Our society is considerably indebted to the Greeks, not only for the culinary delights of taramasalata, tzatziki, baklava and retsina, or indeed the small matter of democracy…they also happened to have invented theatre. Thespis, from whose name the word thespian is derived added a speaking role to performances of singing and dance which constituted early ‘theatre.’ Against this background, one actor declaimed his lines, the protagonist, later the antagonist arrived on the scene and so began the evolution of the theatrical tradition that we know today.
When I was about eight or nine my grandma took me to the theatre to see The Tempest by William Shakespeare, I will not claim to have understood a word of it but I do recall being fascinated by the balletic movements of Ariel and Caliban. From then on, at the very least an annual trip to the pantomime was de rigeur in our household.
Theatre’s unique selling proposition is that it presents a live performance before one’s very eyes and the experience is quite distinct from watching the television. It is dangerous, with the possibility something untoward may happen. The experience is demonstrably more engaging than watching the television because it is real, you cannot turn it off with the remote, or change the channel. Over the course of a theatrical performance, audiences’ brainwaves and heart beats mysteriously synchronize. There is something special about the public, but intimate and shared nature of the experience, sitting with a community of like minded, but mostly unknown souls, in the dark closely observing the action on stage and seeing one’s own life reflected. The experience is in many ways cathartic.
To learn more about theatre and the behind the scenes mechanics of staging a production I met up with Rob Kempson, the recently appointed director of the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope.
JK. What are the criteria that lead to the selection of the plays or shows which are presented?
RK. The main objective for us in our programming is always about finding balance. We want to share the familiar alongside the unfamiliar, allowing our audiences to experience the full range of what theatre has to offer. To us, that means ensuring that our work is always of a very high quality, and of a wide diversity, so that there is truly something for everyone to enjoy.
JK. How do you balance the need for bums on seats with the desire to promote new and classic works…like say Shakespeare?
RK. People come to the theatre for all sorts of reasons. So by working towards an overall sense of balance (in all things), we find that we get a great mix of theatrical offerings in our season—which is appealing to a broad range of audiences.
JK. How do you balance appealing to your existing audience whilst working towards developing a new audience?
RK. In our 2023, we had more than forty percent new audiences, which is an exciting statistic for us at this stage in our evolution. We’ve done a lot to intentionally invite new audiences to the theatre: by ensuring that the work on our stages represents the vast diversity in our community, by making the Capitol an active participant in our community both within and beyond our walls, by offering accessible ticket pricing so that financial barriers don’t prevent participation, and by programming a great diversity of work that responds to our community.
JK. Do you fill the coffers with ‘pot boilers’ to fund more creative and theatrically valid work?
RK. To me, every production has the potential to be provocative or hilarious or imaginative or entertaining. Or all of the above. Part of our success is in presenting the familiar alongside the unfamiliar, and then hiring the best artists we can to bring our productions to life.
JK. Once you have decided on a play to perform, what happens next…casting I imagine?
RK. After I’ve selected a project for the theatre, I first decide on the right director for the play—since I don’t direct all of the work at the Capitol. Selecting a director is all about finding someone who can provide the vision for the project, and I’m very proud of the three directors who will be joining us in 2024—Fiona Sauder, Julie Tomaino, and Cherissa Richards.
After the director is in place, we begin selecting the members of the Creative Team: Designers (Set, Costume, Sound, Lighting), Music Director, Choreographer, and Stage Manager. That core group leads every production to its Opening Night. As much as is possible, these teams are in place well over a year in advance of rehearsal.
JK. How do you know someone is right for the role?
RK. Sometimes casting happens as soon as the play is being discussed, because I know the right person for the role. Other times, casting takes place through a series of auditions or self-tapes. Regardless of the process, finding the right person for each role is almost always about fit. When casting a play, you have to think about how each actor is going to fit within the overall story, but also in relationship to one another.
And when you’re casting for a small town theatre like the Capitol, you’re also looking for the right kind of folks to live in your community. We cast from across the country and across the street. But we always want to hire people who want to spend time in Port Hope, and who will participate in the life of the community, as that’s an important part of any successful production.
JK. How do you direct a play? I imagine it’s not a predetermined idea being executed, but a fluid development worked out experimentally, and honed?
RK. Every project requires a different approach. You have to consider the expected audience for the play, the nuances of the production that you’d like to highlight, how your choice of actors will influence the overall vision, and the technical aspects of making the play work for a unique space like the Capitol.
I could write a whole other article about directing, as it’s a bit of a mysterious art form. But it’s work that I love because it allows me the opportunity to build a world, work in collaboration, and work towards a play that can connect with an audience.
JK. When does set and lighting and sound design become involved?
RK. The design elements begin to fall into place before anything else! These conversations start a minimum of six months out from rehearsal, and continue right up until Opening Night. Design is an essential part of any production and we are proud to work with some of the top designers in the country at the Capitol.
The two things I took away from my meeting Rob Kempson are his overwhelming, utterly infectious enthusiasm for the subject of theatre and just how much planning and organization is required to put on a play. When we enjoy a seamless production we should perhaps be more aware that what we are witnessing is potentially the result of years of planning and hard graft. Bums on seats is the life blood of all theatres: if we want there to be theatre we need to go and go regularly. Book your seats without delay! Let’s all do our little bit to ensure the Capitol Theatre’s long history continues as a successful future.