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By Bekah Wright, Photos by Michal Czerwonka

Published Apr 1, 2010 9:30 AM


Lighting an entirely black stage and taking care not to "hurt the table" are only two of the hurdles handled by the cast and crew of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s performance of The Housekeeper, 18th-century playwright Carlo Goldoni's caustic tale of a woman manipulating her way through a man's world.

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M.F.A. Acting students practice Alexander movement techniques in class.

The hallway outside of the Little Theater is buzzing with pent-up anxiety. Perry Daniel rubs the newly shorn head of Matt Benton for luck. Others bite their nails and shift from foot to foot. These are students from the Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in Acting at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. The clock is ticking before their auditions for the university's upcoming production of Goldoni's The Housekeeper.

As the door to the theater is flung open, questioning looks are given to the first-year M.F.A. students who've just completed their auditions before the play's director, Professor Michael Hackett, chairman of the UCLA Department of Theater. "Break a leg," a grinning first-year student offers. For the third-year M.F.A. students in the hallway, their turn has come. Nine third-year M.F.A. students are set to audition. Lucky for them, there are nine roles to be filled. All the nerves that were present in the hallway seem to fade away as the actors take the stage. The only question that remains: Who will be cast in which role?

This tale is far from finished. See how the story ends in the photo gallery from the production.

When assessing the production slate for 2010, the plays selected by the theater department were chosen carefully. "We try to do material that audiences won't get to see most places and that has a diversity of repertoire," says Mel Shapiro, head of UCLA's M.F.A. Acting Program. "It also has to challenge our students in terms of their growth and development, while sharpening their skills and techniques."

Set in the 18th century, Goldoni's play fits the bill with its blend of romantic triangles, mischief and crafty female wiles that make Desperate Housewives look tame. "Great playwrights are both completely of their age and transcend their age," says Hackett of the play's 21st-century relevance. "That's true with Goldoni."

A theme running throughout the play is that of power, and power plays aplenty will do battle onstage when the production opens. Says Hackett, "There are issues related to power and control between parents and children, masters and servants, men and women."

In The Housekeeper, women definitely don't take a backseat to men in the power arena. Indeed, the play's main character, a housekeeper named Valentina, wields mighty power despite her seemingly menial household position. It's no surprise that Daniel, who introduces herself as "the difficult one," is cast in the role.

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A student crew member works backstage getting the lights right. Lighting for The Housekeeper was influenced by '40s-era abstract artist Mark Rothko.

Despite Valentina's conniving, the audience will find themselves pulling for her. "You like almost every main character," says Hackett of The Housekeeper. "At the same time, you're aware of their weaknesses."

Before the curtain rises and Valentina's predicament can unfold, however, there's much to be done to bring Goldoni's vision, and that of the director, players and production staff, to life. And the people in charge of bringing all the pieces of the puzzle together?

They can be found backstage.

Setting the Stage

When a visitor sits in the Little Theater during auditions, the thing that springs out about the space is that it's entirely black, save for a small platform stage that can be moved into different configurations. Additionally, risers have taken the place of traditional seating, bringing the audience closer to the stage.

"Due to the economy, the space was scrutinized and then transformed into a repertory set for multiple productions," says scenic designer Alexandra Dunn, a third-year M.F.A. student. The challenge it presents for scenic design, she explains, is that "the space is dictated."

For The Housekeeper, the goal was to have a simple set with a claustrophobic feeling that works with space-eating period costumes. Another place where the costumes had to be taken into consideration was a hutch that's integral to the plot. "Three people have to fit in it," says Dunn. "This required taking the back off and building a platform for the actors to stand on so their period costumes wouldn't be squished."

Beyond the hutch, there's minimal furniture on the set — a couple of chairs and a small writing table. Once Dunn learns the direction of the show's lighting, the furniture will be refinished and reupholstered. For now, Hackett can be heard reminding the actors, "Let's not hurt the table," as they get into character and bang a wobbling piece that has yet to make its debut.

Let There be Light

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Freshman Nina Rosenblum-Herzog works with M.F.A. lighting designer Donald Jackson to focus lights for The Housekeeper.

With a completely black set, one would think Donny Jackson, lighting designer for The Housekeeper and a first-year M.F.A. student, would see only obstacles before him — but he doesn't. "The space is the jumping-off point," he concedes. "But there's a statement that has to be made in the play through symbols that keeps me interested as a designer."

The simplicity of the set makes the lighting for The Housekeeper extremely important because "the lighting represents the emotion of a scene," says Jackson. When Jackson and Hackett discussed lighting design, they found themselves influenced by the works of Mark Rothko, an abstract artist who emerged during the 1940s. Rothko's works had a concentration on color, shape, balance, depth, composition and scale.

Inspired by Rothko, Jackson has been honing ideas about what will work for the production. Light boxes with shapes? The need for a backdrop? Though the answers to these questions are still being weighed, Jackson is clear about one thing in particular when it comes to lighting. "It's important not to upstage the actors," says Jackson. "But even more important than making the actors look good is making the characters look good."

Sounding Off

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Student technicians adjust sound cues. Although set in the 18th century, The Housekeeper will feature an eclectic mix of musical influences, says Roni Lancaster, production and sound designer.

The repertory approach the theater department chose for 2010 had an impact of its own on Veronica "Roni" Lancaster, the sound designer for The Housekeeper and a second-year M.F.A. focusing on sound design. She's also the sound designer for Fire Island, the play directly following The Housekeeper in the Little Theater. "I have to find a sound system that satisfies both shows," she says. Hackett gave a directive that helped. "He wants the sound to be about what's happening in these people's minds, instead of in the space or location."

When Lancaster began researching music for the play, she was clear on one point. "It's not going to be 18th-century music. My research has been all over the place with a wide variety of genres and eras — music from the '60s and '70s, slower smooth jazz, higher up-tempo pieces."

Despite all this research, taking in a night of rehearsals made her switch gears when it came to finding the sound of The Housekeeper. "I came into the play thinking I was going to be doing more ambiance and mood-setting, then realized — the actors don't really need my help," says Lancaster. "They've been working together for three years; they're a well-oiled machine. I don't want to hinder them or add anything unnecessary."

How the sound design will come together with the other production elements won't be set until the week of tech rehearsal, says Lancaster. For now, she sees a clear path in terms of sound. "It's all about showcasing the actors and their performances and less about the spectacle of theater."

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