Upward Bound students get a backstage peek at Post Playhouse

By GEORGE LEDBETTER

FORT ROBINSON, Neb. - An actor’s singing and dancing can create magic on stage, but much of the work that brings theater to life for the audience goes on behind the curtains.

High school students in the Upward Bound program at Chadron State College learned something of what happens backstage during a tour of the Post Playhouse at Fort Robinson State Park last week and found out that college degrees are abundant among the professionals who delight audiences during the summer season of musicals at the 48-year-old repertory theater.

The tour Thursday, June 25, took place just one day after the Upward Bound class attended the Playhouse performance of “Cinderella,” the first opportunity to see live musical theater for most of the students. Upward Bound, a federally-financed program to motivate and support low-income high school students to pursue their education, includes exposing participants to a variety of activities they may not have been able to experience.

“I like to do crazy, off the wall things, with an educational twist,” said Laure Sinn, who coordinates activities for the CSC Upward Bound program and arranged the Playhouse tour.

Life in theater makes “gypsies” of many actors and crew members, Tom Ossowski, Post Playhouse artistic director, told the students and their instructors. An associate professor at Florida State University and faculty member at The Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, China, when he isn’t handling multiple responsibilities at the Playhouse, Ossowski said his schedule kept him away from home for 16 months.

Undergraduate degrees in music and German led to high school teaching in the Virgin Islands and later to a master’s in theater and jobs teaching in universities and directing musicals, said Ossowski, a native of Beatrice, Nebraska.

Planning for the summer season begins in early fall with selection of the shows to be produced and payment of royalties, Ossowski said. Then publicity for the season starts, and advance tickets go on sale in November. Actors are selected through auditions held in New York in the spring, but rehearsals don’t start until shortly before the opening date.

“We have about two weeks of rehearsals,” Ossowski said. “We started rehearsals on four shows at the same time this year.” 

The pace doesn’t slow once the actors are ready to take the stage.

“Most people have no idea how complicated it is,” Ossowski said as he pointed out the color coded marks on the stage indicating where props for each of the five shows in the hectic season must be placed. The small amount of backstage space and cramped quarters for musicians are among the challenges the cast and crew must handle, especially for musicals like “Grease,” he added. “You can’t imagine the running up and down back stage we do,” he said. “There is no room. It’s all choreographed.”

Other members of the theater company also spoke to the students. Costume designer Phoebe Boynton told the group that she earned her bachelor’s degree in art history, then went on to a master’s in costume design. The wardrobe supervisor for a European cruise ship line, Boynton said even with extensive training and experience, creating Cinderella’s dress for the Playhouse show was a challenge because of the multiple layers that are revealed during the performance.

“It was a triumph of geometry. It took all my skill,” she said.

Advanced technology in light and sound makes the stage come to life, and demands a knowledge of computers as well as creative talent, said lighting and scenic designer Don Fox. “I get to be creative, but there’s a real analytical and programming part,” said Fox, a freelance lighting designer and theater producer who also has graduate degrees in his field.

Even constructing sets that create the scenes on stage has unusual complications, such as the small entry space into the Playhouse, said Scott Cavin, CSC associate professor of theater and Playhouse technical director. All of the set pieces have to be built so they can fit through a door, said Cavin, who has a Master of Fine Arts degree and has designed sets for numerous CSC shows. He was joined in the shop where Playhouse sets and props are created by technician and properties artist Adam Spencer, a 2006 CSC graduate who now teaches at Louisiana Tech University.

Learning details of what it takes to produce a show, especially after seeing ‘Cinderella,” was intriguing to Upward Bound student Mikayla Koerber of Chadron.

“I didn’t know that much went into the play,” she said.

And the artistic part of theater work, caught the attention of Brittney Sims of Alliance.

“I like the art part. I want to do that for my major (in college),” she said. “I think it’s cool we got to see how the (Cinderella) dress was put together and what held it.”

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