Backstage at Culbreth Theatre, the dressing rooms are buzzing with a kind of low-grade chaos. A Bulgarian peasant wearing sneakers flies by, asking if anyone has seen her socks. An elaborately decorated soldier fidgets with his sword while staring at a bulletin board. A woman in a layered dress takes the pin out of a tipping pile of curls as hip-hop blares from the stereo. There’s a pause just long enough for a girl with a clipboard and headset to announce that there are 20 minutes left until curtain, and then the activity resumes at a more urgent clip.
It’s a Thursday night in late November and finals are looming. Most of the people backstage are students. They have papers to write and studying to do, but for now they’re concentrating on suspending time and transforming themselves into the befuddled aristocrats whose deceptions and intrigues will send up the contradictions of love and war.
The play, George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, is part of the UVA drama department’s winter repertoire. First produced in 1894, the play has young Raina as its ingénue. Patrician and engaged, her notions of war and honor are soon challenged by the roguish Bluntschli, a soldier who appears at her window one night trying to escape some marauding Serbs, and who quickly upends her world-view with his trenchant observations from the front.
Trouble ensues when Raina’s arrogant fiancé, Sergius, and Bluntschli meet. Other highlights of the play include a misplaced photograph, a box of chocolate crèmes and a dash of class commentary with Louka and Nicola, the shrewd and observant housekeepers, getting into the act.
Selected by a committee of professors and students, Arms and the Man was chosen in part because it resonates with today’s muddled political climate. With its lush and elaborate costumes, centered on a number of inventive sets, the play also showcases the versatility of the drama department. It’s easy to get swept away in the spirited performances and forget what goes into making such a production. Entailing six weeks of intense rehearsal and a special brand of commitment, the experience can start to resemble a reality TV show, full of its own small dramas. The material is challenging. So is the pace and the effort of close collaboration.
“It gets frustrating at times,” says Joel Grothe (Grad ’08), who plays the male lead, Bluntschli, “but almost every play does if you’re doing things right. If it’s not, then you’re probably not working hard enough.”
There’s a scene in Arms and the Man in which Raina’s father, Petkoff, finds a portrait of his daughter in his coat pocket. The audience knows, because of previous events, that the portrait could expose Bluntschli and, by extension, everybody’s hypocrisies. The audience sits forward in their seats while Petkoff fumbles with the portrait, on the verge of realization.
It’s this sort of fraught, malleable moment, when the air is full of possibility and the audience’s undivided attention is on the stage, that attracted Autumn Shiley (Grad ’08) to the theater. Originally from Kalamazoo, Mich., Shiley describes her first experience with acting in high school as “love at first sight.”
“There’s definitely an energy in the air, with the audience, if you’ve connected with a part of their life. They see themselves up there,” she says, explaining how the audience affects one’s performance. With Arms and the Man, in which she played Raina, the laughter varied from hesitant to cascading, depending on the energy of the crowd and the actors.
“The audience is as much part of the show as we are on stage. The art of theater involves the audience. But it’s not a hindrance, it’s a communion,” adds Shiley, who plans to move to Chicago or New York after she graduates to pursue acting professionally. “You’re always in communion with them.”
The process of understanding and figuring out how to play someone is challenging and becomes a very involved character study. “I think she’s a girl searching for how to be a woman,” says Shiley. “At first I really distanced myself from her. Then I realized it’s something that everyone goes through. With Raina, there’s so much more than meets the eye.”
Getting into character is different for everyone. “It’s like a sculptor starting with a big chunk of marble. There’s no right way to sculpt it,” says professor Richard Warner, the head of the graduate acting department, who also played Petkoff in the play. Some actors start with the words. Others will begin with the physical nature of a character, how they would hold themselves and move from moment to moment. “It’s about approaches,” says Warner. “Finding the life in what the author’s written.”
Joshua Rachford (Col ’08) definitely started with the words. “If you say, ‘stop talking,’ you can have a million reasons for saying it depending on who you are,” he says, trying to describe how he finds the underlying motivations that define a character. Rachford, a cognitive science major, plays Sergius, Raina’s cocky fiancé. “Sergius starts out with these ideals. He’s a Dudley Do-Right, aristocratic, silver-spoon-in-the-mouth kind of deal. Then he finds out through the course of the show that everyone is deceiving him.” There are many choices to be made in trying to convey such a broad transition, while still putting forth a finely tuned performance. “It’s hard to think of the entirety of a person in every single moment,” says Rachford.
The play’s language presented its own set of challenges, with a cadence and rhythm that some of the actors weren’t used to. “It’s different from Shakespeare or Ibsen,” says Grothe. “It was challenging to keep the language ‘up,’ to keep it alive.”
But reviews for the performance attest to their efforts. “There’s a great deal of budding talent on display,” wrote Sao Joao in the C-Ville Weekly.
There’s no such thing as a small part
“It’s a collaborative effort to put all the elements into place,” says Brin Lukens (Col ’07), the play’s assistant director, who worked with visiting director Ed Morgan. “The table might need to be two feet to the left so that Raina can fit her skirt through, but what will that do to the lighting? You have to be in constant communication with the designers and actors.”
Productions like Arms and the Man are opportunities for everyone to put their skills to work. All sections of the department contribute to the production—acting, costume design and technology, scenic design, lighting design and technical direction.
Brittany Belz (Grad ’08), a costume designer from Fairbanks, Alaska, enrolled in the program for both its artistic and technological aspects. “Pretty much all the courses are working courses,” she says. “It’s great to be able to work in the shop, and to also be able to design.” Belz helped create some the dresses seen in Arms and the Man. Many of the costumes are created in the shop; one student will drape the pattern, another will stitch it. Some of the costumes are rented, and some pulled from stock. How do you figure out what characters of a certain time period would wear? “Many hours in the library,” says Belz. “Costume history courses, Internet sites and books.”
Here, the graduate and undergraduate programs have quite a lot of interaction. They work together on productions, and graduate students teach a class beginning with their first semester. “I learn so much from my students,” says Shiley. “Teaching opens up a whole new avenue of learning. Your students bring in new ideas and remind you of what it’s like to begin.”
The undergraduate drama degree at UVA requires its majors, of which there are roughly 100, to take a number of core classes, ranging from stage technology to acting. Afterward they can specialize through electives and independent study projects. Lukens enjoys the encouraging atmosphere of her classes and the accessibility of her professors. “They’ll come and watch rehearsal and give advice. They really want you to find your way,” she says.
Some drama schools follow a teaching methodology of stripping the student down then attempting to rebuild them, but UVA follows a different course. “I never liked that philosophy,” says Richard Warner. “For me, the whole idea is to encourage, to let them take part in their own creation and make their own decisions. It’s about giving them the courage to fail.”
The graduate program in drama takes only eight actors every three years, who then work closely together for the duration of the degree. “It’s rare that you come into an environment where you look around and there’s no one who shouldn’t be there,” says Grothe. “I, personally, get very sick of them,” he adds jokingly, “and they get sick of me. But really we all respect each other’s work. We understand each other.”
“It’s interesting because you’d think we’d get on each other’s nerves, but we get along surprisingly well,” says actor Ryan Stinnet (Grad ’08), who came to the program from Charlotte, N.C. Stinnet, who wanted to act since second grade, played the housekeeper, Nicola, in Arms. “I feel like I live with these people, even though I live alone,” he says, referring to the intimacy of the program.
While the actors don’t live together, rehearsing six nights a week for 3 1/2 hours for six weeks straight can certainly make it feel that way. The material, no matter how rich, could get a little mundane when one spends that much time with it. Finding ways to keep it fresh is just part of the rehearsal process. “There are certainly times when you get bored and you have to use your skills and technically go through it,” says Grothe.
Aside from a fire alarm going off during one of the dress rehearsals, with everyone having to go outside in costume and wait for the trucks to arrive, the preparation for Arms and the Man went smoothly. In the end, all that hard work pays off. Any theater lover will tell you that there’s nothing like it, being riveted by what’s happening on stage. “The thrill of being able to do it,” Shiley says, “you can never re-create that moment.”