When the curtain closes on this weekend’s productions of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Junk Redemption,” and “Urinetown,” Second Stage will have successfully completed its busiest season ever. Twenty-six shows went up, staged in a wider variety of spaces than ever before. With such a large number of shows, there was not only competition for money, but also for support from Second Stage itself.
“We on staff don’t think we can handle another semester like this again,” said Claire Whitehouse ’14, Second Stage Historian and Props Manager. “We want to give everyone a chance to put up a theatrical performance, but we also want to be able to be there for shows in a way that we couldn’t this semester. Second Stage does not want to be in the position where we have to reject shows, but we also cannot have another semester with over 20 full-tech shows.”
This year, with 26 shows and limited weekends, space, and money, there were concerns about the level of support Second Stage could give to each production.
“Our budget issues, combined with the number of shows, meant that everyone had to make compromises,” Whitehouse said. “I think we were able to give each show the things they absolutely needed, but Second Stage did have to make more active decisions about what were necessary purchases and which were not. That’s a hard position. The quantity of shows also stretched Second Stage staff very thin. I don’t think we were able to provide each show with the level of attention that we would have liked.”
Dylan Zwickel ’14, Managing Liaison of Second Stage, also felt that the sheer number of shows produced limited the quality of some of the productions.
“Unfortunately, I do feel like many of them suffered due to the limitations in money, space, and staff time,” Zwickel said.
However, Michael Steves ’13, who has written and directed numerous plays, including two this semester, doesn’t think that the quality of the shows has suffered at all. He said that, if anything, he has seen the quality of Second Stage productions improve over the past few years.
“I think this season of Second Stage shows has been phenomenal,” Steves said. “The quality of shows has risen since I came here as a freshman, and they continue to get better. Many shows this semester had sell-out sized audiences.”
Steves was also not frustrated by the budget and space constraints, even though he was given a small amount of money. He pointed out that no amount of money can buy a good production, and phenomenal plays can be put up with sparse materials.
“With so many shows going up this semester, there are obviously fewer resources to go around,” Steves said. “My productions were both cheap—“4 Horsemen” had $50, and I had $450 for “Macbeth,” about half what shows in previous years have cost. But all the money in the world can’t buy you a good production, and all of the directors this semester have been creative in getting around the budgetary issues and the lack of conventional spaces.”
Even more than money restrictions, the availability of production space was an important influential factor for most of the productions. Many directors were encouraged to use such alternative spaces as WestCo Café, the lounge of Downey House, the Psi U Great Room, and even CFA courtyards.
Steves used alternative spaces for both of the shows he directed this semester; “4 Horsemen” went up in the WestCo Café, and “Macbeth” was performed in the CFA Green between the Arts Hall and Zilkha Gallery last weekend.
He found that directing in alternative spaces opened up new possibilities.
“There are a few challenges to directing alternative space shows, but overall I think both of my shows benefited by not being in the ’92,” Steves said. “Outside, [“Macbeth”] had a cinematic feel that allowed us to stage scenes in far more interesting ways than would have been possible in a conventional theater. Our final battle, for example, which featured armies descending on one another from over a hill, was a highlight of the production and probably would have been mediocre in a space like the ’92.”
Zwickel also noticed that many directors embraced the opportunity to make an alternative space work for their production.
“The thing about using alt-spaces is that it can really inspire creativity if the directors let it,” Zwickel said. “If a show tries to do what it would have done in the ’92 in WestCo Café, it’s not going to work. However, if a director builds the show’s concept around the idea of being at the Whisper Wall or on the CFA Green, it can turn out much better than it would have in the ’92.”
However, there are challenges to using alternative spaces and working in an area not designed for stage performances. Alternative spaces are more poorly equipped, and directors must also deal with variable and often less-than-ideal conditions, especially if the alternative space is outside.
Shelby Arnold ’12, who directed “How I Learned to Drive” and “4.48 Psychosis,” was much happier using the ’92 than an alternative option. She even preferred having to work around other productions’ schedules, as it meant that she didn’t have to stage her performance in another location and deal with the requisite difficulties.
“I had to share the space for both of my shows, which is better than having to use an alt space,” Arnold said. “I just think there is a lack of alternative spaces that really work for shows, and you have to get really creative as a director to use the space wisely, but I didn’t have to really deal with any of that.”
In addition to the challenges of working in the alternative space itself, there was competition with other student groups for claim of the space during production periods.
“I’d say one challenge with alt-space shows is simply getting the space reserved and keeping it,” Steves said. “For example, WestCo students tried to kick “The Adding Machine” out of the Café two weeks before the show was supposed to go up. WestCo also double-booked “4 Horsemen” with a punk concert for the Friday show, which forced the concert organizer and me to scramble a plan together at the last minute. Despite our best efforts to preserve the set, several props and a table used in the show were broken.”
Whitehouse also spoke to the problem of working around other WestCo events.
“Things have worked out smoothly in past years, when there were two shows in WestCo per semester, but I think this year WestCo found that Second Stage shows were preventing them from holding other events that they wanted to hold,” Whitehouse said. “In the future, I would suggest that shows consider a more diverse array of alt-spaces, so that no one building is overwhelmed.”
However, despite the abundance of alt-space shows, many shows were able to go up in the ’92 as usual, thanks to Second Stage originally being given eight weekends to produce shows, as well as an additional two over the course of the semester.
The ’92 Theater is still generally regarded as the best and most well-equipped place to have shows.
“Being in the ’92 completely changed the show; having full lighting capabilities was of utmost importance to the vision of the show that developed once we were put in the space,” said Whitehouse, who was on the team for “[title of show].”
To deal with the problems Second Stage encountered last year, there have been changes to their production applications.
“We’ve added a question on the show application asking whether or not a show would be willing to do a staged reading,” Whitehouse said. “For people who are presenting new work in development, or someone really interested in working with text, I think staged readings are a great choice.”
Steves, however, regards the constraints placed on him due to limited budget, time, space, and attention from Second Stage as part of the exciting experience of directing a piece.
“Ultimately, directing shows in alt spaces is extremely rewarding,” Steves said. “Certain alt spaces can add to the tone of your show in a way that a conventional theater can’t, and being outside of the ’92 forces you to be more creative with your use of space.”
Rebecca Seidel, staff writer, contributed to the reporting of this article.