Alumni Profile: Shon Causer (MFA ’06)

Alumnus finds successful career as freelance designer

by Deneia Washington

As theater students begin thinking about their professional career after college, freelancing may be considered as an option. Lighting designer Shon Causer (MFA ’06) chose to become a freelance designer and hasn’t looked back since.

Causer’s interest in lighting grew upon graduating from high school and being asked to run a spotlight for a musical at a local junior college in his hometown. “From there, I began working as an electrician at a local theatre that brought in many different types of productions,” said Causer. These experiences helped him learn the technical aspects.

To Causer, the advantages that come with being able to work with multiple theaters are fun and plentiful. “I get the opportunity and learn from them and accomplish some awesome storytelling,” says Causer. “To interact with different artists, with different aesthetics.” Lighting design is able to change the mood or elicit emotions through shifts in colors, “without an actor saying a word.”

Though Causer enjoys being a freelance lighting designer, he does admit that freelance can be tricky. “The hard part of freelancing is finding the next gig. Making sure your booked far enough in advance to ensure that you are paying your bills and putting food on the table,” he says. But the end result is “not only a check that clears, [but also] a successful production.”

Set model with wooden floor and two pianos

Scenic model of the MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG set. Designer: Marie Anne Chiment

For those contemplating making freelance your career route, Causer says what’s most important is your name and reputation, as these two components can be the key to finding work. “With success, your name and reputation is stronger and the more likely that director, producer, or the theater will remember you and want to work with you again,” says Causer.

“If you slip-up and tarnish your name, it will follow you. Odds are, others will know of your slip-up. Then you have to work ten times as hard to restore your reputation,” he adds.

Currently, Causer is the lighting designer for Temple Theaters’ upcoming production Merrily We Roll Along directed by fellow alumnus Brandon McShaffrey which opens on Friday, March 13.

As Causer continues to move forward in his career, he hopes to continue to create some great art and storytelling.

A History of Merrily We Roll Along

How Did It Get Here from There, Mr. Shepard?

By Emily Young

Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s adaptation of Kaufman and Hart’s play by the same name, opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theater on October 1, 1981. After only sixteen performances, the show flopped, and closed with condemning reviews. Critics agreed that while the show’s score stood up to Sondheim’s past (and future) work, the rest of the show just couldn’t hold water.

Merrily works backwards in time, a plot device that can add interest, and has been used successfully in other shows (including The Last Five Years), but proved too confusing for audiences, especially when combined with a crowd of indistinguishable characters. The show was so hard to follow that, in an infamous incident, the cast once wore sweatshirts with the names of their characters written across the front in order to help people keep track of them all.

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The three central characters were also flawed. The protagonist, Frank Shepard, came off mean and cynical in the first scenes, and audiences were turned off. Nobody wants to sit for two hours to learn about the career of a person they don’t like.

By 1990, Merrily had been heavily revised. A production directed by Temple’s own Douglas C. Wager in Washington D.C. opened to warmer reviews. The show’s reverse time frame was no longer impossible to follow, and it no longer depended on the counterproductive framing device of a high school graduation. The three principle characters were by then played by adults who got younger and younger, rather than teenagers made to look older, as in the original. Part of the success probably derived from the large body of Sondheim fans who, between 1981 and 1990, fell in love with the 1981 cast recording but had no memory of the disastrous original production.

But some still felt that Frank Shepard was too unlikeable to make an engaging protagonist. Without a word to say for himself until an hour into the show, audiences still had no chance to engage with him, even when talented actors took on the role.

In 1992, the show finally found its footing. Merrily went across the pond and found great success in London. The show made its West End debut in 2000, and the 2013 production received more 5-star reviews than any show in West End history. The show which Frank Rich described as “coming closer on every orbit” had finally touched ground.

Merrily We Roll Along went off-Broadway in 1994, and has since been produced all over the US, both in full and in concert. After decades of not-so-merrily rolling along, Merrily finally reached found success.

Temple Theaters’ production of Merrily We Roll Along opens Friday, March 13 in the Randall Theater.

Day in the Life: Sam Dugan

On Wednesday, February 4, junior Samantha Dugan recorded her very busy day for this new feature. In addition to being a dedicated student and employee of the Temple Theaters Box Office, Sam is also the stage manager of Temple Theater’s next production Arcadia, which began tech last Wednesday.  

7:45am. I have to resist the urge to let one single tear slide down my cheek, when my alarm goes off. But it’s Wednesday, which means class today.

8:50am. I’m showered, fed, and, with roommate extraordinaire Rachel Beecher, out the door and on our way to our first class: Aerobics. [My other roommate] Ian’s great too, but he doesn’t do 9 am. [For class,] we have to track how many steps we take in any given day. Self competition. The best kind.

9:00am. Aerobics started with a pop quiz on the muscles on the front of the body. Nothing says friendship like a last minute cram session. #I’mjustheretoexercise

10:00am. Theater History II with David Girard. We check in and learn about Chekhov (I’m not even sorry for that pun). We discussed The Cherry Orchard.

10:50am. My next class was canceled! BLESS. I take this time to get a vat of coffee from 7-Eleven and head to the library. I take the first thirty minutes to prep and print any and all extra paperwork for [tonight’s tech rehearsal].

11:35am. I head upstairs to get a book for my theater history project. Alas, the “hungry at Costco” syndrome strikes. I intend to check out one book, I leave with six. Of course, the library doesn’t have a bag to give me. All aboard the hot mess express! Next stop: The Detective Novel, pulling up at Education Station.

Photo of Sam outside with Matt and Lauren

Sam, right, with friends Lauren and Matt.

12:04pm. The professor, Dr. Amelia Friedman, enters the room and splits us up into groups to discuss the reading of Agatha Christie. Luckily my group consisted of [fellow theater majors] Lauren Keleher and Matt Zarley. I can feel the eyes on me as I pull out my bag of grapes in the middle of class, especially from the student who is hiding his phone behind is iPad (seriously, you aren’t fooling anyone). My snacking habits are planned down to the minute, as time is precious and I’m hungry, so fight me, sir.

1:00pmLighting Design is canceled since [Professor John Hoey] is in tech at The Merriam. So instead of class, I got to meet with the University Fire Marshall, John, to train in a special fire extinguisher for Arcadia. Usually that class goes until 2:20pm.

1:20pmIntermission. I sit in the [Annenberg Atrium] with a few people and talk a bit about tech and summer stock. (Plug: APPLY FOR SUMMER STOCK)

2:00pmRoommate room date with Rachel! Again, time is precious so we feast at Tai’s Vietnamese at the wall [a section of eateries on 12th Street near the Tech Center]. When I hear the high and piercing “bourbon chicken no rice!” it’s as if the heavens part.

2:43pm. An update on the step count. So far, I’m at 7,942 steps. Riveting.

3:00pm. Weekly Stage Management meeting, colloquially known as the SMeeting. (We’re starting a revolution.)

4:00pm. The dress rehearsal schedule is finished! Now for an APO [Alpha Psi Omega, the theater honors fraternity] meeting.

4:36pm. Snack run. There’s always time for snacks and coffee.

5:00pm. I move into Tomlinson before the crew is called. I take the time to nest and write in cues in my book for tonight. An empty stage is the most peaceful place you can find. Deep.

5:30pm. Crew orientation! Tech has officially begun! I welcome the crew, introduce them to everyone they’ll be working with, give them their assignments, and wrap it up with a Hannah Montana quote, because life really is what you make it. So, let’s make it rock.

6:25pm. Dress parade starts and the costumes are gorgeous. I sit, watch, and charge glow tape. Tech is a very hurry-up-and-wait type of ordeal.

8:12pmLIGHTS GO! The first cue is always the hardest. Thankfully I have a great crew and great ASMs. They make my life so much easier. We work the opening set of cues a few times, then jump ahead. Then we hold, then we jump ahead. Then we hold.

9:22pm. 10 minutes please. Cherish your breaks. Get as much out of them as you possibly can. You can hit the vending machine, use the bathroom, fill up your water bottle, and solve a crisis in a 10, if you use it to the fullest.

9:55pm. Tech is done for the day. We cued 38 pages in two hours! That’s a third of the show!

10:20pm. I lock up the theater and head home.

10:43pm. Time to send out the report and the daily call for tomorrow’s tech.

10:53pm. The reports are sent out and I thankfully finished all my work for tonight. I made the mistake of sitting down. My room is so far from me now. But I have to make the long trek to my bed. I have to wake up at 5:40 am for work [at Saxby’s Coffee] tomorrow.

11:15pmI finally find the drive to move to my bed. Update: I took 12,143 steps today.

First Person: Kristen Scatton, Dramaturg for Arcadia

Graduate student Kristen Scatton discusses the challenges of dramaturging the complex and beautiful Arcadia by Tom Stoppard.

If you’re going to learn how to dramaturg a play, why not start with one of contemporary theater’s most layered and complex works? That was my attitude when I signed on as dramaturg for Temple Theaters’ production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. If I can survive dramaturging this quick-witted, time-hopping extravaganza of science, math, literature and landscaping, I can dramaturg anything.

A painted portrait of Lord Byron

Lord Byron

At its core, Arcadia is about a mystery – did the celebrated Romantic poet Lord Byron kill a hack writer in a duel at an English country estate in 1809?Stoppard answers that question by giving the audience a birds-eye view of the action, jumping between the events as they take place in the past, and the attempts of modern-day scholars to piece together the story from surviving clues. Along the way, Stoppard uses concepts like Chaos Theory, iterated algorithms, picturesque landscaping, Romantic poetry and the Second Law of Thermodynamics to create an evocative, haunting story about the quest for knowledge, the intricacies of human desire, the unknowability of the past and the fragility of human life (you know, real light, fluffy stuff).

But before I could delve into any of that, my first job as dramaturg was making sure director Liz Carlson, an MFA Directing candidate, and the cast understood the world (or rather, worlds) of the play. This meant researching the social, cultural, political, economical and intellectual contexts of England in both the early 19th century and the present day. In some instances, I was reading up on specific events or people mentioned in the play, like the Napoleonic Wars, or Lord Byron and his lover Lady Caroline Lamb. Other times, I was digging into the proper manners and behaviors of the characters, so that in the past and present sections of the play, they were being portrayed in accordance to the standards and customs of their time and status. All I can say is, thank goodness for winter break and the Internet – it was three nonstop weeks of reading, writing and Googling!

Once rehearsals started, questions from the cast and crew got more specific, like how a 19th century butler would deliver a letter or the connection between the Caribbean island of Martinique and the British Royal Navy. Although these questions might seem nit-picky, it’s all in service of creating an authentic, truthful world in which the play could exist.

A photo of Waddesford Parterre

A parterre-style garden, popular in the 18th century – 0ne of the subjects of Kristen’s research.

From there, we tackled all those big brainy ideas that Stoppard crammed into Arcadia. Talk of thermodynamics, Newton’s laws of motion, Gothic literature, Chaos Theory and more can be intimidating for an audience, actors, designers – indeed, the first time I read Arcadia, I was completely overwhelmed.

However, as I began to research these concepts and talk about them with Liz and the cast, I began to realize something – for all its intellect, Arcadia has a very emotional, human center. It’s about people trying to understand the world and their place in it. Some strive for that understanding through math, or science, or poetry, but the desire comes from a place of feeling, not thinking. For me, this became the key to understanding and interpreting Arcadia. You don’t have to be a poetry scholar or calculus whiz to enjoy the story and appreciate the struggles and triumphs of the characters – although if, after seeing Arcadia, you want to learn more about those things, more power to you. After all, in the words of Hannah Jarvis, one of Arcadia’s modern characters, “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”

You can learn more about the world of Arcadia on Kristen’s website

Puppeteer Martin Robinson visits Temple Theaters

Martin Robinson poses with puppet and a few students

Puppeteer Martin Robinson and theater students

On Friday, January 30, 2015, Sesame Street puppeteer extraordinaire, Martin Robinson paid a visit to Temple University’s Department of Theater, speaking at the department’s undergraduate production practicum class, THEATER 1087, this year taught by Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon. A puppeteer with the Jim Henson Company, Robinson is best known for his work for over 30 years on Sesame Street performing characters like Telly the Monster; Mrs. Grouch (Oscar the Grouch’s mother); Slimey the Worm; Mr. Snuffleupagus; Oscar the Grouch’s niece Irvine; and Shelly the Turtle. The voice of The Cat in the Hat in the second season of The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss and Leonardo in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of his many awards and accomplishments, Robinson won a Drama Desk Award (1983) for special effects for his work on the original production of Little Shop of Horrors, that he would also reprise for the Broadway Reunion. On Tomlinson’s stage, Robinson and Telly The Monster demonstrated acting and puppeteering techniques, talked about his work promoting Sesame Street’s global outreach and about possible internship opportunities for Temple students.

A Full Schedule for the Sidestage Season

by Deneia Washington

The spring season of Sidestage Student Theater is upon us and it’s time to for everyone to gear up for the amazing works that are to come out and experience the works put together by your fellow peers.  Matthew Zarley, Vice President of Temple Theater’s Sidestage Season says that Sidestage is a collaborative effort amongst all those involved to put on great performances.

“The weight is all shared amongst each board member,” says Zarley. “We each oversee individual projects in a given semester, and those projects could be anything from staged readings, to fundraisers, to full productions,” he adds.

This year, Sidestage has decided to up the ante by adding in more shows. The reason behind this, Zarley says, is “an increase in public interest.”  Zarley says that with increasing support come bigger and better expectations.

Directing one of the plays called The Colored Museum, by George C. Wolfe, and originally directed by Professor Lee Kenneth Richardson, senior Kemar Jewel believes that people “should expect to be WOW’D this season!”

“There is a musical, a race play, a dance show, and tons of readings and other collaborations that will be exciting,” he adds.

The Sidestage Season lineup:

Dramatic reading of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

January 30 & January 31 at 7:30 pm; February 1 at 2:00 pm

Pay-What-You-Can. Proceeds support future Sidestage productions.

Glory Days (March 27 – April 4)

The Colored Museum (April 3 – 12)

“Bedtime Stories: A Devised Dance Piece (April 10 – 12)

Check back in March for more information.

Meet the Designer: Liz Phillips

The challenges of lighting Arcadia

by Emily Young

Temple’s upcoming production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia offers new and exciting challenges to our design team. Among them is Liz Phillips, a second-year graduate student and the lighting designer for Arcadia. Liz started, like most theater folk, as an actor, but then moved to technical theater, first working in costuming. Phillips shifted her focus to lighting design half-way through her undergrad at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

Now at Temple University, she is stretching her muscles to tackle this somewhat non-traditional production. “The script is not super demanding of lighting,” says Phillips. “The staging set up, on the other hand, is a different story altogether.”

While Temple’s production of Arcadia resides in the Tomlinson Theater, a traditional proscenium, the main house, or the audience seating area, won’t be used at all. Instead, a new staging area has been created, with both the playing area and the audience on the stage, effectively transforming the Tomlinson stage into a sort of black box theater.

Diagram of stage set up of court style on a proscenium stage.

A sketch of the Tomlinson Theater set-up for Arcadia.

This type of staging has become more and more popular over the last few decades, and offers the audience a more up-close-and-personal way to experience theater. But for Phillips, having audience members on both sides of the playing area proves challenging.

Normally, there would be a “front” and a “back” to the action. But with audience members on both sides of the stage, the “front” to one half of the audience is the “back” to the other half. “It just demands that I think about the stage and formulate my design in a different way,” says Phillips.

While the staging offers logistical hurdles, the play itself offers Phillips some creative opportunities. The play jumps between 1809 and 1993, and Phillips has created opposing lighting plots for each time period. With the obvious differences in costumes, the audience will always know which period they’re in, but Phillips hopes to enhance these shifts in time. In her design, the light will appear to come from opposite directions in each time period. This, she says, will be a “subtle way to tell the difference in times.” Additionally she will use color to distinguish the time of day in each scene.

Each designer adds more layers to Tom Stoppard’s already fascinating onion of a play, helping us to revel in the interaction between two worlds. Liz Phillips’ ultimate goal, she says, is simply to provide thorough visibility. “This play is so wordy and about quick wit that it’s really important that the audience be able to see the actors very clearly. Sometimes when the audience can’t see the face well, they actually feel like they can’t hear or understand the words either.”

To see Arcadia “on” the Tomlinson stage, stop by the box office or order tickets online.  Performances run from February 11, 2015 to February 21, 2015.