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SWEENEY TODD



Photos by kc kratt

 

In any production, it’s the performers who garner the lion’s share of audience attention. If the costuming or set is particularly flashy, there might be a few oohs or ahs, but, more often than not, the behind-the-scenes people are afforded little fanfare when the show finally hits the stage. As there would be no show without both the seen and the unseen people, we thought we’d give you a glimpse of all the necessary cogs in the production wheel, with the hope that you’ll get a better idea of how much collaboration and commitment—often beginning months before you see the show—it takes to deliver a big splashy musical like Kavinoky’s Sweeney Todd.

 

David King, Set Designer/Builder

What is your background in the theater?

I used to build swimming pools and had downtime in winter. In 1990, a friend asked me to help him build a set, and I began designing them the next year. I started at the Kavinoky in 1991 with Redwood Curtain. We went over budget, so I didn’t take any money, but I won an Artie for that show. I have been resident designer since 1995; this is such an interesting job—it’s different every day and has held my interest for a long time.

Describe your role/function in a musical.

It depends on the play—sometimes it’s best to stay out of the way and not be noticed with a minimal set. With this one, we have kind of steampunk look. We utilize LED screens that can be customized in any shape and will add a lot to this show.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you start working?

Two months before. Before I design anything, I meet with the director to understand his vision. I usually make a scale model, but I also use the 3D Turbo-CAD program on the computer so I know if it will work onstage. After about a month of design, our team begins building.

What are your most important responsibilities?

Conveying the overall vision of the director. I have to take into account a lot of elements—technical details, sightlines, safety—but I see my role as helping to tell the story.

What is your function during rehearsals?

We work during the day to be out before the cast arrives, but we respond to what’s happening in rehearsal in case we need to make changes.

What do you anticipate being or what have been some of the challenges of this show?

This is a complicated show with lots of mechanical elements—the barber chair and trap door.

Also, lots of different scenes and no wing space or fly space. Safety is important as people going through trap doors or running around on a darkened stage guided only by glow tape—I worry about that a lot.

Other cool stuff about your job or doing this show?

We have such a beautiful theater, and I really enjoy working with smart, funny creative people. – KRY

 

It takes a village! Set-building, led by David King (above), creates the world of the play for both the actors and the audience.

 

Lorraine O’Donnell, Executive Director

What is your background in theater?

I’m a graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in NYC. After graduation, I worked in New York off-off Broadway and the cabaret circuit. After a few years, I was hired to be an artist in residence at the Alleyway theater for a season. I fully intended to go back to New York when the year was up, but I kept getting theater jobs. And here I sit!

Describe your role/function in a musical. 

As executive director, I am responsible for the budget for all aspects of building the production, and I also oversee the creative parts to ensure that everything is up to our standards.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working?

Sweeney Todd was chosen in December of 2017. From that day, we have been carefully planning who directs, the designers, as well as possible lead actors. Hiring exactly who you want as early as you can in very important, especially for Sweeney. Without the perfect actor for that role, the play can be lost. The design elements are also put into place as soon as possible. Being a huge show, the set design was started in January just days after the show was announced.

What are your most important responsibilities? 

Intense and early preparation. Making sure everyone is working to their full potential. I do an overview of all designers and their responsibilities.

What is your function during rehearsals? 

Watching the process to ensure that creatively the show lives up to our standards.

What are some of the challenges of this show in particular? 

We just installed a brand new $50,000 sound system. Our band will be in a sound room under the stage; it’s the first time it’s been done in this theater. It’s a common practice on Broadwaysome bands aren’t even in the same building as the show they’re playing! Very exciting….and nerve-wracking. – DH

 

Matt Witten, Lead actor (Sweeney)

What is your background in theater?

Originally from Buffalo, I have a BFA in theatre performance from the University of Michigan. Go Blue! After graduation, I lived in New York City for ten years before returning to Buffalo. Since moving home, I’ve acted in over thirty productions on many Buffalo stages.  

Describe your role/function in a musical.

As an actor, it’s my job to bring the character I’m playing to life. The director and music director guide me through this process as I try to embody the vision of the composer and book writer.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working?

I started working on this show in June, focusing primarily on learning as much of the music and lyrics as possible. Going through the vocal score over and over and playing my part on the piano has been the best way to learn the material. I also try to be as familiar with the book scenes as possible before coming into rehearsal, so running lines helps to implant those scenes into my brain.  

What are your most important responsibilities?

All of us—actors, directors, designers—working together to create and tell a vibrant story.  I need to know my music, lyrics, and lines cold, and deliver them actively and consistently (while leaving some room to grow and play) during each performance.  

What is your function during rehearsals?  

To work with the director and music director to help tell the story as completely and believably as possible. I am also responsible for exploring my character and using the tools Sondheim and Wheeler provided to aid in that exploration.

What are the challenges of this show?

It’s a very vocally demanding show, so keeping my voice in shape (especially doing it twice on Saturdays). Also, I have to make the stage effects involving the set and props that I am responsible for go off without a hitch.  

Other cool stuff about being in that job or doing this show?

I get to play the Demon Barber of Fleet Street; talk about a dream role! Being able to work on this show at all, let alone in this role, is like having my oldest and wildest dream come true. – DH

 

Kate Boswell, House Manager

What is your background in theater?

I have always loved theater, theater major SUNY Oswego. I have worked at Shea’s and have been house manager at RLTP, Irish Classical, and now Kavinoky.

I am also a playwright and just accepted a position as literary director for Second Generation Theatre.

Describe your role in this show.

The house manager is a link between the audience and what is happening backstage.

The rest of the production team is concerned with what is going on onstage, but this role is totally focused on the audience. I coordinate the ushers and make sure they know any special details, such as gunshots or special exits and entrances, so they are prepared. That can be something serious like a medical emergency, but, happily, it is usually just directing people to the restrooms. From the outside, it looks like a simple job, but it is a lot of work to anticipate patron issues, and we are often the last ones to leave the theater.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working?

Not until the performances. In the meantime, I touch base with the stage manager to find out the running time of the show, time of intermissions, etc.

I am included on the production team emails, so I am aware of everything going on, but I like that the first time I see a show, I am experiencing it just as the audience does.

What are your most important responsibilities?

My role is to make sure the audience has a great experience. Problems in the lobby or with their seats can impact how much they enjoy what is happening onstage. I also hear the feedback from the audiences, so I often share positive comments with the production team.

What are some of the challenges of this show?

The subject matter is dark and some members of the audience may not be familiar with the plot and story. – KRY

 

Derek Moran, Assistant Stage Manager

What is your background in theater?

This is my third season with Kavinoky. I have also performed in touring productions of Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, and Feet of Flames

Describe your role/function in a musical.

The ASM assists the stage manager. During the show, the SM sits in the sound booth and calls the show (gives the cues) while the ASM is responsible for all backstage activity. Before the show, I sweep the stage, set all props in place on stage, and set props that will be brought on during the show at the side of stage (this usually becomes a bit of a dance as space is limited). Once actors are in place, I let the stage manager know the show can begin. During the show, I move the set and replace props during scene changes and help the actors with any props, quick changes, or issues that crop up. After the performance, I clean the stage and props and help the stage manager close up.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working?

Before the first rehearsal, I familiarize myself with the storyline and characters, which actor is playing which role, how many scenes/scene changes there are, and the list of props. 

What are your most important responsibilities?

My main responsibility is to ensure the safety of everyone backstage. I am constantly on the lookout for loose screws! Literally, not figuratively. Also, making sure the actors have all their props and the scene changes occur naturally and seamlessly is imperative. I consider it a success if you don’t notice me or what I’m doing at any point.

What is your function during rehearsals?

Assisting the SM in taping the floor plan, pulling any rehearsal props and set pieces, ensuring the stage is set for rehearsal each day, including sweeping and setting up set pieces, furniture, and props. The ASM must also be prepared to be “on book” (follow dialogue and prompt actors if needed) and to take blocking notes (note where actors move onstage) although usually the stage manager is responsible for these tasks. 

What are some of the challenges of this show?

We have two very large, heavy and movable set pieces—if we can get through the run without mowing anyone down or collapsing the set, I’ll be very happy! Also, this show requires some onstage time for me, which always increases the stress levels. I get my throat slit on stage every night; that’s pretty cool. – DH

 

 

Diane Almeter Jones, Props Mistress

What is your background in theater?

I graduated with an art degree and theater minor from Buffalo State and served as an assistant stage manager and set designer there. The first time I served as props mistress, I was like a fish to water. It combined all my skills (graphic design, art, attention to detail, organization) and my love for storytelling.

Describe your role/function in a musical.

The first thing is to read the script and highlight all props, both indicated and implied. I then make a list: prop name, who handles it, and a description. Then, I meet with the director to review the list. A prop is something an actor holds but I also dress David King’s extraordinary sets. Before we spend any money, we look at what we already have. Our Kav audience is observant so we stay away from props used in past two seasons; it has to be modified to be reused. I build any props I can’t find, borrow, or afford to buy.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working?

I have the initial prop list ready for the first production meeting.

What are your most important responsibilities?

In the best case, no one notices the props and can focus on the story. I watch the dress rehearsals from the floor and the balcony to see what every member of the audience sees.

What is your function during rehearsals?

They use “doofer” props [it’s not the real thing, but it’ll “do for” now] at rehearsals. The real prop changes movements, thoughts, everything, so the quicker the real prop is in their hand, the better.

What are some of the challenges of this show?

The meat pies! Early on, they are gray and limp. Later, they are puffier, golden brown—and they have to be eaten, so we need a lot of them. Actors have to be safe, so we have plenty of perishable pies—along with fake ones—for each show. The period barber supplies are also fun. The knives and blood cannot damage the costumes, as sometimes they must be used again in two hours, which makes those barber bibs very functional! – KRY

 

Norm Sham, Production Manager/Stage Manager

What is your background in theater?

I have been in the business for over thirty years. I started in 1984 as a stage manager, and began acting shortly thereafter.

Describe your role/function in a musical.

I organize all cast and crew production teams and oversee every aspect of the production. I am also stage manager for every show this season, one of the only people in town who is at every rehearsal and every performance for every show in a season.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working?

I already have production books going for every show this season. Once this show closes, rehearsal for the next show starts, usually the next day. Schedules and contact lists were out before we started rehearsals August 6. [Director] Johnny Fredo and I created the rehearsal schedule over two sessions—we gather all the conflicts and try to accommodate them. As a member of Equity, I know the rules and we apply the Equity rules for everyone. It doesn’t make sense to have diffrent sets of rules for different people.

What are your most important responsibilities?

As stage manager, making sure we do not get blindsided—thinking ahead. Some directors care more about some aspects of the design than others, some tend to make changes very late in the process, which can be challenging for the actors.

What is your function during rehearsals?

To make sure everyone is there. Call breaks. Adhere to the schedule, and make sure that things are professionally run.

What are the challenges of this show?

Ha! Blood, knives, razors, the barber chair, projections, set, big cast, challenging music. Overall, to keep it running like a machine and maintain the humor. Luckily, I know the show very well. I had the album in 1979 and, at one point, knew every lyric. It is my favorite Sondheim musical and one of my favorite shows overall. – KRY

 

Allan Paglia, Music Director

What is your background in theater?

Theater music is the only aspect of music that ever appealed to me. I transferred to UB in 2006, and, since then, I have music directed around a dozen shows, including local productions of Sondheim’s Assassins, Into the Woods, and A Little Night Music. Sondheim totally speaks to me, and I love his music. I like the darkness of this show. The music elevates the show; it connects with the emotional high points in a way that makes it among the best of all musicals—even his.

Describe your role/function in a musical.

I am responsible for all musical aspects of the show. I teach the music to the cast, and rehearse and guide the band. [Other than the stage manager], the MD is the only [other] member of the production team who is present for every rehearsal and every performance, so we see the show from start to finish. Ideally, the show should not change, but people grow into their parts and how they approach their characters.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working?

A few weeks ahead of time, I listen to the soundtrack to get in the right head space. I do not want to copy everything; I want to make my own decisions. I learn the music and get to know the cast. I have worked with most of this cast before, which is great.

What do you see as your most important responsibilities?

Being true to the music, but also myself, and how it should be interpreted. This is my first show at Kavinoky, and I am very excited.

What is your function during rehearsals?

First week is all music, a first rehearsal readthrough, and then music right away. The next week is staging.

What are the challenges of this show?

It calls for more operatic style of singing, a more legit classical style, but we have a high quality ensemble, as a number of them have played leads before. I know the score well, but it is difficult. The show is all music, as most Sondheim shows are, so there is some stamina required. Two show days of this show will be brutal. – KRY

 

Marie Costa, Costume Designer

What is your background in theater?

I began working in Buffalo theater about twenty years ago at Shakespeare in Delaware Park as an intern. I was assigned to wardrobe/costumes under the excellent tutelage of Cindy Darling. Since then, I have acted, designed costumes, or worked wardrobe for several theaters in town.

Describe your function in a musical.

For any show, the function of technical elements is to enhance the storytelling abilities of the actors; costumes are one specific aspect of that magnification. If actors are the bones of the show, the costumes are the muscles; they help the audience’s understanding of each character’s continuities within the plot.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working?

As soon as I can. Preferably, by reading the script, so I know what I’m getting into. Once you know where the [setting] and the time period, you research to see what people wore when and where your show takes place. London’s middle and lower classes in 1901 had a very different set of fashion choices from those, for example, in Morocco at the same time and economic status. Then you get lucky and attend the “read” of the show, the first time the actors get together to read/sing the show out loud and in character. This is your next jumping off point. You take the measurements of each actor, so that you can appropriately fit their clothes to their bodies. Costumes can be pulled from storage (called stock), rented from an outside source, purchased from a store, or designed from scratch and sewn (referred to as “building a costume”).

What are your most important responsibilities?

They start with making sure my actors are safely and appropriately dressed, in that order. If an actor is unsafe or uncomfortable because of a costume, the show will not succeed. Once those two criteria are met, I get to have fun.

What is your function during rehearsals?

With the exception of the first read and the designers’ run—which is when we watch the show being performed by the actors without any technical elements—designers are not required to be in rehearsals before tech week, when all of the technical events finally get together on stage. That said, sitting in the audience during rehearsal can be informative: “Oh, they think she can get to that part of the stage that quickly, in a full-length gown and heels? Hmm…” – SB

 

 

Dudney Joseph (Ensemble Member)

What is your background in theater?

My love for music started at an early age playing piano and drums in church. The musical theater bug started in high school, so my parents looked for opportunities outside of the classroom, and I was cast in Ujima’s And Bid Him Sing in early the 2000s. After college, I started working in Buffalo theater again in 2011.

Describe your role/function in a musical.

Research! Look up as much as possible to understand my place in the story. I read the piece, listen to the soundtrack, and watch any films or interviews done on the piece to gather as much information as possible.  

What are your most important responsibilities?  

Understanding that, as part of the ensemble, it’s your job to help tell the story collectively. Being able to adapt to last-minute changes is crucial, but most important, knowing when to be seen and when to blend in.

What is your function during rehearsals?

Learning music, blocking, choreography, adapting to change. You may be given a direction that switches unexpectedly; as an actor, your role is to adapt as quickly as possible.

What are the challenges of this show?

The music. Sondheim is challenging in general, but this is probably the most complicated score I’ve had to learn so far. A lot of the vocal parts go against your natural instincts, but it is cool to be able to perform Sondheim five nights a week. – DH  

 

Geoff Tocin, Sound Design

What is your background in theater/Buffalo theater?

I’ve worked almost exclusively with the Kavinoky since 2006. When I first started, I was hired as the sound operator, meaning once the designer implemented his sound design, I was tasked with executing it on a show-to-show basis. About five years ago, I was offered the role of resident sound designer and engineer.

Describe your function in a musical.

Musicals are less about sound design and more about sound reinforcement. While I still may need to supply the show with various sound effects, my primary role is to mix the band and vocalists. Once everyone is mic’d up and the band is playing, it’s my job to make it a pleasurable experience for everyone’s ears.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working on the show?

For a musical, not much is done prior to rehearsal. Mostly, it’s communicating with the director and music director concerning how many players are in the band and how many vocalists will be in the show. Once this is established, I can begin to plan out equipment requirements.

What are your most important responsibilities?

Staying in close communication with the band and actors to make sure there are no technical issues.

What is your function during rehearsals?

It’s minimal until we begin to introduce the band and mics. A couple weeks before we open, we introduce mics to actors. A few days later, we introduce the full band. Once all these elements are onboard, I really get involved.

What are the challenges of this show?

We’ve just upgraded our sound system, so, although there will be a slight learning curve, it should result in a better experience. We’re also approaching this show differently [in that] we’re isolating the band downstairs. Again, this should result in a better experience for our patrons, but it will be a challenge. – SB

 

John Fredo, Director/Choreographer

Describe your role/function in a musical.

To stage the entire production and attend as specifically as possible to my vision. Starting by choosing the cast, then putting together in my head the way I would like the show to be designed. Concept, technical aspects. After that, a production meeting to get all of the staff on board and responding to their offerings. As the process continues, there are many choices to make: costumes, set, and lighting, given the initial designers’ inference. Then staging, meaning all physical movement in the show, in this case, dance as well. The show does not have a lot of dance in it, but using my own experience, I will devise dance steps that are appropriate for the time period and fit them in where they are demanded by the script. Finally, I also decide where set pieces go and how they transition from one scene to the next. Working with actors, sharing my vision for the piece, and making sure we are all telling the same story.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working on the show? And what do these preparations entail? 

I spend up to three months thinking about the project and its challenges.

What are your most important responsibilities?

The attention to detail and the talents that make the show possible. And the care given the audience.

What have been some of the challenges of this show in particular?

For the cast, the incredible Stephen Sondheim music. And for me, the size of the show offers many technical challenges. Also the balance between the darkness of the subject matter and the humor. And paying respect to the awesome story. Every day, there are so many wonderful things that happen. – DH

 

Margie Pantera, Scenic Painter

What is your background in theater?

I started about thirty-five years ago in Buffalo at Theatre of Youth and, after about four years, I moved to New York. I worked in scene shops in New York for two years and then came back to Buffalo to work as head scenic painter at Studio Arena. I was there until they closed and then I got hired by the Kavinoky.

Describe your function in a musical.

With this show, it’s a musical but everything’s very dark, it’s a dark comedy. Everything onstage has to have that old dirty London feel. The more dirty and nasty it looks, the better.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working on the show?

I start by talking with David King, the set designer, and we go over ideas about how set pieces will be painted and the function of those pieces. It also helps to read the script. Usually, painters have three weeks to complete the work. For this show, there were a lot of moving parts and some of the more complex pieces took a while to build.

What are your most important responsibilities?

Doing the best on each piece of scenery. It’s important to consider how the lighting plays off the scenery. Sometimes people are dancing on a set piece that needs to be able to withstand a month’s worth of performances without repainting. Last season, we had foam stones for Mamma Mia! that had to hold up to people jumping all over them lots of times.

What is your function during rehearsals?

We work during the day but have to stop at least three hours before the cast rehearses so that they’re not walking on wet paint. Typically, there’s a charge scenic artist who then hires other scenic artists as assistants. I work with my assistant Cindra Halloran. It’s a great relationship; we’ve gotten to the point where we read each other’s minds.

What are the challenges of this show?

We’ve been working for days just on the oven alone. It’s made out of wood, and we have to make it look like a metal oven, but that’s fun. The main challenge is that it’s a big set.

 

Dave Spychalski, Box Office

What is your background in theater?

I went to Niagara University for theater performance where I earned my bachelor of fine arts in 2013. In 2015, I booked a national children’s theater tour with Bright Star Touring Theatre and, after my contract was up, I moved back to Buffalo and have performed with [various theaters]. I got a call that the Kav was looking for assistant stage managers for their revival of 39 Steps. I booked the gig and have been working here ever since.

Describe your function in a musical.

With musicals, ticket sales are typically higher, so you have more patrons to keep happy. We’re the portal almost all revenue comes through so, you have to be detail-oriented and able to work with your ticketing system to assure that all the revenue is accounted for, going to the right place, and that patrons are getting the best seats available. Our website is wonderful but, if it’s during box office hours, you should give me a call. I’m more fun than a website and we offer student tickets and other discounts that you can’t get online.

What are your responsibilities?

Once a show is in production and I’m at the ticket window, I try to be as friendly and enthusiastic as possible. Oftentimes, I’m one of the only theater staff members patrons interact with so, I want to give them the best experience possible, even if it’s just a smile and an excited “Enjoy the show!” Sometimes people will show up to the wrong performance or think they bought tickets so, you have to solve the problem quickly so you aren’t holding up the show.

What are the challenges for this show?

I’ve encountered a lot of patrons who saw the 2007 Tim Burton movie and were turned off, so I have to reassure them that the show is much better on stage, and we cast actors who can actually sing and act, and in fact do both extraordinarily well.

 

Brian Cavanaugh, Lighting Design

What is your background in theater?

All of my theater has been in Buffalo. In 1985, I went to UB and never even thought of doing theater until I met Saul Elkin. I’ve been doing theater ever since, nonstop.

Describe your function in a musical.

Lighting in a musical changes continuously with every mood and every song. It’s triple the work of a regular play, where lights are more static. Certainly with Sweeney Todd, the show moves through quite a lot of different scenarios, from people happy on the street corner to the darker scenes with the oven.

How soon before rehearsals begin do you begin working?

I like to get the script six months ahead at least. I break it down by scenes and by song and make myself a cheat sheet of the different settings I have to change through lighting. Then I go back into memory and match it up to the lighting equipment I have to figure out what I can and can’t do.

What are your most important responsibilities?

Lighting is usually the last tech element to go into any show because the costumes need to be set and the set needs to be in place and painted for me to do my job. My biggest responsibility is that the lighting has to match the other elements. Then I give it a final touch to integrate the lighting colors and cues with the look and mood of the show.

What is your function during rehearsals?

I’ll watch scenes to make notes of the actors’ blocking to see where they move on stage so that wherever they go, I can catch them. A lot of times, I’ll also take video of complex scenes so I can go back and reference that when I’m trying to cue up the show.

What are the challenges of this show?

There are many dramatic scenes involving the barber’s chair and the oven. When the oven is used, I have to make sure that it’s creepy and cold around it but hot inside the oven. There’s also a video wall in the back of the stage and I have to make sure that the lighting doesn’t wash out the video projections.    

 

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