Dawn Morningstar, Director and Choreographer of “Little Mermaid, Jr.” was able to sit back and enjoy the show as the cast members performed their first show this morning. It was a fulfilling experience after about four and a half weeks of hard work, mixed with a lot of fun and creativity. With the first sold-out show under their belts, the cast is excited to perform four more sell-out shows this week.
One of the veteran directors of Upper Darby Summer Stage, Dawn’s productions are filled with visuals and lots of movement as she creates with a dancer’s eye.
Several months ago Dawn collaborated with set designer Lizzie Bracken. Lizzie is a professional set designer who works in Chicago. While coming back to visit family in the Philadelphia area this summer, Lizzie had the opportunity to share her skills with Summer Stage. After swapping images through email, Dawn and Lizzie came up with a look and feel for the set design that take audience members away from it all.
“I want the audience to come in and feel like they’re in a new environment…in this case, like they’re under the sea,” said Dawn. At the Performing Arts Center, the sets aren’t hidden behind a curtain as in most theaters. The set is the first thing people see when they come into the theater. “So it needs to have that moment of ‘Wow!’”
For Dawn it’s very important for the audience to feel like they’re in a place, so they can transition into the art of theater. The set design is more than just a “look,” but rather a foundation for how the show will develop. Also, it provides a means for the audience to get pulled into the performance even before the actors take to the stage. “So for me, what’s important is that it feels environmental. And it feels like you can be there,” added Dawn.
As the actors step onto the stage there is a natural exchange between them and the audience members, an exchange that doesn’t happen while sitting in front of television or computer screen. “Of course I want the audience members to have a good time and enjoy the show,” said Dawn. “But I want them to come away with an experience. I think theater is an experience like no other. You go on this journey with the actors and come out on the other side. I want that connection to happen. The connection with the audience.”
Working with each individual cast member and providing him or her with a specific biography and focus is the key for everyone on stage to be engaged. And the result is a positive experience for the audience. “Every single person in the cast is important,” said Dawn. “Whether you’re chorus member seventy-two or Ariel, you are important in the show and you’re there to tell the story.”
“As a director I tend to push all of my actors to figure out what their characters are. We always have a ‘character working day,’” added Dawn. “We set aside time to set up families, to figure out the relationships between each other.” By doing so each cast member has a purpose and can justify what they are doing. “For me, everything has to have a purpose or it shouldn’t be there.”
The icing on the cake is the creativity that takes place in developing the characters. The trick, according to Dawn, is to provide the parameters and then empower each child to develop their characters, their actions, their movement.
“If the cast has ownership of what they do then they’re more committed to it. So providing a guideline, but letting them develop their own thing is key. I don’t want to say ‘stand there and do this.’ I’d much prefer to say ‘you’re a this, now play around with that. What does that look like?’ It’s partly me and partly the actor creating this thing together.”
For Dawn, one of her favorite statements while directing is “Just go for it, and I’ll pull you back if I need to.”
“That’s what I think is cool about theater,” adds Dawn. “The kids get that opportunity to be creative.”