A Tab Bit of Tea | Cows, corn and aliens: It’s ‘Abduction’

A Tab Bit of Tea is a biweekly blog about Elizabeth’s adventures in the art and entertainment world.

By Elizabeth Amstutz, Staff Writer

On Friday, I opened my first musical at Pitt — “Abduction: A Musical Comedy” — as the assistant scenic designer. I feel very lucky to work on this production because it’s an original musical. Becki Toth, a musical theater professor at Pitt, co-wrote the music and lyrics.

The musical tells the story of a small town that gets wrapped up in an alien abduction. It follows the conventions of a fun contemporary musical comedy, and it never fails to make me laugh every night. You can always find me sitting in the audience during rehearsals, grooving along in my seat. I’ll be doing the choreography or singing along in hushed whispers or miming the lines of all the characters.

Tech week, the last part of rehearsals when the crew joins in, is always a bit of a tedious mess. It’s full of long nights of rehearsals, grinding away at last-minute notes and adapting to unforeseen changes, but it somehow connects you to a show in ways you can’t expect.

Depending on the theater, tech week can be an elaborate process that lasts up to two weeks, but at Pitt, our tech week only lasts about a week. One week to perfect every light cue, finalize scene changes and flawlessly pull off quick costume changes. It’s never more apparent than  this week that theater is full of problem solvers. During a tech week, you will see everything moving at 10 times the speed it normally does. It’s fast and stressful, but that’s what makes it thrilling.

Designers and technicians come up with such creative solutions on the fly. We fixed scene changes and transitions in mere minutes with just a simple collaborative conversation. Theater is truly nothing without collaboration, which is something that became very notable throughout this process.

On this particular show, we had a good mix of students and faculty working on the creative side. The lead designers were mostly all faculty, and the assistants were all students. However, during the process, there were several times when the lead designers couldn’t be there, so it was up to the students to take charge.

I admit it’s a bit intimidating to speak on behalf of a professional designer who is not in the room. But as my mentor — the lead scenic designer on this show — would say, “just make the call.” The faculty trust us enough to have strong instincts and to make design choices. It’s a lot to take on, but I really enjoyed the challenge. I had the autonomy to give myself notes to complete throughout the day, even if that meant designing photos for the show instead of paying attention in class. I spent my days stapling ivy to a house flat and painting a cart with corn on it.

I like to think about scenic design as one big arts and craft project. Especially in its latter stages, scenic design is really about adding small details, which is my favorite part. Just like how actors get into character when they put their costumes on, I think a set really comes together when small pieces fill in the gaps.

Without details, all I’m looking at on stage is just a variety of big shapes. Adding texture, pops of color and small trinkets is what gives a set life. The best part of scenic dressing, though, is hiding Easter eggs on the set. It’s a blast sneaking little personal tokens that are really more for you than the audience. In “Abduction,” the audience can find a hula Marvin the Martian figurine on the spaceship console, a touch my mentor added.

The contribution that I was proudest of was adding my name to the set. I created a label for a vinyl record hanging on the wall, so I typed up a brief note detailing my delight to be working on the show and threw my name on there as well. The audience won’t be close enough to read my note, but the people on the show who need to read it already know it’s there.

Overall, I’m so proud of what the entire team created together. From the moment I signed onto the show and read the script, I knew it was going to be fantastic, and I’ve had so many pleasant surprises throughout. Even the songs I wasn’t crazy about at the beginning have begun to grow on me.

Watching the show for the last time before opening, I was getting a little emotional. As a designer, my work is largely finished when the show opens. Leaving rehearsal on Thursday after our last tech rehearsal, I felt a strange sense of closure.

My job was done, and I’m not going to work on another show at Pitt until next semester. However, I couldn’t have asked for a more fun show to be a part of. Watching the cast sing their last song always fills my soul with such warmth. It reminds me of why I enjoy theater. It’s the culmination of months of effort all to make someone’s day.

I can picture the audience sitting in their seats on opening night laughing as they are carried throughout the journey we’ve made for them. Though for now, the small group of people I spent the last week with is the best company. Getting to laugh with such a special group is what keeps me coming back to work show after show, and I am ecstatic to be ending my semester with all the silliness and craziness that only corn, cows and aliens can bring.