A Killer Performance
Theatre Arts Department Ends the Semester with a Bang
All Photos by Lui Gino de Grandis
there's a warning. As the stage lights dim, an announcement comes over
the loudspeaker: "This show contains lots of loud gunshots and smoke."
The loud noises, however, are perhaps the least disturbing part of "Assassins."
Professor Barbara Damashek, who directed SFSU's springtime production,
calls the 1990 John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim work "one of the
most audacious musical pieces in theater created in this country."
The musical, which hit Broadway just days after it opened at SFSU, explores
the motivations of presidential assassins throughout history, starting
with John Wilkes Booth, who politely excuses himself from stage upon hearing
a distant announcement of President Lincoln's arrival.
In the opening scene John Hinckley approaches a shooting gallery. The
proprietor slides a gun in his direction. "C'mere and shoot a president,"
he sings to Hinckley, "and get the prize with the big blue eyes."
The prize is Jodi Foster, represented by a doll appropriately dressed
in a pink "Taxi Driver" ensemble. Hinckley takes the gun, as
do seven others who are ready to take a shot at a U.S. president. Each
one is lured to a gun by a different desire: love, fame, revenge, and
in one case, a cure for a stomach ache. As the assassins explain in their
opening number, "Everybody's got a right to be happy. Everybody's
got a right to their dreams."
The vaudeville-style musical, which ran at SFSU from April 29 to May 9,
is one in a series of productions that are bringing musical theater back
to SFSU after a nearly 10 year absence. Several years ago, theatre arts
chair Roy Conboy joined forces with music and dance faculty Alissa Deeter
and Patricia Taylor Lee to increase opportunities for talented performers
to take to the stage at SFSU. A key part of their strategy was hiring
Damashek, who has directed at some of the most prestigious theaters in
"‘Assassins' was much larger in scale than anything done here
previously. It was a tremendous effort," Damashek says, adding that
it was also "a signifier of more challenging material to come."
the spring semester, SFSU Magazine went behind the scenes of "Assassins"
to find out how students and faculty pulled off one of the biggest and
boldest musical productions in the history of the Theatre Arts Department.
Jeans for Oswald
Professor Todd Roehrman and his team of six students are taking inventory
in the costume shop on a Thursday afternoon, three weeks before dress
rehearsals. They have designed most of the assassins' costumes but still
need quite a few items: beards, mustaches, socks, men's long underwear
circa 1882, and suspenders. Roehrman begins running down his checklist.
"Do we have jeans for Oswald?" he asks the group. They've got
the pants but are short one pair
of muttonchops. "Try Kryolan on 9th -- they're great for men's facial
hair," Roehrman tells assistant costume designer, MFA student Ruth
Talk turns to a civil war soldier's brief appearance. "He's seen
for, like, two minutes -- I wish we could just do a cardboard cut-out,"
It's understandable he's looking to reduce the team's workload. Most of
the actors require costumes times two: one in color and another in black
and white. "In the opening scene there's a gray scale in the costumes,"
Roehrman explains. "The notion is that they're stepping out of the
annals of history."
Weekly production meetings offer a chance for the technical crew members
to touch base with each other and the director. At the start of one of
the meetings, the props crew reports that the Jodi Foster doll has a loose
arm. Set designer, senior Darcy Villere, provides an update on the Texas
School Book Depository set. His assistants, Ginger Dunnil and Carlos Agilar,
are making good progress in a formidable task: painting hundreds of square
feet of canvas-covered frames to look like boxes of varying sizes.
Stage manager, senior Patrick Naylon, keeps track of the myriad details.
"It's a 24-7 job," he says. Before, between and after classes
Naylon sorts through dozens of e-mails from cast, crew and faculty to
address questions and concerns. Today, after the head of each crew has
delivered a progress report, he makes it clear that anyone who misses
training later in the week will not be allowed to touch the guns.
Professor Matthew Miller, the production manager, calls to the students
as they grab their backpacks and file out the classroom door, "Keep
people enthused -- remember this will all be over in four weeks."
the Mind of a Murderer
Students rehearse five nights a week. Tonight, the cast runs through the
musical's climactic scene: John Wilkes Booth (Mike Fisher) has traveled
through history to have an important conversation with Lee Harvey Oswald
(Jesse Sells). Booth walks into the Texas School Book Depository just
as Oswald is preparing to kill himself. As Oswald writes his farewell
letter, Damashek reminds Sells that his character has terrible penmanship.
("She's big on research," a student seated in the audience explains.)
offers Oswald an entirely different way out of his failed marriage and
failed life: "Shoot a president." Booth assures him that this
will get him the respect he deserves. "All your life you've been
a victim, Lee," he says.
Damashek interrupts. She tells Sells that his reaction to Booth's words
requires more intensity. "A victim is the worst thing you can call
a victim," she says. "Try to think of someone who knows you
-- can really push your buttons -- parents or a sibling."
As the scene continues, Booth calls his fellow assassins from the past
to join him on stage. The villains, dressed in black and white, beg Oswald
to assassinate President Kennedy, so that together they can be "a
force of history." As encouragement, Booth offers, "Imagine
people having passionate feelings about you."
Sure of Your Target
Thursday night gun training in McKenna Theatre: Fight choreographer Eric
Hagar begins with the cautionary tale of actor Brandon Lee, who was fatally
shot during filming of "The Crow" in 1993.
explains that the barrels of the starter pistols, derringer and revolver
that the students will be shooting, are plugged. Some of the guns disperse
gas out both sides of the gun barrel. This means that no one should be
on either side of an actor who is preparing to shoot. "Be sure of
your target," he says.
Nicole Helfer, who plays Sara Jane Moore, the bumbling housewife who failed
in her attempt to shoot Gerald Ford, is the first to rush to the stage
to try out a single action revolver. "You don't have to cock -- just
pull the trigger," Hagar tells her. Helfer fires.
"Cool!" she says.
gently removes the gun from her hands. "Let's not get too excited,"
Bryan Nies, the musical director, says that Sondheim's music "is
always a blessing and a challenge." The songs capture the characters'
thoughts and feelings with precision, so it's important that no changes
are made in tone or tempo that could distort or weaken the thematic and
In "Assassins" the musical numbers shift to reflect the time
period in which each character lived. Hinckley has a disco ballad. Guiteau,
James Garfield's assassin, has a cakewalk. Booth has early American folk
Perhaps the most memorable musical moment is a duet sung by Hinckley and
Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a disciple of Charles Manson, who
attempts to shoot Gerald Ford to bring more fame to her beloved "Charlie."
She sings that she's unworthy of his love. Hinckley professes that he
would "move mountains" and "swim oceans" for Jodi
(later he decides he would also shoot Ronald Reagan for the actress).
The orchestra's 11 students and three professionals have to stay on top
of the speed of scene changes and the delivery of lines, as well as the
tempo of each song. Toward the opening of the show, Nies works with Damashek
to establish the precise moments when the orchestra will begin and end
each number. Nies says that each production involves a search for its
production's technical issues are not resolved until the final dress rehearsals
in McKenna Theatre. Despite its name, the Little Theater, where all previous
rehearsals have taken place, is three times as big as the stage "Assassins"
will play on. With only four days until opening night, the technical work
requires precision and speed.
The theater poses huge acoustical challenges for the sound crew. Sound
engineer, junior Mike Gurnari, strives to achieve a balance between the
actors' voices and the orchestra. It's not easy. Meanwhile, several microphones
simply will not stay attached to their actors.
Lighting poses its own challenges. Lighting designer, junior Lauren McCullough,
and her crew must adjust a series of lighting instruments at the slightest
change in feeling or mood. A single song can require a dozen adjustments,
from happy, warm pink lights to the sinister look of "uplighting,"
light cast on the actors' faces from below.
Senior Kirk Livingston, who plays assassin Charles Guiteau, finally gets
a chance to try out the stairs for his show-stealing scene. After he shoots
Garfield, he performs a snappy song and dance as he climbs the steps to
the gallows. Although the steps are quite high, narrow and lack any kind
of railing, he navigates them with ease. He has been practicing on a stairway
inside his apartment building.
As far as Damashek is concerned, there is no such thing as opening night.
"It's an artificial term," she says. "At the earliest rehearsals
we start to learn from the audience. The production is a process from
start to finish. Opening night is just one night in the middle. If the
work is good, it should change until it closes." She will admit,
with a slight smile, that she has been known to let opening night, artificial
or not, "affect me neurologically."
Noemi Margaret, who lives close to campus but has no ties to the University,
brings her housemates to check out "Assassins," her first theater
experience at SFSU.
is wondrous. The voices and acting are superb, the costumes and sets are
beautiful," she says. "It's just what a theater night should
be, and nothing like the over-produced, over-priced stuff downtown."
She and her friends leave singing the Sondheim tunes and plan on returning
to campus to see "Assassins" a second time.
Jeff Kaliss, an independent Bay Area theater critic, is also impressed.
He says "Assassins" was well worth a trip to campus: "It's
an evening of uneasy but fascinating entertainment."
more scenes from "Assassins" and a list of notable
stars who began their careers at SFSU.