Backstage with Greater Tuna in Alberni

Portal Players director Peter Wienold didn’t know how true-to-life Greater Tuna would become for Port Alberni’s theatre troupe.

Arles Struvie (Elliot Drew)

Greater Tuna, an award-winning play by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, is a tour de farce of quick change artistry, with multiple characterizations and costume changes. What Portal Players Dramatic Society director Peter Wienold didn’t know is how true-to-life the play would become for Port Alberni’s amateur theatre troupe.

Greater Tuna has been on the backburner for Portal Players for a number of years; something the Players wanted to perform, but never found the right opportunity to bring it to stage. That changed this spring, when the Players had to cancel their final selection of the 2011-12 season, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This was doubly disappointing because the play was to be the troupe’s entry into the 2012 North Island Zone Drama Festival in Courtenay.

“We regrouped and we put this play together,” Wienold said.

Greater Tuna plays three more dates: May 31, June 1–2 at the Capitol Theatre. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the curtain rises at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the Rollin Art Centre, online at www.atthecapitol.org or at the box office.

A two-person play, Greater Tuna is a withering satire and affectionate comment on small-town Southern life and attitudes. It takes place in Greater Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas. Greater Tuna, one of four plays in a series, debuted in Austin, Texas in 1981 and premiered off Broadway in 1982.

“The play is a dark comedy,” Wienold said. “It has a bit of a farce element in that it has a lot of quick costume changes.”

Greater Tuna was heralded as the return of Elliot Drew working with Scott Lowe. Each actor would portray 10 characters, the men and women of Greater Tuna.

Rehearsals began in February, with Drew and Lowe getting to know their characters as well as their lines. “It was really challenging at the beginning to get the characters down and flesh them out,” said Drew. Although some of the characters only appear briefly in the performance, they need to be fully realized characters, each distinct from the other.

“It was a huge challenge, especially because in two pages you play four characters,” he said.

“In the beginning you would start a voice and after awhile the characters would all meld into one voice.”

Rehearsals were gelling when Lowe had to leave the production with just three weeks left until the drama festival.

Portal Players was faced with a decision: cancel the production altogether, or replace Lowe.

“Not doing it wasn’t really an option,” Wienold said. “Our club is very strong at the festival level.”

They regrouped—again. Wienold, who was directing and producing Greater Tuna, and Terry Switzer, the stage manager, split Lowe’s characters, figuring it would be easier to learn five characters each in such a short time. They were both familiar with the script.

Lucky for Wienold, one of the biggest parts Lowe had was playing a radio announcer. Wienold spent 20 years working for CJAV and a station in Nanaimo—as a radio announcer.

“It was easy for me to slot myself into that spot,” he said.

Switzer is a seasoned actor, having last appeared in Nude With Violins in February 2010. As stage manager he was already familiar with the script when he agreed to take on his new role, but he still had to learn his lines. “I had to sit down with each character and full out learn the lines that were required,” he said.

“Many of my evenings and weekends were taken up.”

Switzer continued to stage manage the production as well, saying he was thankful the cast was small.  “When we ran into problems everyone kicked in a bit to make sure things ran smoothly.”

In the spirit of “the show must go on”, they were able to bring Greater Tuna, now a three-person production, to the drama festival.

“For me, the festival performance was really different this time around. I didn’t feel any pressure whatsoever,” Wienold said.

“The response we got up there made it that much more satisfying.”

The crew came back with four awards, including best male actor for Drew, best costumes, best backstage co-ordination and a certificate of merit for props for Denis Levasseur, whose three microphones were so realistic despite being crafted from PVC pipe, Bondo putty and some odds and sods from the automotive company where he works.

The quick costume changes really make this play, says Drew, and it is no surprise that Portal Players’ Teresa Drew and her crew won an award for best costume design. Drew stepped in for Colleen May when May became ill, finishing the costumes. The actors’ attire came from Portal Players Dramatic Society’s own costume room as well as cast members’ closets.

As Wienold puts it, May helped build the foundation for the costumes and Teresa Drew co-ordinated their completion and choreography back stage.

“I wish there was a way for people to see what goes on backstage,” Elliot Drew said. “It’s insane. I have four ladies ripping my clothes off and putting them on.”

Some of those costume changes have to take place in 10 seconds, Drew said. “Teresa did an amazing job choreographing those changes. Really, the show doesn’t work without that part being seamless.”

editor@albernivalleynews.com

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