Cast, crew iron out final details before 'Julius Caesar' opens at Old Main

Amy Milgrub Marshall
April 14, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The countdown is on for the School of Theatre’s outdoor production of “Julius Caesar" at 7:30 p.m. April 15 to 17 on the steps of Old Main. Involving literally hundreds of students, faculty and staff from across the University, the production — a year in the making — will tell the story of Julius Caesar’s rise and fall in the setting of a contemporary African nation, to draw parallels between Shakespeare’s Roman Republic of 44 B.C. and African dictatorships of today.

The April 17 performance will be preceded by a Philharmonic Orchestra concert featuring Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” selected both because of the setting and the performance date. Inscribed across Old Main are words from the Morrill Act of 1862 — also known as the Land-Grant College Act — which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. The performance of “Lincoln Portrait” will coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. The April 17 concert and play will be webcast live by students from the colleges of Communications, and Information Sciences and Technology, exclusively for Penn State Alumni Association members, and World Campus and Commonwealth Campus students.

While planning for “Julius Caesar” began many months ago, the reality of School of Theatre productions is that the actual preparations — rehearsing, sewing costumes, acquiring props, making sets — begin just a few weeks in advance. For example, until “Dogfight,” which ran April 1 to 11, opened, the costume shop was devoted to that production.

“One of the challenges for me as the costume designer was having to wait until ‘Dogfight’ loaded out to be able to work with the clothes on our large racks,” said Richard St. Clair, head of costume design in the School of Theatre. “For me, the racks are a little like an artist’s palette, and I like organizing costumes together on a rack to see the relationships of colors and patterns, to see if everything lives in the same world. That was very important for this production as the ethnic make-up of the cast became another part of the palette.”

Table readings of the script began in March, with the first rehearsals in the actual performance space taking place just days before opening night. The expansive setting of Old Main will offer a theater experience unlike what most people have ever seen or heard before. The unique setting also means the designers have to get creative “backstage.”

According to St. Clair, the biggest challenge for costumes is the logistics of dressing. The cast of 50 needs makeup mirrors and more than the two bathrooms available in the lobby of Old Main, so they will dress in either the Theatre Building or the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center. If there’s a chance the show will have to be moved indoors to the Playhouse Theatre, then the actors will dress in the Theatre Building, where the Playhouse is located.

St. Clair said his goal for the production is to have the costumes aid the storytelling. “Director Bill Kelly and I talked at great length about how to help the audience understand who is who. Rome basically divides into two military factions, and we have given a very distinct look to each group,” he said. “Bill has helped me enormously by brilliantly casting distinct actors in each role, even the small ones. … In the end, the costumes tell a story in a different way than the script does, but hopefully they work in tandem to create an exciting theatrical experience.”

This production of “Julius Caesar” and Philharmonic Orchestra concert have been sponsored, in part, by the College of Arts and Architecture, University Park Allocation Committee, Office of Physical Plant, College of Communications, Institute for the Arts and Humanities, McCourtney Institute for Democracy, World Campus, Penn State Alumni Association, College for Information Sciences and Technology, and the Commonwealth Campuses.

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Last Updated April 14, 2015