Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thousand Island's Playhouse Aces 'Billy Bishop Goes to War'

The Firehall Theatre at The Thousand Islands Playhouse is an alternative playing space -- a black box theatre that can accommodate almost any artistic vision for a production. So how do you best arrange the space for one of Canada's best-known war heros?

You make the place feel like the Royal Canadian Legion, that's how. You make sure that your patrons can sit at a table with the refreshment of their choice while they enjoy the show. You make people comfortable - and above all else you give them a great show.

"Billy Bishop Goes to War"  is that show. This production has two actors present on stage, but is for all purposes, a one-man show. Don't let that dissuade you. Let it convince you to attend. This one man is the extravagant, story-telling, larger-than-life Uncle of your childhood. You know the one. The one who kept the family entranced with stories about his life. This man is Billy Bishop - top WWI ace of the British Empire. And his stories are really good - and his songs are even better. Little war ditties that are hauntingly familiar -  helping to flesh out the story and the flavour of an era gone-by. Helping to set the stage for a more gallant time, a  personal war, a more involved life.

Jacob James, the actor who brings Bishop to life on stage, is a familiar face. He is a Kingston native with a passion for theatre that knows no bounds. James, in his late twenties, has extensive credits; a degree from National Theatre School, training at the Stratford Shakespeare conservatory and at Second City, and has performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for over five years. He is a seasoned veteran of the stage and one of the most personable men you could meet. This personality is brought to bear in his current role of Billy Bishop.

James plays Bishop with flair and panache. He is a raconteur, a charmer, a comic, and a singer of war songs. He holds the audience spellbound for two hours, giving voice to Bishop and several other characters along the way. James is a fabulous character actor who has no problem convincing us that he is Billy Bishop, Lady St.Helier, St.Helier's butler, British hero Albert Ball, and  a host of others involved in Bishop's life. This play is truly a vehicle for him, as he shows his strengths and ability to single-handedly carry a show. James can sing, too. He has a very nice voice, possibly an inheritance from his father, entertainer Roger James.

Sandy Thorburn, director, musical director, pianist and narrator has done a brilliant job with this production. I am told that the role of the pianist/narrator has sometimes been made larger, but his choice is to remain a backdrop to the main character. He stays in the background, adding music or voice as necessary, just like the entertaining soldiers at the Legion - you know the type - the piano players don't get half of the attention that the balladeers get. And so it should be, the director/pianist/narrator supports the show as the piano player supports the singers who tell the story.

Thorburn and set designer Robin Fisher have created a wonderful world upon a sparse set. The stage is a thrust - a catwalk, really - very much like a long wooden dock or an old loading platform. It is adorned with several crates of different shapes and sizes which serve in turn as a barracks, a hospital, Royal Military College, a canoe, an airplane, a drawing room, and more. That is the thing about this production - it recognizes that the audience has an imagination and it allows us to use it. By this device, we can fully flesh out the various and sundry settings of the story, which would be impossible to realize with concrete scene changes. The story is seamless, enchanting and energetic because of the simplicity of the set, the vision of the director and the talent of the actor.

Tying all of this brilliance together is lighting designer Adair Redish. Every nuance of every expression is captured and subtly highlighted by his extraordinary lighting design. We never want to 'notice' lighting - it should always be taken for granted by the audience, and we can focus on the story because of the lighting design for this show. Trying not to bore the lay audience - but the lighting was exceptional.

This show has been launched strongly and it will take little effort to keep it in the air - it is deserving of full houses for every performance, and may very well get them. Do yourself a favour and buy tickets now for the show, which runs at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in the Firehall Theatre, Gananoque, Tuesdays through Saturday evenings and matinees on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until September 3. Everyone should experience theatre like this.

Come on down to the Legion and hear Billy tell his stories.

For details, see the Thousand Islands Playhouse website:

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Actor's Kitbag: Practical Items For Actors

Every year, we produce six to eight plays, one or two of which are musicals. Over the course of the years, that is a pile of work, and from this side of the fourth wall, it becomes simple to know what the average amateur actor needs to own. These are basic items which will serve you well in almost all productions, and ought not to cost the world. They will make your life easier and allow you to concentrate on the production, and not the little things.

Everything on this list should be stored in a special tote, or another bag that is reserved for theatre use. That way, you are always prepared for the show, because your kit is at hand.

1. Blacks. The point of wearing blacks is to make yourself invisible. They should cover as much of your skin as possible. Simple, form fitting, comfortable black clothing is a must for theatre people both onstage and off. Yoga pants (the long ones that go to the ankle) are wonderful if you are comfortable in them. Long-sleeved tees or yoga-style tops are also good, but make sure that they (as well as the trousers) do not have any markings, not even small logos or snaps. These reflect very brightly in a dark theatre and make the point of wearing blacks null. You will use these items of clothing often in your theatrical life, so get something that you like, either second-hand or new.

2. Form-fitting underwear. For both sexes, you will need nude-coloured underwear that fits smoothly. When I say 'nude-coloured', I mean that it should match your skin tone as closely as possible. Men, when you get cast in 'that production' that asks you to wear tights or a bodysuit, please invest in a dancers' padded belt. This is one piece of underwear that most theatres will not tell you to get, and will save the audience some discomfort. Women should also have 3 nude-coloured bras; one teeshirt bra, one push-up bra, and one strapless bra. You can buy a back extension for your bra to allow you to wear open-backed garments. A nudie-suit (flesh-toned bodysuit) is also a very good investment, and can be worn under costumes for quick-changes, or worn with revealing costumes to prevent 'wardrobe malfunctions'. Spanks are also very good investments. They are the modern equivalent of girdles, and will give a smooth silhouette in tight costumes or under clingy fabrics. These items, especially for women, will unfortunately be an investment.

3. Hosiery. For men, buy black dress socks, as well as one pair each of women's opaque tights (not nylon stockings) one black, one white. I normally choose queen-sized for the men in our casts, that size seems to fit everyone.  The tights will come in very handy for period-costumed shows. Women - make sure that you have black dress socks, white and black and nude hose (both nylons and tights, if you can do that). Hosiery can be expensive, but you don't need to spend a fortune. Look for sale items, or buy from the local thrift shop (wash them well at home).

4. Simple black shoes with quiet soles (rubber is quieter than leather, as long as it doesn't squeak). If you are a male, your choices are more limited. I suggest getting slip-on shoes, because they are quick to change into and have a more generic look. If you are female, you may want to buy both flats and character shoes. Pre-owned are fine - and learn how to polish them! (buy polish). Fancy shoes that go with the costume are normally the responsibility of the production. *Dance shoes - if you are a dancer, add your jazz, tap, latin/ballroom and ballet shoes.

5. Makeup. Unless the production requires specialty makeup, you should be prepared to do your own face in a natural way. Stage lights will strip the colour from the most robust complexion, and your best assurance of looking great on stage is to have your own makeup. Both sexes need at a least a moisturizer, eyeliner, mascara, pancake foundation that matches or is slightly darker than their skin tone, powder, rouge and lipstick. Women should have one red and one lush pink lipstick, not glossy. Men should have one lipstick that is the same tone as their natural lip, but one or two shades darker, also not glossy. Matching lip liners are a nice addition, if you can afford them. Women - do yourselves a favour and buy a set of natural-looking false eyelashes. You will not believe the difference that they make on stage. You will also need makeup remover, olive oil, or cold cream, cotton pads, Dove soap and a washcloth or babywipes. Makeup sponges, powder puff and brush, and application brushes are important to get a good finish.

Sometimes, there is no makeup for amateur theatre, and day-to-day makeup is used instead of theatrical makeup. Normal makeup will not look as good on stage under the lights as the professional stuff, however, if you are the only one with professional makeup, ask your director what you should do, because you will be the one who looks the most 'alive'. It may be that you will have to resort to daily-wear foundation in order to keep the look of the show.
*NB - sharing sponges and brushes, and makeup, especially mascara, eyeliners and pancake foundations is a quick way to skin and eye infections, and it will spread viruses as well. DO NOT share your makeup, sponges or brushes. DO NOT borrow them from others.
You will need to have a leak-proof bag (large ziplock freezer bags work well) to store all of your makeup in. You definitely do NOT want to open your kit and find that your mascara or oily makeup remover has leaked all over the rest of the contents of the bag.

6. Personal grooming items. Have a hairbrush, comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, deodorant, nail file, babypowder, washcloth (baby wipes are good), hair pins, barrettes, clips and hair ties in your kitbag. If you are a man, you may want to add a gel to give your hair a pomaded look. Hairspray is a good thing to have in there as well, to keep your coiffure looking good. Men (and women) may also want to pack a razor to touch up the rough spots if necessary. Men and women both may also find a cloth hairband very handy to keep hair off your face when applying and removing makeup. Shaving kit bags are wonderful for storing these items.

7. Little things that mean a lot. This could be a list unto itself, but I will be as brief as possible:
 - a clothes brush (so that you can be lint-free on stage)
 - a small sewing kit  (so that you can reattach that button easily)
 - a packet of safety pins (in case you don't have time to sew that button!)
 - a hard-sided water bottle, preferably with a drinking spout, not an open top (so that you don't use the noisy bottles that water will be supplied in)
 - a pencil, notebook and eraser (for notes!)
 - your script
 - a novel, crossword book, or knitting for your quiet downtime (to pass the time when you are offstage)
 - a bundle of blank note cards and a pen (so that you can thank cast and crew on closing night)

This is clearly a wishlist based on my own observations about theatre - I have included in it things which are personal in nature (like underwear!) and which are not out of line for actors to invest in for themselves. Having a kit like this ensures that you can be comfortable (and healthy) knowing that the basics are covered. There is a significant amount of overlap between this list, and lists for Stage Managers and Costumers, however, it's good to take responsibility for yourself and your own character. Theatre is a team effort, and your effort counts!