Megan Felsburg, left, and author Geeta Kharkar

Photos by Sam E. Comen

 












 












 












 













The opening strands of the Damn Yankees overture fill Cahn Auditorium, and a hush falls over the audience.

Sitting in the balcony and listening to the orchestra playing "Ya Gotta Have Heart," "Whatever Lola Wants" and other unforgettable tunes from this classic show, I am surrounded by the group of people who have made Damn Yankees happen.

As the curtain rises, I turn to Megan, my co-producer, and wide smiles spread across both of our faces. My stomach is in knots. Will the audience laugh in the right places? Will the actors remember their lines? Will the set fall over? After nearly a year of work, we have reached our moment of truth: opening night of Northwestern’s 60th Annual Dolphin Show.

How often are two 21-year-old college seniors given full control of a $50,000 understaffed enterprise that is near bankruptcy and told "Here, fix this." And yet, nearly a year ago that was the situation Megan Felsburg and I found ourselves in when we took over the helm of the show.

As one of the nation’s largest student-run musicals, Dolphin boasts such alumni as Broadway lyricist and songwriter Sheldon Harnick (Mu49), Chicago Lyric Opera general director Ardis Krainik (S51) and television star Richard Kind (S78). But, more important, it is the pinnacle of Northwestern’s vibrant student theater community. Dolphin is a near-professional showcase for them — and a true University tradition. Yet sad to say, the show had fallen on hard times financially and was slowly losing its audience. Not only would this year’s production have to re-create the magic of past years to win back support, but it also would have to be done on half the normal budget.

Starting in April 2001, Megan and I spent 11 months making all of that happen.


"Are you completely insane?"

I wondered that myself more than once over the next year, but when my friend Alissa first posed the question to me, I bristled with indignation. "Of course I’m not insane — just not afraid of a little challenge," I shot back. But as the words came out of my mouth, I grudgingly had to admit she had a point. What if we fell flat on our faces, miserable failures to future generations of Northwestern theater types?

Leave it to Megan to put it all in perspective: "Geeta, if Dolphin Show can survive World War II, Vietnam and the Reagan era and still come out strong — how much damage can you and I possibly do?"

About a year ago Megan and I were approached by the 2001 producers and the Arts Alliance student theater board to produce this year’s show. I became involved in theater at Northwestern early in my first year. Megan, equally active in theater, if not more so, was this year’s production manager of the Waa-Mu Show. We met sophomore year when she was stage manager and I was assistant producer of 2000’s Dolphin Show. I knew that our working relationship would be one based on absolute trust and respect, and there was no other way I would agree to shoulder a project like this. She seemed to agree.

Still, I knew it would be a challenge to balance producing Dolphin with being a full-time student with a double major in journalism and Italian. In addition there were all of the other important things about a senior year: making decisions about the future, finding a job and having a great time. I didn’t want Dolphin to eclipse all of that.

And yet, how could I turn down such a challenge? I asked advice from everyone I came across. In the end, it was my brother who provided me with the clearest insight.

"Next year," he said, "when that curtain rises on opening night and you are sitting there in the audience, how are you going to feel if that isn’t your show on stage?"

We both knew the answer to that question.


When Megan and I took over Dolphin, we decided the best way to capitalize on our talents would be for Megan to become artistic producer and treasurer and for me to be managing producer and president.

In the excitement, however, we were not so nave as to forget the bottom line: We were broke. And we needed to make sure that next year’s Annual Dolphin Show, the 61st, wouldn’t be broke, too. To make that happen, we had to stay within a tight budget and sell a lot of tickets.

Fortunately we were able to find a director and team of designers who appreciated the value of a dollar. When we interviewed potential directors in May 2001, Jessica Redish stood out as a talented individual who understood what we wanted to create. Jessica was the one to suggest the Broadway hit Damn Yankees. It was the perfect choice: a return to the glory days of Broadway but also a show that we could afford to do well.

It’s a Faustian tale of an insurance salesman who makes a deal with the devil to become fearsome hitter Joe Hardy, leading the hapless Washington Senators to wrest the baseball pennant from the New York Yankees. It’s a light-hearted show full of big dance numbers and goofy characters. For the past couple of years Dolphin Show had staged darker productions, such as Kiss of the Spiderwoman and The Secret Garden, neither of which were big box office draws. Damn Yankees had enough color and pizzazz to bring back Dolphin’s reputation as a more energetic, family-style show.


It’s late one night in the Dolphin office on the third floor of the Norris University Center. The cleaning crew has long since left, and the Mountain Dew is finally starting to kick in. As usual, Megan and I are trying to figure out how far a dollar can stretch. We have just found out that an expected $1,000 donation has fallen through. Our stage manager, Jen Edwards, sits at the computer going over rehearsal schedules. I open our office supply drawer to grab a pen, only to remember that we have no office supplies. We can’t afford them. We steal Post-its from our partner organization, Arts Alliance.

"Did you know that you can get money for donating plasma? I think it’s about $30 a pop," I muse. "Multiply that by about 30 cast members, 10 designers and ourselves that’s so much money!"

Jen shoots me a horrified look. It seems no one appreciates my sense of humor.

The typical operating budget for a show the size of Dolphin can be nearly $75,000. In past years Dolphin had enough in the bank to borrow against projected ticket sales and pay off the debt once the show closed. Without any money at the start we had to abandon that plan. Fortunately the Associated Student Government helped out in May by loaning us $30,000 to get started. But we were still $10,000 to $15,000 short.

So we really scrambled, throwing a gigantic party ($700 in profit) and schlepping to Ryan Field at 7 a.m. on Saturdays so we could gear up to sell concessions at home football games (that raised $1,200). There is little that is so bonding for a cast and crew as traipsing around in icy rain and yelling "Hot dogs! Cracker Jacks!" Luckily no one caught pneumonia.

By early December we were hopeful but still woefully shy of our ultimate financial goal. It was time to call in the big guns: proud parents. We sent solicitation letters to everyone’s families and just prayed the money would come.

By early January — with a lot of hard work, helping hands and dumb luck — we managed to make enough to fund the production.


But earning money is only one part of the process. Throughout the year countless hours were spent designing, building, rehearsing, advertising, promoting and planning the show. Finding performers was easy; it was harder to enlist dedicated individuals for all the other jobs: carpenters, painters, poster-hangers and so on. Still, in the end more than 100 students became a part of the Dolphin process.

Our design team began its work before classes ended in spring 2001. Because of our tightened budget, this year’s team had to be particularly creative.

For example, the amount of wood needed to build a large unit set was beyond our means. But a show needs a set. So we decided to use a series of flies — set pieces that drop in and out from the ceiling — and smaller set pieces. By dropping in a large billboard and rolling in a wooden dugout, we hoped the audience would understand that the cast was in a baseball stadium without actually having one on stage. I burst into giggles every time the "Joe Hardy Drinks Coca-Cola" sign flew in; its four-foot, 1950s’ era likeness to our own "Joe," Kevin Vortmann, was so true-to-life.

Night after night the cast and rehearsal team (the director, assistant director, stage managers, musical director and accompanist) were hard at work. Each time I sat in on a rehearsal, I marveled at the talent before me. I still smile to myself when I think about Rocky and Smokey (Jeremy Cohen and Joe Schenck) reminding the boys to "think about the game" as the ballplayers lament a life without beer, women and mom’s sweets. I made it a point to catch Applegate, aka the devil (played by Andrew Hotz), ad-libbing his final monologue because I never knew what hilarity would come out of his mouth. One time during a dress rehearsal I almost fell out of my chair laughing as the devil’s sidekick, Lola (Lauren Robinson), yanked at a stuck zipper during her comical striptease in "Whatever Lola Wants."

While Jessica worked with cast members on blocking scenes or learning choreography, music director Greg Brown patiently ran through the harmonies with accompanist Sheila Bertoletti on the piano. Jen and her assistants, Matt Medaglia and Emily Cohn, took notes and made sure the rehearsals ran smoothly.

Meanwhile, the business team promoted the show both on and off campus. We wrote and mailed out press releases and sent out direct-mail pieces. We created ads to run in Chicago papers, painted banners to hang on campus and taped up posters and fliers — not to mention all those crazy fundraising activities.

"Have you eaten yet today?"

If there is a motto for student theater, it has to be that. In our zeal and passion for a project, we theater types are notorious for forgetting the simple things in life: food, sleep, classes.

Knowing all that, it remained important to me not to lose sight of life outside the show. A production of Dolphin’s size and scope can easily swallow you up, and you quickly lose perspective. At the start I promised myself that I would not neglect my friends, my grades or my sanity. At the end of the day we were just doing a school play. It’s a hard truth to remember, with all the time and energy we expended on the project. But without that perspective, it would be too easy to fall into the trap of giving your whole self to the show.

It wasn’t always easy. But I was also incredibly fortunate to have a support network that helped me deal with the pressures. My boyfriend, Ben Wilhelm, listened to me vent, stuffed envelopes or just gave me a hug when I needed one. My roommates and other friends made me dinner or hung posters when I was in a jam. Even my family cheerfully spent Christmas around the dining table, sticking mailing labels on postcards. Everybody’s help and support were invaluable because they allowed me to have a lot of fun during my senior year — and never to feel that I was missing out.


On Jan. 4 we loaded all of our set pieces and equipment into Cahn Auditorium. For the next three weeks a rotating crew of students were in and out of Cahn, putting all of the technical aspects of the show together under the gentle supervision of Pete Dully, Cahn’s production manager.

Problems arose on a sometimes hourly basis ("What do you mean there’s supposed to be a curtain there? I just hung 12 lights on that pipe!"). During rehearsals actors milled about practicing lines or dance steps ("Has anyone seen Andrew’s bullhorn?" "Bullhorn? Nobody told me about a bullhorn!"). The dressing room was always in complete disarray, with makeup and bits of costume everywhere ("Why is Lauren walking around in a black teddy and fishnets?" "That’s her costume!" "Oh, well that explains it."). But despite the exhaustion, the excitement was almost tangible. All of those months of hard work were finally paying off.


On Feb. 2 the curtain closed for the final time on the 2002 Dolphin Show. The roaring laughter and applause of the sold-out crowd still echo in my head. Word-of-mouth spread like wildfire after opening night that Damn Yankees was not to be missed. All week people stopped me on the street to quote lines from the show or tell me how they cried laughing at Lola and her misguided attempts to lure the faithful Joe away from his beloved wife. I simply smiled.

With the show’s success we have rescued Dolphin, leaving nearly $18,000 in the bank. There’s an excitement in the air for next year.

But where does that leave me? The bills are paid, the cast and staff off on other projects and the loose ends all tied up. I don’t wake up each morning mentally reviewing my laundry list of things to do. I don’t head straight to the office after class to check the answering machine and start working. I am not producing a show anymore. While I won’t miss the pressure or the time commitment, I will miss the Dolphin Show. I will miss the laughter and late nights in the office with Megan. I will miss going to Home Depot at 3 a.m. to buy more duct tape. I will miss the smell of sawdust. I will miss hugging a cup of hot chocolate after a cold night of taping fliers to the sidewalk. I will miss the wonderful people I have come to know and respect.

Sitting in the audience on opening night, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride, not only for myself but for my team as well. We undertook a giant bear of a project, gave it our all and created a beautiful show. Regardless of what profession I choose or path I end up taking in life after Northwestern, I will always be able to look back at the Dolphin Show, smile and say, "Yeah, I did that."

Geeta Kharkar of Bloomington, Ind., is a senior in the Medill School of Journalism. She plans to remain in Chicago after graduation and pursue a career in arts management.

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