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Welcome to the Arden Theatre Company blog, where we share behind-the-scenes stories and current happenings with you. You will hear from the Arden staff as well as actors and other visiting artists, and we hope to hear from you, too. If you have an idea for a topic, please post a comment about it. We can't wait to hear what you think!
Eric Hissom as "Shagspeare." Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom as “Shagspeare.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

It’s London, 1606. William Shakespeare (in the play spelled Shagspeare, or Shag) has just been made an offer he can’t refuse: King James I wants him to write a play about the recently foiled Gunpowder Plot. Shagspeare is leery: it’s dangerous for playwrights to write about current events. Robert Cecil, the king’s ruthless chief advisor, gives Shag the sanitized version of events, telling him to just add some dialogue — and witches. The king wants witches. The rest of Equivocation is about Shagspeare’s struggle to write a play that will please — or at least not offend — the king.

Shagspeare, like any good writer, is working on more than one play at once — specifically Macbeth and King Lear. And, of course, the themes from those works can’t help but invade his commission for the king — as well as those of Equivocation. The word equivocation means, “A statement that is not literally false but that cleverly avoids an unpleasant truth” or, as Father Garnet says in the play, a way “to speak the truth in difficult times.”

Simply put, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed assassination attempt by a group of English Catholics against King James I. The plot intended to kill the king and most of the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. But, as we all know too well, politics and history are never simple. Although Robert Catesby (who is a character in Equivocation) led the plot, there is another name that has gone down in history: Guido (aka Guy) Fawkes who was recruited to execute the plan due to his military background. He was caught while guarding the gun powder. More than 400 years later, British children still roam the streets in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) carrying effigies known as “Guys” and asking passers-by for a “penny for the guy.” Also known as Bonfire Night, families gather to celebrate the defeat of Fawkes and his other conspirators with fireworks, childish rhymes (see below) and bonfires.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.

King James I was first King James VI of Scotland, rising to power at the ripe old age of 13 months. He became King of England and Ireland in 1603, succeeding Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors (like that HBO series). He then ruled the kingdom of England, Scotland, and Ireland for 22 years, often using the title King of Great Britain, until his death at the age of 58.

When Bill Cain began writing Equivocation in 2004, he steeped himself in 16th and 17th century England, but contemporary concerns couldn’t help but creep in—the search for WMDs, Abu Ghraib, and the two wars. “There are many, many questions [from 17th-century England] identical to the invasion of Iraq,” recalls Cain. “And that was a big motive for writing the play. It was about seeing this stuff and going, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got plenty of people dying over there and we’re killing people by the tens of thousands, based upon what was a lie.’”
Used with permission from Seattle Repertory Theatre

Eric Hissom as "Shagspeare." Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom as “Shagspeare.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

Bill Cain spent months researching and writing Equivocation, a play that imagines a crisis in Shakespeare’s creative and personal life. He’s spent more time revising the script for production. Here is the playwright sharing what he’s learned about this immersion in Shakespeare—and about the questions he’d ask him, if he could:

Working on this play about Shakespeare has been a journey into his life and my own life from the perspective of what matters.

From the point of view of history, Shakespeare is invisible. As Equivocation says, “He’s the only major writer whose very existence is a question of debate.” He lived in an age in which there were enormous moral questions, and people who took stands on those questions have left their mark on the world. And Shakespeare was invisible, in that sense.

My question for myself is, do I wish to live an invisible life or do I want to make a mark on the world? When I saw the names of those who had been tortured and killed in connection with the Gunpowder Plot, written on the walls of the Tower of London, I had an immediate sense of the power of commitment of these people—what they were willing to die for and what they were willing to put their names on. Shakespeare was not such a person.

There was a debate when I was in England, “Is Shakespeare a millstone around the neck of British culture?” I think it’s a very good question. There’s a speech in Equivocation that strikes me as apt. Cecil says to Shag (Shakespeare’s name in the play): “You make them happy, but not so happy as to reject their unhappiness. You make them angry, but not so angry as to inspire action. You reduce all of reality to spectacle, making action unnecessary, even impossible. . . . You’ve kept the willing suspension of disbelief and gotten rid of the moral demands.”

Eric Hissom and Ian Merrill Peakes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom and Ian Merrill Peakes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Watching Shakespeare is never a call to action. You sit back and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?”

Many scholars are writing now about the “coded messages” in the plays. I’d like to ask Shakespeare, what was the code? Did you believe in God? What did you find sacred? Because you always took both sides of everything, what finally mattered to you? Not where you came down in terms of Catholic or Protestant, but where you came down in terms of speaking truth to power.

You were in an extraordinarily powerful position; you were the king’s playwright. But you were not Lear’s fool; Lear’s fool told Lear the truth. Did you see yourself having that position in the kingdom, and if so, what was the truth you were trying to speak? What if the genius on the king’s payroll had stood up and said, “Enough of these killings.” Yes, you wrote a play called Henry VIII, but in it you don’t tell the truth. Henry VIII killed tens of thousands of people and he’s presented in your play and in the history of England as this jolly old man. What about the murders?

Knowing that whoever wrote the plays was a genius, I wonder what his human life was like, and if he got to those human, personal issues that art is for. Art isn’t a way to disguise; it’s a way to speak. It’s a way to say, in concentrated form, this is what matters to me.

The question of Shakespeare excites me now, rather than accepting him as a given; entering into a dialogue with him, rather than as holy writ. Asking him, Why did you not act? Why are you such a cipher? On the other hand, What was it that you thought was so important that you got up every day and told these stories?

From the 2009 summer Prologue magazine, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s magazine for members. Editor: Catherine Foster

By Dramaturg Jessica Bedford

In an interview with New York magazine, playwright Bill Cain discussed his favorite example of equivocation. It comes from Miep Gies who told the Nazis, “We are hiding no one.” On the surface, this a bold face lie. They were in fact hiding eight Jews, including Anne Frank and her family. But on another level, it is profoundly true: they weren’t hiding anyone, what they were actually doing was saving their lives. In his play, Equivocation, Cain presents us with a character, an early prototype of Macbeth, who tells us, “We live between two fires: above – the Sun – /God’s all-seeing Eye – and yet beneath our feet /Another fire burns.” Heaven and Hell. And we live in the tension between – in the grey area, the place where, often, two things are true. Miep Gies was lying and Miep Gies was telling the greatest truth of her life.

Dan Hodge, Sean Lally, and Anthony Lawton in Equivocation. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Dan Hodge, Sean Lally, and Anthony Lawton in Equivocation. Photo by Mark Garvin.


I teach Theatre History. When I have a student who is stumped on the order of things, my favorite thing to tell him or her is to look at the themes of the plays. History reveals itself in the themes. Equivocation takes us back to early 1606. King James I of England has a commission for his playwright, William Shagspeare. (This is a historically acceptable spelling of Shakespeare’s name. We’re dealing with a time that’s before the codification of spelling and a largely illiterate society which put more weight in what they heard. In fact, in the extant signatures we have belonging to Shakespeare, he spells his name differently in each one. But I digress…) The commission? Write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, the failed terrorist attempt by thirteen young Catholic men to blow up the Protestant Parliament and Protestant King with it; a play which will live in posterity and become the official version of the events. An official version of the events… You will likely gather from the need for such a version that the “events” are very much in question. There seem to be two realities and Shagspeare, or Shag, is living in the tension between. Despite the historical setting, Equivocation is a very recent play. If I take my own advice and look to the themes, it’s easy to draw parallels: terrorism plots, official versions of events (WMD’s? What WMD’s?), etc. But I think Cain is exploring something more complicated and delicate than just a political message: how divisively black and white contemporary American society has become in its thinking and how dangerous it is to deny that humans really exist in the grey, in the tension between black and white. And Cain recruits Shagspeare into his plot. Instead of a straightforward, propagandistic retelling of the Gunpowder story, casting Guy Fawkes and Garnet as evil terrorists and the foiling of their attempt a victory for the powers of good, what does Shag write for his king? Macbeth: the story of a man ambitious above his station, complicit in regicide and its tragic and horrific consequences both for the country and the murderers. I leave it to you to look for the equivocation in that choice.

Ian Merrill-Peakes as Richard Burbage playing Macbeth as Sean Lally and Dan Hodge look on. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ian Merrill Peakes as Richard Burbage playing Macbeth as Sean Lally and Dan Hodge look on. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Equivocation is a play written about the writing of a play, set in a theatre (Shag’s Globe) which you will see in a theatre (the Arden’s Arcadia Stage). It’s more than a little bit what the scholars would call “meta.” But with this production, the layers don’t end there. Ian Merrill Peakes, who played Macbeth at the Arden last season, will play Richard Burbage, a member of Shag’s company, who was the original Macbeth. Richard Burbage was the son of actor and theatre manager James Burbage. Ian Merrill Peakes is the son of actor and former artistic director John Peakes. James Burbage owned and ran The Theatre, the first permanent English theatre, so Richard grew up in a theatre. John Peakes founded and ran the BoarsHead Theatre, a prominent regional theatre in Lansing, Michigan, so Ian grew up in a theatre. Kind of amazing, right? Joining Ian as the remaining players in the King’s Men are Tony Lawton, Dan Hodge, and Sean Lally; some of Philly’s favorite sons doing virtuosic turns in multiple roles. Longtime Arden favorite Eric Hissom rounds out the company as Shag himself and Arden newcomer Campbell O’Hare joins as Judith, Shag’s daughter.

Equivocation is a rich many-layered piece of theatre, and it places tremendous faith in the passion and intelligence of its artists and its audience. It requires both artists and audience to sit forward rather than back, to engage and to think. Terry Nolen, the designers and actors of this production have endeavored to lift the play’s language, bringing it electrically to life, and to bring the audience face to face with its own assumptions about truth. I hope you enjoyed the show.

By Brittany Brewer

What would you do with all the money in the world?

What a question.

I know what I’d do. [Pause]. Do you want to know what I’d do?


I’d never do laundry again.

That’s it. That’s the big dream?

Towel Models

Once upon a time at a company called Arden, there was a show, a show with lots of water. It was called Metamorphoses. Those who worked at the company knew that producing the show would bring many challenges: heating the pool, keeping the pool clean, making costumes that could withstand weeks of sogginess, and – of course – towels. Many, many towels. And no matter how hard they tried, this Arden just couldn’t keep up with the mountains of towels that piled up in the laundry.

And just when it seemed that all laundry hope was lost – Wash Cycle Laundry came to the rescue!   Wash Cycle Laundry – a company who helps individuals and businesses surmount their mountains of laundry – agreed to help the Arden meet the challenge.

This is the story of that partnership – and of the one little towel who wanted more than anything to make a difference!

The little towel

Once upon a time, there was a towel. And on one crisp fall morning – clean, fresh, fluffy – this little towel found himself bumping along the back of a bicycle! The bicycle was helmed by Wash Cycle Cyclist Route Manager, Jason. As Jason wove in and through Philadelphia city streets, the towel felt the cool breeze in his fibers.

Jason and the towels

Suddenly, the bike veered to a stop and Jason was lifting the little towel and his neatly folded friends off of the bike and into a building. As the little towel and his friends whipped through the doors of the building, he noticed the large sign on the front: “The Arden Theatre Company.” The little towel began quivering with excitement. Helping out behind the scenes at the Arden was his favorite post! What purpose would he have today? Would he embark alone or share in the journey of toil with other towels?

Jason soon was backstage, and the little towel could hear the actors as they rushed between dressing rooms, stretching for their performance, and warming up their voices in preparation. Jason handed the little towel and his friends off to Rebecca, the Arden’s wardrobe supervisor.

The towel catches dripsSome of the little towel’s friends were being placed by Rebecca on the ground to catch water from dripping costumes. Others were brought into the dressing rooms to assist actors. The little towel wondered what his job would be! Before he knew it, the assistant to the stage manager was ending his speech, the lights were dimming, music was filling the space, and the show was in motion.

IMG_3911The little towel’s day at work was a blur, but beautifully transformative. He felt joy in the many ways he contributed in moving the show forward. From the moment the show began, everyone and everything was in constant movement.

Sometimes, the little towel lined the floor of “the hotbox” – a heated space backstage where the actors changed costumes.

At another point, the little towel served as a personal assistant to the actors. The little towel assisted an actor in drying his hair. Then, he was immediately wrapped around the actor’s waist and the little towel assisted him in relocating to a dressing room for a longer costume change. In moments of movement like this, the little towel spotted some other of his towel friends at work: draped across different actors’ heads and bodies as they lounged for a quick breather backstage or hustled to make a quick entrance. Many more lined the floors. The little towel was happy; it felt nice to be needed.

The towel is a 'personal assistant'

When the show finally came to an end, the little towel found himself back in “the hotbox”, tossed quickly into a pile as his actor returned to stage. Though the show was over, the little towel had more work to do! After audience members sifted out, crew members grabbed the little towel (and some of his friends) and began to wipe down the wet stage.


Then, when that was done, the little towel was returned to a large yellow bag. The little towel was now damp, rumpled, and dirty – a far cry from the fluffiness he had felt just 2 hours ago!

The rumpled towel

Days passed and the little towel waited. He waited, and waited, damp and dirty, for Jason to return and transform him back to his fluffy old self.  Days passed, and more shows were performed, and more towels joined the little towel in his dirty bag – but still no Jason. And just when the little towel was about to give up hope – he heard the familiar shuffling of Jason’s shoes coming through the backstage door. And suddenly, the little towel and his friends were being lifted into Jason’s bike!

As the little towel sighed a breath of relief, he and his soggy compatriots were bumping along the old city cobblestone once again. In and out of the historic side streets of Old City they weaved until they arrived at 16th and South, where Tracey and the Wash Cycle laundry team were waiting. Tracey and her team scooped up the little towel and his friends, dropped them into the washers, and the little towel’s second transformation had begun. In the care of Tracey and the Wash Cycle team, the little towel was tumbled, soaked, soaped, dried, fluffed, and folded. He was placed into a pile that was soon to be loaded onto a bike, and just as if he had never been dirty before, the little towel set off on his next big adventure.

Partners in Transformation: Arden and Wash Cycle Laundry

The Arden is very grateful for the support of Wash Cycle Laundry as a partner in our production of Metamorphoses. Metamorphoses requires the use of 75 towels per performance, which is about 600 towels a week. We needed to find assistance in laundering our daunting number of backstage towels so that each performance, our actors can truly take our audience through the transformation that is Metamorphoses. Fortunately, we did not need all of the money in the world and Wash Cycle Laundry is not intimated by our massive loads of laundry.

Transformation is a theme that is very important to the Arden. We always transform of spaces: our seating is flexible and the audience area can change from show to show, depending on the needs of the story we are telling. The Arden is also committed to the transformation of the environment, and as such, through our partnerships with Revolution Recovery and The Resource Exchange, we diverted 78% of our trash from landfills last season. But, the theme of transformation extends even further for us this year. It is a pivotal component to storytelling that can be seen in the selection of our 2015/2016 season: Shagspeare’s belief in his purpose as a playwright transforms in Equivocation, Chick Sherman seeks to transform his legacy in Funnyman, the cultural landscape of America is transforming in Two Trains Running, and the garden undergoes a lively transformation in The Secret Garden.

Transformation is a theme that also really speaks to the mission of Wash Cycle Laundry. Nearly 50% of Wash Cycle employees have a history of incarceration, addiction, homelessness, or welfare dependence. Over 80% of their employees in management/leadership positions began on the front lines and they double Philadelphia’s average for employee retention with welfare to work recipients. They are transforming people’s lives by creating stable jobs with upward mobility and providing people with opportunity. They are showing that being sustainable can actually save money and improve our cities. They are cutting down on the number of trucks blocking traffic or polluting the air and getting places faster and more often because of their use of bikes.

The Arden is proud to partner with a company as dedicated to sustainability and community as Wash Cycle to help tell our stories onstage. Thank you to Jason, Tracey, and all those who work behind the scenes at Wash Cycle Laundry who have helped to make Metamorphoses possible.


By Krista Apple-Hodge (Aphrodite and others)

Krista, as Psyche, takes the plunge

Krista, as Psyche, takes the plunge

I know what you’re wondering. And yes, the water is warm. Delightfully, wonderfully warm.

As the audience takes their seats in the Haas theatre, the heating pumps have just been turned off and the water is at a balmy 104 degrees. By curtain call, it’s usually cooled to about 100. Not too bad for a night’s work, eh?

We had a week of rehearsal on dry land before we got in the pool; and when we did, we were given a detailed and often cheeky list of “Pool Rules” by the stage management team. It included the temperature info I gave you above. It also outlined personal requirements. Little sacrifices. No lotions, hair products, or makeup (they’ll stay in the water and make it…. well, gross). And, yes, no peeing in the pool.

As I’m sure you can imagine (and probably sympathize), it’s not every day you’re given pool rules at work! Maybe a few of you out there are few water-workers, but the majority of us just aren’t. So this feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us all.

Actress Leigha Kato tries to keep warm backstage during rehearsals

Actress Leigha Kato tries to keep warm backstage during rehearsals

There were plenty of pool-related things we were prepared for. Dry skin; water up the nose. There were also a lot of things that we weren’t prepared for. EVERYTHING in our lives is sopping wet, basically, all the time. We spend eight hours a day in towels and bathing suits. Our ears are waterlogged. Our lips are chapped two months before winter has even arrived.

We also weren’t prepared for the water’s power onstage. We’d been properly warned; Doug Hara, our director, kept describing the pool to us as “another cast member.” But there’s simply no way to prepare yourself for its beauty, its power, and its demands.

One of our biggest jobs as actors is to stay ‘in the moment’ onstage. To stay completely alive to the story we’re telling and not check out at all, even when we’ve said the same words a hundred times before. This show is a great exercise in that. We truly have no idea what’s going to happen next. The water is completely unpredictable, and it keeps us perpetually on our toes.

Metamorphoses pays great homage to all the elements: water, fire, earth, sky. These elements are thrillingly beautiful. Essential for our survival, and our evolution. They deserve our complete reverence, admiration, and respect.

Actress Leigha Kato waits in the pool during a moment of rehearsal

Actress Leigha Kato waits in the pool during a moment of rehearsal

It’s a great reminder of why the stories of these gods were told in the first place. The story of Poseidon, the god of water and the sea; the story of Apollo, the god of fire and the sun; or Ceres, the goddess of the harvest and the earth. The gods who, as the stories go, used these elements to reward us when we obeyed, and punished us when we didn’t.

So of course, you try and follow all the rules and maintain your respect. But even when you follow all the rules (no running backstage; no horseplay in the pool), accidents still happen. People still slip on the pool deck, get water up their nose, get singed by a candle or two. Just as in the real world, hurricanes and forest fires and elemental events completely out of our control are still visited upon us. Unpredictable.

Lindsay Smiling as Erysicthon and Leigha Kato as hunger

Lindsay Smiling as Erysicthon and Leigha Kato as hunger

But unpredictability is also where transformation takes place. It’s no accident that the water is where change always happens in our play. Where true love transforms grieving lovers into birds, where lust gets the better of a father and daughter, where greed gets the best of a disrespectful man, and where lovers lose and find and lose each other again and again.

It’s always our hope, as storytellers, that the stories we tell will change something in you. Offer a new perspective, or maybe just a little bit of entertainment, comfort, hope. The stories found in Metamorphoses have all of these things to offer; and the act of telling them has changed us, too. For all its unpredictability, and all its Rules and demands, the water has been a transformative place for us. We think it will be for you, too.

See you poolside!


The Cast of Metamorphsoes in the pool for the first time

The Cast of Metamorphsoes in the pool for the first time

Krista Apple-Hodge

& the cast of METAMORPHOSES

By Glenn Perlman, Technical Director

Over the last couple of years, during season planning discussions each spring, I’d heard rumblings about us doing Metamorphoses — or as theatre technicians commonly refer to it: the pool show. It would come up, then go away. And each time it didn’t make our season schedule, I felt like we dodged a bullet.

Then it didn’t go away.

Learning that we were to produce Metamorphoses must be a little like expectant parents learning they’re going to have twins:  you knew it was going to be hard, but it just got a whole lot harder.

Fortunately, we were as prepared as possible. Courtney Riggar, our production manager, had worked on a prior production at Hartford Stage when she was there. She ran the crew and remembered all the challenges. And she knew some guys that built it and we could ask them questions.

The technicians that created the original and subsequent Lookingglass productions had created a “pool bible:” a document with many important details about the design and construction of the pool and equipment.

Director Doug Hara works on stage with actress Leigha Kato

Director Doug Hara works on stage with actress Leigha Kato

Our director, Doug Hara, had been in several productions, including the original and the Tony-nominated Broadway run.

But the single biggest resource we had was time. We reserved the Haas stage for the entire summer for the build. Master Carpenter Justin Romeo and I had what seemed like all the time in the world to create this tricky little set.

Technical Drawings by Scenic Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge

Technical Drawings by Scenic Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge


We started right after Independence Day; first moving the seats into our thrust configuration, and then we started building the pool. Working from detailed designs by set designer (and Lookingglass Theatre alum) Brian Sydney Bembridge, we began construction of the pool container itself. I had done my homework:  calculating water volume (2600 gallons) and weight (around 10 tons), figuring the load per square foot on the stage floor (54 lbs/sq ft.) and engineered a construction method robust enough to contain the water. Scenery is usually pretty light weight, but this thing is beefy — 2×6 framing on 16″ centers, double top-plate and covered in 3/4″ plywood. The sidewalls are braced every four feet to prevent collapse. The entire bottom and sides are also covered in 1″ thick blue styrofoam, for heat insulation and actor comfort on their feet, and then the thick black rubber pond liner, which is in one giant seemless piece.

Metamorphoses pool framing 2

The framing of the pool

Installing the liner was like gift-wrapping a present, but opposite — like trying to neatly wrap the inside of a box. But the pool isn’t just a rectangular box:  the top (upstage) is the shallow end:  just 2″ of water. Through the middle of the stage the bottom slopes down and then downstage there’s the deep end, at 22″. The downstage corners also have 45° angles. This is no ordinary gift wrapping project. We roughed it in then started adding water to help push the liner into the corners as we worked it out smooth and flat. This was our first fill up, and it took about 7 hours running a hose from the nearest utility sink backstage.


The first filling of the pool, with black plastic lining in progress

Well it worked, and it held the water, it didn’t leak, the sidewalls didn’t collapse, and everything looked good. But you wouldn’t want to swim in it yet. The water was cold and full of floating sawdust. So the next step was pool equipment and plumbing.

Working with a pool and spa contractor I found in Lancaster (after being rejected by a few places that didn’t want anything to do with this crazy scheme of a temporary indoor hot tub) we assembled all the necessary gear and started the install.

We had drained the pool after our initial pressure-test, and went to work. Using industry-specific equipment, we spent a magical day, now early August, cutting the holes in the sides of the box for suction and return water, running all the pvc plumbing, and installing the pump, filter, two 11 kilowatt heaters, and automatic chlorinator. All of this gear lives under the deck just behind the pool. Our Master Electrician, Martin Stutzman, built the temporary power distribution for the gear, requiring two 240v 60 amp GFCI breakers for the heaters. This is serious business.

It’s actually more like a hot tub, technically. We need the water temperature to be at 104° at the beginning of the show, when the audience enters, because that’s when we shut the pump off. This lets the water settle and be still and flat; which along with the black liner underneath and use of Thom Weaver’s beautiful lighting makes the pool like a mirror. Or infinite. Or both. It’s art. But as soon as the heaters and pump go off, the water temperature starts falling. Actors spend 90 minutes in and out of the water, often in full costumes, so it needs to be warm so they don’t get sick. They need to do this 9 times a week, after all. In fact, on both sides of the stage we built small, heated, insulated dressing rooms called “hot boxes” for them to retreat to after exiting the stage. Actor safety and comfort is always primary.

The actors inside one of the backstage "hot box"

The actors inside one of the backstage “hot box”

As soon as a performance ends, the pool gets cleaned of floating debris from the performance, covered with an insulating pool cover, and the pump and heaters get switched back on to bring it up to temperature for the next show. Pool chemical levels are monitored daily. And every two weeks we will completely drain, clean, and refill the pool.

Glenn checks chlorine and chemical levels of the pool

Glenn checks chlorine and chemical levels

Oh, and there’s also an entire set around the pool as well, including the amazing sky which was painted by our incredible Charge Scenic Artist, Kristina Chadwick, using a technique involving sawdust and fine misty layers of paint sprays to create those beautiful clouds.

image15 image16image21

In all, Justin and I worked on this set for about ten weeks. And there are four weeks of performances. It has been one of my most challenging yet rewarding sets ever, and I am really proud of how it turned out. And I personally think the show is beautiful and really worthwhile, so that’s nice too.

I’ll never forget the time I spent the entire summer by the pool.

Jonathan Silver was the Producer for the Master Storyteller Award presented to Stephen Sondheim on June 1, 2015.  He is also a freelance actor, director, and voice-over artist whose work at Arden Theatre includes Timms in The History Boys (2009) and assistant director on Incorruptible (2014), Under the Skin (2015), and Macbeth (2015).

Two weeks ago, Amy Murphy (Managing Director) and Maura Roche (Marketing Manager) cornered me and utilized all their charm to ask if I would write an Arden Blog post regarding my 3 months of planning and responsibilities as Line Producer for the inaugural Master Storyteller Award presented to Stephen Sondheim on June 1.  The ever-optimist, I thought, “Sure, I can add just one more thing to my plate while producing this epic concert.  Why not?!”  Needless to say, I procrastinated, submitted a real stinker of a post, and was given the opportunity to rewrite it once the ceremony was over – which is good because, boy, do I have a perspective of June 1 that can only be told by a few others.

First of all, I need to explain what a Theatrical Line Producer does –

  • Pre-production planning (making sure Terry Nolen and Matthew Decker’s ideas for the event are carried out)
  • Remain in constant contact with the performers (providing music, travel plans, rehearsals, etc.)
  • Liaison between the Artistic Department, Production Department, Development Department and everyone else.
  • Day-of-event coordination (prepare all necessary scripts, music, presentation note cards, rehearsal spaces for actors to practice their staging and, generally, be ready for any unsuspecting curve balls with multiple contingency plans – this last part will be important to my story momentarily)

The goal of my job was to make sure all these parts of the machine remained well-oiled, supported, and happy.

June 1 arrives.  After collaborating extensively with Matthew Decker (Director of the concert), we feel prepared with our schedule.  It’s detailed, concise, and, if executed properly, can turn out to be an event without a single hitch.  There was just one anomaly we hadn’t anticipated, or had any control over.  Here’s a breakdown of how our day went and how we had to deal with said anomaly:

8:30AM: I arrive at Arden Theatre to prep the rehearsal halls, print extra music, and greet out of town performers.

9:00AM: The production team begins rearranging the Passion set, lighting focus, and sound patch in the F. Otto Haas Theater for the evening’s concert.









10:00AM: Matt Decker begins splitting his time between two separate rooms and stages “Not While I’m Around” and “Kiss Me/Ladies In Their Sensitivities,” both from Sweeney Todd.

11:00AM: Terry and Matt tag-team rehearsals and each stage “A Bowler Hat” (Pacific Overtures) and “Old Friends” (Merrily We Roll Along) respectively.

12NOON: The entire cast rehearses the ensemble numbers with Matt while Terry separately stages “Gun Song” from Assassins.

1:45PM: After a lunch break, Terry, Matt, the production team, a 13-piece orchestra, and the 26 performers begin teching the show (running through text presentations and the musical numbers multiple times to check spacing, lights, microphone levels, and tempos).

4:15PM: Teen Arden members arrive and patiently wait in the audience to rehearse their musical number with the other performers.

5:15PM: Jason Robert Brown arrives at the theater and observes rehearsal before checking the set-up of a piano he intends to use during the presentation of the Master Storyteller Award to Stephen Sondheim.

5:35PM: Stephen Sondheim arrives at the theater and observes a brief portion of rehearsal before joining Arden donors at Zahav Restaurant for dinner.

6:45PM: We finish the technical run-through of the show with a little time to spare and break the actors for dinner so the production team can clear the theater for the audience to enter.

7:10PM: THE POWER AT ARDEN THEATRE GOES OUT!!!  (BUT the power remains on at The Hamilton Family Arts Center only a half block north).

7:20PM: PECO estimates that the power will be restored to Arden Theatre’s grid between 9:30PM and 9:50PM.

7:30PM: Terry Nolen, Matthew Decker, and Glenn Perlman (Arden’s Technical Director) decide to move the evening’s concert to Glenn’s shop at The Hamilton Family Arts Center – the only other space that can fit a large number of people.  Unfortunately, due to the time that it will take to set up the new “theater” and move all the patrons from Zahav and the main Arden building up the block, it is also decided the concert will be abbreviated and only performed with a single piano thus nullifying the use of the 13 piece orchestra, some of our performers songs, and the projections that were so painstakingly rehearsed and prepared.

7:45PM – 8:35PM: ALL HANDS ON DECK. Ongoing theatrical projects are cleared from the scenic shop.  An epic sweeping effort ensues.  The shop’s table saw and worktables are all pushed together to form a stage. Thom Wheaver (Lighting Designer) sets up two rows of strip lights that he places at the front edge of the “stage” and 4 par can area lighting fixtures are placed on the left and right sides to illuminate the performers.  Daniel Perelstein (Sound Designer) brings in a single PA speaker that he connects to the podium microphone.  Countless Arden staff members, apprentices, family members, EVEN BOARD MEMBER VOLUNTEERS wheel in chairs and benches to create an audience area for patrons to sit.









8:40PM: Artists file in and take their seats behind the stage.

8:50PM: Patrons from Arden’s main building and Zahav begin filing in and take their seats.  Committed to making sure as many people witness this unique, once-in-a-lifetime event, all available seats are filled and the shop is standing room only.

9:00PM: Stephen Sondheim takes his seat and the concert BEGINS.  Terry Nolen hosts the abbreviated version of the event with Amanda Morton (Music Director) accompanying the performers while Jason Robert Brown turns her music pages (!!!) then provides the audience with, not only a moving tribute to Mr. Sondheim, but a master class for everyone in attendance explaining and demonstrating on the piano why Sondheim is a master storyteller.









9:45PM: Jason Robert Brown presents Mr. Sondheim with the Master Storyteller Award which he accepts with a few brief, emotional comments.  Teen Arden members join the adult performers and close the evening singing “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park With George.

9:55PM: Mr. Sondheim requests to privately meet the artists and Teen Arden members who performed, lauding them for their poise and professionalism under extreme, unexpected circumstances before departing.

Reflecting on the evening’s events, I have two overwhelming feelings (besides embarrassment for never having the opportunity to change out of my sweaty t-shirt and cargo shorts especially when I met Mr. Sondheim).  On one hand, I am wildly grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside superhuman artistic, production, and development teams.  The uniqueness of planning such a high profile, celebratory event for 3 months only to have it completely turned upside down less than an hour before show time and go as well as it did will be as memorable to me as the first time I knew I wanted to be a theater artist or when I opened my first professional show after undergraduate college (which just so happened to be at Arden Theatre Company) or when I was born.  But on the other hand, there were artistic fatalities to the evening – genius performances cut at the last minute (particularly from Tony Braithwaite, Rich Ceraulo, Todd Horman, Christopher Patrick Mullen, and James Sugg), visually stunning projections never to be seen (Jorge Cousineou), and inspirational orchestrations never to be heard (Larry Lees).  In this same hand, I feel heartache for the 103 teens who were invited to watch a live simulcast feed of the concert in the Arden’s Arcadia Theater space for free and, instead, saw nothing.  I only hope the happiness and agony of both sides will not torment me for too long.

In an email from sound designer Daniel Perelstein shortly after the June 1 Master Storyteller Award, he wrote to the artistic team about production realism and ended his message with these wise words: “Through the magic of theater, it was a special evening to be a part of.  Very moving lesson.  I’m not exactly sure what the teaching is, but I think it’s somehow rich and powerful.”  My sentiments exactly, Dan.

Dan Perelstein is the Sound Designer for the Jungle Book. He was also the sound designer for Robin Hood and Pinocchio here at the Arden. Dan works on a lot of shows for adults, but he especially likes doing Arden Children’s Theatre!

Sean Lally and Taysha Canales are two of the actors who provided some of the sounds you heard recorded in THE JUNGLE BOOK

Sean Lally and Taysha Canales are two of the actors who provided some of the sounds you heard recorded in THE JUNGLE BOOK

Close your eyes for a few minutes and listen to all the sounds around you. What can you tell about your surroundings from what you hear? Is there music playing? Can you hear a dog barking or a car driving by? Do you hear the dishwasher or the TV or someone flushing the toilet? Even when no one is talking, we pick up a lot with our ears that can tell us where we are, who is there, and what is happening.

When you watch a theatre performance you are also listening to it, and that’s where I come in. The sound designer is the person who thinks about how to tell the story through sound and music. Sometimes this is recorded ahead of time and played through the speakers like the music you heard in Jungle Book. Sometimes these are sounds the actors make live onstage like when the wolves howl. I work with the actors and the director to make sure that all the sounds come together to tell the same story.

For example, in this clip, I recorded the actors making animal sounds, and then used those sounds as a background sound for this piece of music! See if you can hear different animals!

Activity 1

Remember in the play when Mowgli jumps into the pool of water? If you were the sound designer of the play, what sounds would you use to tell the story? Write down some of the sounds you would want to hear. Now, think about how you could make those sounds using just the things you have in your house. Without getting your whole house wet, how can you make it sound like Mowgli has jumped into a pool of water?

Activity 2

Choose an animal from the jungle. Think about what sounds that animal makes. Does your animal roar? Or croak? Or whistle? Try a few different kinds of roars, croaks, whistles, etc. Which one sounds most like the animal you are trying to imitate?

Go Further: Record yourself making some of these sounds. How do they sound when you play them back? Can you speed them up or slow them down? How does that change them?

Arden Theatre staff, teens and artists at the Gift of Life Family House.

Arden Theatre staff, teens and artists at the Gift of Life Family House

In the case of real-life organ donation, the lights don’t come up. There is no audience to applaud actors and designers. And for the transplant patients waiting for vital organs, life goes on. Patients and their families must wait and endure, with total tolerance of the system in place; the capital “L” List.

For the duration of the run of Under The Skin, the Arden Theatre teamed up with neighboring Old City organization, Gift of Life to raise awareness about organ donation. Gift of Life organizes real-life organ donation, here in Philly. And at Gift of Life’s Family House (a hop-skip away from their main building on 3rd street) families come together to live away from home long term, while receiving treatment or waiting for a vital organ. To facilitate this closely-knit living situation, Gift of Life uniquely operates a program called Home Cook Heroes.

Home Cook Heroes happens every night at Gift of Life. Groups from all over Philadelphia gather at the family house to cook dinner for the residents. Volunteers cook for an average of about 50 people per night, and the meal is provided free of charge, served with a lot of love and good intention. This is what happened on the day the Arden became Home Cook Heroes.

*                                                          *                                                          *

The day arrived swiftly. Fellow apprentice Gil Vega and I set out to buy the ingredients for the meal, (supplemented by a generous donation of produce by Iovine Brothers in Reading Terminal Market). Equipped with backpacks and two large rolling suitcases, kindly provided to us by Arden props master Chris Haig, we trudged through the slush and slick ice to the Super Fresh on 5th and Pine.   We were tasked with carrying back 50 people’s-worth of ingredients, and we chatted happily in the sunshine, convinced we were up to the challenge.

And it turns out that we were, although the bumps in the snow and ice turned out to be the least of our concerns that morning. It soon became extremely evident that shopping for 50 mouths is heavy. We whipped out a smart phone and frantically did measurement conversions all up and down the fluorescent-lit aisles, determined to get the most out of buying the least. However the real trouble hit us when shopping for sweet potato mash, as according to the recipe, one serving required one sweet potato. How were the two of us going to manage 50 potatoes all the way back to the Arden, that is, if we could fit it in our luggage at all?

With time already cutting into Gil’s allotted lunch hour, we settled on 35 potatoes and hoped that the rest of the meal would disguise a shortage of sweet potato mash. Moving at a much slower pace, but satisfied that we had been the ultimate shoppers, we struggled our way back to the theatre to sort the food and make final preparations.

The next 5 hours flew by, and with all that needed to be done just coming together, as often happens in world of theatre, it was time to walk over to the family house.

Donning the provided aprons, we swept through the 2-stove, 3-island kitchen at the house feeling like contestants on a cooking show.  But as the feverish preparation commenced, punctuated by my announcements of remaining time as self-appointed timekeeper, roadblocks popped up. We didn’t have the physical manpower to peel even the compromised number of potatoes. Also, the centerpiece of the meal, the chili, seemed all at once to be too little and too bland. Thankfully, Under The Skin actress Alice M. Gatling, formerly a caterer herself, knew just what to do save the dish. With just about 3 minutes to dinner service, we were dishing food into serving bowls and smell of southwestern comfort had people gathering in the attached dining room.

Teen Arden Council members Kieran and Maria chop and season the salad

Teen Arden Council members Kieran and Maria chop and season the salad

Dinner turned out well. The sweet potato mash came out late, but if that was all we had to regret after hours of fitting the day’s jigsaw pieces together, I was a happy planner.   What’s more, Home Cook Heroes was such a fun experience; cast members, staff and Teen Arden alike were challenged as a team to perform what seemed a near-impossible task.

As dinner started, one resident approached us to share his story. His family had been in Philly for several months but hailed from Virginia. Another family had come to see Under the Skin, and expressed how personally touching they found the play. As they shared their family’s experiences with us, we were reminded in the sober reality of needing an organ donation. It’s safe to say we ended the night, a really grateful bunch of volunteer cooks. And I went home convinced of one thing: Home Cook Heroes is a misleading title, as those that make the food are barely heroes in comparison to those who eat the food.

If you’d like to learn more about Gift of Life or the Home Cook Heroes program please visit:

Arden Apprentice at Home Cook Heroes

Eliana Fabiyi is an Arden Professional Apprentice who hails from  Baltimore, Maryland. Her interests include bluegrass music, community nutrition, Shakespeare and improv comedy.  

©2009 Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. For tickets, call 215.922.1122.
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