Mary Poppins at RCT

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Mary Poppins is the spring musical this season at Rochester Civic Theatre. It opened on April 1, so the third weekend of four begins tonight. As I’ve been doing, I shot the show during the final dress rehearsal before Preview night.

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The stage musical version of Mary Poppins is similar to the movie, but there are a fair number of changes and new songs. It’s a pretty technical show to put on with lots of set pieces moving on and off and a good bit of stage magic to pull off.

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It’s a pretty long show as many musicals are, but the talent on stage is amazing, and the time just flies.

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Like many musicals, there are some great colors, both costumes and lighting, which make for some fun photos. I do like that!

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There’s also an abundance of choreography and several big numbers. Photographing those, it’s a balancing act of trying to capture the whole stage to convey a sense of the grandeur of the number and grabbing closer shots, usually of the main characters.

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Smallish web photos miss some of the impact of the wider shots, but I think they still work.

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One scene in the stage show not in the movie is the toys coming to life. The lighting through that is great, it’s visually very cool. It’s also the scary scene for some of the audience!

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Shooting this sort of show does demand a lot from your equipment and your experience – both shooting and in post. It was a real mix of fairly dark scenes and brightly lit scenes with spots thrown in for good measure.

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Sometimes, you get everything right and that’s a good feeling.

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And sometimes, especially at the end of big numbers, the director has blocked everyone into a group that creates a terrific photographic composition. So, you have to be ready for those, because you really don’t want to miss such amazing shots.

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In March, I helped backstage at Children’s Dance Theatre’s production of The Mermaid. I was one of four people working the flying wires – some of the mermaids “flew” under the sea. I hadn’t crewed a show for quite a while, and I forgot how much fun it is.

A call went out looking for help for Mary Poppins – it requires quite a number of folks helping backstage – and I decided to volunteer to crew some of the performances.

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That gave me the opportunity to take some behind-the-scenes pics.

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You have to be careful, of course. First, if you’re part of the crew, you have a job. So, you can only pull out the camera when you’re between things. For many scenes, I didn’t shoot a single frame.

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Then, you have to honor the sight-lines – the areas where you can be and not be seen by the audience. Sometimes, that means you don’t have a good shot of the on-stage happenings at all. But, there are other photos waiting for you if you look.

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These big musical productions at RCT have been earning a reputation for their quality. This combined with the popularity of certain titles have resulted in sell-outs. For this show, the entire run was sold out before opening night. A shame for many would-be attendees or folks who loved the show and want to see it again, but great for the theatre and the community for providing such support for the arts.

Two more weekends of performances – I hope you have your ticket!

RCT’s Almost, Maine

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This past week, I photographed Rochester Civic Theatre’s latest production, Almost, Maine. It’s a show made up of eight stories happening during one evening in the not-quite-town called Almost, Maine.

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A ninth, somewhat shorter story bookmarks the others.

Greg, the director, likens it to the film, Love Actually. Its setting in Maine, in winter, with the northern lights showing up in the background of the outdoor scenes, speaks pretty well to a Minnesota audience.

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Friday, we attended opening night. It’s always interesting to find out what I missed of the dialog and story while I was shooting the show. Like some of the references to the same places and some of the same people from one story to the next.

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There were some scenes taking place indoors, and for those the lighting was a bit more intense. But the outdoor scenes were pretty dimly lit as usual for such nighttime scenes. There is plenty of physical comedy, too, so that was a challenge of this show.

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Nearly all the stories involve just two people. That provides a lot of freedom for how I frame up the subjects to tell a story.

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On the other hand, that also means their interactions and reactions won’t be amplified by other folks around them. So, I think the photos are somewhat more intimate.

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The aurora background was pretty cool, and it did come across in several of my photos. The lighting overall was great.

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Even though it provides a challenge technically for shooting the show, I love the look of the “nighttime” scenes. There’s a moodiness to them that adds atmosphere to the shots. Many non-musicals have none of that or only one or two such scenes. Here, there’s an abundance.

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There’s also a mood portrayed by the sparse set. I’m often amazed how we humans can interpret the few lines of stick figures or make creatures from clouds. A few walls and a door and we know what we’re looking at. And we can then focus on the actors and their story instead of the set. We seem to accept it readily in theatre. Probably not so much in film.

The show is running for only two more weekends. It’s a terrific show, and you can feel the enthusiasm and fun the cast is having. It’s contagious. What better way to spend a cold Minnesota winter evening?

Plainview’s Beauty and the Beast

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Shooting at a variety of local theatres, I get to see lots of different venues and production capabilities. Some have large stages, some can reconfigure the stage, some are small and intimate.

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I’ve been shooting the one annual musical production of Plainview Community Theater for a few years. Previously, they’ve had their shows in the Jon Hassler Theater. It was used for professional productions since 1999 or so, and PCT was able to stage their shows there. While not a sophisticated theater, it did have good seating and was setup with a full complement of stage lighting.

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Alas, the building was sold and is no longer available to PCT. Instead, they used the sanctuary of the church across the street from the old Hassler. It’s much smaller with pews for seats and no lighting. But the group made do, constructing a stage and bringing in lights on large stands. Scene changes used minimal pieces that could be easily brought in and out or reconfigured as needed.

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The lights provided less ambience than might be expected at a musical, but in some ways made photography easier. They were good and bright, there were some hot and cold spots, but they really weren’t able to do a lot of gels.

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It’s all really an amazing community effort to make a big musical happen. I’m always struck by the community spirit I witness at these shows. They are big, they have a big cast, everyone seems to be so thrilled to be in or working on the show. And they fill all the seats they can make available.

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I view it as the poster child for community theatre. An amazing outlet for a small town filled with folks who love putting on a show. I heard there was some discussion of trying to gain support for adding a suitable auditorium to their high school which could certainly bring their productions up to another level. I hope they can manage that – their community sure deserves it.

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Once again, the show this year, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, was a hit with their audience. And while the lighting was limited, they sure had their share of fun and colorful costumes, so the photos can highlight that.

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A large black drape covered much of the front of the sanctuary. I tried to keep that behind the players for the most part, and black works well to showcase the colors and actors.

I haven’t heard what show they will tackle next year, but I’m sure it will be fun. I wonder where it be staged…

I have a couple theatre shoots coming soon, one this month and another early December. Should be a blast!

Riverland’s Into the Woods

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Earlier this month, I shot the first show of the fall semester at Riverland, Into the Woods. It’s a Sondheim musical that’s a sort of mash-up of several fairy tails into one story. It was made into a movie last year which was my first experience with the story.

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I find I really enjoy Sondheim. Music and lyrics are engaging and fun. The Riverland folks did a great job with it. I’d have loved to sit through it as a regular audience member, but I didn’t make it back to the show after shooting the final rehearsal.

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Photographing the show was fun, though. The set – the woods – was done well and lighting was a treat which is always great for me. Lots of colorful costumes rounded out the look, giving me tons to work with.

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To shoot a show like this, it helps to have some good technical capabilities – a camera that can cope with lower light levels is a real plus.

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That’s probably the biggest technical factor I need for shooting theatre. The 5D MkIII is up to the task, but I do sometimes look longingly at the spec for Sony’s cameras and Nikon’s using Sony sensors. But I love the ergonomics of the Canon and how it fits me.

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Rumors have the Mk IV coming “soon” which will perhaps improve in the low light arena. Meanwhile, there’s really no complaining for what this hardware can do. Sometimes I recall where we were in film days, and there’s no comparison. You work with what you have, but I’d never be getting this kind of quality if I was limited to film.

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It’s sometimes fun to go back and shoot “analog,” develop it using smelly chemicals, waiting to see how you did until the processing is complete. It forces a discipline that’s a useful exercise and produces a look that is just a bit different. It can be emulated in digital, but it’s still somehow a little different.

When push comes to shove, though, I’d never want to give up the expansive world digital opens for us as artists.

I have another show to blog about soon, but I’m also looking forward to the next Riverland show I’ll be shooting in November.

Catch Me if You Can at RCT

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The current show at Rochester Civic Theatre is Catch Me if You Can – The Musical, a musical adaptation of the movie, itself an adaptation of the book. I remember reading the book some time before the movie. It was intriguing both because of the sheer gumption of Frank Abagnale, especially at such a young age, and the insecurity of so many institutions like banks. He was able to forge checks using the system against itself. While a lot of what he did would no longer work, the computer-driven world has its own insecurities. As we’ve seen.

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I remember wondering how this story would work as a musical. My first question was if they portrayed Abagnale’s time in a French prison. The description in the book was not happy. Perhaps in a musical like Les Mis it might work. But, no, there is no prison scene.

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There is an abundance of fun songs and – in this production – a ton of great dancing. The players worked their tales off, and it shows!

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The sets are pretty simple with a few pieces moving on and off stage between scenes. That lets scene changes become more-or-less nonexistent. Often, as a song happens down stage right, things are moving behind them and suddenly we’re into the next scene.

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When I saw the show as an audience member on opening night, I was able to pay more attention to this. There were one or two scenes that actually take a few seconds, but most happen almost seamlessly. For shooting, it meant it was pretty constant from the start until intermission and then until the end. For the audience, it means the show moves fast.

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Shooting the show, it’s musical theatre standard methods. Lots of colorful costumes, gel’d lights, spots. There’s a lot of dancing, many big dance numbers. All challenging and all rewarding when you get a good photo.

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These shows are a bit more work in post, as well, mainly to cope with the large dynamic range especially when spots are used.

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There are hot spots (from normal lights, not spot lights) to deal with, too. I have developed some tricks to work around these issues.

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There are also  some things you can do in a theatre photo that look good but wouldn’t work at all for many other types of photography.

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It’s all about lights and lighting and, I think, about how we interpret what we see. And what we expect to see.

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The other problem I sometimes have with musicals is culling the shots down. Visually, there is so much happening and so much movement that there are many photos one can (and this one does) take. Eventually, I have to ask if each shot tells something of the story or if it’s not much different from some other shot.

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Do I keep the really nice photo of the couple sitting on the gurney staring lovingly into each others eyes, or the fun one with the pillow and laughs? I end up keeping both.

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A drama just doesn’t produce as many. When a show is dialog-driven, the actors may move around to keep the intensity for the audience, but for still photography, the goal is more to find that one angle, the one photo that communicates the emotion of that interaction.

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For a musical, it’s in some ways more of an event, a performance of singing and dancing that we’ve come to enjoy. So I want my photos to bring that across. Sometimes, there’s a deeper meaning or darker mood to a musical, and those provide challenges which seem to cross the two genres.

Catch Me runs just one more weekend. It’s immensely entertaining, the music is great, and the RCT cast and crew will keep you engaged and laughing. A truly fun show!

SMNPPA and the Gladiolas

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I belong to a local professional photographers group, Southern Minnesota Professional Photographers Association, or SMNPPA for short. We’re affiliated with the larger Minnesota PPA and the Professional Photographers of America. It exists for promoting networking with other professional photographers as well as providing education opportunities for its members.

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We meet once a month, usually having a speaker providing instruction in some aspect of photography or business or marketing or some combination of the above. Some of our speakers are local, but we also often bring in folks from quite distant parts of the country. It’s a great organization and quite a deal for what you get – in case any of my readers is also shooting professionally.

One of our members and director of programs, Heather, has parents who plant over four acres of gladiolas on their farm near Potsdam, MN. She had the great idea to take the opportunity to have one of our meetings at the farm when the flowers were in bloom.

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For this meeting, we had a couple short talks covering macro (close-up) photography and environmental portraiture. Then, we were out to the field to shoot.

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Most of our meetings don’t include shooting, although we usually have one all-day meeting with some shooting in the summer. This meeting was different having the short instruction time and the rest of the evening photographing around the glads. The weather was great and as the sun moved lower in the sky, the light became very nice.

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I brought extension tubes to shoot a few close-ups of the flowers, experimenting a bit with a couple techniques. There was a bit of a breeze early, but it calmed down nicely for us making the macro shooting a little easier.

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Heather lined up three models for us, so I took Barret over by some of the red flowers and took a few photos as the sun was setting.

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As I was looking around, I happened to see the sky come to life away from the sun. My favorite sky color – I call it a magenta sky – highlighted some high thin clouds. (See my post about my Grand Canyon visit to see one of my favorite photos of the canyon with this same magenta-colored sky.)

I knew this would last just minutes. It was “oh! oh! where can we shoot??? Now!!” I found a stand of flowers to pose Barret by, sat on the ground and fired away. It was then that I noticed the gladiolas she was standing next to had colors so similar to those above her. What more could I ask for?

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And sure enough, the clouds soon went dark. Heather and a few others shot a some final photos of the models with the waning light in the west behind them to finish up the evening. The three young women were good sports – the temperature was dropping and the mosquitoes were biting.

We wrapped up and headed to a local tavern for dinner and drinks. Heather’s folks donate many flowers to St. Mary’s hospital (part of the Mayo system) and other organizations. They’ve been in the news several times – recently here – and now I’ve been able to see and wander through the awesome acres of glads. I also had a chance to talk to her father, John, about what goes into it. It was fascinating and great to feel his passion for it.

Those of us drawn to photography understand how that sort of passion works. And why we can spend hours talking about it.

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