Inside Iowa State

Inside Archives

Submit news

Send news for Inside to, or call (515) 294-7065. See publication dates, deadlines.

About Inside

Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

September 23, 2005

Before the play can begin

by Samantha Beres

When James and the Giant Peach opens next week, theater-goers will feast their eyes on a life-sized ladybug, spider and grasshopper. They'll see James, played by 20-year-old Brendan Dunphy, and his evil aunts Sponge and Spiker. In all, there are 19 characters in the performance.

What the audience won't see are the 50 people working backstage. Some build the set; others create costumes. Still others deal with the logistics of the show -- right down to marking the floor with a piece of tape so stagehands know where to place a prop.

In sync

To pull it off, everyone working a production has to be perfectly in sync. Take for example, this scenario. Director Sarah Zwick-Tapley, theater faculty, decided to portray the two evil aunts in Peach as shadow puppets. Puppeteers will lie on their backs to operate 3-foot tall puppets behind a screen. Lights will create 12-foot tall shadows on the screen.

A costume designer creates the puppets while students in the costume shop make the designer's vision come to life. The puppets need to be flexible enough to allow the performers to make them expressive.

A lighting designer makes sure the puppets cast shadows the director envisions. The night of the show, a technician actually does the lighting.

"The looming shadows will really express the whole idea that James is totally alone in this world," said Zwick-Tapley. "There's lots of trial and error leading up to the show. We'll say, 'OK, here are the puppets, let's see how big we can get them.'"

Emily Brainerd and Dave Krenz building set for
James and the Giant Peach

Emily Brainerd, theater specialist (right) and student Dave Krenz build the set for the ISU Theatre production of James and the Giant Peach, which opens Sept. 30. Photo by Bob Elbert.

An abstract set

Scenic designer Rob Sunderman, theater faculty, created a set that works with Zwick-Tapley's approach to the play.

"Sarah has an approach that she wanted it to be a very physical theater and not so literal," he said. "I went through a series of drawings to speak to that style of presentation."

His design resulted in what he calls a minimalist set. While he helps with some painting of the set, his design is built by a shop supervisor and students.

The scenic designer also oversees props. In the case of Peach, Sunderman said, "It's not your typical go out and find a prop." There is a lot of overlap with the costume shop because many of them need to be built. There are shark fins and waves built from vinyl. There's a tube that James will crawl through. There are bat wings that are basically flags on a stick. The aunts' backyard looks like crinkled paper and has a carnival feel to it.

"All the different disciplines, especially for this production, are intertwined and we all have to communicate a lot," Sunderman said.

Calling the show

During the actual performance, stage manager, ISU student Brittany Wagoner, will don a headset and "call the show." She's responsible for everything that happens on stage and calling cues for lights, sound, and scene changes. Some shows have hundreds of cues.

Sitting in the back of the hall, she talks to backstage hands outfitted with headsets to be sure actors are ready to go on and sets get moved on and off the stage at the right time.

"On the night of the show, the stage manager makes it happen," said Zwick-Tapley. "A good stage manager is worth gold and this one is."

Leading up to the performance, the stage manager "manages" the actors, for instance, makes sure they're at rehearsals on time, and that they get fitted for costumes. She writes down the notes of the director, so if a certain prop needs to cross the stage at a certain point, it will.

"It's really about trusting the process," said Zwick-Tapley. She has learned that her intuition for a show is much smarter than her linear logic. "I have no idea what the product is going to be. Good artists are willing to give up the control and allow those 50 people to influence the path."

The Lineup

James and the Giant Peach was no random selection. ISU Theatre starts planning every October for the next three years. Faculty and students sit around a table and try to come up with a season that everyone agrees on and is balanced.

"Balanced" means shows from different time periods and different settings. For instance, this season will feature Pavilion, a new play (new plays have been written in the last decade) and then A Christmas Carol from the late 1800s. There also is a variation in where the plays take place. James and the Giant Peach takes place in an imaginary world.

Jane Cox, director of ISU Theatre, said another goal is to offer good roles for both men and women. Year before last, the characters in many plays were men, so they decided to run Little Women to balance out the male/female opportunities for actors.

And then, there is the box office to consider. "I used to work with a director who said that there are two words in show business: show and business," said Cox. "We have to balance shows that don't have a big name title with ones that do. People are more inclined to go to things they've heard of," she said.


"On the night of the show, the stage manager makes it happen. A good stage manager is worth gold and this one is."

Sarah Zwick-Tapley,
theater faculty