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New Belfry director shares fascination of ‘Dining Room’

Diane Wilson had such fond memories growing up of time spent in her grandparents’ dining room that, when she and her husband bought their first home, she made sure they chose a home with a formal dining room. And dining room furniture was their first purchase, because she wanted to make memories of their own. And they have, from New York to California and from everywhere in between.

“We’ve gathered around our dining room table and have made many fond memories,” said Wilson of Carmel. And they hope to make many more.

Most recently, she went on a hunt to find the “perfect” dining room table and chairs. But it wasn’t for her own dining room but for the Hamilton County Theatre Guild’s production of “The Dining Room,” a comedy/drama she is directing for The Belfry Theatre onstage at The Switch Theatre in Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy in Fishers. The show – a comedy of manners set in a single dining room where 18 scenes from different households overlap — opens on Friday and continues for two weekends, a total of eight performances, through Jan. 30. Tickets are still available.

It’s Wilson’s first time directing a show for The Belfry Theatre, a Noblesville community theater in its 57th season.

Besides being a play that “fit” the theater venue, she thought back through the years of attending performances and remembered “The Dining Room” as being one play that she wanted to direct someday because it looked to be a challenge.

“The Dining Room” has a small cast of seven who portray 60 characters over four decades, use more than 200 props and wear more than 150 pieces of clothing and nearly 30 different wigs.

“And, of course, I like the show,” she said.

For a moment, let’s talk about these 200 props and all of these dining room set pieces.

“Obtaining the accurate props and furniture was beyond crazy,” Wilson said. “The process took more than two months of searching and driving from town to town.” Yes, she drove in the pouring rain to Gaston, Ind., a place the Hoosier didn’t know existed, to find a great deal on the perfect dining room table and chairs for the show. “After we acquired the dining room table and chairs and began our journey home, we immediately noticed a pungent smell: cat urine. Needless to say, the windows came down, despite the rain. When we arrived home, my husband (Rich Wilson) ripped off the (dining room chairs’) seat covers and tore out the foam. He sized up everything, ordered foam, and we bought fabric to recover the chairs,” she said. He also repaired and polished the furniture. They then located a dining room server for sale in New Castle, so they took another road trip. Luckily, the next server she found was in Fishers.

What was next? “We traipsed through antique store after antique store throughout Central Indiana to find the most accurate items for the time periods,” said Diane Wilson, who found delicate glassware and a silver coffee/tea set in a Westfield antique store, and antique blue and white dishes on Facebook Marketplace from various geographical locations: West Lafayette, Avon and a small town north of Noblesville. “Again, more road trips,” she said.

They drove to an Indy antique mall to find a “rat tail back” spoon and “pistol-handed” knives and a silver carving knife. They drove to another part of Indy to buy a tea cart, which her husband refinished.

“I texted, emailed and messaged those I knew who had done props at various theaters and acquired their assistance for items I needed,” she said. One of her props crew, Molly Kraus, created a beautiful flower arrangement that’s 4-½ feet long, made from unused flowers, and a cake from a “dummy” that Wilson purchased. Her husband (who by now has become “set construction” and “set crew” for her show) made ice cream by covering styrofoam balls with spackling. “I found dried spackling in my kitchen for a week,” Diane Wilson said.

The couple also borrowed items as well as found some items around the house. Cast members also brought in needed items that included three-pronged forks and table napkins. Plus, they bought live plants and, so far, have kept them alive.

The search for costumes from the 1930s to the 1970s was another chore, but lots of fun, being that Diane Wilson loves the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. “I even owned a few items that are going to be seen on the stage,” she said.

“In total, we needed more than 150 pieces of clothing.”

While she found a couple of pieces in The Belfry’s costume, more of the pieces came from female cast members’ closets, Goodwill and even about 20 pieces from her husband’s closet. While her husband has black dress pants and black shorts in his closet, she assumed all men did. Nope. Also, a cast member involved in a local barbershop group was able to borrow a couple of tuxedos for those who were “tux-less.” And a maid’s uniform was purchased.

“Wigs were another issue,” she said. “Since the seven actors are playing 60 characters from four different decades, we ended up needing nearly 30 wigs.” Amazon Prime came to the rescue. “I can’t tell you how many (wigs) we bought, tried on and then returned for one reason or another.”

Once the “basic” outfits were finalized, she snapped photos of each, and then created a “key” of what each actor would wear for each character, who also needed accessories, everything from bowties to pearls to eye glasses.

Being that The Belfry Theatre building has been closed for performances since spring 2020, first due to COVID cancellations then due to building issues, the productions are currently being staged at offsite venues.

She has had nearly all of her play rehearsals in her home before moving Sunday morning into the theater for tech week. “I was fortunate to have the space at my house where my husband and I could clear away furniture in our basement and bring in the dining room table and chairs, along with a few other pieces, to create a ‘set,’” she said. “It actually worked quite well, as far as being able to direct.” Their pool table and a couple of other tables served as their “props room.” Their movie room and exercise rooms became the dressing rooms. The cast became comfortable at the Wilsons’ home. “We would unlock the front door and turn on the outside light and, one by one, they’d arrive and take their places,” Diane Wilson said.

Not having a home theater at this time has been a challenge. “We had one day to paint the (theatrical scenery) flats. We’ve rehearsed in a space slightly smaller than the stage. And since all of the furniture is at my house or in my neighbor’s garage, I’ve had to rent a U-Haul to move the items to the theater.”

Despite the challenges, Wilson is thrilled to be directing her first show for The Belfry Theatre. She returned to community theater in the fall of 2018 after a 25-year hiatus and “landed” at The Belfry, being cast in “Our Town,” a show she had taught and loved. “I felt very welcomed and comfortable with The Belfry people,” she recalled. “Having had a great experience as an actor at The Belfry, I knew I wanted to direct there, as well.”

She relates directing to one of her previous jobs working at Mattel Toys as a project manager. Her assignment was to take Barbie dolls from cradle to grave, gathering all of the items that were needed to create the perfect doll and watching it come to fruition. “Directing is quite like that,” she said. “You lift the words from the pages and with wonderful actors, a great backstage crew and fantastic people behind the scenes, you  create an amazing show and bring it to your audience to enjoy.”

She said the play “is definitely not a politically correct play.” For instance, some subject matter that was taboo during those time frames, were discussed as they would have been in the time periods.

One of her favorite scenes is a 1960s birthday party scene, where kids (played by actors ages 13-72) are behaving like “good little boys and girls” while two parents, not married to each other, are discussing “seeing each other” behind their spouses’ backs. Another scene, in the 1950s, is a mother trying to relive her life through her daughter’s and her daughter not wanting to do what her mother did.

In her own acting career, Diane Wilson’s favorite roles were Mrs. Soames in “Our Town,” directed by Nancy Lafferty at The Belfry, and the many roles that Wilson played in “Red, White and Tuna,” directed by Ron Richards at The Belfry. Mrs. Soames voiced thoughts that others were too afraid to say, and her roles in “Tuna” allowed her to play more characters than she’s ever played in a short period of time. At The Belfry, she has assistant directed under four directors, all with different styles.

Wilson, who was born in Indianapolis and attended Southport High School, attended Purdue University until she married, then transferred her credit hours to State University of New York in Brockport, N.Y. Following graduation, she began teaching English, speech/debate and drama in and around Rochester and was active in Sweet Adelines and community theaters. She worked at Mattel Toys in southern California. In Connecticut, she stayed with Mattel sales. When the Wilsons moved to Fort Wayne, she re-entered the field of teaching and completed her graduate degree. When she moved to Brentwood, Tenn., she returned to the corporate arena working on sports toys and, on the weekends, was a docent and actor at Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville, Tenn. She left and started her own company, creating historical dolls for museum stores, educators and librarians, running the company for 25 years. Her daughter and her family live in Fishers, and the Wilsons spend a lot of time with them. Diane Wilson now owns her own travel company, W&W Destinations. Besides travel, she loves to read, write and attend the theater. 

“All-in-all, I love the theater, all aspects of it: the directing, the assistant directing, the stage managing, the props, the costumes, the makeup, the hair, the sound and the lights. Of course, I also love attending the shows.

-Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com.