Friday, January 25, 2019

Behind the Scenes: Props at 84 Charing Cross Road

Last weekend, we crossed the river to beautiful Hudson to see 84 Charing Cross Road at the Phipps Center for the Arts, which runs through February 3rd.  Helene Hanff's charming book about her epistolary exchange with a London bookseller is one of our favorites and we were excited to see it on stage.

Confession: As a librarian, former bookstore employee and all around fan of books, I've always cast a pretty critical eye at the books that are used as props in theater. And I get it! Sometimes you just have to fill a bookshelf on set with Readers' Digest Condensed books.
Photo by Heather Edwards
From the first step through the doorway of Marks & Co (aka the black box theater with a scenic design by Mark Koski), it was clear that this production was going to honor the source material's love of books.

But it wasn't just bookshelves filled with legit antiquarian books--this dedication to creating an authentic environment extended to finding the actual books mentioned in the play and reproducing the letters.

We could not leave the theater without taking a closer look at the beautiful props and chatted with the props person, Heather Edwards. She put so much care, attention and love into the props for this show, we wanted to highlight her beautiful work. By the way, this is a wonderful production of this play.

Helene's desk
But to the books! We asked Heather Edwards to share about how she created such an amazing and accurate collection:
I was in the middle of doing props for Sister Act at the Phipps when I learned they were doing 84, Charing Cross Road based on the book written by Helene Hanff. The book depicts the true 20-plus year correspondence between Helene, a New York writer, and Frank Doel, a London bookseller working at a shop located, not surprisingly, at 84, Charing Cross Road.
84, Charing Cross Road is my favorite book, and it’s a book for which I have great enthusiasm. And so, although the production staff for this show had already been chosen, I begged everyone who would listen that they simply had to let me volunteer. “I’ll just do the books and the letters,” I begged.
Heh heh heh. “Just.”
There are many book titles specifically mentioned in the script, and I was determined to find (some may say, ‘was obsessed with finding’) copies of these books as they were published during the play’s time frame. This ended up being a challenge for a number of reasons. Because the play spans over such a long time frame, I couldn’t use books from one particular decade. All of the books from Act I are published before 1940 (with several being published before 1900), while the Act II books are from the 1950s or 60s.
To make it more tricky, several of the books needed to be duplicated to gave the illusion of Frank “sending” the book to Helene. Finding a specific old book can be a challenge; finding two identical copies was even tougher. My biggest source for locating all these books was, but I relied on eBay, Amazon and antique stores as well. On average, I spent about $12 per book. Although some were as little as $4, others--the really specific ones that we absolutely had to have--were $30-35.
Marks & Co. desk and ALL the books
 Sometimes the script was very specific about which books were needed, like with the Oxford Book of English Verse, with its “original blue cover.” Other books had to be a certain size, while others required gold leaf on the pages. I did my absolute best to find books that fit the description. Sometimes I couldn’t find a title, and on those occasions, I used old book covers to cover modern books. But 70 percent of the books mentioned by name during the production are copies of the actual titles and are from the appropriate time period.
SUCH a great set!
My favorite book is the small red, gold-leafed book of poetry, which is given to Helene from the Marks and Co. staff. It’s actually a book of Robert Browning’s work, which I purchased three years ago when I visited Charing Cross Road. While Marks and Co. is, sadly, long gone, there are many bookstores along that street and this book was purchased at Quinto’s, 72 Charing Cross Rd. 
Helen's desk with Ellery Queen script and food catalog
Filling the rest of the set’s 22 bookshelves was an enormous challenge. We used my collection of old books, which I thought was vast, and it didn’t even fill one of the 22 bookshelves used on set. We hauled out the Phipps’ collection of book props and we received donations from staff, libraries, members of the community, and Half-Price Books. We still didn’t have enough books! Fortunately, there is a Goodwill outlet in St. Paul, where they sell books at 15 cents an inch. (They literally pull out a yardstick to determine how much you owe them!)
I made quite a few trips down to the theater with my whole car weighed down with books, and finally the shelves were filled. (I’m a little nervous about what we’re going to do with all of these when the play is over. We could start our own library with what we have right now!)
The letters and photos!
After the books were taken care of, I turned to the dozens of letters that are written during this extraordinary correspondence. In our intimate black box, and in a theatre-in-the-round setting, we couldn’t fake those letters. So I typed all of Helene’s letters, and hand wrote all of Frank’s using a fountain pen. I found handwritten letters online from both Helene and Frank, and tried to copy their handwriting as much as I could.
Helene’s letterhead was created using a stock picture of a 1940s-era fountain pen.
More letters
 When Helene moves to a different apartment in New York, the letterhead changes as well; it changes into Helene Hanff’s actual letterhead. (Thank you, Google!) I created the Marks and Co. letterhead by taking a picture of the storefront, cropping it down until you only had the “Marks and Co” part, and then tweaking it in various photo editing programs to make it more crisp and colorful. Every “Marks & Co.” bookseller uses the stationery throughout the show.

Doing “just” the books and letters was nearly a full-time job, but it was absolutely the least I could do to complement the extraordinary talent of the cast and the superb set design. Did I mention the superb set design? As an audience member you will smell the old books (thanks to a diffuser emitting “old book smells”) before you see them, and you will be greeted by a glass window storefront announcing your arrival at 84, Charing Cross Road. Walk through the doorway, and you will find yourself in a bookstore seemingly brought back to life.
You’ll never forget your trip to 84, Charing Cross Road.
 THE BOOKS (in no particular order)
Eighteenth Century Essays, Dobson: 1932
The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1924.
The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, 1899
84 Charing Cross Road, 1970.
Virginibus Puerisque, 1917.
Imaginary Conversations, 1935
Samuel Pepys’ Diary, 1928 and 1931
The Common Reader, 1952
The Common Reader, Vol. II 1959
The Compleat Angler, 1988 (reprint)
The Diary of a Provincial Lady, 1989 (reprint)
Canterbury Tales, 1965
Leigh Hunt, “The Seer,” 1850
Every man’s Library, Robert Browning (standing in for Victorian love poems), 1913
Thank you, Heather! Such a lovely labor of love!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

February Is Filled With Theater Love

So much theater to love, so little time!

February is completely packed with amazing new shows. Spend your Valentine's Day (and month!) at the theater with a few shows we are especially looking forward to right now.

What: The Children
Where: Jungle Theater
When: January 12 - February 10, 2019
What: "On the lonely British coast, two retired nuclear scientists reside in a quiet cabin while the outside world erupts in utter chaos. An old friend arrives, revealing a frightening request."
Why We're Excited: Mmm, post-apocalyptic mysterious drama! The Jungle is doing beautiful work and it's always a pleasure to see Stephen Yoakam in action. Plus, our Twin Cities Theater Blogger friends LOVED it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

2018 - Looking Back at the Year in Theater

2018 was another amazing year in Minnesota theater. After voting for the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers Awards (4th annual!), we still had a bit to say about what we loved this year.

Favorite Way to Binge Theater: The Festival 
Between our beloved Twin Cities Horror Festival, Great River Shakespeare Festival, American Players Theatre AND Mixed Blood's Prescient Harbingers festival, power theater-attending is our new favorite sport. Especially the hosts of these festivals are so welcoming and provide lovely venues and hospitality.

Favorite Way to Visit New Places: Site-Specific Theater
This year alone we saw High Fidelity at the Electric Fetus, Thomas Tallis in a church, Trojan Women at a taproom, Our House: A Capitol Play Project at the State Capitol AND The Haunting of Hill House AT. THE. HILL. HOUSE. Like you can get any better than that? Every one was beautifully produced in a setting that made the work even more meaningful and compelling.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Dread the Halls by Oncoming Productions at Off-Leash Art Box

Please note that this show runs from December 14-16 ONLY so we are going to make this fast, short and sweet!

Love horror? Love theater? Love Christmas stories with a twist? Get yourself to the Off-Leash Art Box in Minneapolis to Dread the Halls: A Gathering of Holiday Horror.

Presented by Oncoming Productions, Dread the Halls features four short holiday-themed vignettes interspersed with music by The Champagne Drops. Anyone who loves the Twin Cities Horror Festival (and you SHOULD--how many times do we have to tell you?) needs to catch this show.

Dread the Halls starts with Rogues Gallery Arts's "Naughty or Nice," a short piece about siblings surviving the zombie apocalypse. You may note overtones of Dawn of the Dead and The Ref. Written by Duck Washington and directed by Jena Young, "Naughty or Nice" manages to create strong characters and believable, touching familial relationships in a very short play. Lovely acting by Brynn Berryhill and Eric Thompson as Constance and Gabe add even more depth and emotion. I love the skilled way Washington sketches the setting with a radio voice-over and the lighting (by Julia Carlis) beautifully evokes the mood.

Between each segment, the lovely duo The Champagne Drops (Leslie Vincent and Emily Dussault) accompanied by Erik Ostrom (on a variety of instruments) add their distinctive blended voices to haunting original numbers as well as putting a dark twist on holiday classics. You'll never hear "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" the same way again. Also, they need to put out a Halloween album like now please.  

"777: A Very Crowley Christmas", is a Ghoulish Delights production created and performed by Tim Uren (also of the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society--a podcast you should definitely be listening to). Uren takes us through the complex history of Aleister Crowley and the concept of Anti-Christmas. His approach reminded us of his fellow Twin Cities Horror Festival alum Reverend Matt's Monster Science. That is, until Uren's tale ends with a mysterious, startling twist. 

Erin Sheppard Presents is up next with "Searching for Santa (You Better Watch Out)" which tells the story of a man (Joe Bozic) who heads to the North Pole in search of Santa Claus. He does not find Santa (spoiler!) but what he does find there is delightfully dark, creepy and funny. Written by Joe Bozic and choreographed by Erin Sheppard, this twisted holiday tale features Sheppard's signature fantastic blend of athletic, energetic dance and perfect contemporary song choice. We love that Sheppard's dancers are also compelling actors (Erin Sheppard, Regan K. Saunders, Jessica Chad) as well as dancers. And the costumes are spot-on--particularly Sheppard's first costume, which is hilarious. As we always say when we see her work: Yay, more Erin Sheppard Presents PLEASE.

The last play of the evening is Oncoming Productions's fantastic "Holiday Spirits," written by Sean Dillon and directed by Victoria Pyan. Simultaneously funny and genuinely spooky, "Holiday Spirits" tells the story of Jackson (Sean Dillon) and Tim (Rob Ward) who, upon moving into their new (old) house, find a bottle of cognac which gives them some very unexpected effects. To say more would spoil the magical surprise of where the story goes, but suffice it to say that we'd love to see much more of these characters and their story. Hilarious and chilling and a perfect way to end a winter's evening. 

Go! Quick! Follow and support these amazing theater companies! Happy Holidays! BYE!

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Black Nativity (2018) at Penumbra Theatre

Always a great way to start the holiday season off on the right note, Black Nativity is back at Penumbra Theatre, running through December 23.

This perennial favorite tells the story of the birth of Christ through music and dance, with many familiar faces and voices.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Alt-Holiday Show Guide for 2018

'Tis the season for holiday theatergoing!

Before you buy your tickets to the various Christmas Carols and Nutcrackers around town, check out one of our smaller theaters for something a little different, a little more intimate and a lot more lowercase letters. And sometimes? These shows aren't even about the holidays. WHAT. I know.

Monday, November 26, 2018

We Saw Some Shows - November 2018 Sum-Up

Here are a few short takes on shows we've seen lately.

In October, we saw The Haunting of Hill House by Theatre X at the James J. Hill House, which we were SO on board with immediately.