Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Pygmalion: Catching Up With The Doolittles

George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion shows us three very different family units. We’ve already peeked behind-the-scenes at the trio of secondary characters that make up the Eynsford-Hill family. The next family is the Doolittles: Eliza and Alfred. While the two characters are family, they share little stage time together, and the particulars of their relationship are left up to the actors playing them. We caught up with our actors backstage before the show one day.


Pygmalion production photo

“I don’t think that the characters really have much of a relationship,” says Stage Left Ensemble Member Mark Pracht, who plays Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle. “It says in the script he hasn’t seen her in two months, and I don’t think that’s unusual. I have it in the back of my head that Alfred has, like, 28 kids that are all running around London and he hardly sees any of them.”

“Her falling in with Higgins is just an opportunity for him to suck some money off of somebody. I think that’s just of the nature of that family, at least from Alfred’s perspective. He lives for himself. He doesn’t want to take care of a kid. If forced to he will, but he doesn’t really want to. So the fact that Eliza is able to take care of herself with selling flowers means he doesn’t have to deal with her.”

Stage Left Ensemble Member Mouzam Makkar, who plays Eliza, concurs. “I feel like Father Doolittle was just this remote presence in the household. She does tell the story of “my aunt died of influenza, but my father, he kept ladling gin down her throat…” So I feel like he was around, but they didn’t really talk. But I knew he was my dad and he would come by sometimes and-“

“And ask if you have money,” chimes in Mark.

“Exactly,” says Mouzam. “I feel that was pretty much the extent of the relationship.”


Mouzam Makkar as Eliza Doolittle
”Early on in the show, I’m doing a lot of just touching things, because I feel like Eliza probably hasn’t touched, for instance, nice engraved wood or plush couches, and I just totally imagined her being very sensory and touching and smelling things.”
-Mouzam Makkar

Still, the two characters came from the same neighborhood and the same class structure, and even if they didn’t have much interaction, they do share some familial similarities. “There is a certain assertiveness to the characters,” admits Mark. “The ability to just walk into the Higgins household and ask for what they want— that takes a certain disdain for the class structure. They’re both very opportunistic people. I think that’s probably on the Doolittle coat of arms: ‘Do for yourself.’”

Mouzam agrees. “Yeah, Doolittle is a smart guy, he knows where his strengths are, he knows what he can do, and I feel like Eliza knows what she is capable of too.” This is aptly demonstrated in the first scene of the play, in which Eliza rallies the crowd to her defense when she feels she might be arrested. “They both know how to manipulate a situation. They’re not strangers, she just knows ‘this is how I do my thing and this is how he does his.’”


Mark Pracht as Alfred Doolittle
“The interesting thing about Alfred’s argument as to why he should be given the money for Eliza is really hilarious to me, because at the time the concept of a dowry was pretty common, and I think that’s the way he looks at it: you’re taking my daughter, and that means you give me some money. He’s adept at using the society against itself.
-Mark Pracht

Mouzam and Mark are each drawn to their characters for different reasons.

“I love how strong Eliza is,” says Mouzam. “And it’s a role that kind of scared me at first, and I thought that meant I should probably audition for it. Because how often do you get the chance to say, ‘If get this role, then crap— I’m going to need to really figure this out and work hard at it!’”

For his role as Alfred, Mark has been specifically highlighted in many reviews, such as in the Chicago Sun-Times, which noted that he “mines every ounce of the comedy and self-awareness in Eliza’s dad.”

“I describe it as sort of a paratrooper role,” muses Mark. “You drop in, you say some funny stuff, and then you leave. And that’s always fun to do. You don’t have to carry the show.” No, but he certainly steals every scene he’s in. “I would never say I do that,” he demurs.

For this role, Mark grew an impressive set of friendly mutton chops, a style in which the mustache and side burns are connected. “In the last couple of years, I’ve been lucky enough to do parts that required me to do fairly extensive makeup, of one kind or another, and I really enjoy that,” Mark comments fondly. “I enjoy the idea of looking in the mirror and being about to go onstage and not seeing me, but just seeing the character. That’s also why I enjoy getting the costume. Thing don’t really come together for me until then.”

Speaking of costumes, Mouzam undergoes no less than five complete costume changes in the course of the two hour show. The evolution of these costumes also helped inform her acting choices. “The first costume I wear is so bulky and I can just slouch and be on the ground and I don’t think about ‘is my skirt set right?’ Plus I get to put dirt on my face and have scraggly hair. That really helps define early Eliza.”

“And then I get to do a slow transformation, where I take the dirt off first, and then I put all of my hair up, which makes me think, ‘oh, I don’t have anything on my shoulders now, this is nice,’ and then I get to put on the nice dress. My dresses get more and more constrained as the evening goes on, and that really does help me get to the point at the end where I’ve become a lady.”

You can see the Doolittles in action in BoHo and Stage Left Theatres’ joint production of Pygmalion, now playing at Theater Wit until February 10th. Do you have thoughts on the characters or our actors’ approach to them? Leave a comment below and join the conversation!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Pygmalion: Dialect Coach Lindsay Barlett Sounds Off On Working With Our Actors

In our continuing series of posts looking behind-the scenes at BoHo's co-production of Pygmalion with Stage Left Theatre, we got a chance to talk to Dialect Coach (and Artistic Director of 20% Theatre) Lindsay Barlett on how she approached her work for this show.

Working on Pygmalion would seem to be a dialect coach's dream because it's a show all about dialect. Where do you start with a play like this? What is your process for gathering info?

Lindsay: This show is definitely a dialect coach's dream but then again any show with a vast amount of dialects is a dream to do because it challenges me. When I got the job working on this show I watched a lot of My Fair Lady as well as taped versions of Pygmalion just so I could get the tone. I also, as per usual for the shows i worked on, started gathering worksheets and voiced examples to not only use but pass on to the actors. A lot of my process happens after the show is cast and the rehearsals have begun because then I can witness how well a person will do with a specific dialect and whether we can tailor it or not.

What is the most fun about being a dialect coach?

Lindsay:I think the most fun thing about being a dialect coach is watching people become somebody different. Even when an actor is in their normal street clothes when you watch them put on a dialect they become a completely different person even though they are just changing the sounds that are coming out of their mouth. I kind of see it as a super power and I taught them it. I think Higgins nails it on the head when he says "you have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into quite a different human being"

What is the most challenging aspect about what you do?

Lindsay:I think the most challenging aspect about what I do is that sometimes people just can't do dialects. It's the same was as singing, not everyone is born with that talent and it takes time. It's very difficult sometimes to carve out time with an actor to work on dialect stuff because the blocking, working and general rehearsal process takes precedent but the dialect work sometimes takes the longest.

What is something that you think people don't realize about what you do?

Lindsay:I think that people don't realize how long dialect work takes. It's a different sort of designer schedule than more prominent designers like set or costumes. A Dialect Coach has to be available as often as possible at rehearsals and outside of rehearsals. Coaches are essentially an extension of the cast and not the production team.

Where do you find the time to be so knowledgeable about dialects AND be an artistic director at the same time?

Lindsay:sometimes I ask myself that very same question ;) To be honest, dialects come very easy to me, it's second nature and I have been doing them since I was a little kid so it is easy for me to translate what I know into teaching it to other people...I also am addicted to coffee and can run on very little sleep.

You can learn more about Lindsay on her website: You can also hear all of Lindsay's carefully crafted sounds in person: Pygmalion is currently running at Theater Wit through February 10th. Learn more...

Friday, January 25, 2013

Pygmalion: Tips on Playing the Same Role Twice from Sandy Elias

Colonel Pickering appears in every scene of Pygmalion as Henry Higgins’ steady companion, eager to dissect dialects and help train Eliza in becoming a proper lady. As a counter point to Higgins’ disinterest and cruelty, Pickering offers a kind, supportive, grandfatherly presence to Eliza. But what really makes him tick?


Pygmalion production photo Stage Left Theatre Ensemble Member Sandy Elias plays Pickering in our production. He believes Pickering leaps into the task of training Eliza—going so far as to move into Higgins’ apartment at Wimpole Street—because he’s attracted to the youthful energy there. “I used to be a college professor,” Sandy says, “and it’s a lot of fun to teach somebody. That’s the best way to learn a subject—to try to teach it to somebody else. Just being in that kind of environment of learning and watching Eliza develop is fun and exciting for him. He says it in the play: ‘It makes me feel young again.’

“So that’s part of what keeps him there. But it’s also genuine affection for Higgins and Eliza, and Mrs. Pearce, who takes care of everyone. It’s like an adopted family.”

“That’s one of the reasons I do plays,” Sandy continues. “It makes ME feel young again, just being involved in that kind of energy. Obviously, Steve [O’Connell] has tremendous amount of energy, as does Mouzam [Makkar], and it just carries into our offstage life.”


Sandy Elias headshot Our production is not the first in which Sandy has played Colonel Pickering. He first played the role five years ago with Southwest Shakespeare Company in Arizona. Recreating a role under new circumstances is a unique challenge.

“Part of the trick, for me, was to forget about the other production I did and just play the moments as they occur in this one. That’s a bit of a challenge because sometimes I’ll be thinking about what happened last time, and maybe how this other kid delivered that line last time. But it makes you realize the organic, marvelous nature of live theatre. As you know, each performance is different, and obviously each production is different. So it’s kind of fun!”


Sandy is a graduate of Northwestern University’s theatre program. “When I moved to Chicago, I was 18, and I started at Northwestern in their summer theatre program. I had a wonderful time! I really owe a lot to Northwestern. It’s a great school, and I met some great people there.”

In all his years traveling around the country for theatre—and in working for over a decade at the Southwest Shakespeare Company—one thing stands out to him. “Every actor that I meet, when I’d tell them I was retiring from my teaching post and going back to Chicago, they were all jealous. They all want to be here, because the scene is so vibrant and alive… You can’t beat this city!

Catch Sandy's work while you can: Pygmalion is currently running at Theater Wit through February 10th. Learn more...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Pygmalion: How Stephanie Sullivan discovered Mrs. Pearce

In our co-production of Pygmalion with Stage Left Theatre, BoHo's own Casting Associate Stephanie Sullivan plays Mrs. Pearce, housekeeper to Henry Higgins. She shared with us the process behind finding her approach to the character.

Stephanie Sullivan

"The path to discovering Mrs. Pearce has taken many different turns, especially because in the beginning, I wondered how I would take a character that is traditionally played by an older woman and make her story believable in the context of our production.

"The simple answer to the age thing? Mrs. Pearce has simply known Higgins her whole life, which affords her the knowledge she needs to 'handle' him (perhaps she even inherited her role from her mother, who would have been around to help raise Higgins.) Although my Mrs Pearce wouldn't have been around to help with the raising, she's been around long enough understand what it takes to manage him. She knows her position in life, but also knows that he could never manage without her. I've had a lot of fun in discovering what that fine line is— there's a balance between what her station in life dictates, and what her personal relationship with Higgins will allow.

"Luckily, I had a lot of inspiration to draw from; shows like Downton Abbey have prompted a whole new level of interest in the life of maids and footmen, many of which aren't too far from my actual age! In fact, one of the first things I remember Vance saying early on was, "I think of Mrs Pearce as someone kind of like Mrs O'Brien, but softer." Indeed, I think Mrs Pearce has the conviction and tenacity of Mrs O'Brien, without her cunning, scheming quality.

"The other fun thing we played with was dialect. Early on I rehearsed the script with standard RP in mind, but Vance wanted Mrs. Pearce's dialect to reflect a class distinction. We also knew that in the presence of a dialectician she couldn't sound anywhere near as bad as Eliza— no way he would be able to tolerate that for years!

Pygmalion production photo

It was Peter Robel who planted the seed of using a slightly Northern English influence in the dialect, which I feel has given this character a whole new flavor and life! Somehow this new direction made her much more three-dimensional, and brought qualities to her character that I wouldn't have discovered otherwise.

"What a fun show to be a part of! I am truly grateful for the experience and grateful to have worked with such an amazing cast and crew!"

Catch Stephanie's hilarious work while you can: Pygmalion is currently running at Theater Wit through February 10th. Learn more...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pygmalion: A Look at the Research Process with Skye Robinson Hillis

In our continuing series of posts looking behind-the scenes at BoHo's co-production of Pygmalion with Stage Left Theatre, we spoke with dramaturg Sky Robinson Hillis about how she approached researching a period show with this much history.

How to you get started when you're putting together research for a show? What's your first step?

Skye: It depends on the type of play you're working on, and whether or not it's a new play. Usually I begin with research of the era, particularly with a play like this. The time period is always the jumping off point for me. It usually guides me in the right direction. Everything starts there.

How do you anticipate what research might be most useful for the production team?

Skye:Anticipation is not always reliable, so I prefer just to ask them. I lay the groundwork and then if there's something specific they need me to focus on, better to find that out sooner than later. But generally, I would say we all tend to be interested in the same thing, and have a similar idea of what's important, as per the director's vision.

Drowning in information is possibly even less useful than having no information at all.

Where do you find your information? What has been your most interesting source for Pygmalion?

Skye:All over. Both the library and the internet. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. For this production, I read a lot of books on Victorian and Edwardian etiquette, so I became "Miss Manners." Maybe due to the time period we were looking at, the library was actually the more useful of the two. My most interesting source was actually this fantastic website that essentially turned Victorian England into an interactive Google map-type deal and allowed us to explore the city of London at that time. (I would include the link, but evidently now you have to pay for it.)

What is the most fun about being a dramaturg?

Skye:I'm just a giant nerd, so just about everything is the most fun thing. Working on this was especially so because Pygmalion has been one of my favorite plays since I was about thirteen and this was the first time I'd had any opportunity to actually be involved in a production of it. Researching the relationship between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell is pretty much just an average Friday night for Skye Robinson Hillis, so it was a blast.

What is the most challenging aspect?

Skye:The most challenging aspect tends to be the filtering the information. Picking and choosing from all the gems you've discovered in order to focus on what's most relevant to the production, to the play we're making. But it's important to make those decisions and not overwhelm. Drowning in information is possibly even less useful than having no information at all.

Pygmalion is currently running at Theater Wit through February 10th. Learn more...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Pygmalion: Crafting the Costumes with Theresa Ham

In our continuing series of posts looking behind-the scenes at BoHo's co-production of Pygmalion with Stage Left Theatre, we sat down with long-time BoHo Costume Designer Theresa Ham to discuss how she approached her work for this show.

Theresa: Designing Pygmalion was a big challenge, not only to create a beautiful full world, but working with the artistic visions of two companies. I have worked with BoHo for eight years, so I feel like I have a good grip on the artistic ideals for that company. But adding in Stage Left Theatre's artistic director Vance Smith, brought a new voice to my work with the company. I am always excited to work with new people, and this experience has been really great!

Pygmalion, Scene 3

How to you get started when you are putting together costumes for a show? What's your first step?

My first step is always to make a list of needs for the show. For example, what are the must haves that are referenced in the script and then discuss how to create the overall look with the director, in this case Vance Smith. Once I have a list of needs and a visual direction, I either draw, do research, or begin pulling items from stock sources.

Where do you find your inspiration in general? What about your inspiration for Pygmalion?

Theresa:I think inspiration can come from anywhere! As an artist, I am influenced by everything: fashion, studio art, nature, history, ect. Pygmalion is a period piece, meaning it is rooted in a past era, so when I have a project like this, the first place I look for inspiration is fashion books that illustrate the style of clothing during the given period— in this case, 1905-1912. From there, I can decide color and fabric to create a complete look.

Pygmalion, Scene 4

What do you find to be the most fun aspect of designing costumes for the stage, especially a period piece like this?

Theresa:The most fun is recreating the style of the period: really getting into how each character would present themselves given the style of the time. I really love watching actors get dressed in period costumes. It always effects their posture, demeanor, and movement. I think it helps them feel more appropriate, and it always makes me feel good to have the costumes make a positive impact on the actors.

What is the most challenging aspect about what you do?

I think my biggest challenge is to get inside each character. As an actor, you really have to know the character you are portraying, but as a costumer, you are making choices about every character in the play. I have to know how each character fits in the social ladder of the piece, how they view themselves, how their inner emotions might effect their clothing choices, and then how to convey that knowledge through costume to the audience! It's a big task, and I often rely on the director and actors to help me make those tough choices.

Pygmalion, Scene 6

What is something that you think people don't realize about your craft?

It is extremely collaborative. I work with everyone involved in the production. My work begins with the director, but I also need to communicate with the scenic designer (who creates the environment), lighting designer (who creates the emotional environment), actors (who actually wear the clothes), producers (funding and artistic vision), stage mangers and crew persons (who give our show continuity and make sure it can actually all work together backstage). If I am unwilling to collaborate and work together with others, my work will never be as good as it could be, because all of these people are inherently a part of it.

Pygmalion cast

See Theresa's beautiful costumes in action: Pygmalion is currently running at Theater Wit through February 10th. Learn more...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Pygmalion: Behind the Scenes with the Eynsford-Hill Family

You’ve no doubt heard of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, either from George Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion or its musical reimagining, My Fair Lady. But how much do you know of the Eynsford-Hill family? This trio of secondary character s pops up to provide some comic relief, but also shine a light on the main characters and help define them for us.


Rebecca Mauldin headshot
“I think Clara is a fabulous character. Sometimes those sort of character roles are especially appealing to me, because they have a lot of places you can take them.”

BoHo’s own Casting Associate, Rebecca Mauldin, plays the spoiled young lady Clara Eynsford-Hill in our joint production of Pygmalion with Stage Left Theatre “She seems to be a very one-dimensional character upon the first read,” she says. “She’s spoiled. She likes things her way. But obviously she’s not one-dimensional, because no one is.

“She has a lot of potential, which Shaw mentions in his epilogue to the play. She’s struggling with a woman’s station in the world. She’s kind of stuck: she’s poor, but she has the training of a lady, and things are changing and her life is different and she doesn’t know how to cope. It kinda sucked to be a lady back then. You didn’t have a lot of options.”

Indeed, Clara is almost a portrait of Eliza in reverse. Over the course of play, Eliza rises in social stature as she sheds her lower-class manners, transforming from the loud flower girl at the beginning of the play to a fine lady at the end. In the process, Eliza finds she has lost her independence. Meanwhile, Clara is part of a family in financial decline, and is embracing the coarse language and manners of the lower-class. Seeking her youthful independence, we see Clara reveling in rudeness and foul language, to the horror of those around her, while Eliza is embracing proper etiquette and speech, to the amazement of others.

As for Clara’s frequent outbursts and generally rebellious nature, Rebecca thinks, “she definitely manipulates her family into doing what she wants. She’s learned that she gets her way by pouting. I do think it’s learned to some degree, you know? You will continue something if it gets a response.”


Charles Riffenburg headshot
“I love getting to a play a character who communicates as much in his reactions as in his words.”

Meanwhile, Clara’s brother Freddie would seem to be nothing greater than a simple upper-class fool. But his courtship of Eliza, and her willingness to possibly marry him at the end, sets him up as so much more than just a fool. In fact, he functions as a foil for Higgins. In the final act of the play, when Higgins scoffs at the idea of Eliza marrying Freddie, he asks, “Can he MAKE anything of you?” Eliza responds, “Perhaps I could make something of him.” In this scenario, the roles are reversed: Freddie has been showering Eliza with the affections Higgins never has, and gives Eliza the chance to be the supportive teacher and friend that Higgins never was to her.

“I like Freddie because he’s innocent,” says BoHo’s Media Director Charles Riffenburg, who is playing Freddie in our production, “which is not to say he’s unfamiliar with the world. He knows proper manner and etiquette, but he also knows how the world works. And he finds it all amazing.

“For me, that’s the only way to reconcile that fact that Freddie knows full well who Eliza is when he meets her at Mrs. Higgins’ at-home— she’s the strong-spirited flower girl who swiped his cab one rainy night— and he still completely and utterly falls for her. He sends her a flood of letters almost daily. Coming from a family with rapidly dwindling money and social stature, at a time when getting a job would plunge his family into being commoners, chasing after a poor flower girl with no money herself, regardless of how proper she acts, is crazy— but he does it anyway. I think it’s because he’s open to that kind of experience. He knows all the proper rules of Edwardian society, but he refuses to recognize them as a limitation.”


Laura Sturm headshot
“I think Mrs Eynsford-Hill adores her children, but Clara’s behavior and how it alienates the family is very trying. She was raised to be a lady, but the situation has pushed her off of her comfort level.”

Unfortunately, due to the combining of Clara and her mother into one character in My Fair Lady, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill is often dismissed as an upper-class snob. However, Laura Sturm, who plays Freddie and Clara’s mother, sees the character and her handling of the family from the very different perspective: that of a woman on the edge of crisis.

Whereas Henry’s mother, Mrs. Higgins, has the stature, money, and proper manners to provide her with stability in society (regardless of her son’s boorish disregard for any of the trapping of etiquette), Mrs. Eynsford-Hill is not so lucky. “Honestly, the two children are Mrs. Eynsford-Hill’s lifeline. One of them needs to marry well or she’s going to starve. It sounds sort of silly, that marriage is this life or death thing, but in this time period it’s true. And so when Clara misbehaves in front of a woman who could cut all of us socially, it is terrifying and devastating.”

“In my mind, in the back story I’ve made for the character, there are already people who have cut us socially because we don’t dress as well and we’re not as fashionable as everyone else, and because we can’t reciprocate, we don’t have the means to host parties, so we’re not invited to as many of them anymore. And in my mind, Clara has had her little heart broken by some nasty society witches, which is very upsetting to her mother.”

For our actors, the unexplained absence of Mr. Eynsford-Hill in the play creates a rich opportunity in crafting the history of their family. In order to compose a rich inner life for a character, actors must often invent or infer parts of their history if the script does not provide such information. In this instance, all three actors have decided that the reason Mr. Eynsford-Hill is absent from the play is that he died some years ago. He was the sole source of their money, and it’s been dwindling ever since.

“I did some research on Epsom, which is where Mrs. Eynsford-Hill says she was raised,” Laura reveals, “and it was known for the Epsom Downs Racecourse,” which was (and still is) England’s premier thoroughbred horse race. “It’s my thought that her husband liked to gamble, and that took care of a good amount of the family’s money.”

The loss of Mr. Eynsford-Hill has influenced how Laura approaches playing Mrs. Eynsford-Hill and how she deals with her family. “I think if her husband had stayed alive, and they’d had money, she’d have done a better job raising the two children. She is a fine lady, but she’s on the edge.”

You can see the Eynsford-Hills in action in BoHo and Stage Left Theatres’ joint production of Pygmalion, now playing at Theater Wit until February 10th. Do you have thoughts on the characters or our actors’ approach to them? Leave a comment below and join the conversation!