By Melody Murphy |
How Ocala Civic Theatre found inspiration through their neighbor, the Appleton Museum of Art, leading to a unique collaboration on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
‘Little town… it’s a quiet village’
With a population of 60,000, Ocala, Florida, isn’t exactly a village. But it’s small enough that the art museum and the community theatre are located next door to each other on the east side of town – a perfect spot for creative collaboration to blossom like a magical rose.
Founded in 1950, Ocala Civic Theatre (OCT) first existed a little farther west on Silver Springs Boulevard, then built its present facility in 1988. The Appleton Museum of Art, a campus of the College of Central Florida, had opened next door the previous year. These two crown jewels of the local arts scene are tucked away in the woods, almost hidden, like an enchanted estate waiting to be discovered.
The Appleton and OCT have been good neighbors since 1988, independently affiliated yet mutually supportive in their goodwill. However, in their 34 years side by side, these venerable arts organizations had never collaborated on an artistic idea – until the spring of 2020.
‘Tale as old as time’
OCT Artistic Director Katrina Ploof was excited to announce the 2020-2021 season, which was supposed to open spectacularly with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. However, a pandemic was waiting in the wings. Due to COVID-19, the new season had to be scrapped and replanned with smaller shows. A huge, lavish musical would just have to wait.
And wait it did. After being rescheduled three times, Beauty and the Beast finally found a home as the closer of the 2021-2022 season.
In the meantime, Ploof did what she could to stay inspired. One day in the spring of 2020 she visited the Appleton, as she often enjoyed doing. This time, their French Rococo pieces caught her eye. She wondered if there might be some inspiration for the design of Beauty and the Beast.
‘There may be something there that wasn’t there before’
Ploof sent OCT Costume Designer Eryn Brooks Brewer next door with her sketchbook. Appleton Curator of Exhibitions Patricia Tomlinson generously allowed her access to their archives, providing a wealth of choices for inspiration. There was indeed a spark.
The Appleton was a treasure trove for the object characters in particular. A clock and a candelabra transformed into Cogsworth and Lumiere. Mrs. Potts and Chip came to life from the floral pattern of a tea set. An elaborate armoire became Madame de la Grande Bouche.
“Going to the Appleton and having real objects to base the characters on helped me find interesting details and characteristics of human forms,” said Brewer. “For example, the rounded slope on the top of the clock reminded me of human shoulders.”
The Appleton’s French paintings, furniture, figurines, and tapestries also influenced Brewer’s color palette and fabric selections. These ornate pieces helped create the lavish look of the show’s mystical fairytale world.
Envisioning even greater serendipity, Ploof talked to her friends at the Appleton. Together, they dreamed up a wonderful idea: an exhibit at the Appleton, featuring their creative collaboration.
‘And it’s all in perfect taste – that you can bet!’
Called Finding Beauty, the exhibit opens May 12 along with the show. During the run of Beauty and the Beast, the exhibit will feature costume photos with Brewer’s sketches and the objects of inspiration from the Appleton’s permanent collection. After OCT’s production closes on June 5, many of the costumes will be transported next door to take their place on dress forms in the exhibit.
A gallery of the rich fabrics of the costumes and set furnishings will be on display. There will be photos and video of the costume construction process, as well as Brewer’s book of costume renderings, color palettes, fabric swatches, and embellishments.
OCT Technical Director William Spratt, scenic designer for Beauty and the Beast, also found inspiration for his opulent set in the Appleton’s collection. His scenic design drawings and some set pieces will be included in Finding Beauty as well.
On opening night, there will be a reception for that evening’s ticketholders at the Appleton before the performance, with French food and music to get patrons in the spirit before going next door to see the show. Once at OCT, it’s champagne and roses until the curtain rises at long last on Beauty and the Beast!
‘Oh, isn’t this amazing? It’s my favorite part because… you’ll see!’
The show and exhibit are both ideal for families – and, Ploof hopes, a wonderful way for children to see how imagination comes to life through the arts.
“I have this wish that a child will go to the exhibit and see the beautiful rococo candlestick and Eryn’s sketches, then walk down the sidewalk to the theatre and see that candlestick walk on stage, and something is going to click,” she said. “I want that child to fully comprehend the way imagination can explode inside all of us, to realize that every beautiful thing they see in their world is just the beginning of the journey, and that art and creativity begin with open eyes and the ability to see deeper. Just like the journey of Beauty and the Beast, there is so much more than what is on the surface.”
With a selfie station, a scale model of Belle’s house, and the gorgeous costumes from Beauty and the Beast, the exhibit will bring the show to life in a magically real way for even the youngest visitors. This collaboration is a perfect way to introduce children to the arts, perhaps as their first visit to both a theatre and a museum.
‘Be our guest!’
Finding Beauty is free to ticketholders for OCT’s Beauty and the Beast.
“We’ve all enjoyed watching this project develop,” said Appleton Assistant Director Victoria Billig. “It’s such a special opportunity to work so closely with OCT and present museum visitors with a truly inspired exhibition.”
Ploof believes this collaboration is the first of its kind. Appleton Director Jason Steuber is delighted by the innovative partnership.
“Whether performing or visual, the arts engage and are invigorated by the staff that sets their course,” he said. “Ocala Civic Theatre and the Appleton Museum of Art are bringing to life a classic tale through world-class actors and art. We are very lucky to be neighbors and partners in this new journey together.”
Ploof sees a certain kismet in this journey: “I believe everything happens for a reason: the fact that the Appleton has some of the finest examples of the objects portrayed in Beauty and the Beast, that we have on staff a costumer willing to take on such a formidable challenge and commit to creating a complete world in every respect, in which every single thing on stage has been handmade in our shop, that we are working with museum staff who believe in opening wider the doors to our institutions.” She hopes this is only the beginning, the “once upon a time” for other theatres and museums who might be inspired to take their own journey together.
‘I want adventure in the great wide somewhere’
“OCT is first and foremost a community theatre,” Ploof stated. “My hope is that this collaboration solidifies OCT as a member of the larger community of artists – locally, regionally, and nationally – and that our adventure will encourage other theatres and museums to pursue future relationships, discovering layers of creativity and deepening our understanding of the work.”
There’s a story in every work of art, and an art to all good stories. And like all the best fairytales, this particular marriage of the arts appears destined for a “happily ever after” ending.