Behind-the-scenes at Hilton Head Island Arts Center's production of 'Don't Dress for Dinner'

February 5, 2014 

Set construction on the main stage continues on Tuesday for the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina's upcoming production "Don't Dress for Dinner."

JAY KARR — staff photo Buy Photo


    WHAT: "Don't Dress for Dinner"

    WHEN: through Feb. 23

    WHERE: Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, 14 Shelter Cove Lane, Hilton Head Island

    COST: $45

    DETAILS:, 843-842-2787

When the curtain went up on the Art Center of Coastal Carolina's latest play, "Don't Dress for Dinner," on Feb. 4, audiences saw a polished sequel to the gut-busting farce "Boeing-Boeing," in which a collision of infidelities creates an evening of chaos for six people converging on a Paris country home in 1960.

What audiences didn't see were the whirring fans that blew nonstop to dry the set's wet paint, the support beams that were built to hold up the 20-foot faux-stone walls or the grimy, oatmeal-sullied T-shirt of actor Adam Jonas Segaller during a rehearsal that called for him to get pelted with food again and again.

Audiences didn't see the paint-splattered overalls of Sheri Earnhardt, who spent two and half days making compressed cardboard look like believable masonry. They didn't see the complicated combination of pink, amber and lavender lights -- which to them looked white -- that were carefully thought out by vice president of production Terry Cermak to heighten the colors of the set and costumes. And they didn't see the production tweaks director Russell Treyz made to ensure the arts center's version of "Don't Dress" was funnier.

It takes a village to bring a play to fruition. A village of theatrical, passionate people, some in the spotlight but many outside the rim of its congratulatory glow. "Don't Dress for Dinner" is no exception.

The play was written by French playwright Marc Camoletti, who also wrote "Boeing-Boeing." It centers on main character Bernard, who plans a romantic rendezvous with his mistress using an alibi that his friend Robert is staying the weekend. When Bernard's wife, Gabriella, learns of Robert's visit, she cancels her plans and stays for a secret tryst of her own. Each character must then go to ludicrous lengths to hide the philandering.

The play opened on Broadway in 2012 to lackluster reviews, but that is neither here nor there for director Treyz.

"At the top of every rehearsal I say, 'This production is about this company and this particular theater for this particular audience,' " he said.

"In my opinion, the Broadway production became very slick, whereas we worked very hard finding where the motor is and what happens to the people, so you connect with this cast more than you did with the Broadway cast. Therefore, you become more involved and the things that happen are funnier."

To do this, Treyz employed two major production shifts, a move not atypical during the pre-production process.

In the Broadway production, Robert, Bernard and Gabriella have been having longtime affairs. In the arts center's version, the back story is that the characters are thinking about having an affair for the first time. Treyz also had Bernard and Robert speak with American accents rather than British ones.

"It makes them more innocent," he said. "And it makes the sex more titillating as far as I'm concerned. It makes the whole situation more explosive."

Eleanor Handley, who plays Gabriella, said it makes for a better production.

"The great thing with an ensemble piece like this is it's sort of a chemical reaction between the six actors, and there's no point in bringing in a replica of something you saw happen somewhere else," she said.

Once the production changes were finalized, Cermak started work with his 13-person crew to bring the characters' world to life.

Usually, about 60 percent of the set has to be built and 40 percent bought, Cermak said, although it is typically easier to buy something outright than to build it or make a faux version.

A large part of the budget for "Don't Dress" went into purchasing pulp art, the textured cardboard used to make the stone-looking walls, Cermak said. The door and fireplace also had to be built from scratch, because the 20 doors from the previous production of "My Fair Lady" and the five fireplaces in storage weren't a perfect fit for the French country decor.

"This is a one-set play that needs more visual texture and dimension than say a musical," Cermak said. "We can put more detail into the set because there are no set changes."

He also oversees the costume design and has to consider how many costume changes actors will need to do, and what kind of clothes their actions will require.

For this play, costumes had to be easily laundered, because things are spilled, squirted and spit on them, he said.

At a recent rehearsal, for example, Segaller (Bernard) practiced getting spattered with a pot of gloopy oatmeal.

Should they use a whisk or a spatula to fling the oatmeal? Should the oatmeal be thick and sticky or thin and runny? Should Segaller use one hand or two to swipe the oatmeal off his shirt? These things needed to be hashed out. Four, five, six times. Enough so that when the scene was over, Segaller had oats in the creases of his shoelaces.

Luckily, the lighting was reasonably straight-forward, Cermak said. In a typical lighting design, Cermak consults a binder of metal slides that make specific shadows when placed in front of a light. A play like "South Pacific" might call for a shadow of palm fronds. For a dark, outside scene, Cermak uses his favorite slide, "spooky woods." But "Don't Dress" was nearly shadow-free.

Before the show, the multicolored lights illuminate only the snaking extension cords, bins of zip ties and stray rolls of tape backstage. For the real thing, they enhanced the actors' facial expressions and gave them added dimension on stage. It's just another bit of foresight that happens behind the scenes to ensure the performances are as polished as possible when acted out in front of an audience.

"People won't notice," Cermak said, "but it will play its part in making everything else look as good as it can."

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