Fall Madness: Important Hats of the 20th Century, Ghost Quartet in SF

November 22, 2015 / by Annie Tippe, Fall Directing Fellow


Above: Performer Brent Arnold patiently sitting through tech for GHOST QUARTET in San Francisco

Hello to all! It has been a wonderful month working on IMPORTANT HATS OF THE 20TH CENTURY over at Manhattan Theatre Club. I have been assisting Moritz von Stuelpnagel, whose terrific work includes HAND TO GOD on Broadway.  In between assisting Lila Neugebauer and really getting into the thick of rehearsals with Moritz, I flew to San Francisco to round out the last of our 2015 tour dates for GHOST QUARTET, a music-theater piece I directed. I have managed to sleep a few nights in between then and now, but it has been a pretty rigorous schedule. Not to mention, we start DirectorFest rehearsals in the next two weeks! Alright, one thing at a time-

The GHOST QUARTET team and I had the fantastic opportunity to put up the show at the Curran Theatre as part of their “Under Construction” series. As they continue construction on the house of the theatre, they put both the performers and the audience onstage in various configurations, creating an extremely intimate experience for all involved. This kind of arrangement works perfectly for Ghost Quartet, as we perform in the round and we like our audiences as close to the performers as possible. The theatre also had one major draw that we got to incorporate into the design of our show: a massive Phantom of the Opera-style chandelier, which hung spookily over the house:

Tech was, as always, a fast and furious process. Our company travels without a stage manager (!!!) so I find myself trying to access that hidden, magical organized sect of my brain so that the tech can run smoothly and efficiently. In such a tight window of tech time, I have learned that if we can’t accomplish a lighting effect or identify the cause of a strange buzz in the speakers in a designated amount of time, it helps to put in a place marker cue and know that we will get back to that moment if and when we can the next day. That way, after two days of tech, we can confidently say we have at least teched through the entire show and there’s no chance the show won’t go up. In the past, I have gotten hung up on moments and lose two hours of tech on them, only to find that we’ll have nothing in place for the final act of the show. In a touring setting, I feel much calmer if I can table anything that has resoundingly halted tech, so that we can come up with multiple solutions during a production meeting that night. Tech has been an ongoing learning curve for me, but these little stints of tour dates have given me more confidence in my ability to get the job done and keep everyone sane in the meantime. Crucial tip: leave the building on breaks! Otherwise, you start to get used to the dark theater and the dust and feel like a wasted vampire when you finally emerge from the shadows. 

Production designer Christopher Bowser and I after too many hours in the theatre. Two vampires resting:

Alright, on to the next!

Working with the director Moritz has been a delight. The material is so different from KILL FLOOR in every way, but this piece has given me the opportunity to hone in on the skills it takes to direct a true comedy. The company of actors is incredible, and every single one of them knows what it takes to get a joke land. The thing I admire most about Moritz is that he always encourages the actor to play the truth of the situation over the joke. Pandering for the joke never seems to get as good a laugh as the honest character-driven approach. Specificity is obviously also a major friend to comedy. Sometimes, a bit of physical comedy will take an hour to work out, but the actors have to work it out mathematically so it can flow effortlessly in performance. I also admire Moritz’ generosity with the actors. He is not precious with any idea, so if something is not working and an actor has a new idea to throw into the mix, it is welcomed openly and without judgment. Previews are a major learning curve for the cast, who are testing out the delivery of laugh lines in a different way every night until they find the best timing. It’s a humbling experience, and the performers, writer, director and designers have to be willing to throw something away if it’s not working and create something new in its place. I find the process extremely freeing and I cannot wait to work on my next comedy. HATS opens this week, and I highly encourage you to see it!

And finally:

I look forward to updating you once I am in the thick of rehearsals for my DirectorFest show, WHEN THE TANKS BREAK, a really smart play by Anne Washburn. Crazy to imagine that after three months of assisting, I will have my own show going up!