Story by Laura Wiersema | Photos by Jayde Vogeler
June – August 2016 – 8-10 months until opening night
Senior Bryce Browning sits at his kitchen table in West Liberty, Iowa, poring over script after script. More than 140 plays had been submitted in a nationwide contest to be considered for Simpson College’s annual Festival of Short Plays for spring 2017.
But Theatre Simpson couldn’t put on 140 plays. They could only do three to six. Bryce reads them over, making notes about which ones deserved another read. Sure, the second reads were good, but did they deserve to be brought to life?
These plays had to be more than just impressive to make the cut. They had to fit the Festival’s theme of ethics and integrity and go together as a cohesive set without being too similar.
Then there’s logistics to consider: Will these shows work on the small stage in Barnum Studio? Can the costumes be easily made? Does Simpson have the light and sound equipment these shows require?
Bryce keeps these things in the back of his mind as he continues reading. One play here, between work shifts, another play there, as he’s getting ready to sleep. Eventually he’s read his share of the 140.
The shows chosen hold a lot of weight. These shows serve as the theatre seniors’ capstone and will be the test of everything they’ve learned in their time at Simpson. These shows have to prove to the audience and the professors that the seniors will make it in the real world after graduation because their life depends on it.
By the start of the school year, Bryce will have decided on “Animals” by Kerri Kochanski and “The Proposal” by Max Gutmann. The former centers on a woman married to a hamster, though the situation isn’t strange to her. The latter comically examines gender norms in marriage proposals. Now to play the waiting game until spring semester when the real work begins.
February 21, 2017 – 47 days until
Bryce looks over his notes. Everyone auditioned well last night, as he’d expected. Simpson’s theatre department was full of talent, after all. Unfortunately, not everyone could be cast.
“There’s just so many people that are so talented at it, and then it’s like, ‘Shoot. Everyone could do really well with these roles.’” Bryce says. “It’s not slim pickings in any sense.”
He and Brandon Herring, the other senior director, had to make the decisions. With only 10 roles to cast and nearly 35 auditioning, it was clear they couldn’t please everyone.
“The day that the cast list comes out is always really touchy,” Bryce says.
When someone who sees their future in acting is given a job in the crew, it’s often hard for them to see how it benefits them and the production overall.
“The audience is going to see these actors but they can’t see them if there’s no lights. They can’t get in the door if there’s nobody taking tickets,” Bryce says.
And with that, the cast list was finalized. The crew was drafted. There was no looking back.
March 22, 2017 – 16 days until opening night
“Whenever you’re ready, ladies!”
“It’s not that I can’t keep things clean, I just don’t care,” Britteny Johnson says, in character.
She and Brianna Stoever walk onto the barely set stage. Scripts in hand, they’re slowly weaning
With spring break two weeks ago and preparation for another theatre production last week, this is the first time the “Animals” cast has truly rehearsed. Bryce watches them from a table where the audience will soon be sitting, studying their movements, their expressions and attitudes.
“Right there, Britteny, can you sit down on the bed? You’re frustrated. You’re at your wits end,” Bryce says.
Britteny makes a note in her script and gets ready to take that line again.
Admittedly, Bryce had been worried about tonight, but the smoothness of the rehearsal put his mind at ease.
“It’s like a rough draft,” he says.
Finally, the cast was able to move past reciting lines and start blocking their movements on the stage. But Bryce wanted more. More than reading words on a page and walking to a spot on the stage.
So he told Britteny to sit down in the audience and take a break then turned to Bri.
“I want you to deliver your monologue to me, but you have to look me in the face the whole time. Nothing is more important to you than me hearing what you have to say, OK?”
Brianna nods her head. Easy enough. As she takes a breath to start speaking, though, Bryce starts walking swiftly, nearly running, around the stage.
As he makes sharp turns and walks over furniture and hides behind walls, Bri gets visibly frustrated. Heaving and groaning, she’s had it with Bryce’s directing. What is the point of this, other than to irritate her sports-induced asthma?
“I need the frantic, the panic, the paranoid,” Bryce says. “How do we pull out an emotion that you may not be feeling?”
A light bulb went on in Brianna’s mind as she regained her breath. Bryce took the emotion he wanted her to convey and magnified it. That was how she needed to present it to the audience.
Rehearsal comes to a close early, to everyone’s surprise.
“It’s just an uphill slope now. We’re at the lowest, the slowest, the quietest right now,” Bryce says. “It only gets better from here.”
March 28, 2017 – 10 days until opening night
Alanna Wendt slams the door in the middle of the stage. Trey Thompson silently mouths his lines, trying to remember his next one and the blocking Bryce gave him on Sunday. “The Proposal” is his first college production, and college productions and high school productions are on entirely different playing fields. One he never expected to be on as a math major who spent most of his time running for the cross country and track teams.
“The actors here get way more into character than we ever did in high school,” Trey says. “There’s a lot of questions that are asked. What is our motivation, our purpose? Why are we saying this?”
The cast starts running the show, spitting their lines back and forth as quickly as possible. Their goal is to imitate a sit-com, complete with a cheesy title sequence.
In his small hometown high school, musicals were Trey’s forte, but never lead roles.
“My first performance was in 4th grade at the community theatre,” he says. “In a small town audience, they all know who you are. You can’t fake it. Here they might not know who you are so you have to actually act.”
Despite it all, he’s excited for opening night. Even if his cross country teammates will be there to heckle him for his stage kiss with Alanna.
March 29, 2017 – 9 days until opening night
“Yeah, we’re missing a lot here, guys,” Bryce sighs. “Let’s just take it from the top again.”
An entire page. They skipped an entire page. They were supposed to be memorized. They’re off script. He told them, “You won’t be able to call ‘line’ tomorrow.”
But it seems like they haven’t picked up the script since they ended rehearsal last night. Company run is tomorrow. Tech rehearsals start on Saturday.
Bryce paces the space in the audience, stopping in different places momentarily to see everything from multiple angles and jotting down notes as he goes.
As “The Proposal” wraps up, Bryce pulls them outside the theatre. He has a page full of notes for them to go over, and they’ll spend the rest of tonight’s rehearsal running lines and blocking while “Animals” takes over the space.
Move the couch here, add a human-size hamster wheel there, throw clothes haphazardly around the stage.
“It’s not that I can’t keep things clean, I just don’t care.”
Again, Bryce moves around the audience, taking notes, much less furiously this time. The “Animals” cast is more experienced. The only two speaking parts are held by juniors, theatre majors. Eat-sleep-breathe theatre majors.
After so long, it comes easily to them. Memorizing is easier, blocking feels natural, getting into character in an instant. They’ve put in the work to be this good, you can tell. Bryce only stops to correct them once.
April 6, 2017 – 1 day until opening night
The nice thing about being a director is tech rehearsals aren’t as stressful. You get to sit back and watch everyone else do the work. That’s exactly what Bryce planned on doing tonight.
A couple of props crew members sweep and mop the floors. Lighting and sound designers shout cues to the booth, assuring everything works properly. Stage gets set and ushers open doors as imaginary audience members filter in.
“It’s not that I can’t keep things clean, I just don’t care.”
Britteny enters wearing an animal print cardigan, and Bri, animal print leggings. Not a detail left to chance but a conscious decision by Anastasia Abraham, the costume designer.
Final dress rehearsal has to go off without a hitch. Luckily, it seems like running each show every day for the last week is paying off.
“We only had two weeks to put this on it’s feet and that deserves a lot of pride,” Bryce says.
They say a bad dress rehearsal means a great opening night, but this dress rehearsal was nearly flawless. All it lacked was a little energy that the audience would provide, energy for the cast to feed off of and thrive.
April 7, 2017 – Opening night
Early is on time, on time is late and late is fired. It’s the mantra the theatre department lives by, so when 6 p.m. hits, everyone has been backstage for 10 minutes.
Show starts in just an hour and a half. Ninety minutes to spend getting in costume, perfecting stage makeup, running lines, getting into character and attempting to relax.
Even seasoned actors say it. The opening night jitters never go away.
“You just have to accept your nerves and it makes you better,” Trey says.
The minutes tick down, passing far too quickly for the casts’ liking. After what seems like only a few minutes, they can already hear the sound of the audience filling Barnum’s new seats.
Bryce picks a seat on the outside so he can see the audience’s reactions. It’s like showing someone a video you think is funny, he said. You want them to appreciate it, but what if they don’t?
“What we have is good regardless of who sees it, how many see it and what their reaction is,” Bryce says.
The lights go dim and the house music fades. It’s here. The culmination of months of preparation and it’ll be over in an hour.
Whether they’re ready or not, the show must go on.