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I have found that working backstage for a show gives you a greater appreciation for the work in question.
I decided once again to help with props, this time with Weathervane Playhouse's “To Kill a Mockingbird,” directed by Jimmie Woody. Woody was the director for “Clybourne Park,” staged a year ago, the first show I ever helped with props.
That time, I flew solo, learning as I went. This time, Jared Sparks was co-props designer. I found that working with someone else is fantastic. He's far more organized than I am and has had a bit more experience. I've had a wonderful time working with him, divvying up the props list according to our strengths, rummaging downstairs in the theater basement for props, and a shopping trip for a few items we could not find on hand in the vast inventory at Weathervane. I generally don't like shopping but that excursion was a good deal of fun, and I learned about a couple more stores for future reference.
My favorite part in designing props -- “props” generally meaning the items that get carried on and off stage that are not furniture (but this is flexible) -- is research, painting and customizing. I'm a bit of a klutz mechanically but I love taking objects, such as two flashlights, and making them look older and more true to the period (in this case, the mid 1930s).
For those who have not read the novel by Harper Lee -- well, first off, correct that. It's a wonderful read and well deserving of the title “classic.” But much of the story centers around Scout, the young daughter of Atticus Finch, a lawyer who is called on to defend a black man from allegations of rape from a white woman. The play streamlines much of the novel to concentrate more on the trial. The important themes are retained in this adaptation, by Christopher Sergel.
My favorite project this time was designing the Maycomb Tribune, the newspaper of the fictional Alabama town where the story takes place. I've designed newspaper pages before, but the newspapers from the 1930s looked different from today's formatting. This is an understatement. I studied images from newspapers published in 1935, particularly the Chicago Daily Tribune and The Daily Register, and tried to recreate that look. One of these days I would like to research more into how newspapers were put together back then. One thing I observed is that big news and small local briefs ran in no seeming order on the front pages. There isn't a lot of art, I suspect because of the costs of reproducing pages with photos even today. I had a lot of fun researching the ads that would have run in that time period. If you ever want an education on the history of advertising and propaganda, do an internet image search on ads, particularly from the 1930s through the 60s. What was considered acceptable ranges from hilarious to a bit alarming.
When I was putting together this fictional paper, I not only had to keep in mind the events that happened, but what the residents in the town of Maycomb would have been interested in reading and what the owner of the paper, Braxton Underwood, would have put on the newspaper pages. Underwood doesn't appear in the play; he has a small but important role in the novel as a friend to Atticus.
I went with a mix of national headlines, such as Roosevelt signing the National Labor Relations Act, Babe Ruth playing his final game in Fenway Park and a devastating dust storm that hit Stratford, Texas, with small local notices such as the sheriff advising residents on what signs to look for if someone suspects an animal is rabid, a notice about the need for an elementary school teacher and a news brief about a collection being taken for the family of Tom Robinson (all of which are nods to the novel and play). I generally stayed away from international news in favor of local, but couldn't resist mentioning an amusing article about a Russian man digging up 105 tons of cabbage in six hours. I figured something like this would have caught the interest Maycomb's residents, several of whom are farmers, as well.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” opens Feb. 23 and runs through March 12.
Weathervane Playhouse is at 1301 Weathervane Lane in Akron. For details, call 330-836-2626 or visit www.weathervaneplayhouse.com online.
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