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Lend me a designer: ECU's 'Lend Me a Tenor' production opens doors for students

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Pierce Williams (as Bellhop) sings as character Josh Williams watches (Saunders) watches during a dress rehearsal of "Lend Me a Tenor."

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Kim Grizzard

Friday, April 21, 2017

On stage, “Lend Me a Tenor” is a door-slamming farce. But behind the scenes, the show is opening doors for ECU students who are ready to step up to the challenge of designing a main-stage show.

The Ken Ludwig comedy, which opened Thursday in McGinnis Theatre, features madcap mishaps and mistaken identities punctuated by a series of slamming doors. Set in 1934, the Tony Award-winning play, which has been called “one of the classic comedies of the 20th century,” revolves around an opera company assistant who finds himself in the position of having to fool an audience into thinking he is a world-famous tenor.

“I think it’s about having something inside yourself that other people can’t see,” Ludwig said in a 2013 video commemorating the 25th anniversary of the play’s Broadway premiere. “You know you have potential, you know you’ve got something important to say to the world.”

The play, which is being staged for the first time in 25 years at ECU, is giving four student designers a chance to have their say.

Jeff Woodruff, managing director for the ECU Loessin Playhouse, said “Lend Me a Tenor” features the largest number of student designers of any Loessin Playhouse production he can recall over his 20-year career at ECU.

“It’s not uncommon to have a student designer or even two, but to have four on one show,” Woodruff said, “I cannot recall a time that we’ve had this many at once.”

ECU seniors Erika Metscher, scenic designer, and Bennett Gundacker, costume designer, along with junior Rusty Rumans, lighting designer, are all making their McGinnis Theatre debuts. Junior J. Dylan Eubanks is serving as sound designer for a second time after having that role in 2016’s “Reefer Madness.”

“We don’t put students designing for the main stage unless we think they’re ready,” Woodruff said. “This is not like every senior is going to get to do it.

“You definitely have to earn your way there. These are some of our students that, frankly, we’re proud of,” he said. “They’ve really shown their stuff.”

Gundacker’s name may be new to the local audience, but he is no stranger to the ECU stage. The Rocky Mount native previously had acting roles in four Loessin Playhouse shows including “Rent” and “1776,” using his given name, David Thomas Smith. (He is adopting the stage name Bennett Gundacker for professional use.)

A musical theater major, Gundacker had no experience with costuming until about a year ago.

“I had never even sewn on a button,” he said, laughing.

But a required course in production and design revealed Gundacker’s natural talent for stitching, leading to creating costumes for “Assassins,” “Medea,” “Reefer Madness” and “1776.”

“It’s very useful for theater performers to have other skills within the industry,” Gundacker said. “A lot of theater employers look for people who can be useful in multiple departments.”

Metscher also got her start in theater onstage instead of behind the scenes. The Mount Airy native performed at the Andy Griffith Playhouse while she was in high school.

Still she elected to major in art at ECU, signing up for only one course in theater. But in her first semester, she saw the work students were doing in set design and changed her major to theater, with a concentration in design and production.

“A lot of people come here with the intention of being one of the performance majors,” Metscher said. “Then they get into the shop and they find out they really enjoy it.”

That is what happened to Rumans after a stage role in the Storybook Theatre production of “The Little Prince” during his freshman year. Though he had started as a performance major when he came to ECU from Swansboro, a class lighting project sparked his interest.

“It sort of turned into its own thing that I’ve really enjoyed more than I ever thought I would,” Rumans said. “I just kind of discovered a new passion.”

This summer, Rumans will work as an electrician for the outdoor drama “Unto These Hills” in Cherokee.

Designer roles in “Lend Me a Tenor” have opened doors for other students as well. Metscher will work as a scenic artist this summer at Ohio Light Opera.

Eubanks, an Ayden-Grifton High School graduate, will work as an audio technician this summer with Texas Outdoor Musical. He said many undergraduate programs do not present opportunities for students to serve in designer roles.

“(More commonly) you would probably end up doing one associate design with one of the professors,” he said. “As far as other undergraduate programs, it is kind of rare and unique to East Carolina.”

Following “Lend Me a Tenor,” Gundacker will spend the summer onstage as a returning member of the cast of “The Lost Colony.” But if a door opened for him to work in costuming, he would take that on as well.

“It’s certainly one thing I’ve learned about working with the students around here,” Woodruff said. “They’re very, very talented and it really seems that the more you ask of them, the more they’re willing to do. … They truly do step up.”

“Lend Me a Tenor” will be performed at 8 p.m. today-Saturday and Monday-Tuesday at McGinnis Theatre. A matinee performance is scheduled at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15 for the general public and $10 for students and youth. The play contains some profanity and sexual innuendo. Visit ecuarts.com or call 328-4788.

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