Designs for the Blue Hill Troupe‚Äôs 2014 Ruddigore

As many of you know, for the last two years I have been a Backstage member of the Blue Hill Troupe, Ltd., the only musical theater group in New York City to donate its net proceeds to charity.

Last year, I was privileged to serve as the Troupe’s Marketing Graphics coordinator, as well as the lead Program Designer. Since I’m still catching the blog up on all my projects from Spring 2014, here’s a look at the materials I produced for their April 2014 show, Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore.


The original Act II sketch.

Historically, the Troupe has often based show graphics on the concept sketches of the set design. For this Ruddigore, I was totally enamored of the richly toned watercolor artwork that the set designer (noted NYC architect Byron Bell) produced for the iconic Act II “ancestor portraits” set, so I was keen to figure out a way to work with that.

As a background for text, however, this selection presented some challenges: it’s not only very busy, it’s also highly discontinuous, the dark background being heavily cut by the white grid of the portrait frames. My techniques for adapting to this background included:

  • deepening the color values as much as I could without losing contrast or detail;
  • using white (or “reversed out”) text against the primarily dark background;
  • setting most of the text in the very simple and legible Myriad Pro (except for the ornate title, set in Blackadder) to help counteract the heavy texture of the background;
  • adding a subtle gray outline stroke to the letterforms to create a boundary against the lighter areas of the art;
  • strategically adjusting the composition (via cropping, sizing, and positioning) to create as much neutral space for the text as possible while preserving concrete elements of the stage set (table, candelabra, freestanding portrait) as a visible frame.

The first piece we produced was a 4×9″ postcard. Over the course of the year, I adapted this layout into several more single-sided pieces such as display ads, our Facebook cover page, other web graphics, and an 11×17″ window poster for our Brooklyn workspace. Later, there was a quad-fold 8.5×14″ brochure that included a ticket order form.

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Finally, I also got to serve as lead designer on the program booklet, which is a glossy 136-page perfect-bound extravaganza with a full-color cover. For the cover here, we turned to another of Byron’s sketches: the wrought-iron gates of the tiny Cornish fishing village of Rederring. (This elaborate set piece was incorporated into the overture, then dramatically flown out at the top of Act I.)

The program cover.

The program cover.

Since this was a simple line-art sketch, I placed it on a parchment background, then used a striking red shade to highlight the “ruddy gore” of the title text. This treatment produced a thoroughly different look that still worked thematically for our melodramatic period piece. For consistency, I kept the same title logotype as on the promotional materials, but I wanted the rest of the program to evoke the old-fashioned typography of a vintage newspaper, so I used Bodoni for both body and display text throughout.

Note that, having moved away from NYC to Indiana immediately after the show closed in April, I’ll be an Associate member of the Troupe for the coming year… though I’m still on call for the occasional design project! Their 2014-15 season includes Lucky Stiff this November (for which rehearsals are now in progress) and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience next April. Break legs, all!

The 5th Great G&S Sing-Out

This Labor Day weekend, while one option would admittedly have been to go to the 71st World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, TX… I instead chose to geek out with a different kind of fandom at the 5th Great Gilbert & Sullivan Sing-Out, organized by the Victorian Lyric Opera Company in Rockville, Maryland.

The premise of the Sing-Out is to sing through all 13 extant Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, more or less in their entirety (though without the dialogue), in one weekend. (I was told that the first Sing-Out was done all in one day, 8am to 2am. I am, on the whole, delighted that they’ve moved toward pacing it out over 3 days.)

Longtime readers may be aware that I first got into Gilbert & Sullivan in the fall of 1999, when I did my first show with the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players: Iolanthe. In that time, I’ve performed in fully staged productions of 10 of the 13 operettas (Patience, Mikado and Ruddigore being the remaining exceptions), and numerous additional concert performances. Somewhere along the way, I crossed over that line (as many a G&S fan knows) from “I’ve been in some of the shows” to “I know MOST of the shows well enough that it’s fun to actually go sing a bunch of them in a row with fellow aficionados.” So I’ve also attended marathons at Brown University in April 2011 and with the New England Gilbert & Sullivan Society in June 2011. But the Rockville Sing-Out only happens once every five years (making this the 20th anniversary… if you go by birthdays), and by now I’m hooked enough to actually travel out of state for this sort of thing.

The Sing-Out is truly more of a community singalong than a performance; all are welcome to come and sing chorus, with the option of sitting in the risers on the stage, or to simply watch and sing from the audience. However, the organizers do cast all the solos in advance (by application rather than by audition), and I had the honor of singing Dame Hannah in Ruddigore on Saturday afternoon, as well as one of the chorus leads (Olga) in The Grand Duke on Sunday morning. (Everyone thinks Mad Margaret is the plum women’s role in Ruddigore, and maybe it is, but I’d rather sing Hannah any day. You get the awesome exposition song at the beginning, a feature in the gorgeous madrigal in the Act 1 finale, and — spoiler alert — your own out-of-nowhere love plot with adorable duet at the end.)

Hearing/singing all the shows in one big binge definitely lends some new perspective; for instance, I am assembling some new lists of favorite duets and other bits, which I will attempt to post in future. But mostly it feels oddly like coming home to places I haven’t been since I first (or most recently) inhabited them: Ploverleigh, Pfennig-Halbpfennig, Tremorden Castle, Titipu, Utopia… and of course the House of Lords and the Tower of London. As I posted to Facebook after I got home last night: “Is it sick that I immediately wanted to do it all over again singing different parts?” :-)

And, needless to say, another big part of what made the weekend so awesome was catching up with old friends (from MITG&SP to the G&S Society of New York)… and meeting new ones. Many thanks to all the organizing committee, staff, and volunteers — particularly the accompanists! — who made this magical weekend possible.

Designs for the Blue Hill Troupe’s 2013 Mikado

As many of you know, I’m a Backstage member of the Blue Hill Troupe, Ltd., the only musical theater group in New York City to donate its net proceeds to charity. I joined in the fall of 2011 shortly after moving from NYC to Boston. (I plan to re-audition for the Frontstage side this fall, but that’s another story.)

Each year, the Troupe does a fall production of a Broadway musical, a winter concert series, and then their season highlight, a large-scale spring production of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

I bring a bunch of different backstage skills to the table: a little set construction (I own my own DeWalt screw gun), a little painting, and I’m now working makeup crew for the current production, The Mikado (N.B.: two more performances, today only, 2pm and 8pm!). But the highest-level skill I have to contribute is, naturally, on the graphic design side. So last spring I worked on the Program committee for Utopia, Ltd.… and this year they invited me to be lead designer on the Mikado program. Now, when the Troupe says “program”, especially for the spring show, they mean a massive 140-page volume comprising about half advertising and half editorial content, and represents a team effort of dozens of people over a span of several months. But here’s a selection:

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BHT 2013: The Mikado

The Blue Hill Troupe’s 2013 commemorative tile, based on Doug Larson’s set design.

The other thing I got to do was this: Every year the Troupe produces a keepsake 4″ ceramic tile as a membership gift commemorating the year’s spring show. In March, not long after the program went to press, I got an emergency call from the Troupe president and the set designer, asking if I could perhaps help them get the design ready for manufacturing. They had a concept and a first-draft file, which I revised into the final design shown at right (click to enlarge).

I’ve been very gratified by the crowd response to both these pieces, in which the phrase “the prettiest we’ve had in years!” keeps cropping up.

… And now, I’m off to the green room of El Teatro del Museo del Barrio to staff the makeup table one last time. Break legs, everyone!

Nautical Man (or, T.M.B. Pinafore)

So, as mentioned yesterday, I have been digging through old documents in the process of overhauling/updating my website, and one more thing I turned up was my Fall 2001 Pinafore filk:

Nautical Man (or, T.M.B. Pinafore)
to the tune of “Particle Man” (They Might Be Giants, Flood)

Nautical Man, Nautical Man,
Smartest lad in the Royal “N”.
What’s he like?
A pining tenor,
Nautical Man.
Is he a slave or an Englishman?
Can he dance a hornpipe or lead the band?
Will Josephine marry a foremast hand?
Nobody knows,
Nautical Man.

Triangle Man, Triangle Man,
Triangle Man hates Nautical Man.
They have a fight:
Man overboard,
Triangle Man.


Admiral Man, Admiral Man,
Ego the size of the universe man;
Usually kind to smaller man,
Admiral Man.
Articled clerk turned K.C.B.,
Knew better than to go to sea,
So now he rules the Queen’s Na-vee,
Powerful man,
Admiral Man.

Captain Man, Captain Man
Exchanged at birth with Nautical Man,
Offering up his daughter’s hand,
Captain Man.
Com-for-tably in the bourgeoisie,
Hardly ever gets sick at sea;
But then he uses that big, big D —
Berated man, Captain Man.

Nautical Man, Nautical Man
Suddenly finds he’s Captain Man;
Blissful refrains,
For he remains
An Englishman!


More G&S silliness, or, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”

I notice that I’ve been getting some extra hits lately on my Five-Minute Sorcerer, a copy of which I brought along to the NEGASS marathon. I find that it holds up pretty well on the re-reading, at least for my personal enjoyment, so that’s always nice. :-)

Also, I spent several hours this weekend brushing up my design portfolio website (I’ll be sure to post the link when the updated site is live). In the course of sifting through my old documents, I turned up the PDF of the G&S Playing Cards that I was commissioned to make as a director gift for during our Grand Duke (Spring 2001, yikes). The thirteen shows in chronological order are the ranks 2 through Ace; ace being high (even though, of course, for the full Grand Duke effect it ought to be lowest) sets up some lovely correspondences between the shows and the face cards. The four suits are the four cardinal roles: soprano (ingenue), contralto (battleax) or mezzo (soubrette), tenor, and patter baritone. A few liberties were taken in the mapping (partly to accommodate using Gilbert’s own drawings for all the illustrations), but on the whole, they’re great fun.

Rank Show Soprano
Patter Baritone
2 Trial by Jury Angelina (The Plaintiff) The First Bridesmaid Edwin (The Defendant) The Learned Judge
3 The Sorcerer Aline Sangazure Lady Sangazure Alexis Pointdextre John Wellington Wells
4 H.M.S. Pinafore Josephine Little Buttercup Ralph Rackstraw Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B.
5 The Pirates of Penzance Mabel Ruth Frederic Major-General Stanley
6 Patience Patience Lady Jane Archibald Grosvenor Reginald Bunthorne
7 Iolanthe Phyllis The Faerie Queen Strephon The Lord Chancellor
8 Princess Ida Princess Ida Lady Psyche Prince Hilarion King Gama
9 The Mikado Yum-Yum Katisha Nanki-Poo Ko-Ko
10 Ruddigore Rose Maybud Mad Margaret Robin Oakapple Richard Dauntless
Jack (must study
the knack…)
The Yeomen of the Guard Elsie Maynard Phoebe Meryll Colonel Fairfax Jack Point
(to be a regular
The Gondoliers Tessa & Gianetta The Duchess of Plaza-Toro Marco & Giuseppe Don Alhambra del Bolero
King (of autocratic
power we…)
Utopia, Ltd. Princess Zara Lady Sophy Captain Fitzbattleaxe Phantis & Scaphio
(Behold the…) Ace The Grand Duke Julia Jellicoe Baroness von Krakenfeldt Ludwig Grand Duke Rudolph

… Gosh, it occurs to me belatedly that I should build a page about this on my actual site. Well, later. :-)

Lastly, one more thing I turned up among the documents was my Fall 2001 Pinafore filk, “Nautical Man”. But I’ll leave that for a separate entry!