I fell in love with the theater when I was in junior high. My father was in a production of "Oklahoma," and we had front-row balcony seats. I watched him perform and it was magical. I guess that's when I got bitten, because when I went off to college, I thought I was a pre-law major, but the theater just wouldn't let go of me. So I ended up with a bachelor of arts in Theatre Arts and a teaching certificate from the University of Washington. I graduated in December and was teaching high school theater in Sandy, Oregon, on Jan. 2.
I taught there for five years, directing four shows a year and performing while also acting professionally in Portland. I was a young single guy and could work stupid hours, so I did. To become competent in this art form, I discovered you have to get your fingers in and learn by doing, and those crazy hours paid off in experience. I now teach at Western Washington University and also serve as the producing director for Mount Baker Theatre's Repertory Program, where I coordinate the various repertory productions.
One of the questions I get asked most often is how we get from the idea of the play to the end performance. The cycle of putting these large Broadway-style musicals on starts with the idea. What shows are we interested in putting on? The first hurdle is what is available. When Broadway production companies send their shows out touring, what are essentially non-compete agreements come into play. So if something is already touring in our area, we most likely won't be able to produce it.
Once we have settled on a play with available rights, we start working on casting and set design. I audition through a wide variety of mechanisms, including regional university theater festivals I participate in. These groups hold auditions at national events, allowing actors from around the U.S. to be seen by a wide group of directors. Last year I saw more than 200 actors at one of those and cast parts in plays as far out as next winter. I will then typically also do auditions in Seattle and here in Bellingham. I've even done auditions over Skype.
As casting is progressing, the set, lighting, costuming and musical designs all have to ramp up. The artistic team members are very like the cast: some are local, some are regional and some are national. I typically have 5 to 11 shows in my pipeline; assembling teams for each show, design and directing, cast and crew. Each show can have upwards of 25 team members, and some of the talent, like directors, really need to have 12 to 16 months notice, so it's a complex dance.
When we get to the show itself, my approach is a little different, because I work on a 10-day rehearsal period. This means from the first time the actors meet each other to their dress rehearsal there are only 10 days of rehearsal. In order to make this possible, I put very talented people in charge of what they do; I ask them to come in off book (knowing all their lines and music) and with lots of opinions; and then we collaborate. I'm very collaborative, but I like to work fast.
On a practical level, this means that the actors have already built their characters fairly completely. Then as a group we can focus on blocking, character interactions, rhythms and pacing of scenes, and all the other pieces that make a performance. We will also have music rehearsals running concurrently with the play rehearsals, so actors will cycle between the two; working with me on the theatrical elements and with the musical director on the musical elements. And yes, it means long days of rehearsal.
So "My Fair Lady," which opens Wednesday, Sept. 26, has taken well over a year from idea to opening night, and the last 14 days are pretty crazy. But as crazy as it might get, I have to say that it's been one fun moment after another in all these different theatrical challenges. There is absolutely nothing better than being able to say that about your job!
This is one of a yearlong series looking behind the scenes at Bellingham's Mount Baker Theatre.
ABOUT WINDOW ON MY WORLD
Window On My World is an occasional essay in Monday's Bellingham Herald that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to Julie.email@example.com.
The day the show opens was corrected Sept. 24, 2012.
Mark Kuntz is on the theater faculty at Western Washington University and is the producing director at Mount Baker Theatre Repertory. He is the past national chair of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival and past-president of the Northwest Drama Conference. He is also a past board member of Mount Baker Theatre, and is currently on the board for the Northwest Playwrights Alliance in Seattle.