From script to stage: Making ‘Sense and Sensibility’
May 22, 2023
The cast of the upper school play, Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” took their final bows after their closing performance April 29, with Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” accompanying their theatrical farewell. Previous performances occurred April 27 and 28. As the lights went up, audience members filed out of the theater and the live student orchestra packed their instruments back into cases, months of dedication came to a close.
However, every ending has its beginning. And, Jan. 24 in the Blackbox theater, “Sense and Sensibility” began with upper schoolers rotating through the space during multiple rounds of auditions, each student performing a monologue from the play.
A few days later, after the cast list announcement appeared in the inboxes of the ensemble and congratulatory texts had been exchanged between cast members, the three-month-long making of the play commenced.
Every weekday for three consecutive months, the cast of “Sense and Sensibility” spent their afternoons in the Blackbox Theater, perfecting their English accents and early 19th-century mannerisms. The play’s storyline follows the young sisters Marianne and Elinor Dashwood as they romp in and out of romance and navigate London high society.
A large portion of rehearsal time was spent positioning actors and set pieces, as director Tracy Poverstein wanted the show to be done in a theater-in-the-round style, meaning there would be audiences on all sides of the stage. Junior Ella Gray, who portrayed Marianne Dashwood, said though there was some difficulty with blocking the show at the start, the moving aspects ultimately heightened the impact of the story on the audience.
“It was a moving show, and that was very difficult initially,” Gray said. “But, I think it really came together well … and helps with the fluidity of the storyline.”
The rehearsal process typically included running various scenes from the play, as Poverstein and assistant directors Emma Frank (’23), Stella Lyne (’23) and Ella Poon (’23) paused scenes and gave notes to actors on which aspects of their performances worked well, as well as what they could do to improve.
“It’s really just a process that goes by so quickly, and you don’t notice it until it’s over,” Gray said. “It was so much fun.”
Listen to the audio clip below to hear Ella Gray (’24) comment on the “Sense and Sensibility” stage crew.
Over the years, the Blackbox theater has morphed into many settings, including an enchanted forest, a three-ring circus and a 1920s Chicagoan speakeasy. This time around, Josie Bellerby, a freelance production designer, was tasked with transforming the space into multiple locations across 19th-century England.
“It is an epic piece because it’s asking for grand ballroom, it’s asking for sad cottage, it’s asking for [English countryside],” Bellerby said. “So, we needed to design a world where we can sit inside all of the different locations in quite a small space.”
Bellerby said she conducted thorough research in order to accurately portray the time period, as well as each of the locations the space needed to act as. She said when designing the set, she decided to orchestrate it around multiple moving pieces, textures and colors.
Bellerby worked with her close friend and fellow production designer Jacqui Culler to bring her Austenian vision to fruition. After meeting on the set of an NBCUniversal production five years ago, the pair began collaborating on various freelance production design projects. Bellerby typically takes the lead on designing the sets, while Culler helps assemble them and obtain various pieces needed to complete the set.
“This is a really interesting setup because it’s so long and narrow, and you’ve got audience on all sides,” Culler said. “It’s definitely something that’s different than your typical setup. And you just think to yourself, ‘Okay, I’ve got to make sure this works from every way the audience can see it.'”
While Poverstein is the director of all upper and middle school plays, many aspects of these productions are student-led. With a stage crew of 17 upper school students and an all-student orchestra covering modern-day hits such as Taylor Swift’s “Lover,” students were largely at the forefront of bringing the play to life.
Poon has been on crew for Archer productions since 2019 and typically took on the role of stage manager. However, for her final high school production, Poon switched roles, taking on on a new title: assistant technical director. Poon said she appreciated the opportunity this position gave her to make artistic choices during rehearsals, as stage managing is centered around the more technical facets of brining a production to the stage.
“Stage managing is more of the technical organization side,” Poon said, “while assistant directing is more about the artistic vision and focusing on the acting and the blocking. I think what’s most important is just going in ready to learn, and soaking it all up and letting [that] change happen.”
Gray said she felt immense support and positivity radiating from crew members, especially during the more difficult stages of production — from technical difficulties with set pieces to replacing batteries in microphone packs.
“They are the most supportive and welcoming people ever,” Gray said. “Everything you could think of, the crew is there for you, and it’s just incredible.”
As opening night approached, actors swapped their Archer uniforms during rehearsals for high society gowns and billowing tailcoats circa early-19th century England. Costume designer Shon LeBlanc explained the process of selecting the right costume for an actor and their character — from perfecting the color palette, to matching the design to the character’s personality traits, to ensuring the comfort and fit of the costume on the actor.
“When you look to costume someone like Elinor [Dashwood], who is very simple and sweet, you want to keep that going for her,” LeBlanc said. “You want to not do a lot of patterns and colors and [instead] be a little more delicate. And finding the right piece for that … sometimes that just pops into your head. You go, ‘That’s the piece I want for this.'”
LeBlanc is the owner of Valentino’s Costume Group and has been designing costumes for 39 years. He had costumed Archer productions in the past, transporting racks upon racks of costumes onto campus and collaborating with actors and stage crew members during fittings. After briefly moving on to other projects, LeBlanc made his return to Archer theater when costuming 2022’s upper school musical, “Into the Woods.”
“I love doing the shows with the kids,” LeBlanc said. “The girls are really lovely. It’s always so nice when you can be part of something that’s so special.”