Front Row Seat: Duluth Playhouse class peeks behind scenes
The Show Study class, led by director of education Courtney Laine Self, invited adult learners to follow the development of "Into the Woods."
DULUTH — Even though he's taught theater for years at Hermantown High School, Ken Ahlberg found he still had a lot to learn about how a professional musical theater production comes together.
"I'm a musician, and so I got into theater directing the orchestra," said Ahlberg. When producing a full musical, "you have to do the lights, and you have to do the costumes, and you have to do the props, and you have to do the budgeting and you have to do the publicity."
Ahlberg appreciated the opportunity to study "darn near every aspect of what it takes to put on a show" through a new Duluth Playhouse class called Show Study. The inaugural series of Show Study sessions, offered to adult learners, followed the development of the Playhouse production of "Into the Woods."
Courtney Laine Self, who joined the Playhouse last fall as director of education, developed and taught the class. "This class is based on a class at New York Theatre Workshop in New York City," she said, "which is one of my favorite off-Broadway theater producing organizations."
That company's Casebook class, according to its website, "designates one of its productions as a case study and hosts a class designed to provide theatre lovers of all experience levels with a true insider’s view of the life of a theatre artist and the process of realizing a full professional production."
"What I loved about taking that class was, there were so many different kinds of people," said Self. "There were people who had never done theater before, and really hadn't even seen much theater before, all the way to people like myself, who were already working in the industry as professionals."
The 14 participants in Show Study similarly hailed from across the community. "We had people from North Shore Bank," said Self. "We had people from Essentia. Then we had some parents of students who have been taking classes, been in shows at Duluth Playhouse."
Those parents included Tasha Ellis, whose 14-year-old son has been in "quite a few of the classes there," she said. Ellis found that Show Study did lend insight into her son's experiences, "but I loved it beyond that as well."
Ellis explained: "We actually had a guest speaker every night in the class, and it was somebody involved (with) 'Into the Woods.' Not the people you see on stage; it was like (the scenic) director, the music person or the lights person, and we got to sit with the director and choreographer and costume designers."
"Courtney brought us around and gave us a tour of the entire facility," said Ahlberg, referencing the NorShor Theatre. "She brought us up above ... what you think is the roof, but it's the ceiling of the performance space. There's a level above that where you can see the framework and the original ceiling of the space."
"We got to see some real VIP behind-the-scenes, behind locked doors, sorts of things," said Self. "The tour, I think, was a crowd favorite."
On Saturday, class participants were invited to sit in on a tech rehearsal. That's the point in the rehearsal process when all the elements of a production finally come together in the space where audiences will see the show.
"These are long, stressful, hard working days," said Self. "Unless you are in the industry, you do not get exposed to what that work looks like."
Tuition also includes a ticket to the finished production. Ahlberg said it was "cool" to hear director Phillip Fazio articulate the concept for this production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1987. Ahlberg helmed a Hermantown production in 2018.
The Duluth Playhouse production, said Ahlberg, is seen to inhabit "a theater that has been abandoned, and nature has taken it over ... it was just really neat to see that the story that I'm so familiar with, and I spent months working on, can be told in a vastly different way."
"There's a lot more to it than I ever imagined," said Ellis about the process of putting on a professional show. The stage manager, said Ellis, "probably had a 3-inch binder full of details down to every line of the play, what lights, what sound, where the actor was on the stage ... it was mind-blowing how much information there is."
"This class got to understand," said Self, "there's this one layer that the audience watches, the performance layer. And there's this whole other level of talking, communicating, cuing that's going on underneath that, that nobody hears."
The next Show Study class will delve into the Playhouse production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."
"The original Broadway production was conceptually, design-wise and direction-wise, extremely specific," said Self regarding that play. "I'll be really interested to see our production of it as compared to what that original concept was."
Both Ahlberg and Ellis had high praise for Self. "Courtney is just phenomenal," said Ellis. "Just a wonderful addition to that whole program."
"Courtney is really top-notch," said Ahlberg. He praised the Playhouse's leadership team, including producing artistic director Fazio and executive director Wes Drummond, for their openness. "It's a professional theater that feels very community-based," Ahlberg said.
Self, who moved from New York City to take the Duluth job, said she's enjoyed her first months here. "I don't mind the cold, and I don't mind the dark," said Self. "The lake is such a cool thing to exist next to."
She also arrived at an inflection point in the history of the 109-year-old theater, which last year consolidated operations in Duluth's Historic Arts and Theater District.
"A thing that I've found really rewarding," said Self, "is trying to figure out the balance between what has the Playhouse been and what people love about it, and thinking about how it can evolve in ways that continue to be even more exciting and really serve Duluth."
"Into the Woods" opens Friday and runs through April 2. The next Show Study class runs from April 27 through June 1. For more information, see duluthplayhouse.org.