A few folks on the blog have questioned/commented about why Dr. Givings is naked in the final scene of In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). We have some answers. Conveniently enough, an audience member who participated in the post-show discussion on February 12 asked Literary Manager Madeleine Oldham and actor Paul Niebanck to shed some light on the subject. Here's what they said. . .
I plan to post more answers here in the coming week.
This is one in an occasional series of how a poster for a show comes together. Click on the images below to see larger versions.
In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) was originally titled simply The Vibrator Play. As a graphic designer, I love short play titles; if every play title were simply one word, that would be just fine by me. When I heard the original title of the play back when the season was coming together and before I'd read the script, I anticipated doing something really risqué, which I was looking forward to.
Then I heard the play title had been changed -- what a disappointment. Not only was the title now much longer, making it more difficult to design around, but it had relegated the most exciting word to a parenthetical afterthought.
And then I actually read the play and understood why the playwright, Sarah Ruhl, had insisted on changing the title. Yes, the advent of the vibrator is at the center of the story, but the play is about so much more than that. To focus just on the vibrator in the title would have obscured the heart of the play.
For the poster, director Les Waters and I decided to focus on Mrs. Givings and her intense desire to find out just what is "in the next room." After a false start, we settled on the idea of a surprised eye looking through a keyhole. We also wanted to give the viewer a clear sense of the Victorian era in which the play is set, so we couldn't use just any door and keyhole.
Off we went to Ohmega Salvage in West Berkeley, purveyor of antique doors, doorknobs, windows, bathtubs, furniture, and so much more. We looked through dozens of doorplate sets and doors and finally chose our favorite of each. The generous staff of Ohmega allowed us to install the doorplate on the door and shoot it right there. The original image is above right.
As you can see, we didn't find a door that had had the same style doorplate, so there isn't a keyhole where there should be one, and there's a big hole where there shouldn't be one. Furthermore, there's no bottom screw, which looks odd (there's no top screw either, but that's obscured by the knob). Finally, there's a bunch of what looks like dried glue in the doorplate's crevices. Time for a little Photoshopping...
Oh yeah, that eyeball. As I mentioned in my post about the making of the poster for The Arabian Nights, at the time we create art for our shows we usually don't have cast members in town, so I need to find my models some other way, and often I look no farther than the office. Such was the case here. We wanted someone with bright blue eyes, so that the eye would jump out against the brown background.
That someone turned out to be Margo Chilless, Berkeley Rep's special events manager and organizer of the final Narsai Toast coming up in April (tickets available now!). Margo and I went outside our office on Center Street and shot approximately 50 photos while the cabdrivers looked on, amused. The image to the right was the one we chose.
Then there was the matter of the show logo. This turned out to be more fun than I thought it would be, given my dislike of long show titles. For inspiration I turned to Victorian advertisements, famous for their ornate typesetting and distinctive style of drop shadows. A prime example is at right.
To choose the typeface I went immediately to Letterhead Fonts, which specializes in revivals of classic signage hand-lettering. Their Mackinlay fit the bill perfectly. (They have a beautiful website -- you should really check it out.) After that it was just a matter of arcing the words and creating that shadow (which is more technical than I'll get into here -- just know that it's not the easiest thing in the world to do correctly). Below is the result.
Finally it was time to put it all together. After adjusting the logo to appear on a dark background, I put it together with the image, and we had our poster, which you can see below.
Today Steve Tolin came to town to do the initial head casts of two of the company members for Lieutenant of Inishmore. He definitely lived up to his reputation, and I'm excited to be working with him on this show. The sheer number of times he's done this production and his enthusiasm to make each one an improvement upon the last, is inspiring. Luckily we were having a slow enough day that the crew got a chance to watch his process on the first actor. I thought I'd share these images with you. (Click each image for a larger version.)
This was far more fun than ordering guns, which I'm still working on...
I love the smell of newsprint in the morning... especially when it means we're in the New York Times. On the front page of today's arts section, there's a lovely review by Charles Isherwood of In the Next Room (or the vibrator play). And there's an amusing (and enormous) photo of Maria and Hannah that grabs your eye when the story jumps to the back page.
What does this mean to us? Naturally, we're pleased, proud, and appreciative of the attention. What does this mean for you? If you haven't already bought tickets, you might want to get with the Times.
Here's the review in its entirety...
February 18, 2009
THEATER REVIEW | 'IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY)'
A Quaint Treatment for Women Wronged
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
BERKELEY, Calif. — The contraption looks rather quaint, a small wooden box with a few knobs set on a tall, rolling metal platform. A thin tube with a porcelain doodad on the end protrudes from it.
“It looks like a farming implement,” one baffled character says as she considers the machine for the first time. It would add a contrasting note of the rustic and antique to a living room furnished in sleek modern pieces.
In fact this odd mechanical box is a central player — the title character, you might say — in the new play by Sarah Ruhl, “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).” A fanciful but compassionate consideration of the treatment, and the mistreatment, of women in the late 19th century, this spirited and stimulating (sorry) new comedy from one of the country’s brightest young playwrights is having its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theater here, in a handsome production directed by Les Waters.
The play is set in a spa town in the vicinity of New York in the late 1800s. Electricity has just begun to spread its mysterious glow in the homes of the well-to-do. It has recently been installed in the parlor of Dr. and Mrs. Givings, and more significantly in the room next door, the doctor’s “operating theater,” where he practices gynecology and the treatment of “hysteria” using that strange electric-powered box.
A new patient, Sabrina Daldry (Maria Dizzia), is suffering from symptoms that alarm her husband (John Leonard Thompson). She is sensitive to light and prone to tears. Referring obliquely to the cooling of the marital fires, and perhaps the real reason for his dissatisfaction, Mr. Daldry adds, “I am afraid there is very little sympathy between us.”
The forthright and self-confident Dr. Givings (Paul Niebanck) sends Mr. Daldry for a short walk while he begins treatment. “We need to relieve the pressure on her nerves,” he says reassuringly. “You will soon have your blooming wife back.”
Enter the magic box. While Sabrina lies supine on a table, her skirts removed and a white sheet placed decorously over her, Dr. Givings makes businesslike small talk while using his new machine to induce a “paroxysm,” the slightly alarming term for what would today be called something else entirely, and is generally considered more recreational than therapeutic.
Sabrina emerges from her first session feeling drowsy and emotional, but rather good. The roses have been restored to her cheeks, and she is not disinclined to return for another session. Tomorrow would be just fine.
Comical though the play’s depiction of Dr. Givings’s methods might seem, it is based on historical fact. The use of primitive vibrators to treat women (and some men) suffering from a variety of psychological ailments referred to as hysteria is well documented. But Ms. Ruhl’s play is hardly intended as an elaborate dirty joke at the expense of the medical profession. Her real subject is the fundamental absence of sympathy and understanding between women and the men whose rules they had to live by for so long, and the suspicion and fear surrounding female sexuality and even female fertility.
For while Dr. Givings, assisted in no small measure by his stalwart female assistant, Annie (Stacy Ross), is pursuing a remarkably successful treatment of Sabrina, his own wife, the candid Catherine (Hannah Cabell), is beginning to languish from loneliness and unhappiness in the parlor next door.
Catherine has recently given birth, but Dr. Givings has decided that her milk is not sufficient for nursing, so a wet nurse must be found. Sabrina’s black housekeeper, Elizabeth (Melle Powers), who recently lost a baby, is given the job, but Catherine feels as if her maternal instincts have been thwarted and denied.
Bored and frustrated, she becomes increasingly curious about what goes on in the room next door, not least because those confused cries of excitement are hard to tune out. In the delightful scene that concludes the first act, Catherine unlocks the door to the operating theater with Sabrina’s hat pin and the two women engage in a liberating session of self-administered therapy, without benefit of prescription or medical supervision.
Ms. Ruhl, the author of “The Clean House,” “Eurydice” and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” has not abandoned her affection for unexpected leaps or lyrical language here, although with its traditional construction, old-fashioned set (charmingly realized by Annie Smart) and lavish period costumes (by David Zinn), “In the Next Room” looks almost as if it could be a revival of Shaw or Wilde. (Mr. Zinn’s exquisite dresses are period-appropriate but witty too in their superabundance of buttons and bustles and gatherings that constrict or obscure the natural female form.)
Ms. Ruhl’s characters always exist both on a poetic plane and a flesh-and-blood one, and while the people in the new play speak formal English suitable to the period and the social milieu, they also drift into imagistic reveries that would lead to confused pauses over tea service in real life.
Nor has Ms. Ruhl abandoned her gentle impressionistic touch and her gift for playful symbolism. The play is dappled with images of lightness and darkness, moisture and its absence, that underscore its themes. (There is a single truly vulgar joke, overplayed in this staging, when the sounds of ecstasy in the doctor’s office coincide with Catherine’s arriving late to answer the door in the parlor, calling out what one would quite naturally call out.)
The play’s second act has some structural infelicities. Elizabeth has two lumpy speeches about black-white relations that seem an unnecessary attempt to give this subsidiary character a more central role. (I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of having her enlighten Sabrina and Catherine about the possibility of experiencing the sensations they’ve awakened to with the machine in bed with their husbands.) Ms. Ruhl mostly weaves together the multiple strands of her plot, which includes the arrival of a male patient, a frustrated artist, with dexterity. But there is too much of it, and it becomes clotted in the unraveling.
The cast is mostly fine, with a few standouts. Ms. Dizzia (seen in “Eurydice” in New York) brings to the role of Sabrina a touching hesitancy that slowly blooms into confidence as Sabrina finds herself liberated, not so much by the doctor’s treatment as by the emotions it arouses. Mr. Niebanck’s abstracted expression as he briskly goes about his work is hilarious. And Ms. Ross imbues the smallish role of Annie with a fully human dimension, a sympathy and intuitive wisdom about her work that is affecting.
Although the doctor’s magic box has a liberating effect on Sabrina and Catherine, all the women in the play are ultimately transformed by their interactions with each other. And in the final scene the process is extended to include the doctor himself, as Catherine administers some therapy of her own to her husband. A woman who has never been allowed to listen to the music of her own body teaches her husband to discover the beauty in his own.
IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY)
By Sarah Ruhl; directed by Les Waters; sets by Annie Smart; costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Russell H. Champa; sound by Bray Poor; music by Jonathan Bell; production stage manager, Michael Suenkel. Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theater, at the Berkeley Rep Roda Theater, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, Calif.; (510) 647-2949. Through March 15. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: Hannah Cabell (Catherine Givings), Joaquin Torres (Leo Irving), Maria Dizzia (Sabrina Daldry), Paul Niebanck (Dr. Givings), Melle Powers (Elizabeth), Stacy Ross (Annie) and John Leonard Thompson (Mr. Daldry).
Photo of Maria Dizzia and Hannah Cabell
courtesy of kevinberne.com
previews included the excitement of having Sarah back in town --
and small tweaks (and occasionally the addition of a whole monologue) in the script,
as well as the usual additions of costume, lights, and sound:
creative elements that help create the world,
but also add the necessary strictures of timing and spacing for an actor
(not that we don't have very certain ideas of both while rehearsing,
but getting into the actual space, time, sound and feel of the thing as a whole always demands adjustments --
and patience...on everyone's part...).
"do i turn the light off here?"
"how long is this piece of music?"
"which door did you want me to go out of?"
"you can't HEAR me?"
(there is a very specific distress in being told you're just not loud enough, when you've been sure that's the least of your worries...)
okay, and that's the usual stuff --
every tech rehearsal/production holds some mixture of the aforementioned --
but then there are the curveballs...
maria plays the piano!
and has paroxysms...
paul gives paroxysms...
and joaquín gets - - -
well if ya haven't seen the play, i really should let you see for yourself.
so, sometimes productions have that little extra something
that you're sure you can handle,
but still gives you that slightly (or hugely) abnormal hurdle
that you have to negotiate --
first in rehearsal
then in tech
next, with the first audience (usually first preview)
once more on opening, just because you know it's going to be in print,
and then each and every performance.
this play affords me the unusual -- and oddly stressful, at first -- opportunity
to help my fellow actors in, and as often, OUT of their clothing --
which has to happen in a particular span of time -- not too soon
and definitely not too late in the getting-them-clothed-again part --
they've got to get into the next room to continue the story.
as any parent will tell you,
being responsible for getting another person to a certain place at a certain time
is, at times, weighty...
but in this case, with practice, very do-able
and very communicative, one actor to another,
as much as speaking to each other -- though we don't --
and so the character-relationship grows in a way that the actors can certainly gauge...
but does the audience get that?
i dunno --
you tell me. :-)
Photo: Me (on the right), dressing Maria.
Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
You know that precious few minutes of sleep you get when you hit snooze or set the alarm for another half an hour before going to work...ahh... And do you know when it goes horribly wrong and you have a mini-nightmare, only to wake up ten minutes later wondering why didn't you just wake up when you were supposed to...?? Now you haven't gone to the gym and are stressed out before the day has even begun... Well that happened to me on the morning we opened In the Next Room. No, I wasn't having anxiety dreams about vibrators (or nice snoozy dreams either!)
In fact, I had already mentally moved on beyond all the hard work that went into producing that show, and beyond the show presently in rehearsal, Crime and Punishment, which, although it caused me to suffer as a teenager (in the way that good books draw you into a different mental state while you read them), was not causing me to loose sleep yet, ax murder aside.
I was dreaming, quite elaborately, about buying guns for The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
So I decided it was time for me to really focus on acquiring these guns. I forced myself to spend the better part of the day researching and reading through all the information I had on the guns for this show (after a last-minute vibrator repair, of course).
I've actually always tried to be as hands off as possible when it comes to stage weapons. Inevitably, I have to get them, but I leave it to the fight directors and backstage crew to deal with handling them. I don't like guns, real or fake, and I admit, I'm not excited about doing a show that is all about guns and blood. That said, I have known since this summer that I would have to suck it up and get in gear for this show (that is to say, I had no choice). I had half-heartedly started this process then, but not with the focus I needed to spend to get over my mental block against dealing with the weapons.
I've talked a number of times to Jim Guy at Milwaukee Rep, who in the theater prop world is the Prop Weapons Guru. I think I talk to/email with him every time I use a weapon on stage. He's awesome and incredibly knowledgeable--and one of those guys who is a natural teacher and a great storyteller (so, fun to chat up anyway). So of course, this summer at S*P*A*M*, the annual prop masters conference (yes, we have a conference too, which maybe I've mentioned in previous blog posts?), I chatted him up, as well as a lot of my counterparts around the country who have worked on other versions of this show, and whom all had great advice.
Everyone had something to say about the process and had information to email me. Props people are really giving, interesting, creative, and intelligent folks (which makes me sometimes wonder how I've stayed in this business so long...?). Nathan at The Alley was super-helpful and entertaining. And Kelly at St.Louis Rep was amazing. She was budgeting the show at the time and had all her paperwork with her to work on in the spare moments we weren't conferencing. St. Louis Rep did the show a few months ago, and I was able to go see their version. She arranged for me to watch the show from the audience and also from backstage. I took pages of notes and hundreds of pictures. And, most importantly, my fear of blood and guns had been mildly relieved. What I thought to be the impossible can actually be staged live.
I also came back with a glowing review of Steve Tolin, the special-effects person they hired (and whom we will, thankfully, be using even though we could do this in-house--there is so much to do, and he has his process down to a science). Les Waters, who will be directing our version, also went to see the show at St. Louis, and Tom, our production manager, had already seen The Alley's production and taken pictures as well. So we all knew what craziness we are getting ourselves into....
I then spent a few months getting caught up in all of the giant, prop-heavy shows we have been putting on here at Berkeley Rep...until the morning of the opening of In the Next Room, when I realized that I do indeed have to actually acquire weapons for our production. My dream didn't include background checks or firearms permits which we do have to get, even to use fake weapons.
"Fake" guns have been re-manufactured only to take "blank" charges--fake bullets, but still incredibly loud and potentially damaging at close range: the "charge" shoots out of the top, not the barrel. So there is still a fair amount of caution to take when handling and shooting these guns, and I don't take this lightly at all. I've actually spend a lot of mental energy on this since the summer. I have been reading up on gun safety while waiting in line at the permit office and in various airports.
Obviously, I'm in favor of gun-control laws even if it means we have to take a few weeks to get these permits and jump through various hoops to rent the guns we need. I am trying to get the most reliable, safest ones possible. Even with the permits and special procedures, there are always terrible news stories about freak theatre or film accidents that have happened which other prop people share with our group email list. I read these even though I don't want to. Knowledge is important, but sensationalism isn't what I'm after. And if you are one of those like to watch the train wreck sorts, I'm sure you could find all these awful stories on-line, but I won't link to them here.
These stories fill me with dread that people can actually get seriously hurt playing with guns even if they are fake. Theatre is not worth dying, or even being injured for--it s the worst thing that could possibly happen, and why I'm terrified of the responsibility of even renting prop guns. I have wanted to avoid having our theater actually own fireable guns. I won't even get into all the bad things that can happen if the weapons aren't properly locked up...But today I ordered half the guns and continued on the process of renting the other half, though that is the harder, permit-requiring part. And, I'm sure the show will be just great.
I much prefer prop dead bodies to live ammo. I'm looking forward to meeting Steve in person when he comes in next week to do the life casting of a few of the actors, which you know I will definitely be blogging about, so stay tuned...
If these pictures are not enough to demonstrate all the fun and excitment that was had at Berkeley Rep's night/OUT party for our LGBT friends, I will try and explain.
Drinks + Free Food + Pumping Music = Awesome.
The evening started off with DJ rrrus spinning great music as patrons flowed into the upper Roda lobby where they were met by a bountiful and tasty spread courtesy of Bistro Liaison. As the night and music carried on, people mingled with one another, and the ladies of Twilight Vixen Revue took over the lobby to perform scintilating (and sexy) burlesque dance numbers for the the happy crowd.