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1

Scenic designer Daniel Nischan shows off some inspirational concept photos for the Ivoryton Playhouse’s upcoming production of Coney Island Christmas.

Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine

Scenic designer Daniel Nischan shows off some inspirational concept photos for the Ivoryton Playhouse’s upcoming production of Coney Island Christmas. Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine )

2

Stage Manager Holly Price, Director Sasha Brätt, and Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott look on as Scenic Designer Daniel Nischan shows off a rough stage design on his laptop.

Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine

Stage Manager Holly Price, Director Sasha Brätt, and Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott look on as Scenic Designer Daniel Nischan shows off a rough stage design on his laptop. Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine )

3

Assistant Stage Manager Kayla Gardener, Intern Aspen Nuñez, Technical Director Tate Burmeister, Assistant Director Jim Clark, and Director Sasha Brätt review old-time photographs of Coney Island.

Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine

Assistant Stage Manager Kayla Gardener, Intern Aspen Nuñez, Technical Director Tate Burmeister, Assistant Director Jim Clark, and Director Sasha Brätt review old-time photographs of Coney Island. Photograph by Kelley Fryer/elan Magazine )

Behind the Scenes: Ivoryton’s Coney Island Christmas Creative Team Shines

Published Dec 06, 2018 • Last Updated 09:42 am, December 10, 2018

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Long before Ivoryton Playhouse brought Coney Island Christmas to the stage for this year's holiday run, a very special cast of characters went to work to conjure up this unique production with a community-centric twist.  In shows running Dec. 13 through Dec. 23, audiences will see the actors – many of them local folk -- but few will meet the creative team who helped part the mists of the past, pull in the present, and provide story views that can careen like a funhouse mirror or rocket riotously like a spin on the Cyclone.

From the first read-through to the final curtain, this creative team has been dedicated to helping the Ivoryton's production of Coney Island Christmas deliver a memorable version of Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies' universal tale of "what it means to be an American during the holidays." It clicks back and forth through the decades on the same stage, as an older, wiser version of a young Jewish girl tells her great-granddaughter about the place in time when she was cast as Jesus in her school Christmas pageant.

The Creative Team

It's a summery September Sunday when most members of the show's creative team gather for the first time at a preliminary production meeting. They're center stage at a long table in the Ivoryton Tavern on Summer Street, with a great view of the Ivoryton Playhouse right across the road. The historic, neoclassical playhouse, active for more than 100 years, has completed a total renovation over the past 30 years, through the efforts of the Ivoryton Playhouse Foundation. The work includes new heating/air conditioning, new seats in the 250-seat theatre, and state-of-the-art theatrical sound and lighting systems.

Seated around the tavern table on this day are Director Sasha Brätt, Assistant Director Jim Clark (who soon takes his leave to man a production underway at the playhouse); Scenic Designer Daniel Nischan; Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott; Stage Manager Holly Price; Assistant Stage Manager Kayla Gardener, Sound Designer/Technical Director Tate Burmeister, and intern Aspen Nuñez. Later, the team will fill in Costume Designer Lisa Bebey who was unable to attend. Everyone at the table is eager to hear—and share – in what Coney Island Christmas says to Brätt.

"It all stems from the director, and making sure the director is somebody who, much like Sasha, is thoughtful and prepared and plans; but is flexible and open to new ideas," says Nischan. "The director is the coach of the show. He's someone who is fostering relationships, bringing everybody to the same place; but allowing room for that path to change a little bit as we go. Someone with a strong vision, who has a good plan how to get there; but isn't married to one idea."

Later that same day, Brätt and Nischan will also head the show's first cast meeting and read-through.

"This show also has a big cast which involves lots of community, too; which is another component – trying to involve as many people as possible. It's about getting young people on our stage, and the occasional Christmas carol, but no gratuitous Christmas carols. They all fit within the logical flow of the play," says Nischan, who also serves as Associate Artistic Director for the Ivoryton Playhouse.

Nischan started reading scripts to find this Christmas show back in March; going through quite a few "heavy-handed" feel-good Christmas scripts before finding the perfect show in Coney Island Christmas, he tells us.

"The script itself is very delicate. That's what I liked about it; that it was actually a story," says Nischan.

He's not only looking for a good story – he's also seeking that perfect holiday production that fits the playhouse mission of offering an annual community show.

"We do eight main stage productions every year. The seven that we do earlier in the year involve equity actors, which means they're part of the actors' union -- they're professional actors who have lots of experience. The community show, the goal of that is to kind of highlight the talent of the people that live locally and give them the opportunity to be on our stage, because part of what we are is a community organization," explains Nischan.  "But while the genesis of this show is that it's more for the community, it's kind of grown into a more professionally-balanced show. This is a very professional team. It's the same team that does all the regular shows."

And, Nischan adds, there's nothing "regular" about the Ivoryton's annual Christmas show – in 20 years, it's never been the same show twice.

"We've been doing this yearly as part of our incentive for membership – when you become a member, you get two tickets to our annual community show. But we'd get bored telling the same story multiple times," he says. "We want something that resonates as storytelling."

Brätt wholeheartedly agrees.

"It's like, 'Well, do we put it on because it's a Christmas show, or because it says something?'" Brätt asks. "This show says something about family, about memory, about not fitting in, about diversity, about coming of age. Those are all things that are relevant, at any time."

Letting Ideas Flow

At the tavern table, as Brätt begins discussing how this show speaks to him, eyes light up, and the team's combined creativity starts to come to a boil.

From the moment he greets them with, "Hi everyone. My name is Sasha Brätt, and I'll be your director today," Brätt, who's also an actor and teacher, spins a vision of what Coney Island Christmas evokes in his mind's eye.

Discussing where he'd like to guide the show's actors and the audiences, Brätt  says, "...the world of the play that I'm most interested in creating, or what I'm most excited about in this play, is the combination it has between being a generational linking play [and] how the differences among us always feel like what we're going through now is the newest thing," he says.

To start, let's bring the audience into the story, to be transported along with the actors. Brätt suggests an opening scene with a hint of 1987 comedy/fantasy/adventure film, The Princess Bride.

"I feel like I want to find the tone of a Princess Bride; where [the grandfather] Peter Falk is reading a story to a sick [grandson] Fred Savage, and he's like, I don't like this; this is dumb; and we can take him on an adventure. Instead, for us, the adventure is a real place; but maybe in the design it is still a memory play. It's the idea of Coney Island versus the exactness of Coney Island," he says.

Therein lies a challenge for the team: "Remembering it; but it's like coming back and forth between these worlds. I think that's something where Marcus (Abbott, lighting designer) and other aspects can help out," says Brätt "We have to live in these worlds simultaneously. Once we go here; it's hard not to be here. But at the same time, we still have to hear these people who are narrating for us."

The creative team starts riffing on putting Brätt's ideas across in light, sound, and scenery.  Nischan brings out photos of old-time Coney Island and other visuals he's found that "...sort of capture that mythic and dreamy idea," Nischan says, pointing to one. "I really like this image -- I'm seeing walls that are just kind of covered with flyers. These are all images that really spoke to me as the tone of the piece."

"Exactly– a little blurry, from our memory," says Brätt. "I've been thinking a lot about how memory serves us."

Nischan also calls up a rough stage design on his laptop computer, showing what he's found in "textures and physicality" while also giving a sense of how to pull off slipping between different locations as well as decades in time.

"I sort of look at textures of the stage like rough, very rough, wood and posters," says Nischan. "I'm thinking if we do sort of a beautiful tapestry behind them; and then pieces that move on that are part of that world that we have. Crates can become theatre seats; and stacked things become a shop, with a few extra pieces. It's a tactile place: we're reusing things, so everything has age. I'm picturing milk crates that double as shelves in the shop. They're sit-able and they're things you would direct with, but they become scenery sort of effortlessly."

The idea sits very well with Stage Manager Holly Price, who shares a long list, developed by Assistant Stage Manager Kayla Gardener, of every item and locale mentioned in the script.

"It kind of has a tie-in to what Dan's doing," says Price, noting, "...there's a lot of show with no transitions. It's so instantaneous! I don't understand a lot of how we're going to accomplish it right now, but it's going to be very exciting."

The stage also needs to be designed for demands such as the play opening in a bedroom space; but converting to bring in some true physical aspects of Coney Island, from carousel horses to its busy boardwalk, Nischan adds.

"I'm thinking for pre-show; treat the whole thing so it becomes part of the existing building; and then as we reveal a magical place called Coney Island, we whisk open the main [curtain] to the much fuller, richer kind of wooden and tactile world, with something that suggests the buildings and all the busy-ness of the boardwalk. And I think that's where people and extra children can be on stage to add movement and motion," he suggests. "I think that's where an interesting soundscape might help too. There's some sort of distant calliope music or something that cues us in every time we're transitioning back into these memories."

"I think there's going to be a nice language between light and sound," adds Brätt.

Nischan and Abbott have worked together on shows in the past where light and sound have added important layers to the story. This time around, Abbott sees loads of possibilities in Nischan's suggestions of incorporating silhouettes that "...we can bring to life," says Abbott.

"I think, with a show like this, isolation is really important. Otherwise, you can get lost in the big picture," Abbott continues. "Once the set design is together, I think it's going to be great to silhouette a lot of that on stage and bring it to life where we need to. Dan and I also talked about some real, lighted signs; and some of those posters he has can actually be circled in Coney Island-style light."

Brätt also challenges the group to "...embrace the childhood innocence and energy" in the show's crescendo of a Christmas pageant so that it "goes nuts" without going "campy."

Through it all, the show needs to have a heart, especially during its moments involving family, Brätt adds.

"I think if we don't have a heart to it, then it's just a self-aggrandizing exercise," says Brätt.  "Because otherwise, it's obvious. It's too obvious to be a 12-year-old girl rebelling against traditional Jewish parents—that's not it. It's actually, 'I'm trying to grow, and why are we being held down?' And that's an interesting story."

Brätt is also encouraging the team to enjoy every moment they'll be working with the cast of about 18, which includes some veteran local players of all ages in key roles and many youngsters newer to acting.

"Embrace the joy that throwing children on stage in a professional setting can bring," he says. "Children can act. We all started somewhere."

Later that afternoon, when Brätt and Nischan meet with the multi-age cast for the first time, the excitement about the show takes on a new direction – putting the actors in motion.

"My favorite thing about first day is that [on] opening night, when you're downstairs in the dressing room of this sweet, professional theatre, I'm going to come down and I'm going to say, 'Do you guys remember that first rehearsal when we didn't know each other, and it was sometimes really awkward and I was saying a lot at once and it seemed like there was no purpose to what I was saying – but what I  was actually doing was trying to break the ice – remember that? And look how close we've become now.' And then one of you will cry," Brätt says, eliciting laughs from the new group.  "But, it will be beautiful. So, I embrace the weirdness of strangers getting together in a room to read words that they didn't write, of a story that they were not part of. I think that's amazing. And I also embrace how close we're going to work, and how much magic we're going to make together."

Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St, Ivoryton, presents a holiday show for people of ages and all faiths, Coney Island Christmas, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies. Performances are Thursday, December 13 - Sunday, Dec. 23. Weeknight and Saturday evening shows at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Ticket prices: $35 adult; $32 senior; $20 student; $15 child. Groups over ten price is $30, and actor half price tickets (and Tix@Six) are $18. Purchase tickets and find more information at http://www.ivorytonplayhouse.org



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