First big show

Monday, October 1, 2007
Southeast Missouri State University sophomore Jessica Alvey, front, worked on the set of Big River with fellow crew member Alex Martin Thursday in the River Campus Scene Shop. The set will incorporate more vertical elements than previous Southeast productions because more space is available in the Bedell Performance Hall. (Kit Doyle)

The seats are finally in the Bedell Performance Hall, making what once looked like a giant cave appear much closer to what it really is: the brightest, shiniest gem of the River Campus' modern, pricey performing arts facilities.

"It's looking like a real auditorium now," River Campus interim director Dr. Gary Miller said Thursday.

Since the semester began in August, the Bedell has been off limits to students, faculty and all but a few staff members. This week it will open up for limited use, as the theater and dance department moves rehearsals for its musical "Big River" onto the Bedell stage.

Later this month, Oct. 24, "Big River" will be the first production to take the Bedell stage -- and the first impression audiences get of this much-hyped, brand-new performing arts hall. And while the students, faculty and community thespians working on "Big River" say they don't really feel the pressure, they know it's there.

Southeast Missouri State University's theater and dance department produces a musical every year, but they usually come in the spring semester, allowing more preparation time, because musicals are usually more complex creations. This year "Big River" -- a musical based on Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" -- was picked as the opener. Musicals are bigger crowd pleasers, and "Big River" fits nicely with the idea of a campus on the Mississippi River.

Stephen Fister, top, and Rachel Turner copied a page from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn onto the first of 30 large boards to be used as set pieces in Big River. (Kit Doyle)

So with its shortest amount of time to prepare a musical, Southeast is putting together one with bigger sets and a bigger cast than before.

No sweat.

"There's no doubt that were under a microscope right now," says Dr. Kenn Stilson, theater and dance department chair and "Big River" director.

Stilson is taking a rare break from the hard work that is "Big River," a few moments' conversation with a reporter in his office on the old seminary's fourth floor, overlooking the river the musical is named for.

"We're being watched very closely by a number of people in Cape Girardeau and the university and ... even across the state and outside that. But when you're in rehearsal, that doesn't necessarily distract from the rehearsal process, because you have to be focused, and relaxed, in a sense, otherwise it'll stifle your creativity.

Stephen Fister, right, entertains townsfolk as the Duke in Southeast Missouri State's production of Big River, which will be the first to use the Bedel Theatre. (Kit Doyle)

The "Big River" debut will really be the first full showing to the public of what the River Campus is capable of, maybe the first tangible public display of what was bought with the campus' $50 million price tag.

Senior actor Stephen Fister has been an important part of many of Southeast Missouri State University's musicals. But Fister knows this time it's different. There's more to prove on the stage than usual. And it will work to the cast and crew's advantage, he says.

"It's a big show, so you want to do well," said Fister, who plays The Duke, a con-man who breaks out of prison with partner The King and joins Huck on the river. "On top of that, we now have this gorgeous new facility, and we have expectations of board members, of community members, of everybody within the department."

As far as Miller's concerned, the only expectation is that the Bedell's opening night will be a real hit with the crowd. While the public will have already had a chance to see the Bedell during the Oct. 21 Homecoming activities, "Big River" will be the auditorium's first big performance.

"It's total excitement," Miller said. "We're all waiting for the first curtain to go up."

For now, until they can get into the Bedell, the cast members are rehearsing in the Rust Flex Theatre, a large "black box" room that looks more like a warehouse or some sort of training facility -- with black walls, high ceilings and fluorescent lighting -- than a theater. They drill song and dance numbers, pretending to dance on and around the massive 40-by-12-foot stage set piece made to look like a river bluff, complete with caves running throughout.

Stilson, dance professor Lees Hummel, voice instructor Judith Farris and music department chair Dr. Chris Goeke scrutinize every move they make, every note they sing.

The actors and musicians include community members like Central Junior High music teacher Mike Dumey and some of his students; local blues musicians Bruce Zimmerman and Les Lindy; Central High School orchestra director Steve Schaffner; River City Players actor and director Lloyd Williams and more.

In all there are 51 cast members, bigger than any previous Southeast theater production. They rehearse six nights a week for several hours a night.

And while the cast toils away in the Rust by night, the crew works all day in the costume and scene shops, creating detailed period costumes from whole cloth and massive backdrops to decorate the set, working 70 hours a week.

"You talk about pressure, that's where the pressure is," Stilson said.

In the scene shop, the set pieces are almost taking up too much space to work, said scenic designer Jeff Luetkenhaus. In the Forrest H. Rose Theatre, such a large set never would have been practical, because set design actually occurred on the stage at the same time as rehearsal.

It's another benefit to the new, enhanced facilities. But there are still disadvantages, say some of the university's more seasoned actors.

"We're so used to the Rose, which was an amazing space," Fister said. "The fact that you could sit in the last row and still see facial expressions, that you could get all those subtleties, the nuances that actors throw into characters, I'll miss that a lot."

But performing before a house twice as big, and in a theater he's seen go from "four walls and a cement floor" to completion, will make up for any drawbacks to losing the Rose, Fister said.

It's still unclear how big that opening night audience will be. Tickets haven't sold out, but they are selling well, the River Campus box office reports.

Voice instructor Judith Farris, who was brought to the university from New York a few years back with the River Campus and big musicals in mind, hopes for a sellout.

Farris works her students hard in the hopes of making them better (criticism is frequent in rehearsals). She thinks those students deserve a full house, all 950 seats, for their efforts.

"I just want to sell out the house every night for them, because I know if people come they're going to love it," Farris said.

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