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There’s plenty of action offstage too, at Bucks County Playhouse

by Joan Hellyer

Dozens of creative artists have joined together on stage and behind the scenes to bring “Dial M For Murder” to life at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope.

Set in New York, the “timeless masterpiece of nail-biting suspense” by Frederick Knott inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film about a husband who plots to kill his wife.

It was originally performed at the Bucks County Playhouse 65 years ago, during the venue’s 15th anniversary, said Producing-Director Alexander Fraser, during the cast and crew’s meet-and-greet in May.

The production is making a return run through mid-June as part of the playhouse’s 80th anniversary, he said.

Work on the estimated two-hour and 20-minute “Dial M” production began about a year ago, he said. 

Many of those involved, including Fraser and Technical Director Tom Watson have made their homes in Bucks County after working on Broadway and in other major entertainment markets.

Others, like Tony Award-nominated set designer Anna Louizos make Bucks County their temporary home while working to stage a live production in the historic playhouse situated off South Main Street along the Delaware River.

Anna, a New York resident, makes sure she works at the Bucks County Playhouse while juggling other assignments around the world.

She designed the “Dial M” set at the same time as she has been working on sets for other shows, including an upcoming production of “West Side Story” in Japan.  

Anna didn’t waste any time getting settled into the working area beneath the rotating stage at the playhouse after the May meet-and-greet. Needing some “artwork” to hang on the stage walls, she grabbed a brush and started painting a mid-20th century type landscape on a medium-sized canvas to match the era when the play takes place.

“I get to go back to my roots of helping to build scenery,” she said. “I love to build sets and get my hands dirty.”

Working in the non-union community theater is much different than in the mostly-union Broadway productions in New York, where she gives direction and others “get their hands dirty.”

There is a lot of attention to detail that goes into the set design to make sure everything looks “lived in” while keeping in budget. “It takes more time than people think,” Anna said.

She always jumps at the chance to bring a production to life at the Bucks County Playhouse.

“I love the town,” she said. “I love the people. I just love being here. It is a beautiful place and I feel like I am in college again.”

Tom Watson shares a similar affection for being able to have so many different responsibilities in a production while working at the playhouse. Professionally trained in California, Watson and his young family moved to Bucks County four years ago.

Since then, he spends much of his working days beneath the playhouse stage creating, designing and coordinating the technical aspects of each show.

“It takes a lot of preparing,” he said, and a lot of deadlines to keep. “We prioritize based on what takes more time,” Tom said.

The production members try to renovate existing set pieces as much as possible by repainting or modifying them to help bring upcoming shows to life.

For instance, pieces of the “Dial M” set had previously lives in past productions of “I Hate Hamlet” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” he said.

Tom is involved in much of the work, including building some set pieces to go along with the bigger ones constructed by a company in South Carolina, painting scenery, constructing sculptures and rigging everything overhead on the set to make sure it is secure.

“I’m like a crane worker,” Tom says.  

A theatrical production is an enormous undertaking, he said.

“(It) is so much more than the actors,” Tom said. “Theater is a collaborative art form. We all have definite skill sets. No one does it by themselves.”

He suggests people look at the credits of live productions to understand how many people are needed to life.

About 60 people are working on the “Dial M” production at the Bucks County Playhouse, Alexander Fraser said.

Musicals at the playhouse typically involve 90-100 people. On Broadway there are usually about 10 times more people involved in a production than at the community playhouse, he said.

Each department, including scenery, lighting and wardrobe, “is a piece of art.” Directors use the many diverse talents to create his or her vision for the production.

“Everything is by careful design,” said Alexander, a 2011 Tony Award winner for the Broadway production of “The Normal Heart.”

Other performances scheduled at the playhouse this year include “Mamma Mia!”  “Always…Patsy Cline” and “Once.” 

Tom started working extensively on the “Mamma Mia!” sets in May after the curtain lifted on “Dial M For Murder.” 

Once the first production ends in mid-June it will take crews about three days to break down the “Dial M” sets and put the “Mamma Mia!” sets into place, he said.

“I am glad I got this job,” Tom said. “I do all sorts of different things. No project is the same. I am very happy doing it.”

Visit bcptheater.org for more information about “Dial M For Murder” and other upcoming performances this year at the Bucks County Playhouse.

PHOTO CAPTION: Technical Director Tom Watson backstage at the Playhouse