BRATTLEBORO—“New England Youth Theatre wants to collaborate more with local artists,” says Elissa Bhanti, public relations coordinator for NEYT.
Without knowing that, local puppeteer Jana Zeller says she was recently brainstorming “how to use my set-painting skills to earn money,” and cold-called Sandy Klein, creative director at NEYT.
“I showed her my portfolio,” says Zeller.
It worked. Klein hired Zeller for the position of scenic artist for the theater’s upcoming production of “Little Women,” the play adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel.
NEYT’s press release describes Little Women as “a classic coming-of-age drama tracing the lives of four sisters; Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. While their father is away serving as a minister to the troops during the Civil War, the family is headed by their beloved Marmee.
“They struggle to make ends meet, with the help of their kind and wealthy neighbor, Mr. Laurence, and his high spirited grandson Laurie. The play focuses primarily on Jo and her relationship to the world as a creative independent young woman. This story of balancing the need for self expression with social conformity still resonates with audiences today.”
“I was thrilled to be contacted by Jana who is an artist that I’ve admired for years,” Klein says. “Our director, Stephen Stearns, wanted the look to be of an old-time roll drop painting style, common to the mid-19th century theater sets. When I saw Jana’s work, I knew it would be a great match. Her wallpapers in this production are so beautiful I would use them for my own home.”
“I went all out on the wallpaper,” Zeller reports.
Rick Barron, NEYT’s technical director, says he is “behind Jana 150 percent.”
Zeller says Barron’s work designing and building the sets, and especially creating the detailed stencil-work for the wallpaper for the interiors of the homes of the play’s characters, made her job of painting the sets so much easier.
“I grew up in Sandglass,” the Putney-based puppet theater, Zeller says. “From an early age I was painting and designing sets and puppets. After college, I entered the set-painting world, and explored all strands of painting when I was in San Francisco. I painted sets for opera, theater, film, and TV sets, I did private oil portraits. I’ve been an oil painter since I was 16."
Zeller says she currently works with Sandglass, and has her own puppet company, Spybird Theater.
“I’ve been immersed in the performing world for the last 12 years, but my original artist soul will always go back to painting,” Zeller says. “Amazingly, this is the first time I’ve worked with NEYT. I’m having so much fun here.”
Zeller identifies “Little Women” as being very much about its time, so, she says, “I plunged into making the atmosphere of the era. It’s old-fashioned. There are no women’s rights in this story, but it’s correct for that era. I got into the period by crawling into the interiors. That’s what I did for this set."
During a recent interview at the theater, Stearns replied to Zeller’s statement with his perspective on the gender aspects of Little Women.
Louisa May Alcott’s father “was a ‘libber’ in the existential movements,” Stearns explained, mentioning Amos Bronson Alcott’s friendship with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Louisa and Amos were “partners in dreaming how education for all, but especially for women, could be improved,” Stearns says, noting, “this is the backdrop of the play: the father is at war, and the women make the decisions in the house.”
What Stearns says he “worked hard to do” when writing the script for “Little Women” was to “give more of Marmee — the mom — into the play, how she counseled the daughters” in the March household. Stearns believes Marmee to be a “progressive, powerful, self-possessed woman."
Stearns notes the conflict the character Jo March experiences in her relationship with Laurie Laurence: “He wants to be the solution to her ills, but he’s not her intellectual equal.”
Stearns believes the play “is about these women’s libbers being in charge of their lives,” and stresses its significance by noting the play was written, “100 years before Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in Las Vegas,” mentioning Riggs’s pre-emptive — and inaccurate — boast that “a girl” couldn’t beat him at tennis.
Barron gives additional background on the main characters of “Little Women,” to explain the set-design: “the [March] family has run out of money, so we smudged the walls, et cetera.” The sets call to mind the threadbare elegance of genteel poverty.
To prepare for her work, Zeller studied multiple sources. She read the script Stephen Stearns adapted from “Little Women,” and watched the 1949 MGM film version of the book.
Zeller studied books about the Alcott family, paying close attention to the photographs of their home, and absorbed details from “a little book of decorative art from the 1860s,” she adds. Zeller also met with the costume designer to formulate a consistent atmosphere, including the colors used throughout the production.
“I gave each room a distinctive look,” Zeller says, marveling at the “nice design” of the “revolving flats,” she adds. As Barron demonstrated by spinning around the three-sided, wooden structures built on smoothly-operating caster wheels, he chimed in with their technical term: periaktoi, the plural form of periaktos, from the Greek word for “revolving.”
Bhanti reports Zeller is doing more than painting the sets: “Jana created the poster for this production."
She adds, “this year we have decided to have all of the artwork for our posters be created by local artists and graphic artists,” including Ross Smart and John Gurney, and says, “we are planning to create a calendar of the poster art that we will sell this December during our holiday show to raise money for our scholarship program.”
“Jana’s painting of the Little Women set is funded by a very generous donation from the Kahn-Mason Fund, courtesy of Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason,” Bhanti notes, adding, “this donation is intended to help us employ local artists, and provide some variety in our scenic designs. This has been enormously successful, as these professional artists lift our otherwise good sets into the ‘excellent’ category, and raise the bar for all of us to aspire to greater artistic achievement.”
Of working with NEYT, Zeller says “I’m excited and happy that door opened up for me. I love it every day.”