Liz Bussey Fentress
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Liz’s Circus Story

Kentuckian Liz Bussey Fentress’s one-woman play spans 23 years, beginning when Liz is 21 and just graduated from the University of Wisconsin. With job prospects dim in her chosen field of theater, she takes a job as ringmistress, organist, and puppet show performer with Wayne Franzen’s Franzen Bros. Circus, a brand-new one-ring circus. Through Liz’s portrayal of herself, Wayne, and an array of other circus characters and animals, she shares the trials and triumphs of the fledgling circus and her own efforts to pursue her dream of working in theater. Originally produced at Horse Cave Theatre (since closed), the play was adapted for television by Fentress and directed by Vince Spoelker.

Grade Levels: 6-12
Resource Types: Video

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Liz’s Circus Story Video

Kentuckian Liz Bussey Fentress performs her one-woman play based on her experiences working for a brand-new one-ring circus. As ringmistress, roustabout, and unlikely promoter, she learned humorous, tragic, and life-changing lessons about pursuing impossible dreams.

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About Liz’s Circus Story

About Liz’s Circus Story provides information about the origin of the performance and details the characters and plot outline.

Production Information

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Liz Bussey Fentress developed the play as part of Horse Cave Theatre’s Kentucky Voices program, with funding from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She then adapted it for television, shortening it to an hour along the way. See Adapting the Script and Planning for the Shoot in our From Stage to Screen section for details about the adaptation of the play for television—including the animal puppets created specifically for TV by Sam Hunt, a Butler County visual arts and humanities teacher.

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The television version of Liz’s Circus Story is a 2003 production of KET, Kentucky’s statewide public television network. Vince Spoelker was producer/director.

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Characters and Story

Liz’s Circus Story takes place over 23 years, from 1974 to 1997. The numerous settings include Liz’s apartments in Wisconsin, New York, and Horse Cave, Kentucky; the Franzens’ dairy farm; the circus tent and grounds; and the road.

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Who’s Who in the Play

  • Liz, the narrator—a 21-year-old college student when the play begins; at its conclusion, she is 44 and a theater professional
  • Wayne Franzen—founder of Franzen Bros. Circus
  • Paul (Paulo the Magnificent, Brother Paul Vincent)—Liz’s childhood friend, who convinces Liz to join the circus
  • Neil Franzen—Wayne’s brother
  • Suzanne Franzen—Neil’s wife; cook and aerial artist for the circus
  • Liz’s mother
  • Kathy—Wayne’s sister, who does the aerial act after Neil and Suzanne leave
  • JoAnne—Wayne’s wife
  • Brian Franzen—Wayne’s son
  • Killer (Fred Zimmer)—props man for the circus
  • Killer’s Dad
  • Tom—Liz’s actor friend

The animals:

  • Buck the horse
  • the goats—Snuff, Spike, Billy, and Day
  • Sophie the tiger
  • Loo-kah the tiger
  • Okha the elephant
  • Ponies of America

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Plot Outline

SCENE

  1. Liz tells the audience and her mother that she is going to work for the circus.
  2. Liz calls Wayne Franzen and gets directions to his farm.
  3. Liz visits Wayne at his farm, and they discuss preparations for the circus.
  4. Liz decides on the lineup for the very first performance in Plainfield, Wisconsin.
  5. Liz tells about the circus’ first month.
  6. Liz and Wayne discuss getting a tiger for the circus; Wayne tells Liz why he started the circus.
  7. Liz makes a deal with Wayne to book dates for the circus.
  8. Liz tells about booking a trip to Red Lake Falls, Minnesota.
  9. Liz tells Wayne’s story to a Kiwanis meeting in Watertown.
  10. The wind in West Texas makes Liz think about her own dreams of being an actor.
  11. A generator accident kills Day the goat.
  12. Eight years later, Liz comes from New York to see the circus. She is delighted to see how large and successful it is. She sees a new tiger, born in the circus (Loo-kah), and tells her friend Paul that she’s not sure she likes how New York is changing her. She wishes she could dance with the circus horses.
  13. Wayne calls Liz in New York and asks her to pick out two baby elephants for him from a shipment in the Catskills.
  14. Liz returns to do advance work and promotion for the circus. She takes Killer to visit his father.
  15. Liz gets an opportunity to take a job with a theater company in Kentucky.
  16. Liz and her actor friend Tom visit the circus. She sees Loo-kah the tiger and gets angry with Tom because he can’t understand what Wayne has accomplished.
  17. Liz looks at her old circus outfit and finds that it still fits.
  18. Wayne begins a performance in Carrollton, Pennsylvania, and Loo-kah the tiger knocks him down and stalks him.
  19. Liz receives the news that Wayne has been killed and talks to Wayne’s son, Brian.
  20. In a dreamlike sequence, Liz recognizes Wayne’s impact on her life … and finally can dance with the horses.

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From Page to Stage

From Page to Stage discusses the transition from page to stage and provides interviews with Warren Hammack and Liz Bussey Fentress

“Working in the circus was a great and amazing experience. I never knew quite what to do with it,” says Liz Bussey Fentress, author and star of Liz’s Circus Story. “In 1997, when I learned that Wayne Franzen had been killed doing what he loved doing, it was a huge shock to my system and my life, and I understood that I had to write a play about the experience.”

Liz took the first draft of her script for a one-woman play to a scriptwriting class taught by a theater professional whose opinion she both trusted and feared: Warren Hammack of Horse Cave Theatre. Hammack’s philosophy was that “plays are not written, they are rewritten.” And Liz’s Circus Story went through numerous incarnations in the three or so years from idea to premiere. (See the Warren Hammack interview for more about his ideas on play development and the Liz Fentress interview for more about how this particular play developed.)

At first, Liz was the only character in the play. Later the author decided to add other characters, though she retained the concept of playing all the parts herself. At a workshop in Florida, she even tried changing the play’s name to Peg’s Circus Story and watched as it was read by another actress. The experience reinforced her belief that her original inclination to tell her story herself in a one-woman performance was the way this story wanted to be told.

After its successful run at Horse Cave Theatre, the play was performed—with additional modifications—at Georgetown College. Meanwhile, Liz had already contacted KET about the possibility of the play airing on KET. But to adapt the play for television, additional changes would need to be made. See Adapting the Script and the rest of the From Stage to Screen section for more about how the play was rewritten and then produced for TV.

Interview with Warren Hammack on Liz’s Circus Story

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Warren Hammack, founding artistic director of Kentucky’s Horse Cave Theatre, first worked with Liz Bussey Fentress in the 1980s, when Fentress was an actor and stage manager at Horse Cave. Around 1990, Horse Cave began offering a series of classes for adults in acting, stagecraft, and playwriting. The classes became part of Horse Cave’s Kentucky Voices program, which encourages the development of original scripts by Kentuckians and provides staged readings and full theatrical productions of selected plays. At the time of this interview, Horse Cave Theatre and its Kentucky Voices program were still in operation.

What is Kentucky Voices?

Kentucky Voices is the name of the whole play development program at Horse Cave Theatre. The workshop is one part of that; the other part is staged readings and then full productions of the plays. Sometimes we also had staged readings of plays not developed in the workshop. When I was involved in the program, we met weekly for eight to ten sessions. We would usually have six to ten playwrights from all over the state—Louisville, Somerset, Butler County. They were an interesting group, usually. It developed from working with those who hadn’t had experience writing plays to those who had.

Once the workshop got started, the word-of-mouth spread among playwrights. The program has had participants as young as high school age and as old as in their 60s, pushing 70—a very wide range. That was an interesting dynamic, and it worked very well—their energies, ideas, points of view playing off each other. The workshop encouraged lots of ideas.

How do you work with playwrights on the development of a play?

Once the playwright gets an idea—and I emphasize that plays are written to communicate ideas, not to entertain; even a half-hour sitcom on TV has an idea—it’s a matter of encouragement, of communicating what you think are the strengths and weaknesses at any point during that process. When you’re writing, you’re revealing something about yourself, and that’s very scary. In the playwriting workshops, I tried to create an atmosphere where people felt safe to do that. I would guide them if I saw some structural problems. For example, if you get to the end of the first act, and you don’t know what’s happening in the story or if there’s some wrong leads in there, then you have to fix it.

It’s mostly encouraging the playwrights and giving them an ear to talk to. In your first class, you’re just trying to get the idea for the play down on paper. You’ve got a rough pile of maybe some good stuff. As a playwright, or any writer, you can’t think about the end product while you’re doing it; you’ve just got to do it. You’ve got a diamond in the rough, hopefully, and that diamond has to be polished and cut, and there’s a lot of cutting in playwriting. It’s totally a process; you don’t just stamp it out on a production line. You hear that Arthur Miller wrote the first act of Death of a Salesman in two weeks, but the reality is that the idea for the whole play was in his mind well before that.

Why was Liz’s Circus Story chosen to be produced at Horse Cave Theatre?

I think it’s a terrific play. It’s a story that is universal. It’s about people trying to decide how their lives are going to be lived, and everybody goes through that. You have these two main characters, Liz and the circus owner, and their lives are woven together through the play. They affect each other. They have dreams that seem utterly impossible, but they achieve them. One achieves it, and it costs him his life, and the other learns from it. It has wonderful characters in it, although it’s technically a one-person show. It has conflict, obstacles to be overcome. It’s a very inspiring story, although it has tragedy in it—a very moving and inspiring story.

For use on TV, the play was cut to 56 minutes. How did you help Liz shape the play for the stage and then adapt the play for TV?

It took Liz three years to go from initial idea to the stage production, which is a pretty typical length of time. I used to be very hesitant to cut a script, but most of the time a play can be cut, and most of the time cutting improves it. In Liz’s play, the two strands of the two lives each had to somehow stay intact, and then they had to come apart and separate, and come together at certain points. We tried to keep those two strands active and moving and coming together at the right time. Then you say, do we really need this content in order to make that happen?

It was a long process with Liz. She would do the first editing, and then she’d send it to me, and I’d do some and send it back to her, and then we’d go through that process again: a whittle here and a whittle there, like a sculptor in a way. We knew this play has to be balanced between those two stories and keep them active and relating to each other. It was not easy.

What advice would you give to young playwrights and others interested in writing a play?

If they’re interested in writing, they’ve got to write. Just start writing. The other thing I encourage is, everybody has something that they care about, and they should write, should have an idea. Just don’t sit down and write the next great comedy. They’ve got to write about something they care about. Actually getting [a play produced] … it’s networking: You’ve got to know somebody. You’ve got to look for ways to do it. Join a theater company. Go to a playwriting workshop. It’s very difficult, because there are hundreds, thousands of plays being written all the time, and there is no system in this country, or any other country that I know of, where you can guarantee development of a play. But once you get known, then doors open to you.

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Interview with Liz Bussey Fentress on Playwriting

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Why and how did you write Liz’s Circus Story?

I worked for a circus when I graduated from college, and it was an amazing experience. I always knew the material was incredible, but I didn’t know quite what to do with it. I guess I wrote a short story once about one of the characters, Killer. So I knew this material was in my head. I’ve spent my life working in the theater, so in the back of my head I thought, “Boy, someday wouldn’t it be wonderful to do something with this material?” It’s so rich.

I always kept in touch with the circus, even though my most profound experience with it was when I was 21. As years went by, I always knew where the circus was; and when they were coming north in the spring or south in the fall, I would get the route and visit them, because the circus continued to give me something. Fast-forward to 1997, when I learned that the man who started the circus, who had had a profound influence on my life, was killed doing what he loved doing. That was a huge shock to my system and to my way of looking at life. I understood then that I had a lot of feelings that accompanied his death—grief, a lot of questions. And I understood then that I couldn’t wallow in that grief and questions but that I had to wrestle with the material.

So I wrote a grant proposal to the Kentucky Foundation for Women. I didn’t believe I knew how to write a play, even though I’d been taking a playwriting class for years. So I wrote this grant and carefully constructed the proposal so that I would never have to read the play in public. I wanted to wrestle with the material and figure out what it all meant, but if it turned out to be not good, I didn’t think the foundation would necessarily need for me to humiliate myself in public. I got funded $5,000—so I wrote the play, finished my grant report, and sent it in.

Why did you decide you wanted to perform your play?

I had this chunk of paper. I had satisfied my grant proposal, but then what you understand is that a play does not deserve to live on a chunk of paper. So I realized the only way I would really know if I had a play or not was to read it in public. So once again, I enrolled in the playwriting class at Horse Cave Theatre taught by Warren Hammack. I was taking the advanced class, and to take it you have to have a play in progress. I sent in my $100 but didn’t send the script in.

Why didn’t you send the script in?

I didn’t think I knew how to write a play, but I had to write it. So I said, “OK, I know what I’ll do: There will be one character, and it will be me, and I’ll tell the story.” I convinced myself I could have one character talking for three to four hours. I had taken Warren’s class for years, and I knew his opinion of one person onstage talking and knew he would not approve of one person. I was afraid he would send the script back and say, “This isn’t a play.”

At the first class, Warren did a long speech on “What is a play?” Warren believes in his heart and soul that a play is dialogue—two characters talking—and he held forth on that for a good 30 minutes. He said if you have a character that has a monologue, that character better have earned that monologue. Then Warren goes around the room and asks everyone in the workshop what their play is about. I happen to be the last one. He gets to me, and I handed him the script, and I said, “I earned these monologues.” Because I really felt through my work with the circus—which about killed me—and my work at Horse Cave, which is as close to working with the circus as anything I’ve done, I had earned the right to sit on the stage for three hours and talk. Warren read the play—and he’s an extremely supportive person—and he didn’t throw me out of the class. He said, “Why don’t you get some people over to your house and read this to them?” This made me angry, because I wanted my play read at Kentucky Voices. I felt like I was being demoted. Read my play in my living room? But I also think I’m a good student, so I called some trusted and loving friends and we sat in my living room.

What happened?

I will say that one of the people had played tennis that morning, and also that I gave them some food and it was quite warm in my living room … But maybe an hour or hour and a half into the play—and I’m acting my heart out—he fell asleep. Which was OK with me; I’ve worked in the theater a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of people sleeping in the audience. Anybody who’s never seen anybody asleep in the audience has not worked in theater that long. But I learned many lessons that afternoon, and that’s why Warren asked me to do that. I immediately started cutting—even before people were out the door.

At the end of the class, Warren gave me the opportunity to read Liz’s Circus Story out loud at Horse Cave. At the end of that reading, which was two and a half hours long, I knew I had a play. I had something that deserved more work and more attention, which is what I started putting into it.

How did the play change for the stage production?

One thing I did was take the play to a playwriting workshop in Florida. At this workshop, they would not let me read the material. Another woman read the role of Liz. What happened was, none of the people knew me, and the audience did not like the character of Wayne Franzen. I still had not put any of the play into dialogue; it was still just Liz talking. The fact that the audience did not like Wayne Franzen—I could not tolerate that. I understood I had to bring the character of Wayne Franzen on stage. So that was a huge change in a script, to change it from just me talking to creating the character of Wayne and letting him talk for himself. I never went so far as to bust it up into male actor and female actor; I never made it more than a one-actor play. Somebody once told me that a story will tell you how it wants to be told. In my heart of hearts, I still think this wants to be told by me playing all the parts.

Another important thing happened in the rehearsal process in Horse Cave. When I wrote the play, I tried to keep it on the language. I’ve directed a lot of plays, and I know how to stage a play, and there are lots of things you can do to make a piece more interesting once you get in rehearsal. But I understood that a play has to live on language—that if it’s not there in the language, you don’t have anything. So even though I had done a puppet show at the circus, I resisted the impulse to make the puppets part of the play. I didn’t want to bring in what maybe would turn out to be a gimmick.

I got ready to go to my first rehearsal at Horse Cave. I’ve kept all my circus stuff for years, and as I was getting ready to go out the door to the first rehearsal, I swear my old tiger puppet from 1974 seemed to roar at me from the basement of the house: “I want to go to that rehearsal.” I showed it to Robert Brock and told him this puppet demanded to come. That turned on Robert’s imagination, and as we rehearsed, he said I needed a horse puppet, I needed an elephant puppet. I rewrote the play after the Horse Cave production and again brought together a group of trusted people and asked, “Should I write the puppets in?” And they said, “Oh yeah.”

Why did you want to take it to television?

My original goal, once I decided I had a play, was to do a live performance of it. I achieved that at Horse Cave. But after that, I had done so much work on it that I felt I owed it to the work to see if there was more life in it…. If you believe in a story, it follows that you want it to be heard by as many people as possible. In the theater there are maybe 150 to 200 people a night, and you have to be there to tell it The idea that it could be told for so many more people on television without my being there every night—those are seductive ideas.

How did you cut it for television?

I did a smart thing: I asked Warren if he would help me. It was a fascinating experience. In a play, a character comes onstage to achieve something; she is there for a purpose. In my writing, I had the habit of bringing my character onstage, have her get what she wanted, and then I think I was so excited that I was onstage [that] I’d let her sit there for another five or ten minutes—talking all the time and doing things, but she’d really already gotten what she needed out of the scene. Warren and I went through scene-by-scene and analyzed, what does the character want and when does she get it?

Vince Spoelker, who directed the production for KET, had given us our marching orders: We had to home in on the theme “Wayne Franzen takes a risk” and his influence on Liz. That was what we were trying to show. Anything that didn’t relate to that theme had to leave.

How did you feel about what got cut?

One thing that Warren said to me early on, before we started rewriting, was, “Liz, you have to understand that this is a different piece.” I think that was very wise. In my head, the piece written for television is different from the play. It’s a different piece….

For me, that I had to rewrite was not news; it’s a given. I think the reason you rewrite so much is that playwriting is highly manipulative writing. Your goal is to bring the whole audience with you on the same journey at the same time. If I’m reading a paperback and fall asleep, that’s fine. I can go back five pages and pick it up. In the theater you can’t do that. The audience has to understand what’s going on. It’s very careful writing, and that’s why it has to be rewritten.

Did it make Liz’s Circus Story a better play to go through the process of many rewrites?

Going through this process—“A play is not written, it’s rewritten”—definitely made Liz’s Circus Story better. When I think back to that script I read in my living room, I die. I cannot believe I asked people to sit and listen to that. It definitely came better to life as I continued to work on it and let the drama happen between the characters. I hope to do one last definitive version. I have decided I would like an 80-minute piece for the theater, with no intermission, so it can go on living in theater, and I’ll try to get it published. That’s because I believe in the story.

What advice can you offer to others who have a story to tell?

I would say write it and find an opportunity to read it. I think all creative people need outlets. My first outlet for Liz’s Circus Story was my living room, and that was just fine. The important thing is that it gets heard. Write it and read it—if it’s a one-person play. If it’s for three people, get three of your friends to read it…. And find a mentor. Warren Hammack was my mentor. Without his guidance, his concern, his love, his incredible knowledge of theater and what works on stage, this never would have gotten out of my living room.

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About Franzen Bros.

About Franzen Bros. discusses the history of the Franzen Bros. and provides information on circus lingo and a photo gallery
“He grew up in a dairy barn but believed he could train an elephant,” Liz Fentress says of Wayne Franzen in her play Liz’s Circus Story.

Like everything else in the play, Wayne Franzen is real. He was born July 15, 1946 in northern Wisconsin and grew up to teach industrial arts at Stevens Point High School. He saved enough money to buy an elephant, which he drove to his farm from the airport in his pickup truck, then quit his teaching job in 1974 to start a circus. And he kept the show going for 23 years, against all odds.

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By 1984, his one-ring “mud show” (circus lingo for a show that is performed in a tent, as opposed to indoors) had grown from a three-truck to a ten-truck show, was playing 250 dates a year, and billed itself as “America’s Fastest Growing Circus.” From the beginning, Wayne’s animal acts took star billing. The 1984 program promised “Ferocious Felines, Terrifying Tigers, a Veritable Cage of Fury Presented by the Incomparable Wayne Franzen.”

In the 1990s, though, changing times caught up with many circuses, including Franzen Bros. According to a CNN report on Wayne Franzen in 1997, the number of circuses in America dropped from 125 in 1900 to 20 in 1997. By 1996, increasing regulatory and insurance costs and dwindling audiences forced Franzen to cut back to seven trucks and 20 people. Still, in 1996, the circus traveled 30,000 miles through 22 states, and Wayne kept working 16-hour days. “I kept myself so busy, the last 23 years have gone by like shot,” he told a CNN reporter. Just days before his death, he said that if the 1997 season didn’t lift the circus from debt, it would be the last.

Wayne Franzen died on May 7, 1997, moments after a 6-year-old Bengal tiger attacked him in a performance in Carrollton, PA. He was 50. He was buried in Luther Memorial Cemetery in Russell, WI on May 12, 1997. Liz Fentress’ childhood friend, Brother Paul-Vincent Niebauer, who worked for Franzen Bros. as the clown Paulo the Magnificent and later as ringmaster, officiated at the funeral.

Brian Franzen tried to continue his father’s legacy, but in late 1997 the circus tent folded for the last time. Brian continues to provide animal acts for other performances.

TO LEARN MORE …
about Wayne Franzen, see the news story about his death from OnTV.

Circus Lingo and Lore

What is a circus?

Well, here’s Wayne Franzen’s answer, from a news release for Franzen Bros. Circus’ second season (1975):

“The crowd is happier when it leaves than when it comes into the Big Top. They have a better show than they expected. Live animal acts reflecting skill and patient training are the heart of the circus. Animal acts surprise and amaze small children and also the adults who bring them. Clowns are the frosting of the circus. The animals, the clowns, the aerialists, the glitter, the happy music are for the whole family. They entertain all ages.”

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Liz’s Circus Story offers insight into the glitter as well as the real world of the circus, from interesting circus history to some of the special terms used. Here are just a few …

When Liz first meets Wayne Franzen, he is working on Buck the horse’s liberty act—an act in which a horse performs free of a trainer’s lead.

One of the crowd-pleasing acts of Franzen Bros. Circus was a goats act called a long mount. Often performed by elephants in larger shows, this stunt consists of all the goats standing in a line, each with its front hooves on the back of the goat in front of it.

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When Liz visits the circus from New York, she is thrilled to see that it’s a straw house. That means the performance has sold out—straw has been placed on the ground for the overflow crowd to sit on.

In the play, Liz also explains how circus workers tie corral and equipment together using bows, not knots, so that everything can be untied and broken down quickly. We also learn that in the heyday of the American circus, every show had its own shade of red—the official color of the circus.

TO LEARN MORE …
about the lingo, lore, and history of the Big Top, visit the Circus Historical Society.

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About Liz Bussey Fentress

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In 1974, 21-year-old and fresh-out-of-college Liz Bussey joined a fledgling family-owned circus in Wisconsin. As Miss Elizabeth of Franzen Bros. Circus, she was the first (and at the time, only) ringmistress in the history of the Big Top. She tells her story and that of Franzen Bros.’ remarkable founder, Wayne Franzen, in Liz’s Circus Story.

Liz didn’t grow up dreaming of joining the circus. This native of Phillips, a small town in Wisconsin (population 1,500), had her heart set on a career in theater from the 4th grade, when her parents took her to Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre to see Volpone. After two seasons of performing with the circus and one winter spent booking advance dates, Liz saved enough money to attend the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, then got a job with the Guthrie Theatre stage managing tours in the upper Midwest. After a stint in New York City, where she was a founding member of the Irondale Ensemble Project, she became executive director of Playhouse in the Park, a community theater in Murray, KY. In 1991, she became associate producer at Horse Cave Theatre, a professional theater company. She was with Horse Cave for eight years.

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Throughout her career as a theater producer, administrator, director, and actor, Liz kept in touch with Wayne Franzen and her circus friends. She always thought that someday she would tell the story of her circus days, and Franzen’s death in 1997 inspired her to begin work on a play about his impact on her life. She developed the play through Horse Cave Theatre’s Kentucky Voices program, which nurtures Kentucky playwrights. The stage production of Liz’s Circus Story premiered at Horse Cave on August 3, 2001.

Fentress now makes her home with her husband Larry, in Louisville, where her hobbies include knitting, gardening, and beekeeping. She continues to act, write, and teach about playwriting. Works since Liz’s Circus Story include The Honey Harvest, which won the North American Actors Association Playwriting Competition, and Strike Zone, which premiered at The Bard’s Town Theatre in Louisville.

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Adapting the Script

Adapting the Script discusses moving the live performance to the television screen

“For TV, this needs to be cut to 56 minutes. Can you do it?”

That’s the question KET Director of Arts Programming Nancy Carpenter posed to Liz Bussey Fentress after seeing a stage performance of Liz’s Circus Story. Although it would mean cutting her play virtually in half, “I thought for about a second and said yes,” Fentress recalls.

As she began the work of rewriting the play, Vince Spoelker, KET producer/director, helped the playwright hone in on a focus for the shorter television version: “Wayne Franzen takes a risk and his influence on my life. Vince told me that anything that didn’t relate to that had to go.”

Liz also looked to her mentor, Warren Hammack of Horse Cave Theatre, for help. “Warren and I went through scene by scene, discussing the purpose of each scene. It was very interesting to analyze it that way,” she says.

Rewriting the script took about a year, Vince recalls. “When she had something new, Liz would mail us copies of the script. Nancy and I would read it and give her feedback: This works, that doesn’t, this would be hard to shoot, this isn’t getting the point across. Losing 60 minutes off a piece is really hard work, and Liz had to lose a lot of stuff she really loved to make it work for television.”

Many anecdotes and characters were left out, including scenes involving Liz’s Grandpa Bussey. (See our script comparison for an example.) In other cases, important information was shifted to other scenes. “For example,” Liz says, “the first version had three stories about driving in a blizzard. I made the decision I would not get to talk about every darn thing.”

Once the new script was ready, all involved realized that they had a new play that had never been performed before. Because Vince is not a theatrical director, he asked Robert Brock, who had directed the production of Liz’s Circus Story at Horse Cave Theatre, to help Liz rehearse. Vince attended rehearsals and offered suggestions about what types of movements and staging would work best on television. He also made a videotape of the rehearsal to use in planning camera shots—just one aspect of the pre-production preparations the KET team was making.

Stage vs. TV: A Script Comparison

For television, Liz’s Circus Story needed to be 56 minutes long so it could air as an hour-long program—a little more than half the length of the original stage production. The story was tightened to focus more clearly on how Wayne Franzen’s pursuit of his dream inspired Liz. As the script samples below show, the editing entailed both the removal of entire sections and characters and minor changes to shorten the play.

Here is the Stage vs. TV- A Script Comparison (PDF)

Stage Version

NARRATOR

[To camera.] I’ve just committed to driving to the Canadian border.

[The narrator mimes driving a car.] Halfway to the Canadian border I have a conversation with my grandfather.

LIZ

I’m bored, Grandpa Bussey!

NARRATOR

My grandfather has been dead for ten years, but I imagine that he travels with me in the passenger’s seat.

LIZ

I can’t even find a radio station up here!

GRANDPA BUSSEY

Why don’t you memorize a poem?

LIZ

What?

GRANDPA BUSSEY

Didn’t your mother give you a book of poetry? Isn’t one of those poems about the snow? You could memorize that poem on these long drives.

[The Narrator gets a scrapbook out of the suitcase.]

NARRATOR

I have a scrapbook of circus pictures to show the Band Boosters. [She turns the pages and shows the pictures to the audience as she describes them.] It shows the farm at the end of County Road ZZ. It shows all of us sitting on the barnyard fence the week before the show opened. It shows Wayne with his seven goats. It shows children laughing.

Two weeks later, I head west to Watertown. It’s late afternoon when I leave the dentist’s office in Minneapolis. I’ve just had a wisdom tooth pulled. I’m scheduled to be the guest speaker at a Kiwanis meeting. Big flakes of soft snow pour out of the sky. I’ll memorize the poem about snow! [The Narrator gets a poetry book out of the suitcase.] “Velvet Shoes” by Elinor Wylie: “Silence will fall like dews/On white silence below. Silence will fall like dews… Silence will fall.”

[The Narrator takes a feed bin from the dairy barn area and places it on the center-stage ring curb to serve as a podium.]

The men eat, while I tell them Wayne Franzen’s story: His folks were poor Russian dairy farmers in northern Wisconsin. Wayne can remember the day his dad made him clean the barnyard in his bare feet because he didn’t want Wayne to get his new shoes dirty.

Farmers are close to their animals. Wayne told me, “On our small farm, we watered each individual calf with a pail.” Wayne taught their animals to do tricks. He trained a dairy cow to jump a bale of hay and take a bow. He taught a goat to climb a ladder. When Wayne showed his dad that he could juggle fresh eggs, his dad exploded. “Forget about circus! It is thing of the past! Think about something useful. Like lawyer or teacher.”

So Wayne went to college, where he majored in industrial arts education. But he had to write a paper for an English class on “What I Want To Do with My Life.” He decided to be honest and wrote that he always wanted to have a circus. His teacher called him in and said, “You should do this.”

Wayne got married right after college, and he and his wife, JoAnne, bought a farm. They never put the thermostat above 50 degrees because Wayne hadn’t had heat in the house growing up, and he was saving money for his circus. They ate pancakes for breakfast and mashed-potato sandwiches for lunch and dinner.

Wayne taught industrial arts—which is the perfect background for someone who’s going to start a circus. After school in the shop, Wayne built the ring curb, painted it bright blue, and wired it with red and yellow lights. And last summer, when one of our trucks broke down, he just crawled under and fixed it.

Wayne saved $25,000 teaching high school. When he saw a baby elephant advertised for sale in Amusement Business, the trade paper that circuses use, he called the number in Pakistan. He spoke to a Rajah and arranged to have the elephant flown to Boston and then on to Milwaukee. He took $8,000 from his savings to buy Okha, the elephant, and spent another $1,200 on her airfare. He and his brother met her at the Milwaukee airport and took her home in their pickup truck.

Wayne took another $12,000 and bought a big top from the Voorhies Brothers—a new circus that had gone broke after only two weeks the previous summer. And he bought an old Allied Van Lines trailer to haul his animals around in. My friends and I painted it bright blue and put his name across it in bright yellow: Franzen Bros. Circus!

And I am pleased to announce the Franzen Bros. Circus will present a brand-new act for the 1975 Minnesota tour: “Wayne Franzen and his Jungle Companion, Sophie the Tiger!” Wayne welded Sophie’s cage out of a stainless steel vent he bought from a McDonald’s. And he bought a corncrib to make into a steel arena for the tigers to perform in.

Gentlemen, we proved Wayne’s dad wrong! The circus is not a thing of the past! In fact, every town we played last year has asked us back!

And I am confident YOU will ask us back if you book the Franzen Bros. Circus!

Thank you. I have never before spoken to a group of men who were all wearing orange sports coats.

TV Version

NARRATOR

[To camera.] I’ve just committed to driving to the Canadian border.

(End Scene 8)

SCENE 9

NARRATOR

A month later, I head west to Watertown, where I’m scheduled to be the guest speaker at a Kiwanis meeting. I’ve just had a wisdom tooth pulled.

Big flakes of soft snow pour out of the sky.

The men eat, while I tell them Wayne Franzen’s story:

LIZ

His folks were poor Russian dairy farmers in northern Wisconsin. Wayne trained a cow to jump a bale of hay and take a bow. He taught a goat to roll a barrel. His dad exploded. “Forget about circus! It is thing of the past!”

So Wayne went to college, where he majored in industrial arts education. But he had to write a paper for an English class on “What I Want To Do with My Life.” He decided to be honest and wrote that he always wanted to have a circus. His teacher called him in and said, “You should do this.”

After college, Wayne got married, and he and his wife bought a farm. But they never put the thermostat above 50 degrees. And they ate pancakes for breakfast and mashed-potato sandwiches for lunch and dinner.

Wayne taught industrial arts. After school in the shop, Wayne built the ring curb for the circus, painted it bright blue, and wired it with red and yellow lights.

Wayne saved $25,000 teaching high school. When he saw a baby elephant advertised for sale inAmusement Business, he called the number in Pakistan and spoke to a Rajah. He took $8,000 from his savings to buy Okha, the elephant, and spent another $1,200 on her airfare. He and his brother met her at the Milwaukee airport and took her home in their pickup truck.

Wayne spent $12,000 on a big top; he bought it from the Voorhies Brothers—a new circus that had gone broke after only two weeks the previous summer. And he bought an old Allied Van Lines trailer to haul his animals around in.

And I am pleased to announce the Franzen Bros. Circus will present a brand-new animal act for the 1975 Minnesota tour: “Wayne Franzen and his Jungle Companion, Sophie the Tiger!” Wayne welded Sophie’s cage out of a stainless steel vent he bought from a McDonald’s. And he bought a corncrib to make into a steel arena for the tigers to perform in.

Gentlemen, we proved Wayne’s dad wrong! The circus is not a thing of the past! In fact, every town we played last year has asked us back! And I am confident YOU will ask us back if you book the Franzen Bros. Circus!

Thank you. I have never before spoken to a group of men who were all wearing orange sports coats.

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Interview with Robert Brock on Liz’s Circus Story

Robert Brock was artistic director at Horse Cave Theatre from 2001 until May 2013, when the theatre closed. After several years as a stage actor in New York, he first came to the Southcentral Kentucky regional theater as an actor and education director in 1998. Then-Artistic Director Warren Hammack chose Brock to direct Liz’s Circus Story at Horse Cave, and Brock assisted with the restaging of the play for KET’s television production.

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What was your original approach to Liz’s Circus Story?

That was my job as director: to bring the play visually to life. We needed to give the audience a circus; we needed to give them a whole world. So we started thinking in terms of puppets. And there were different ways to go to all the places Liz talked about in the play through sound effects and lighting. The set was pretty minimal. With most scripts, you have some sense of how it’s going to go from beginning to end. This was different, because it’s a one-person play, with Liz narrating and playing all the different characters. She started out just telling the story, and had not really come up with how it would be told visually. That’s what we had to invent as we were doing it.

As an example, she could tell us about the tigers, or we could have puppets to represent them as she told it. Watching the play, you’re at a circus, so we decided to have “found objects” that Liz could pick up and use, props that were taking her from one place to another. And a lot was done with lighting different areas of the stage.

What is the performance space like at Horse Cave Theatre, and how did you use it for this play?

The proscenium thrust stage at Horse Cave was perfect for something like this. It’s very intimate, with the audience on three sides. Liz is just talking straight to the audience, and they’re three feet from her. So we didn’t have to get big in terms of spectacle.

What role did you play in the adaptation of the play for TV? How does the stage production compare with the TV version?

At first, my big role was to give TV director Vince Spoelker background on how we had conceived the play. Once he began to really visualize how this would be presented on TV, I pulled back and became Liz’s coach. I didn’t know much about TV.

The main differences between the stage and TV versions are in the transitions within the play. On stage, we had to take the audience with us through a transition, pulling stuff out of props boxes. On TV, they had to move the story along a lot faster. They can do a quick cut from one scene to the next and move the story along. It would have been very abrupt to try it that way on stage.

I think both versions work really well. The story’s more streamlined for TV; Liz had to cut a lot. I had sort of an emotional attachment to some of the parts that were cut, but I could see they weren’t really necessary to tell the story. The story doesn’t miss them too much. One thing that was cut was that Liz used poetry in the stage version of the play, something by Emily Dickinson. And there were these scenes with her grandfather, who had given her a book of poetry. On her long travels, she would recite poems to herself. I missed those parts, but the play did fine without them. I felt it added depth to her character, but there was no time for it in the TV version.

What was your working relationship with Liz as playwright and actor during this production?

This was very collaborative. I had to rely on Liz’s experiences in the circus. I would ask her, “What does this mean?” And I think because she didn’t have a sense of visually how this story would be told, she was relying on me to see that for her. It was very different from most things I’ve directed. I can’t think of a play I’ve directed where we’ve had to create so much as we went. For example, instead of bringing on a telephone, we would say, “What are we going to use as a ‘telephone’?” We decided on a horse grooming brush that was already on the stage.

There was a lot of “play” in this production. Generally with a script, there’s a tradition behind it, a structure; the playwright has really conceived of how it should be done. With this, the story came with it, and that was about it.

What I told Liz about her acting was that the main thing was to trust the story. Just tell it, and it’ll all be fine. She had a tendency to really want to point up this and that, or wondered, “Is the audience going to get this?” and that was slowing things down. With a one-person show, you’ve just got to keep going. You’ve got to trust what you’ve written.

What advice would you give to playwrights working with directors?

If the playwright has a sense of how they want the audience to see the story, it helps the director a lot. And the director has to get as much background on the story as possible. I learned an awful lot about the circus working on this play. I did my own research, and Liz also gave me a ton of information. I would go to meetings about the play with the theater’s technical staff. We had a lot of fun doing this.

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Planning for the Shoot

Taping of Liz’s Circus Story in the KET studio was scheduled for early August 2003. Through late spring and summer, preparations were under way not only at KET, but also in Horse Cave, where Liz Bussey Fentress was rehearsing the new script, and in Butler County, where high school teacher Sam Hunt was creating new puppets for the production.

hc3

Vince Spoelker, who would direct the TV version, attended rehearsals at Horse Cave Theatre and taped the play in order to start planning the camera shots for the studio taping. “In my process, what I need is a videotape of the performance; I need an idea of where the performers are moving,” he explains. “I take a home video camera and set it up in the back of the auditorium and tape the whole performance from start to stop. You get the entrances, the exits, where people are going to be standing, how they’re moving, where they sit down, where they stand up. I take it back to my office and sit with the script and start to figure out the shots. It’s like building a jigsaw puzzle: We move from here to here on shot 1, need to pick them up someplace else on another camera for shot 2, and so on.”

As soon as the new script was solid, Vince also began meeting with other key members of the KET production team: set designer Robert Pickering, costume designer Janet Whitaker, and lighting designer Don Dean. They each read the script, and at one meeting Liz read through the play for them. Team members shared ideas and pored over boxes of photographs, circus programs, letters from Wayne Franzen, and other materials Liz had saved from her circus days.

Bob

“With the set, we wanted to remain true to the story and to the actual events—to the circus as Liz experienced it,” Bob says. “I relied on the wonderful materials Liz had.” The sets for both the stage and television productions incorporated elements of the circus such as the ring curb—the painted ring in which performers work. “One thing we may have done differently from the original production was making the scenery a little more ambiguous, to convey the feeling of a dreamlike state or Liz’s imagination,” Bob recalls. “Basically we used circus elements—ropes, bleachers, animal stands—throughout the set. Those were adapted so that in another location, for example in Liz’s apartment, we didn’t try to actually re-create a realistic apartment setting, but used elements from the circus to suggest an interior.”

set1

Bob’s drawing of the set layout—the “ground plan”—helped Vince as he laid out camera shots. Lighting director Don Dean also used it to begin planning where lights would be placed. “In the studio, we have a very specific environment we work in: There are a specific number of circuits on a particular number of grids that give us spaces for lighting positions,” Don explains. “The set designer’s decisions about what pieces to use and where to place them give me an idea of how I want to position my lights. We have a technical drawing of the studio. Bob gave me dimensions of the set pieces, and I drew them out on this technical drawing. That gives me an idea of their relation to the lighting positions I have available.”

set3

The palette of colors Bob settled on for the set—variations of primary “circus colors”—helped Janet plan what Liz would wear. With 20 scenes, Liz would require a lot of costume changes, spanning 23 years. The popularity of “retro” fashions helped in finding things that looked like the 1970s and ’80s; more of a challenge was “finding clothes that looked good but also looked like clothes someone would wear if they were doing hard physical labor like Liz was doing,” Janet says. Most of the costumes would be purchased, but one outfit required special planning. Liz’s ringmistress coat would be tailor-made by an equestrian attire company. “The jacket was very important to the play,” Janet explains. “[But] the original outfit that Liz had worn in the circus wasn’t applicable, and the one that was used in the play didn’t fit quite the way Liz wanted it to. The new jacket looked good and made Liz feel good—and that’s important.”

Liz worked with ballet choreographers to help her get ready for the play’s closing dance. In early August 2003, the whole team was on hand for a walk-through in the KET studio. Final costume fittings were made. Finally, the big day arrived: August 11, the first day of shooting.

Sam Hunt’s Puppets

puppet1

Even though playwright Liz Bussey Fentress had actually performed a puppet show with the circus, she initially resisted making puppets part of Liz’s Circus Story, her play about her experiences. “I wanted the play to live on its language and didn’t want to bring in what might turn out to be a ‘gimmick,’” she explains. However, on the first day of rehearsal for the stage production at Horse Cave Theatre, the tiger puppet from her circus days seemed to roar to her from her basement. “I had tried not to impose any of my stuff on the show, but I decided to take the puppet to rehearsal. I showed it to director Robert Brock and told him the puppet had demanded to come. That turned on Robert’s imagination.”

Eventually three puppets—the tiger, an elephant, and a horse—became part of the show. The puppets used in the stage production were based on the sock puppets Liz had used in the circus. But for the television version of the play, Liz and KET director Vince Spoelker wanted more elaborate puppets. And for the tiger puppet, they wanted a more dangerous look.

They turned to Butler County High School visual arts and humanities teacher Sam Hunt. Since he had designed the set for the Horse Cave Theatre production, Hunt was familiar with the show. And when he and Liz had worked on a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he had created Styrofoam puppets of each character.

He based the Liz’s Circus Story puppets on that model. To create the tiger puppet, he glued 3-inch sheets of Styrofoam together to form a large block, then sculpted a tiger’s head using scissors. He added foam pieces as needed to finish out the expression; for example, he enlarged the tiger’s eyebrows to give a scowling effect. Finally, he sealed the glued foam with matte medium and painted it using an airbrush. The tiger’s mouth is hinged on a pencil. (Watch our puppet video clip to see the finished puppet and how it compares to the version Liz used on stage.)

Block1

To create an elephant’s trunk that would move, Sam covered a section of 6-inch-diameter aluminum dryer vent with foam. He put pieces of wicker down each side of the trunk so that Liz could bend the trunk by pulling a string under a wheel in the back of the head. “Before I added the foam, the trunk would curl all over the head and under, but adding foam stiffened it a bit,” he says.

Sam participated in the television production in another way as well. After rehearsing the new, shortened script, Liz gave a performance for Hunt’s students at Butler County High School—some of whom remembered seeing Franzen Bros. Circus when it toured Western Kentucky.

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Interview with Vince Spoelker on Directing

Vince1

What does a producer/director do?

Producer/director is one person doing two jobs. The producer job in some organizations means finding money. In this organization, your role as a producer is to manage the money. I come up with a budget, based on my experience in doing these kinds of things; outline how many days are needed to shoot and edit; determine other production needs; and negotiate with the artists—make sure all the business aspects are in line. As director, my role is more creative, more conceptual—working with the set designer, lighting designer, costume designer; coming up with the look and concept of where Liz is going to move, what kind of space she’ll be in, what she’ll look like and how she’ll dress. And then you have to figure out the camera angles and how she will be miked; how many cameras.

How did you prepare for the taping of Liz’s Circus Story?

First, Nancy [Carpenter, director of arts programming at KET] and I met and talked about the show and the fact that we really needed it to be edited down to an hour show. We had several meetings with Liz to talk about how this could be accomplished. Then we left her alone with Warren Hammack to craft the show. They worked on it about a year. When they had something new, she would mail us copies of the script. We would read it and offer feedback: “This works, that doesn’t…. This would be hard to shoot…. This would be hard to convey visually…. This isn’t really getting the idea across.” We worked with Liz a long time shaping it down to an hour. Losing 60 minutes off a piece is really hard work, and Liz had to lose a lot of stuff she really loved to make it work for television.

After she got it trimmed down, we had to figure out a way to get it re-staged: This play had never been performed. We worked with Robert Brock, director at Horse Cave Theatre, to re-stage it. I’m really not a theatrical director; my background is in television. So I felt like we needed Robert’s input in crafting the stage performance. I would go down to Horse Cave and sit through rehearsals and look at it. That took another couple of months.

Why did the program have to be 60 minutes long?

Several reasons. Two hours is a little long for television. It’s hard for people to focus on a show that long. And as a broadcast organization, it’s easier for us to find a place to put a show if it’s an hour. It’s easier for us to use as a broadcast product.

And when I read the play, what jumped out at me was the impact Wayne Franzen had on Liz. His drive, his passion to start this circus and to overcome amazing obstacles, really gave Liz the courage to pursue the dream she had to be an actor. To me that was the core of the story and the through-line.

What were you looking for when you watched the rehearsals at Horse Cave?

I was watching the movement and thinking about what kind of shots we would need. For example, I might note an important moment that would need a tight shot, or plan for a wider shot where there is a lot of moving around. I’d look for places where we would need to have Liz move more slowly so the camera could follow.

In my process, what I need is a videotape of the performance. To plan for taping a play or ballet or whatever, you need to know where and how the performers are moving. I took a home video camera and set it up in the back of the auditorium and taped the whole performance from start to stop. That way you get the entrances, the exits, where people are going to be standing, where they sit down, how they’re moving.

How did you use the videotape?

I took it back to my office and sat with the script and envisioned the shots, starting with scene 1, shot 1. It’s like building a jigsaw puzzle: You need to move from here to here on shot 1, you need to pick them up someplace else on another camera for shot 2, and so on. Then you come in the studio and find the stuff that doesn’t work and fix it. I guess in this show there are 300 to 400 shots. Probably 15 to 20 percent of the shots you envision working off a videotape won’t work for some reason. So you have to adapt your plans.

What are some of the reasons a planned shot might not work?

One thing about watching videotape shot from the back of the hall is that you can’t see expressions. When we get in the studio and I actually see the movement on camera, I might see that the information of the scene is being conveyed by the person being spoken to instead of the person speaking, and that’s where the camera needs to be. As a television director, you’re the eyes of the audience. You have to look at the performance and figure out what the audience needs to see to understand the performance, to carry the most emotional weight, because if you don’t see it and don’t show it to the audience, they’re not going to see it. It’s not like a stage performance where, as an audience member, your eyes are where you want them to be. As a television director, you have to take the audience there.

What instructions did you give to Bob Pickering, the set designer?

This was the first time I had the opportunity to work with Bob, although I had seen the work he had done for other productions and was impressed with it.

What I gave to him were a lot of photographs Liz had from her time in the circus. I tried to include Bob—and Janet [Whitaker, makeup and costumes] and Don [Dean, lighting designer]—in the meetings as soon as we had gotten the script solid, because the more that they knew about what we were doing and why, the better job they were going to be able to do.

In terms of creating the atmosphere we needed for this show, Bob came up with amazing stuff. Liz said it was a lot like being on the circus grounds, seeing his set.

This is new for me—the idea of leaving people alone and letting them do their job. When I first started as a director, I thought I needed to have control over every single thing. Now I realize I need to be part of all of it but that I also need to let people have the creative space and freedom to do their jobs. Bob came up with stuff that in my wildest dreams I could not have come up with. Letting him have that space added so much to the show. His ideas gave me ideas, gave Liz ideas, gave Janet ideas, gave Don ideas. It’s that kind of creative interchange that really is the fun part of this job.

Was there any rehearsal in the TV studio?

The rehearsal process really happened outside the studio, at Horse Cave [Theatre], but the space there was probably a third the size of the KET studio. So what happens is you create the essence of the performance down there and you bring it in here and all of a sudden it expands: There’s so much more space to work with, different props. I brought Liz and Robert Brock and Bob Pickering and Don Dean in one Sunday before we started shooting. The set was in place, but lighting hadn’t been done. We walked through the play scene by scene and took what we had done in the smaller space and put it in a larger space. That gave Liz a week to get used to the idea that she had this much more space and different props. It gave Don an outline of where in the studio we were going to be working, so he could work on the lights. And it gave Bob an idea of props changes that would be needed.

Then you bring the camera operators in and you go through the show, block the shots scene by scene, number each of the shots. For example, in the first scene there might be 25 shots, and each camera has so many of those. It takes a little bit of time for them to get familiar with the production, to get the angles right.

And once we get in the studio with everybody in here, we need to walk through the scene once or twice—making sure the actress doesn’t give the performance. All she’s doing is saying the lines and marking where she’s going. This can be a difficult concept for stage actors to understand—that they have to marshal their energy. In TV and film, it takes time for everything to fall into place. And if you give your performance while the cameramen are marking shots, while the audio people are adjusting the microphones, while the lighting guy is doing last-minute fixes, then it’s not going to be there when the camera is rolling. As director, you have to watch your actors and make sure they don’t give their performance until it’s time.

This is difficult for stage actors, especially, because the stage is very ephemeral. A performance happens once and is gone. With TV or film, it’s going to be a long day. You’re not going to do the whole show—sometimes not even the whole scene—but your energy needs to be consistent throughout the takes.

How long did it take to shoot Liz’s Circus Story? Did you shoot the scenes in sequential order?

It took a little over a week, five working days, and we did shoot it in order. We didn’t have to, but decided to do it that way for Liz’s comfort. The day lasted from about 8:30 to 6:00. The last one was 8:30 to 11:00 pm, and Liz was pretty tired at the end.

How many “takes” were taped of each scene?

It varied. As a director, you have an idea in your mind of how a scene ought to be played. You don’t want to go out and read it for the actor; you want the actor to find it. It becomes a game, almost, of trying to get them to see the things you see in the scene and to be able to give that reading. They read it; you tell them, “Be a little less this or a little more that” or “Let’s try it this way.” Obviously if they flub a line or a prop drops, you do it over. I think the most takes we ever did of a scene was eight or nine. I’ve worked on shows where people have done 26 takes to get a scene.

What happens in the editing phase?

In editing, you take those parts of a performance that are best and create a whole performance out of that. You take those seven or eight takes and decide that this line is best in that take, that line best in another take. That’s what editing is: making decisions about what you like. That’s where a director can really affect a performance and the show.

How long did it take to edit Liz’s Circus Story?

It took about five weeks to do a rough cut. That’s where I sit in a room by myself with the tapes and make those kinds of decisions: which take I like, which line I like. I do that myself in a little room with equipment that is fairly inexpensive. Then we go into an online suite where we have an editor, much more sophisticated equipment, and an audio person, and we make the show. The reason you do that is so you don’t have people standing around waiting while you make decisions about where the cut should be. I can make those decisions without tying up other people’s time.

What can television give an audience that a stage performance can’t?

In general, in a television performance, you can get in somebody’s face. That’s the thing—you can be close to the performer. You can’t see those kinds of things on the stage because you’re sitting back away from the actors. It’s a different kind of acting because of that. On stage, actions have to be much broader; you have to carry the emotion to the back of the theater. On TV and film, acting is much more subtle; you can do a lot with just the face. And you have to be thinking about what you’re doing because the camera will show that.

Many of the performances you have taped for television were taped in the performance hall. What’s the difference between doing that and taping in the studio?

As a director, you have a lot more control in the studio. You can start and stop, do seven or eight takes. You can move the cameras around. For example, in this play we used hand-held cameras with the animals’ points of view, so the audience was looking at Liz through the eyes of the elephant or the tiger. In a theater you can’t do that. You’re, in that setting, pretty much just documenting the performance onstage, not helping to create it.

Why were graphics and sound effects added to Liz’s Circus Story?

As I was editing, I realized that we could really flesh out the world of Liz’s Circus Story by creating a rich audio bed. So I cut all of the dialogue on a submaster tape and gave that to Audio so they could start looking for sound effects and music and places to put music. What we didn’t have in our sound effects library, they had to go out and find. For example, a small circus came through town, and Charlie [Bissell, audio engineer] spent a day with them, recording the sounds as they put up the big top. In the meantime, Bob and our graphics people were working on what’s called interstitials—graphics between scenes to help tie the scenes together.

What do you hope viewers take away from the show?

I hope that people take away the idea that you can achieve your dreams. Wayne did. Liz did. If you believe in something and really have a passion for it, that’s the way your life needs to be directed. You don’t do things in your life for the money you can make; you do what you love. That’s the way Wayne and Liz lived their lives, and it gave them a great deal of joy.

What is your background?

I’ve been at KET 30 years. I went to the University of Kentucky and studied telecommunications. I started at KET in 1973 as a camera operator and worked my way up. I didn’t know much, but I had the opportunity to work on different shows and learn. As a director, I started out doing talk shows, and then I did some instructional shows. Then I had the opportunity to do performance stuff, which is what I really wanted to do. For the past 15 years I have been doing musicals, plays, and other live performances, and I love it.

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Interview with Robert Pickering, Set Designer

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What was the look you were going for with the set for Liz’s Circus Story?

Basically, we used circus elements throughout the set. Those were adapted so that they could be used to create another location—for example, her apartment. We didn’t try to actually re-create a realistic apartment setting but used elements from the circus that would be suggestive of an interior. Basically there were three scenic elements: a trailer like what circus workers would live and travel in, a center billboard area that would be an advertisement, and a truck that would haul equipment and animals. These are the three basic backgrounds we used, with other elements in front of them.

What kind of research did you do before designing the set?

There’s always research involved in set design. You read the script and get an idea of where the story takes place, the time periods, what the actors need, and whatever special ideas the director may have. That focuses your research. In this case, we did have the precedent of the live performance. Very helpful to me were the tons and tons of personal memorabilia Liz had kept through the years. It was wonderful.

What impact did Liz’s circus memorabilia have on the set?

We thought there was really a need to remain true to the story and to the actual events, to the circus as Liz experienced it. We remained pretty true to things as they occurred and really tried to follow that in terms of construction and design.

What about the set used for the Horse Cave Theatre production?

The set I did for television really borrowed a lot from the stage set, because that set worked. There was one particular element of that set—a very striking billboard of a circus poster that featured a tiger. We actually borrowed that piece from the original production and used it in one of the scenes.

Both productions used circus motifs such as ropes, animal stands, and bleachers, but in slightly different ways. We had to make a few adaptations for the television studio. One thing we did differently from the stage production was we made the scenery a little more ambiguous, conveying the feeling that we were in a dreamlike state or Liz’s imagination.

You’ve designed sets both for live theater and TV. What are some general differences?

In the theater, you’re dealing with live audiences looking at the set as a whole within one big, large frame. In television, the frame is determined by your camera and camera angles. You need to think in terms of what the camera is going to see, and that can vary quite a bit. You have to think about camera placement—what kinds of specific shots the director is going to use—and adapt to that. Also, in television, the set needs to be a little more detailed. You may have a wide shot 20 feet across, and you may have a tight shot showing one square foot.

How is the set planned?

You start with a ground plan: a floor plan of a top view of the set so you can show placement of pieces and get ideas of distances and camera placement. Then you start to narrow down and focus on what the camera is going to see. Some directors are very specific; others are a little looser and wait until the last minute. Some never make their decisions. Vince [Spoelker] is very organized and does a lot of planning but also left some flexibility to let the show evolve and develop in the planning stages.

Prior to the ground plan, there were a lot of meetings and discussions. Liz did a reading for us; it was overwhelming. I felt like we didn’t even need scenery because she expressed things so well. We had to think about what we could do to enhance the performance and what we could afford in terms of TV tricks, scenery, special effects graphics, and sound effects that you wouldn’t have in a live production. That was process before the ground plan, to get an overall feel for the show. Then it helps to lay out where things will be placed and build up from there.

What happened after you had decided the basic features?

It’s kind of an ongoing process. There’s a lot of sketching done before the actual ground plan is laid out in terms of size and scale of elements. You have to decide how detailed things will be. Will there be flats or dimensional pieces, how much will the actress move around, and what other pieces will be in front of the background? There are certain things required in the script. For example, she rolls the animal stand to the center of the ring. So we know we’ll need an animal stand. What kind of stand will it be, and what will it look like? Planning involves lots of lists and sketches. I get a loose mental picture of what I want, and it comes together with research. I’ll see photographs or things from my own experiences—or in this case, something from Liz’s memorabilia—and draw from all elements to create something unique.

Was anything with this production more of a challenge than you anticipated?

A key element was the center section of the stage. Three images stuck in my mind for the background of the set: trailer, truck, and billboard advertising the circus. I was really drawn to photographs of those actual pieces, but the center piece gave me some problems because it had to change. It couldn’t be the actual size of a billboard, but needed to be suggestive of that. At one point it was a billboard; later on, a circus banner. The final scene takes place in Liz’s head, so all those elements are removed and there’s only an abstract frame, which had to be present throughout the production.

Are there special limitations or requirements regarding the use of color for television?

Color is very important in television because the camera reads colors in a certain way. It’s sensitive to certain colors; it enhances blues, for example. Blue shades tend to look very good on tape. Reds are very intense, and you need to be careful with your use of red—a lot of times it can be overpowering or more prominent than you intend. With Liz’s Circus Story, we had a certain palette we wanted to work with: circus-style colors of red, blue, yellow, and green. We used those as splashes or hints of color. The overall set was painted rather loosely and ambiguously in a gray, shades of gray, textures of gray. That kind of indicated an amorphous, ethereal, non-specific location. Color was used to ground things and make it more specific. And of course you need to work very closely with your lighting and costume designer in terms of colors.

How were the props gathered for Liz’s Circus Story?

Props are usually a combination of using what we have in stock—we do keep things from different productions, although we are limited in our storage space—and renting, borrowing, or even building things that we specifically need. In Liz’s Circus Story, for example, the trunk was a key element in the show. I went out and looked for trunks, but didn’t find anything that was specifically what we wanted. So I built a trunk.

By the way, it should be noted that while props and set pieces are related, and often called the same thing, a prop is something an actor will handle, while set pieces are items that are on the set to fill it out.

What can students interested in set design look for as they watch Liz’s Circus Story?

For this and any production, I think it’s very important for anybody who watches motion pictures or television or videos to be aware of the medium itself and how it can influence you and how it determines what you see or how something is portrayed.—if there’s a chance, for the students to see the set in the studio as it’s lined up and then think about how the camera zeroes in on a certain part of the set to relay a certain image. It’s important to develop a visual acuity to understand how the medium shapes your thinking, because it’s very powerful. It’s easy to take what you see as being the truth, and that’s a wonderful thing about television. But you should also be aware of what’s behind the scenes—some of the tricks.

Are there examples of “tricks” in Liz’s Circus Story?

The presentation of this show was pretty theatrical in the sense that we didn’t try to be very specific or create a realistic world. We had a lot of suggestions of things to indicate we were at a certain place. For example, in the scene where Liz is in the audience in the circus, she is, of course, the only audience person there. When we first started shooting that scene, she was sitting on empty bleachers. It seemed to be missing something. We took a little time and added some popcorn boxes, cups, programs—and it’s incredible what it added to the feel of that scene. It created the suggestion of where we were without creating a realistic environment.

What is your background?

I graduated from California State University at Chico in 1985. My degree was in theater arts, with an emphasis on technical theater. I have a graduate degree in cinema and photography from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. I also studied at FAMU, Prague Film and Television Academy. I have worked as a props artisan for the Santa Fe Opera and as a scenic artist for the Utah Shakespeare Festival and have been a freelance scenic and lighting designer for about 15 years. I came to Kentucky in 1998 after finishing grad school and started at KET in 1999.

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Interview with Janet Whitaker, Costume Designer and Makeup Artist

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How did you prepare for Liz’s Circus Story?

First of all, I had to get the feel of the circus. For all of us, I think it was not something we had experienced every day. Fortunately, Liz had a vast amount of old photographs and videotapes, so we were able to see what it was like. Understanding the script and the overall idea of the play was also important. That it takes place over more than 20 years was a little bit of a challenge in terms of costumes.

What were the costume challenges?

The hardest thing about costumes for this production was trying to dress an actress who was supposed to be working literally for a circus, which meant really getting dirty and setting up tents and doing really hard manual labor. Also, it took place in the 1970s and ’80s. The Salvation Army used to be a great resource, but there are not a lot of vintage clothes out there anymore because they have become really trendy.

Fortunately, current trends are sort of retro, so I was able to find some things that looked like the ’70s but were current. That was kind of fun, and doing research on clothes of those eras was fun—but mostly it came from memory!

Another challenge was Liz’s ringmaster jacket. That was a very significant part of the play. The original one she had worn was not applicable to our production, and the one that had been designed for the stage version didn’t fit quite the way she liked. It didn’t quite have the spark she would like it to have. I was reluctant to take that on myself because I was still shopping and trying to find things for the rest of the play. But I was able to locate a place in Lexington that makes specialty apparel for horse show competitors. They make the outfit the guy who blows the bugle announcing races at Keeneland [Racecourse] wears. The ringmaster coat looked very much like a dressage jacket. I called them, and they said they make ringmaster jackets all the time. They were able to have their tailor do fittings for Liz and came up with an exquisite jacket that everyone was happy with. [To see the final result, see our video clip of Liz and the jacket.]

How far in advance did you start working on costumes for the production, and how did you work with other members of the production team?

About a couple of months before the taping, I really started focusing on it. We had some meetings, very helpful brainstorming sessions involving the director, set designer, lighting designer, and Liz. Liz read through the entire script and we got a sense of her pacing, her overall personality—that helped me tremendously. We started sharing ideas. It wasn’t too far after that that Bob [Pickering], the set designer, came up with the palette of colors for the set. Once he did that, it really helped me. [See the video clip of the color palette.] I had looked around a little to see what was out there and met with Liz to get sizes and ideas about what she was comfortable in; but until you know the colors that you’re going to be dealing with, you can’t really start buying. It took me at least a couple of months of shopping, shopping, shopping—and not necessarily buying so much as looking everywhere. Generally what I’ll do for any shoot is overbuy. Sometimes you see things on the rack and think, “This will be perfect,” then the actor puts it on and it doesn’t work at all. Or you’ll get things kind of as an afterthought and those often turn out to be the gems. The main thing is to keep track of everything and keep the tags on so you can return what you don’t use.

What was your role during the taping?

Liz came in two to three weeks before we started shooting for fittings, and we found that some costumes were working and some were not. I was continuing to look for things as the taping was going on. We were able to finalize the costumes for the first two or three days’ scenes in advance, but I was going out in the evenings during taping to find some final things for later scenes. For example, I needed to find boots that didn’t squeak on the studio floor.

What makes a costume “work” for television?

If the actor or actress is comfortable in it, it makes all the difference in the world. If they’re having to “make do” with something, it really affects their performance. I don’t want to add any stresses or difficulty to what they’re doing. Also, how it looks is important. You have to have the palette of the set and know the colors that will be behind the actor and the colors of lights on the cyc [cyclorama] behind the set.

How did the fact that Liz was playing both male and female characters affect the costumes?

It was tough when Liz was playing herself and Wayne Franzen. The director, Liz, and I had decided that we were not going to really take her out of her character to do that. I didn’t change her makeup or her hair; what we ended up doing was use a different shirt. Wayne apparently wore denim shirts; they were kind of his uniform. For when Liz was playing Wayne, I used denim work shirts that were more masculine than anything I used for Liz’s character. And I used a symbolic color—red—to represent Wayne and his presence. We tried to do it subtly. Even when Liz was Liz and would switch over to Wayne, we would try to have some red in the shirt so that he was sort of present even when she was playing herself.

Are there certain colors or patterns that are difficult to use on television?

The patterns and colors are what make shopping really hard. For example, some plaids can work on television, but small plaids will basically “move”—as the person moves, the fabric seems to move, too. On camera, black and white generally are not flattering. There are colors that are not flattering to each actor’s skin tone. And then there are the set colors that will only look good with certain other colors. So sometimes it’s a real dance to find things that will look good.

What looked good on Liz?

Liz has chosen to let her hair go gray, and she has relatively light skin tones, so she appears rather light. Certain colors would be a real contrast. I wanted to keep the costumes kind of muted. The warmer colors didn’t work as well on her as cooler tones, but there were a lot of warm tones on the set. The set palette used versions of circus colors—primaries—so I looked for versions of those. One color that didn’t work very well was yellow. Soft yellow looks good on a lot of people, but we tried some things, and I didn’t think it was working. Liz is so sweet … At the initial fitting, she didn’t say anything; but after I said the yellow wasn’t working, she told me she was thrilled because she hates yellow. So I was glad I didn’t make her wear it.

What kind of makeup was used?

We use makeup designed specifically for film and television. It’s not as heavy on the face as theatrical makeup. A lot of people think of theatrical makeup when they think of television. There was a time when the cameras required so much light in order to create a picture that a lot of makeup had to be used because the heavy lights washed all the color out of people’s faces. Now we’re so much more technologically sophisticated that we can create a picture with little light, so makeup can be much more subtle. That’s really advantageous to people looking like themselves, which is what Liz was looking for. Liz doesn’t wear a lot of makeup; in fact, she was a little reluctant to have makeup, because she wanted to look like herself. She saw a rehearsal video done without makeup and said, “I don’t look like myself at all.” That’s the perfect testimonial, because what makeup is supposed to do is make you look natural. You get in front of the lights and they wash you out and you don’t look like yourself anymore. The makeup is there to bring some of the color back to your face and to accentuate features.

How did you learn to do costumes and makeup?

I learned on the job. When I first started, I trained with the KET makeup artist at the time. I had been interested in makeup and clothes all my life. I also found that this is a really fun, creative outlet as far as working in television. As I’ve tried other areas of the business, I’ve come to realize that my favorite part is working directly with people. Doing makeup and costumes is the perfect way to do that; you’re working very closely with the actors. I like helping people feel comfortable and helping them do their best work.

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Interview with Don Dean, Lighting Director

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How did you plan the lighting for the KET production of Liz’s Circus Story?

For Liz’s Circus Story, as in any major studio or theatrical production, you have to learn the content, familiarize yourself with what the storyline is and the characters. That generally involves reading the script. It involves working with the director and the talent, watching rehearsals, working with the set designer, so I know how to organize myself and the resources I have available to work with. As far as the studio is concerned, we have a very specific environment we work in in terms of dimension—a specific number of circuits on a particular number of grids that give us access to lighting positions.

What is your role once taping starts?

Once we start production, what I’m looking for are things I didn’t anticipate—and you can’t anticipate everything. I’m looking for little surprises that might deviate from the effect or look that we hope for. I’m constantly making intensity adjustments between the backlights, the keys, the fill lights, which all affect the general look.

What is the “look” for Liz’s Circus Story?

Primarily there are outside and inside looks. Very simplistically, if you’re working in a studio, an outside look will be brighter, primarily front light. An inside look will be lower-key. Generally, the way to make something appear to be darker is to have a little bit more backlight than front light, so that you still get enough light around the talent and the set, but instead of lighting flat from the front, you’ll have more edges.

For Liz’s Circus Story, what types of lighting adjustments were made once taping began?

Most of them were pretty typical. KET has a very good production unit. The directors do a good job. Bob Pickering is an excellent set designer. We hope we do a fairly good job anticipating what we need with lighting. The shooters work with directors very well and anticipate their shots. Nevertheless, no matter how much you prepare, there are going to be things that weren’t anticipated. In my case, that most often will be angles. Once the set is physically in place and we see how the talent is working with various juxtapositions of the set pieces, the director may decide on a new angle or move the talent. Since I didn’t light for that angle, I’ll need to adjust; sometimes we’ll have to hang lights in positions we didn’t anticipate. That’s probably the most time-consuming thing we can do, because by the time the set is in place, access to lighting positions is very limited and very difficult. We have to get 20 feet in the air somehow, using a lift or a ladder, when the studio floor or stage is full of set pieces. That’s basically the kind of adjustments we made.

When viewers watch Liz’s Circus Story, what should they look for in terms of lighting?

Hopefully, someone who is watching Liz’s Circus Story, or any production, shouldn’t be distracted by the lighting. Good lighting should be seamless. It should support the set, support the talent. It should make the talent look good—or appropriate; there may be a dramatic reason you don’t want the talent to look attractive—make the set look good, and give the ambience of what the director is trying to project to the audience. The audience shouldn’t be drawn from the story to a production aspect.

If you are watching specifically for lighting techniques, I think the most important thing is to ask, “Does the talent look good, and does the lighting support the set and offer the mood the director was looking for?”

How did you learn to do lighting?

I learned to do lights from shooting [running camera]. There are people who get into lighting from a technical, engineering aspect. They’ll know about the electricity, the intensity, the foot candles, and so on. There are people who get into lighting in the theater and know how to light a set to be seen by a live audience. I think for television, you find that the people who light the best started out as shooters, because film and TV are primarily portrait work, going from wide shots to tight shots. You’re always working with the face of the talent, and the better you can light the face, the more control you have over lighting the face, the better you are going to deliver what the production requires. People who start out looking though the camera lens, through the viewfinder, are sensitive to that.

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Tools and Inspirations

For both the stage and television versions of Liz’s Circus Story, designers took their inspiration from playwright Liz Fentress’ real-life experiences with the Franzen Bros. Circus. KET’s designers also adapted ideas from the Horse Cave Theatre production, using some set pieces created for the stage, adapting others, and building some from scratch. This page lists some of the tools used to “reconfigure” the play for production in a TV studio, plan the shoot, and maintain continuity during production. Click on the titles for photos and explanations.

Finishing the Show

On September 25, 2003, four weeks after the last day of shooting, director Vince Spoelker showed Liz Bussey Fentress the first three minutes of the television version of Liz’s Circus Story. “I guess it shouldn’t be such big news to me, but the person on the videotape looks like me, sounds like me, and she is saying the words I wrote,” she remembers thinking. “Can’t ask for more than that.”

Liz liked the way Vince had shot the “dialogue” scenes from more than one angle. “In the theater, in the second scene, which takes place in Wayne’s dairy barn, the audience sees the actor changing from the role of Liz to the role of Wayne. On television, Vince shot the scene isolating the characters of Liz and Wayne. He cut it so that first we see Wayne speaking, and then there is a cut and we see Liz speaking. Then he cuts back to Wayne speaking, etc. We never see the actor making the transition from character to character. It’s great.”

For Vince and the KET team, months of work still remained; they would be putting finishing touches on the program until the week before its initial airing in early January 2004.

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First, Vince edited a “rough cut” of the program. “Editing is where, as a director, you can have a little control,” he explains. “You can take those parts of a performance that are best and create a whole performance out of that. You take those seven or eight ‘takes’ that were shot, decide, ‘This line is best in that take; that line best in another take.’ That’s what editing is: making decisions about what you like. That’s where a director can really affect a performance and the show.”

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Because it was a one-person show, Liz’s Circus Story presented special editing challenges. “In a one-person show, there are not a lot of ways to manipulate the scenes, because you can’t cut away from the actor,” Vince says. “When you combine parts of two takes, the actions have to match. Stage actors are used to moving the way it hits them at the moment, which is fine onstage. But what happens when, say, an actor picks up a glass of water in one take and their hand is not near the glass in the next take? The first part of the scene might be better in the first take and the second part better in the second take, but there’s no way to marry those movements smoothly.”

As the editing process progressed, Vince decided that graphics and sound effects would enrich the program. Set designer Robert Pickering and KET graphic artist Mary Ann Carpenter created a graphics template in which real photos from Liz’s circus experiences would be used as interstitials to introduce scenes and help give the audience a sense of time and place.

The stage version of Liz’s Circus Story had used some sound effects. For the television version, Vince imagined a rich audio bed. Working from a submaster tape of the performance, the audio engineers who had worked in the studio, Charlie Bissell and Brent Abshear, began poring over KET’s sound effects library. They quickly realized that Liz’s Circus Story would require some distinctive sounds that would need to be created.

“A small circus was performing in the area, so I took a DAT [digital audio tape recorder] out and recorded some sounds of the tent being raised,” Charlie says. “I left a note on a Volkswagen bus I saw in a parking lot for the owner to call me to try to get the sound of the engine.” And he pushed various carts around the halls of KET, recording the squeaking sound of the wheels to re-create the sound of the circus tent being rolled up. “And, of course, our library didn’t have the sound of an elephant purring,” he laughs. “For that one, I’m combining two sounds.” (Our sound effects page has some audio samples of what Charlie and Brent created, plus video clips demonstrating the difference sound effects can make.)

As the air date approached, all the elements—the edited performance, graphic interstitials, audio bed, program opening, and closing credits—were combined.

In the meantime, the playwright had already begun another rewrite. “I’ve decided to do one more version of Liz’s Circus Story,” Liz explains. “I want to do an 80-minute version for the theater that can be published, so the play can go on living in the theater.”

Wherever audiences watch Liz’s Circus Story, its author and star hopes they take away from it what Wayne Franzen gave her. “The message of the play is, ‘Believe in yourself,’” she says. “What is it you want to do? Do whatever it takes to achieve it, overcome all the obstacles, and get as much out of your life as you can. Have faith in life’s possibilities.”

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Sound Effects

Audio: Some Samples

Following are some of the special sound effects used by KET’s audio engineers for Liz’s Circus Story.

Adult Elephant

Baby Elephant

Barn

Crowded Tent

Crowded Tent 2

Driving the Tent Stakes

Elephant Purring

Galloping Pony

Horse

Rain

Setting Up with Okha

Small-Town Street

Small-Town Street 2

Spooling the Tent Cables

Teardown

The Tent Blows Down

Tiger

Volkswagen and Wind

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Ideas and Activities

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DISCUSSION/WRITING: Liz Fentress rewrote her script numerous times, including a special rewrite for the 60-minute television program. Ask students to discuss the comment from her mentor, Warren Hammack of Horse Cave Theatre, that “Plays are not written; they are rewritten.” To expand, have students write a dramatic scene based on a personal experience or personal narrative.

DISCUSSION/GROUP ACTIVITY: The From Stage to Screen section of this web site deals with the differences between the stage version and the television version of Liz’s Circus Story. Have students discuss these differences, then, singly or in groups, choose another play script and suggest adaptations that would be needed to create a television production.

DISCUSSION: Liz Fentress plays all the roles in Liz’s Circus Story. After viewing the program, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this approach. What challenges does it create for the actor? For the audience? How are the different characters portrayed? How would the play be different if an individual actor played each role?

DISCUSSION/RESEARCH/WRITING: Liz’s Circus Story tells a real story: Liz’s reflections on her circus experiences and the impact Wayne Franzen had on her commitment to follow her own dream of a career in the theater. It is an excellent production for discussing the differences between plot and theme. How is each conveyed in the story? The play also contains a great deal of symbolism. Discuss what the wind blowing through the circus grounds symbolizes to Liz. What do “dancing with the horses” and her dance at the end of the play symbolize? As a related activity, have students interview a parent or older acquaintance about their dreams when they were younger. Have they fulfilled them? Or ask students to imagine how they will feel as middle-aged adults looking back on their lives. What do they hope to have achieved, and what are they willing to sacrifice in order to achieve their dreams?

DISCUSSION/PERFORMANCE ACTIVITY: The puppets play an important role in this play. How effective are the puppets in conveying the characters of the animals? As a related activity, have students create puppets, using foam or other materials.

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RESEARCH/DISCUSSION: Liz’s Circus Story spans 23 years, from the 1970s to the late 1990s. For costume designer Janet Whitaker, finding contemporary clothes that looked appropriate to the setting and to the 1970s and ’80s was a challenge. Have students research the 1970s, the era in which Liz Bussey graduated from college and joined the circus. What were the trends and fashions? What were important world and U.S. events of this era? In the first scene of the play, Liz tells her mother, “Mom, I’m 21! And the economy is terrible—everyone I know is cleaning houses. And Nixon’s in way too much trouble to do anything about it. I might as well work for a circus!” To what is she referring? Have students compare this scenario to the environment today’s college graduates face.

DISCUSSION/RESEARCH: Wayne Franzen’s lifelong dream was to own a circus, but he started his circus at a time when attendance for this type of entertainment was dwindling. Discuss the circus as popular entertainment. Have students in your class seen a circus? How does it compare to other types of entertainment available today? Have students research the history of the circus and its current status.

RESEARCH/WRITING: Wayne Franzen’s death made national news. In 2003, Las Vegas entertainer Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy was mauled by a tiger. The use of animals like tigers in circuses and other performances has become a controversial issue. Have students research this issue, then formulate and defend an opinion.

PERFORMANCE ACTIVITY: Use the program and the From Stage to Screen information on this web site as a model for creating a video production as a class.

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Production Advice

Planning a class or school play—or wanting to videotape a student production? Here are some tips from the KET Liz’s Circus Story team.

On videotaping a performance:

“The most important thing is to know the play; know what’s coming. Go to rehearsals. Be part of the theatrical process as early as you can be a part of it. That way, if you’re limited to one camera position, you can at least know what’s coming, so you can zoom in on people at important moments; you can follow people instead of just having one wide shot.”
—Vince Spoelker, KET director

Advice for students interested in being directors:

“Learn as much as you can about all the different aspects of television production. Learn about lighting—learn about what lighting is good, bad, and why it’s that way. Learn about audio. Learn about shot selection. Learn about video cameras—what they can do and what they can’t do. One of the ways to do that is to watch TV—watch with the sound off. Go to movies and take yourself out of the story; sit and watch what they’re doing. Go to art galleries and sit and look at how some of the most incredible visually creative people lit stuff. Ask yourself: Where is the light in the painting coming from? How did they light that? How could I create that on a video? And then, if you’re interested in working on theatrical stuff, get some sort of background in theater. Take some theater courses to give you basics, the language. I’ve picked that up by talking to actors, watching programs about making movies. Anytime something like that comes on, I watch it. You learn about actors, what they think about directors, and about good direction. And remember, directing is about being aware—being aware of the material you’re shooting, the people you’re working with, and how it all goes together.”
—Vince Spoelker, KET director

Creating low-budget sets:

“There’s an old adage that two planks and a passion are all you need to present a theatrical piece. You don’t have to create a whole environment. Think about downplaying how much set you need, and use a few things to offer a suggestion of place and location. For example, signs are wonderful. You can have a brick wall and put up a sign that says ‘New York apartment’ or ‘Apartment 4’ on one side, and on the back the sign can say ‘Mercy Hospital.’ Signs help create a low-budget setting and can be very creative.”
—Robert Pickering, KET set designer

Tips on costumes:

“I think costumes should be a subtle insinuation of what the person is or is trying to be. A lot of times they are too much or too little. Think of costumes as being about good colors, fitting the character—and being a good fit for the actor. If the actor or actress is comfortable in the costume, it makes all the difference in the world. I have great luck at discount stores like Marshall’s, T.J. Maxx, and Fashion Shop. I do consignment store shopping. They don’t have a breadth of items, but you might find that one single little treasure that works really well.”
—Janet Whitaker, KET costume/makeup designer

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