Behind the scenes of ‘Bus Stop’

By Lindsay Cameron

Act I. “Lights up,” Emily Plank said into the microphone bud on her headset.  The audience is quiet. The lights fade on to reveal character Grace, played by Johanna Regan, trying to call out on a 1950s spiral-cord phone that is mounted to the wall behind the counter of Grace’s Diner.  No luck. The tail end of winter rages outside and the lines are down.  Much later, after the bus isn’t running, after people argue, after people fall in love, she will try the phone again, and it will work.

Plank knows this.  She knows the story because she’s rehearsed her cue instructions, just as Regan rehearsed her lines, the incessant tapping of the switch hook for a dial tone and her frustrated expression.  However, on Sept. 28, the second night of the production, Plank knows the show will not be the same.

“That’s the joy of working with live theatre,” Christian Neely, lighting designer, said. “You can rehearse it one way, but it changes every night.”

But some things are always the same.

By now, Aaron Arnold has either already completed his push-ups backstage in his police sheriff costume, or is getting ready to.  The cast has already sang to “Can’t Wait to Be King,” from The Lion King and “Our Song,” by Taylor Swift, in the men’s dressing room when assistant stage manager Erica Brown called, “Fifteen minutes ‘til open,” and everyone said, “Thank you. Fifteen,” repeating it amongst themselves as though the number was a person. And Director Ric Goodwin already initiated the circled crew’s stacked hands in a team-on-three before Plank called, “Twenty-five minutes ‘til open.”

Now at the open, Plank sits in the darkness sealed off above the audience in a nearly soundproof prism, called the “booth,” surrounded by a laptop, three effects screens, a back wall covered in cushioned muffling with cords ringed around hooks like cowboy ropes, a blue light shining from the base of a computer, a red light highlighting her script, and the white lights from the stage pouring through the glass. 

To her right, Benjamin Black III, sound designer, controls the oldies music that plays throughout the show. To her left, Neely controls the lighting changes. On Plank’s “go,” he pushes one button to shift the lighting effects he pre-programmed and arranged to the chronology of the show. 

They sit in darkness, dressed all in black, unobtrusive, but they control the lights.

As Plank watches her script with the notes for cueing stage entrances, she is marveling at the production’s progression.  Backstage, she connects with all of the characters differently. As she and Neely recite the lines with the actors on stage as if they are watching their favorite movie, she struggles vicariously through the characters for weeks.  She sees the changes the actors make each night that audience members do not get to see.  She respects these people—the artists—more than the people who run the country. For Plank, the atmosphere of society is defined in these moments. By its artists. 

Plank admits that sometimes she wishes she were on the stage instead of in the booth, but she enjoys the experience of being involved with the entire production. She has plans to pursue acting in California when she graduates in May.

Within the booth in the Studio Theatre at Ashland University, the only problems seem to be running out of coffee and the wintery blizzard sound effect not working in Act I.  As the stage manager of AU’s production of Bus Stop by William Inge, Plank cues the fictional Bus Stop into creation before her eyes.  But as a senior, she has lived in a similar bus stop for three years, getting caught up in characters around her.

Goodwin loves Bus Stop because it is a character study. Audience members can usually connect to one of the characters who are stuck inside the diner during the snow storm, waiting on the buses to start up again so they may continue their travels.  Some have destinations in mind, but others don’t know where they are headed. 

As characters’ backstories unfold, the audience learns more about itself.  It’s the magic of theatre, crew and actors will say—the irony that identifying with someone else can help achieve personal identity, or that acting as another person similar to you will teach you more about your contained world.

But what the audience doesn’t learn during the play are the backstories of the actors and crew members of AU, and how similar the actors’ situations are to the situations of the people they become while on stage.

• • •

At the end of Act I, Emily Jeppesen, who plays the role of Elma Duckworth, a young, shy waitress in pursuit of fairytale love, dances in a sort of dawdle to “Bye Bye Love,” by the Everly Brothers, appearing to play from a Crosley-Select-a-Matic jukebox on the diner counter. Jeppesen is comfortable dancing on stage, even though both she and her character have a history of being shy. 

Insecure and quiet Jeppesen, dreaming of fairytales while feeling unattractive and undesired, realized that she was strangely unafraid on the stage when she earned a role in her high school’s musical.

“I used to feel very plain and like no one wanted me,” she said, “Then I hit a point in my life when I realized that I was beautiful, and that’s what Elma realizes at the end of the play.”

By the end, Grace will tell Elma that she will find a boy in college. Jeppesen believes this will be a reality for her character, because it happened for Jeppesen at AU.

“I began to develop more self-worth because of this,” she said. “I know it’s not supposed to happen that way, but it did take guys having interest in me to realize that I’m special, and I didn’t have to compare myself to anyone anymore.” 

Theatre made her who she is.  With more roles, she became comfortable with herself off the stage, made friends with theatre people like her, and gained confidence in front of people.  Theatre brought her into an identity, and into this performance.

In the diner, a chalkboard says, “Hamburgers, 75 cents.”  An old Moon Pie sign hangs from the wall.  The diner stools and yellow tables stand by and watch Elma fantasize about love and her future. As Neely fades the lights on Plank’s cue, Jeppesen dances into the darkness.

Act II

The characters move on set but return to familiar places—Bo is by the window, Virgil plays his guitar, Cherie sits by the furnace, Elma chats with Dr. Lyman behind the counter. 

They all want to go somewhere and find love.  None seem to know how.  But for now, they are stuck at the bus stop.  Together.

“Ashland is like a Bus Stop,” Austin Arnold said, “in the fact that we meet these people in four years and we grow together, and realistically, we’re not going to see 90 percent of the people again.”

Arnold, a senior at AU, plays Dr. Lyman, a sexual predator, who quit his job as a professor and has been an intellectual vagabond since.

Arnold’s twin brother, Aaron, plays Will the sheriff.  They both quit track in high school to participate in every musical, and play they could.  Since then, they came to the same college, picked the same major, and joined the same fraternity—all unintentionally.

After graduation, they also plan to leave together.  They are going to L.A., with the hopes that Jay Kunzi will join them a year later after his graduation.  He, too, quit sports for theatre.

Kunzi plays Bo, a rowdy cowboy.  Kunzi, whose friends describe him as “urban” because of his attire and his backup plan to pursue a career in rapping, had to learn the lingo and movements of a cowboy, according to Goodwin.

Bo sits with Virgil and talks about how he wishes Cherie, played by Rebecca Ribley, would go to Montana with him.  Cherie doesn’t want to go because she is not sure if she loves Bo, which fires him up, and results in him pounding throwing both hands on the table, pounding it, and howling at Ribley like she is the moon, his butt puckered upwards like a dog would when wagging his tail for a bone.

It’s Kunzi’s first big role, and getting in the spirit of a love-drunk cowboy before the show made Austin Arnold laugh as Kunzi bounced around in the dressing room, whistling, howling, meowing between mirror changes—a five-hour energy drink in his system before each show.

Kunzi has ADHD, so he is usually energetic, and can relate to Bo.  For roles that are calm, for classes, for life off stage, Kunzi takes his medicine, but he doesn’t take it for Bo, who is impulsive and pushy—arrogant—and as Bo asks Virgil why girls don’t fall for him as easily as they would other men, Virgil tells him he needs to be “tender.”

Virgil, role model and father figure for Bo, plans to go to Montana with Bo, even if Cherie won’t.  Virgil, played by Dave Wagar, is a loner.  

Wagar is different from what people expect him to be.  Like Virgil, he puts everyone first before himself.  He doesn’t pick fights.  Looking beyond the surface reveals who he really is—sometimes a loner, sometimes right where he needs to be.

So if people know that Wagar is a victim of losing people, most don’t know the depth.

Wagar grew up learning to “put his best into it” from his father, who taught Wagar to work hard at everything, even if it was something he hated doing.  With theatre, “I don’t really work a day of my life,” Wagar said, because the work is something he does love.

“There are some characters that you become so attached to that they really do become another person to you,” Wagar said, thinking of his role as Ferris Layman his sophomore year in high school for the production The Diviners by Jim Leonard Jr.

He keeps a copy of the playwright in his book bag because acting as the character showed him that he wasn’t alone in his grief.

In the play, Ferris’s wife died.

In reality, Wagar’s dad died when he was twelve.  Being Ferris helped him process his loss.

Wagar and his dad were playing pool.  Wagar’s dad shot the eight ball in the pocket prematurely, saying, “You win,” to his son, and then walked to the refrigerator.  A bacterial infection in his lungs had transferred into his blood stream, and spread to his brain.  The last thing Wagar heard from him was the thud of his body on the floor.

Wagar now had lost both parents; his mother had died when he was three.  He lived with his grandparents throughout high school.  Then he came to Ashland.  Now he is going anywhere, just like the rest of the cast.


Plank sings along into her headset to “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” by Frankie Lymon, as the last act begins. The Bus Stop characters are interacting with each other, redirecting each other’s lives.

Cherie, the club stripper trying to escape from Bo, is redirected by talking to Grace and Will the Sherriff.  Cherie has no place to go and certainly doesn’t want to go with Bo to Montana, but she leaves the bus stop with a plan. 

Ribley’s life was redirected when she came to AU as a theatre major, but she drew to pursuing a dream in the news industry. 

After she saw the documentary, “Invisible Children,” about kids in Uganda, she realized that telling stories to expose a problem in the society could change the world.

Theatre and news both tell stories, but Ribley felt that her familiarity to theatre was keeping her from challenging herself.  She changed her major to journalism and digital media and made theatre her minor.  Now, she might go to Chicago. 

Ribley’s parents taught her that “there’s something special about every person, and it’s your job to go out there and find that.”

Not only does she wish to find this in the world in her journalism career, but she is also grateful that she found it in the theatre community at AU, a community that changed Kunzi’s life, too.

“It’s opened me up to a whole new crowd of people,” Kunzi said. “Being an athlete my whole life, I was always into one crowd of people.  I think it changed by whole personality, really.  Before, I had tunnel vision.’

In the third act, Bo fears he will lose Cherie, who still does not reciprocate his love. With desire, when Kunzi says, “I want Cherie,” he isn’t thinking about the hardest thing he ever went through—quitting wrestling for theatre.  He really thinks about Lilah, his rescued dog, and how sad he would be if she were hit by a car.  The thought of her not sleeping with him under his sheets, curled up in between his legs, brings tears to his eyes.

• • • 

The emotion expressed on stage, albeit for effect, can also be therapeutic.

For both Wagar and Plank, the amount of people they lost in their real lives was gained back through the theatre characters they have brought to life.

Plank has lost at least nine people since the age of three: all of her grandparents, a boyfriend to a medication overdose, three friends to car accidents, one friend to suicide and other family members.  She says she has never been able to “move past the grieving stage of loss,” despite therapy.  Though she is better now, she still struggles with depression.

“I use my songs and my roles as an outlet,” she said. “When I can become focused on a part or some tech work I become less focused on what is depressing me, and I am more able to function.  It is an amazing thing to have an escape from the personal prison of my mind.”

For Plank, the transformation in theatre is magical.

“I love getting a new character and doing all my research on them,” she said. “I like forming the backstory and figuring out my given circumstances and how it affects the way my character is thinking. This is the part where the actors get to put parts of themselves in the character.  The audience might not know, but good actors don’t ‘act’ that much.  It’s mostly work that leads up to them embodying the character.”

Goodwin says embodying those characters and connecting to their personalities is easier because the actors are age appropriate for most of the characters in the play, and the actors are about to carry on with the rest of their lives.  This is the first show in his career where he cast only upperclassmen.

The cast and crew members aren’t the only ones leaving.  Goodwin announced to the team of his resignation after this school year.  He said he will miss his students.

A lifelong learner, Goodwin will continue as a director and student. He might end up in Florida, retirement just a new step in life. 

Having received his undergraduate degree in theatre from AU, Goodwin returned in 1984 from Hollywood, to his current position as professor.  The first thing he did was walk around in the Studio Theatre, the venue for Bus Stop, but at the time, it hadn’t been turned into a theatre.  It was still a green room, a waiting area.

“Everyone at Ashland is looking for purpose in their lives.  They all want to find love and belonging and confidence and they all want to find connections with people,” Jeppesen said.  “Everyone at Ashland University is waiting for the rest of their lives to begin.”

• • •

The play ends with the characters having boarded the bus, Virgil and Grace leaving last.  Wagar, like Virgil, is headed anywhere, because he has decided not to go to Montana with Bo.

Regan, as Grace, closes shop with one last survey over her diner before she shuts the door and the lights dim.  Perhaps Grace is remembering the night’s events, remembering the people, their changes, and that she is staying behind at her diner.

Plank cues the indoor lights to cut when Regan hits the light switch, entering into a cold outdoors with a purple light coloring the windows.  Plank calls, “Nice!” to Neely’s cue. Those purple lights dim, the audience claps, and then the crew in the booth is saying, “Alright, great show guys,” packing up, and heading down the catwalk ladder to the main floor, with all the others—the audience, the actors, the crew—who are leaving, going anywhere.