Chelsea Mayo Reflects on Taking on the Habit in QTC’s Production of DOUBT: A PARABLE

Chelsea ALONE

“I am working within constraints,” says Sister Aloysius early in Doubt: A Parable. She’s referring to a shortage of experienced nuns at St. Nicholas School, but the line also reminds me of the physical constraints Stephanie Mumford (Sister Aloysius) and I are working within. Shanley specifies the nuns are of The Sisters of Charity, an order that wears black bonnets with their habits, as Elizabeth Seton did when she founded the order in 1809. This order taught Shanley when he attended Catholic school.

Our director, Stevie Zimmerman, brought up the bonnets early in the rehearsal process as an obstacle in staging the show because they make it so hard for the audience to see the actors’ faces. Hats are always a challenge for lighting designers too. Stevie is smart to keep that in mind, I thought, but the bonnets won’t be an issue for me. All I have to do is wear it.

Just one rehearsal proved how wrong I was. If it was too far forward or too far back on my head, the entire scene became about adjusting or trying not to adjust, my bonnet. If I tied the strings too tight, the brim created an echo chamber, making my words sound louder in my ears than anyone else’s. Then there was the matter of cheating out (a theatre term that refers to angling one’s body slightly toward the audience while looking at a scene partner, rather than facing them directly), which was trickier than usual with a brim framing my face. To top it off, I had to forget about all those things and, you know, act.

I found the confines of the bonnet frustrating until I realized they’re a wonderful physicalization of the obstacles in the play. My character, Sister James, so badly wants to do the right thing – to please Sister Aloysius, to trust Father Flynn, to nurture and protect the students – but she can never see the full picture. She’s pulled from one side of the conflict to the other as she gets new information about the play’s central incident. Sometimes, she makes the choice to turn away from the truth, and in those moments, it’s useful to have a bonnet to hide behind. The best costumes help the actors, as well as the audience, to believe in the reality of the play, so maybe working within constraints isn’t too bad after all.



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Don Slater Shines a Light on QTC’s DOUBT: A PARABLE

When you are part of a theater company for a long time, many aspects of the work become much easier because everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Not to mention why they are doing it and how they are doing it. This very true of my role as QTC’s resident lighting designer. For a typical Quotidian show, Jack Sbarbori (QTC’s co-founder and Artistic Director) is both the director and the set designer. He sends me the script of the show and his set design. I read the script several times and I review the set design. I may have a question or two and those are usually resolved by email. Working within the constraints of the space and the facilities, I build a lighting design for the show. I also do all of the electrical work. Set construction, set painting, sound, costumes, and everything else is covered by others, usually Jack and Stephanie Mumford (the other co-founder). We tend to know exactly what each wants and/or needs and we get everything pulled together, often a couple days ahead of the opening.

Occasionally, we ask someone outside of the company to direct one of our productions. It provides our audiences with a different look from what they see under Jack’s direction. We have had several very successful productions directed by outside directors. Doubt is one of those productions. It is directed by Stevie Zimmerman, an acclaimed local director, working with us for the first time. Many directors have a strong preference for the designers they wish to work with. Stevie expressed such a preference for the set designer and brought Colin Dieck to the production and he has created a wonderful set for us. I was asked to do the lighting and Stephanie designed the costumes.

For Doubt, QTC has a new sound designer and board op in Matthew Datcher. Matthew has extensive experience in the local community theater world and comes to us highly recommended. As one might expect, with several new people involved in the process, there were some surprises. Because I am the de facto technical director of QTC, it meant drawing on some technical theater skills I have not used for 40 years.

Our regular scene carpenter had a New York gig causing a conflict with work on Doubt, so we had to improvise a bit on the set construction. Stevie connected us with Bruce Wiljanen, an excellent carpenter, and builder. Colin found us a scenic artist to do the paintwork. However, part of the set design consisted of 19 24” wide panels of black scrim creating the walls of the set. While Bruce was building the platform, door unit, and stairs that would define the office, it fell to me to handle the scrim. I have done some work with softgoods (anything in a theater made of fabric) and with rigging since leaving college, but not a lot and not recently. Working with Jack, we ordered a piece of black scrim 16’ high and 13 yards wide. When it arrived, I set up a work area at the theater where I could cut it into 24” wide panels. At the local hardware store, I acquired several screw eyes, 65 feet of 1/8” aircraft cable, and clamps. And 30 feet of 2” wide heavy duty adhesive backed Velcro. As I cut each scrim panel, I applied Velcro strips to the top in such fashion that I could fold the scrim over the cable suspending it and have the Velcro fasten it in place. Next, I attached two steel rings to the gridwork above the upstage center of the set. Then I placed two screw eyes into the beam above the downstage edge of the stage at the far ends. The aircraft cable is stretched from the downstage left corner up to the center rear and then back down to the downstage right corner. I did consult a couple of my old rigging manuals on the proper use of the clamps, though it is a pretty simple load. I hung the 19 panels on the wire and attached them to either the set or the floor at the bottom. Part of the set is a large wood cross suspended from the ceiling downstage center. Because Colin wanted the cross hung at an angle (looming over the audience) I had to attach it to the ceiling at three points. Six more screw eyes, three in the ceiling and three in the cross. By attaching the cross at the top of each arm and then at the base, it was easy to adjust the angle at which it hung and it did not spin. Finally, on the stage left side, opposite the door to the office, the design called for a window. We used a frame with no glass hung just outside of the scrim panels to create a window. Another couple of screw eyes and more tie line from the grid and the window was up.

Now I could go ahead to focus and color my lighting instruments. I chose to light the scrim panels with fresnels on the floor pointing up. It is a very good effect. The front lighting is broken into the lights in the office and the lights in the garden as well as those used for the sermons. I also have two small ellipsoidals (spotlights) lighting the cross. This is a pretty severe play and my color choices tend to reflect that feeling. There is very little warmth in the interior lighting. For the garden, I have provided a set of warm toning lights and a cool set as well. As we brought the production together over the days prior to opening, we ran into a couple of problems. The audio system was producing a lot of hum, probably from a grounding issue. And when we all saw the completed set with lights, it was obvious that the color of the window frame was too light (sort of an off white). It would need some paint. Stevie asked that it be painted roughly the same shades of brown as the door.

The morning of our opening, I arrived at the theater about 9 am. I had a lengthy list of items to resolve. Unfortunately, most of them involved multiple trips up and down the 14’ trestle ladder. I got a lot of exercise that day. I had to isolate the power circuit for the speakers, run the 2 100’ signal cables Matthew (the sound guy) had dropped off to replace the aging speaker cabling, make adjustments to several of the scrim panels, work off several lighting notes, and paint the window. On the plus side, I had all day to do this. I had put some thought into how I would paint the window and I started by completely painting it flat black. Now the brown paint that would go over it would not be competing with the white paint below it. I left that to dry and went to work on the sound system. First I had to identify a power circuit that was not being used by any part of the lighting system. Having accomplished that, I ran new power cables to both speaker units. Over the next three hours, I ran the new signal cables from the speakers to the booth at the rear of the theater, moving the ladder about three feet at a time. When the cabling was finished, I completed the fastening of six scrim panels to the floor and then made the necessary adjustments to remove the sag from a couple of the panels. Then I returned to painting the window. There were two shades of brown paint in the collection, but one of them was almost gone. I used the lighter colored brown paint thinly over the black, allowing some of the black to show through. While that was drying, I worked off the lighting notes. I returned to the window with the dark brown paint and lightly brushed that over the previous coat. Now I could add scene painting to the list of theater skills revived after 40 years. I had finished my list. I cleaned up and packed up my gear. Our opening went very well and the speaker noise is greatly reduced.

It was all a bit too last minute for my taste, but it was successful. In addition to working with some very talented new people, I found that I still knew how to rig the softgoods and create a specific look in paint.

DoubtLightMost of QTC’s shows are done in some type of box set, using painted flats as walls. This set design is a significant departure from that form. The walls are formed by the scrim panels, which are both ethereal and menacing at the same time. They help to convey the ambiguity that is central to the theme of the play. The cross floating above the stage continuously reminds us of the importance of the Church in neighborhoods such as The Bronx in 1964. One of the new lighting elements is the use of instruments on the floor. This is something I have done in many other venues, but never for a QTC show. I was also very careful to separate the lighting of the office from the lighting of the garden/pulpit downstage. This helps with the flow of the scenes as it allows actors to clear the previous scene while the new scene is starting.

Thoughts on Sister Aloysius and DOUBT: A PARABLE

Giannarelli Aloysius

Laura Giannarelli recently talked to QTC about playing the role of Sister Aloysius in DOUBT: A PARABLE. She previously worked with QTC as the director of A LESSON FROM ALOES, and FAITH HEALER.

I played this wonderful role in 2008 under the direction of the terrific Vinny Lancisi at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore – with Clinton Brandhagen as my Father Flynn, Dawn Ursula as Mrs. Muller and Katy Carkuff as Sister James.

I have lovely memories of that experience, of playing with such wonderful actors on such a delicately balanced script.  But I think what has stayed with me over time is the reactions of audience members to the show.  Almost like a Rorschach inkblot, people interpreted the play based on their own experiences.

Baltimore is still a city with a large Catholic population, so many audience members came to the show with memories of direct experiences they’d had as children in Catholic schools, being taught by nuns.

I never take long to change back into my ‘civvies’ after a performance, so I often emerged from backstage while people were still milling about the lobby; often people would stop me to share their thoughts.  Some said right up front – “You were awful.  Just like those mean nuns I had as a kid.”  “I hated nuns like that.”  Others empathized with Sister Aloysius and felt sure the priest had been abusing that child and she had done her utmost to protect him; they felt Sister was heroic and valiant.  There was very little middle ground — they either loved her or loathed her.  And yet all of them had seen the same performance.  I didn’t do anything different.  They just saw it differently, through the lens of their own experiences.

We also did several school shows during the run, always with talk-backs afterward.  Once, we had an audience of middle schoolers.  I thought they would hate Sister Aloysius and jeer audibly at me.  Instead, they were quiet as mice, listening in that opening scene between Sister Aloysius and Sister James about working in the classroom with the children and keeping control.  It was like they were being let in on the secrets teachers talk about in the mysterious teachers’ lounge!

And after the show, they had the most questions, not for me but for Dawn Ursula, who played the child’s mother.  They wanted to know why on earth she didn’t remove the child from the school; they clearly identified with the child and felt his mom wasn’t protecting him.  (And unlike many adults, most of them were pretty certain that Father Flynn had abused him.)  Dawn explained with great empathy that Mrs. Muller was making the choice – to further her son’s education at all costs – that she thought was best.

Ultimately, DOUBT means to an audience whatever they choose to decide it means.  That is my favorite thing about the script.  The playwright doesn’t tell us what happened, nor what we should think.  It’s up to each audience member to interpret the play in his/her own way.  Beautiful!

 “Laura Giannarelli really gets into the habit as Sister Aloysius, making it easy to believe that everybody trembles in her presence.” Mike Giuliano , Baltimore Messenger 

“…Laura Giannarelli brings her own intellectually solid interpretation of the role to life”Brad Hathaway, Potomac Stages

“Laura Giannarelli was the perfect stern nun as Sister Aloysius. One half-expected her to storm out into the audience and admonish someone for not sitting up straight… Perhaps it is not difficult to portray a cold, almost emotionless figure who is wrapped up in a habit. But Giannarelli did an excellent job nonetheless.”John Kernan, The Johns Hopkins News-Letter

Acting Backwards by Elliott Kashner

elliott-kashner-headshotQuotidian Theatre welcomes Elliott Kashner, who will be playing the charismatic Father Flynn in QTC’s upcoming production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable. Even though rehearsals have not yet begun, Elliott was asked to provide a few thoughts on his approach to taking on the enigmatic character.

“Brian O’Byrne and Cherry Jones used to joke about competing for the audience’s allegiances during their run in Doubt: A Parable. O’Byrne and Jones played Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, the two characters whose conflict is the central focus of the play. The two ultimately compromised, estimating that they each probably had convinced roughly half of those who saw the show, with a handful in the middle who were uncertain. The good-natured ribbing between these two titans of theater revealed the delicate balancing act that is at the heart of performing Doubt. The title isn’t just a less-than-subtle hint at what the play’s theme might be; it is a directive for the actors.

“Flynn advocates for his own innocence throughout the play against Aloysius’ dogged pursuit of proving his guilt. The resulting effect of playing Flynn – and playing against him – must land somewhere between guilt and innocence. That means that the actor playing Flynn must start from viewing the character from the audience’s perspective, anticipate how that audience may perceive Flynn, and then work backward to make choices toward that effect. This is a bit different from how actors may approach acting in the world of realism. Acting realism tends to be a process of analyzing the text, making decisions about the character, playing those choices truthfully, and allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions. For Doubt, making Flynn appear neither wholly guilty or innocent places specific requirements on the character choices. Fortunately, the script gives the actor both a great deal of information about Flynn’s history and a variety of tools to obfuscate that history.

“Author John Patrick Shanley is rumored to have revealed the true backstory of Flynn to only two people: Brian O ‘Byrne and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who played Flynn in the film adaptation. (Note: I do not recommend watching the film prior to seeing the play. Although the script was adapted for the screen by Shanley himself, the film makes several choices that may unduly bias your viewing of the play.) Knowing Shanley’s version of Flynn’s backstory may be more of a hindrance than a help. Rather than communicating that backstory, the actor’s job in this play is to hide it.

“But what about the second half of the title: A Parable. Why? Well, as Father Flynn says, “You make up little stories to illustrate. In the tradition of the parable… What actually happens in life is beyond interpretation.””


Stevie Zimmerman to Direct QTC Production of Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable

steviezQTC welcomes Stevie Zimmerman who will direct John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable opening on 7 April and playing weekends through 7 May.

Originally from London, England, Stevie received a B.A. at Oxford University and an M.A. in Directing from the University of Leeds. Stevie has lived in the U.S. since 1993, and in the D.C. area for 6 years.

Before moving to the D.C. area, Stevie lived in Connecticut, where she was an Associate Professor of Drama from 1999 to 2010 at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music and Theatre. During this time, she also worked regularly with the Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, where she directed Collected Stories, Love Letters, Driving Miss Daisy, and, in 2016, Margaret Edson’s Wit.

After relocating to D.C., Stevie directed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves at 1st Stage. Glowing reviews, such as “Heroic performances bespeak a heroic director; this one is Stevie Zimmerman, prompted 1st Stage to invite Stevie to return to direct the area premiere of Billy Elliott writer Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters.

For Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions, Stevie directed David Lindsey Abaire’s Rabbit Hole and Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, which featured QTC actor Chelsea Mayo.

At the Theatre of the First Amendment, Stevie’s direction of a staged reading of Michael P. Smith’s world premiere play, Passaggio, led to her directing a full-scale production of Passaggio at George Mason University.

At the Capital Fringe, Stevie directed Alice – an evening with Alice Roosevelt Longworth as well as a revival of Our Lady of the Clouds. She has also directed staged readings for the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage festival, the Doorway Arts Ensemble, Beltway Arts inter alia.

At the Wintergreen Performing Arts Festival in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Stevie directed Yasmina Reza’s Art and the English language premiere of Aristides Vargas’ Our Lady of the Clouds.

Please join us to see Stevie bring her personal touch to Doubt at the QTC!

DOUBT: A PARABLE by John Patrick Shanley (7 April – 7 May 2017)

TICKETS and other show information available HERE.official-qtc-banner-2016

The Actors of THE NIGHT ALIVE Talk About Their Roles: Matthew Vaky plays Tommy

771471-250Matthew was last seen at Quotidian in Conor McPherson’s The Birds. The Night Alive centers on his character, Tommy.

“You said it Marvin.  What’s going on? That is the question.” 

I say that line in The Night Alive.  The question isn’t “to be or not to be?”  The question is “What’s goin’ on”?    It is such a funny, cryptic, tongue in cheek, yet brilliant and deep question.   As Tommy, Aimee and Doc dance onstage, I can feel McPherson giggling, because at the end of this gem, the audience wants to know “What the heck is goin’ on?  What just happened?”

For me, it is the question that hangs over Tommy’s life and throughout the play.   What has happened to me?  How did I get to this state?  I am estranged from my wife and my kids.  My get-rich plans have not worked out, to say the least. I try so hard, yet I live in complete and cluttered bedlam. What is goin’ on indeed?  Tommy is simply trying to do the best he can, yet his world is a swirling mass of chaos. In a split second decision, he helps Aimee, who has just been assaulted, by bringing her into his flat.  This action sets his life spinning in ways that at times seem out of control and at others seem destined by fate.

David Dubov, Joe Palka, and Matthew Vaky in THE NIGHT ALIVE (photo by StJohnn Blondell)

At rehearsals, we kept unearthing enigmatic, cryptic, and magical ideas:  Is this whole thing a metaphor with Maurice as God and Kenneth as the Snake in the Garden?  Are these characters spiraling into a black hole? Kenneth does describe the darkness outside Tommy’s flat that way. Has time slowed down for these characters and have they crossed over into something otherworldly?  As an actor, I have loved exploring these ideas, but ultimately the beauty of this play is the humanity of these people.  It’s a play about people, plain and simple, and my flawed and kindly Tommy is a joy to embody.   

The Night Alive runs October 21 – November 20, 2016 at The Writer’s Center, where QTC is the Resident Theatre Company. Tickets are on sale now

Behind the Scenes of THE NIGHT ALIVE with Lighting Designer Don Slater

Don Slater is QTC’s Resident Lighting Designer.

Don Slater
Don Slater

As has been noted in other QTC posts, The Night Alive is my ninth Conor McPherson play.   I very much enjoy working on them as his writing style and my lighting style mesh well.  My lighting is largely naturalistic to realistic and tends to be on the dark side.  McPherson’s plays are similar in nature.  This commonality makes the process of lighting the plays a lot easier.

Having worked with Jack and Stephanie for 17 years (and designed for the logistics of The Writer’s Center during that time), we have a very comfortable collaborative process.  I read the script through several times, getting a feel for the piece, determining the locations and times of day, and learning something about the characters.

John Decker in THE VEIL (photo by StJohnn Blondell)

In the case of The Veil and Shining City, there were special effects to create.  For those of you who saw The Veil, the ghost of the little girl was a lighting effect, not a projection.  The mirror effect at the end of the play was not a reflection – the light was passing through the mirror.  The Night Alive does not require any such effects.  There has been a bit of speculation about the light swirling above the center of the stage during scene changes.  Jack and I discussed how we might create an effect to cover the noise and bustle of the scene changes, especially since the pacing of The Night Alive is important.  We had two water effects projectors we used to create part of the environment for Port Authority many years ago.  I ran some tests with them and felt that they could work for us.  The effect is interesting and serves the purpose as well as generating some questions about what it represents.  Like McPherson, I leave that to the audience.  The rest of the lighting is straightforward and functional.  I tried to keep the scenes sufficiently illuminated and yet dark and spotty at the same time, to complement the sort of life in which the characters are living.

The Night Alive runs October 21 – November 20, 2016 at The Writer’s Center, where QTC is the Resident Theatre Company. Tickets are on sale now