Writing a musical can take years. But once Northwestern’s American Music Theatre Project team chooses a show for a full production, the process speeds up, with only a few months between the first auditions and opening night. Here’s a glimpse behind the scenes of The Verona Project:
Theater professor Amanda Dehnert and AMTP producing director Heather Schmucker are putting together the cast for Dehnert’s musical The Verona Project, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, where actors double as members of a rock band, shifting from guitar licks and drum beats to monologues and snappy comedic repartee. Performers must not only be able to sing and act and play at least one instrument, they also need to have the right chemistry with the rest of the group.
“Have fun with it,” Dehnert urges one actor. “If it’s really bad acting, I’ll tell you and make you do it again.” She has a deep, rich laugh that dissipates the nervous energy simmering in the room. But casting a play is a puzzle, and the pieces aren’t lining up. After one couple has been dismissed, Dehnert and Schmucker shake their heads at each other, faces glum.
And then it clicks: a dialogue suddenly becomes more than just words on a page but a conversation between two real people. Dehnert and Schmucker are transported into the world of the play. When the actors finish reading, the two women sit in silence, basking in the potential of what is to come.
The cast of The Verona Project trickles into the Josephine Louis Theatre clutching coffee cups and cellphones, trading summer vacation stories. They take their places beside the instruments arranged across one side of the stage: guitars, a drum kit, a saxophone, a ukulele, an accordion. Some pick up their instruments with the ease that comes from years of lessons; others are more tentative.
“The basic idea of this play is that it starts with a band,” Dehnert announces. “The best way for us to rehearse is to be that band. In the beginning, it’s just going to be a whole lot of noise. But that’s OK.”
They start with a song called “Everything Is Perfect,” focusing first on the basic melody and then adding layers of music and voices. The beat is erratic, and the sounds disjointed. But the tune eventually emerges from the din, waiting to be polished and perfected. “Yea!” Dehnert enthuses. “You made noise! Awesome!”
Sixteen people have gathered around a table on the second floor of the Theatre and Interpretation Center, most of them full-time staff members who handle the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting that goes into producing a show. One by one, they present their to-do lists: Can the actress who plays the drum wear heels and still control the foot pedal? How will a tree move across the stage? Is it possible to illuminate a jar of preserved fruit from within? Through it all, stage manager Rachel Stubblefield-Tave, a senior theater major from Newton, Mass., types on her laptop with a reassuring efficiency. Any problems that arise, it seems, will be solved with a minimum of fuss, leaving the drama for the stage.
The mood in the theater tonight is relaxed; actors moan in exaggerated frustration when they forget lines, and the staging for the final scene has yet to be finalized. Afterward, Dehnert gathers her cast for a review — and a wake-up call. Despite the months of practice, she tells them, they still don’t sound like a cohesive band: “There are moments where everyone is playing together, but it’s about 10 percent of the time. It still can take such a leap forward.” The first preview performance is one week away. Can they pull it off?
The cast members stride out, and they are no longer Lillie and David and Patrick and Madeline — they are musicians who thrive on being center stage. They launch into their first song; the rhythm is steady, and the tune clear, and there is an appealing casualness among the actors, as if they are simply jamming while the audience listens in. Only someone who has watched every step along the way would know how much trial and error went into creating each lighthearted moment or multilayered harmony. At the end of the show, the audience rises for a standing ovation, and the cast joins hands, beaming. — E.C.B.
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