Behind the scenes at the world premiere of ‘Fifty Ways’

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Photos by Eric Shea.

Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer

It’s two minutes before the show starts on opening night. The air teems with anxiety, energy and excitement. Actors and crewmembers rush in and out of dressing rooms, bathrooms and hallways — lit by black light — in an effort to be fully ready for their call to places, which signifies the start of Act One of Fifty Ways.

Nervousness fills the space. Chautauqua Theater Company Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch, who plays Nina Strauss, is fully made up and dressed. She stops in the dressing room of her fellow actors.

“It’s just another show,” she says. It’s both a reminder and a reassurance for herself and the rest of the five-person cast.

But really, it’s not just another show. It is CTC’s first world premiere, and it is the world premiere of the first play ever commissioned by CTC and the Chautauqua Writers’ Center.

Playwright Kate Fodor has had three of her four plays debuted in Chautauqua, but it is the first full production. Fifty Ways follows a married couple’s deteriorating union.

Opening night is the most terrifying, the most unnerving of the whole production schedule. No one is really sure what will happen.

But Benesch is cool and calm in the final moments before the show begins. She notices her feet are dirty and rushes to clean them — because she doesn’t think Nina would allow her feet to be dirty. The call to places comes over the loudspeaker.

Benesch moves deftly through the curtain — marked with an arrow indicating which way to open it to stop light from shining on stage — and moves toward her stage-right entrance. She lifts her arms above her head for a final stretch, her signature blonde curls bouncing as she moves, and sighs.

She hums quietly to herself. It clears her throat and serves as a sort of meditation as the lights go down and the opening music plays. She moves to her position, and as the lights come up, she utters the play’s first line, “I love this house in the mornings.”

And so the show begins. It’s 6 p.m.

But the real preparation for the show began, for the actors, at around 5:15 p.m. when they arrived for vocal warm-ups with Kate Wilson, the show’s voice and speech specialist.

It was like a tribal ritual. They pounded their chests, brayed with their voices and loosened up in an effort to warm up their voices and bodies for the impending show.

They ran through vocal warm-ups such as repeating, “Close, clothes, clove. Closed, clothed, cloved. Closez, clothez, clovez.” And, “the lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue.”

They ended the 15 minutes of warm-up by huddling together, arms wrapped around each other like a group hug, and let out a communal sigh.

“Happy opening, you are ready,” Wilson said at 5:30 p.m., and the actors were off to their dressing rooms — one for the three men and one for the two women — to get into costume, put on makeup and prepare themselves.

On the table by which Benesch sat to put on her makeup is a picture of her mother as a young girl, and her grandmother — both dancers — with each sticking out one leg behind her.

Benesch is not superstitious when it comes to her pre-play ritual, but she likes that picture. It sits beside a book of poems by T.S. Eliot, a good luck horseshoe she has just received, a multi-colored bouquet of roses and several cards wishing luck on opening night.

She read those as she readied herself and drank tea to soothe her throat. She put on her makeup first.

Benesch read through notes given to her on specific lines to work on, but she didn’t run through lines right before the show. For her, it is more important to listen and respond in the moment while on stage.

“It’s really important to give myself a task (before the show) and not be overwhelmed by the largeness of things,” she said.

At 10 minutes to opening, director Ethan McSweeny came in with a card for Benesch and gave her a quick squeeze.

“Have a great show,” he said and left to give her time to change.

Benesch moved fully into Nina’s character seven minutes before the start of the show, when she slid on the rings. She pushed them on slowly, purposefully — the engagement ring first, then the wedding ring.

She looked at them thoughtfully and sighed, then changed into her Nina clothes, a contemporary wardrobe similar to her own — some of the clothes are even hers. She pulled a silver necklace around her neck, placed turquoise earrings in her ears.

Benesch headed to wish her fellow actors good luck before taking the stage, fully transformed into Nina.

Backstage smells like toast. There is toast in the first act, and rest assured, it’s fresh.

The production staff, headed by Production Stage Manager Jenn Rae Moore and Assistant Stage Manager Bales Karlin, wear one-eared headsets connected to big, black boxes.

Through them, Moore cues lights, sounds and transitions. The cues happen approximately once every minute — sometimes more, and sometimes less. They sound something like, “Stand by lights, one seventeen point five.” A few seconds pass, then, “Lights, one seventeen point five, go.”

It’s like a well-orchestrated machine. Every sound, every move of the light, every entrance starts and begins with a cue from Moore.

The prop table sits behind the stage-left side of the set, keeping all the show’s hand-held items together. It is covered in rectangles of tape, each of which contains a prop, such as a box of cigarettes, a bucket or the plate of toast. It is well-organized and easy to see, even under the black lights.

Along the walls are series of ropes wrapped around pegs leading to curtains and set pieces. Glowing tape lines on the floor guide actors and the four- or five-person backstage crew.

It is 6:15 p.m., and three of the actors have already had quick clothing changes. They run backstage where a crewmember is waiting with a shirt already open and in hand. Pants are on the floor, ready to step into.

The actors peel off their clothes and the crewmember helps them step into new ones. The entire change happens in a set period of time — about 20 seconds. Moore has a six-page run sheet that details when everything will happen during the night, including exactly how long is needed for each change.

The backstage of a production is a precarious balance between the creative and the formulaic. For the actors to have their creative moments on stage, everything must be perfect behind the curtains.

The toast leaves backstage, clearing the air for a deep, pungent smell from the wooden walls that mixes with the theater’s ever-present sawdust smell. It is silent, because a single sound could take the audience out of the moments happening onstage.

Whispers are exchanged only when needed, and actors and crewmembers tiptoe about. The only sound backstage comes through the headset from Moore and the rest of the team, who whisper “thanks” after every call.

The set is a two-story house, so actors enter and exit from the top of a set of stairs, through the back room, through a bathroom or from the front door — it is a complex labyrinth.

At a few minutes after 7 p.m., the set is moved. A series of ropes runs between the back wall of the house and the back wall of the set, and suddenly one crewmember, line in hand, is running like a champion sprinter toward the back wall of the theater, hauling the set behind him.

The set is moved in a matter of seconds, and just like that, at 7:15 p.m., it’s intermission.

Benesch changes into her next outfit. She is analyzing the audience with her castmates and trying to keep her brain occupied in the lull before Act Two.

The production crew quietly fills two parts of a bathtub that will be on stage for the last few scenes. The hose fills up an area behind the tub, so that running water comes from the faucet, and the bottom of the tub, so it will have water in it from the beginning.

At 7:30 p.m., places are called for Act Two, and the set must be pushed forward. The three crewmembers who will push the set are poised and ready, arms out, feet in a low lunge like sprinters before a race.

When cued, they push and run hard, and the set moves into its spot. The time and place stifle any urge to cheer for them. Though the actors and crewmembers move with the same attention to detail, the air in the second half doesn’t hold the same heightened anxiety.

A crewmember lights an herbal cigarette for a quick costume change. At 7:45 p.m., it smells of cigarettes when the fastest of the show’s quick changes is done and the actor is thrust on stage, cigarette in hand.

Loud crashing sounds are needed on stage about 8 p.m., and it feels like the middle of a thunderstorm backstage. At 8:03 p.m., the single sprinter does another set move to shift the set backward, and the tub takes the stage.

At 8:15 p.m., the show is over. The audience rises from its seats in applause as the actors bow.

Moments later, Benesch is backstage, still reeling from the end of the show.

“I have to ask myself: Did I remember to breathe all night?” she says.

She changes out of costume, pulls off the rings, and finally relaxes back into herself.

“It’s like you are birthing something,” she says. “It’s a child out in the world. Now, the real fun begins — giving this thing to 10 more audiences.”

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