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Austin Shakespeare Behind the Scenes: Clever Comedy

It’s all hands on deck when transforming a black box theatre into a sumptuous 1930s entertaining space! The Austin Shakespeare crew has let us in on the technical and design challenges behind making Noël Coward’s Present Laughter a believable escape—and a funny one, too!

Collaboration is the name of the game with every play production, but especially Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, weaving together actors, designers, crew and technicians to bring a unique comedy to life. The story of a stage star was selected for Austin Shakespeare favorite, Marc Pouhé, to give a fireworks display of his comic timing and physical agility.

An open audition for the nine other roles attracted numerous actors—we were delighted to cast a couple of actors new to the company, Corinna Browning and Toby Minor. The 10-person ensemble rehearsed with director, stage manager and assistant for a month, 22 hours each week, learning lines, stage movement, and building character relationships. We got into the Rollins Studio Theatre a week before opening to assemble the set and get actors onstage.

Present Laughter | Austin Shakespeare | The Long Center for the Performing Arts

We staged the Noël Coward play in the period in which it was written—1937 – 1940—and actors adopted a simple British dialect. Style is all important, here—lots of cocktails, cigarettes (vapor, of course), dressing gowns, gloves and pursues for ladies—all require an elegance beyond our rehearsal t-shirts and jeans. From the first rehearsal, costume designer Benjamin Taylor Ridgway showed sketches of each character, and set designer John Mayfield showed the scenic design so that actors could evoke the world of the play in their creative imaginations.

We also needed wigs: one from expert Allison Lowery for Marc Pouhé as the matinee idol, Garry Essendine (based on a wig she made for Marc when he played Martin Luther King), and another wig for his wife, played by Babs George, which was supplied by film wig stylist Tara Cooper (who also constructed our Cyrano nose).

Creating a realistic show also requires tons of props. Our property designer, Chaz Sanders, had to supply glassware for cocktails that wouldn’t break, lots of paper products for letters and postcards, boat tickets that would appear to be from the correct historical period, as well as a few photos of the lead character with the Queen, Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein (look for them on the set!).

Present Laughter | Austin Shakespeare | The Long Center for the Performing Arts

Sound design for Present Laughter required the use of a British telephone (ring, ring), door buzzer, and numerous door slams that designer Bill Meadow creatively recorded around his own home!

Patrick Anthony’s lighting included a window, chandelier, and lots of bright full-stage comedy lighting. His design required collaboration, particularly with color schemes and reflective surfaces impacting the entire design team of set, costumes, props and technical director Christopher Hejl, who built our world.

Staging a great comedy is loads of fun. We got to laugh every evening and weekend rehearsal. Noël Coward’s Present Laughter sets up the characters’ dilemmas in the first scenes, and like a screwball comedy, unwinds in the final scenes. The measure of our success is that we notice joy in the play and in our own lives. We found that in many rehearsals, but ultimately we need the audience as our ultimate collaborator to find the joy in this brilliant script.

Join the fun with Austin Shakespeare’s production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, running from now through December 4th in the Rollins Studio Theatre.

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