Elmhurst College In Depth


Staging a musical in a converted saw mill isn’t easy, but when the curtain goes up it’s all worth it.

Two weeks into rehearsals for Pippin, the seventies-era musical comedy that the theatre department will be staging over Homecoming weekend, Chris Pazdernik, for the first time, is looking less than confident. Pazdernik, a sophomore from Appleton, Wisconsin, has been cast as Pippin, a goofily introspective medieval prince who tries to find his place in the universe between song-and-dance numbers. So far Pazdernik has calmly handled every task thrown at him in rehearsals, from slapstick to a sappy love duet. But now his director, Associate Professor Alan Weiger, is providing the young actor with a new detail about a scene in which he will attempt to cheer up a grumpy school kid. It seems that the scene will require Pazdernik to cross from stage right to stage left, mounted on a pair of stilts.

Pazdernik’s usual response to stage direction is along the lines of “Okay, okay, no problem.” This time, he says nothing at first. Then he speaks up.

“Uh, Alan? When you say stilts? What are we talking about? I mean, how tall exactly are these stilts?”

It’s a good question. The fact is, no one really knows how tall the stilts are, to say nothing of how Pazdernik is supposed to walk on them, because the stilts do not yet exist. They are still just an item on the lengthy checklist of things to do in the three and a half weeks before opening night. The company and crew has costumes to sew, sets to cobble together, publicity posters to hang on campus and around town, and so on. Also, somebody has to outfit the play’s medieval soldiery, which means somehow coming up with a complete set of chain mail.

With so much to do in so little time, the whole enterprise of staging a play like Pippin is starting to look like a walk on stilts. At this point in rehearsals, after all, everything still looks a little wobbly and precariously balanced. The little company of fourteen players and a half dozen or so crew members is meeting every evening in the Mill Theatre, the performance space the College carved out of a converted lumber facility several decades ago. Rehearsals are divided almost evenly between scene walk-throughs with Weiger and music and dance sessions with choreographer Amy Lyn McDonald and music director Scott Uddenberg. For the cast, that means not just memorizing lines—two weeks in, most of the cast is still clinging to copies of the script as they walk through scenes—but also mastering the jazzy Bob Fosse dance sequences. “We’re such spazzes!” one player cries out in frustration after a choreography session.

A flurry of activity also is required off stage. Next door at the scene shop, Assistant Professor Janice Pohl has deployed a squad of student costumers at a bank of sewing machines. They are turning assorted rags and thrift-store finds into garments that evoke eighth-century France. In the carpentry shop, technical director Rick Arnold’s scene crew is building a big walk-in magician’s box, the centerpiece of the play’s fire-breathing finale. Freshman prop master Jessica Sullivan is walking around with a clipboard full of chores, which include finding a duck that will stay on stage long enough to play straight man for Pippin in one short scene.

In theory, Pippin’s stilts are Sullivan’s responsibility, too, though she seems unconcerned about them. “They’ll get made,” she says. “Chris is the one who has to walk on them.”

Chris himself is less blasé at the prospect, and has developed a kind of Plan B for the stilt-walking scene. “I could just make it a characterization choice: you know, Pippin’s the sort of person who is really bad at walking on stilts,” he says. “I guess, ideally, the audience will leave saying, ‘He dances! He sings! He walks on stilts!’” Then he reaches for perspective. “The stilts are about five seconds of the show, and there’s a lot of other stuff to focus on.” At the foot of the stage, Weiger is calling the cast back from its short break. It’s time to try another scene.

Back in 1969, Alan Weiger played Angie the Ox in Guys and Dolls, that year’s Homecoming musical. Having performed in the Homecoming shows as a student and directed them as a professor, Weiger can tell you that the experience, however valuable it may be, is not without its perils. “Live with your character for a month or two,” he says, “and pretty soon you’ll find yourself waking up in the middle of the night humming tunes from the show.”

The tradition of Homecoming Weekend productions at Elmhurst dates back to around 1950. The primary performance space for those early Homecoming shows (and for all theatre productions in those days) was the old Gymnasium, now Goebel Hall, with the basement of Schick Hall serving as scene shop. (The history of stage performance at Elmhurst is even longer, dating back to a production of The Merchant of Venice presented in the first decade of the twentieth century, and to Sunday after- noon theatricals presented by the Schiller Society of what was then called Elmhurst Proseminary.)

By the 1960s, the revues had morphed into an annual stage musical. In 1967, the College acquired the Hammerschmidt Lumber Company complex on Walter Street, converting one of the buildings into the Mill Theatre and another into a scene shop. The Mill opened with a student production of Twelfth Night in 1969, and Guys and Dolls was the first faculty-directed production that year.

Weiger says the productions demand a lot of the students involved. “They’re here every day for weeks, just like an athlete going to practice, and it’s not like the rest of the world stops because they’re in a show. They still go to class, they still have exams—and I know, because I gave a few of them a test in my class this morning.” The rewards, though, are enough to hook a significant number of student players. “For some it’s just a fun extracurricular. For others, who want to teach music or theatre, it’s an experience that adds to their portfolio. If it’s a good experience, we’ll see them come back again and again. That’s usually what happens.”

The Homecoming musical is just one of the productions mounted each academic year. (The offerings for 2005–2006 include Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, David Mamet’s Oleanna, and William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, as well as a number of student-directed shows.) The musical, though, is especially well-suited for the College, with its strong programs in vocal music and theatre. Students majoring in music education and theatre education take a special interest in the musicals, too, because they are likely to be directing the same shows down the line as high school theatre teachers.

As opening night nears, just about every rehearsal looks a little more polished. Props and sets are more complete, line readings more sure, stage business more crisply handled. Even the stilts scene is no longer causing trouble. Sullivan has come up with a duck to play opposite Pippin. (It’s stuffed.) Actors have begun to dispense with their scripts and to try their lines from memory.

“Alan’s a big believer in putting the book down early, and he’s right,” says student James Kryshak. As the Lead Player, a sort of twisted master of ceremonies, Kryshak has to memorize one of the bigger parts in the show.

When they’re not on stage themselves, the members of the company are busy trying to master their parts or putting labels on envelopes containing press releases. Every so often they get a pep talk from the stage manager, Elyse Willis, a junior music education major who is responsible for everything from managing the box office to supervising the crew to typing up rehearsal notes.

As the rehearsal continues, the actors settle down in corners of the darkened theater and go about their business. Even through some of the play’s best laugh lines, the building remains eerily quiet. This is no surprise, considering everyone in the theatre has heard the lines several hundred times. When one of the players nails a song or gets through a tricky dance sequence, however, the others will stop what they’re doing and cheer.

“You develop a real kinship being a part of something like this,” says Weiger. “It should be like a family. But that doesn’t happen just by saying, ‘We’re going to be a family.’ It’s hard work for a director to foster that, and it’s really easy for a director to kill it.”

One of the cardinal rules of theatre, apparently, is to never throw any-thing away. So it is that up an ancient staircase in the scene shop next door to the Mill Theatre you will find, among other things, a framed photo of Warren G. Harding, a rust-orange easy chair, several room radiators, an antique pram, a kitchen stove, a wooden wagon wheel, and a single pink sandal. One room over, on row after row of garment racks, hang smocks, dresses, suits, and uniforms in an array of sizes, vintages, and colors.

Like most of the things in the prop and costume rooms, they came to the College second-hand, via donation or thrift-store bargain hunting. Not long ago a local resident named Winifred Gutman donated a collection of fabrics, some of it vintage, hard-to-find stuff that has helped the theatre department solve some of its more daunting costuming problems. Another supporter, Frank Catambrone, donated his entire inventory of formal wear after retiring and closing his tuxedo shop.

The theatre’s sewing machines are hand-me-downs; its washing machine is a gift. (Costumes are laundered after each performance, Pohl confides. “The last thing you need when you’re performing is to be distracted by a week’s worth of body odor.”) While seeking to outfit the play’s knights, Pohl and her student costumers came up with an inventive solution to the problem of where to find chain mail. Pohl decided to make her own. She dyed some second-hand T-shirts, cut them into yarn, and knit them into a pattern that suggests woven chain mail.

Not everything is second-hand, however. Pohl and Sullivan found plastic knight’s swords and shields in stock for Halloween at a local Target, and purchased a full set. The swords each cost $7.99; the shields $12.99. “You can get things good, fast, or cheap, but not all three,” Pohl explains. It’s hard to miss the fact that the Mill Theatre itself is recycled, with signs of its past life in the lumber business still visible in the raw warehouse-like spaces backstage. The scale of the theatre is small and intimate, with seating on three sides of the stage. That’s a blessing for any playgoer who likes to be close to the on-stage action. But for student players new to the space, it can be daunting. “A lot of our students are coming from suburban high schools with big, lavish auditoriums,” Weiger explains. “They come here and they realize they can see the faces in the audience, and it sometimes scares them.”

The confines can start to seem even tighter after spending a month and a half of rehearsals in the same space with the same group of people. By the week before opening night, with dress rehearsals starting, the company is looking weary and sounding irritable.

“It’s starting to get tense. We’re anxious to go,” says Sarah Breidenbach, a sophomore music education major. “Sometimes the last thing you want to do is go to rehearsal again, but once you get here you start to have fun, and you remember what it is you love about it. Still, everyone is tired.” Backstage at the first dress rehearsal, one of the players, Ceara Windhausen, collides with another company member coming through a door. She takes a late-night trip to the hospital with a concussion. Windhausen manages to make it to the next rehearsal, but sits it out with a pillow resting behind her head.

The curtain goes up in two nights.

About a half-hour before showtime, a small crowd gathers in the lobby to wait for the theatre doors to open. Backstage the ten-piece pit orchestra is setting up and tuning up. (Because the Mill Theatre has no orchestra pit, the group plays from a space behind the curtains.) On the floor, a few freshly dyed costumes are spread out to dry, with an industrial-sized fan blowing on them. “A little last-minute detail work,” Pohl explains.

In their dressing room, the actors are stretching, performing vocal exercises, and helping each other into costumes and makeup. A few are checking out their bios in the program. A comically large moose head hangs on one wall, impassively monitoring the action. Someone has hung a fedora on one of his antlers. Weiger’s grade-school-age son, A.J., who has a small part in the show—and who in rehearsal has made the most of his few lines—is in full makeup and looks more composed than some of his college-age cast mates.

Chris Pazdernik completes a sound check. He insists he is not anxious, but does confess to being more concerned than usual about his ability to recall his lines. “Normally it’s not a problem for me. I can go and check my lines offstage. But in this show, there’s a total of about ten minutes when I’m not on stage. If I have any time, I’ll probably be drinking water and going to the bathroom.” Somebody asks him when he felt he had committed all his lines to memory. “Yesterday,” he says.

Stage manager Willis appears backstage to make an announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m opening the house. That means quiet.” As the audience files in, the backstage conversation is reduced to a respectful library-ish volume.

The last cast member to arrive, one hour after call, is a small white puff of a dog named Lucy. She has only a cameo role, but she commands her own chair backstage and gets plenty of attention from the crew. Every show, it seems, has a diva.

“They say you should never do a scene with a child or a dog,” Weiger says. “Here we’re doing both.”

Just before curtain, Weiger makes the rounds backstage, handing out small gifts to each company member. He also has written each student a note thanking him or her for being part of the family. He calls everyone together. “Thank you for giving up six weeks to work on this,” he says. “You’ve done as much as you can do with-out an audience. We need to move on to the next level. You’re ready for it, so go knock their socks off.”

As they await the start of the music—their signal to make their entrances—the actors form a circle, link arms, and begin to sway back and forth to prepare for the big moment. Soon they will be surrounded by applause and laughter, but for the last time now, as it has been for six weeks, it’s just them.

By Andrew Santella
Photography by Mark Segal

Photo by Mark Segal

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