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Whidbey Island Center for the Arts works “earnestly” on latest production

Mark Therien helps paint the set for the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” - Breeana Laughlin
Mark Therien helps paint the set for the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
— image credit: Breeana Laughlin

Throughout the year, hundreds of Whidbey Islanders attend plays at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts.

With each of these productions, audience members experience the sights and sounds produced by quality community theater.

But what many audience members don’t see are the countless hours put into the productions before opening night.

Work on each of WICA’s productions can start more than a year in advance.

Ned Farley, the director of WICA’s latest production, began the research for his play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” about a year ago.

Since that time, WICA employees and volunteers, actors and behind-the-scenes crew members have persevered to bring all of the elements together to produce a high quality production for the South Whidbey

community.

One significant aspect of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is the time period in which the play takes place. The director, actors, costume and set designer went to painstaking efforts to make sure the play properly reflects the Victorian era.

“I always do some sort of investigation, especially with a period piece,” Earnest director Farley said.

He begins learning about the play’s setting. He learns as much as he can about the playwright — in this case, Oscar Wilde.

Farley is also interested in how the play was received when it was initially presented.

“I tend to look for anything that would give me a critique of the play itself,” he said. “Then, beyond that, any kind of notes you can find about what the playwright had in mind, in terms of the use of different characters, the use of different themes, and the intent.”

From that point, Farley begins his character studies.

“As a director I’m really interested in kind of placing myself within every character,” he said. “I think having a background in acting is really useful in that.”

Farley also has a background in psychology.

He has come full circle — starting with acting and directing at community, fringe, and university theater, then into a career in psychology — and now, back into directing.

He said he lets his actors interpret their characters naturally, then he gives them his vision of the characters, as well.

“I really think in terms of that psychological aspect — about the characters and their relationships with different people,” Farley said.

The director helps his actors develop answers to why they are attracted to certain characters, or why they may have problems with other characters in the play.

The director and actors have been rehearsing since February to bring the play to life. They have been working an average of four nights a week for three hours each night. As the play draws nearer, the crew steps up their rehearsal time.

There are other aspects of the play beyond the performers. Often times, they are also the focus of much tireless work and scrutiny.

For instance, the set designer and costume designer played a major role in the overall production of “Importance of Being Earnest.”

“We talked early on to make sure that the colors all worked together beautifully — with furniture, and set, and props and costumes,” said set designer Jason Dittmer.

“We come up with a basic idea of what we want colorwise, go out and search, and really go for a unified product,” said costume designer Sherri Brady.

The colors they chose were popular in Victorian times. Brady describes them as “candy colors” — frosts, meringues and pastels.

The designers tried to stay as true to the period as possible.

“It’s very important to do research. It’s something I think is well worth the time,” Brady said.

The costumes tend to have a prim and proper look. The women have long dresses that accentuate their curves, and the men tend to wear dress coats.

Brady said the play operates under the pretense of a “civilized people.”

“It’s a fun drama for this time period,” she said.

The costume designer is a busy mom and businesswoman in Oak Harbor, but she said WICA keeps her coming back.

“I really enjoy the people down there, and that there are people and volunteers that are knowledgeable in a variety of arts skills,” Brady said. “They contribute so much to community theatre. It’s really top quality.”

Dittmer, “The Importance of Being Earnest” set designer, relied a lot on the help of community volunteers to create his elaborate and time-consuming set design.

He modeled his set after a type of theatre that was popular in Victorian times.

“There were these great toy theatres,” he said. “They were scaled down models of theatres with little layers of painted backdrops.”

The set will display a variety of backdrops.

“It’s a three-dimensional look with two-dimensional plat walls,” Dittmer said. “The same images will be repeated, so it’s like several layers of the same picture.”

Wooden plaques have been painted according to a grid system. Each artist uses a pre-made grid model as a reference to create the play’s backdrops.

“It’s really exciting because we have a lot of different people at different skill levels doing beautiful work,” Dittmer said.

The backdrops are lightweight and set on wheels so they can easily be moved on and off stage.

“It’s going to be a dance every night of moving plaques on and off,” the set designer said.

Dittmer said the elaborate set-design is not so much challenging as it is time-consuming.

“It’s not super difficult,” he said. “It just takes time and bodies.”

Dittmer said that rings true with many of the tasks at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts.

“The stuff that we do here depends so heavily on volunteers and community support. Not just financial support, but support of time and energy and desire,” he said.

“We’re trying really hard to make sure that we get the word out to the community to encourage them to come out and participate,” Dittmer said. “It’s exciting to come and see a play, but it’s even more exciting to see your handiwork, or your input, on stage when you’re in the audience.”

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