Directors carry on 100-year theater tradition
May Day weekend is a Bluffton University tradition with events dating back a century, including a theatrical production that ultimately became the May Day musical.
Beginning with May Day 1915, early theater productions at Bluffton featured Shakespeare “on the green.” Musicals were introduced in the ‘50s, notes Dr. Melissa Friesen, professor of theatre and communication.
Both musicals/operettas and plays were performed for a time, before the musical—complete with orchestra—became the custom, now directed by Friesen along with Dr. Crystal Sellers Battle, an assistant professor of music who serves as music director and conductor.
This year’s production is “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” the 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical comedy. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. nightly from May 1-3 in Founders Hall. Tickets, $13 for reserved seats and $5 for general-admission bleacher seats, are available online at http://tickets.bluffton.edu or in person from 2-4 p.m. weekdays at the Sommer Center box office.
The tradition “impacts what shows we do,” Friesen acknowledges, explaining that “celebration,” “fun” and “comedy” are among the words that many alumni associate with May Day. “That expectation colors what they expect to experience as an audience,” she says.
When it’s time to choose each year’s show, she and Battle discuss what interests them and consider which—and how many—students are likely to audition. There are no guarantees, considering students’ schedules and other factors, and “sometimes we do some shoulder-tapping” to encourage prospects, says Friesen, the director since 2003. But there are also surprises—both last year and this year, she says, “I was blown away” by some newcomers to auditions.
This year, she thought the lead character of J. Pierrepont Finch might be difficult to cast. But she says Eliot Nofziger, a senior from Archbold, Ohio, was a natural fit as Finch, an ambitious young window washer who climbs the corporate ladder by consulting the handbook “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
“Until this year, I had never seen ‘How to Succeed …’ but soon fell in love with it and the character Finch,” Nofziger says. “I’m enjoying the cast bonding and seeing the musical come together.”
Once cast members are selected each year, Battle works with them from the opening rehearsals on their character voices. The “How to Succeed …” characters have “very distinct personalities,” she notes, and with a college student playing a much older man, for instance, the student, Neil Macke, must learn to sing, as well as speak, more like the aging character, including more bravado and speaking his way through musical notes.
Macke, who has been involved in three May Day musicals at Bluffton, says Battle and Friesen “make the rehearsal process fun, energetic and extremely productive, giving us feedback and understanding of the material.”
Friesen cites the character voice work as an example of how Battle, her colleague and friend, has benefitted the musical during her five years at Bluffton. She was a vocal coach the first two years before officially becoming music director for “The Music Man” in 2012. Last year, she added conducting to her duties for “Songs for a New World.”
As a first-time conductor, that was “frightening,” she concedes, saying she could no longer “sit back a bit” during performances. But, as usual, the show came together. “They always come together in the clutch,” she adds, saying that once opening night is out of the way, the second performance is probably her favorite part of staging a show.
For Lydia Speicher, the stage manager and set designer for “How to Succeed …,” the enjoyment of helping put on a show is particularly personal. “Being stage manager has given me a lot of confidence and the chance to be a leader,” says the four-year theater assistant from Marysville, Ohio. “I'm not the kind of person who loves to be seen on stage, but I'm passionate about theater, so being 'behind the scenes' doing things like stage management and set design gives me the chance to take part.”
“Working with Melissa and Crystal on 'How to Succeed ...' has been a joy,” Speicher adds, “and I'm glad to be able to learn from them as I prepare to graduate and seek opportunities to work on theater productions elsewhere.”