On Sunday October 9th, 2011 I was fortunate enough to attend Elon University’s production of Getting Out. Led under the direction of Fredrick J. Rubeck, the performance was quite spectacular. Not only did Rubeck and the actors help bring Marsha Norman’s gripping and heart wrenching script to life, but so did the technical aspects. From set to lighting and sound to costumes, each element brought a needed aspect to the production, and all were beautifully executed. I found myself very emotionally attached to the production. I know each of the components of the production made the performance one I will not forget.
Getting Out, by Marsha Norman, takes place in Louisville, Kentucky in 1979. The script follows the recent release of fugitive Arlene (played by Senior BFA Acting Major Stephanie Scribner). The play also includes the memories from Arlene’s past that still haunt her, a time where she was not Arlene but the troubled Arlie (played by Senior BFA Acting Major Katie Elinoff). Arlene is constantly reminded of her past, through short “memory scenes” and also through the visits of characters like Mother (Laruen Bambino, Junior Acting Major) and Carl (Clark Kinkade, Senior Musical Theater Major). Marsha Norman, like Arlene, was from Louisville. Although she originally pursued a degree in philosophy, she quickly realized that her true passion was in writing. The first play she wrote that was produced by a professional theater company was, in fact, Getting Out. The character of Arlie was strongly influenced by the disturbed youth Norman worked with in mental hospitals. Other notable credits of Norman include ‘Night, Mother, Last Dance, and Trudy Blue and lyricist for The Color Purple and The Secret Garden. For her work on ‘Night Mother, Norman received the Pulitzer Prize.
Getting Out opens on a dingy apartment. Scenic designer Kristina Loeffke did a fabulous job at representing this. Although some might say that the set was minimal, it greatly depicted the solitude of protagonist Arlene. The black box was set in “L-shape” formation. A platform mirrored this “L-shape” on the upstage curtain line. A bed on one end of the platform represented Arlie’s jail cell. On the other end were stairs down to another small platform with a table and chairs, and finally stairs to the stage floor. These distinct areas were perfect for the different “mini” scenes of Arlene’s memory. Each gave an individual space so that the audience could process that a new memory was occurring. The space between the platforms on the stage represented Arlene’s apartment. Shelves, and a sink and cabinet lined the walls. A bed stood center stage. The location was a very effective choice for it was the home to one of the most crucial scenes of the whole show: the rape scene that occurs at the end of Act 1. There was nothing fancy or intricate, only what was absolutely needed. Minimal? Perhaps. But it was extremely effective in helping drive the message of the story. Getting Out is about raw emotion. It is gritty. The set should, and in this production, did visualize this.
Another key factor in the use of the platforms (memory of jail) around the apartment (current time) was to represent that Arlene was still trapped by her past. When Arlie goes in to solitary confinement, instead of adding a new space on stage, two flats with bars were placed at the bed of the apartment. Arlene is not free of Arlie. In contrary, Arlie is all consuming. This is nicely represented through the set. Another interesting touch made by Loeffke was the painting of the floors. The floors of the apartment were painted to look like wood (so nicely painted that I assumed it was actual wood!). A thick gray boarder, most likely representing concrete, outline the wood details. This gray was then mirrored in the platforms. The audience perception was gray equals jail. So once again, this technical element help expand on the idea of Arlene being encased by her haunting past.
Some of the most important, and impressive, components of the whole production were in the lighting and sound design. Sound designer, and Elon faculty member, Michael Smith and lighting designer Matt Artigues, a senior Theatrical Design and Production Major, fronted the operation. Sounds and lighting were used the moment audience members walked through the door to set the tone for the rest of the two and half hours. Sound effects of jail cells closing, and keys rattling were played. Also announcements being read by actress Mal Marcus about “current inmates” chimed through the speakers. Lights were dark, giving the audience light only with an occasional swoop of a prisons guard’s flashlight. The mood was set, and immediately the point of view of the production was made clear.
Because the set was minimal, sound and lighting became much more important. A sound effect was used any time Arlie’s cell door opened or closed. This helped not only establish the setting, but also clearly identified the action of the scene. The effect also sounded extremely real, and coincided with the actors’ movement perfectly, so the audience’s suspension of disbelief was obtained. Because of the quality of the sound effect, an actual door seemed foolish. Artigues picked dark lighting colors, such as a shade of dark blue, for the memory scenes. This helped set the tone of Arlene’s dark and painful, and also differentiated from the apartment that was basically “natural” light. Besides the dark lighting used to set the tone of the piece, spotlights were also extremely valuable. Because the script jumps between current time and memories, spotlights were often used as a tool for audience members. If the spotlight was on Arlie, it was clear that is where our attention should be. Especially because these memories were at times very short and Arlie traveled all across the set, the use of the spotlight became essential.
Credit must also be given to Junior Technical Design and Production Major, Andrew Ontiveros for his work as costume designer. Although each character only had one costume, Ontiveros made sure that each costume fit the character, depicted the director’s vision for the show, and helped demonstrate the theme of the play. This can best be seen through the character of Ruby, played by Senior Acting Major Sarah Clancy. Ontiveros chose to dress her in a brownish-orange dress, and an old cream knit sweater. Ruby is the one glimpse of light in the rather depressing play. She shows Arlene that there can be life after jail, and not just in prostitution. Because Ruby is Arlene’s small hint of hope, it was very smart of Ontiveros to dress her in the brightest costume. Ruby has also been through a lot, and this is why Arlene feels comfortable talking to her. The sweater was a perfect way to show Ruby as a real human who has been through many obstacles. Other important costumes were the guards. Ontiveros did an excellent job in dressing them in a way to make them unified, but also separate from the rest of the cast. They were their own distinct group, and must be in drastic contrast with Arlie, Arlene, and the other characters of the show. The costumes helped make this clear.
Lastly, credit must be given to stage manager William Pommerening (again a Senior Technical Design and Production major). I was extremely impressed by how smoothly the production ran. Cues seemed flawless. This helped me to fully engaged in the story. When the technical aspect of the show runs smoothly, it is so much easier to loose yourself in the work. You can became lost in that world and forget that you are in a small black box theater. On Sunday afternoon I was with Arlene in her small, dirty apartment in Kentucky as she ate chicken wings on her bed. I was with her in her jail cell as she read the bible for the first time. I know it is due to Pommerening’s skill and hard work, and moreover the whole tech crew, that this is possible.
As Mr. Rubeck states in the program under the director notes, this play is far more just a tale of a mistreated woman. This play explores the human condition. We all can relate to Arlene because we have all tried, in some aspect, to rid of our past and create a new self. As Rubeck says in his closing remarks, “And in the end, following the debate, following the decisions, following the choices, we are left alone with ourselves both new and old, and the challenge of reconciling the tow as we move forward with hope.” Through the incredible direction of Fred Rubeck, astonishing cast of actors, and amazing tech (set, lighting, sound, and costumes), the audience goes on a journey with Arlene. I now carry with me the lesson of Marsha Normans work: like Arlene we must face our past, but not let it dictate our future.