Starlight Theatre’s summer productions are a culmination of hard work, high energy and community camaraderie. Preview this season’s lineup while glimpsing what happens behind the scenes.
Christopher Brady might be the hardest-working man in show business. Currently in his second year as artistic director/producer of Rock Valley College’s Starlight Theatre, Brady is responsible for producing five musical theater productions in the span of two months during the summer.
But preparation for Starlight’s 52nd season began well in advance of opening night.
“For this year’s Starlight season, we started planning last September,” Brady says. “Based on audience surveys, feedback from the actors and discussions with the Starlight staff, we decided that the shows for 2018 would be ‘Shrek the Musical,’ ‘Jane Eyre,’ ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ and ‘Anything Goes.’ We’re also doing ‘Cinderella After the Ball’ at the end of the regular season.”
When it comes to selecting productions, Brady follows a rough pattern.
“We try to present an array of choices for our audience,” he says. “We certainly want a family show, and that would be ‘Shrek.’ I personally wanted to have ‘Jane Eyre,’ which has gorgeous music and is very ensemble-driven. ‘Anything Goes’ fits the bill as a ‘classic musical’ piece, and then we have ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,’ which is more of an adult show; it’s as crass as it is classy. We strive to present a well-rounded lineup that stretches audiences and performers alike.”
After Starlight’s regular season is complete, “Cinderella After the Ball” gives younger patrons an opportunity to see a live performance.
“Theater audiences in general tend to be older,” Brady says. “So, this is something for young kids, ages 3 to 12, and their families. It may be the first time some of these kids have seen a live performance, something that is specifically written and produced for them.”
Anyone enjoying a Starlight production is seeing the result of hard work, high energy and community camaraderie. Beyond deciding which shows to present in a season, Brady and the five-member Starlight staff oversee the arduous process of auditioning performers, coordinating costumes and set designs, blocking (how the actors move on stage), choreographing and operating a rehearsal schedule that rivals that of Broadway.
“After the RVC board approves the shows we intend to present for the following summer, we secure the rights to the shows, start figuring out the sets and then we begin to audition actors in late February,” Brady says.
For the 2018 season, about 175 people of all ages auditioned for the five shows. Brady says the casting process was done differently this year than in the past.
“We really took a team approach to the casting this year because last year, it was just me,” Brady adds. “I would come back to my office after auditions and I was just freaked out. So this year, we decided to get the artistic team together for the auditions and then really flesh out the performances and make casting decisions as a team. So, we ended up staying at the theater until about one or two in the morning after a whole day of callbacks.”
The staff finished casting by the middle of March. Performers were allowed to audition for more than one show, and a number of actors have a role in two, or even three, of the productions.
“If an actor is in more than one Starlight show, the size of their part varies from show to show,” Brady says. “For example, if someone has a lead role in ‘Jane Eyre,’ they will most likely have a smaller role in ‘Anything Goes.’ This is done so that a performer is not overwhelmed with memorizing lines, blocking and choreography.”
Brady now has a foolproof system for organizing information about the actors during auditions, thanks to Bethany Nelson, a student worker at Starlight who took it upon herself to organize the process.
Each actor has his or her photo taken as part of the auditioning process. Those photos are then turned into something similar to baseball trading cards, as pertinent information about the actor’s audition is written on the backs of the cards.
Once an actor is cast into a specific role, their photo card is attached to a poster board representing that show. If an actor is cast in more than one show, duplicate photo cards are affixed to multiple poster boards.
By April, when rehearsals start, five poster boards are tacked up around Brady’s office representing each of the Starlight shows for the 2018 season. Brady says this card-and-board method is an easy way to organize casts, and it provides an “at a glance” way to remember who is in which show.
The auditioning and casting of five shows in a month’s time is a Herculean feat on its own, but rehearsing and staging these productions in less than two months’ time requires a nearly 24/7 effort from Brady. In addition to his office hours during the day, his evenings and weekends are devoted to Starlight rehearsals.
“Since more than one show rehearses each day, the actors practice on a rotating schedule,” he says. “On any given weekend in April, we would rehearse from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and then from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday. These rehearsals are further divided. For example, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, we would rehearse ‘Jane Eyre,’ and then from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. we would rehearse ‘Anything Goes.’”
Performers also have meal breaks, and, depending on which show they’re in, additional weeknight rehearsals.
“It’s a daunting schedule for sure, and next year, I’m hoping for two other directors,” Brady says. “We have budget issues, for sure, but it’s a lot for one person to oversee effectively.”
Brady also supervises the set decoration and the blocking.
“In ‘Shrek,’ there are 63 people on stage at different times, so I have to block that and make it look good and dynamic,” he says. “I don’t want the audience to see 63 people on stage; I want the audience to see the story unfolding.”
Being able to merge his “Starlight family” with his actual family affords Brady the opportunity to work with his wife and kids on stage.
“My family is my main priority; they are the best family in the world, but I don’t see them very much during the planning and rehearsals at Starlight,” Brady says. “I love to see my wife and kids, which is why it’s great that they are in ‘Jane Eyre.’ My kids are also in ‘Shrek,’ and it’s a lot of fun to have them performing.”
Acting at Starlight is also a family affair for Cathy Martin, whose involvement with the organization goes back to 1993.
“I grew up doing community theater with my parents in Pennsylvania, and my own children performed at Starlight in the early ‘90s,” she says. “My daughter met and married a man from one of the Starlight shows and now, this summer, three of my granddaughters, my daughter and I are all in ‘Jane Eyre.’ For us, Starlight Theatre is about family. It’s a way for our family to do something together and make friends for life.”
For ticket information, visit rockvalleycollege.edu/Community/Theatre or call the Starlight Theatre box office at (815) 921-2160.