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from Val #2

The past few weeks at home have flown by. I’ve never before had the luxury of extra time in between rehearsals and tech (this break happened because of our director Lisa’s Australian tour of her Obie-winning show AN ILIAD) - a hiatus like this is pretty unheard-of in the theatre world, and I have to say I LOVE IT.

Instead of a breathless, stress-filled race to opening night, we’ve had ENOUGH TIME to actually carefully consider what rewrites we wanted to do - review the video from our February workshop at ACT, have multiple skype calls with our bookwriter Joe, and send ideas back and forth - and then time to IMPLEMENT those rewrites, send them to Wade, and do some individual practicing before heading back to Seattle for brush-up rehearsals and tech. It’s such a civilized, productive, non-life-shortening way to do things; I know it probably adds to the budget, but I am supremely thankful for these weeks we’ve had.
I recently saw this visual representation of the creative process - and I think what this hiatus has allowed us is the ability to get ALL THE WAY THROUGH the cycle - so I for one am feeling great about where we are.

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I’m not the only one, either. Ryan and Brendan were able to complete ALL the orchestrations (which sound absolutely gorgeous), and we had four long rehearsals here at our place where we troubleshot EVERYTHING: all the cues and synth programming and and violin patch changes and Ableton Live quirks (of which there are many! - this is the same computer program I use for my solo looping concerts, the brain-ripping one I think I mentioned in my last post).

It constantly astounds me just HOW MUCH WORK continues to go into all of this. We’ve been working on this show off and on for over five years…and there’s still a TON to do, now that we’re heading into our first production. Here’s a tiny taste of what I mean: a short video of Brendan and Ryan speaking their to-do lists for our March 10 rehearsal.

Today is March 25, and I just did a full runthrough, here in my room with all my equipment. Something I haven’t done in a VERY long time is play piano parts (I mean, if you have a Brendan in the house why would you, right??) - and I do play some piano in this show so I’ve been reviving those long-dormant skills, shedding on the keyboard. One week till Seattle, and I feel very ready! (Ready for everything except: packing all the stuff in the below photo and taking it to the airport with me. Hello TSA…)

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Beyond the Shadow of A Doubt: Wade's Journey


T'was the night of the first polar vortex storm in NYC, and as the icy wind enveloped my janky apartment in Queens, I had the honor of being asked to jump on the “Shackleton Loves Me” ship.  I gleefully and gratefully hopped aboard to tell this magnificent story of relentless optimism, written, directed and produced by heroic icons of our theatrical craft.  It was literally 7 degrees fahrenheit outside and it was maybe a balmy 34 inside my apartment.  The icy wind was slipping effortlessly through the gargantuan cracks around my crooked windows.  As the house plants and I hid in the pantry, every few minutes a strange ice refracted lightning flash would envelope the apartment.  I thought, “This is fucking perfect.” So I took a walk.  I bundled up and began a trek to the East River, through the “Frankenstorm” polar vortex. I mean, when would I ever get another opportunity to do hands on polar-like research so close to home?  As I traversed the barren ice laden wasteland of Queens I tried to place myself in Shackleton’s shoes. (They are some awesome shoes!) As the lethal-cold gail force winds were burning my eye juices, as the frozen filthy snow piles were blowing oil covered ice grits into my stinging nostrils, as my feet began to feel the scathing pavement’s frost sink in (and I’d only walked three blocks,) I knew I had found crazy actor research gold… sense memory heaven!

I heard Ernest’s robust voice in my well chilled head: “Keep smiling even though it feels like your face will fall off!  Keep a spring in your step when your feet say, ‘Fuck off dumb-ass!’  Keep moving ahead towards your arbitrary goal despite the fact that everything in your keen corporeal nature says, 'Turn the fuck around and get back in the pantry with your houseplants!’  And when all the other voices in your head join in like a Bonnie Tyler choir singing 'turn around’… Don’t turn around!  Trust that your positivity and optimism can transcend biological imperative, trust that you can do more than ever imagined, trust that if you press on, with an unrelenting optimism that borders on insanity you will be rewarded with the fruits of rising above your own self imposed limitations.  For truly, the only way one can survive the unsurvivable is by KNOWING we can.  Knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that we will survive the impossible, we shall.”

I smilingly tromped on through the arctic tempest and when I reached the God forsaken wasteland of the East River, imagining it as Antarctica, I knew I would be the only brave (stupid?) soul out in the inclement, indecent cold. But alas, much to my surprise a jogger came jogging by (fucking New Yorkers) and yelled to me through the hurricane like wind: “Perseverance!"   Yes, I thought, Shackleton is with us, telling us to all to persevere.  Persevere through the waves of cynical fear that our culture has become accustomed to…  Through the storm of bad news… Through the raging winds of polarization and division…  Through the rocky shorelines of social justice, global community, economic inequality… Persevere so we may land on the shore of harmony, equality, liberty and happiness. Know without doubt that we will land on that shore where we all get along and quell these crippling conflicts.  Yes, the Bonnie Tyler choir may be singing: "I need a hero,” but what if - just what if each of us were that hero?   Each one of us with optimism, perseverance and trust can safely land our own makeshift lifeboats on the shores of collective peace.  

One hundred years after Shackleton survived the most harrowing, violent, impossible conditions known to the human race, we can ride his tsunami of inspiration to rise above our own self imposed limitations and arrive at an almost miraculous understanding.  This is what crossed my mind as I stared out over the river on that cold and fortuitous night.  Call it naive, call it insane, call it unrealistic, call it what you will, but the truth is, anything is possible if we can know beyond the shadow of a doubt.

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Breaking New Ground with Music Technology!

From Orchestrators Ryan O'Connell (Music Director, ABOVE LEFT) and Brendan Milburn (Composer, ABOVE RIGHT).

Orchestrating ESLM presented new challenges that, to my knowledge, have never been faced in the realm of musical theatre ever before. 

One of the unique aspects of this show is that a good amount of the score is essentially created in front of the eyes of the audience. In the last few years, Valerie has essentially become a one-woman band, and uses foot pedals to live-record soundscapes that she builds and elaborates to create songs in real-time on her electric violin and other instruments. This is a popular trend in music nowadays, but no one has ever put this kind of music into a musical theatre setting. We loved the visceral experience of this on-the-spot creation and wanted to incorporate that into the show. However, the use of looping pedals can be finicky and unpredictable, both of which can spell disaster for a live theatre performance. We needed to find a way for Valerie to reliably record and playback on stage, while acting and singing at the same time.
Another challenge - Kat’s song cycle to Shackleton stems from her video game score, which she describes as “John Williams on steroids.” Without an 80-piece orchestra at our disposal, how would we get that epic, film-music sound into the theatre?
Lastly, Kat loves using electronic effects. Whether it’s voice-delay, or vocal processing in the form of auto-tune, or beat making from unique recorded sounds, she’s got the electronic equipment to do it in her chaotic studio. This kind of processing usually takes arduous amounts of editing on the computer. How would we achieve these cool effects in real-time without boring the audience to tears?
The answer to all these problems presented itself in one incredibly versatile piece of software: Ableton Live.
Ableton Live is a program that has been used by DJ’s and beat-makers for years to do exactly what we were trying to achieve - live processing, playback, and digital effects. With some adaptations, we were able to make it work for our the theatre too.

Above: Ableton Live Screen shot. Says Ryan: All these colors make for one great show!

Inside Ableton, we are able to record Valerie’s electric violin and loop it back immediately, so that what the audience hears is Val’s actual violin that she just played. She could change up what she plays each night, and the audience would get a different experience. It’s live music-making at its best and technologically most advanced.

We were also able to augment Kat’s live-composing with a huge film orchestra, using the same exact sounds that Hans Zimmer and co. use to demo their scores for directors before hitting the recording stage. Ableton also gives us the ability to vamp and jump in the music, so that our underscoring actually scores the scene as though it were a live orchestra playing to the action. We can also wait for the actors until they are ready, or if something goes wrong. It feels live and dynamic, and prevents the karaoke aesthetic that one can feel at, say, an amusement park show where the actors sing along to pre-recorded music. Finally, we were able to incorporate delay, vocal processing, cutoff filters, and other cool digital effects to present to the audience very cool sounds that they may have never heard in a theatrical setting before. As a bonus, Ableton also takes care of switching Valerie’s electric violin sounds and my keyboard sounds, which I will play from the pit.
All of these aspects combine to give the audience an incredible and unique musical experience. It’s something that has taken us months to engineer and program, but in performances, it’s going to be so worth it.

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Ryan Conlin

Ryan Conlin is the Property Master on Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (and Balagan Theatre’s beloved Production Manager)!  He has worked in various aspects of theatre all over the country and is now here in Seattle.

Here’s what Ryan had to say about props for Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (bonus Ryan is hiding in one of the pictures!):

 

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“Here’s a fun game….. how many people here literally have the word “master” in their title? I do! My name is Ryan and I am the Properties Master for Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. Being a props master is kind of like being a professional scavenger hunter except you are given a budget and expected to find things that will make the director happy. My favorite note I got from Director Lisa Peterson in this process was for Bruce’s keys and keychain. Lisa thought about it for a moment and then told me that the keys should look like they might smell bad… 


This show has some really great things for me to work with as it takes place in two timeframes and two completely different locations. The New York flat is what it is and has it’s own fun challenges but the early 19th century nautical explorer items are the ones that I feel give the show the most texture. 

My favorite prop in ESLM is Ernest’s bag and it’s contents. It’s a collection of period items such as a bosun whistle, a sextant, a spy glass, a flask and whale blubber. Much like choosing a cast and company, each item was chosen not for how it worked, but how it worked in a collection.


I am so very happy to be on this scavenger hunt with these fine people and can’t wait to see how Wade and Valerie use the items that I have found.”

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Creating Seattle: Load-In Complete!

In just three short days we have gone from an empty stage to a theatrical canvas! Starting tomorrow, it’s lighting focus, video projector hang and notes from the Production Designer, Alex Nichols, who is flying in from San Francisco to check-up on the Seattle build. Fingers crossed!

Note: the prominent naked bulb in the foreground is the ghost light.

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from Val #1

On January 11, I started rehearsals for the world premiere production of the show I may be more passionate about than any other: ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME, which will start previews April 12 and officially open at Seattle Rep, under the auspices of Balagan Theatre Company, on April 18. (Have I mentioned how excited I am about this??) Brendan and I, along with the brilliant and hilarious Joe DiPietro, have been working on this piece off and on for about five years – first as a solo show for me to perform, and then in its much better version as a two-person musical. (As our astute and ingenious director Lisa Peterson said, in a show featuring Ernest Shackleton you have to SEE Ernest. How right she is.)

It feels like all the stars are aligning to make this happen the right way: various random delays made it so that we are now premiering the show in the 100th anniversary year of the start of Shackleton’s historic voyage, so that Shackleton awareness is at an all-time high; Lisa’s demanding schedule made it so that we have a nearly-2-month hiatus between rehearsals and tech, so that we can fit in some rewrites and improvements (and banjo practice!); the original venue fell through, so that we are now at the much-better-for-us gorgeous, intimate-yet-grand Leo K Theatre at Seattle Rep, an ideal space for our premiere.

Matthew Kwatinetz, impassioned theatre revolutionary, is our lead producer, bringing together vast numbers of disparate pieces and personnel to make this happen for real. Wade McCollum, chameleonic and transcendent performer whom we have adored since he played Woody in our first TOY STORY workshop, is my co-star and it is thrilling to share the stage with him.

We rehearsed like mad at ACT in downtown Seattle, and ended our initial Seattle stint, just as the city was erupting with joy over the Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory, with 3 workshop performances February 2, 3 and 4 (fully staged, but with no tech: meaning there was tape on the floor instead of platforms, lots of piano playing by our excellent music director Ryan O’Connell instead of full orchestrations, and a descriptive speech by our director instead of video projections).

This is where the caption goes.

Photo collection by Broadway World

I don’t think I’ve ever stuffed so much information so fast into my brain and body before; probably because I’ve never done quite as much movement/acting/blocking as this while playing – for example, leaping from ice floe to ice floe while playing a hoedown…it’s been hugely challenging, immensely inspiring, and one of the best things I’ve ever done. And it’s gonna be even better in April.

This is only a test.

sketch of the set by scenic/video designer Alex Nichols

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Builder Ian explains some of the stage tricks involved in making the “magical” fridge. First he shows how the inner parts of the fridge can be taken out. Then, he reveals the trick of how the magnets suddenly fall off of the fridge as if the polarity of the magnets had changed…The inner knob pulls back a metal plate so that there is nothing for the magnet to be attracted to.

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Load In, Day 2! At the Leo K Stage at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Connecting the side platforms, consulting the plan to place lighting boom stands, attaching the projection fabric to the central back wall of Kat’s apartment, touching up the “snow treatment” on the platform legs, bringing in new downstage platforms, creating platforms that allow Kat and Ernest to exit, and beginning the sound set up.

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Load In, Day 1! At the Leo K Stage at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Laying carpet on the platforms, laying down “snow” carpet on the stage, setting up the central platform, bringing over the “road boxes” backstage and getting ready to install the snow machines!

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Chelsea Cook

Chelsea Cook is the mind (and fingers) behind the fantastic costumes for Ernest Shacklton Loves Me.  She graduated from Cornish College of the Arts in 2006 and has been making a splash all over Seattle ever since!  Chelsea has worked for many theatres in the Seattle area including INTIMAN Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Village Theatre and Balagan Theatre.  Check out the other costume posts to see how Chelsea got her ideas for the characters we get to meet in Ernest Shackleton Loves Me!

Here is a rendering of Kat Chelsea created: 

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Chelsea gives a sneak peek into her insights for Kat’s clothing, hair and makeup.  Check out these great boards!

Kat clothing

Kat Hair

Kat Makeup

Kat Bonus: Tattoos too!

Inspiration Board: Ernest Shackleton

Inspiration Board: Ponce de Leon

Inspiration Board: Bruce

And just for fun, this is Chelsea!

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The process of making the poster. We started with some basic sketches to review some concepts: Locket, Fridge and Photo-Realism. We then decided to merge Fridge with Photo-Realism. Next, we looked at different ways to integrate a figure, representing the heroine. Finally, we added color and appropriate color and text. Original key art designs all by Jeff Gillam. Final poster layout and design by Mark Drilon.

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Stage Manager Sarah Mixson checking out the build at the Seattle Rep. The Rep is building “road boxes” that will live in Kat’s apartment and then transform into mountains, boats and more. Plus, see below the special Refrigerator full of fun surprises!

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Oops. I guess someone forgot to tell us theatre folk that the Super Bowl is happening the same weekend as our workshop performances at ACT. And since Seattle’s actually in the Super Bowl there’s no sense trying to fight it. So, here he is. Ernest Shackleton, in all his glory, reppin’ a Beast Mode shirt. Go Seahawks!

Oops. I guess someone forgot to tell us theatre folk that the Super Bowl is happening the same weekend as our workshop performances at ACT. And since Seattle’s actually in the Super Bowl there’s no sense trying to fight it. So, here he is. Ernest Shackleton, in all his glory, reppin’ a Beast Mode shirt. Go Seahawks!

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Meet Ryan O'Connell and Rob Witmer: the men behind the audio.

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The Importance of Being 'Ernest'

Ernest has become such a wonderful and pivotal role in our show. And we have taken great strides to make sure that we cast the perfect actor that’s up for the challenge. 

On Jan. 15, 2014, we still did not have an Ernest.

The first actor that we thought would play the role had to back out of the production. Then he was back in. Then he got cast in Les Miz. So, back to the drawing board.

We started reviewing audition videos from Seattle. We had casting directors sourcing NY talent. Valerie and Brandon were working their connections in LA. All of the options were being funneled to Lisa, the writers, and our producers, trying to find that perfect fit.

After rounds and rounds of phone calls and emails, the choice became so clear: we offered the role to Wade McCollum and he accepted!

In a matter of days, he was whisked down to LA for our Jan. 18th rehearsal start date with Val, Brandon and Lisa.

And in a true bit of comedy, we lost our recording studio in LA. (Ah comedy, why must you always come in threes?)

But what matters now is putting fingers to the keyboard/piano and rehearsing for our upcoming workshop performances!

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