Community theater lives and dies on imagination and resourcefulness. Supplementing the razor-thin budgets, volunteer crews and local talent is a creativity and inventiveness that often leads to magical results.
Set designer John Cross faced a daunting task: Convincingly telling the onstage story of a small-town bamboozled by a slick traveling salesman requires, among other things, a Pullman rail car and a vintage library full of books. In devising the necessary backdrops under the constraints of a modest budget and a tight timeline, Cross turned to technology.
"On the Internet, I saw the description of a pen plotter - a computer-guided tool that uses strings and stepper motors to create graphic designs," Cross says. Inspired by what he saw online, Cross built his own version, specifically configured to handle the demands of creating large-scale backdrops. "The machine I built was twice as big as the one described, but it worked!" he laughs.
Now he just needed something to print on.
The medium came to him in warehoused rolls of sheeting material used as an insulator for housing construction. Cross continues: "I knew the pen plotter could accommodate sheets that were five feet wide and six feet high, so I figured an arrangement of panels together would give me the scale we needed. I just rolled the material through in a continuous feed, and the plotter created the images."
After a few feeds, the train interior emerged. "I even used the plotter to create a metallic façade on the bench seats," Cross notes.
The output was detailed and exact - but in bland black and white. "Luckily, the white insulation material accepts paint really well. It was like a big paint-by-numbers," Cross explains. "All we had to do was get the cast to paint it according to the color schemes chosen by our art consultants.
"It was a huge time-saver because the only work that involved the artists themselves was to sponge-paint a few clouds outside the train windows. They were free to do other painting that required more detail."
The technique not only saved time but also funds. The pen plotter was also used to create the library bookcases and the mayor's house at a significant savings over more traditional stage-construction methods, which then enabled MTC to afford the rental of detailed backdrops (the River City town square, for example) to complete the set design.
The task of bringing these sets to life falls to MCT's 53-member cast and 18-member pit orchestra.
As the plot unfolds, the quirky citizens of River City fall for the flim-flam of Professor Harold Hill, a huckster who convinces them that their town's moral degradation - brought on by a new pool table - can be halted by the creation of a community marching band. As part of his usual scam, Hill sells townfolks uniforms, instruments and instruction books, but skips town before the locals figure out that he can't read a note.
This time around, however, Hill gets his "foot caught in the door" when he falls in love with spinster librarian Marian Paroo.
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Hill is played by Rob Frankel, who is returning to the stage after a 15-year absence, following his theatrical experience in middle- and high-school. "It's been incredible," Frankel says of the MCT experience. "The cast and crew are very welcoming and very warm people - and very forgiving. There's a lot of lines to recite, and they understand that it takes a little work to get everything out. But they've been just fantastic." Full-time, Frankel is a graphics animator and visual effects artist for home-shopping giant QVC. The studio, understanding the demands of a role in this kind of production, allowed him to adjust his normal 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift to attend rehearsals, a concession Frankel is extremely grateful for.
Katie McCool has the thrill of playing what she calls her "dream role" in creating Paroo. McCool is an MCT veteran, having appeared in six prior productions with the troupe. "This is a part that I have wanted ever since eighth grade," she relates. "I did Music Man Jr. in eighth grade, and I wanted Marian so bad, and I got Ethyl Toffelmier [one of the townspeople]. So it was an absolute dream come true to finally do this." McCool teaches eighth grade English at a Charter school in North Philadelphia, a position that has given her some insight into Paroo's position as librarian, especially with her love of reading and books.
MCT's production of The Music Man continues its run this coming weekend, closing on July 27.