Tri-State Theater

Let's discuss upcoming shows, secrets behind the scenes, things you never knew about the theater and why live theater is so darn entertaining.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Another Show?

Apologies to our friends at Cabell-Midland High School - I neglected to mention that they also have a show coming up Saturday and Sunday night. "The Little Shop of Horrors" will be presented at the school's auditorium, and the show features a lot of talented actors, including John Wolfe, Shayne Gue, Chuck Hearndon and Sarah Hayes (to name just four).

You can check out some photos from the production at the Herald-Dispatch's photogalleries page here. They're in the "News" column.

With so much talent on display, you know it'll be a great show. It also has to be some kind of record - on Saturday, there will be five different shows being presented in Cabell County ("Aida," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Babes in Toyland," "A Christmas Carol" and "The Little Shop of Horrors").

On Stage Thursday Night

Tonight's the second performance of the Marshall University Department of Theatre's "Driving Miss Daisy." The show starts at 8:00 p.m. at the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center, and shows continue through Saturday. Of course, it's based on the Off-Broadway play which also became an Academy Award-winning film. Marshall's plays are always top-notch, so take time out of your holiday week to take a look.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

On Stage Tonight

Tonight's the first performance of the Marshall University Department of Theatre's "Driving Miss Daisy," which is based on the long-running Off-Broadway play which also became an Academy Award-winning film.

The performance is tonight at 8:00 p.m. at the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center, and shows continue through Saturday.

The play is a warm-hearted, humorous and affecting study of the unlikely relationship between an aging, crotchety white Southern lady, and a proud, soft-spoken black man. Tickets may be scarce, so order early!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Getting Into Local Theatre - Part 4

I actually agreed to be a director before I became an actor (to use the term loosely). Here’s how it worked: In the spring of 2000, First Stage Theatre decided its holiday offering later that year would be “A Christmas Story” (that’s the one about the kid who wants a BB Gun for Christmas, but everyone tells him, “You’ll put your eye out.”) I have been a huge fan of the movie since stumbling onto it during its brief appearance at local theaters in 1983, and I was looking for the right show to tackle as my first effort at directing for the stage, so I offered to direct it, and the board members of First Stage said “OK.”

Then doubt crept in - did I really have any business directing actors on stage when I had never been on stage myself? By happy coincidence, Huntington Outdoor Theatre announced they were going to stage two shows the summer of 2000 - “Cinderella” and “1776.” Here was my chance! (No, not “Cinderella.”) I had seen the movie “1776” when it was first released in the early ‘70s and loved it. It tells the story of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and yes, that may sound dull, but it’s a delightful show with some great songs, lots of humor and drama. Even though you know how it ends, you’ll find yourself thinking, “They’re never going to get this thing approved.” If you get a chance to see the movie or the play, you won’t regret it.

Where was I? Oh, yes - this was my chance! For a show like “1776,” they were going to need lots and lots of men - always a scarcity in local productions. I thought, I’ll try out, hopefully manage to get a small part, and then I’ll have some stage experience to guide me when I start directing. Even better, the show was being directed by Marshall professor Gene Anthony - a professional actor, a fantastic director and all-around great guy. The lessons he imparted were invaluable.

The auditions were held on the stage at the old Huntington High School, and somehow I muddled through, despite being scared to death - I’ve always been shy and not wild about getting up in front of people to talk, let alone sing and dance - but being on stage seemed like a good way to fight that fear. It’s hard to tell from the perspective of the one auditioning, but I think I did fine during the reading and I squeaked by the singing audition (no worries about having to tackle any solos), but the most difficult part was the dancing audition, in which I tried (unsuccessfully) to hide at the back of the group.

When the cast list was posted, amazingly enough (or perhaps a sign of their desperation), I was in the show, cast as the delegate from New Jersey, The Rev. John Witherspoon. A modest part, with a handful of lines, a nifty entrance and no solos. My plan had worked!

But the fun was just beginning.

Next: Rehearsals

Monday, November 27, 2006

This week in Theatre

Start saving your hard-earned dough, theatre fans, 'cause this may well be the busiest week of the year for shows!

Coming up this week:

Starting Wednesday, Marshall's Department of Theatre presents "Driving Miss Daisy."

Starting Friday, First Stage Theatre presents "Babes in Toyland" at the old Huntington High School, and Fifth Avenue Theatre presents "A Christmas Carol" at City Hall's auditorium.

Then on Dec. 2, the Marshall Artist's Series will present "Aida" at the Keith Albee Theatre.

Is this a great country or what?

Under the Weather

Sorry for the lack of posting - between the holidays (had a wonderful time visiting the family at my brother Bill’s house, thank you), a ferocious fight with a cold (the score right now is: Cold 3, Chuck 2 - but I’m rallying), and some technical problems, I haven't been able to do much blogging - but I’ll try to make up for it in the coming week, which is filled with all kinds of delightful shows. And I’ll continue my essays on “How I got Into Local Theatre.” All that and more, as we used to say in TV.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! It's always been one of my favorite holidays, as family gathers together, eats a wonderful meal (wisely, they don't let me cook - but I am a pro at the consumption end of the equation), and we get to watch lots of football. Who could ask for more?

Whatever your plans today, I hope you have a good day - and in case you're wondering, one of the many things I'm thankful for is that we have this space to share. Have a safe and happy holiday!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Getting Into Local Theatre - Part 3

When the children’s theatre decided to stage “The Hobbit” in the spring of 1999, my pal K.C. Bragg expressed interest in directing the show. Since K.C. had lots of stage experience, the board decided to name him the director - but according to the group’s bylaws, a board member would have to serve as the producer. Since I was responsible for bringing him on board, it only seemed right for me to take on the job of producer - even though I’d never done it before.

The easiest way to sum up the producer’s job is that he (or she) does just about everything the director doesn’t do. To be more precise, the producer handles most of the behind-the-scenes effort: arranging for a venue; finding a rehearsal hall; organizing work parties to build sets, find props and make costumes; overseeing the design of posters and the printing of programs; setting up ticket sales; arranging for promotional ads and media coverage; helping with crowd control at rehearsals; meeting with parents and making sure everyone is on the same page; and lots of other details. Basically, you’re a support element. I should add that the director has a hand in each part of this process, as well - the producer mostly organizes the effort.

The secret to success, of course, is to have lots of help - and thankfully, the children’s theatre has always been blessed with hardworking parents who are willing to pitch in and make a difference.

And “The Hobbit” was a major challenge, with a large cast, lots of costumes for Hobbits, Dwarves, Goblins, Villagers and a Wizard, loads of make-up, weapons (swords and axes) and a giant dragon. The costume team did amazing work, and two of the moms built the head of the giant dragon Smaug using chicken wire and papier-mache, with huge lights for the eyes. It was really impressive, and I had a ringside seat for the construction, which took place in my garage.

K.C. did a great job guiding the young actors, building the stage and handling the thousands of details the director manages (more on that in a later post), and the final show was really impressive. The obstacle that we had trouble overcoming was the fact that most people didn’t know what a Hobbit was (this being before the “Lord of the Rings” movies came out).

Still, it was a fun show, and it gave me a lot of appreciation for all the hard work a producer has to put into each show.

Next: The most frightening step yet, as I attempt to play the part of an actor.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Getting Into Local Theatre - Part 2

So one of my first jobs in local theatre was running the sound board. Since I was working in television at the time, it was a natural step - I had certainly wrestled with audio boards and microphones before. But I’d never faced the controlled hysteria of running sound for a stage show.

The job mainly involved running the microphones for the actors. Remember, we’re talking about children’s theatre here, so for the young (and often soft-spoken) actors to be heard clearly - especially when they’re singing along with a band - they have to wear microphones.

For more than a decade, the standard for theatre mics has been some form of the lavalier microphone, which is a small wireless mic that features a battery pack that clips under the actor’s costume, and a tiny mic that is clipped to the front of the costume, or (more commonly today) is taped to the actor’s face.

The problem is, there are never enough mics to go around, so the actors must share, switching mics backstage - which means the sound board operator has to be careful to bring up the right mic at the right time. Every show, at some time or another, has had that moment when a backstage mic was turned on in time for the audience to listen in to a conversation that has nothing to do with what’s happening on stage.

Lots of other things can go wrong - mics can drop dead, or develop a short, or make horrible noises as the actor brushes against them. Of course, we've all heard the dreaded feedback noise.

To add to the confusion, the sound person also may be called on to insert sound effects at a crucial moment (doorbells ringing, dogs barking, sirens wailing, etc.) - and sometimes you just don’t have enough hands to cover all the bases.

Still, it’s a lot of fun, and you get to see all the shows for free. However, after I had run sound for quite a few shows, I had a moment of revelation. In the children’s theatre, we have young people working backstage as well as acting in the shows. They form the stage crew, moving around sets, running lights, helping the actors. Just before one show it occurred to me (I never claimed to be quick), why not let one of the kids run the sound board?

Sydnee Smirl offered to tackle the job, and I gave her what little training she needed - and for the run of the show, she ran the sound - and did a great job! At one point during a show, there was a problem with a mic, and I started to step forward to help - but before I could arrive, she jumped up, fixed the problem, and went back to work. Hey, I was impressed.

In fact, kids have run the sound on most of the shows First Stage has produced since then - and almost without exception, they’ve done the job as well - or better - than I ever did. It was one of the few times I didn’t mind being put out of work - and best of all, it’s a great experience for the kids. If you can handle a sound board, you can handle almost anything.

Emphasis on the "almost."

Next: Wearing the producer’s hat.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Getting Into Local Theatre - Part 1

So how does a guy who had never been on the stage get involved with community theatre? It’s the same story that many other people could tell – namely, I got involved because of my kids.

Back in 1995 my oldest son (who was 10 at the time) decided to try out for the children's theatre production of “The Wizard of Oz.” He was cast in a dual role as one of the Witch’s guards and as a person of Oz. He had one line – “Hail to Dorothy, the Wicked Witch is dead!” – and that began an involvement for the whole family that continues to this day.

I should admit that, at the time, I was working for a local television station, where I produced children’s programming, including “Kidsmag,” a news show hosted by young people, and numerous original children’s specials. Directing children for television would eventually lead me to directing for the stage.

Not long after “Oz,” I was invited to become a board member for the children’s theatre – and I’m still doing that, too. In no time, my other son was acting in shows, and my wife became a director and producer, too.

Next: What was my first job in the theatre? Here’s a clue: testing… testing… one… two… three.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Busy Days Ahead

Things are quiet on the theatre scene right now, but the week after Thanksgiving you'll find a plethora of shows. Marshall's Department of Theatre will present "Driving Miss Daisy," First Stage Theatre will offer "Babes in Toyland" and Fifth Avenue Theatre will roll out "A Christmas Carol" - all on the same weekend! Then, for the second weekend in December, "Babes" and "Carol" will have another round of shows.

Christmas is a popular time for shows - travel to Charleston or Ashland and you'll find even more shows taking the stage. So if you're feeling like there's nothing to see or do, just be patient - it'll all change soon.

Local Theatre History - Part 7

Take my word for it - it’s not easy to stage a show. It takes a lot of people, time, effort, dedication and yes, money to put one together. For that reason it’s not surprising that quite a few groups have faded away over the years. I wanted to wrap up my series about “the history of local theatre as I remember it” with a tip o’ the hat to those groups.

First of all, there have probably been quite a few that I’ve never heard of - after all, I arrived in Huntington in 1976, and that’s where my memory starts. (As always, dear reader, feel free to post comments or send me an email at TheMinskers@aol.com with corrections or additions.)

Possibly the biggest group to fade away was the Community Players. I only remember seeing one show of theirs - “A Christmas Carol,” at the old Abbott Theater on Huntington’s west end. The group spent years putting on shows, but when the Abbott finally closed (and was later torn down), the group disbanded. A few efforts have been made in the years since to revive the group, but for now, the group has apparently left the stage.

The only other group that I know about firsthand was the Appalachian Regional Theatre (known as ART, but not to be confused with the ARTS group in the Renaissance Theatre). Organized by Danny Ray, a stage veteran who returned to his home in Huntington, the group put on some outstanding shows, including “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Odd Couple,” “Noises Off” and “Into the Woods,” to name a few. Sadly, the group shut down about a year ago, and its return is uncertain.

My hat is off to anyone who undertakes the challenge of putting on a local show. It’s a near-impossible job - but it can also be lots of fun and very rewarding.

In future blog entries, I’ll tell you more about the pitfalls of putting on a local production - what it takes and why it can succeed wildly - or fall on its face - and why there’s no way to predict which way it’ll go.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Wiggling Away

Here's one of those posts that got delayed: If you missed The Wiggles (shame on ya, mate!), you can read the story online here and check out some photos here.

Blogged Down

Sorry for the lack of posts recently! The ol' website was broken down, but if you're reading this - and you know you are - then it's apparently back up and working. I'll try not to run off and leave you hanging like that again.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Local Theatre History - Part 6

The newest theatre group in town is, basically, a new wing of an organization that got its start about seven years ago. Arts Resources for the Tri-State (ARTS) began as a gathering of theatre groups - and one orchestra - who would work together to refurbish part of the old Huntington High School and turn it into a center for local arts groups.

For reasons that will take some explaining (it’ll be the subject of a future blog entry), the idea didn’t work out and the original members of the organization - the Musical Arts Guild, the Musical Arts Guild - Children’s Theatre, Huntington Outdoor Theatre and the Tri-State Youth Orchestra - all eventually left the ARTS organization.

The group continued on its own, managing the use of the Huntington High School auditorium and renting it out to other organizations. Approximately once a year since the organization began, the group has presented fundraisers in concert form, usually featuring Broadway veterans Mark and Beth McVey.

More recently, under the leadership of Beth McVey, the group started presenting its own stage shows. The idea, of course, was to raise money to refurbish the auditorium.

Their output has been limited so far - they presented the Christmas show “Amahl and the Night Visitor” twice (in 2004 and 2005) and staged the recent “Fiddler on the Roof.” I think that’s it so far - but given the success of “Fiddler,” I suspect we’ll be seeing more from that group in the near future.

Next: Theatre groups that faded away.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

On Stage This Weekend - The Wiggles!

Those of you with young children are no doubt familiar with The Wiggles, the Australian hosts of the popular TV show. They're four colorful singing guys who've also sold a ton of CDs, and they're arriving in person this weekend at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena. They're putting on two shows Friday - one at 3:00 p.m. and the other at 6:30 p.m. The show is called - what else? "Wiggledancing! Live on Stage."

A good time is guaranteed for kids - and I suspect the adults will have fun, too.

If you've somehow missed seeing the cheerful quartet, here's a video of them singing a couple of their most popular songs, "Big Red Car" and "Rusty Dance." Click on the video to catch the Wiggles.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Local Theatre History - Part 5

The 5th Avenue Theatre Company was founded about five years ago for a unique purpose: to raise money for the City of Huntington Foundation.

Back in 1991 the Foundation began the restoration of City Hall's auditorium. The city had planned to gut the old auditorium to create office space, but interior designer Jean Carlo Stephenson urged City Council to reconsider. She was the Foundation's first director, and today the auditorium is named after her.

But maintaining and making improvements to the facility takes a lot of cash. To raise money, the 5th Avenue Theatre Company has staged a number of shows, including “Annie,” “West Side Story,” “Carousel” and the upcoming “Christmas Carol.”

Because of the uneven nature of bringing in money on shows (not every show makes money, as anyone in theatre can tell you), 5th Avenue has been cautious in presenting shows. But with two shows on tap for this season, including “The Music Man” in the spring, the City of Huntington Foundation will continue to give audiences a reason to pay a visit to their facility.

Next: The area’s newest theatre group is also supporting a classic theater - just four blocks away from City Hall.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What's So Great About Theatre

There's a scene in an episode of "The Simpsons" where an unidentified couple are watching a bad stage show, and the man turns to the woman and says, "And this is better than a movie... HOW?"

Well, it made me laugh.

But I was reminded last night why theatre is so much fun. I was watching six young girls rehearsing a scene for the upcoming "Babes in Toyland." They were learning a dance from director Amy Browning, and Tom Hastie, the only adult on stage in the show (he plays the Toymaker), was giving pointers to the young performers on their dance steps. The sheer enthusiasm and joy just radiated from those actors - young and not-quite-so-young alike.

As I started to leave, one of the girls stopped me and said, "You have to watch us run through the whole song." So I did - and it was delightful. Adorable. Cute. Funny. And then some.

I can't wait to see this show - it's got "Holiday Classic" written all over it.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Vote Already!

OK, it has nothing to do with local theatre - but Tuesday is Election Day, so here's a reminder to get out there and do your duty as a citizen! Perhaps if enough of us vote, they'll stop running those annoying TV commercials!

Wishful thinking, I know.

Local Theatre History - Part 4

The Huntington Outdoor Theatre (HOT) got its start back in 1993, and - of course - its origins can be traced to the Musical Arts Guild. At one performance (I’m not sure which show it was), Helen Freeman first met Patti Shaver. The two kicked around the idea of starting a local outdoor theatre - and finally decided to give it a try.

HOT’s shows have all been presented at Huntington's Ritter Park Amphitheater. The shows usually run through each weekend in July. Some years the group has presented two shows in a summer, while other times they present a single show.

The group is led by Helen, who serves as the President and Artistic Director, and Patti, who is Vice-President and Managing Director. Helen directs most of the shows, and Patti choreographs and organizes things behind the scenes. Of course, they have lots of help, with a board of directors and an small army of managers tackling every job from designing posters to selling tickets and T-shirts.

HOT has established itself as a summer tradition, and focuses on presenting big musicals, including shows like “Hello, Dolly,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Disney's Beauty and the Beast,” “The Music Man,” “Huntington: The Jewel of West Virginia” and “Oklahoma.”

Each show also features a pre-show, featuring a variety of performers singing or dancing, and a prepared performance by young actors.

HOT has been a real success story, bringing in huge crowds through the month of July. Like any outdoor theatre, its only enemy is bad weather, but thankfully Huntington’s summers are usually mild.

Oh, HOT has one more dubious distinction - it’s the only organization that has presented a show that included, as one of its actors - me. But I’ll save that story for another day.

Next: A theatre group that’s been around less than a decade - and it’s designed to raise money to pay for improvements to a local building.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Local Theatre History - Part 3

The First Stage Theatre Company got its start 16 years (and one name change) ago. After auditions in 1990 for shows like “Annie” and “Hansel and Gretel” brought in - literally - hundreds of kids, it was obvious that there was a need for an outlet for these young thespians.

As with many local theatre groups, its beginning are tied to the Musical Arts Guild (MAG). George Snider and Jennifer Salcines approached the board of MAG and asked the group to sponsor the children’s theatre, and that’s how the Musical Arts Guild – Children’s Theatre (MAG-CT) began. The group’s first production was “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” on Sept. 14, 1990.

There are, basically, two kinds of children’s theatres. One features adults putting on shows for young people (with the cast perhaps including a few young actors), and the other stars young actors in the leads (with the cast sometimes including a few adults). MAG-CT would be the latter, and over the years it has allowed young people the chance to star in all kinds of shows, both musical and non-musical.

Like any youth organization, the group has an ever-changing board, as young actors and their parents get involved, graduate and move on to other interests. There are only two board members still involved with the group who were there at the beginning - the group’s chairman, C.E. Wilson, who was the first liaison between MAG and MAG-CT (he’s a darn good actor, too), and Mary Smirl, who has directed and choreographed quite a few shows (and she’s also a darn good actor).

By 2001 it was obvious that MAG-CT was able to stand on its own two feet, so in an amicable split the two groups separated, and the children’s theatre adopted a new name (one suggested by board member Clint McElroy): the First Stage Theatre Company.

Like its parent group, First Stage is a theatre group without a home - so it roams from theater to theater, depending on which one is available and which one fits the needs of the production. Every year the group produces either two or three shows, each one featuring young actors from across the Tri-State area. The purpose of the group is to provide young people with a positive experience either on the stage or working behind the scenes.

If anyone out there is avoiding their shows because it’s a “children’s theatre,” you’re missing out on some great young talent - many of whom you’ll see on stage in other local theatre productions.

In the last four years the group has staged major shows like “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Seussical: the Musical,” “Honk,” “Les Miserables: The School Edition” and the upcoming “Cats,” in addition to smaller shows like “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “A Christmas Story,” “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” “The Three Musketeers” and the upcoming “Babes in Toyland.”

First Stage also offers up a scholarship program named in honor of Jim Stone, a local actor who was a great supporter of the arts and a mentor to many young actors.

First Stage has established itself as a great place for young people to get their start in theatre. There they gain the skills and confidence that will serve them well throughout their life.

Next: Started just a few years after the Children’s Theatre, this group rules the month of July - which must be why it’s called HOT.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Unfortunately, I didn't get to see last night's performance of "Alice" - I had a church dinner to attend. The H-D has some nice photos from the show - you can get to their photo gallery here and click on "Alice" under the news category.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Local Theatre History - Part 2

The Musical Arts Guild (MAG) is the second-longest-running (and still active) community theater group in the Huntington area. Way back in 1965 several area churches combined their choirs to provide music for a preaching mission, and that was the beginning for the Musical Arts Guild.

Those early missions were presented for a while at the Keith-Albee Theater, and when that ended, the group continued doing concerts and finally “regular” shows at the Huntington High School auditorium (now known as the Renaissance Center).

Over the years since, the group has produced some terrific shows and given stage time to many local actors who moved on to Broadway, including Michael Cerveris and Mark and Beth McVey.

One of my favorite shows produced by MAG was “Fiddler on the Roof” in the mid-’90s, starring my pal Jim Stone (God rest his soul) as Tevye.

Unfortunately, it’s been a while since MAG tackled a stage show - I believe their last show was a few years ago. “The King and I” was directed by Danny Ray and starred Tommy Smirl. The group is still active, but has gone back to its roots and presents shows in concert form only. Just a week or so ago MAG held a fundraising concert for the three scholarships the group awards every year to Marshall students - two for music majors and one for a theatre major.

They’ve carried the torch of community theatre for more than 40 years - and hopefully they’ll continue to bring the gift of music to the area for many more years to come.

MAG was also directly involved in the creation of the next-oldest local community theatre group - the one devoted to local children.

Next: Part 3 - First Stage Theatre Company

On Stage Tonight - Alice

The Marshall Artists series presents "Alice" tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Keith-Albee Theatre.

Here's a synopsis of the show:

If you think being rich will get you a giant house, fun times, and lots of great friends, come join sassy teen Alice, who believes it will, and then wins a mysterious sweepstakes.

In a dizzying race against the clock to claim her big prize, she takes off into the topsy-turvy neon wonderland of the Big City with her two best friends: a white, kind-of-invisible rabbit, and a card-playing nerd.

Skyscrapers seem to grow taller, diners appear to get smaller, and rich uptown ladies try to steal their winnings, but that’s just the beginning to all the outrageous adventures in store for you. Whoopi Goldberg’s delightful children’s book, Alice, has been made into a one-hour play with music.