Production team breathes life into ‘Fifty Ways’

Chautauqua Theater Company crew members move the bathroom floor onto the set for Fifty Ways.
Photo by Eric Shea.

Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer

The production staff for Fifty Ways is robustly discussing vomit: the consistency, the clean-up, the optimal look. When the script calls for vomit, the production team delivers.

Each production detail for the world premiere of Fifty Ways takes a discussion to perfect.

Fifty Ways debuts at 8 p.m. Friday in Bratton Theater and officially opens at 6 p.m. Saturday in Bratton Theater and runs through July 29. It is Chautauqua Theater Company’s first-ever world premiere — the middle production in a month of new work from CTC — but it is the third play the company has produced by playwright Kate Fodor.

The Chautauqua Play Commission, created by CTC and the Writers’ Center, granted Fodor the funds to write. The play’s title yields from the Paul Simon song “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” and follows one couple, played by CTC Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch and Guest Artist Actor Michael Gaston, in the throes of the later years of marriage.

The production staff, composed of 20 or so production members, is headed by Production Manager Katie McCreary. The group sits around four square tables pushed together, talking about the production elements: set, sound, lights, costumes and props.

Resident Director and Fifty Ways Director Ethan McSweeny sits opposite McCreary as the two run the second production meeting for the show. The gathering offers a behind-the-scenes look at the design concocted for the world premiere.

The set will feature two bathrooms, and much of the discussion focuses on the bathtub, which will be pivotal to the last few scenes.

Though the large tub will be ready for opening night, there are many logistical decisions to be made, such as the the amount of water that will fit and how it will be drained. They also discussed how loud the running water will sound to the audience, whether there should be skids along the bottom of the tub and how bath items will be placed along the edges.

Most importantly, the production staff must decide how much of the actor will be revealed to the audience as he steps into the tub. McSweeny describes the revealing as “brief nudity.”

As the conversation between McSweeny and the production staff continues, they speak in a technical, production language that few outside the theater world fully grasp.

A lamp must “fly,” the “escape” in the bathroom must be so big, and a “wagon” will have to be moved “down stage” or “up stage.” It’s a language they share.

Guest Set Designer Lee Savage, with the help of McSweeny and Fodor, concocts the overall design. The three have a vision of what the final stage picture must be — what colors will evoke certain emotions, what the furniture style must be, how the lights will be used to pull focus.

The discussion focuses for a moment on the fact that the interior colors of the house must be feminine, so the couch pattern shouldn’t be stripes, which is more masculine, but perhaps small flowers. Props Master Vicky Ayers takes copious notes so she knows which couch she should try to find.

Ayers distributes pictures of various wall tapestries, a pivotal prop for the first scene and much of the first act. As McSweeny picks one, the whole table erupts in cheers. It is helpful when definitive decisions can be made on the spot.

Most of the meeting is spent brainstorming solutions to production questions, such as who will move an MRI machine made by the production team that serves as the centerpiece for one scene. They decide two people will move it to give the audience the perception that the MRI machine is heavy, and the two will don nurse scrubs.

In that way, the technical team will not disrupt the play during transitions. It’s important to McSweeny that each transition contributes to the story instead of pulling from it.

But it’s a give-and-take for Production Stage Manager Jennifer Rae Moore and Assistant Stage Manager Bales Karlin to figure out which of the already thinly stretched crew members will be available to move the machine. And the costume designer, Tracy Christensen, needs to know what size scrubs to order.

The work of each member of the production staff hinges on the work done by the rest of the team, and McCreary calls on each of the production heads to voice updates and questions as the meeting progresses.

In the end, they discuss the vomit. Giggles are stifled as the 20 or so adults seriously discuss vomit’s finer qualities. But it’s their dedication to detail that allows for the success of Fifty Ways, a goal shared by the entire group gathered around the tables.

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