Oklahoma! (2009) – Preparation is Everything

In 2009 I was delighted to return to Our Lady’s Musical Society to direct their production of OKLAHOMA!

While I was aware of two songs “Oh, what a beautiful morning” and “Surrey with a fringe on top” I really didn’t know about the show.

Through the wonders of the internet I began to research the show- partly for my own knowledge, and partly so I could help use that information to inform the club members and potential cast.

I compiled my research into a factsheet which i made available to the cast. I think it’s important to help the cast understand the background to a show. While some shows are very well known, there are many that can be alien to members – and the challenge for any director or production team is to try and convey the essence of that show, and provide inspiration for the cast. For of course without them, we are nothing.

Then again, some aren’t fans of factsheets either, so that’s when introductory speeches are sometimes needed, and when I’ve been given the opportunity to speak to casts in advance I have tried my best to inform, excite and intrigue.

Some day I’ll write down my favourite pre-production sayings. Of course, I can’t guarantee that anyone else enjoyed them.

OKLAHOMA! was performed by the National Theatre, under the direction of Trevor Nunn, and starring a little known Australian performer called Hugh Jackman. That production was filmed, and is freely available and often televised. At the time of writing this a DVD copy is still available.

The set for that production was an excellent design, simply evoking the wide expanse of the countryside.

For this production the club were keen to use a set inspired by this one, and I was delighted to have this design – for as many know I have a deep dislike for the old-style painted cloths unless absolutely necessary.

Of course, those of you who know the show will remember that there are tremendous dances originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille, including the famous “Dream Laurey” sequence. It was important to me that the wide expanse suggested by the set wouldn’t be ruined by awkward changes – for many productions use the principal cast member playing Laurey alongside a dancer playing “Dream Laurey”. Of course, some lucky productions have a principal performer who is also a dancer. In our case, I was keen to have Laurey and Dream Laurey as that would help create some interesting pictures on stage.

The ballet is a dream sequence, a day dream and a nightmare all in one.  As in the script, it tells a story, the story of the struggle happening in Laurey’s mind.  I feel however that it is an opportunity to be more adventurous within the dream – and I think that the ideas below could be really visually arresting and engaging for the audience.  What do you think of this as a way of fleshing out the dance – I’d really like us to try it – and surprise everyone who has seen the show before and thinks they know what they are about to see…

My production notes June 2009

Inspiration for imagery can come from the most mundane, or most unusual of places. For the nightmare section of the Dream Ballet I had to think of a way to represent Laurey’s repressed desires and sexual fears. So I asked myself: “What would Rachel Stevens of S Club 7 do?”

We used a black cloth on a traveller rail which was quickly pulled across the stage, suggesting a cinematic wipe, where real Laurey was “magically” replaced by her dream version. A very simple idea, by no means unique, but I feel it worked particularly well for us.

This cloth was also used to create a dark backdrop for the scenes in Jud’s place. Rather than using a painted cloth or trundling out a heavy set piece, the cloth quickly and effectively created Jud’s dark space (which as you may know refers to both his physical location and his mental state).

Used with permission

Another attempt to allude to the cinematic “widescreen” feel was using the glass gobos on the cyclorama which we were able to adjust, along with the changing lighting to suggest time passing. Finally, at the finale, we had a large projection of the show title. The characters were thus “dwarfed” by the landscape at times.

Another hugely enjoyable part of the production was creating the fight scenes (of which there are quite a few). The cast enthusiastically threw themselves into learning the fights, from simple slaps to more comprehensive sequences.

On great memory of a chaotic scene of the chorus fighting was the pair of stunt underpants to help sell a hilarious and over the top “wedgie”. You had to be there.

Used with permission

Oklahoma! is a wonderful musical that may be from a bygone age – an age when musicals were designed to be LONG – but contains beautiful music and great characters. The show was the first in a new style of show which integrated story, song and dance to help drive the narrative.

Sure, there is a sweet love story to be told, but those not familiar with the show could be pleasantly surprised by the darkness in the story, the threat Jud provides, and the undercurrent of implied violence, twisted desire, repressed sexuality. This show is more than some country locals doing a barn dance!

The music was handled with much skill by musical director David Fisher, and choreographer Paula McGilvray not only made my ideas come to life, but also created wonderful moves with principals and chorus alike.

The review of the show was very positive and can be viewed here.

Cast included: Fiona Laird-Walker, Norman Bradford, John McKenzie, Peter Nevans, Laura Wright, Marie Maxwell, Craig Murdoch and Catherine Paterson.

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