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Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Casting Change in West Side Story and Three Sisters

Although there has been no official announcement, there have been some casting changes for both West Side Story and Three Sisters. Unfortunately, company member Stephen Roberts was injured during West Side Story rehearsals and has been replaced for the season by Festival alum Randy Ganne (left), and Dalal Badr (right) is taking over the role of Irina in Three Sisters, for a happily expectant Adrienne Gould.

New Funding for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

In an April 28 news release, it was announced that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is one of several arts institutions being bolstered by the Federal Government. With the extra $3million dollars the Festival plans to re-open dates for A Midsummer Night's Dream, and at these shows hopes to host student groups from Northern Ontario who would not otherwise have the opportunity to attend the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

On the job with... Neil Cheney

(As appears in the April 2009 Newsletter for Friends of the Festival)

The Basics:
Name: “Neil Cheney.”
Hails from: “Right here in Stratford.”
Been with the Festival: “35 years. Or so.”
Title: Head of Scenic Construction and Carpentry, Brunswick St. workshop
Working on which shows: “All of them!”
Works with how many people: “Approximately 100 people on various crews; my own crew has about 10-20 people on it, depending on the size of the show.”
Basic job description: “To lay-out and conceptualize the engineering of sets; to facilitate a designer’s wishes as best we can and make them friendly to crews; to know all the layouts of each theatre and their idiosyncrasies; and to make it all fit into a truck.”

When I met with Neil in early January, he was pondering the design of the floor for Macbeth, specifically, how it will it match up with the West Side Story floor already in place. “There’s a ‘magic’ trap for Macbeth,” he explains, “and we have to figure out how it will fit, if the elevator can do what the designer wants, and how many crew it will take to work it.”

Besides that little dilemma, Neil’s work day was filled with preliminary thoughts on future shows, answering e-mail, checking who was missing due to the current round of the ‘flu, building some components for Cyrano, and debating which glue to use for the Macbeth floor to avoid the potential hazard of staples. (Since each type of glue has different results, strengths and degrees to which paint will stick to it, it is no trivial matter.)

When asked to describe his job in pre-season, mid-season and post-season, Neil looked at me wryly. “There is no post-season in scenic construction.” He explained that their pre-season begins as soon as the season is announced and designers have sent them some specs for their shows. He will then meet with designers, get budgets set for each show’s scenic elements, and form crews. Layout blueprints are then drawn up, and sets are begun from the floor on up. Neil uses hand-drawings himself, building up the set in layers, while some of his crews use AutoCAD.

As sets are begun, plans tend to get modified due to budget or space limitations, or compatibility issues with the other sets, so Neil will meet with designers again to discuss compromises. Scenic art transforms paper and plywood into stone or metal, while the electricians work on any lighting and sound elements a set needs. Neil also works closely with stage crew chiefs on safely “choreographing” changeovers so that by the time the shows open, the left stage hands always know what the right stage hands are doing.

Given the mind-boggling logistics of his job, I asked what keeps his job running smoothly. “It helps to get designs early – the earlier the better,” he says, but then shrugs and chuckles, “that doesn’t always happen.” Musicals' sets are often completed by Christmas, and this year they saved time by buying motors for the West Side Story stage from The Lion King production in Toronto, which has computerized controls.

Neil’s colleagues are also credited with keeping things running smoothly . He describes them as a ‘great crew and good people’; all “war-worn enough” to ease stress through general goofiness, without ever getting too goofy. “We have enough freedom to do what we need to do, we get a say, and this keeps the creativity flowing”. He adds, “The best part my day is the start of the day and the end of the day – we’re all a bunch of kids here.” He recalls the Eureka! moment of discovering beer-rollers to use for the Fiddler revolve, and another favourite set piece, the giant, unfolding fan for Susan Benson’s Mikado. “I know we’ve done a great job when we don’t hear anything,” he says. “Silence is best. We wait for the phone not to ring.”

I was also curious to know if there was anything he wished audiences knew about their work at scenic construction. “That it’s a repertory theatre; get them in to watch a changeover and let them realize how much work a rep theatre involves, for everyone. Our world is plywood, sticks and sheets of metal and the fun we can make with it.” He adds, grinning, “Hey, we could charge admission and raise money for charities that way!”

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