Behind the Scenes with “Pirates of Penzance”

Caleb Bressler
Staff Writer

One of the most interesting aspects of the stage and of film is how it works. It is always remarkable to see how the Grand Staircase in “Titanic” is only being plummeted with water from a large cistern in a sound studio. Or that the candelabras in the stage musical of “The Phantom of the Opera” are tucked in a room beneath the stage. Or what was happening backstage the opening night of “Wicked.”
For every production and film that we see, there is a back story. And many times, the back story can be as interesting as the play or movie itself.
With this is mind, examining the gears behind the upcoming production of “Pirates of Penzance” seemed apropos. Not only is the show large scale, but it involves both the Millersville University theatre and music departments. Considering that the Visual and Performing Arts Center is new, and is extremely different from the Rafter’s black-box theatre, the back story of this show promised to be very interesting.
Dutcher Hall is where many of the rehearsals for “Pirates of Penzance” are taking place. Rehearsals will move to the Clair Performance Hall in the VPAC as the show approaches opening night.

This miniature replica can be seen across from the art gallery in the VPAC. The set was designed by Victor Capecce to fit in Clair Performance Hall.

Tony Elliot, the director of the show, has his office on the first floor of Dutcher Hall. The office, full of posters, scripts and books, is where Elliot gives me a background on this first show of the fall 2012 semester. He begins with why this particular show was chosen.
“The first choice was a musical,” Elliot said, “secondly, a musical that’s got a lot of vocal challenges and this one certainly falls into that category. It’s an operetta, so it’s got the sort of opera range, but the comedy and the kind of silliness of a standard musical comedy theatre piece. So it fit the bill.”
However, since two departments are closely involved with the production, it makes the scope of the show even larger.
“The whole idea of the Winter Center (VPAC) is collaboration,” Elliot said. “And so going into this year, we were all about coming up with projects where collaboration is at the center of it and…there is no more collaborative theatre style than the musical…”
This being the case, directing this show is a different experience for Elliot than productions in the recent past. For one thing, the theatre department has exclusively produced dramas since 2009. But in some ways, he says, it’s much the same.
“…the actors need to learn the music, but once they learn the music then they come into a scene and we direct it as if it was a scene,” says Elliot. “It’s not stop now you sing. Stop now you act. Stop now you dance. They all kind of flow together.”
The reasons Elliot believes people should see the show are many, and varied.
“…it’s sort of a celebration of all things artistic…you get the visual arts, Victor’s sets and the costumes will be beautiful. The music will be wonderful…the top musicians on campus in the orchestra. The singers are amazing…they are top notch…there’s nothing about this that wouldn’t entertain anyone.”
Another thing Elliot emphasizes about the show is the humor.
“This is meant to be funny, meant to be fun,” Elliot says. “It’s pretty much boom in-the-gut silliness.”

This hat accompanies a costume used in the musical.

Meanwhile, across campus from Dutcher Hall, in the costume shop, more pieces of the show are coming together. When I stopped in, Priscilla Kaufhold was in the midst of helping a cast member of “Pirates of Penzance” with a costume. A pirate’s outfit, mostly black and white, hung at the entrance of the shop. It’s only one of the costumes for “Pirates of Penzance.”
Kaufhold is used to this. 1984 was the year Kaufhold began working at the Millersville costume shop.
“I got into costuming in college,” she said.
She discussed the costumes for this particular show. During the musical, a group of ladies are visiting the seaside, which fits the kind of costumes they will be wearing.
“Tony [Elliot] makes it fairly easy,” Kaufhold explains. “He saw the daughters as all in white. In Victorian times, white was the color for picnics.”
Kaufhold went on to explain more particulars of the costumes.
“A lot of the dresses are past wedding dresses,” Kaufhold says. “Warm colors are the pervading theme. We’ll start moving costumes over to the VPAC soon.”
When all is said and done, Kaufhold said the show will have about 6-7 racks of costumes.
“Putting on a show is huge,” she says.
Across the campus at the VPAC, where the activity surrounding the show will soon boil down to, Kristin Sims, who has been coaching singers, also discusses the production. An opera singer herself, Sims is enthusiastic about “Pirates of Penzance.”
“…‘Pirates of Penzance’ is actually a pivotal musical in my life,” Sims said. “It was something that I saw as a kid, probably ten years old, and actually the reason that I wanted to be on stage in the first place…it was a musical in which[…]I became sort of part of the musical even being in the audience…”
The style of music that “Pirates of Penzance” employs is also something that Sims remarked upon.
“…it is certainly grounded in the classical tradition[…]but because we’re doing the updated version, the 1980s version, we are allowing [students] to add pop and musical theatre components to their singing,” Sims says.
Sims says the biggest challenge is the pacing of the score.
“…a lot of the music is very fast. So in order to be understood[…]the students have to work very hard that their words are clear.”
“The leads did a remarkable amount of preparation during the summer,” Sims says. “So, they came into the semester knowing their music. And some of them have a lot of music to learn. So, [they were] well prepared from the beginning.”
Sims discusses the part she plays in the rehearsal process.
“For me I’m[…]wearing a lot of hats right now. Sometimes I sit and observe and take notes. Other times I’m conducting and, like last night, I was playing…,” Sims says.
Sims has some of the same sentiments about “Pirates of Penzance” that Elliot does.
“It’s hilarious,” Sims says. “It’s very, very funny. Musically, I think it’s interesting. It’s full of really wonderful solos, small ensembles…[and]its fun to see students having fun with a very funny show[…]”
“Pirates of Penzance” opens on November 1, 2012 at Visual and Performing Arts Center. Tickets are on sale now at the box office in the Student Memorial Center.