By Douglass K. Daniel
Many years have passed since they first met and fell in love--and then parted. Now she is the matriarch of a proper English family. He is a judge, elderly and a bit stuffy. But over tea they begin to rekindle the tender feelings they once shared. Gently, he takes her hand and...
"O.K.," a voice suddenly rumbles. "Go back and do it again."
Jolted from their romantic interlude, the matriarch and the judge stare off into a place far beyond their sitting room.
"What?" the matriarch asks.
"Yes, I want you to do it again," the voice repeats. "Slow it down. Remember, this is where the flirtation starts."
This is no sitting room in an English manor house. It is the stage of Explorer Post 619, a theater group in Omaha, Neb. The old lovers are actors Karena Rohloff and Russell Zack, and the commanding voice offstage belongs to director Wayne Swanson.
Together, they rehearse a scene from "The Chalk Garden," the post's 10th production in four years. The troupe will present three performances of the play about a troubled family and the nanny who helps them repair broken relationships. Opening night will end 12 weeks of work on the stage and behind the scenes.
Theater is the art of make-believe. Everyone in a Post 619 production, from actor and director to stage designer and prop master, practices the skills that turn an empty space into another place in another time.
"We are learning how to start with nothing," Russell Zack says, "and how to build something great."
No illusions exist in the daylight of a typical rehearsal. The two-story building with the green awning near downtown Omaha doesn't look like a theater at all. It's actually a warehouse for Nebraska Air Filter, the Post 619 chartered organization that provides space for the troupe.
For three hours every Saturday afternoon, post members work on their newest production. While the actors go over lines with the director, the crew builds the sets, selects the costumes and props, and designs the lighting.
They also plan advertising and promotion and sell tickets. Nearly 40 people will pay $3 to $5 to attend "The Chalk Garden" each night. The money pays for copies of the play, new costumes, and other expenses, which can total $400.
"The best thing I like about this post is that it gives you experience on all sides of the theater. We make everything go from scratch. And we do it all ourselves," says post member Jeff Ludwig. He is spending his first year out of high school considering acting as a career. "You don't just look at all sides. You do all sides."
Inside the main room on the building's street level, the post has built a stage on wood platforms that rise just five inches off the floor. Flats, a series of wood panels, serve as walls for each set. Crew members repaint and decorate the flats for each production.
Behind the stage are dressing rooms and a holding room for performers waiting for their cues to come onstage. Upstairs, costumes and props are stored in an activity room. Chairs and couches give post members a chance to take a break from building a set or building a character.
Few Post 619 Explorers want careers in the theater. Many are like Dawn Wilson, an 18-year-old college freshman. She thought acting might be interesting, even though she wasn't sure what she would do when she went to the first meeting.
"I'd never tried acting before. I wanted to do something different," Dawn said. "Then we did a play and I got a big part."
The play was a courtroom drama called "On the Night of January 16." Dawn was the wife of a murder victim. That first season was tough because she had never before memorized lines or cues, those signals that it is her turn to speak or move onstage.
"I didn't realize how much work goes into learning a part," she said. "But I made friends, and then I couldn't leave."
Kirsten Vala was unsure at first, too. The 17-year-old high school senior tried out for a small role in a stage version of "M*A*S*H" when the post needed more nurses for the setting, a mobile surgical unit during the Korean War.
"I thought it was something I couldn't do. I thought no one would want me for a part in a play," Kirsten said. "I was so scared. But when it was over, it was so much fun. The cast parties, all of it. I decided to stay. I still get nervous, but it's not terrifying anymore."
What's so scary about acting? Standing in front of dozens of people for two hours trying to convince them you are a fumbling English manservant, not a 19-year-old Nebraskan. Jeff Ludwig must do that for three nights in "The Chalk Garden." And the challenge thrills him.
"All the attention is on you," Jeff says. "There's never a time in your life when all the attention is on you, except in the theater. The audience gets the adrenaline flowing a lot differently. You can't stop, either. The night before, everything seems all right. Then the audience is out there. Then it's: 'Oh, my. What do I do?'"
Practice will ease stage fright. And it's during rehearsals that problems with staging are discovered and fixed.
For instance, in one scene, Karena Rohloff reaches for a bottle of sherry (actually colored water) on a serving tray, but she stops short. The bottle isn't there.
"Uh, where's the sherry?" Karena asks.
"Behind you," Swanson points out. Jeff, playing the servant, hands the bottle to Karena and makes a mental note to place it in the correct spot during the scene. Then Karena pours a drink for herself--but not for her guest. The director breaks the action again.
"Oh, excuse me, rehearsal audience," Swanson says. "I'm kinda selfish and poured just one glass for me." Everyone chuckles, but the message is clear--offer the guest a glass of sherry, too.
Directing the post's plays are Swanson and fellow Advisors Tom Manhart and Paula Little. The three had acted in a theater post as Explorers. Now they share the work of producing a full-length production in winter and again in the summer, and a night of three one-act plays in the spring.
Post members propose which plays to perform, and they compete for roles during all-day auditions. They also compete for a chance to direct the one-act plays.
"Casting is always a challenge," Swanson says. "It's old members mixing with new people. I have to stand back and say, 'It's not fair to give all the leads to all the old people.' I look for voice projection and stage presence. And who will give 110 percent."
Those who aren't cast are part of the play's crew. But even the actors must spend at least four hours of "tech time" on each production by helping paint the set, find costumes, promote the production, and perform other essential jobs. It's all part of life in the theater.
Since the audience sits just a few feet from the stage, the actors use little makeup. A few lines on the face and some graying hair are all they need.
To help Karena Rohloff appear to be a woman in her 70s, Edward Baye, a university theater student, sprays coloring on her hair. Then Karena looks in the mirror to see her black hair is now silvery. "Oh, my word. I'm gray!"
A week before "The Chalk Garden" opens, the cast and crew meet every night for dress rehearsals and a runthrough of the play. By then the lighthearted tone that had marked earlier rehearsals gives way to seriousness.
"My job as director ends after final dress rehearsal," Swanson says. "Then I like to see my shows just go and see what happens and what the characters do and how they grow in the three days of performance."
On opening night, with the noise of the audience drifting backstage, the actors try to calm their nerves.
Dawn Wilson crams her lines in her head. "You try not to faint because you are so nervous," she admits.
Kirsten Vala thinks about her first line and her character. Then she turns to another actor who waits nervously. They hug. "Do good," she says.
And the show begins.
Douglass Daniel is a journalism professor at Kansas State University.
Live! Onstage!! Bloopers!!!
The stage is unforgiving of the ill-prepared. Once a performance begins, it doesn't stop until it's over.
And no matter how many hours are spent rehearsing, mistakes happen. Actors and crew are only human. They scramble to improvise, trying to hide the error and hoping the audience doesn't notice.
Like any theater troupe, Post 619 has had its share of bloopers. "At the time," Kirsten Vala says, "we panic." Later, the mistakes seem funny:
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