“In order for the theater experience to work for the audience, they must buy into the illusion,” says Karen Burns, director of Vinalhaven’s latest community production, “Beauty and the Beast,” which ran May 12-14. Illusion is a particularly important element in this show. “We are creating a fairy tale, where humans are transformed into objects and a kiss of true love can break a spell. We can create a thousand tricks with lights and sets, but it is the responsibility of the audience to allow the magic of the theater to influence their viewing experience,” said Burns.
And create a thousand tricks they did, with a backstage crew of more than 30 volunteers who built and painted sets, designed and sewed costumes and created a magical atmosphere through sound and light. Stage Manager Norah Warren differentiated between the set for “Beauty and the Beast” and past shows staged at the Smith Hokanson Memorial hall. “The sets were more elaborate this year,” she said. “This is the first time we built platforms with levels.”
According to Burns, levels help immensely in creating the illusion of a castle, where much of the story took place. “The show required lots of levels in order to give the feeling of the vastness of the castle,” said Burns. “The sets allowed me, as the director, to establish relationships based on spacing and height. They also allowed the actors to adapt to and interact with the `place’ in a realistic manner. There is a level of inspiration and excellence that comes from working in a professional set and, along with the actors, I’ve felt the positive effects.”
Bill Chilles portrayed Lumiere in the production, and also spent countless hours building and painting the sets. “Building the sets is awesome, ” he said, “because it’s just an illusion. It’s all one-sided. The painters add all the dimension.” This was particularly apropos as he stood backstage in view of the flats that made the castle walls. The backside of the flats still exhibited scenery from previous shows, such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Once Upon a Mattress.”
Community volunteers Rhoda Boughton and Torry Pratt did most of the scenic painting for the show. Boughton is an artist and enjoys lending her talents to many local stage productions. “I just like being with the school kids, the people. It’s a pleasure,” she said. “I try to show them what is possible. Whatever you can pass on is worthwhile.” Boughton is a strong believer in the magic of theater. “The live theater experience is different than any other,” she said. “It transports people almost into another dimension. They forget it’s all paint and costumes and lighting.”
“Beauty and the Beast” was Pratt’s first Vinalhaven theater experience. “I had never done anything like this before,” she said. “I learned a lot from Rhoda, like different shadowing techniques and sizing.” Pratt was especially drawn to the teamwork aspect of volunteering behind the scenes. “It’s what a lot of us are about,” she said.
Before building a single set piece, Boughton suggested the designers watch the original 1946 film of “Beauty and the Beast,” which was filmed in Paris. “The actors were starving from the war,” explained Houghton. “They used lighting because they couldn’t build sets. It was very dark.” The design team was inspired by the dark atmosphere of the film version and decided to try to bring that element into their set design in order to make it less animated, less like the Disney version. For example, in the 1946 version, objects in the castle come alive, such as wall sconces made of hands. However, these animated objects are not so child-friendly as in the Disney version of the story. Using casts of real hands as sconces was one element the design team took from the 1946 movie. “There were other things in the show to keep it light,” said Chilles.
Another element important in creating illusion in the theater is the costumes worn by actors. This year, “we actually rented the costumes from Tracy Theatrics in Hampton, New Hampshire,” said Burns. “With a costume-heavy show, it doesn’t make sense to try and make or buy the costumes. So much of the creative energy of this show is dependent on the costumes, renting was the only real solution.” Some of the more elaborate costumes transformed their actors into a clock, a candelabrum, a teapot and a wardrobe. Even so, “there were still 21 costumes that needed to be created,” admitted Burns. “Either they weren’t available or they were characters that I added to accommodate the large cast.”
Something that was not an illusion in the show was the music. Planners of the production decided that hiring Charles Brown, of Falmouth, to play the score live would be much more effective than asking a sound technician to continually cue CDs throughout the show. This made sound operator Megan Morton’s job much easier than in past productions. “Last year the music was CD based, it made “The Wizard of Oz” more difficult,” explained Morton. “It is more enjoyable this year because the job is more specific. There is a big difference dealing entirely with miking the singers.” Like many backstage volunteers, said Morton, “I never would have thought of myself as helping in a theater. I don’t know a lot about theater, but Norah needed someone to run the soundboard, and I was willing to read the directions. I enjoy it because it is something new to me.” Morton also cited Richie Carlsen, who portrayed Gaston, as a major help in learning to operate the equipment.
Burns made a commitment to include more adult community members in this year’s production, which was noted by many. “It was enjoyable to see more adults,” said Morton, “people I knew as carpenters or fishermen have hidden talents. People’s personalities fit their parts,” she said. Such type casting in a community production aids in creating a more realistic illusion. “As much as we do to create realism in acting, the actors are still standing on platforms and placing themselves in an enchanted castle,” said Burns. “Any illusion we create is merely an invitation for the viewer to be swept away into the story.”