'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark'

Dawn Ursula, left, as Vera and Beth Hylton as Gloria during the making of the film-within-the-play sequence in Lynn Nottage's "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," that will be presentred at Everyman Theatre April 16-May 11. (Everyman Theatre, Handout / April 10, 2014)

A voice called out, "Cameras ready."

Another voice responded, "Sound."

Then a third: "Action."

With that, the Everyman Theatre Film Studios came to life one recent morning. OK, not a real film studio, but awfully close. An upstairs space at Everyman's Fayette Street building was transformed into a genuine movie-producing facility as part of the process of putting the company's next production onto the stage.

"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," a comic/serious work from 2011 by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, is receiving its Baltimore/Washington premiere. It centers on two women who are first seen in Hollywood in 1933.

Gloria Mitchell is already an established film star. Her maid, Vera Stark, is an aspiring actress hankering to get into Gloria's next flick, a slavery-era epic called "The Belle of New Orleans" — even if it means the African-American Vera must play a stereotypical Mammy character.

The first act of "Vera Stark," which Nottage asks to be delivered "in the tradition of the screwball comedies of the 1930s," focuses on how Vera manages to break into the business. The second act, which alternates time settings between 1973 and 2003, deals with an examination of Vera's legacy, what she did or did not accomplish in her film career.

To see if Vera made something of the maid in "The Belle of New Orleans," something with more depth than usual in old Hollywood days, a short clip is shown during the second act. It's only about five minutes long, but crucial.

That means a theater company has to find a way to create a persuasive souvenir of an imaginary movie.

For Everyman, that involved building a separate set for the movie-making, hiring a film crew, bringing in extra equipment. It was a project the company could not have easily contemplated in its old, cramped theater on Charles Street. The spacious, year-old venue includes a large and versatile rehearsal hall, ideal, as it turned out, for a temporary film studio.

Still, company artistic director Vincent Lancisi was startled when he arrived on shooting day, a day that started with hair and makeup sessions before dawn and ended long after dark.

"I got off the elevator, and it was MGM Everyman, with all of this equipment and all of these people. I was thinking, 'Who the hell is paying for all of this?'" Lancisi said with a laugh. He declined to reveal the budget but added: "It is the most expensive production in the history of Everyman, I'm sure."

Planning for "Vera Stark" began last summer. Lancisi engaged Walter Dallas, former artistic director of Philadelphia's Freedom Theatre, as stage director. Cinematographer Thomas Kaufman, whose credits include multiple shows for the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, was hired as director of photography.

Kaufman created a storyboard for the "Belle of New Orleans" scene, which shows the character played by Gloria on her death bed, attended by a maid played by Vera. The director of photography had a strong idea for how to shoot the scene.

"I wanted it to look like a George Cukor movie," Kaufman said. "I was thinking of 'Camille.' And also [William Wyler's] 'Jezebel,' very woman-centric films with lots of heart and emotion. It was a real treat to work on something like this, something theatrical."

It required a retro mindset, since a 1933 movie was way before the age of widescreen.

"Here we were with these high-def cameras emulating a technique that is so old now," Kaufman said. "We had to frame it differently to get classic proportions. And we were shooting in color, then turning it into black and white."

Being involved with moviemaking, consulting storyboards and giving the "Action" order were all new to Dallas.

"But I was challenged in ways I like to be challenged," the director said.

One of those challenges was to decide how to approach the play and the film-within-the-play.