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A Good Rep

The Asolo Repertory Theatre embodies the definition of multitasking as it remains one of the only true repertory theaters in the country.

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  • | 12:00 a.m. March 4, 2015
The cast, crew and staff of the Asolo Repertory Theatre contribute hours of work and talent to pull off its ambitious annual repertory theater season.
The cast, crew and staff of the Asolo Repertory Theatre contribute hours of work and talent to pull off its ambitious annual repertory theater season.
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On this evening you venture up the steps of the Florida State University Performing Arts Center into the inviting lobby space with giant banners hanging on either side of the entrance displaying what lies within. 

Your first stop is the box office, where you pick up your tickets for the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder. You talk with friends as you climb the stairs that twist up to the mezzanine. Entering the Mertz Theatre, the Asolo Rep’s 500-seat main stage theater, you feel like you’re entering a portal.

A vibrant red curtain cloaks the proscenium stage as patient volunteer ushers escort first-timers to their correct seats. While the show’s sponsor logos and future productions project on the curtain, small talk among patrons floats in the air.

The seats are full. The collective voice of the audience hits a crescendo — it’s almost time. You turn off your cell phone and glance at the program. The playbill includes information on the cast, crew and director, as well as historical and cultural background of Wilder’s madcap Yonkers, N.Y., romantic comedy.

You also notice that tomorrow David Lindsay-Abaire’s play “Good People” is playing at a 2 p.m. matinee followed by an 8 p.m. production of Maxwell Anderson’s congressional “Both Your Houses.”

Then it hits you.

All three shows are taking place on the stage of the Mertz Theatre. As you try to comprehend how the Asolo Repertory Theatre pulls off this mammoth feat, imagining how massive the backstage of the theater must be, the lights start to dim. A hush falls over the audience. The red curtain rises.

It’s show time.

Reputable theater

“The audience is seeing the tip of the iceberg,” says Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director at Asolo Repertory Theatre. “When they come and see a show and those doors open, the ushers take them to their seat, and they look at that red curtain before it goes up, they have no idea of the seventh-eights of the iceberg that has been going on.”

Repertory is a loaded word in the theater world. There are 15 League of Resident Theatres with the word repertory in their name across the country. However, none does what the Asolo does: stage three to four individual productions at the same time in the same space. Asolo is the definition of repertory.

“The idea that you would have in production three or four shows that can be performed in the same week, in the same theater, is highly unusual,” says Edwards. “If we were only doing one show, which is typical of most theaters where you open a show and run it for three to four weeks and then you go dark for a week and you put on another one, that model would be disastrous for us.”  

This all has to do with the unique nature of Sarasota as a seasonal vacation and tourist destination.

According to Edwards, if the Asolo were to adopt the traditional theatrical production schedule of a series of sequential shows with no overlap, it wouldn’t reach a majority of its audience that returns year after year during the height of season.

“The audience is seeing the tip of the iceberg.” – Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director at Asolo Repertory Theatre

Though it is expensive, Edwards is confident in the investment. And that investment is mostly made in the people within the various departments in the Asolo that make the entire dramatic operation possible.

“It’s the most expensive way of doing theater because it’s so people intensive,” says Edwards.

The producing artistic director said you need to have an organized, talented and proficient acting company that can do all four scheduled shows in rep; a scene shop that understands how to build things that can come apart quickly; a costume shop that can switch out costumes for actors in three shows; and a front-of-house staff that can handle patrons for all four shows.

“It’s like a space shuttle launch,” Edwards says. “It’s so well organized all the audience sees is the rocket taking off.”

Michael Donald Edwards is in his ninth season as producing artistic director at the Asolo Repertory Theatre.
Michael Donald Edwards is in his ninth season as producing artistic director at the Asolo Repertory Theatre.

The scenery

As the curtain rises on the night of “The Matchmaker,” the world of turn-of-the-20th-century Yonkers, N.Y., and New York City lights up the stage.

As the characters Dolly Gallagher Levi, Horace Vandergelder and company transition from a general store to the bustling restaurants and shops of Manhattan, the set moves on hydraulics. It’s a fluid transition and one that requires hours of engineering and labor.

This foundation on which the Asolo’s artistry stands is constructed at the Robert and Beverly Koski Production Center. The 45,000-square-foot space lies on an unassuming stretch of Tallevast Road, hidden  behind the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Within the spacious building are offices, conference and rehearsal rooms, but the heartbeat of the building lies further within.

It’s here in the Joan Armour Mendell Scenic Studio where the experienced Asolo Rep crew designs ways to build sets to the specifications of visiting scenic designers. But more than learning how to build sets, they figure out how to dismantle and tear them apart quickly for the changeover between shows.

“The quickest way to get a set off stage is to push it off in big lump, but that takes up too much space,” says Vic Meyrich, producing manager at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. “The most efficient way to space it is to break it up into tiny pieces, but that takes up too much time. And my job is to figure out how big of a piece I can take at one time, but still fit backstage. That’s the key to designing and working in rep on the scenic end.”

Meyrich and his International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union shop are a cast of problem-solvers. They combine artistic and craftsmanship skills and talents to coordinate and build sets with a surgeon’s precision for detail and efficiency.

According to Meyrich, it takes the scene shop six to seven weeks to build an entire set, including building the walls, flats and the ability for the set to strategically collapse when needed.

“My specific involvement is in the engineering,” says David Ferguson, the technical director. “How are we going to break pieces apart, make them move, make them fly?”

And the Koski Center is not limited to a seasonal mind frame. In between building the repertory sets, it builds sets for local arts organizations such as the Sarasota Ballet and Sarasota Opera as well as theaters throughout Florida and the country.

During the rep season, the crew fixes anything that malfunctions during the performance as well as switches out entire sets in an hour and a half to two hours.

During the week of Feb. 15, there were nine performances of three different productions.

“The whole technical administration is about problem-solving,” says Meyrich. “We have to figure out how to make that changeover happen because between the matinee and the evening show, we are going to do a (different) play that night and there will be a set for it. We’re going to make it happen.”

The costumes

Just as intricate and artisanal as the sets built in the Koski Production Center, the costumes help bring the context and color of the parade of theatrical characters to life. And just like their scenic counterparts, the sewers and tailors have to produce specialty products in a relatively short amount of time and on a massive scale.

The costume shop is located on the second floor in the labyrinth bowels of the FSU Performing Arts Center. Sewing apparatus and work stations fill the bright and expansive room. In the back is a closet full of hundreds of yards of fabric and materials to be weaved into the next great stage statement.

“For a rep season, it’s all about timing,” says David M. Covach, costume shop manager at Asolo Repertory Theatre. “We’re mounting three to four shows simultaneously, and because they all open one right after another, we make sure we’re on constant rotation show to show.”

The costume shop has access to more than 100,000 individual pieces of clothing from pants, dresses, shirts, hats and gloves located in storage in the Koski Production Center. Each season the shop goes through about 500 yards of muslin, an inexpensive test fabric, used to make mockups of the final costume. Covach and his staff have to create a splendor of clothes for different time periods based on the settings of the plays and the vision of visiting costume designers and directors.

The setting of “The Matchmaker” is in the trappings of metropolitan Manhattan, N.Y., in the early 1900s. Virgil Johnson’s costume designs are living characters with their ornate details. According to Covach, Johnson and the show’s director, Peter Amster, first met to talk about the costumes in March 2014. By May, Covach and his staff had rough sketches of what the show was going to look like. And in June, Covach and Johnson shopped for the right fabrics.

In the months leading up to the opening of the show in early January, Covach and his team fit all the actors, made all of the costumes and added any details Johnson wanted after seeing the actors in the final products. And the shop accomplished all of this while simultaneously undergoing the same process for the Asolo’s other five shows that opened between November and March.

“I find it a sea of tranquility,” says Edwards. “I cannot believe how much they are doing.”

The actors

As the “The Matchmaker” enters its comedic and mistaken identity-filled second act, a colorful character appears on stage. The Cabman is a drunken and loutish individual whom the testy Horace Vadnergelder charges with preventing his rebellious niece and her fiancé from eloping. David Breitbarth, under a wig, makeup and ragged coat, plays the Cabman.

On the nights Wilder’s comedy isn’t in session, he plays Simeon Gray in “Both Your Houses.” Later this month, Breitbarth will also play the role of the dance master Ernest in “Our Betters.” Inhabiting three distinct characters in the span of a month may seem difficult, but Breitbarth wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I do occasionally go and do a normal-run, straight show at a regional theater, and it feels so easy because what we do here is like the actors’ Olympics,” he says.

A native of Massachusetts, Breitbarth is entering his 19th season as an actor in the Asolo’s repertory company of actors. The staggering artistic and memorization hurdles of Asolo’s rep season were a challenge in his first year.

“It was mind-blowing not only because I had never done it before, but because I was in five shows my first year and had lead roles in three of them,” Breitbarth says. “It was just an avalanche of new experiences, words, people, the town and everything.”

The consummate actor learned how to thrive in that avalanche. Breitbarth’s method of surviving the repertory onslaught strikes a common chord with those in the theater: handle one thing at a time.

“I get asked a lot, do I ever get confused about the lines I’m going to say in whatever shows I’m doing?” says Breitbarth. “And to them I say something along the lines of, ‘Imagine yourself in your house in your kitchen. What do you do in your kitchen? You don’t lie down and go to sleep like you do in your bedroom, and when you’re in the bedroom you’re not brazing lamb shanks.’”

The front of house

A member of the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s staff who compartmentalizes is Jay Poindexter, house services manager and volunteer coordinator.

A performer with 14 years of experience in off-Broadway, regional and national tours, Poindexter spent the majority of his time in Sarasota as a dresser and wardrobe supervisor backstage at the Sarasota Opera and Sarasota Ballet. In October, he took on the task of managing the quality and experience that patrons have from the minute they park their car, to when they leave the theater.

“This is an opportunity for me to use all my skills over the years from being onstage, from doing stage management, from costuming and wardrobe; all those things are culminating right now into the things I do in front of house,” Poindexter says.

Each interaction Poindexter has with a patron is a performance in its own right. He and his small army of more than 200 volunteer ushers divided into 15 teams answer every conceivable question and handle every hiccup that may arise. From questions of what the show is about to arguments over seat placement, the Poindexter Platoon assists everyone who walks into the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s lobby.  

“Not only do we open the lobby doors, but we set the lighting, we create music; there’s different music for each show,” says Poindexter. “Any displays happening here, I have to make sure all those are all ready for patrons to see.”

On days at the theater where there are two different shows, Poindexter works 14- to 15-hour days. He arrives at the theater around 8:30 a.m. and leaves only after every guest of the evening performance has departed, around 11 p.m. Asked how working at a true repertory house compared with other places he has worked, the same smile that appeared on the faces of Edwards, Meyrich, Ferguson, Covach and Breitbarth appeared.

Poindexter responded with a simple but telling, “I like the change.”

Opening Night
Shows still to come this season at the Asolo Repertory Theatre:

‘Our Betters’ by W. Somerset Maugham
Directed by Michael Donald Edwards
When: March 11 through April 19
Where: Mertz Theatre

‘Sotto Voce’ by Nilo Cruz
Directed by Melissa Kievman
When: March 31 through April 26
Where: Historic Asolo Theater

‘Luck Be a Lady’: The Iconic Music of Frank Loesser
Conceived and directed by Gordon Greenberg
When: April 28 through May 24
Where: Mertz Theatre

‘Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie’
Directed by Nick Corley; Devised by David M. Lutken with Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell and Andy Teirstein
When: May 30 through June 21
Where: Mertz Theatre

The cast, crew and staff of the Asolo Repertory Theatre contribute hours of work and talent to pull off its ambitious annual repertory theater season.
The cast, crew and staff of the Asolo Repertory Theatre contribute hours of work and talent to pull off its ambitious annual repertory theater season.