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Moliere and the Mafia — Yale grad students design "Doctor"

posted by Amy Bobeda on Thu, Feb 23, 2012
in Backstage buzz , Costume shop , Our shows

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Our studious audience members likely got their postgraduate degrees in "normal" subjects — psychology, anthropology, any-other-ology, so it is only natural that many who work with Berkeley Rep got theirs in theatre. This season, we are fortunate that our Doctor in Spite of Himself coproduction with Yale Repertory Theatre has not only brought us 90 minutes of slapstick comedy, but also a handful of talented student designers. For this piece, I concentrated on two disciplines (my favorites), sound and costumes, sitting down with both Ken Goodwin and Kristin Fiebig to hear a little bit about the paths that lead them to the prestigious Yale School of Drama program, what they see in their futures, and why they’ve loved studying theatre.

Kristen sits with me in her relaxed, put-together manner and flawless bangs, sharing that she took around five years off after finishing undergrad work at Syracuse before pursuing graduate school. Three years is a long time to commit to a master's program; she wanted to be sure it was the right path. In her time off, she worked as a first hand — she never wanted to be a designer that handed her draper sketches and told them to build a costume. No, she wanted to understand the logistics and physics of garment construction. One the side, she costumed small shows in which the costume department was composed of just Kristen and her creativity. The real reason Kristen got into costume design: problem-solving. The entire job is built on the notion that a director and actor present a problem that the designer must, in her most Sherlockian way, solve.

What Kristen brings to the table in composure, Ken matches with an unyielding commitment and passion to the world of sound design. Ken has been interested in sound since high school. (Here, I thought I was a theatre nerd, but clearly we would have been best friends at the tech table during grades 9-12.) Unlike Kristen, Ken applied to grad school right out of undergrad, and out of the handful of schools that took him, Yale was "the best." He says there is "the right way, the wrong way, and the Yale way" of doing theatre. Three years later, Ken is entrenched in the ways of the New Haven Mafia. Ken’s reason for gettin' serious in the business of sound design: "Sound is an element that directly deals with the audiences subconscious, and like many elements, is another character in the play."

The "go or don't go" decision of graduate school is hard for a lot of young theatrical designers. When Ken got his acceptance to Yale, he was sitting in a bar at the annual USITT (technical theatre) conference where fellow sound designers gave him a slew of reasons why he shouldn’t go. However, Ken believed graduate school was the right place to "go to try something and fail." He has learned to push his boundaries in attempts to stave off the horror of becoming a "niche designer," aka: the guy that does experimental plays, or the woman that costumes naturalistic period pieces. And let's face it, you go to graduate school for the connections. That is precisely why Yale graduates are called the Yale Mafia. They stick together, they mean business, and I know Susan Medak could kill me in three seconds flat if she wanted.
 Jacob Ming-Trent, Steven Epp, Allen Gilmore and Liam Craig star in A Doctor in Spite of Himself. Photo by 

My big interest in K and K's experiences on A Doctor in Spite of Himself is a comparison of doing the show in school vs. at Berkeley Rep. While some craftspeople are against the "coproduction," these two young faces are fans of reviving a work for a new audience. They both saw the experience as a chance to take the play they had done, and (much like the directors and actors) make it even better. Of course there were challenges as well. Yale built upon the groundwork that many of the performers built in Seattle (where the play began), but with every venue change comes handful of technical changes as well as script and blocking adjustments. We have a balcony and different sound system than Yale, and while the designers and actors are the same, it's a whole new crew, and there is always a learning curve. Both K and K, however, had only great things to say about our staff and their experience here. (Go us!)

Like all Mafia members, Ken and Kristen are well-versed in theatrical elements. At Yale Rep, work-study jobs employ students at the theatre! On one show, Kristen worked deck crew and learned to operate the fly rail. While he mostly sticks to sound, Ken does all sorts of odd work like packing the truck that brought the Doctor set from back east to our loading-dock doors. Those Yalies are a close-knit bunch, and their bottom line is to get their theatremakin' on. They start their classes at 8:30 or 9:00am; start production work, fittings, meetings, rehearsals around 2:00pm; and when they finish around midnight, they are given three choices:
a. Do your homework.
b. Sleep.
c. Do more theatre.

It is impossible to do it all in the world of graduate theatrical studies, and if there is one thing their time in Berkeley has given K and K, it's the itch to get out there and "do it for real." Both Kristin and Ken plan to pick up work in New York after graduation, but not until they do a handful more shows and get their diplomas this summer. And you never know, perhaps our eyes and ears haven’t seen the last of these soon-to-be grads, because you know how the Mafia works, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." -- Godfather Part 3

K&K’s Berkeley highlights:

Kristen loves Berkeley’s gelato and walking up and down College Ave.
Ken can’t get enough of Cancun, Triple Rock, and did some serious shopping at Rasputin.


OK, I have criticized many Berkeley Rep productions, so when they put something good on-stage, I need to step up to the plate and commend it, which I actually am very happy to do because I enjoy good theater much more than bad theater.

A Doctor in Spite of Himself was not merely good, it was fabulous---a brilliant modernization of Moliere, a playwright I always have enjoyed. It was fast-moving, fun, funny, infinitely entertaining and full of hilarious inside, but accessible jokes. And while I frequently have criticized the acting in Berkeley Rep productions for being uneven, the acting in this one was spotless---every single one of the actors hit the ball out of the park in their portrayals [I am starting to run out of baseball metaphors].

I recognize that this play was commissioned and developed not by the Berkeley Rep, but by the Intiman Theater in Seattle, and the Berkeley Rep brought the production down from Seattle. Nevertheless, I give the Rep credit for making a very good choice and sharing it with us.

Guy Saperstein | Mon, Feb 27, 2012

I have been going to REP plays since 1974. Lots of new plays and experimental theatre as well as the standards. This was the worst script I have ever heard....BUT great production values otherwise. I did manage to fall asleep twice...a first for me, despite all the noise. Attended with another "theatre buff" who pretty much agreed with me. Blunt but honest. ETH

ETHawk | Mon, Feb 27, 2012

Great, and very funny - but two of the costumes were so over the top that I felt they were a distraction - Big Daddy could be about two inches smaller in the waist, and the bouncing babe could have lost an inch or two, and still bounced. The puppetry-and-people visual transfers was geniusly inspired.

Grace Ulp | Mon, Mar 5, 2012

Moliere malpractice for me, without his charming language. Too much bawd -broad pie-in the face (or chest) humor, without nuance or substance. Yet I loved Epp's The Miser and (at OSH) The Imaginary Invalid, as well as Scapin at ACT. I did find the chorale delightful.

Joan Sullivan | Mon, Mar 5, 2012

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