Stephen F. Austin State University theatre students are learning about life in New York City in the mid-1930s, when the average cost of a new house was $3,925, a Studebaker cost $665, and you could put gasoline in that car for about 10 cents a gallon. Prominent actresses of the time were Katherine Hepburn, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers and Joan Blondell. The Great Depression was still lingering, with unemployment continuing to fall to 16.9 percent. So for young women of this era, especially those who were poor, who aspired to become Broadway actresses, to say it was a challenging time would be an understatement.
That's the premise behind "Stage Door," the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman that's set in 1936 at The Footlights Club, a boarding house for 16 actresses who have come to New York to pursue their dreams of being on Broadway.
The SFA College of Fine Arts and School of Theatre present "Stage Door" through March 2, in W.M. Turner Auditorium on the SFA campus. The production is part of the College of Fine Arts' University Series and the School of Theatre's Mainstage Series.
In preparation, the students have been watching movies of the 1930s, such as "42nd Street" and "Goldiggers of 1933," "because they are both about the theatre in New York at that time," said Jack Heifner, SFA's playwright in residence and the play's director. But one movie Heifner doesn't want the students to see is the movie version of "Stage Door." "I don't want them to start copying performances from the movie, even though the movie is only about one-third of the play," he said, adding that the famous Hepburn line, "The calla lilies are in bloom again" is not in the play, not to mention that Kaufman scorned the movie as "Screen Door."
But beyond educating the students about the 1930s, Heifner hopes the play gives the young actors a glimpse into an era that will be remembered for its style and grace and as a time that was good for Broadway, because people were searching for something uplifting.
A 17-page glossary of terms from the time period was created for the students to study. Manners and style are topics of discussion in rehearsals. Angela Bacarisse, professor of costume and makeup design at SFA, paired each student actress with a photograph of a movie actress of that era so that each could model hair, makeup and certain "signature" gestures after the star.
"Unlike today, most women in the 1930s wore hats, gloves, dresses, high heels and full make-up every time they went out of the house," Heifner said. "Men wore suits, ties and hats. It was a dressy time, even though the United States was still in the middle of the Great Depression."
But dressing up for an audition for a Heifner-directed play is nothing new at SFA.
"The word gets around, that when the actors here come to my auditions, for anything, they dress up," he said. "It's a job interview. They should look their best and sell themselves.
"A lot of people go into show business thinking they want to be an actor - that it's just about acting," he said. "It's about selling, making contacts and marketing. That's part of the reality of this business and of this play."
One of the greatest challenges in directing "Stage Door" is the large cast - 33 characters - "so it's as large as a musical," Heifner said. But he's getting a lot of help, he said, including from senior theatre major Benn May from Commerce, who has been working with the cast to develop their characters. Choreographer Juanita Finkenberg and her assistants are instructing students in posture, movement and style of the period, while stage manager Jennifer Sims, junior theatre major from Garland, and her assistants are "taking care of the logistics of making this huge show happen," Heifner said.
"The biggest challenge has been staging the play," he said. "The brilliant costume, set, lighting and sound designers are all contributing to the look and atmosphere of the production. We are trying to be authentic to the period," Heifner said. "As always, theatre is a collaboration of everyone involved onstage and backstage."
"Stage Door" is recommended for mature audiences.
Tickets are $18 for adults, $12 for seniors and $6 for students.
For tickets or more information, visit www.finearts.sfasu.edu or call the Fine Arts Box Office at (936) 468-6407.