Mary Poppins

December 18 - January 3
Buskirk-Chumley Theater

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Rising Above

Cardinal actors going to highest heights to make holiday show soar.

By Marcela Creps 
December 13, 2015

Mary Poppins

Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times: Elaine Cotter plays Mary Poppins, Lucia Walker is Jane Banks, and Ian Shaw is Michael Banks, for the Cardinal Stage production of “Mary Poppins.”

It’s nine days until opening night for “Mary Poppins,” and Troy Trinkle is trying to make people fly.

Trinkle arrived the day before to set up the equipment necessary to make Mary Poppins, Bert, Jane and Michael fly. For actors Elaine Cotter and Reid Henderson, learning to fly was a refresher course, but for Avery Njau, Lucia Walker, Ian Shaw and Callum Miles, it was a first.

At rehearsal, Trinkle goes over the equipment thoroughly with the actors. But before anyone goes up in the air, Trinkle uses the understudy — a 100-pound weight — to work with the people who will be operating the ropes. There’s lots of practice that goes into working the ropes, and an understanding of physics can help.

Trinkle works with production manager Marc Tschida who has to count how many pulls it takes to get the understudy from one side of the stage to the other. A few times the understudy goes a little too far and hits the ropes. Twice, the understudy barely misses director Randy White, who is trying to work through the staging and other aspects of the show.

With practice, Tschida literally learns the ropes.

“I told you it’s a hard job,” Trinkle said.

Before Trinkle hooks up Cotter to the ropes, he makes it clear that the actors are really in charge. It’s important for the actors to speak up during rehearsal if something isn’t right. It’s also important for the actors to feel safe.

Mary Poppins 3

Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times: Elaine Cotter plays Mary Poppins, Lucia Walker is Jane Banks, and Ian Shaw is Michael Banks, for the Cardinal Stage production of “Mary Poppins.”

But the actors are being asked to do a lot. Henderson, who plays Bert, will be walking up the wall of the Buskirk-Chumley Theater and tap dance on the ceiling. Trinkle insists it’s easy.

“OK,” Henderson responds with a chuckle of disbelief.

Henderson has played Bert before, but he wasn’t required to dance on the ceiling. Two weeks before opening night, Henderson wasn’t sure what would be required to make it work.

“Do a lot of crunches,” was his answer when asked how he’d prepared for the dancing.

He’s not a fan of heights and admits he doesn’t like looking over the railing of a tall building.

“It’s definitely a little scary to think about being upside down,” he said, a fear shared by his mother.

Cotter, who will play Mary Poppins, faces her own challenges. She easily handled her first time flying in the air, but the music is a very high soprano.

“So while it’s challenging, I really like it. I really enjoy doing it,” she said.

Both Cotter and Henderson are familiar with the show, and something they have both watched numerous times.

“It always makes me feel very nostalgic,” Henderson said, adding that it brings back the feeling of being a kid.

It’s a really, really sweet ending, and it just gets to you sometimes,” he said.

While certain aspects of the show can be a challenge, the two are also playing beloved characters that many equate with the movie version. Henderson said the movie version versus the play versus the book all take a different approach to the characters. For this version, both actors are basing their characters on the theater version.

“I think it’s helpful to have that movie in a subconscious state,” Cotter said.

A challenge set

Set designer David Higgins and sound designer Mike Price have also been challenged with this production. Part of the challenge is the production is very heavy on both the number of scenes and the special effects. Things pop out of walls, items appear and disappear, and don’t forget the flying.

“Every show, it’s a completely new set of challenges,” Price said.

But for Higgins, challenges are part and parcel to any show. In the numerous times he worked on “The Magic Flute,” there were always problems to solve, so this show is no different.

“We do this because it’s what we do. It’s our love,” Higgins said.

Without its own performance space, Higgins also has to make sure what he creates can be built offsite and moved. Cardinal’s Facebook page includes a video shot of the roof of the house being loaded onto a truck.

The beautiful scenery includes a large two-story house that can be turned and opened like a dollhouse. Not wanting to give away his trade secrets, Higgins said he employed 19th century solutions to solve some of the problems.

“Sometimes, these simple low technology solution is just as thrilling as all the bells and whistles,” Higgins said.

The two-story house had to fit into the theater space and include scenes such as the parlor, an upstairs and the kitchen.

“It essentially has to be a whole series of locations as well as just the house,” Price said.

The house also had to be small enough that it could live upstage to make room for other scenes. Along with creating the house, he also had to find a way to use and store screens for the production and find a way to have a flat surface to project upon.

“The nature of our business is really problem solving,” Higgins said. “What we do as technical artists is try to find solutions to that problem.”

The two also understand the importance of the production — the annual holiday show by Cardinal has become a mainstay event for many families. It’s important to give the audience a good show that allows them to get lost in the magic and not focused on certain aspects of the scenery. Higgins believes the adage that the scenery should be a character in the show and not the star.

“They should be enjoying the show,” Higgins said.

Mary Poppins 2

Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times: Lucia Walker is Jane Banks, right, and Ian Shaw is Michael Banks in “Mary Poppins.” Cardinal Stage is celebrating its 10th year of producing family shows for the holidays.

Learning the accent

Musical director Ryan O’Connell has been working with the four children who will portray Jane and Michael in “Mary Poppins” to perfect their singing as well as their accents.

The stage production of the show has more music than in the movie.

“They’ve had to learn a lot of music,” O’Connell said.

And just like the speaking parts, the children must learn to also sing with an accent. After the rehearsal of a particular scene, O’Connell talks to Avery, Ian and Callum about the use of the word “heart” — emphasizing how it should be pronounced and focusing on helping them get it right.

Ian, 9, isn’t too concerned about the accent. When he was younger, he’d play a game called King with his friends, and his character had an accent.

“I changed a few things because some of my Os, it was British but almost slang like Bert’s,” he explained.

Both Ian and Callum, who is also 9, said they worry more about the blocking — where an actor needs to stand on stage and how he or she moves around the set.

“It’s hard to remember all of those for this whole show,” Callum said.

Although Callum has never used an accent, he wasn’t concerned.

“It’s easy because you just have to think about your Rs,” he said.

Avery, 11, is one of the actresses who will play Jane. This is her second Cardinal production — she was an Oompa Loompa in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” For the role, Avery has been playing around with the accent to try and perfect it.

“Some of the words, since they all drop the Rs, sometimes I find it hard to drop it,” she said.

Along with the accent, Avery has also had to work on her dance skills as she’s never taken dance lessons. Despite the challenges, she’s excited for opening night. She admits she’ll be a little nervous.

“It’s like a good mixture of both,” she said.

Lucia is a lucky young actress. The 12 year old will be acting alongside her mother, Maria, who plays Winifred Banks. Maria Walker is an experience actress who can help not only offer pointers but run lines with her daughter. They also get to be together during rehearsals.

“I love doing shows with my mom,” Lucia said.

Lucia likes the role because it’s a different era, and it’s a challenge to have to sing with an accent.

“It’s kind of fun to talk in an accent you’re not used to,” Lucia said.

The challenges of putting on such a large and complicated show isn’t lost on anyone involved in the production. In fact, meeting the challenges is a rewarding aspect. Trinkle said that while some productions may decide against flying its characters, there are valid reasons to take on the challenge.

“The reason I like it is because its a blend of artistry and the technical aspect. It’s all about telling the story,” he said.