Tips of the Month
Costume Treasure Trove
In operation for more than 40 years, New York City's Theatre Development Fund (TDF) Costume Collection has over 80,000 theatrical costumes available for rental to community and regional theatres, civic and religious groups, as well as schools, colleges and universities nationwide. Created in 1968 to help strengthen Broadway and Off Broadway, in particular serious dramatic plays, TDF has subsidized more than 1,000 plays and musicals, including 34 productions that later became Pulitzer Prize winners, and has developed a wide-ranging variety of programs to serve audiences and theatres. Located within New York’s historic Kaufman Astoria Studios, the TDF Costume Collection sprawls over 16,000 square feet on the seven-building campus where numerous films and television shows are produced. You can view selected items from the TDF Costume Collection online on Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, and Pinterest. But to really understand the incredible breadth of what we have available, TDF recommends that you make plans to visit the collection in person. Click here for hours and address.
If you need an umbrella to look as though it just came out of the rain, spatter it with a thin solution of white glue. Lights shining on the dried glue will reflect as though off wet spots. Caution: don't spatter borrowed umbrellas, since the glue is permanent.
The Eyes Have It
When making up eyes, use eyeliner to paint a small black dot at the corner of the eye nearest the nose. The result gives more impact to the eye makeup without being noticeable in itself.
In an audition, says Michael Shurtleff, don't stop if you're doing badly. Instead, get angry at your reading partner, or kiss your partner and offer words of endearment. "Either action, however unsuited to the script you may think it is, will connect you with your partner, will create relationship, will renew what you're fighting for, and will interest the auditors in you. There's nothing to be gained by stopping and everything to be gained if you take a big blame-or-love risk to rescue yourself."
There's an Idea
A makeup idea file can be a real timesaver when you get into production of a show. A typical file would include good, crisp photographs of people, young and old, of different races, from different cultures and eras. Magazines are a good source, as are art reproductions for historical characters. (Check out second hand bookstores.) You can break up the collection into such categories as "Old Age--Male," "Old Age--Female," "Bald Heads," "Hair," "Historical," "Scars," "Noses," "Mouths and Chins." A three-ring binder with 8 1/2" x 11" transparent acetate pages works best to hold your idea file--the pictures slip in easily and the acetate protects them from dust and makeup stains.
During the run of a show have the actors store their hats on a head block when they are not being worn. The exception is rigid hats, such as toppers and derbies, which should be placed in hat boxes. Taking such care will lengthen the life of hats considerably.
In fundraising, remember that people give to people, not organizations, a direct mail piece or even to a building. They give to other individuals--a friend who has asked for help, a business contact, a person who inspires their confidence. Always try to make appeals as personal as possible.
The Numbers Game
Along with your rehearsal schedule include a wallet-sized piece of paper with important phone numbers that can be clipped for the cast member's wallet or purse. List a number where cast members can call to leave messages, the contact numbers of the director and stage manager, the theater (backstage) and box office. Don't post these online unless you have a password-protected site.
Keeping It Dry
Double-check your backstage area to make sure you have a fire extinguisher that is safe for electrical fires. One theater company found that their extinguisher was water-based only after a cable shorted out. Luckily the fire was put out before someone used the extinguisher; it was only when the fire department investigated that the lack of a dry extinguisher was noted and one was installed.
One of our members recently attended a performance in which one of the actors soon became a distracting, irksome presence. The actor in question never missed a cue, was always on mark, and was vocally and physically in character. So what was the problem? The reason was not obvious at first, but gradually the realization set in: the actor's eyes wandered constantly from actor to actor, from left to right, from audience back to the stage. Never once did they ever seem to come to light on anything for more than a few seconds. Despite the fact that everything else was in control, this one thing- -the inability to focus attention--destroyed totally any illusion that the actor was a part of the dramatic action.
Dress shields sewn into the armholes of all clothes makes for a longer life for your costumes. They can be bought in all sizes and are available for men as well; however, if you can't find the men's shields, use the largest size in women's. Perspiration not only stains costumes, it can rot fabric.
Looking for a way to increase audiences at your productions? Consider giving free performances of one-act plays or a musical revue in city parks, or at local shopping centers. While your audience is gathered, have company members pass among them with information about your company. Even better, have tables with sign-up sheets placed strategically about the area, so that departing audience members can leave their names and addresses (including email) for future mailings.
The best way to get over stage fright is to focus one's attention on one's acting partner, playing the scene totally to and with them. When the focus is off the audience and on the other actor, stage fright usually goes away and one's performance is enhanced considerably.
As the Day Goes On
To suggest a transition from late afternoon to evening lighting, double-hang instruments with the two basic color schemes. Blend for late afternoon,then use a long, slow fade to the evening colors.
Avoid running a continuous sound effect for more than a few minutes at full volume. For example, a 20-minute scene during a thunderstorm may become tedious if sound effects are overused. In real life one is not aware of the constant sound of rain, but rather of the changes in the sound of the drops or wind velocity, or occasional thunderclaps. Good sound effects heighten the effect you want in the scene, not overwhelm it.
When negotiating for a theater space, make a note of all repairs and improvements that will be necessary to convert the space into a theater. Get estimates of the cost involved. That way you'll have an easier time negotiating for repairs and improvements with the landlord.
Paint--Wet & Dry
When using dry paints for sets, remember that water added to the pigment makes the color much darker than it will be after it dries. To avoid problems, mix the colors while still dry, noting the proportions used; then add water. Paint a test piece of wood or canvas and blow-dry. If the result is good, go ahead and mix the entire batch. Otherwise, continue the experiment. Be sure to mix more than enough paint, since it is almost impossible to match the color if you run short.
When reading for a part for which you cannot find proper motivation, consider using the desire to change your partner. The change desired must be concrete in your mind--for example, "I love you, but if you'd only..." There are any number of ways an actor can "point up" a particular word or phrase in a speech: through a rise or fall in pitch; a rise in volume, or a fall in volume followed by an increased intensity; slowing down; a movement or gesture just before the word or phrase; or even by elongating vowel sounds ("Oh, on the caaaaahntrary").
- Limit the number of fill-in-the-blank questions, and replace with those that can be answered by circling yes or no, or a series of numbers indicating a range of opinion. You'll increase your response. One survey company doubled the response to 30 questions by reducing fill-in-the-blank responses from 15 to only two.
- When surveying about your season or services, ask respondents what they liked most about these. It not only helps you continue to emphasize things that people like, but it may provide you with testimonials you can use in brochures or other marketing pieces.
- Ask those who disagree to paraphrase one another's comments. This may help them learn if they really understand one another.
- Work out a compromise. Agree on the underlying source of conflict, then engage in give-and-take, and finally agree on a solution.
- Ask each person to list what the other side should do. Exchange lists, select a compromise all are willing to accept, and test the compromise to see if it meshes with the goals of the group as a whole.
- Have the sides each write 10 questions for their opponents. This will allow them to signal their major concerns about the other side's position. And the answers may lead to a compromise.
- Help people understand they sometimes have to admit they're wrong. Help them save face by convincing them that changing a position may well show strength.
- Respect the experts in the group. Give their opinions more weight when the conflict involves their expertise, but don't rule out conflicting opinions.
You can darken tan leather belts and shoes by wiping them with a cloth dipped in ammonia. Apply the ammonia as evenly as possible to avoid leaving streaks on the weather. (Do this outside or in a well-ventilated area, since ammonia fumes are irritating to eyes and nose.)
Families That Play Together
Bringing families to the theater is the idea behind a number of well-received programs around the country. Two decades ago, "Family Week at the Theatre" (now called Stages Festival) became the first statewide celebration of theater for New Jersey's young people and their families. During the first week of March, which is also Arts In Education Month, New Jersey's professional theater community has offered free and discounted performances, workshops, play readings and behind-the-scenes events for all ages. Many theaters host backstage tours, workshops, open rehearsals, and other free events designed for multi-generational participation, including free performances. In Louisville, Kentucky, Stage One offers a four-person Family Pass for $125 ("Flexible tickets - a $350 value") and a two-person pass for $65 (a $175 value). Pass holders may reserve the respective amount of tickets for any of StageOne’s four Mainstage Productions, Exclusive Member Movies Series, or StoryTeller Events. They also receive exclusive discounts & pre-sale offers to other family friendly performances held at The Kentucky Center. [More...]
Take It Off
Forget scraping and soaking when price tags, stickers, and decals won't come off equipment or other recently purchased items. Instead, tackle the problem with solvents designed for the job, such as Goof Off or Goo Gone. They not only lift off stickers (and the gummy residue they leave behind), but also remove crayon scribbles, dried glue, chewing gum, tape, and tar from most objects. (They also remove paint, so don't use on walls.) Both products are sold in hardware and paint stores, and online.
If you're planning to hold a special event somewhere outside your theater, you know that most hotels and country clubs charge a lot, and often require that you use their equally expensive in-house catering services. Instead, consider renting space for your reception in a public or historic building, a local park, a botanical garden, a museum, or a university. The fee for use of such spaces is often minimal, and you can order food and decorations from your own sources. While it's true that some of these facilities have special requirements (a historical building, for example, may not allow you to attach decorations to the wall), they're often more understanding of the fundraising needs of other nonprofit organizations.
Here are two useful suggestions from professional woodworkers:
- You can stop splits when nailing wood by staggering the nails along the grain of the board. Never drive two nails into the same grain line. Blunting a nail's point, by taping it lightly with a hammer before using it, will also lessen the chance of the nail splitting the wood as you nail.
- If a screw hole has enlarged so that the screw has lost its grip, coat a wooden chopstick with glue and use it to plug the hole. When the glue dries, trim the chopstick flush with the surface and refasten the screw. You can do the same thing with a wooden matchstick to plug a smaller hole.
Steam and Clean
Is the inside of your backstage microwave oven beginning to look like the Carlsbad Caverns? It's easy to happen when many people use the same oven and don't clean up after themselves. You can steam-clean the oven by boiling a bowl of water inside. The steam softens the grease and dried food particles so that you can wipe the oven clean. If spills are particularly gruesome, cover them with a wet paper towel and run the oven on "high" for 10 seconds. This will loosen most baked-on food.
The best storage for shoes is in boxes, says costume consultant Charlotte French, but in most cases a shoe rack will do fine. "They may get dusty on a rack, but that isn't a problem with leather shoes, because you can just dust them off," French says. "Cloth-covered shoes, however, should be kept covered. And unusual or valuable shoes should be kept in boxes." If you have some very good or unusual shoes you can use shoe trees, she says, but you might just as well assume that as insoles age they will curl. "It's a natural process, and you can't do much to stop it," she says. "If they're good shoes, you can always have the insoles replaced at a shoe repair shop."
Combining safety, convenience, and security in one package, motion-sensitive floodlights make a sound but inexpensive investment for many theaters. Once installed, they will turn on as a truck pulls up to the loading dock or a worker approaches the back entrance to your theater. They also help deter prowlers. Motion-sensitive lights are available at lighting and hardware stores for as little as $30. And don't forget solar-powered models for locations that don't have electrical outlets handy.
Iowan Evelyn Stanske reminded us of the costumer's trick of using vodka to remove odor from the underarms of costumes. The vodka is dispensed as a fine mist from a plastic spray bottle; the alcohol neutralizes the odor and kills bacteria that cause the problem in the first place. While many costumers use this method, they suggest that before spraying any natural fiber material (artificial fibers aren't harmed) that you first test the effect on an inconspicuous area of the fabric.
That's Oil, Folks!
The product's "real" uses (at least as advertised) are to stop squeaks, protect metal from rust, and free sticky mechanisms. But in the immensely entertaining WD-40 Book, authors Tim Nyberg and Ken Massey discuss a host of other uses of this familiar backstage fixture. Some examples: removing glue from fingers; removing lipstick stains; unsticking a computer keyboard and mouse; removing rings from fingers; keeping wasps from building a nest under eaves; and removing gummed labels and duct tape residue from most surfaces. ("WD," explain the authors, stands for "water displacer" and its formula--perfected on the 40th try.)
In the Public Eye
Looking for a way to increase audiences at your productions? Consider giving free performances of one act plays or a musical revue in city parks or at local shopping centers. While your audience is gathered, have company members pass among them with information about your company. Even better, have clearly marked tables with sign up sheets placed strategically about the area, and ask departing audience members to leave their names and addresses (snail & email) for future mailings.
"Finger Jell-O" makes a good (and easily made) substitute for prop candy, says theatre consultant Charlotte French. French learned this when she had to come up with a plate of exotic candy for a production of Kismet. "You can cut it to any size, and it's not messy," she explains. "It's easy to eat, not filling, and doesn't stick in the throat like some real candy. The sugar-free kind doesn't leave a sticky residue, either."
When using dry paints for sets, remember that water added to the pigment makes the color much darker than it will be after it dries. To avoid this problem, you can mix the colors while still dry, noting the proportions used, then add water. Paint a test piece of wood or canvas and blow dry. If the result is good, go ahead and mix the entire batch. Otherwise, continue the experiment. It's always a good idea to mix more than enough paint--it's almost impossible to match the color if you run short later.
When sending out a fundraising letter consider these eight tips from marketing experts. First, put yourself in your prospect's shoes. Ask yourself whether your words appeal to your prospects' interests or needs. Write from their point of view. Second, write the way you talk. Maintain an easy-to-understand, simple, friend-to-friend style. Third, develop a powerful, interest-holding first paragraph. Give the reader a reason to read on. Fourth, specifics are more meaningful than generalities. If there is a problem, explain it in straightforward terms, and be as focused on your proposed solution. Fifth, people give to people, not organizations. Put your needs in the context of their effect on your own community. Explain how the money raised will make a difference in someone's life. Sixth, build conviction. Use testimonials, facts and reasonable expectations, rather than extremes. "Without this new theater, the arts in Uniontown are doomed" is not likely to scare anyone into donating, and may turn off many prospective donors. Seventh, ask the reader to do something. Mail, call, visit, ask further questions, whatever--always invite a response. And make it easy for them with a response card, a street address, phone, or email address. (Be sure to note the hours your theater office is open.)
According to sound experts, it's best to run a continuous sound effect no longer than a few minutes at full volume. A 20-minute scene during a thunderstorm, for example, could become tedious if the sound effect continues full blast throughout. In real life we aren't aware of the constant sound of rain, the experts point out, but rather of the changes in the sound of the raindrops or the wind velocity, or of occasional thunderclaps. Their advice: bring the sound down after a few minutes, then find places to raise the volume briefly.
To Dye For
Recently SD costume consultant Charlotte French purchased a large quantity of buttons, cheap. Trouble was, they were not the right color for her immediate needs. Then an idea struck, and presto! Some navy blue Rit dye transformed a group of these buttons from brownish gray to bluish gray. "You often find cards of buttons on sale," she says, "and usually you have to go with the color you get. Of course, dye isn't going to change a bright red button to navy blue, but if the button is light colored--and most of them are--you should be able to tint it enough to work with a particular costume."
Off to the Right Start
When sending out press releases or media alerts, first determine the recipients' reason to read your piece before writing anything. Then write a subject line that persuades your target to read your message. Remember your recipients are busy media professionals. There are two primary considerations on their minds: readership interest and editorial interest. Your title can make a difference between being read, and possibly acted upon or being tossed without being read. Note: This may mean customizing each announcement you send.
Keep an Eye On It
If you own your own theater, consider installing a one-way viewing hole in the doors between the auditorium and the lobby corridors. This will allow house staff to keep an eye on the progress of the show without having to open the doors constantly.
After washing synthetic wigs in detergent, oil soap or in a synthetic wig wash, rinse them in a solution of water and fabric softener to help combat static electricity. To dry, place the wig in a net bag and run it through the dryer on the air fluff (no heat) cycle. Important: These instructions apply only to synthetic, not natural hair, wigs.
Light On the Subject
When lighting with the same color from both sides, use a slightly different shade on each side to add interest.
Fangs a Lot
Hosting a blood drive during a run of Dracula is both good publicity and an excellent community relations gesture. That's what the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, did, in cooperation with the local Red Cross. Donors were taken by appointment or as walk-ins, and were rewarded with a complimentary ticket to the play.
No Male Magnolias
As we have reported before, it's often illegal to change the gender of characters in plays protected by copyright. A famous example was a production of Steel Magnolias, in which the role of beauty-shop owner Truvy was to be played by a male--who just happened to be a professional hairdresser. Three weeks before opening night, Dramatists Play Service ordered the show's producer to recast the role with a woman or lose the rights to stage the play. Like many other playwrights (including Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams), Robert Harling would not permit the substitution on the grounds that it violated the artistic integrity of his play. "I have never checked with a publishing house on who I cast before," the producer told the New York Times. "We do a lot of nontraditional casting here and we don't ask, for instance, if we can cast a black actor in a role traditionally played by a white person. So what is the difference here? Is one type of discrimination OK, and another not?" Dramatists Play Service, like any royalty house, was simply carrying out the wishes of the author, as it is required to do. It's a good idea, therefore, to read the specifics of any royalty contract, many of which have specific bans on gender changes.
Often a call for auditions fails to pull in enough people because many would-be actors are unfamiliar with the play in question. The Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, came up with a solution that was both fun and effective. All those interested in auditioning for the upcoming play were invited to a play reading. Descriptions of characters were provided, as well as the rehearsal schedule. "Remember, this is not an audition, nor will the director be present for the reading," read the company's announcement, making a very good selling point. "It is simply an opportunity to become familiar with the script." The reading was also open to those interested in working backstage or in other areas.
If you sell refreshments or other items in the lobby during intermission, make sure that signs advertising these items are posted high enough to be seen. Do not tape signs to hang down from a table or counter--as soon as several people stand in front, the sign cannot be seen. To serve people faster (and sell more), make sure that patrons form one line that moves down the refreshment table, picking up food and drink, and paying at the end. This avoids a crush of customers jockeying for position at the front of the table.
Measure for Measure
When measuring for costumes, make sure the actor is wearing only underwear, and use a measuring tape that has not been stretched. Have actors stand up straight with their weight evenly distributed; posture and balance should feel natural and comfortable. Make sure they do not hold their breath during measurements. Measure each arm and each leg separately, since they may differ in length. When taking vertical and horizontal measurements, keep the tape taut. When taking circumference measurements, keep the tape snug, but not tight, and keep the tape measure level and parallel to the floor. Keep your fingers on top of the tape, never between the tape and the body.
Just the FAQs
If you find yourself responding to the same questions about your company, year after year, consider collecting these and publishing them as a lobby handout or an article in your newsletter or season mailer. Topics could include company history, previous productions, your nonprofit status, where your sets and actors come from, and policies on ticket returns and refunds. (Make sure all these are on your website, as well.)
Two Can Play
What do you do when your show is so popular that you have to turn people away? Gloat? When a Virginia-based company found itself in this position, the director wondered if he might collaborate with another local theater company to bring his sold-out revue to a larger audience. He found a company willing to help, and the show played two additional performances, with the two groups splitting the profits and making many theatergoers very happy.
Drama techniques are an effective method for promoting facility in English as a second language among young children, according to Enhancing the Practice of Drama in Education Through Research. The drama group of students showed significantly greater improvement than the control group in terms of total verbal output.
Trippingly On the Tongue
One of the things Royal Shakespeare Company director Adrian Noble has devoted much attention to at the company is teaching his actors the special talent of speaking Shakespeare's verse properly. It's an art, he agrees, that some people believe impossible for an American actor to muster.
It shouldn't be," he told Blake Green of the San Francisco Chronicle. "The kind of whole, wonderful energies inside the American accent and dialects should be good for Shakespeare. But you need to harness the rhythmical energy of Shakespeare to that accent, and for some reason that's difficult--maybe because American actors try to play naturalistic, the whole modern Stanislavsky tradition, and Shakespeare was writing for a very different kind of actor. He wouldn't have understood 'characterization,' having provided the information and the psychology of the character within the dialogue."
Protect Your Eyes
Mascara, eyeliner and eye shadow usually pose no danger, but some people do get eye infections from makeup. The UC Berkeley Wellness Letter advises these precautions:
- Buy mascara in small amounts. If it or any eye product is more than a few months old, throw it out. Because actors tend to keep mascara around for months or years, it's the most commonly contaminated eye makeup (preservatives become less effective after a few months). Bacteria in mascara can enter the eye.
- Don't use saliva to wet eye makeup. Mouth bacteria can be carried to the eye.
- Don't use eye makeup if you have an eye infection, such as conjunctivitis, and throw away all products you were using when you first discovered the infection.
- Don't share eye makeup. Another person's bacteria may be harmless to them but not for you.
Getting to Know Them
Theater companies often wonder where new audiences will come from. Five local arts groups in the Port Angeles, Washington, area staffed a booth at the local Home Show under a banner "Local Artists for Local Art."
According to the Olympic Theatre Arts newsletter, the groups put a packet of information together to give to passersby, telling them something about each of the organizations. There were drawings for prizes ("The Home Show wouldn't be nearly as much fun without them"), and an opportunity for people to sign up for any of the organization mailing lists.
Groups were busy all day telling people about their organizations and encouraging them to get involved, the newsletter said. "Many people were interested in theater and music--some we recognized, and some were new to us. We talked to folks of all ages, and many of the children wanted to know when the next show was, and how they could audition. Frankly, I was amazed by the amount of interest among the young people who wandered by."
The booth was a simple and effective way to contact potential audience members, and "equally important, it was an opportunity to talk to each other and share ideas and news," the article adds. "After all, whatever we call ourselves, we are all tilling a common soil--the love for theater and the burning desire to share that love with our community."
"I always like to do Shakespeare in modernish dress because I want to put people into clothes rather than costumes," says director-actor Ian McKellen. "It's a shorthand storytelling device. You can tell by what somebody is wearing how much money they've got, whether they've not no taste, whether they are in the military or a civil servant or an aristocrat. If you put everybody in pageant costume and floppy hats and tights and hands on hip, you don't know who the hell anybody is."
Dealing with Difficult Types
When dealing with difficult people, realize that different types need different handling. Some examples.
The aggressor, who is intimidating, hostile and loves to threaten. Listen to everything the person has to say. Avoid arguments and be formal, calling the person by name. Be concise and clear with your reactions. A good phrase is "I can understand how you might feel that way," followed by your proposed solution to the problem.
The underminer, who takes pride in criticism and may be sarcastic or devious. Focus on the issues and don't acknowledge sarcasm. Don't react to the manner of the message, but the message itself.
The unresponsive person, who is difficult to talk to and never reveals his or her ideas. Ask open-ended questions and learn to be silent--wait for the person to say something. Be patient and friendly.
The egotist, who knows it all and feels and acts superior. Make sure you know the facts in the matter. Agree when possible and ask questions and listen. Disagree when you know you're right, backing up your response with the facts. ("I can understand how you might feel that way" is a good phrase here as well.)
A Different Slant
Director Dianna Shuster, of San Jose's American Musical Theatre, believes that Sondheim wrote A Little Night Music in three-quarter time "not to prove he could do it--the conventional wisdom," but "because the show is basically about a menage a trois," according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. She used that idea in the staged overture, with groups of three actors waltzing together.