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Behind the curtain article

It was opening night of the Theatre Department’s fall semester production of Carousel, and it all seemed effortless: the lights dimmed, the curtain parted to reveal a bright fairground. The clock slid back a century and a half, transporting the audience into the world of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which tells the tragic tale of Billy Bigelow, a charismatic carousel barker who loses his job and then struggles to find a way to support himself and his young wife, Julie Jordan. This moment was the culmination of over two months of hard work on the part of more than 70 students and a team of professionals.

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Between rehearsals and after-hours prep, being part of a Boston College student-run production can be like working a full-time job alongside coursework and extracurricular commitments. In the first act of Carousel, Julie tells a friend that Billy is “unhappy 'cause he ain't working.” It is safe to say that David Makransky '17, who played Billy, did not have that problem last September. The semester had barely begun, but David and the rest of Carousel’s 32-member cast were already rehearsing five times a week. They met with music director David McGrory and choreographer Larry Sousa to learn the words and dance steps to famous numbers like “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” They talked about the roles they would be inhabiting for the next two months with the show’s director, Michelle Miller ’98, the 2015-16 Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., Professor in Theatre Arts, and an award-winning dancer, actor, singer, and producer whose broad stage experience informed her collaboration with McGrory, Sousa, and her cast. “Michelle’s also a performer,” said Christy Coco ’17, who played Julie Jordan, “so she gets how we think and how we understand things.”

As a portrait of a bygone time and place, Carousel posed unique challenges for actors, set designers, and costume technicians alike. In order to help students relate to the characters, Miller emphasized the underlying themes of the musical—sexism, classism, strong women—and linked them to students’ day-to-day lives and the subjects they were studying. “We go into philosophy and psychology, we go into anthropology, we talk about interpersonal relationships,” she said. “What I’m giving them is everything I learned at Boston College.”

Although roughly three-quarters of the students who worked on Carousel were theatre majors or minors, several students spoke to the connection between their non-theatre-related classes and their work on stage. “The approach that Michelle takes with us is reflective of the Boston College liberal arts philosophy,” said Lauren Strauss ’17, who played Julie’s best friend Carrie Pipperidge. “In every show I’ve seen here, there is such heart, and that comes from approaching it from philosophical, even theological standpoints.” This holistic, interdisciplinary approach to self-expression reflects Robsham Theater Arts Center’s mission to foster students’ ability to express their own artistic influences, cultures, and ideas to a broad audience.

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Meanwhile, behind the scenes
While the cast members were immersing themselves in their characters’ inner lives, tech crews were already mapping out lights and sound cues, and the costume shop and scene shop were working to transform Robsham’s stage into a nineteenth-century New England coastal town. Technicians in costume shop supervisor Quinn Burgess’s shop sewed, hemmed, and fit close to 70 outfits in the style of the times—frilly blouses and long skirts for women; caps, overalls, and vests for men. For Medina Geyer ’16, who has worked in the shop since her sophomore year, building costumes has been a way to stay in touch with theatre, but it has also been an introduction to practical life skills such as sewing and hemming. “I was able to gain skills that I’ve learned to love and that I hope to use for the rest of my life,” she said. Meanwhile, in the scene shop, a team of undergraduates created a wide range of set pieces under the professional guidance of master carpenter Catrin Evans and set designer Crystal Tiala—a vast tree canopy, two multistory homes, buoys, heavenly lampposts, a backdrop of stars, the spinning carousel itself, and more—to build the musical’s world on stage. “It helps to have great leaders in the shop,” said Joseph McCarthy ’17 of working with Evans and Tiala. “They made us feel that we could make mistakes and learn.” Student sound and lighting technicians also got the opportunity to work under professional designers and operate Robsham’s boards during the performances.

For some, being on one side of the production was not enough. Stage manager Caitlin Mason ’16 and her three assistant stage managers got to know every aspect of the musical, communicating with cast members, directors, and tech crews to keep everything running smoothly at rehearsals and keeping track of cues to make sure nothing was missed. McCarthy, who did not even intend to be involved in a play at the start of the semester, found himself acting in the production, building sets in the scene shop, and working in Robsham’s box office. He even decided to take on a Theatre Department minor. “You definitely work harder at each aspect when you know you’re involved in the production,” he said.

McCarthy and his on- and off-stage collaborators acknowledged that balancing rehearsal schedules and tech workshops with other aspects of life at Boston College could occasionally be challenging, but it was a challenge they seemed to relish. “As you go deeper into acting and theatre, there’s more and more work,” Makransky said, “but there’s nowhere else we’d rather be.”

By John Shakespear

All photos by Lee Pellegrini