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From Page To Park: Controlling The Chaos And Finding A Rhythm

For more than two decades, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has turned Southmoreland Park into a place where Hamlet posed questions, Macbeth’s witches toiled and troubled, and Romeo and Juliet professed their love. This year’s production of The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, will come to life thanks to like-minded artists whose collective goal is to make the play leap effortlessly From Page To Park.

Getting started

The morning after Memorial Day, a reunion is underway, with lots of handshakes and air kisses.

In a rehearsal space at the Performing Arts Center on the UMKC campus, the floor bears an outline of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival stage in red tape. Dozens of actors, technicians and designers are gathering for the first day of rehearsal of this year's production, The Winter’s Tale.

They take their places at several tables formed into a rectangle and are corralled by the festival's executive artistic director Sidonie Garrett.

"Good morning! I’m talking as loud as I can," Garrett says. "I’m glad everyone is here. It's great to see everyone's faces. We have a lot of the company with us this morning who are going to be headed off soon to do other work. I just want to go around the room and try to get some faces attached to who you are and what you’re doing in the room with us..."

"I’m Chaz Bell. I’m the technical director."

Creating the magic

Days before that meeting of the minds, Chaz Bell oversees a crew of five in the scenery shop. Some wear safety goggles or ear plugs to soften the roar of power saws. They're cutting large panels of plastic and sheets of wood into pieces that will ultimately come together like a huge puzzle.

Bell explains the challenge of the set design.

"This year, we're trying to make the entire set so that it actually illuminates during the show," he says. "So we've used some pretty interesting corrugated polycarbonate panels, which are actually intended for greenhouse use.

"And we're painting it to look like a set, but then we backlight it, it just glows and has a really magical look to it."

Shaping design into a fable

Back in the rehearsal space, the production's designers take turns revealing to the company what they've been working on for months. Set designer Gene Friedman passes around a three-dimensional built-to-scale model.

"So, it's been really exciting developing the concept for this show and the approach to the show because the play's a little schizophrenic. It starts in Sicilia and then it goes to Bohemia - and how do you create a world that's capable of accommodating both of these?," asks Friedman. "And one of the things that Sidonie (Garrett) told me that was really important for her was to maintain the sense we are in a fable."

Costume designer Mary Traylor shares sketches of the alternately sparse and lush wardrobe and explains why she's taken creative license with the actors' hair.

"So, I hate to wig people in the park for two reasons. One, it's hotter than hell. And two, by fifteen minutes after you've been in the heat, they look like...they're very sad," Traylor says.

Learning lines and staying "on book"

While, the company refuels with coffee and bagels, actors discuss amongst themselves their history with The Winter's Tale – including festival veteran Bruce Roach. He plays Leontes, a king whose jealousy kick starts the story's entanglements.

"The very first time I saw this play, I had never read it, I had no exposure to it at all. That last scene is the best thing ever…written for the stage," says Roach.

Playing Paulina, a shrewd noblewoman, is Jan Rogge. She’s joined by John Rensenhouse, who plays Leontes' rival, Polixenes. Both have many lines. Some are memorized, others not so much, so they’ll initially have script in hand - what's called being "on book."

"Well, anymore, with such a short rehearsal period, it really helps us older actors to come in with our lines learned," says Rensenhouse.

"I'm just real familiar enough to play it and enough to be off. I don't have to be a slave to it. That’s where it’s kind of bad, because you can’t even explore when you’re doing that. You can’t even really act," says Rogge. "If people kind of don't get a sense of the scene and are really stuck to their script, and they’re stumbling and mumbling, ehh, maybe they haven't done their homework."

Mid-morning, the actors begin their read-through. In Act One, Scene Two, Bruce Roach (as Leontes) muses aloud about whether or not his young son is really his:

Thou want'st a rough pash and the shoots that I have, To be full like me: yet they say we are Almost as like as eggs; women say so, That will say anything. Yet were it true To say this boy were like me.

Discovering how the play can "sing and fly"

A natural pause in the play prompts a 90-minute lunch break. Director Sidonie Garrett places a take-out order of pot stickers and crab rangoon – and assesses how the rehearsal has progressed.

"I always think, it's like the first day of school every time, it’s like who's going to sit with who. You're going to meet new friends, you're going to meet old friends," says Garrett. "I try to create an environment in which people feel safe to fail...you try things and you make bold choices that may never make it to the stage, but you want people to discover incredible things that will make the story sing and fly."

By the close of the first day, the tables are folded away and the cast up on its feet, blocking its every cross, its every entrance, and its every exit.

KCUR's summer series, From Page To Park, explores the unexpected struggles and conflicts in the life cycle of 'The Winter's Tale'. Key cast and crew members share professional and personal journeys to create performances that speak to a diverse audience.

Heart of America Shakespeare Festivalpresents 'The Winter's Tale,' June 17 - July 6 (Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m.; additional show on Monday, June 30, but no show on July 4), Southmoreland Park, Cleaver II Blvd. and Oak Street, Kansas City, Mo. 816-531-7728.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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