Tag Archives: arisia 2015

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Tuxedos, fine ladies, and ruffians – more costuming for Mrs. Hawking

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Categories: mrs. hawking, performance, Tags: , ,

Jennifer Giorno, our amazing costumer, put together such a gorgeous collection of looks for our production at Arisia 2015. Historical Victorian dress, particularly for men, was very strictly regimented, but we still wanted to balance that with creating a visually engaging stylization that spoke of our characters’ personalities as well as provide texture to the world they live in. In addition to our leads, Jenn assembled a beautiful collection of looks to round out our supporting cast. Many pieces came from our personal collections, while others were very generous loans from our friends Lise Fracalossi and Nicholas Magruder.

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I particularly enjoyed the tuxedoed looks, mostly borrowed from our obliging friends. It’s a style of dress I’m a big fan of, but nowadays there’s so little occasion to ever see anyone wearing it. But we had a number of evening scenes full of high-class gentlemen, so that meant we had to get them right.

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As you can see with these looks on Matthew Kamm, Francis Hauert, and Jonathan Plesser, we took a little bit of liberty in throwing in touches of color. This is where the vests generously lent to us by Lise Fracalossi came in. The red and black scheme was a nice visual cue as to Lord Brockton’s villainous nature, and the earth tones on Sir Walter spoke to his roots as a country squire. Nathaniel’s shades of gray and silver made him look sophisticated and stylish, which was how I always saw the character. The cravats were made by me, out of fabric specifically chosen to coordinate with the colors of the vests.

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Nathaniel’s day look as worn by Jonathan Plesser was also nice. We wanted it to look noticeably different from the eveningwear, so we decided to cast it in gray, with a morning coat over a pinstripe vest. The silhouette is nicely differentiated from the cutaway tailcoats in the tuxedo ensembles. The burgundy cravat was an afterthought, but I liked how it tied Nathaniel into the dark red color scheme of Mrs. Hawking’s parlor. It at once says he’s of this place, which is both a cage and a safe place for our hero.

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The other two male day looks were worn by Francis Hauert and Bobby Imperato as Lord Brockton and John Colchester respectively. They wore handmade frock coats, more borrowed pieces from the generous costume maker Lise Fracalossi, in various shades of gray. Lord Brockton also wore another vest, this time in black and gold, along with a gold silk necktie. And you can’t deny the iconic thug look of a Victorian baddie in a bowler.

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Lastly, we have the ladies. On one hand, we have the high-class lady, Arielle Kaplan as Mrs. Celeste Fairmont, in a brightly colored blouse decorated with lace and a full satin skirt. On the other hand, we have the lower-class example, Jenn Giorno as Miss Grace Monroe, in a plain blouse, a navy twill skirt, and the only vest in the piece to be worn by a woman! I really love how these costumes contrast in color and in texture, drawing a strong visual distinction between the middle class lady and the working class girl. These pieces are from Jenn’s personal collection, informed by her vast knowledge of Victorian costuming conventions.

We were really lucky to have someone as hardworking and passionate as Jenn designing for our show. It increased the visual punch of every moment our actors were onstage.

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The ballroom scene by Pendragon Costumes

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Photos by Jennifer Giorno and John Benfield

When I was first writing Mrs. Hawking, I knew a big part of the appeal of the story would be the trappings and the spectacle. The look of the steampunk setting would add a great deal of gloss to the tale I was trying to tell, and I wanted to take advantage of everything that setting would afford me. And you can’t tell a grand caper set in Victorian London without a few gorgeous period costumes.

The ballroom scene of Mrs. Hawking is a fan favorite. It’s Mary’s first real mission, when she and Mary go undercover as grand society ladies to the villain Lord Brockton’s ball, and she is thrown straight into the deep end. Mrs. Hawking has her distract their opponent by pretending she is the niece of the viceroy of India, and must put on a character that matches the grand ballgown she is wearing as her disguise. It also includes what is probably the best joke in this first play:

MARY: Oh, well, you know how things are… uncle dear thought it was best for me to go away for a while… he feared I was becoming too popular with some of his, well…

LORD BROCKTON: Soldiers, miss?

(She affects a carriage of indignation.)

MARY: My lord! What kind of lady do you take me for? Fraternizing with enlisted men?

(She pauses dramatically.)

MARY: They were all officers!

I do some costume design professionally, and I remember one of the young actresses in a production I worked for a high school asking if when I wrote my own plays, I made sure to write in costuming requirements that were workable. I had to laugh at that, because as often as I bemoan playwrights who design things without any regard to the practicality for production— in fact, I wrote the craft portion of my master’s thesis on it —because Mrs. Hawking is a perfect example of my falling down on that particular job. Characters have TONS of changes in this play, sometimes every other scene, and in and out of complicated Victorian looks. That’s a hell of a task for a cast and a costumer!

Though I pitched in with a few looks for the Arisa 2015 production, mostly ones I’d already put together for the Mrs. Hawking photoshoots, our primary costume designer was Jennifer Giorno, also the actress playing Grace Monroe. So the challenge of putting together Victorian ballroom looks that could be changed in and out of in very short order fell on her. Not an easy task on our budget! But she got a great idea to see if we could a costume company to agree to sponsor our production by lending us some pieces. That is where Pendragon came in, a maker of fine costuming with a fabulous selection of steampunk and Victorian looks in their Mad Girl Clothing line.

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In return for credit in our program, they very generously agreed to lend us three pieces of handmade eveningwear for our leads. It was an incredible thing to happen to us, as it gave us the opportunity to have some of the most important costumes in the play be particularly beautiful, as well as practical for the demands of the quick change.

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A full Pendragon outfit can be seen here on Samantha LeVangie in her role as Mary. It was particularly important that Mary come out looking exquisite– transformatively so –as an indication of Mary’s potential to become a powerful, brilliant, dyanmic person. Jenn asked the company if it would be possible to get Mary’s garments in blue, as I’ve long imagined it to be Mary’s signature color.

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They provided us with two gorgeous pieces from the Corset Gown Outfit— the underskirt with its “front panel of chenille fabric sewn to a cotton skirt” and the matching chenille shrug with its “high, snap down collar.” Samantha also wears their Corset with Bustle, loaned to us by a friend who purchased it from Pendragon a number of years ago.

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When Jenn told Pendragon that the bustle corset was in the color of Welkin Blue, they chose the blue and brown pattern for the coordinating skirt and shrug. It makes for a lovely and complementary combination, particularly given Sam’s coloring and the character of Mary. Sam is an extraordinarily beautiful woman, and she wears this so well.

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The other piece Pendragon so graciously lent us was for Mrs. Hawking, modeled here by Frances Kimpel. This was also a Corset with Bustle, a particularly useful piece not only because it looked so cool, but because its toggle-hooks running down the front assisted in making the quick change a little easier. Because Mrs. Hawking is a widow, of course it had to be in black.

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To keep the looks consistent, Frances also wore a velvet bolero with the labels pinned back so the details of the corset would be visible. The skirts are from Jenn’s collection, also part of her ordinary day look. I also made Frances wear those gloves through the entirety of the play, poor thing. It made sense for all her looks– those where she is supposed to seem like a respectable middle-class widow, and when she is an operating agent in stealth garb.

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One thing that was particularly enjoyable was that the same bustle corset had such different effects when worn by these very different characters and their actresses. The same style of corset top makes Mary look like a princess…

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…has the aspect of armor when worn on Mrs. Hawking.

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If you’re interested in owning some of Pendragon’s gorgeous costuming, don’t hesitate to check out their website. Their work is both truly beautiful and extremely high-quality.

In fact, there is a chance that the pieces they lent to us are still available for purchase, as they went on sale as soon as our show finished! You could end up owning an artifact from the very first production of Mrs. Hawking!

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What the Arisia production taught me about the Mrs. Hawking script

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Categories: development, mrs. hawking, performance, Tags: , , ,

One of my excellent writing mentors, science fiction and fantasy author Mark Edwards, said that in the scramble to get the play put together, I would forget that I actually wrote the script that I was trying to put up— that is, until the Wednesday before the opening, when it would hit me like a ton of bricks and I’d have to fight the urge to change everything at the last minute. Even when you’re at the point of the script development process where you’re actually staging it, as the writer you’ve still got to see what the new circumstances can teach you about the script so that everything that worked in theory still works when you get it to the point where it’s actually a living, breathing entity.

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Theater is meant to be an experience, so a script has to hold up under the pressure of physical realities, timing, and audience. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the written words are, what really matters is how they play with actors, properties, and effects. This can be a two-edged sword; on one hand, sometimes production can elevate a script, but even a beautiful script that doesn’t work in practice or is unengaging to watch isn’t good theater. So now that Mrs. Hawking has finally been produced, I have information about it is a play that I didn’t have before.

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Samantha LeVangie and Frances Kimpel rehearsing an exit by window. “Hawking out!”

First of all, I am pleased to say that the piece played very well. I tweaked it a bit before going into rehearsals– mostly wording choices, and details like making sure Mary only calls Nathaniel “Mr. Hawking” for the first part of the play –but made no major changes. In performance the dialogue sounded natural and in-character, the story moved at a nice clip, and the world seemed to draw the audience into it. Though Mrs. Hawking is not as funny as its sequel Vivat Regina, and a few of the jokes early on didn’t get laughs due to what I believe was the audience not having relaxed into it yet, by fifteen or so minutes in they were definitely audibly reacting. One of the biggest moments for them was after the combat scene in the climax, first when Mary goes up against a mook with her poker, then Mrs. Hawking takes out a second one with a head bash and a choke hold. That got a real round of applause! All credit for that goes to Arielle Kaplan, the fight choreographer, and of course actors Frances Kimpel, Samantha LeVangie, Bobby Imperato, and Andrew Prentice.

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Arielle Kaplan instructing Frances Kimpel on the proper way to strangle Bobby Imperato.

It ran, interestingly, a fair bit shorter than I expected it to, at an hour and fifteen minutes when I’d originally guessed an hour an a half. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the page count of the production script. After some thought, I actually don’t think this is a bad thing. The play moved along at a brisk pace, and as they say, it’s always better to leave them wanting more. Also that helped us get into and out of the performance space well within our time allotment, as the production ended before we’d originally expected it to.

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Jonathan Plesser expresses frustration to Samantha LeVangie at the notion at the idea that Mrs. Hawking may have fired Mary.

Of course feasibility of production was a huge concern. When I originally wrote it in graduate school in 2012, I made the decision to just worry about trying to tell a good story. That meant I ended up going with some fairly challenging elements for the sake of punching it up– the quick change into fancy gowns for the ballroom scene, and the infamous moment in the club scene where Mrs. Hawking had to climb the set into the air. I felt they added enough to the story– plus I’m pretty attached to them at this point –that I wanted to try to make them work. You have no idea how relieved I was when we pulled it off.

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Of all the plays I’ve ever directed, Mrs. Hawking was the most piece-intensive, particularly when it came to props and costumes. Transitions between scenes required a great deal of work and precision so that they happened not only correctly but quickly. My biggest fear with the runtime was that excessively draggy transitions would kill the momentum of the story. But my cast and crew really stepped up, and nailed all of their marks when it came to carrying furniture on and off, moving props, and changing clothes. I even heard from an audience member that the pauses between the scenes provided nice “breaths” when taking it all in, allowing them a moment to process and even to whisper to each other over what they’d just seen. That was a nice unexpected reaction! So while it takes some work to manage them right, the required transitions were doable. Great to know!

So I have come to a place where I’m extremely pleased with the state of the script. I think this is serious proof of concept, that this script has what it takes– it plays well, it draws audiences, it engages them once they’re there, it’s doable on a tight schedule, in a tight timeslot, on a small budget. What more could I hope for than that?

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The set for Mrs. Hawking at Arisia 2015

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Building the set for this show may have been the most difficult aspect of producing it. I wanted a real set for it, not only to elevate the production values, but because the plot demanded that Mrs. Hawking physically scale it. I got a lot of heat for that when I was writing it in grad school, but it was very necessary for the spectacle of the piece— we should see what a gymnast Mrs. Hawking is –so I stuck to my guns on it. Unfortunately, that meant a pretty demanding standard for the building of the set. But because of our limited budget, getting shop space was unfortunately not possible. That meant we were forced to build the set in my backyard. If it had been May, that might not have been such a big deal, but we had a week in a Boston January.

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Because of our time and resource limitations, I tried to design the set to require as little build as possible to stand up and be weight-bearing. That was where my idea to adapt a wooden children’s jungle gym into a structural set. We used the tower section to create a climbable freestanding piece that we attached the flat with the fireplace, and then the monkey bar section to create a window with the wall flat. I was incredibly pleased to see that this idea not only worked but also reduced our workload. It might not have been possible otherwise.

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The mantlepiece is particularly special, made by set consultant Carolyn Daitch. She made this gorgeous piece for us out of wood with a special styrofoam panel in the shelf of it, so that Mrs. Hawking can stab it with her knives. The worked BEAUTIFULLY, and allowed for the awesome image of her plunging the Colonel’s Bowie knife into it, leaving it stuck there in mute testament to her rage in that moment. The black and gold color scheme on it was thanks to Samantha LeVangie, who was scenic charge in addition to playing the role of Mary.

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We painted everything as the snow was actively falling down. I was terrified that the paint was freezing rather than drying, and would slough off in a torrent when we got it into a warmer space, but thankfully it managed to hold up. It also made it possible to visually incorporate the playground structures into the Victorian parlor look. Add a couple of gas lamps, curtains, and the portrait of the Colonel, and we were there. We chose red and gold for the colors to give it the warm period appearance.

We actually impressed some people with the quality and extensiveness of the set. It came in looking beautiful, and we put it up quickly and efficiently, thanks to our excellent team. Arisia is apparently not used to full sets, and it was gratifying to hear we turned a few heads. Not to mention that we got Mrs. Hawking in the air, just like we set out to!

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The set’s existence is primarily thanks to the work of Bernie Gabin, our technical director, my frequent collaborator, and my boyfriend. His experience in all aspects of technical theater, not to mention his fierce determination through adversity, made it possible to have any actual build occur. I am also incredibly grateful for the hard work of Eboracum Richter-Dahl, our stage manager, Frances Kimpel, our Mrs. Hawking, Matthew Kamm, our Sir Walter, and Samantha LeVangie, our Mary and our scenic charge. Their toiling out in the snow and freezing temperatures with this was very much above and beyond the call of duty.

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Here is the final product. You’d never think to look at it that it was built in the snow in five days, would you? Next time someone suggests I cannot do something, I will remember this build. It was incredibly grueling at times, but it came out so beautifully that I believe it was worth it.

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Mrs. Hawking at Arisia accomplished!

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We have accomplished our herculean task of putting up our production of Mrs. Hawking at Arisia 2015!

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We performed this past Friday, and I am pleased to report that things went wonderfully. Our very talented cast put on a hell of a show, and the props, costumes, and set pieces we slaved to pull together only added to the experience. We had a sizable and appreciative audience who were full of enjoyment at the performance.

It was a great experience, and I’m so grateful to everyone who made it possible, including the lovely souls who showed up to watch. We’re pretty burnt right now; time for a well-deserved rest. In the weeks to come I’ll be posting about various elements of the production in detail. We put in so much to make this show great, and we’re incredibly proud of the end result.

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ONE WEEK until Arisia opening!

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Our production of Mrs. Hawking opens at Arisia 2015 exactly one week from today!

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This coming Sunday, tech week begins. We’re in good shape with many parts of the show, but we’ve still got to hook all the pieces together, to marry the actors’ excellent performances to all the technical demands of props and costumes to give the show a final layer of polish. It’s a bit daunting, but I’m ready to dive in and make this show the best it can be.

If you’d like to see Mrs. Hawking performed– and you know how happy that would make us all –you must have a membership to Arisia. If you do not wish to buy a full membership, $20 Friday day passes should be available for purchase at the door the day of. They not only permit you to attend Mrs. Hawking, but any other event on the Friday schedule of Arisia.

We’re down to the wire now, so wish us luck! Or, if you really would like to support us, come to Friday night of Arisia, whether with a full membership or a day pass, and see the results of all our hard work.

It’s going to be a great show.

Mrs. Hawking, by Phoebe Roberts, will be performed at Arisia 2015 on Friday, January 16th at 6PM at the Westin Waterfront Boston.

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Big badass heroes

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As I’ve mentioned, Mrs. Hawking is a bit of a power fantasy for me. I just love the idea of this small person being so physically dangerous. It’s an important part of her character that she is a warrior, and it sure adds a lot of visual excitement to see her really kick ass. What’s a superhero story or an action caper without awesome fight scenes? So that means that we needed really cool fight choreography to convey just how tough she is.

Our very talented violence designer is Arielle Kaplan, also the actress playing Mrs. Fairmont in this production, and she did an amazing job making Mrs. Hawking look like a badass. And Mary, though new to brawling, gets in a few good licks as well!

We took this little reference video during rehearsal the other day. It shows actors Frances Kimpel (Mrs. Hawking), Samantha LeVangie (Mary), and Bobby Imperato (Colchester) working on their choreography. We’re still a little rough– and you’ll notice a cameo by yours truly standing in for the other mook –but this should give you a taste of the cool scene we have planned. It’s going to look amazing when we get it all polished up.

Mrs. Hawking, by Phoebe Roberts, will be performed at Arisia 2015 on Friday, January 16th at 6PM at the Westin Waterfront Boston.

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Dressing the parts

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Costuming adds a whole extra dimension to theatrical productions. So much can be communicated about a character by the way they dress; actors tend to feel so much for like the people they are portraying when in costume; and it can add visual fascination to any production. Not to mention when you’re telling a story about badass superheroes in a period caper, they definitely need to look cool. So we are working our hardest to ensure that all our characters have a distinctive, appealing, and period-appropriate look.

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I have a background in costume design myself, and of course I’ve been thinking about how these characters might dress for ages, but our costumer for this production is Jennifer Giorno, who will also be playing Grace Monroe. Best known for her work in dressing people for live-action roleplay games, where she is known as the Costume Fairy, Jenn’s extensive knowledge of the clothes of the Victorian period make excellent use of everything we find charming about the look of this time and place. I’m really lucky to have her effort and expertise.

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There’s a lot to take into consideration when choosing an effective costume. The culture of the period we’re trying to make come alive has a lot of influence. Mrs. Hawking is a widow, for example, in a time where mourning was strictly regimented. Because she does not want attention drawn to herself, everything she wears in public, then, must be appropriately modest, and of course black. Mary is a working-class maid in a wealthy middle-class house, so her look must speak to both her station and the respectability such a house would want her to reflect.

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But there’s more than that, of course; there’s also their personalities to consider. A feature of Mrs. Hawking is that even people who aren’t aware of what she really does notice that she moves like a cat, a compact creature of uncanny grace and strength, so whatever we dress her in must allow the actress Frances Kimpel to project that in her movements. Mary is a tall, strong girl, perhaps a little unfashionably so by the standards of her time, but it gives her a bold physicality that makes you believe she could jump into superheroing. Again, her costume must allow Samantha LeVangie to demonstrate that level of energy and strength. On the other end of things, we know Nathaniel is a very successful, well-thought-of man who is comfortable in his place in life. Making him a sharp dresser who looks good in his clothes goes a long way toward informing of us how he fits into his world.

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And of course they’ve just got to look cool. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of watching cool people do cool things and look damn cool doing it! So we’re putting extra effort into making certain our heroes are just plain fun to look at it.

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We’re not revealing all of what they’re going to look like yet. We want to save the full looks for the show. But hopefully this will intrigue you enough until you get the full effect during the performance!

Mrs. Hawking, by Phoebe Roberts, will be performed at Arisia 2015 on Friday, January 16th at 6PM at the Westin Waterfront Boston.

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The drama of stiff upper lips

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One of the things we find so fascinating about Victorians is the behavioral code. Stemming from a morality promulgated by the royal family, people’ conduct was to be mild and polite, conservative and chaste, with a high level of emotional restraint. The fact that the characters involved are not accustomed to talking about their feelings means that there is drama in how they finds ways to relate to each other. There must be great meaning in the wordless actions, the silences, and the things they do manage to say. The blocking must speak volumes, and when they do speak frankly, it’s given that much more weight for how unusual it is.

As for our hero, “She’s so English,” as Elizabeth Hunter commented during the rehearsal process for the staged reading of Vivat Regina. Which is rather ironic, given how much contempt she has for English culture, but she has not been able to completely shrug off its influence. She functions very much by bottling up her feelings. It’s become a survival tactic for her to conceal the extent of her enormous rage. Also, excessive displays of emotion make her uncomfortable; she finds them somewhat unseemly, a sign of a lack of control. But though she believes this is part of what makes her strong, it also makes it difficult for her to trust and connect with the members of her team. There’s a reason she prefers to stay alone. This shows what a struggle it is for her to make a bond with Mary, and Mary’s efforts to break through this reservation make up the most important journey in the play.

Nathaniel is modeled after one breed of Englishman in particular, the cheerful, never-say-die type who believes a sunny disposition is the key to keeping calm and carrying on. This can be seen in the way he deals with Mrs. Hawking when she’s been especially difficult. This is an important note for Jonathan’s acting when he portrays Nathaniel in our production. It shows how hard he’s trying to pretend like everything is normal with his aunt to convince Mary to sign on. And it’s important to establish this behavior for him early, so that when he can no longer maintain the positive front, it makes a very clear point at just how thrown and at a loss he is.

Like most abusers, our antagonist Cedric Brockton co-opts existing cultural structures to serve his own ends. He makes use of the fact that his victims are conditioned to behave politely, place a lot of stock in public opinion, and despise themselves for the ways they do not meet proscribed social standards. It makes them susceptible to meeting his demands as a blackmailer. It is, of course, not a uniquely English thing to care about reputation, but the narrow standards of Victorian behavior gives him a lot of material to make use of. This affects the acting of portrayer Francis Hauert in how he must insinuate the crossing of boundaries, but so subtly that victims of it fall back on their polite habits in the absence of any other idea of how to react.

The major exception to this is Mary. She begins the play as an example typical of her sort; a maidservant in the presence of her betters is supposed to make herself as quiet and unobtrusive as possible. But Mary’s great strengths are her passionate moral compass and her drive to form meaningful connections with others. Once she is on her path, she knows their purpose is far bigger than the petty restrictions of arbitrary social rules. When she has to speak, to affirm her beliefs or reach out and connect, there is no stopping her. The intensity of her feelings comes bursting out of her in this play, overwhelming her old conditioning. Her great journey will be to push past the hangups of others and see that they form the team they have to be in order to do their best work.

Mrs. Hawking, by Phoebe Roberts, will be performed at Arisia 2015 on Friday, January 16th at 6PM at the Westin Waterfront Boston.

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How you can support this production of Mrs. Hawking

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Categories: performance, supplemental, Tags: ,

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As of today, our production of Mrs. Hawking at Arisia is one month away from performance. We’re coming along nicely, as rehearsals are going well, and our technical elements are slowly but surely being pulled together. Still, there is still a great deal left to do. Some lovely people have been wondering what they can do to help out with this project in some way. Well, bless you, lovely people! I am happy to suggest a number of ways you could possibly assist us in the production and promotion of this exciting new play.

Firstly, you can help us with advertising! Spreading the word about the show to those people who might be interested— theater enthusiasts, steampunk fans, Arisia congoers, general geeks, et cetera —could help increase the size of our audience. So tell your friends about it, share it on your Facebook wall. Also, if you have any ideas for what we can do or who we can talk to, don’t hesitate to make the suggestion.

You can volunteer for build! We will be doing the serious building of our set over the course of tech week and the days leading up to it, starting on the 2nd of January 2015. If you have any free time, daytime or evening, between then and our performance on the 16th, please let me know! We can definitely use extra sets of hands that can pitch in to help with construction and painting.

You can donate monetarily! We are on a tight budget to accomplish all the varied demands of producing a show, so any donation at all would be helpful. We have a Paypal account under the email mrshawkingweb@gmail.com if you are inclined this way, and know that it would be gratefully accepted.

You can support our web presence! Bookmark this website or follow it on your blog reader of choice and check back often. Liking our Facebook page gives a tangible record of your interest. Just one quick click would matter to us.

And finally, you can attend the performance at Arisia! It will be an official event of the con, and so is only open to those who purchase a membership. Day passes for Friday may be available at the door if registration does not max out, but buying a weekend pass will not only guaranteed entrance to Mrs. Hawking; it was also give you access to all the rest of the convention.

You see, we are not only hoping to put on a great show. We’re trying to get Mrs. Hawking out to the audiences who will enjoy and want to follow it. Anything you’d care to do to help us reach that goal would be forever appreciated.

Mrs. Hawking, by Phoebe Roberts, will be performed at Arisia 2015 on Friday, January 16th at 6PM at the Westin Waterfront Boston.

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