The scoop on The Philadelphia Story

Photo+by+Yooyoung+Kwon

Photo by Yooyoung Kwon

This weekend, the Calvin Theatre Company will continue their presentation of “The Philadelphia Story,” the 1939 Philip Barry play that inspired the 1940 Oscar-winning film.  The story follows Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord, whose wedding preparations begin to crumble with the appearance of dashing reporter Mike Connor and the re-appearance of ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven.

Bringing this mid-century world to Calvin College required weeks of pre-show collaboration in the auditorium, costume shop, scene shop and beyond. As soon as auditions produced the final cast list, rehearsals began in the Gezon Auditorium.

“This cast is very young,” said sophomore Emily Armstrong, the show’s stage manager. “It was challenging to bond as a cast because the upperclassmen who know how things work around this particular theatre were scarce. So many of the freshmen were trying very hard to figure out the logistics of this theatre rather than bonding with the cast.”

But, in the costume shop, the design process started long before Tracy, the photographer Elizabeth Imbrie, Mac the night watchman or any of the show’s other characters ever stepped onstage. Planning the show, costume designer Amanda Ytzen chose to emphasize the “pre-World War II” nature of this “extravagant” comedy. Though “The Philadelphia Story” premiered in the same year Hitler invaded Poland, its plotline focuses on the beauty, wealth and class tensions of the turbulent years of the late Depression era.

So Ytzen and her team set to work sewing, re-designing and assembling the show’s costumes. In the scene shop and Gezon auditorium, a set (complete with mock-marble floors) emerged, and senior Joel Van Dyke, the show’s prop master, helped attire it with tables, couches and other period-appropriate details. The cast worked with director Debra Freeberg, transforming lines on the page into living, breathing characters.

“Even though the rehearsal process can be pretty rigorous, it’s such a joy to come to practice every night because we as a cast and crew become family over the weeks of production,” said senior McKenna De Wyn, who portrays Tracy Lord.

Finally, after months of preparation, the show was ready for its first audience. The crew assembled to watch the production before dress rehearsals began the following week.
On that night, according to Armstrong, “[E]verybody just clicked. The energy was there, the connection and relationships were there and I watched lifelong friendships forming in the green room between seniors and freshman and everybody in between.”

In the following week, the addition of costumes continued the transformation of college students into characters.

“I knew that… when [Tracy] comes out in her evening gown, it has to do a lot for her, because we have to get to a point where we as an audience have to believe that all three of the male leads want her. Then… [I remember] gold lamé was big in the thirties,” said Ytzen of designing a key costume for the show’s second act. “A full-on gold lamé gown would have been so elegant then, but today, we’d say ‘ugh, it’s so tacky and cheesy.’”  

Wearing these pieces, the actors can more fully embody the people and period of “The Philadelphia Story.”

 “I love finding new moments with the other actors each night as we perform, because each time that happens it adds to each character’s dimensionality,” commented De Wyn. She encourages Calvin students to come to the show for “quick, biting humor, dynamic characters and plenty of scandal and intrigue. Not to mention drunkenness, underwear and plot twists.”

“Given where things are with politics in the world today, I think people need joy and humor in their life.” Ytzen added. “But I also think it addresses the issue of having grace and having forgiveness – not just for others, but for your own humanity and fragility. We’re taught, especially as people of faith, that we need to have certain expectations and certain standards … but forgiveness and grace are essential. If you can learn that in a comedy when people are laughing, and there’s pretty clothing, who doesn’t want to come and see that?”

Performances of “The Philadelphia Story” will play Thursday, Dec. 1 through Saturday, Dec. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in Calvin College’s Gezon Auditorium.