Tracing the process of King’s first musical, Once Upon A Mattress, from start to finish
Last fall, students took to the stage to perform the first-ever musical in the history of King’s Academy. Of all co-curriculars offered on campus, the musical was unique in its enormous scope and remarkable length. For three months, the cast and crew toiled continuously in preparation for three performances in early December. In one way or another, the musical involved every faculty member from the Department of Fine and Performing Arts, as well as various staff members including carpenters, tailors and electricians. It required the methodical mass acquisition of resources for costumes, set design and audiovisual equipment. It needed five different fall co-curriculars to provide the musical numbers, character costumes, robust stage set and technical equipment necessary for performances. And most impressively, the musical drew on the diverse talents and continuous persistence of 58 King’s students.
Last fall’s production was Once Upon a Mattress, a comedic adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale The Princess and the Pea. Director Alison Trattner relocated the musical, originally set in 15th-century Europe, to the medieval Middle East, as she explained in her director’s note: “We begin in a castle, which we have imagined as Ajloun Castle, in an era between the Mamluks and Ottomans in a region of the Levant.” The actors’ costumes represent a combination of medieval European and Arab cultures, and all actors were asked to research the historical contexts of both the medieval Levantine and European settings to gain insight into their characters and the time period.
Although Trattner directed the musical, students from all four grades were collectively responsible for the successful execution of the show. “They have been stalwart,” said Trattner of the students. “They really know who they are and they are very good at supporting each other. They fully understand the period and their characters and what they want. They took complete ownership of the musical, the cast and the crews and the co-curriculars. They are all, without a doubt, the driving force behind the play.”
What follows is a visual portrayal of the making of Once Upon a Mattress. The photos were taken at all stages of the musical and in various settings, from audition posters around campus to the costume design co-curricular in an art classroom to blocking sessions onstage in the Abdul Majeed Shoman Auditorium. Students and faculty members were interviewed about the particular aspects of the musical they were involved in, and their quotations appear below the photographs. The end result is a kaleidoscopic array of moments of comedy, challenge and joy from the making of the musical.
Jamila Kurani ’19 (Princess Winnifred): “This year I was auditioning for one of the lead roles so it took a lot of preparation. I came in and performed one of my favorite pieces and I felt that I would blow her away, so I was confident and a little nervous.”
Elias Tannira ’20 (King Septimus the Silent): “I wasn’t really sure what the auditions would look like, as I haven’t really auditioned before. I was put on stage and told, ‘You’re a wizard’…it was way outside of the box. I was like, ‘do I act like I’m Harry Potter? Do I act like Gandalf?’”
Alison Trattner, Director: “We wanted to manifest the cultural blend of medieval Europe and the Levant — a kind of a ‘Medieval vs Mamluk’ look. With that in mind, we made several trips to downtown Amman to choose the materials.”
Abdel-Qader Abuoqah, Costume Creator and Tailor: “For some costumes, you can be really creative, even if you have historical background for them. And you don’t have background for each character, so you imagine and create something. And this is the beauty of working on the musical.”
Dongmin Kim ’19 (Sir Harry and Knight #3): “The singing is rewarding. Every time I leave the singing room, I feel like I accomplished a lot. Before I sang, I was like how am I gonna do this? And after that, I actually did it! I was nervous, but then I made some progress.”
Yousra Al-Dokum, Vocal Instructor: “The music is beautiful and rich but the melodies are slightly complicated for students this age. With hard work, though, this group overcame all difficulties.”
Yanlin Wu ’20: “The difference between pit orchestra and other orchestras is that in pit orchestra, the music playing depends on the actors and actresses onstage. It is hard to respond fast to all the pauses and transitions, especially when we are not very intimately familiar with each piece.”
Carolyn Cunningham, Faculty Violist: “This music takes the audience on a journey through the story, and when they hear a familiar theme, the audience will know which characters are being featured, or what the mood of that section is.”
Sascha Tahabsem ’22: “I started with designing costumes for the first two weeks, then afterwards started sewing with a professional sewer and helped with creating the hats and accessories. It was fun to work it all out as our designs were completely inspired by the theme of the musical.”
Joanna Tutinji, Costume Design Instructor: “The designs, fabric and accessory choices were extremely intentional to set the right tone for the play. Costumes have a profound ability to alter a character’s performance.”
Yiran Zhao ’21 (Lady H and Singing Minstrel): “Always hitting the beats while dancing with the music is the most challenging thing for a cast, because the rhythm is complicated and it challenges our understanding.”
Mohammad Al-Qudah ’19 (Choreographer and Sir Harold): “It is my first time being a choreographer for a group as big as this. I have been dancing for five years now, but I came to realize how different teaching is from performing.”
Tuleen Nasser ’22: “This was the first time for me working on props and design — stuff that goes on stage. I was fairly familiar with acting and with theater but this was the first time for me working from this side. It opens a whole new perspective of what really makes a performance.”
Rand Abdel Nour, Set Designer and Instructor: “Students learned how to sculpt, make molds, paint textures and work with textile. They researched castles and drew their own sketches. As soon as we started painting the castle the students were so involved they worked on it for eight hours straight!”
Fuad Al-Khoury ’21: “Without light and sound a play wouldn’t be called a play. It all depends on how the actors sound and how light presents the actors to the public.”
Seokhyeon Hong ’20: “I’ve been doing this for three years and I’m really glad to have a proper team this year. Last year, I lost all the lighting cues that I recorded on opening night. I successfully did it without losing any cues, but it was the worst experience I’ve had in my life. However, this year, I don’t have to worry that much as there are more people that can do the cross-check.”
Haseeb Haddadeen ’21 (Wizard): “The first night I was focused on saying all my lines and knowing the right dance moves. Then I started to focus more on showing my character and showing the wizard’s role within the castle walls. All the lines came out naturally and the dances felt much more fun.”
Ruofei Shang ’21 (Lady-In-Waiting and Prologue Pantomime Character): “It’s like a blink, everything passes so fast. I couldn’t believe we were actually doing the show. I can still remember the first day when everyone was sitting on the stage of auditorium and reading lines together.”
Nadia Salfiti ’21 (Jester): “Getting into my character and understanding her took a lot of deep reading into the text and some decision making. I had to decide exactly what my character wanted and how she was going to get it.”
Dario Pomar ’19 (Prince Dauntless): “I had never done a proper musical and the characters were really self-directed; you have to coordinate with everyone else and you need to make sure you have your lines right because the orchestra’s playing with you and overall, with such a big cast, you’re responsible for building your own character.”
Each person involved in the fall musical had a very specific role. Whether a member of the cast, the orchestra, or the sound and light crew, each student had a good idea of what he or she should be doing. However, for the show’s stage managers, Kenan Hamarsheh ’19 and Natasha Bakri ’19, each rehearsal presented different challenges. At the beginning of September, their duties were fairly straightforward – “We helped with auditions and hung posters around campus,” says Bakri – but grew more intense and complex as opening night drew closer. Though the specific responsibilities varied, most involved managing the cast and crew and ensuring that everything was done correctly, from supervising light cues to teaching actors choreography and blocking.
Neither Hamarsheh nor Bakri had directed or stage-managed before Once Upon a Mattress, and both tackled new tasks in their roles. For Hamarsheh, who managed the backstage environment and worked intensively on acting and set transitions, the biggest difficulty was balancing his directorial role with his friendships. He says, “Bossing around some of my closest friends was harsh, but I was able to strike the balance between goofing around and being serious, and the actors could tell.”
Bakri, who gave cues and served as a liaison between cast and crew, persevered through exhausting rehearsals, confident in the final product. “It was challenging to balance schoolwork, college applications and theater. At one point, I could not remember the last time I sat with my friends at dinner. But what kept me moving forward was that I knew it would pay off, and it did.”