Behind the scenes of South Pacific

Outside the sun is shining, and many Western students are enjoying the fall day either at the football game or with friends around campus. But the cast members of the UWOpera production of South Pacific are in the Paul Davenport Theatre preparing for the first dress-rehearsal of the show.

They rehearsed until late Friday night and returned for a call time of noon Saturday to go through the show twice, once with each cast, not finishing until 10 or 11 p.m.

“It’s fun. It’s fantastic,” director Michael Cavanaugh says.

One of Canada’s leading directors, Cavanaugh says the enthusiasm of the students is infectious. It’s clear he is enjoying himself as much as the cast. “We are pretty much on schedule. Today, we add wardrobe,” he says. “For me, it’s giving them a comfort level so they can relax into the roles.”

Also new during this run-through are lights, microphones and the orchestra. The night before was a sitzprobe – sing through the songs with the orchestra, but unstaged. Now they add the blocking, or movement around stage, and costumes.

Some of the lead roles are double cast, so each cast will have three complete runs before opening night Friday, Nov. 18. The others have six chances to hone their parts.

The orchestra of student musicians is also getting a taste of professional scheduling. They had only two rehearsals before the sitzprobe. It’s a reduced pit of 11 players: two violins, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, horn, trumpet, percussion and two keyboards.

“It all comes together,” says music director Mark Payne. “It’s a minor miracle. It’s Rogers and Hammerstein, so it’s not difficult playing. But it’s not about a single line’s technical difficulty, but putting it together with what’s going on onstage. … It’s like nothing else they’ll get in their undergrad, and they have fun doing it.

“If you’re going to work in this business, this is what you’ll be doing.”

South Pacific is the first time Cavanaugh and Payne have worked together.

“We both came from a similar perspective of what we wanted to get out of the show,” Payne says. “It’s been a really easy collaboration. Michael doesn’t waste time. He’s perfect for an educational setting – nurturing but efficient. We have a week before opening and it’s in pretty good shape.”

To experience how well prepared everyone was, here is an inside look at that first dress rehearsal on Saturday.

1:15 p.m.

Payne is running excerpts with some of the members of the pit orchestra. “Make the accents at 54 very short.”

Above them, two Seabees practice leap-frogging across the stage, while Alex Baerg does mic checks with the two Bloody Marys, a Tonkinese woman who emigrated to the island as part of a wave of migrant workers to the plantations.

Stage manager Kelsey Gordon flips through her script marking pages with stickies. Blue, red and white lights flash on and off. Everyone is focused on their own activity.

1:30 p.m.

Backstage, Cavanaugh leans on the piano as he gives notes to the Bloody Marys. “Get down almost like a gunslinger there. When you hit the wing, stop and wait – they’re two separate moves.” He checks the ‘aging’ makeup of Emile de Becque, and substititues a roll of tape for a boar’s tooth bracelet.

Members of the chorus flit through the greenroom in various stages of dress. The females get shorts pinned to fit, mics taped in place, hair curled. The males roll their T-shirt sleeves, jean cuffs and tuck battery packs into waitbands.

1:40 p.m.

A small dressing room is packed with young women in tied shirts, halter tops and short shorts adding finishing touches to makeup and hair. Cavanaugh tells Billis, the ultimate war-time opportunist with a heart of gold, to wait for the audience reaction after a certain line. “Don’t be afraid to give me too much silence.” One of the Nellies, a small-town nurse who signed up to serve her country and seek some adventure, asks for clarification about blocking in one scene. Bryan Hart, technical specialist, walks through with an armload of prop guns. In the pit, the players check stand lights and mark instructions from Payne in their scores.

1:50 p.m.

The orchestra takes a quick break while the cast gathers in the house, much like the team talk before a game. Cavanaugh tells them they’ll have these before each run rather than staying for notes after. He also tells them no bare feet for safety reasons, and that there will be no flying pieces (of set) today.

Each day will have new elements in the lead-up to opening night.

Then it’s “Places everyone” as the stage manager gets the go-ahead from the technical crew. The house goes dark.

2 p.m.

Downlight on Payne, followed by a spot on centre stage where a conch player will prelude the overture. Chorus members stroll out and take seats on the stage floor. At the end of the overture, they quickly reset for Scene 1 and the show begins.

During the run, Cavanaugh comments to the technical crew and members of the second cast. At one point, set designer Eric Bunnell yells “Stop!” He and Hart quickly bolt down a swaying pole with speakers. It’s a first for Bunnell who has a long history of theatre design. He hated to stop the action, but safety is paramount. While the pole is secured, Cavanaugh goes over the ‘whistling line’ with the Seabees.

3:10 p.m.

The run resumes. During the song Bali Ha’i, Cavanaugh sprints onto the stage to move a box, returns to the audience to check sightlines, then goes back up to readjust it. The cast carries on as if he was invisible. Later, there is a short wait for a lead who wrote an exam elsewhere on campus.

Shannon Halliwell, one of the Bloody Marys, tells Bunnell it’s a scramble to get upstage to grab a grass skirt in time. He makes it quicker to retrieve with a hook on the side of a ladder.

A side stage door opens and closes as cast members and technical crew come and go continuously.

4 p.m.

Intermission in the run means a quick snack of raw carrots and celery or bananas, costume changes and conferences between directors, crew and cast. It’s over in no time, and everyone launches into Act II.

While not on stage, cast members watch the action and listen to a television monitor.

“Are we on next?” one chorus member queries another.

“No, there is still another scene.”

They try on the new costumes. One texts. Two assistant stage managers dash about solving problems.

It’s also a chance to vent about small annoyances: props not being in the right places, costumes not complete. “I’m not having a good night,” admits one. Someone else replies, “That’s always the way for a first dress rehearsal. Another replies, “We’ve got six more to go before opening.” “No, you have six, I only have three,” says a double-cast lead.

One of those times is just two hours away. All the chorus and orchestra (as well as some of the leads) will repeat this whole process for the second cast.

The greenroom is littered with backpacks, grass skirts and guns, but the air of excitement is palpable as the young cast revs up for opening night.



What: UWOpera’s South Pacific
8 p.m. Nov. 18, 19; 2 p.m. Nov. 19, 20
The Paul Davenport Theatre, Talbot College
$35 adults; $25 seniors and students Available in advance from the Grand Theatre at 519-672-8800 or or cash at the door.