out of his or her sheer enthusiasm for the project. McCaughn thinks that giving local talent an outlet is one of the best things about community theater. “[Workshop’s shows] really give the actors, who have daytime jobs, something to do to express their love of theater and their passion for the art.”

Heard, one of our Maggies who also teaches drama at a local school, is a great example. “I find a lot of joy working on shows,” she says. “It’s what I love to do. I find it always helpful and wonderful to remind myself why I love it because I teach it. I love being on stage … I keep coming back. It’s a wonderful experience.”

Three weeks until opening

While I continue to work with the actors at the studio space, the set is shaping up over at Workshop.

The set design is by Randy Strange; incredibly the set is his 194th design at Workshop. The play takes place in a bedroom sitting room on a lavish Mississippi Plantation, and the set’s rich red tones and the exquisite furniture perfectly capture the home of this wealthy Southern family.

“I want to live in it!” our assistant stage manager Suzi Stockdell exclaims while smoothing out a few wrinkles from the decadent silk brocade comforter.

The play is all about the lies that we tell the world, our loved ones and ourselves. There’s a lot of “sneakin’ and spyin’” as Big Daddy points out in the play. The set helps tell that story by creating a bedroom with invisible walls. When people are outside of the room eavesdropping, the characters might not know they are there, but the audience does.

Every time I stop by the theater, from now until opening, Strange will have added some new detail. Antique doorknobs one day, a tile wall in the bathroom behind a door the next, ferns, Chinese lanterns; Strange never stops perfecting his vision for the set.

One week until opening

We’re rehearsing in the theater now and Strange’s set is bringing new life to the actors’ performances. The imagination that they’ve spent on pretending that a folding chair is a comfy sofa can now be channeled into their characterizations.

It’s time to complete the picture with lights, sound and costumes during a sometimes-exhausting process we call “tech week.” The week before opening night will include extra long rehearsals, including one 10 hour day, and the actors will not have another day off until the Sunday after we open.

When the actors change out of their jeans, leggings, boots and sneakers and into their costumes, it adds a whole new dimension to the play. Suddenly we are transported to 1955, and even in the air-conditioned theater you begin to feel the heat of a Mississippi summer. The costumes assist in telling the story of this household; one need only look at Big Mama’s lush silk dress next to Sookey’s cotton maid uniform to know something about what separates these two women.

Costumes not only tell the audience about the characters, but they also inform the actors’ performances as well. At costume fittings I love to see the way that the actors’ physicality changes with what they are wearing. Charlie Goodrich, who plays Gooper, tugs at his suit in a way that perfectly suits his character. In Maggie’s trademark slip, Elkins and Heard begin to feel how exposed and vulnerable their character is. Boyle adds some makeup – age lines, red under his eyes and a sallow tone - and grays his hair. Suddenly the rest of the cast seems to understand the extent of Big Daddy’s illness.

Tech goes smoothly. Barry Sparks’ masterful lighting design adds new dimension to the play. When the actors talk about the moonlight, we see it too. My husband has, once again, been roped into working on a show; along with Barry’s lights, his sound design creates a wild storm and a flurry of fireworks.

After a long week of hard work, the show is ready. All we need now is an audience.

Opening Night

Opening night is a time for excitement and jitters, fear and anticipation. When I ask Boyle how he feels on opening night he responds, “Nervous. Thrilled.”

Jen Simmons, the wonderful replacement we found for Sister Woman, has extra reason to be jittery. A mother of a two-year-old who works full time and is attending the University of South Carolina to get her Masters of Teaching degree in Drama, she hasn’t been on stage for more than 10 years.

“The day of the performance I got incredibly nervous,” she says. “I had butterflies in my stomach the whole day -- up until about 20 min. before the show … It was strange because right about then, this overwhelming sense of calmness overcame me and then we just went out there and did it!”

So many people put in so many hours and so much hard work to make the show a success. But no play is complete until you have an audience.

Simmons agrees. “The audience is essentially the last piece of the puzzle -- an additional integral element to the show. There's an energy that the audience brings in that helps us and motivates us. Up until opening night it feels like something is missing -- then when you go on stage with the audience -- you feel complete!”

As the director, when opening night rolls around, my work is done. There’s nothing left for me to do but sit back and enjoy the show. But for the actors, and the audiences, it’s just the beginning.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs now through March 31 at Workshop Theatre. Click here for a performance schedule and to buy tickets.

Some other community theaters throughout the state:
The list below offers just a sample of the great, small theaters in South Carolina. Some are community theaters, like Workshop, others are small professional companies. What they all have in common is that they are highlighting great local talent and working hard to entertain their communities and visitors alike. Wherever your travels take you, see what’s playing and enjoy a night at the theater!

Aiken – Aiken Community Playhouse 
Anderson – Electric City Playhouse
Barnwell – Circle Theatre 
Charleston – Footlight Players 
Chester – Chester Little Theatre 
Clemson – Clemson Little Theater
Seneca – Oconee Community Theater 
Columbia – Town Theatre (the oldest, continually running community theater in the U.S.) 
Columbia – Trustus 
Conway – Theatre of the Republic
Easley – Foothills Playhouse 
Florence – Florence Little Theatre 
Fountain Inn – Fountain Inn Repertory Experience 
Greenville – Greenville Little Theatre 
Greenville – Warehouse Theatre 
Greenwood – Greenwood Community Theatre 
Hartsville – Hartsville Community Players 
Hilton Head Island– South Carolina Repertory Company 
Laurens – Laurens County Community Theatre 
Mount Pleasant – The Village Playhouse 
Murrells Inlet – Murrells Inlet Community Theatre 
Orangeburg – Orangeburg Part-Time Players 
Rock Hill – Rock Hill Community Theatre 
Spartanburg – Spartanburg Little Theatre 
Spartanburg – Spartanburg Repertory Company 
Summerville – The Flowertown Players 
Sumter – Sumter Little Theatre 
Walterboro – Lowcountry Community Players