Today’s TOP FIVE comes to us from Ellen Stevenson, who has been involved in theatre in the Iowa City/Coralville area for 25 years! It’s fair to say she’s done it all in the community theatre arena. I think my favorite part of her TOP FIVE is where she thanks directors who had a huge impact on her (even if she had to cheat on the TOP FIVE concept to do it!). Read on and enjoy Ellen’s reflections.
I have been involved with the community theater scene in the Iowa City area since my first show in 1990. The show was The Robber Bridegroom at ICCT, and the theater bug bit me hard. It’s hard for me to believe that it has been this long, and I have many fond memories of theater productions to choose from. These five are the ones that came to the top of my mind and are in no particular order.
5) Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman. Dreamwell Theatre, 2000.
I don’t know what it was about this script, but when I read it, I just knew I had to audition for this show. Performing the part of Paulina was a major departure from anything I had done before, and it was a real challenge. Director Matt Brewbaker and I spent a lot of time finding the emotional motivation for me to bring her to life, including meeting with people who had gone through a trauma in there lives and how they reacted. She is literally a tortured soul, and is living in a very dark place. Working with such great talents as Jamie Ewing and Josh Sazon, we were able to tell the story of the darker side of humanity that this woman experienced. This part really stretched me as an actor, and also taught me how to put on a character, and then take it off and leave it at the theater. As an aside, even though I did some terrible things to Josh on stage, we developed a really good friendship that still goes on to this day.
4) Harvey by Mary Case. Iowa City Community Theatre, 2003.
As an actor, have you ever had the feeling during a rehearsal of a show that you could do a better job of directing, if you had the chance? I had learned a lot from the directors I had worked with up to this point (as an actor and assistant director), and decided to give it a shot. I didn’t interview to direct for Harvey, but when they offered me the chance to direct it, I read the script and found it was right up my alley. It is an interesting, terrifying and joyful experience being a first time director. I didn’t get the cast that I had in my head, BUT I got the cast that was a perfect fit for this show. I dove right in, and the cast, that included some seasoned actors, followed right along. One of my theater quirks is how important it is to memorize your lines correctly. Say what the playwright wrote. My only exception to that rule was a line change suggestion from Bill Gerlits. Ask me the next time you see me why “three and a quarter” is funny. Tragedy is easy, comedy is hard. Yes it is, but when you get the right cast that is willing to trust your lead, and you, as a director, are willing to trust your actors, lightning strikes. It was a wonderful experience directing this show, and I have yet to find another script that makes me want to take on the directing mantel again.
3) The Drag by Mae West. Dreamwell Theatre, 2009.
When I auditioned for this show, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Director Chuck Dufano came to me with an idea. The play is about men who dress in drag, and Chuck thought it would be interesting to have a woman play the part of a man. So I took on the role of the butler. Having done cross dressing for some previous shows, I jumped at the chance to do it again. We decided to go all out. I would use my drag name Allen Dietrich, in the program, and the look would be a spectacular change. I was a butler that had a goatee, a mustache, and bald. I also got to sing “Making Whoopee” in my lower voice range. The best part, though, was if people didn’t know about what we where doing, they didn’t recognize me. Most people didn’t figure out until after the show, what we had done. The response when they did, was a great validation of all the work I did to make Allen a great male actor.
2) Panic in the Murder Room by James Trainor. Dreamwell Theatre/City Circle’s All in a Day Play Festival, 2011.
I had gone to a couple of these festivals and was really impressed with the results. When the next festival came around, I signed up. What an amazing process. The writers create a play from specific information given them the night before, they write a 10 minute or so play that night, then the directors and actors take that script and create a performance for that same evening. I knew it would be a challenge, and wanted to see personally how well I would do under that much pressure. Our wonderful small cast, led by our director Elisabeth Ross, worked together to bring this show to life. The main reason this show sticks in my mind is that we had a very important light and sound cue, but we didn’t get a chance to work it with the tech people. We where assured by them that they were professionals, and it wouldn’t be a problem. We were not reassured. That is when we came up with a back up plan. The scene took place in a hurricane shelter. The lights would flash, thunder would crash, then the lights would go out. When they came back up, my character, the grandmother, is on the floor, unconscious. In case the cue didn’t come, I said I would fall to the floor and then my son, played by Elijah Jones, would kneel down next to me, look at the audience and say “ narcolepsy”. Well the moment came, the cue didn’t, I turned to Elijah and said “ I’m going for it”, and I dropped to the floor. Elijah said the line, and the audience loved it. I know this moment wasn’t the only great thing about this play, but it did help us land Best Ensemble, Best Director, and Best Writer. It’s great when a plan comes together.
1) The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde. ICCT, 1992.
After Magritte and The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard. ICCT, 2002.
A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. City Circle, 2011.
When Matt Falduto asked me to share my top 5, I also thought about the many directors I have worked with, and how some of them have had a profound affect on me. I was assistant director for Stephan Arnold on The Importance of Being Ernest. Stephan is the one who taught me how important it was for the actors to memorize their lines correctly. It makes it easier for your fellow actors to stay in character and not get lost. I think that is when I became the “line Nazi”. He also offered to come to a rehearsal of Harvey, and share some pointers with me. I learned so much from that man in the two hours he spent with me. I am forever in his debt.
When I was assistant director for David Priebe on After Magritte and The Real Inspector Hound, he allowed me to collaborate with him, being another pair of eyes in the rehearsal process and share my thoughts with him and the cast. The really big thing he did for me though, was taking time in his directors interview with the play and selection committee of ICCT to tell them they should give me a show to direct because I was ready. Thank you, David, for your support.
The first time I met Patrick Du Laney was at a season end party for City Circle. I introduced myself to him, and told him I was looking forward to auditioning for A Little Night Music. I then got to work with him on the very first Christmas Cabaret that City Circle performed on the Riverside Theatre stage. I so enjoyed working with him, and learned so much. When I got cast in Night Music, I was thrilled. Patrick has helped me find my footing in my performance, helped me to be more confident at auditions, and pointed out my strengths and weaknesses in a way that really help me be a better actor for myself and everyone else I am working with. Thanks, Patrick. I hope to work with you again and again.
Check back soon for another TOP FIVE. And check out the previous TOP FIVES here:
Ellen Stevenson has been involved with community theater here in the Iowa City and Coralville area for 25 years. She has done just about every job there is in theater, including acting, directing, assistant directing, stage managing, props, costumes, make-up, set building, running lights and sound, well, you get the idea. She was last seen as The Giant in City Circle’s production of Into The Woods. She works at Tytronics Inc. in Tiffin, where she helps build thermo graphic scanners for chiropractors. Right now though, she is spending her time at home, recovering from a total knee replacement on her right knee. She is looking forward to getting back on the stage again soon.