Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"25-year-old juggles duties in production"

25-year-old juggles duties in production
by David Millstone Special to the Democrat16 days ago

CHASE JACKSON has been involved with the Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival for almost 20 years.
At the season’s first company meeting of The Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival (OSF), the Producing Director, Riley Coker, asks everyone in the room — actors, technicians, board members — to stand. Then, she asks all those who are working for OSF for the first time to sit down. A few do. Then, she asks all those who’ve worked at OSF for two years to sit down.

Several more do. That’s how it goes through a role of the previous five to 10 years, until most of the company is seated and only a few remain standing. Between 10 and 15 years, no one sits.

Still standing are Riley herself, three older women, and one tall, lanky, and suspiciously young-looking man. He does not sit until Riley says “eighteen years,” after which only Riley and three other women (all board members) remain on their feet right back through year 30.

The young male veteran who could claim involvement with OSF for nearly 20 years was 25-year-old Durant native Chase Jackson. He has acted in OSF productions since the age of six and worked in various technical areas since his teens. His beginnings were in a Children’s Theater production after which he moved onto the adult plays.

Like nearly everyone on the creative staff at the Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival, Jackson works more than one job. This year, the 30th Anniversary “All Star” Season of OSF, Jackson performs the crowd-pleasing comic role of the dim-witted, would-be wooer, “Sir Andrew Aguecheek” in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and also designs props for six of this year’s seven shows. He’s both principle actor and designer, each job, on its own is enough to keep one person busy.

“Juggling hats, knowing when to put which one on, is a challenge,” said Jackson. “When I’m in rehearsal, I’m happy when Jolene Tucker — my assistant — takes prop notes from the director, or else I get distracted.”

It’s understandable why Jackson does not want distraction while working on stage. Sir Andrew Aguecheek (pun intended) is a high energy role that lives or dies on comic timing, and on the kind of presence that actors call, “being in the moment.”

But then, when he comes off stage — a time when actors without other duties can take to relax, or study lines or spend time with loved ones — Jackson puts on his hat as head Prop Designer, to whom actors and directors constantly turn. Props in a show are an integral part of the show’s visual design, as important to telling the story as the set and costumes. Set, costumes and props all “sell” the historical era and social milieu of the story to audiences, and both the rewards of getting any of these design elements right and the pitfalls of getting them wrong can be high.

A push-button telephone in 1930s Appalachia won’t do, nor would the wrong style of frock coat, in 1870s New Orleans. To get prop details right, Jackson spends much of his day on the telephone, wrangling props from individuals or businesses willing to loan, for instance, a hard-to-find mechanical wheelchair.

“People don’t like to loan mechanical wheelchairs,” said Jackson. “I can understand why, but we do take good care of our stuff.”

Props that Jackson can’t find over the telephone or on eBay (where Jackson’s assistant recently snared the many rubber-band propelled, toy airplanes needed for nightly demolition in Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming), he builds them from scratch, or alters stock from previous shows.

This year, Jackson found that providing a Christmas tree for “A Tuna Christmas” that looked good, but was also manageable by the actors, particularly challenging.

“We solved our problem by making it kind of flat — two dimensional — so actors could get around it, but so that it also looked three dimensional to the audience.” Jackson said.

“We also had to make all these Christmas trees in Tuna very different from each other, so that they reflected their owners’ personalities,” he continued, referring to the several trees owned by the many different characters of “A Tuna Christmas.”

“We hung one with hand grenades — we made them of styrofoam — and put a gas mask on top, instead of a star. Another tree had to be very small, so we could put a diaper on it.” Jackson laughed. “Don’t ask. You have to see the show.”

Jackson’s day starts at 9 a.m., when, if he’s not in rehearsal, he’s on the phone wrangling props and fielding requests from directors — for props they just thought of and are newly indispensible — or from actors, who need some pieces earlier in the rehearsal process than others.

A comic bit with a pair of glasses or a cane can’t be left to the last minute, so Chase tracks down ‘do-fers,’ if he can’t provide the real thing, early on. Tasks such as these can take up his morning.

In the afternoon, he can be called to a three-hour rehearsal for “Twelfth Night,” in which he may or may not be on stage a lot. When he’s not on stage himself, he watches the out-of-town actors who have come to OSF for the summer bring their sometimes novel methods, and their professional work ethic, to the stage. Jackson learns from these professionals, who “definitely raise the bar,” he says.

Jackson’s day may end at 5:30 p.m., when his rehearsal ends, but commonly it continues until at least 10:30 p.m., or longer.

Rehearsals for other shows run until at least 10:30 p.m., both the scene and costume shops are at work, and props must be provided.

Jackson also must attend production meetings, during which set, costume, lighting, and prop design must all get on the same page with each other and the director. If Jackson has been lucky enough to leave the SOSU campus, where the Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival takes place each year, he goes home to work on his part as Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

“When the out-of-town actors come in, I realize I have work to do,” said Jackson, with an easy, staccato laugh.

Jackson has worked at OSF in many capacities over the years, but this is the first time he’s run a major department, let alone shoulder such production responsibility and act in a major role, too.

But, although the responsibility he feels this year may be greater, in his 18 years at OSF, he’s done much.

He had his first role at six-years old in When the Hippos Crash the Dance,” in which he had a solo. After that was over, he thought, “let’s keep doing this,” and found himself among the actors to whom OSF founder Molly Risso would look when seeking reliable young performers.

“When Molly would trust you she’d let you be in one of the big kids’ shows,” said Jackson, while talking about his role as Fleance, the son of Macbeth’s best friend, Banquo, in the play “Macbeth.” Fleance is a small, but heart-wrenching role, for which a young actor with good focus and talent for stage combat (he is almost killed on stage) is needed.

For a moment, Jackson’s ready smile faded slightly into an expression of humility. “That was a big deal when Molly said, ‘I’m trusting you now.’”

Jackson is not the only creative artist at OSF to ply multiple talents and skills. Directors act as well as direct. Actors build sets and stitch costumes. Set and costume designers find themselves working as stage hands. Stage managers may find (to their horror) that they have a walk-on role, with a couple of tricky lines to be spoken in iambic pentameter, but Chase Jackson’s been around longer than many others, and shows no appetite for not working in theater.

He thinks this may be his last year at OSF, but only because he’s moving on to Austin, Texas, to pursue professional acting in voice work, commercials, film and stage. The skills he built at OSF, working in so many areas of production, he believes will serve him well.

“It’s taught me a lot,” he said.

(Published in The Durant Daily Democrat, June 2009)

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