Judith Bliss seduces her daughter’s boyfriend moments before her daughter Sorel bursts out of their secret library passionately kissing the man Judith intends to have an affair with.
It’s these kinds of shocking character relationships that define the UCLA Department of Theater’s graduate production of NÃ¶el Coward’s “Hay Fever.” The play is directed by Jessica Kubzansky, the co-artistic director of The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena, and stars eight graduate actors and one undergraduate actor with sets, costumes and lights designed by graduate design students.
The play is set in an English country house in the 1920s. It focuses on the lives of four members of the Bliss family and their housekeeper during one awkward weekend when they all unknowingly invite guests over at the same time.
The farcical nature of “Hay Fever” required collaborative work from both the actors and director. They needed to make sure the play maintained some underlying elements of truth and honesty of portrayal without getting swallowed up by the potential artificiality the script allows for.
“It’s kind of a guilty pleasure for an actor to play this role; it’s just so over the top,” said Mary Beth Menna, a masters of fine arts student, who plays the mother, Judith Bliss. “There’s just always this fine line between making sure it’s not too obvious that we’re playing because there needs to be truth underneath it. If it’s not honest then it’s really not that funny.”
The cast began their six-week rehearsal process on Thursday of zero week by researching the time period, Coward himself and all of the characters in the show. Menna, along with her other cast members, had to go through intensive dialect and movement coaching before rehearsals.
“Part of the difficulty of working with a dialect is that it’s easy to hear the difference in dialect sometimes, but not easy to produce it,” said Beatrice Crosbie, a fourth-year musical theater student who plays the housekeeper Clara. “Intellectually, you understand how it sounds different, but … the difficulty is finally getting your mouth to do it.”
As the only undergraduate student in the cast, Crosbie had the opportunity to work alongside the graduate actors and Kubzansky.
“It was a peek into what it would be like to be in a professional play and work with professional actors,” Crosbie said. “It was nice to see people who had been out in the work field and their processes. They were so imaginative and incredibly hard workers and I found myself running to keep up with them.”
Tim Dyess, a fourth-year undergraduate production management student and stage manager for “Hay Fever,” also had the opportunity to establish working relationships with the graduate actors.
“One of my favorite parts of calling the show is that I have a monitor that I can see backstage with to give the actors their cues with a cue light,” Dyess said. “So when the actors have their entrances I can see them on camera, and they know that so they’ll smile and wave and make faces at me, and I’ll wave and smile back even though they can’t see me.”
Ultimately, the importance of creating intricate, well-established relationships between the characters was stressed in the rehearsal process, something that Crosbie found valuable for her career as an actress.
“I think that one of the most important things that I gained during the rehearsal process … was learning to create the ritual of the family,” Crosbie said. “It’s just so wonderful to watch the relationships between the family members and their relationships to each of the guests, how that comes alive and helps the actors personalize the production.”