Aspen Times Weekly: Making ‘Nunsense’
Tom Ward emptied a scroll from a cardboard tube and spread it across the stage of the Wheeler Opera House on a recent afternoon. On the graph paper were his hand-drawn designs for the set of Aspen Community Theatre’s fall production of “Nunsense,” opening Friday, Nov. 7. Looming above him was the completed (well, nearly completed) set itself.
The play calls for an auditorium in a Catholic school where the 8th graders are putting on a production of “Grease.” So Ward’s set is a mix of churchy touches, like lancet arches, and 1950s era flourishes like a jukebox, a period-appropriate car and soda-shop bar.
The set’s journey from Ward’s imagination to the paper — and onto the Wheeler stage — took about five months. Ward’s creative adventure as Aspen’s go-to set designer, however, has been going for more than three-and-a-half decades.
By producer Rita Hunter’s count, “Nunsense” is Ward’s 29th show with Aspen Community Theatre. He began working with the nonprofit in its second year, on the 1977 production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Ward has been the nonprofit’s set man for most of the years since, taking time off as he and his wife started a family, but designing sets for the last 17 years straight.
Ward has a creative hand in most of the shows you’ll see in the Roaring Fork Valley. As he readied “Nunsense” for opening night, for example, he was also in the early stages of designing Aspen High School’s upcoming “Singin’ in the Rain” production, Colorado Mountain College’s “The Women of Lockerbie,” Take 10’s winter shows and more for summer 2015.
“It’s a fascinating job,” he says. “As a designer, I get to look at all different periods. So one is a Georgian house and the next is in the future, and the next is 500 years ago or on the Moors of Scotland. It’s a wonderful challenge to do all of that.”
His community theater sets have been known to draw ovations upon their unveiling. They’ve included the two-story platform and Argentine street scenery of “Evita,” the Siamese palace of “The King and I,” the colonial world of “1776,” the Old West of “Crazy for You” and the Middle Eastern desert of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which he shaped out of burlap.
He’s particularly fond of challenging sets where pieces have to take on multiple uses, but Ward can’t pick favorites.
“My favorite show is always the one I’m working on right now,” he says. “I need to do that so that my head is in it.”
Along with his ample theater work – likely eight shows over the next year — Ward is also co-director of the Aspen Chapel Gallery, which hosts eight shows by local artists annually.
His meticulous, imaginative approach embodies the unusually professional standard of Aspen Community Theatre.
Ward began working on his “Nunsense” set in June, discussing his concept with director Lynnette Schlepp. For bigger shows, the process can take much longer. On 2013’s “The Producers,” for instance, set design began a full year in advance.
“I’m a storyteller,” Ward says of the job. “I provide the visuals and I provide where [actors] are going to tell their story.”
Over the course of a production, Ward gets to know a show, from a visual perspective, as well as the director and actors know it from a character, or plot arc standpoint.
“In my head, I have to direct the show as a designer,” he explains. He plans out how a cast will move through the built environment, and plans for contingencies, different choices a director or actor might bring to a show.
“It’s not just sitting down and saying, ‘Oh, that looks good!’” he says.
Ward gets the script early on, reads it multiple times and does a script analysis, noting all of the sets and how characters interact with them.
“I go through he script, and I make notes on any sets — so it says ‘comes through door,’ ‘sits on couch’ — anything like that.”
From there, he looks at photos or video of other productions, to see what others have done with it.
“That’s just so I know what I don’t want to do,” he says with a laugh. “Then I find a way to make it my own.”
After that, he draws his design (unlike most set designers and architects today, he still draws all of his plans by hand) and then builds a model on a miniature stage — in the case of “Nunsense,” a scaled model of the Wheeler. The director then uses his model to block the show and plan the actors’ movements.
Over the last five years, Aspen Community Theatre has contracted with Enigma Concepts and Design, in Longmont, to build Ward’s sets. The partnership has given Ward freedom to make some complex creations that he couldn’t when he relied on his own two hands and those of local volunteers.
Bringing an outside builder on-board was also a pragmatic decision, as the number of volunteers working with Aspen Community Theatre has waned, and those who’ve stuck around have aged, according to Ward. Hunter, an Aspen Community Theatre producer for more than three decades, has made an effort to get Aspen’s younger generation involved with the nonprofit in recent years, bringing some new, youngish board members into the fold in the hopes that a new generation will take the reins and Aspen Community Theatre will continue beyond the time of those who started it nearly 40 years ago.
Ward, Hunter and other long-serving stewards of Aspen Community Theatre have, over the decades, made it a rare community theater company: one that can rival professional productions (see sidebar).
“We’ve worked to raise the bar, in terms of production values, and keeping it as high as we can,” says Ward. “When we have such strong performers, it should look like a professional production. … So there’s a big difference from the early years, when I would have to design knowing there was a limit to how far I could push it.”
Opening night is a mix of joy and stress, as he describes it. The cast and crew’s friends and family tend to fill the house, making it a love-fest in front of an enthusiastic crowd. But seeing his sets at work, in front of a live audience, for the first time can be a nail-biting experience.
“Last year, with ‘The Producers,’ there were five set changes in the last two pages of the script – I knew we’d get through them, but they’re tight and they’re timed,” Ward says. “So, in times like that, you just sweat.”
But Ward believes his sets aren’t truly done until they’re put to use in front of a crowd.
“No show is a show until there’s an audience,” he says.
A SMALL EXPERIMENT
Audiences have come to expect spectacles from Aspen Community Theatre, along with a high production value and professionalism rarely seen in the amateur ranks of community theater. “Nunsense” is the smallest, simplest production the nonprofit has ever staged, says producer Rita Hunter, now in her 34th year at the helm of Aspen Community Theatre.
Recent shows have shot for the moon in scope. The casts have included between 40 and 50 volunteer performers, with elaborate set and costume changes in last year’s “The Producers,” and “Crazy for You” the year before. For “Oliver!” in 1994 the cast numbered 75.
The 2011 production of “1776” — with a cast of 25 — was considered small by Aspen Community Theatre standards.
That recent history makes “Nunsense” — with a cast of five, a single set, no costume changes and a four-man band (led by David Dyer) instead of a full orchestra — something of an anomaly for the nonprofit.
Hunter says she wanted to try a less complicated show and see how it played to the Aspen crowd.
“We’ve never done a musical this small,” she says. “It’s a bit of an experiment. We’ve done pretty much all the big shows over the last 37 years, so we thought we could do a small show.”
This year’s show also marks Aspen Community Theatre’s return to its downtown home in the Wheeler Opera House. Its productions have been hosted in the Aspen District Theatre since 2011’s “Evita.” In the nonprofit’s early years, it staged shows in Paepcke Auditorium and the Aspen High School Commons, moving to the Wheeler in the mid-’80s.
At a recent run-through of the show, the five women in the “Nunsense” cast — all Aspen Community Theatre alums, except Eileen Seeley, who makes her debut as the domineering Sister Mary Regina — hammed it up on-stage. They were working on navigating dance steps in their nun regalia and cracking off-script jokes in mid-song, displaying a winning chemistry that’s formed over the months of preparation, and perhaps a loopiness born of late rehearsal exhaustion. Hunter sat in the first row, sewing a costume, with stage director Murray Johnson beside her following along in the script, and director Lynnete Schlepp a few rows back, trouble-shooting and yelling occasional notes to her actresses.
The popular musical had its original run Off-Broadway, opening in late 1985 and running for more than 3,600 performances — making it the second longest-running Off-Broadway play in history. In the three decades since it opened, it has become an international hit — with translations in 26 languages and thousands of productions — while spawning a series of sequels and spin-offs, such as the men-in-drag adaptation, “Nunsense A-Men.”
Hunter originally saw the musical in a touring production that stopped at the Wheeler 25 years ago, and saw it again 10 years back in a Front Range production starring Snowmass Village actress Beth Malone.
The show is a light-hearted, family-friendly comedy, heavy on puns and silly stage gags. The plot revolves around five of the surviving nuns in the Little Sisters of Hoboken convent — in New Jersey — attempting to raise funds to bury the 52 nuns killed by a tainted batch of vichyssoise (cooked, naturally, by Sister Julia Child of God). Among them is a nun without a memory who has been struck in the head by a crucifix (Sister Mary Amnesia), a Brooklyn broad, and an aspiring ballerina. If you go, expect some audience participation and habit-clad hijinks in songs like “Holier Than Thou” and “Just a Coupl’a Sisters.”
“Everything about nuns is funny — the clickers, the habits,” Hunter says. “I promise people will love this show.”
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It was inevitable, right? Wine in space.