New Jersey's County College of Morris blog

As announced in June, this year saw the release of performance rights for The Phantom of the Opera to high schools and colleges across the USA and Canada – giving students the chance to perform those iconic roles for the first time.

The County College of Morris in New Jersey was among the first group of high schools and colleges to successfully apply for the performance rights for Phantom – and here, in the first of a series of blogs from students, teachers, cast and crew, Assistant Producer and Choreographer Colleen McArdle gives us the first insight into the process of putting on their Phantom…

Blog 1 – The Technical Challenge

My name is Colleen McArdle and I am the Coordinator of Special Events and Foundation Programs and an adjunct professor of dance at the County College of Morris in New Jersey.

Once our creative team knew that Phantom would be our fall show we started production plans immediately. Phantom was a musical that came along in the era of the large Broadway spectacle. It is not possible to fully recreate that grandeur on a small community college stage, never mind the budgetary issues. Our biggest challenges were: our theatre was originally built as a lecture hall. It has a wide stage with less depth that most. There is limited wing space and no fly space. Without a scene shop, set pieces also have to be built on stage.

As Professor Mammon, our Show Director and Chair of the Music, Dance and Performing Arts Department, said: “The difficulty of the musical score creates a culture of understanding as to what future challenges lie ahead for those on a true professional track… I wanted to take on this challenge because I wanted to create something both beautiful & lyrical for the students and the audience.”

The decision was made to keep the sets small, light and floating. To support our “less is more” theory, we are using lighting in many scenes to create the sense of space that would otherwise be taken up by large set pieces. Projected images and video movies also are being incorporated. It took a lot of “outside-the-box” thinking to solve the technical dilemmas surrounding our current theatre space, but we believe we have solved them all. Through team meetings, we decided what set pieces are our “must haves” and those were the ones we built first.

As choreographer, I was challenged to design ‘Masquerade’ without a staircase. This being one of the larger full-cast production numbers we have put on, we wanted to be sure to capture its majesty. Going back to my marching band days, the director and I decided work the cast into several formations that created the essence of descending down stage. With a cast of 47 members that certainly is a trick to perform. Educating the students on the proper posture and gestures of the era also was a lesson in both acting and history.

With this show, it is essential to have a full and experienced technical crew. There are so many constantly moving pieces. When asked why he chose to be part of the tech team, Eric Lancaster replied, “I wanted to be able to take the knowledge I learned from being on stage and bring it behind the scenes where the magic is created.”

With 47 cast members costuming also is a budgetary concern. Making the opera scenes dress rehearsals instead of full outfitted performances cut back on costuming and set pieces while maintaining the line of the plot. I do not want to give away all of our secrets but I believe the success of our production lies with the director. Professor Marielaine Mammon’s direction highlights the acting and vocal beauty of both the story and score. The sets are a backdrop to the plot and music, not the primary focus.

As for the chandelier, well you will have to come see our production…

In the next blog from County College of Morris, we catch up with the production’s Phantom and Christine…

PLEASE NOTE, the release of performance rights for The Phantom of the Opera is at this stage restricted to high schools and colleges across the USA and Canada only.

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