70 Extras Wanted, No Experience Necessary

by Suzi Steffen
in Feature
Kate Hurster (right) as Elsie with her guitar, separated by audience members from the man she loves, played by Jeremy Peter Johnson.
Kate Hurster (right) as Elsie with her guitar, separated by audience members from the man she loves, played by Jeremy Peter Johnson.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival made things more interesting for the audience—and their stage crew—when they tried promenade seating

In the middle of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Yeomen of the Guard, assistant stage manager Molly Norris might see a child with a cup of apple juice and a dad with a cup of wine climb up to ride two rocking horses on the set. But she doesn’t freak out. Yes, actors will need the horses in 10 or 15 minutes. She might make a quick call to her onstage crew or walk over there herself, avoiding the other audience members on the deck. Soon, the child and parent have safely moved on—elsewhere on the set itself, where 70 audience members are watching, ducking instruments, moving from bench to floor and back again, grabbing drinks from the onstage bar and clapping along to songs as the actors perform the stripped down, updated, Country & Western-style Yeomen.

Oregon Shakes has experimented with many different styles over the years—especially in their smallest public theatre, the Thomas—but Yeomen is something new for the actors, the stage ops crew and the audience itself, not to mention the front of house staff. 

The show actually opens as soon as the doors open, 30 minutes before the official start time. In that half hour, audience members shoot pool with the actors on the set, buy drinks, sing songs and interact with everyone from actors like K.T. Vogt (Warden Carruthers) and Anthony Heald (Deputy Dick Chumlee) to Norris and the two stage ops folks who will help shepherd them around all performance. 

Jeremy Peter Johnson performs in Yeomen of the Guard, while Amy T. Hutcheson, stagehand supervisor (in striped prison guard costume), watches the action, and the crowd.
Jeremy Peter Johnson performs in Yeomen of the Guard, while Amy T. Hutcheson, stagehand supervisor (in striped prison guard costume), watches the action, and the crowd.

As the time ticks toward the start of the play, Amy Hutcheson, on stage ops, cleans off the pool table and closes any other open games so that the audience knows to start settling down. Hutcheson wears prison stripes; Norris wears a cowboy hat and Western costume to blend in with the actors and the Western village and jail set by Regina García. 

Instead of the usual “If you leave the theatre, you will not be reseated during the performance” announcement, actors sing and speak to explain what’s going to happen in the Thomas during the next hour and a half. Latecomers walk in during this opening song; the doors will stay open during the rest of the show. Leaving to pee is fine. Getting a drink at the onstage bar is fine. Sitting on the floor? Yep, fine, as long as you have one of the 70 promenade tickets. The actors and the stage ops crew spend the show letting the folks sitting on the deck know when to move. 

“It doesn’t just shatter the fourth wall, it shatters every wall,” says actor/musician Jesse Baldwin. “I’ve never had that experience before.”

 

Molly Norris, assistant stage manager at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, on duty during Yeomen of the Guard protecting a rocking horse for actors to use.
Molly Norris, assistant stage manager at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, on duty during Yeomen of the Guard protecting a rocking horse for actors to use.

Layered Approach

It all started a year earlier, when Artistic Director Bill Rauch asked Sean Graney of Chicago’s Hypocrites to create a unique Yeomen for OSF’s 2016 season. The Hypocrites had built a signature style with their Gilbert & Sullivan adaptations, having turned three of them—H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado, and Pirates of Penzance—into updated, rewritten “promenade” versions. 

Graney and his co-adapters (Andra Velis Simon, music director; Matt Kahler, associate music director) said yes, and that started another grand experiment at the festival in tiny Ashland, Oregon, 15 miles north of the California border. 

As the country’s oldest, largest rotating repertory theatre (with 11 plays over the course of the season and nine in rep at the season’s height), Oregon Shakes has traditions and plans and norms that had to be stretched and sometimes let go of for this production. “It could seem a little daunting,” Graney says with his signature optimism, “but it’s exciting for people to reinvent systems.”

The stage ops crew feels both of those thrusts of the Yeomen creation and experience. “In my 35 years of stage managing, I have never done a show like this,” stage manager Jill Rendall says. “The way this piece was built was different than most rehearsal processes I have been involved in. It was a very layered approach.”

The first layer was musical. Though Baldwin and fellow musician/actor Michael Caruso hold down by far the most musical responsibilities, the other actors had to learn both their vocal parts and—most intimidatingly—an instrument or two. 

Actor Kate Hurster played Sarah Brown in the 2015 OSF production of Guys and Dolls directed by Mary Zimmerman, and she’s well used to singing and acting or singing, dancing, and acting. But in Yeomen, Hurster plays Elsie, one the members of a traveling bard group, so she also had to learn to play the guitar. “It has been the most terrifying thing I’ve ever had to do on stage,” Hurster says. “It’s that ultimate fear of failure and being discovered as a fraud.” (She usually does just fine, though she says that early on, she accidentally bopped the heads of a few audience members sitting near her path with the guitar.)

After the music was mostly together, then came rough blocking, without audience members. Because of the promenade arrangement, there were also four rehearsals with audience members made up of all the stage crews and other company members, volunteers and their friends. 

“You add 70 audience members to the stage,” Rendall says, “and you have to learn how to communicate and maneuver with them.” While Rendall calls the show from above, Norris, Hutcheson and fellow stage ops member Charles Couraud (also in stripes) are sitting or standing under the lights along with the actors. They keep an eye out for abandoned sweaters or jackets; for purses or backpacks stuck, by well-meaning audience members, in a spot the promenaders think will be out of the way. They grab dropped plastic cups and clean up spills, snatch left-behind programs before the actors’ feet can get there, and help open up the near-future paths of the actors. Some audience members move quickly—young, able-bodied middle school students, for example—and some audience members may be a bit slower, so the stage crew prepares ahead of time.

“The physical action of the audience is a big part of the show,” actor Baldwin says. “There are so many things the performers have to calculate during the show. The landscape is fluid.” 

That means the stage crew also has to think about safety for the actors and the promenade audience. A particularly energetic school visit early on led the actors and crew to refine some rules of interaction, including identifying teachers and chaperones responsible for school group behavior. 

And then there’s that onstage bar, with both non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks. The bar is useful for atmosphere, especially for audience members on the deck, whether they grab drinks or just know that it’s an option. “It’s anxiety-producing to be on the promenade,” Hurster points out. “People are a little loosened up by being able to have a drink with them while they’re in the middle of the action.”

Hutcheson, who has decades of experience in stage ops, says it certainly is anxiety-producing, not to mention hot, to be on the promenade. But she likes it, too. “It’s changed my whole view on what actors do,” she says. “You’re ‘on’ all of the time, and with the lights on you, you can’t look like you’re thinking about your laundry. You have to look like you’re hearing this for the first time.”

The show runs through October 30, and because Oregon Shakes runs in rep, the actors and crew have other jobs. “Some days it’s a pleasure to be back in the darkness,” Hutcheson says. She adds, however, “Yeomen is such a gem and such a wonder that I look forward to doing it.”

Kate Hurster, also part of the summer’s Richard II, says, “It will be so wild to just do a play. It’ll be like vacation, to do Shakespeare and just speak Shakespeare’s language.” She pauses for a second and laughs. “And maybe move some furniture.”