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Everyman becomes film company for a day

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.

The play uses plenty of humor as it looks at race and identity, ambition and opportunity. The film clip might be Hollywood hokum but isn't exactly comic, with Gloria's dying character talking about a secret of her racial impurity, and Vera's character trying to hold on to her beloved mistress.

Like Kaufman, Dallas took a fresh look at vintage movies, starting with screwball comedies.

"One of them, 'His Girl Friday,' deals with a very serious subject but is so witty," he said. "The '30s style of comedy often spoke to heavier issues than one might think. That told me that in Lynn's piece you could be serious and still have that sense of comic style."

But when it came to the film portion, Dallas wanted to avoid humor.

"You could choose to spoof it, to parody it," he said. "I chose not to do that. I took it very seriously and played it very seriously in the early '30s style, which was so heightened and rather stylized."

Dallas also studied "Baby Face," a 1933 drama starring Barbara Stanwyck and African-American actress Theresa Harris, who was one of the inspirations for Nottage in creating the character of Vera Stark.

"Theresa wasn't just the maid in that movie, but really Barbara Stanwyck's sidekick," Dallas said. "They had a relationship beyond that. It's what Vera is trying to do when she says she can play a maid, but she wants to make it something more. She wants to use the opportunity to change the way things are, change it from the inside."

Film fans and scholars still debate the legacy of Hollywood's treatment of actors of color, among them Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Louise Beavers, who were routinely typecast as maids. "Vera Stark" resonates with such debates.

When Dawn Ursula, who plays Vera, researched classic films for this project, she was surprised by something she thought she saw.

"I felt like I was catching them letting their real selves slip through in the moment," Ursula said. "In [the 1934] 'Imitation of Life,' there's the scene where Louise Beavers has to massage Claudette Colbert's feet. I swear Louise gave the worst foot massage I've seen in my life. I'm sure she was telling us she didn't feel she should be doing that."

When it came to filming the "Belle of New Orleans" death scene, Ursula and co-star Beth Hylton, who plays Gloria, had those old Hollywood days very much in mind.

"We wanted to be truthful to the 1930s style," Hylton said. "I looked at Paulette Godard's screen test for [Scarlett O'Hara in] 'Gone with the Wind.' The director kept saying, 'Soften her face.' That's a different obligation than the one we have on the stage. I kept thinking about that softening the face while we were filming — you're dying, but you have to be pretty."

After seeing an early edit of the film sequence (the final version will have a freshly composed soundtrack), Ursula thought Hylton had succeeded.

"I hate the way I looked, but Beth was so beautiful," Ursula said. "It is so hard to watch yourself. When I saw the film I did think we had been very respectful of the style. And I was moved."

So was Hylton.

"I cried when I saw Dawn in the film," she said. "The whole thing looks gorgeous. I can't believe it was shot in the Everyman Theatre rehearsal hall."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" opens Wednesday and runs through May 16 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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