By the time most of you will be reading this, Kathy Arfken will "Officially" be an Associate Professor of Theatre for Indiana University Northwest in Gary. The Hyde Park, Illinois resident has been making the long commute into Valparaiso this Summer to design and help construct the intricate travelling set for this year's Shakespeare in the Park production of The Comedy of Errors being directed by Lisa Formosa-Parmigiano. Arfken is no stranger to theatre in Northwest Indiana, and has designed other productions in the past for Lake Central Theatre Guild as well as several productions for IUN. She holds her BA degree from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois and her MFA from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. We grabbed Kathy for a moment as she worked on the set to talk to her about her process since joining the project.
CST: How did you get involved with designing the set for The Comedy of Errors?
Kathy Arfken: I had seen several productions at Chicago Street Theatre over the past few years. As a professor of theatre I often encourage my students to see theatre around Northwest Indiana and Chicago for extra credit. I had heard a lot of good things from my students about Chicago Street. Some of my past students have also been involved with the group too. Jim Henry's daughter Andrea was in some of my classes and told me that her father was a playwright who had many of his works staged with the company. John Latuada was also one of my students. I began seeing plays here because I felt as an artist that I wanted to do some work outside of my campus projects. I had come to see Jim's play Brother of All and A Midsummer Night's Dream last year, and told Chicago Street that I was interested in possibly designing a show for the following season. I let them know that the times that would work out best would be for the first or last show slots. Lisa contacted me and said that she was interested in working together.
CST: What have the influences for this set been?
KA: Well most recently it's been Vaudeville. I was impressed by the set that Eric Brant did for Midsummer with its "Steam Punk" influences for the inagural park performances and how there was this link to the type of stage Shakespeare had at the Globe. Originally things were going in this direction of the city of Ephesus, where the play takes place as being kind of "run down" because of the shifty characters in the play like the Courtesan and Angello the Goldsmith. I saw Court Theatre's production of this adaptation by Sean Graney when they did the show in 2010. Ephesus was this place that had fallen into a state of disrepair. In the beginning we had talked about using a lot of recycled trash as elements in the set to imply this.
As Lisa got into her process of working with the script she had been initially inspired by the Vaudeville clowns depicted in the illustration for the show.She began researching the origins of how Vaudeville rose up after the Civil war in this country. Graney's version played with a type of clowning and audience interaction that lent itself to a Vaudeville presentation.
Going into my own research I started looking at Ephesus as this city that was like a dilapidated old theatre from that era. Much of the architecture in those old Vaudville houses related back to Roman arches and details. WithThe Comedy of Errors drawing its inspiration from the Roman comedies of Plautus it felt like it would work to have the city be like this old theatre in the South that had seen better days.
CST: How has the process been working at Chicago Street as compared to working with students?
KA: I usually have more time and can work more intensively with my students. One difference is that with a class there are always people present because they're students working toward getting a grade. With volunteers there are more people coming and going. Volunteers have their own specialties, when they're available and a certain way that they are used to working. It's definitely a learning experience for me, particularly because at IUN I'm in my own environment with my own tools and I'm instructing people. Here people already have certain skill sets, like one of your members, Marcia Gienapp who made these incredible curtains for the stage. The turn around time has been another difference as well. We generally have a much longer period of time to do one of the sets for our university productions.
CST: How has the set evolved through the process of rehearsals?
KA: The "compact" time frame has definately influenced what we have been able to do and what we've been able to make for the set. So we've had to make adjustments and edits to some things I wanted to do with respect to the deadlines and giving the actors enough time to work on the set. I've also been looking at how the Vaudeville elements could be used.
CST: What has been the best part of working on this show?
KA: I think just meeting new people and getting to know your members. This group has many talented people.
CST: Is there anything you did that helped prepare you for these park performances and the following weeks where the set will return to Chicago Street for the indoor shows?
KA: Luckily I just designed my first touring show for a production of Driving Miss Daisy. There are a lot more ornate design elements for this production but we're building it in a way and out of materials where if the pieces get a little distressed in tansit that's okay.They're both very different plays. Errors is afterall a "clown show."
CST: Any final thoughts?
KA: I hope audiences get a playful impression of a Vaudeville stage that serves the slapstick and clowning that goes on in the play. This adaptation has lots of ways for the actors and the audience to have fun with Shakespeare's work.