A Designer’s Journey

Posted on February 27, 2018

Gail Russel – Costume Designer – MARJORIE PRIME

January 25, 2018 

Costumes for Marjorie Prime.

Hell! I’m going to Florida!

January 31, 2018

It’s been a week since my initial expletive.

Travel plans, check

Home responsibility coverage, check

The must-do list, check

Now, where to start?

Marjorie Prime was written by Jordan Harrison.  Originally commissioned, in-part, by Playwrights Horizons, it premiered in 2014 at the Mark Taper Forum/Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, followed by its New York debut in 2015. Capital Stage and American Stage in St. Petersburg, Florida, are presenting a co-production. First the show will be built, rehearsed and premiered in Florida from March 7 – April 1, 2018. Then Stephanie Gularte and the entire cast, set and designs will come out to Sacramento, California, to run from May 2 – June 3, 2018. 

Readily available, and easily through Amazon, I’d bought a copy of the script back in September when the mere possibility of working on this co-production presented itself.  As a long-time costume designer for Capital Stage Co., the chance to join Stephanie Gularte on another ambitious, challenging, and creative journey intrigued me. The opportunity to grow and work with an unknown-to-me production team, in a new facility, in an unfamiliar place was an adventure I did not want to miss. So, after a few rounds of phone tag, Stephanie and I finally hooked up, talked about the show, discussed our needs, and a long-distance agreement was made. 

My initial reading of the script left me a bit confused and honestly, a bit scared.  What was going on?   What should I be highlighting, what margin notations should I make?  The text concisely states where we are, who is who and their ages, but exactly when the action takes place and the relationship between characters, especially that between Walter and Marjorie, is not immediately clear.  The fact that Walter is a being of artificial intelligence, a Prime, takes a bit to figure out, but once it’s figured out rather than settling in for the rest of the read, a whole new set of questions storms your brain and you’re back to being a bit confused and honestly, a bit scared.  As part of our introduction to the work, Stephanie sent us an on-line link to an interview with Jordan Harrison and New York director, Anne Kauffman.  It also included live scene readings from several parts of the play.  This was an opportunity to hear the words and to gain background regarding the story’s origins, and the message and ideas the playwright wished to express.  I took notes as if attending a lecture.


Basic idea #1:

Humans verses machines. The exploration and mystery of human identity and what technology can replace. What makes human thinking distinct, special, or unique? Reference was made to the Turing Test, developed in the 1950’s by Alan Turing to test a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

Is this new news?

Projections of the future are at least as old (if not older than) The Jetsons, Mr. Spock and Star Trek.  Our ability to predict the future is slower than the future getting here. DING!! And as technology grows, and we allow it to come more and more into our lives, willingly or not, we are getting acclimated to it.   

What does this mean?

Some people think this acceptance of technology is a bad thing.  Some people question it, try to avoid it. Is technology portrayed as a negative element in this play? How big is it?  Will it swallow us up? Jordan Harrison says, “No.” There is a utopian idea of technology in this play.  How can it be used in positive ways?  Can technology be used to preserve us? Can technology be spiritual?  The character of Marjorie, he says, our 85-year-old protagonist, comes partly from his grandmother and his parents’ attempt to keep her life alive. I understood this all too well, being in the same situation right now with my own 92-year-old mother.  So, from the very beginning, personal memory comes in to play. Can technology supply companionship for the elderly?  Does this get us off the hook? Anne Kauffman discussed the difficulty of how to direct the “Primes.”  How do you honestly direct actors to play characters of artificial intelligence? Their role in this play is not cut and dry.  Each Prime is there for a certain reason, to bring about a certain reaction. 

So, how do we use all this?

A few weeks ago, when Stephanie and I had the opportunity to phone chat and discuss our approach to this production of this play, several ideas reoccurred. The poetry underlying the characters’ relationships and our need for human connection was very important to her. The Sci-fi of the play is increasingly relevant.  The play is set 50 years in the future, a conceivable time span for many of us.  In many ways the future is already here. What does that mean to us?  If we were to logically sit down and really think about how life will be in 50 years and why…what would we say?  Genuine is a word I used to describe how important it is to keep the look, the visual elements of the show believable and acceptable to the audience. If the audience spends too much time trying to understand where they are, they will miss what is being said, leaving them confused. This play requires us to pay close attention. How do we make it personal? Subtle, but recognizable choices.  How do we balance the human verses non-human? Is it robotic verses overly natural?  Is it human verses not-so-human? How slightly “other” is it? 

Tomorrow morning, I join the “Creative Huddle,” a group phone chat with Stephanie, the American Stage Theatre Co. production manager, and, I assume, the rest of the production team.  I am looking forward to the adventure I don’t want to miss. Hopefully, the necessary long-distance technology of the next few weeks won’t find me too confused, for honestly, I am a bit scared. 

Elyse Sharp & MISS BENNET – A Homecoming

Posted on December 20, 2017

There is one question that I keep being asked over and over about working on Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. It isn’t how do we learn how to behave like Regency characters out of Jane Austen’s novels (answer: we have an amazing team who work behind the scenes researching and bringing us answers when we have questions about the period) or how did we learn how to do British accents (answer: we work on them with a coach and have linguistic guidelines that we learn, in addition to watching or listening to British television or radio). No, the question I’ve been asked most often is:

What is it like being back at Capital Stage?

Simply, it is like coming home.

The idea of coming home and all that it entails is central to Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Throughout the show, Mary Bennet struggles to reconcile the woman she longs to become with the girl her family expects her to be, all the while discovering possibilities she thought inaccessible to her. Like Mary, there are times when I find myself easily falling back into old habits from my time as an apprentice. A muscle memory takes over, and all of a sudden, I am refilling the toilet paper and paper towels in the backstage bathroom.

Throughout Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, each beloved Austen character is given the opportunity to grow and change. Within the three and a half years since I graduated from my apprenticeship program, Capital Stage has changed in so many incredible ways. The new rehearsal, classroom, and office spaces at CLARA are a luxury we had only begun to dream of when I was last here. It makes such a difference in the process to have a dedicated space that is for your show instead of trying to figure out your show on the set of another during the first week of rehearsals. It’s also great to not have to jaywalk across J Street as much.

The CapStage family has also grown to include new staff and four classes of apprentices. It’s been wonderful to be welcomed back by them as well as to catch up with the family members who were here during my apprenticeship. Through the wonder of social media, I also get to see daily reminders of what exactly I was doing exactly three and half years ago: wearing an elf costume as a crew member for certain performances of The Santaland Diaries. It makes me wonder where this year’s apprentices (two of whom are currently helping keep our show running every night while others are already hard at work on building the world of The Nether meanwhile all working to find a script for their upcoming showcase) will be three and a half years from now.

Ultimately, while Mary wants her family to recognize her worth and to be able to live beyond what is expected for a woman of her time, at the end of each performance, I just hope I’ve made my CapStage family proud.

Elyse Sharp
Actor, Capital Stage Apprentice Alumna

Miss Bennet in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Lauren Hirsch on LUNA GALE

Posted on November 14, 2017

After I read Luna Gale, I knew I had to be a part of this production. I cried when I first read the script by Rebecca Gilman. I was deeply touched by these characters and their struggles and complexity. Then reading the script again, I was fascinated by how she wove the whole play so intricately – every scene holds significance. When Michael Stevenson cast me as Karlie, I was ecstatic. I was also nervous because I would be onstage with actors I really admire, but every actor on this production welcomed everyone with open arms and laughter.  

LUNA GALE by Rebecca Gilman

Lauren Hirsch & Amy Resnick* in LUNA GALE by Rebecca Gilman at Capital Stage. Directed by Michael Stevenson. Photo by Charr Crail. *Member Actors’ Equity Association.

Something I really admired during this process, even though we were discussing heavy material, is that we were all able to find the humor – either from our lives or in the play and share it with one another. Michael, our director, opened the door for that enjoyment every rehearsal. He created a safety net of trust from the beginning, which has continued through the performances keeping all of us sane, even when real life became disconcerting.

The #MeToo movement took hold during our Tech and into our preview performances. My Facebook news page was flooded with #metoo, with some brave souls sharing their stories. Sexual assault allegations continue to appear in the news as men and women rally their courage to speak about the invasion of their being. This movement struck a chord with me, and I realized how important Luna Gale is in this way and how relevant it is with two women revealing their assaults in this play and how their lives were forever altered from that moment.

Luna Gale also deals with drug abuse and the foster care system. After every performance my fellow actors and I find ourselves speaking with a social worker or two about how the content of this play is what they deal with on a daily basis. The foster care system was not something I thought about ever, but this play has made me think about it and the children who are unfortunately lost in the shuffle of paperwork, and the social workers doing their best for these children.

This play has made me reconsider how I should contribute to society. It has me questioning many things. Is there a way to heal drug addictions? Is there a way to stop sexual assault? In what way can I help the foster care system?

My time on this production has been incredible, and I know it has altered me as an actor and as a human being. 


Lauren Hirsch
Actor, Director & Capital Stage Apprentice

Rehearsing AN OCTOROON

Posted on September 20, 2017

Producing Artistic Director Michael Stevenson reflects on rehearsals for An Octoroon at Capital Stage

When I read An Octoroon, I remember being amazed at the script and at how the 19th century melodrama carried unintended echoes of the present. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ fearless and inventive adaptation jumbles time, contemporary values and humor with the hard realities of race in America today. I felt it was our obligation to do such a daring piece of theatre.

After Charlottesville, this play struck me with a new resonance. I felt I woke up in a new and disturbing world. After the shock and dismay of the white supremacist march in Virginia, we as a country started to question our identity and our progress – who are we?

I vividly remember the moment in rehearsal when one of our actors started putting on blackface. Judy Moreland, our director, and I were sitting in the theatre during our designer run, and the tension in the air was palpable. I squirmed in my seat, and watched with both fascination and dread as the actor playing Pete/Paul/Assistant carefully and silently applied the blackface makeup. It was a surreal feeling – witnessing something I never thought that I would actually see in real life. Just moments before, our lead actor had put on whiteface.

As I watched the actors fearlessly step across taboos, it occurred to me, the genius of this play is that it uses taboos and stereotypes to open our eyes to our own beliefs – to a take a new look at ourselves. Dion Boucicault, the author of the original play The Octoroon, wrote it as an anti-slavery piece, but he himself was full of prejudicial beliefs. It made me begin to question what beliefs do I carry that I’m not even aware of?

A friend of mine posted this picture the other day on Facebook with the caption:  “Here’s your statue.” 

We’ve come so far, but we still have so far to go.


Michael Stevenson
Producing Artistic Director
Capital Stage