Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Donna Memmer at the Alliance Theatre

I arrived in Atlanta on Sunday January 5th and took the MARTA train into midtown.  Easy, fast, cheap and clean.  I was immediately thrown into the Alliance Theatre’s production of The Geller Girls, finishing the clothes needed for tech rehearsals. Costumes are designed by Linda Roethke.  The play is about two sisters (one a dressmaker), their father who runs an emporium/dry goods store, his wife (stepmother to the girls) and a young suitor who works in the dry goods store.  The play takes place during the 1895 Cotton Exposition held here in Atlanta's Piedmont Park, just blocks from the theatre. 

The Alliance Theatre costume shop has a staff of 13-15.  Carol Hammond is the Shop Manager and she is also the assistant costume designer for the main stage productions.  Everyone is highly skilled.  In this smaller shop scenario, everyone has to pull their weight and then some.  They all cross over into costume crafts, working on everything from millinery to leather.  What I find impressive is how fast they switch gears.  So far I have only been a "sous" stitcher.  I'm not sure that I will build anything.  The cutters seem to do all the major construction. Not having to translate for the stitchers saves time. They pattern, cut, stitch and do most of their own R & D. 

During my first week, temperatures dropped into the single digits at night with a negative wind chill factor. The temperature stayed below freezing for 60 hours, then up to 60 degrees for a day followed by a flash flood warning and tornado warning.  All within 7 days.  And we thought Oregon was unpredictable! 

The Alliance has two stages.  The main stage seats over 700 with a balcony.  They are going to remodel and reduce the house size to reduce royalties. The smaller space is The Hertz, a black box theatre that seats 200. 

Alliance Theatre

The next show scheduled for The Hertz is a new play that won an annual contest. In Love and Warcraft takes audiences into the gaming world, complete with avatars. That show previews January 31, the night before I leave. It has a tight tech schedule, with clothes onstage on January 28th. These pictures are for one of the play's costumes.  Our process was to build a reduced-size clay model, pattern the model with paper, and then blow up the pattern pieces to full size using a projector.  The full-size pattern was then cut out of foam and glued together.  Soon, this avatar will have another layer of foam "skin" applied, painted and textured. Usually, a full-size creature (such as a sports mascot) has fur instead of skin, so there's no need for minute detail. Scotty, the resident puppet builder here, said this is the most muscular form he has ever built.

The Geller Girls tech was challenging. Various issues with the set could not be resolved before the end of tech rehearsals and we only got to do one run through in costumes before the evening preview.  That would be incredibly stressful for a dresser at OSF, but the Alliance presents more preview performances than OSF does, which allows for more time to solve problems. At the top of the OSF season, three plays are teching, dress rehearsing, previewing and opening in rotating rep, so the sets are constantly shifting on and off stage. At the Alliance, the set of the current show is always on stage so crews can work things out in the afternoon. 

I had the opportunity to attend the Alliance’s Company Call and learned of their plan to remodel both the public and backstage spaces.  I wonder how OSF could ever remodel or upgrade the Bowmer without shutting down for a season? The Alliance plans to continue performing in The Hertz while producing main stage shows in various venues around the city (ah, remember the Bowmer Tent?*)  I was so surprised and delighted by this solution.  If only OSF had those opportunities.  My artisan exchange is making me realize just how challenging the OSF environment is.  We're like Galapagos turtles: we have adapted to our closed-off environment to be our own breed. 

The Alliance is unique (at least to me) in that it is part of a larger arts organization.  The Woodruff Arts Center is the umbrella for The High Museum of Art, The Atlanta Symphony and The Alliance Theatre.  I think this brings a sense of calm to the work because there's someone to catch you if you fall.  The Woodruff Center provides IT, Box Office, Custodial and Building Maintenance and there are challenges when those shared resources do not serve The Alliance’s specific needs and vision. 

Woodruff Arts Center

High Museum of Art

I wish I had more time to get out and explore Atlanta.  I've just begun to get comfortable and understand how to get around.  Yesterday and today, I set out on foot to explore. I walked over to the Midtown Art Cinema to see 12 Years a Slave, catching up on the Oscar nominations.  The 40-minute walk took me through the south end of Piedmont Park where the grass was brown.  I’m not sure if that's due to water conservation or to the fact that it froze for three days.  Must be beautiful in the spring.  Then back to my room to catch the last three quarters of the Seahawks game.  Today I went for a burrito at Willy's located on Piedmont at 12th, as suggested by my friend Courtney (an Atlanta native.) The weather was so nice, I sat outside in my short sleeve shirt.  Then I toured the Margaret Mitchell House on Peachtree Street (the main Peachtree Street; there are MANY).  Mitchell and her husband had an apartment on the lower floor and this is where Gone with the Wind was penned.  Her husband challenged her to begin writing a book while she recovered from a car accident.  Prior to that she had been a newspaper reporter writing under the name Peggy Mitchell.  She died at the age of 49 when she was hit by a car while crossing the street.  It was her wish that the original manuscript of Gone with the Wind be burned upon her death and her husband obliged.  She also tore down the family home where she grew up, fearing it would be turned into a museum.

I have noticed that drivers really like to honk their horns in Atlanta!  Not the "Hey be careful" horn, but the "Hey you're in my way and I don't care if it's not your fault" horn.  Otherwise people are very friendly and polite.  But they will run you over, so watch out!

Next weekend I plan to take a backstage tour of The Fox Theatre, a beautiful old road house.  So few remain.  Then maybe the Georgia Aquarium.  I must see the Botanical Gardens before I leave too.  Too many restaurants so little time.

*The Bowmer Tent was a temporary performance venue erected when OSF’s Bowmer Theatre was unexpectedly closed for emergency repairs.

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