This story behind a story begins with a scene set in early February, Meadows School of the Arts, room B349. A troupe of actors gathers, not to rehearse, but to play, to make believe.
On this night, the troupe is practicing one of the musical numbers in their play “The Sparrow,” to be performed February 25 through the first of March. Using everything from a guitar to a glockenspiel, the members of the troupe feel out a sprawling arrangement of Frank Sinatra’s song, “I’ve Got the World on a String.”
In one corner of the room, a group splits off to practice the structure of the song. Two other members stand behind a table in the middle of the room, picking out a melody on their ukuleles. Three more, armed with pencils, tap away at a table, learning the percussion break for the piece. As each group of players and singers practices its part of the composition, the director does a gleeful jig in tandem with the music. The atmosphere is light and surprisingly free of stress.
“There’s so much energy,” said Ariana Howell, the actress who plays the main character.
“The Sparrow.” A piece written, directed and set by SMU students and alums, it is an SMU thoroughbred of a play. It mixes themes of grief and isolation with splashes of humor to tell the story of a young woman and a community scarred by a tragic accident.
For every main-stage production, for every movie we watch, from Broadway to Bollywood, there is a saga behind the production we see. It is a well-known fact that the production of our entertainment is far from effortless. Directors and actors and crews work for months on end to perfect their piece. Rarely do we stop to appreciate the inner workings of the production.
“I was just talking to our set designer, Darren Diggle,” said director Molly Beach Murphy. “And I asked him, ‘how many hours do you think we’ve spent talking about this play?’ and he said, ‘easily over a hundred.’”
Murphy, a graduate of SMU’s department, and Juliana Dellasanta, a sophomore theater major, are collectively putting countless hours into the production of the show, coordinating creative desires and corralling schedules. The atmosphere they have created together is one of the defining parts of this play. The freedom Murphy promotes as a director is not lost upon the members of her cast.
Sophomore theater major, Leslie Ballart, who will be playing one of the female leads in the show, said that one of the most important aspects of her role as an actress is to be open to and engaged with the creative drives of her colleagues.
“It takes people to put on a production,” said Ballart.
Murphy has created an atmosphere where a high level of collaboration is encouraged. More than one cast member said that after rehearsals Murphy liked to say, “thanks for jamming with me.” Murphy, however, gives all of the credit to her cast and the talents they bring to the table.
And indeed, on this night, the troupe was jamming. Four part harmonies float forth from the finger-formed vocal chords of pig puppets, pencils clicking and clacking against a table, and the ukuleles strum their jaunty air.
According to the actors, one of the biggest and most rewarding challenges of playing a role is understanding the essence of their characters.
“I think that theater is beautiful because you step into someone,” said Howell.
Another theme behind the scenes is that of collaboration. For instance, Murphy said that Diggle sat through every rehearsal. She said that before rehearsals even began she and he spent hundreds of hours brainstorming ideas for the play.
According to both her and the cast, there is a lot of creative trial and error to be done before arriving at the final product.
“It’s a lot of happy and accidents and intense planning,” said Murphy.
Dellasanta, said her favorite part of producing “The Sparrow” has been the challenge of accommodating the “crazy tech stuff,” in the show. Swinging ropes, set pieces with multiple uses, and things not yet revealed, all factor into the quest for a clean show.
According to Murphy, one of the unique things about this play is that the “theater magic” is not hidden from the audience. This means that the cast members move the set with no pause between scenes. Tables become beds, desks become bleachers and walls become gates. This presents an interesting challenge for the actors. They must be precise and quick so as not to disturb the storyline. Everything from the throwing of a ball to the rearrangement of the set must be meticulously timed and positioned, yet the troupe seems never to grow tired of their craft.
One of the major themes within the cast is a sense of personal growth. Each member seems to be honing some specific skill or learning a new one to add to their repertoire.
Ballart is mastering the art of understanding her character, Howell is conquering tough choreography, and Dellasanta is learning how best to manage people.
“It’s really forcing me to expand my imagination,” said Howell.
However, new skills are not all that the troupe hopes to gain from the show. Ballart said she hopes the performance leaves people with a sense of the importance of love among friends and family.
And at the end of the day, when the curtain closes, Ballart says, “it could be good or bad. It could not work. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re willing to go out there and play.”
The Sparrow will open at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, February 25 in the Greer Garson Theatre, and hold its final showing there on March 1. To get tickets, purchase them online, or visit the Meadows box office.