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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Barter Theatre's Les Misérables is unique storytelling

The statue, marking the grave of 19th-century French republican Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Baudin, that inspired the set design of Barter Theatre's
The statue, marking the grave of 19th-century French republican Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Baudin, that inspired the set design of Barter Theatre's "Les Mis."
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Richard Rose: "Take it and make it our own"

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | May 29, 2013

When Rick Rose, Amanda Aldridge and Dale Jordan first began to work on their concept for "Les Misérables," six to eight months ago, they knew that they did not want to do a carbon copy of the Broadway show.

"We wanted the opportunity to take it and make it our own," Rose says. "The vast majority of people who do "Les Misérables' will do a knockoff of the Broadway production, which is a carbon copy of the British production, and for me that's like looking at a carbon copy of a carbon copy. You know how carbon copies wear down over time. They start looking different and ragged. We love the opportunity to take something that has some iconic moments and some wonderful things about it — and God knows the original staging of this is beautiful – and just make it truly our own. We call it "barterizing' the production."

* — * -*

"I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. I think it's one of the
most glorious scores to ever grace the stage of American theatre -
just the strength and beauty of that music, and the storytelling that
occurs within that glorious music."
- Rick Rose

* — * -*

The first step in developing the concept actually began with pictures.

"We exchanged a large volume of photo and art images and ideas and began to hone in on what really popped for us," Rose says. "For me from the very beginning the idea of who is telling the story and why are they telling it to us; the idea of ghostly images coming back from our pasts and reminding us of the history that could be pertinent to our current history and where that might lead you is a very relevant way to approach this piece. Particularly now, if you look at the world the sense of 'those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it' is more pertinent than ever. We have failed in this country, and I think in the world, to learn the lessons of history. And so having the ghosts of the past come up and tell you their story makes the point that we may be those ghosts of the future"

This sense of avoiding history also applies to Jean Valjean. "Valjean tries to hide his past, he never lets Cosette, whom he has taken on as his ward, know about that past. He never is able to confront it, except when he confronts Javert, and then he only runs from it. So from all of those points of view he doesn't ever learn from his past. He hides it, he distances himself from it, he tries to pretend it never happened, he tries to bury it, and it keeps coming back to haunt him.

"So we talked about all those themes, and we found images that we thought fit, and then we shot images back and forth. We got the image of a white room with a ladder sitting there, and you think 'that's an interesting image for the show – that emptiness, that void needing to be filled, that sense that there's infinity there and yet it's enclosed, so it's both universal and personal.' And you get the ghostly images that look out at you and say, "why don't you hear me; why don't you grasp what I'm telling you.' Then you get the image of the tomb of the solder from the French Revolution, and they combine into some very powerful statements that hopefully you can convey when you put them together in a show. That's what we did."

Of course, once the conceptualizing was over – reality set in. The original set design was three times the budget, so they had to decide what they could keep and what had to be deleted.

"We call it choosing the right chair," Rose says. "If a designer creates a set, and it has a chair and a back wall, and the reality is you can't afford to build both as designed, what do you do? Some designers compromise on the details and construction and do both. We believe it's better to have the right chair and make a statement with the chair than to compromise both. So we try to choose the right chair."

Once they had their concept and their actors, the next steps were to explain the process (the actors had already begun working with the music director by this time). The explanation also involved a good-natured practical joke. One actor had been told that the ghosts were going to be zombies and was asked to explain the concept to everyone else. Halfway through his explanation, complete with a shambling gait, he realized he'd been "punked."

Rehearsals take place in a large room with some of the props and furniture. The floor is covered with bits of different colors of tape that indicate where ladders, chairs or tables belong at different times. When they began rehearsals, the focus was on movement – not acting.

"The French don't call it rehearsal, they call it répétition (repetition). It's really about learning it over and over again and getting it in your muscles and your body and your bones. Then you can build on it and create something together. Otherwise, what happens sometimes is actors start acting before you need them to. You need them to learn their blocking, their movements and their style. Then I want them to put their acting on top of that and fill it out. If they start acting too early, they aren't going to make choices that will coalesce and put us all in the same world, or they're not going to learn their movement, because they're so busy acting that they forget to learn their movement.

"Part of the process is getting the actors to become cohesive within the show. Every show has different needs, different challenges, and different styles, and getting them to coalesce behind that style is always a process. People just assume that actors understand, but they have to actually do it and start getting it in their bones and get all the motion behind them, before they can concentrate on the acting end of it."

The show is put together in very small pieces. The actors learn their movements just a few beats at a time, add another few beats; then put it together. Then they add some more. If something doesn't work, it's changed immediately. "It's really hard to retrain them," Rose says. "It's amazing how quickly actors get into their bodies and muscles what they are doing and how they move. So you try as hard as possible to get it right before they get a chance to learn it. It's much harder to change it than you would think."

Once all the pieces are put together, there are 30 hours of tech rehearsal when the show moves to the stage. This is where the light and sound, set and all the props are added.

When the opening curtain rises, Rose hopes that their production of "Les Misérables" "reveals the things we want to say and want to look at, and in many ways connects to our audience on a more personal basis than the spectacle of a Broadway show.

"The opportunity to do "Les Misérables' doesn't come around very often. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. I think it's one of the most glorious scores to ever grace the stage of American theatre — just the strength and beauty of that music, and the storytelling that occurs within that glorious music. I've always wanted to do it. I hope our audience comes away understanding our world, our history and where we're going in a better way. I hope it makes them think about that. On the other hand, they'll go home saying, "wow that was fun and entertaining, and I really enjoyed it.'"

Broadway comes to Barter Theatre in more than one way

Topics: Theatre

Rick Rose explains his concept of Les Miserables to the Barter Theatre cast.

Before sets are finished, the crew has to be creative taking publicity shots. McRoberts (Valjean), Hannah Ingram (Fantine) Richard Rose (director), Nathan Wampler.