Behind the scenes
In its 50th-anniversary year, the Court Theatre
gives an intimate backstage tour.
In the Court Theatre’s black-tiled lobby
half a dozen 50- and 60-somethings mingle. “You were at the
symphony last night, weren’t you? I thought I saw you,”
says a man with a trim white beard and glasses to another in a tweed
jacket. “I can’t talk about politics,” says a
pantsuited woman. “I get too upset.”
It’s October 6, 6:20 p.m., 70 minutes before
showtime and ten minutes before Court artistic director Charles
Newell is supposed to lead an open-house discussion on the 50th
season’s first production, Who’s Afraid of Virginia
Woolf? Besides the talkative group, one other person, the much
younger Eric Gamazon, SM’91, has arrived, sitting by himself
on a bench. Gamazon, a computer programmer at the U of C Press,
saw a campus flyer advertising the event.
When Newell enters the lobby and greets the guests,
it becomes clear that the minglers aren’t there for the open
house but are regular Court ushers, ready to distribute programs
and show ticket holders to their seats. Three College students,
however, have just walked in, so there are four program attendees.
A few early birds, unaware of the open house and already sitting
in the auditorium, join the group in the first few rows of red-cushioned
Newell, with friendly eyes, thinning hair, and
a striped button-down shirt, sits on the edge of the stage. He says
hello and then delves into the Court’s 50-year history, from
its early days performing outdoors in Hutchinson Courtyard to securing
the Ellis Avenue building in 1981. He discusses the house philosophy,
which focuses on classic works. “We study the plays intently
to get to the authors’ ideas, and then we have directors take
those ideas and explode.”
He addresses the three College students, a man
and two women wearing jeans and sweatshirts. “What’s
of interest to you?” he asks. “What do you want to know?”
They can’t think of anything. “Well, how did you hear
about this event?” he tries. One female undergrad saw it on
the Internet and brought her two friends.
He turns his attention to the set behind him,
a 1950s-style living room with sea-green couch, wooden coffee table,
and coral and gold accents in the drapes and chairs. “The
size of this stage is very large for 250 seats,” Newell notes.
The proportion “allows the space to be more intimate while
we can also do designs that jut out and are horizontally interesting.”
For Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the Court had
to get playwright Edward Albee’s approval on the cast (Barbara
E. Robertson stars as Martha) and director (Newell). “We sent
pictures, bios, résumés,” he says. “I
think it helped that Barbara Robertson had been in The Goat
[or, Who is Sylvia?], and Martha is a part Barbara was born
Before its September 23 opening, he says, the
cast rehearsed in a room at 56th and Stony Island while the set
was being built. Then they had five technical rehearsals and a series
of previews. In 12 days, he says, the Court begins preparing for
its next show, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest,
playing November 18 through December 26. “I’m thinking
of Earnest and Travesties,” by Tom Stoppard, running March
24–April 24, 2005, “as one large project” because
he’s directing many of the same actors. “I’ve
been joking that Earnest is getting very dark.”
Does the group want a backstage tour? he asks.
Everyone nods yes. But it will have to be quick because it’s
nearing 7 p.m., and he has a superstition about having strangers
backstage less than a half hour before the show. The group follows
Newell, who exits stage-left and demonstrates a fake door that provides
the standard door-slamming sound. The visitors make their way through
a small, dark hallway and find themselves in a tiny space that smells
of fresh wood. Directly behind the stage, it’s set off with
ceiling-high black curtains. Performers or technical workers can
maneuver back here, but it’s tight.
Through another dark hallway is the scene shop.
With paint-stained floor, plywood shelves and worktable, and a few
randomly placed chairs, it’s long and high but also fairly
narrow. The table, Newell notes, is on wheels. Because of the limited
space, he says, “we have to move the table and build each
set in phases.”
Then he steers the group around another tight
corner to the green room, small quarters with a plain couch, a bathroom,
a water cooler, and some kitchen amenities. The four actors stand
around in their street clothes and drink coffee; they smile and
wave hello. The visitors don’t want to bother them, so they
stick their heads in but stay close to the door. After a few pleasantries
one tourgoer, an older woman with stiff auburn hair, suggests, “I
think we should let them be.”
Up some stairs and to the left is the costume
shop. Spray bottles of stain remover, fabric catalogs, papers, and
scissors litter a high worktable. A clothes rack holds boas, jackets,
and period gowns. A headless, naked mannequin stands in a corner.
That’s the end of the tour, so Newell thanks
the attendees and returns them to the lobby, where they join other
ticket holders until the doors open and the ushers show them to
their seats. Gamazon, the computer programmer, sits four rows back,
next to a gray-haired woman. They chit chat about the weather and
the University; she’s from the class of ’42.
By 7:15 the theater is already a third full,
mostly older couples who read the playbook and comment to each other
about it. Two middle-aged women near the front agree that the room
is cold. “I might have to go get my leather jacket from the
car,” one says. “I have a stole,” says her friend.
“I’ll get it and we can share.” She leaves and
returns with only the leather jacket, apparently changing her mind.
Amid the now full seats they settle in, and as the lights go down
she declares, “I love the classics.”—A.M.B.