The student weekly of St. Olaf College
Manitou Messenger: Cast digs into roles

Cast digs into roles

By Rumor Has It
News Editor
Friday, November 16, 2007

People throughout the campus community await upcoming theatre productions with great anticipation. The musical "Blood Brothers," which premiered last Friday in Kelsey Theatre, was no different. Though many students, staff, and faculty look forward to Theatre Department productions and appreciate the work put into a show - which includes rehearsal time, memorization, costume and prop construction, set construction and lighting and sound, among others - there is one part of preparing for a show which is often overlooked by the general audience: background role research.

A necessary part of production preparation for many directors, background research can involve study in a number of areas. Actors, when preparing for their role, often look into the era of the play, the social dynamics within the piece, the story of the author's life and his or her other works, major themes within the piece and how these themes relate to current events.

"I always do massive amounts of research on every play I direct&we work on a production for many, many months before we ever get to the point of auditions, and then the process intensifies as we try to realize all that research onto the stage," said "Blood Brothers" director Karen Peterson.

Theater professor Dona Werner Freeman agrees; she believes that more research can always be done than is actually accomplished. "Thank God for academic theatre. In professional theatre, the time such work takes can be the first thing to go," she said.

For Blood Brothers, this research intensified to a much greater extent, as the cast made extra efforts to find their characters. "Blood Brothers," which is set in the urban United States in St. Olaf's version of the production, features many impoverished and down-on-their-luck characters. In preparation for the production, some cast members went out into the Northfield community to gain an understanding of the dynamics of poverty. To achieve this, cast members visited a variety of places.

Camryn Reynolds '09 portrays Mrs. Johnstone, an impoverished mother with too many mouths to feed. To prepare for the role, Reynolds spent some time shadowing Howard Wilson, the principal of St. Paul Four Seasons A+ Elementary, where 70 percent of the student body is at poverty level.

"While I was there, I observed the way students interacted with others, the teachers' opinions on parents, and the surrounding city environment," Reynolds said. "I gained a new perspective of the things people go through in order to survive." In addition, Reynolds also studied her sociology textbook and reread "Nickel and Dimed," a book by Barbara Ehrenreich which discusses how many Americans struggle to support themselves on low-wage jobs.

Several other students volunteered at the Northfield Food Shelf in order to get to know the variety of people who seek help there. Also, the entire cast watched "People Like Us," a film about social class in America.

While this kind of in-depth research in the field is not done for every show, or is even possible in many roles, it is not the first time that a cast at St. Olaf has gone out of its way in recent years to prepare for a show. In Interim 2005, Dona Werner Freeman actually directed "Nickel and Dimed." The show, like both the book on which it is based and Blood Brothers, revolves around characters who in lower-wage industries. In preparation for that show, the entire cast and crew spoke with people in maintenance jobs, such as dorm custodians, and several already worked in restaurant kitchens or retail, also giving them perspective into the world of the play.

"Making the piece relevant to a company is the necessary first step in making it relevant to the audience," said Freeman, echoing Karen Peterson Wilson's statement on the importance of research.

Reynolds had similar sentiments: "If you don't know what you're saying or acting, then how is the audience going to understand it? It is even more important in a show like Blood Brothers, where there are so many themes and ideas to wrap your mind around," she said. Furthermore, Reynolds felt the research helped the cast grow as people outside the theatre.

"I learned a lot about myself too, and what I might do if put into a similar position. We all learned different things about ourselves, but I think most of all this show has allowed the cast to step out of St. Olaf for a bit and into another lifestyle or character."

The Manitou Messenger is a student publication of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. It is published weekly during the academic year except during vacations, exam periods and interim. The cost for one year's subscription is $45.00. Postage is paid in Northfield, Minnesota. Manitou Messenger
St. Olaf College
1500 St. Olaf Ave.
Northfield, MN 55057-1001