Monday, November 7, 2011

I Know Things Now

Why do I do it?  Why am I so heavily involved with theater?  Having made a commitment, having developed a habit, am I just going through the motions because it's what I do?  Well, no.  It's never that simple.  The reasons are complex, but could be summed up by saying I get back more than I give.  And I give a lot.

I give my time.  I give up sleep.  My family sacrifices because of the tasks that are left undone when I have another rehearsal to prepare for or attend.  I can't count the dinners I didn't make because I had to be at the theater early.  My house gets overrun with fabrics, props and other materials.  One word:  glitter. I have come home from rehearsals frustrated, embarrassed, angry, depressed or ready to quit.  I have had people angry at me for casting them and angry at me for not casting them.  I've walked so many fine lines it sometimes feels like an endless sobriety test (so I imagine!).

Ah, but the payoff.  Some of the best friends I've ever had are people with whom I've shared a stage.  I have received some touching and heartfelt thank-yous from people who have appreciated the opportunity to participate in something that becomes more than what they expected.  I have come home exhilarated and inspired.  I have seen my vision come to life and felt in some very quiet moments that I have done something worthwhile.  

When I think back, oh so many years ago, how I felt I could never give up on some vague theatrical dream, how I looked a little enviously at the engineer sitting at the giant mixing boards at concerts, how I made awkward attempts at transcribing music from a vinyl record with a pencil and paper, how I tried to splice the tape on a reel-to-reel machine in hopes of learning how to edit music, I realize I've actually done it all.  (Wow.  Long sentence.  Sorry.)  Maybe everything didn't pan out exactly as planned.  Maybe the realization of my early fantasies has not been very grand, but I have been very lucky.  I have been given so much of what I wanted.  And I have learned.

So, I keep doing it.  I'm at a point where I appreciate giving back.  Sharing.  Teaching.  I still make sacrifices along the way, but the greater sacrifice would be to not do it at all.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Song of Angry Men

Often when I'm working with a group that is trying to nail a difficult number, they'll quickly get to a point where they're OK, good enough, competent.  They've got the notes, the lyrics, the moves.  But trying to get from OK to WOW can be a challenge for the cast.  Getting to that next step, that higher level, requires more than just going through the motions.  

In The Music Man, Herald Hill employs the “think system” for teaching his young band students.  It’s all a scam, so he is attempting to conduct rehearsals with no instruments, nothing but the power of an idea - until he can skip town. While it may be virtually impossible to learn an instrument simply by thinking about it, how actors think about a performance does make a tremendous difference.  Huge.  

I talk in rehearsals – a lot.  It may come across to some as liking the sound of my own voice, but my hope is that I can express myself in a way that will help to draw out a better performance. My own experiences with great directors, musical or theatrical, have taught me the power of an idea, and that an idea is useless if not conveyed.  Not every performer will respond in the same way to the same suggestion.  I may have to demonstrate what I want, or explain why I think a character should behave a certain way.  I may even have to ask for something a little different than what I want in order for it to really click.

One production I was involved with had a large chorus of mostly inexperienced  actors who were, however, quite good singers.  But the right emotion wasn't coming across in their delivery of one particular song.  It was supposed to be fearful, desperate, pleading.  Almost on a whim, thinking I’d have to tone them down, I asked them to sing it like they were angry – really angry.  The change was amazing.  The song wasn't about being angry, but when they thought of it that way, it came across with the perfect strong emotion I was looking for.  It taught me something about not just repetitively expressing what I want, hoping they'll eventually see it through my eyes.  Sometimes I need to find another way to help them think about it, to help them add that spark that turns the number into something special.  Yeah, that makes for a Wow moment.   

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Raise Your Voice

A woman recently asked me to teach her how to direct a choir.  In thinking about how I might sum it up, I somewhat randomly came up with four steps.   1) Know the basics, 2) know what you want, 3) inspire and 4) convey the passion.  Simple, succinct, whatever.  Good for a Facebook post.  But as I thought about it, I realized that I really stand by those steps.  I think they apply whether leading a choir, choreographing a dance or directing in the theater.  In each of those situations, the person in charge must be a teacher of sorts.  To teach in any area of the arts requires similar skills.

One – Know the basics.  For a choir, that can be the beat patterns, reading the music, the terminology.  It is similar when directing theater.  You need familiarity with the script, a basic sense of organization in terms of schedules and budgets and available resources.   Without these, you cannot hope to move forward with any success.  Start with a good foundation.

Two – Know what you want.  This is where it starts getting fun – and challenging.  In a choir, I must decide how I want the music interpreted.  Do I want them to follow all the markings for dynamics and tempo?  Do I want something different?  How do I hear it in my head?  In theater, I have other decisions to make.  Do I want to copy some other performance, or give unrestricted freedom to the actors to work it out themselves, or (my usual happy medium goal) find a blend of what has worked elsewhere, and what is fresh and interesting?  Participants will ask questions I may not necessarily anticipate.  I need a strong sense of the direction I want in order to keep everyone moving along the same path.  Understand your own vision, then share it.

Three – Inspire.  Simply going through the motions never results in a very worthwhile performance.  As a director, a leader, a teacher, I want those I’m working with to see their potential.  I would hope they will feel the joy of being a part of something special.  It doesn’t have to be of great social, emotional or spiritual significance to still be something worth reaching for.  When I start Xanadu rehearsals, there won’t be any pretense about the greater good, the deeper significance.  It’s all just lighthearted fun, but I am hoping there will still be the same kind of focused energy that goes into creating a great performance (all inspired by Greek muses, of course!).  I feel it’s my job to keep everyone motivated and encouraged.

Four – Convey the passion.  Taking inspiration one step further, I often try to share my own feelings about the project.  I’ll talk to the actors about the characters and their relationships.  I’ll discuss the lyrics, the phrases, the jokes or the emotions that are meaningful to me in the hope that they might ultimately be meaningful to the audience as well.  If I feel passionate about something I’m teaching, I hope that the participants will come to feel passionate about it, too.  It isn’t enough that they understand how I feel.  They need to feel it themselves.  When they do, as I have seen time and time again, the performance comes alive.  It is emotionally enriching for everyone and the audience is touched by the power of both what is seen and what is heard.  

I have a first rehearsal coming up for a choir I’m directing that is performing next month.  They’re only preparing two songs, but it’s a new choir put together just for the occasion.  I hope I can help them through the basics, clearly share my expectations, inspire them to do well – really well, and help them to feel passionate about this wonderful music.   

So, I will direct them, and I’ll probably dance a bit.  I have come to accept that I am an animated choir director (you can take the girl out of the theater, but you can’t take the theater out of the girl) and will do whatever I think is helpful to draw the emotion out of the singers.  It’s not quite Sister Act, but I’m expecting great things!  

Monday, September 12, 2011

With a Little Bit of Luck

I directed a show last year that opened in a new theater two days after we received the occupancy permit.  Or was it one?  I've blocked it out.  I can remember it as being terribly stressful, but making the best of it with a wonderful cast who were forced to try to recite their lines over the sound of power tools even as the stage was being built around them. I remember rehearsing in January while wearing gloves inside the theater because the furnace was broken  and we were freezing.  And those were the good nights.  Somehow it all worked out, and The Murder Room was a funny show with a successful run.  

I guess some people have more confidence in things automatically working out than I do.  You often hear things around the theater like, “Oh, it will all come together,” or “It will be fine, you’ll see.”  Well, maybe.  My personal view is closer to, “It will happen one way or another, and while we may not crash and burn, I expect a lot more than just not being terrible!”  I temper any Pollyanna tendencies with a healthy dose of experience based reality.  While the show will go on - the show must go on - it will be a better show if you aren't relying on luck.

I have noticed, many times, that as opening night approaches, the cast gets a little bit nervous about any holes in their personal preparation.  This can be a good thing, as it motivates them to focus, and improvement can be dramatic in just a short time.  I’ve seen dancers suddenly ask for extra help to learn the steps, actors who finally begin to develop their character once they put on a costume, and back stage logistics smoothed and polished.  

Often the curtain goes up for the first time to reveal an adrenaline fueled cast who manages to make it all work.  But I believe that if you want to be able to expect it to go smoothly, you need to rehearse until it is smooth.  I will spend an entire rehearsal going through set movements until the cast is comfortable.  I try to create a realistic rehearsal schedule that will have the company ready ahead of time.  I will try to break down a difficult dance or scene or effect and work it until all are confident enough that they could do it in the dark. 

For The Murder Room, we did exactly that.  Literally.  One scene has a series of blackouts.  Each time the lights come back on, the cast is in a new comic tableau.  To shrieks of “Get the gun!” and “Get the lights!,” the cast scrambles in the dark to their new position.  After seemingly endless rehearsals with my hand on the light switch, they were comfortable enough that even when technical problems during performances threatened to throw off their rhythm, they made it work.  Lucky?  I like to think we made our own luck by everyone working hard, under very difficult circumstances, until they were prepared.  They knew they were ready, which is a world away from simply hoping they were ready.  "Get the lights!"

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Strongest Suit

A costume drama is a term sometimes used for a period piece, set in Victorian England, for example.  I’ve encountered my own version of costume dramas. 

Sometimes it’s a wardrobe malfunction, like the time during Blythe Spirit my arm got trapped between the sleeve and the shoulder pad of a jacket during a quick change and I had to go on stage before being able to fix it.  I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to button my jacket and might have to spent the entire scene Napoleon style, with one arm clutching my clothing.  Even other actors would come pat me on the shoulder on stage and try to rearrange my outfit, all to no avail. 

I’m still proud of my 32 second dress, hat and wig change during Once Upon a Mattress.  Each night I’d begin pulling things off the nanosecond I was off stage, tossing my hat and belt, stepping out of my dress, and then into another which was carefully laid out on the floor.  Two people helped, one on the zipper, one on the wig, and with my feet hardly stopping, I made it on stage every night – sometimes with time to spare.

Most of the real drama involves creating costumes for others.  I once made a dress for an actress who was trying to lose weight.  Each week she wanted me to take her dress in another inch or so.  What was I thinking that I repeatedly obliged? 

A wedding dress was ordered for Jekyll & Hyde, and opening night was approaching fast.  With only 2 days to go, we learned the dress wasn’t coming after all.  In a daze, I contemplated sewing a wedding gown in two days.  This isn’t Project Runway!  I sewed until 6 AM that first night, and had it done in time.  I sat in the dressing room during Act I sewing on buttons so the dress would be ready to be worn by Act II.  Never again.

I have hot glued trim on a costume while someone was wearing it, gone onstage myself with a zipper pinned in place (something I’d never ask someone else to do!), and pulled clothes out of my own closet for others to wear more times than I can count.  It’s all about looking good, just like Amneris from Aida who claims that “Dress has always been (her) strongest suit.”  Next up for me – lots of chiffon and rhinestones for Xanadu!  I have a feeling I’ll be vacuuming a lot of glitter.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fruma Sarah

This post is just for fun.  
I wrote this several years ago, after playing Fruma Sarah 
in a production of Fiddler on the Roof.  
We relived the adventure outside in the alley during intermission, 
with almost nightly embellishments, 
until it became inevitable that it would wind up on paper.
Unfortunately, this photo was taken without the makeup.
For perspective, I'm standing next to a 6' 7" Tevye. 

The program calls my character “Fruma Sarah, Lazar Wolf’s dead wife,” but Steve just calls me Arms.  He is Legs.  Fruma, you see, is bigger than life.  Literally.  Each night I climb on Leg’s shoulders and together we whirl and howl our way around the stage for two minutes.  “Just where do you mount up?” we were asked.  I vainly try to suggest more genteel terminology.  How do I explain wrapping my legs around some guy and throwing my dress over his head in terms that are family friendly? 

He wears a tank top, white tights and ballet slippers (size 13, on size 14 feet) and a petticoat.  I have a matching petticoat, loosely tied around my hips.  Spandex tights are my attempt at preserving some sense of modesty, if not dignity.  (When looking at the blouse I wear the rest of the show and musing to no one in particular, “who got make-up all over my costume?,” Legs replied from a distance, “if it’s your tights, it was probably me.”  So much for dignity.)  My purple, flame embellished gown has a lace inset designed to allow little flashes of light to guide Leg’s blinded steps.  Less noticeable is the purple shirt I wear underneath so the sheerness of the lace is less obvious.  The shirt actually performs a dual function, concealing the bath puff stuffed, low slung lavender bra (Dolly Parton would be proud) that works to keep Fruma’s anatomy protruding at the appropriate places and not primarily from Leg’s head, which could make Fruma look strangely pregnant.  On top of it all are long stands of disco beads/pearls, and a waist length red wig that I tease to Tina Turner proportions each night.  Add a black and white skeleton-like face that has elicited such comments from the cast as, “isn’t it nice you don’t have to wear make-up in this scene,” and Fruma is ready to rumble.

Every performance goes something like this:  The song begins, and all other cast members enter the stage.  Then Legs sets a bench down in the wings and sits.  I climb onto the bench, straddling Legs, holding my wadded up gown and beads in one hand so I can loosen the tie on my petticoat with the other.  I scoot up behind him, and throw the petticoat over his head.  He then ties it under his chin.  We’re hoping to disguise all the knees and elbows going on down there so Fruma doesn’t look like something from Alien.  I half stand, half squat behind Legs, now that we are dressed in the same petticoat, but trying to minimize the time he needs to support my full weight on his shoulders.  In time, I assume the position, slide forward, and we stand.  I wrap my feet behind his back for balance.  I drop the gown over his head, trying to make sure the lace panel is somewhere in front of an eye or two, and let the beads fall.  We work our way past the side curtains toward our entrance position, and I’m so used to shuffling around solo in the long dress backstage that I instinctively lift my/our gown as we walk so he won’t trip on it. 

The final step is to wait for the music cue as I fluff my wig one final time, mentally race through my lyrics, and try to feel appropriately dead.  On stage we are one, at least as long as I remember not to wave my flowing sleeves in front of the lace panel during any portions of the song requiring foot movement.  The moment the final howl is heard, we are back in the wings, and I quickly grab the dress up and over his head as we make our way to a backstage table for the dismount.  There is sweating and panting and struggling with getting clothes off quickly.  Legs has been known to light a cigarette just thinking about it.  

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Papa, Can You Hear Me?

I know – today’s song is from a film, not from a Broadway show, but c’mon.  It’s Babs!  

I just returned from a pioneer trek.  The simple explanation – a church camping event for teenagers basically designed to teach them an appreciation for their religious heritage and to build friendships.  My responsibility was to coordinate and facilitate musical events during the course of this 3 day experience.  All in all, it went well.  The same number came home (about 360) as left, so that’s a good thing. 

With such a large group, in an outdoor settings, we needed amplification for most of the musical numbers.  I was reminded of one of my soapbox speeches, so I decided to pull that particular one out for today’s blog.  Since it’s a soapbox, it’s also a longer post than normal!  It’s all about microphones.  I am convinced that everyone should take a short course in using a mic.  It isn’t hard, you don’t have to be a techie and you’re likely to have to know something about it at some point in your life, even if you aren’t involved in theater.  Here’s my short course.  If your eyes begin to glaze over, skip to the end.  There won't be a test, at least until you have to grab a mic in order to be heard.

There are different types of microphones, designed for different purposes.  Those used in a recording studio are generally not the type most people will encounter while giving a speech or singing for an audience.  The handheld mics most people will use are called dymanic mics.  While they tend to be a little more sturdy than other more sensitive microphones, there are still some basic rules for their care.  Not dropping them is obvious, but hitting them to see if they are on is also a bad idea.  It’s like hitting your child to see if he’s awake.  Effective, but not smart.  Blowing on them is also not good, although more of a problem for other types of mics.  The best thing?  Snap your fingers, talk into them (what a concept!) or scratch the windscreen (often a silver mesh covering).  That way, you are making sounds that the mic will pick up, not inflicting abuse!

Many dynamic mics have switches.  Think of it like a light switch.  Up (toward your mouth as you hold it) is on, down is off.  I don’t know how many times people have held a mic with the switch off and stood there hitting it while looking at me like I ought to be fixing something for them.  Yeah, just turn on the switch. 

There is also what is called a pickup pattern on a mic.  It is the actual area around the microphone that will “hear” the sounds.  Think of it like a flashlight.  If you stand directly in front of a flashlight, it will illuminate you.  If you stand off to the side a bit, you won’t be seen as well.  If you’re behind it, you won’t be seen at all.  Point that flashlight (microphone) directly toward your mouth, and you will be loudest.  I have seen people hold them like a bridal bouquet somewhere near their belt, and they wonder why they can’t be heard.  Certainly, some mics and some systems are more sensitive, but if in doubt, just get it closer to your mouth.  There is a mathematical formula (it’s all physics) for the amplification versus distance from the source.  Basically, it falls off noticeably each time you double the distance.  So, 3 inches from your mouth is going to be louder than 6 inches, which is louder than 12 inches.  If you hold it like a candle (completely vertical) in front of your mouth, it may still pick up your voice, but seldom as well as if you speak right down the throat of the mic.  Be a rock star!  Remember, the sound tech can always turn you down, but often cannot turn you up much higher without introducing other problems.

One common problem is feedback.  Simply put, feedback is when the microphone “hears” the sound coming from the speaker, which it then tries to amplify, which then comes out of the speaker into the mic, which it then tries to amplify…  Getting confused?  Yeah, that’s why the speakers squeal in frustration.  Try to remember not to place or hold a microphone where it will directly “hear” the sound coming from a speaker, and you should be fine.  However, the higher you have to boost the microphone volume (to compensate for a small voice, or for not holding it close enough, etc.), the greater the chance that the mic will also “hear” the sound coming from the speaker.  These are all reasons why you should keep the mic as close to the voice as possible, so only the voice is amplified and not extraneous sounds that can cause problems. 

Body mics are another animal with their own set of woes, but usually work better on stage because they are so close to the performer.  They also generally have a larger pickup pattern (think lantern instead of flashlight), which is why they can be placed on a cheek, at a hairline, or on a lapel and still work well.  The biggest issues?  Change batteries often and have fresh ones at the ready just in case, leave the pack turned on (don't mute it - you may forget to unmute it, and then you're sunk), be kind to the pack and cords (no dropping, kinking), and don’t place it where hair or clothing will brush the mic. 

When you’re properly heard, no one thinks about the sound system.  They only think about the performance.  That’s as it should be - no technical distractions.  Can you hear me now?

Monday, August 8, 2011

My Servant Joseph

I’m taking a slight departure from my own tradition – that of naming each post with the title of a Broadway show tune.  (You figured that out, right?)  Today’s post is the title of a song,  but not from a Broadway show.  It is from the show I was just involved in, so I decided it was appropriate. 

When I started this blog, it was before I even auditioned this show.  Now it is done, after just five short performances, where it was seen by roughly 1,000 people.  It was the only time I can recall repeating a show I’ve directed before.  It is a reader’s theater, actually, not necessarily designed to be staged with as much attention as we recently gave it.  The last time I did this one, about 10 years ago, it was only minimally costumed, had narrators who sat to the side and read from their scripts, and a small choir.  Nevertheless, it was well received as a powerful and uplifting religious presentation.  The memories from that previous version influenced my choices for the current show.  I hope they influenced them in the right way.

How do you attempt to make magic twice?  There is sometimes a temptation in theater to copy, copy, copy.  I’ve done that myself.  Why reinvent the wheel?  Why not do what you’ve done before?  Better yet, why not do what the pros have done, or at least borrow heavily?  I’ve heard creativity defined as not revealing your sources.  When others have spent time, money and energy researching and rehearsing and tweaking, why not benefit from their efforts?  There can be little bits and gags that are worth incorporating, and other elements that are so well known, the show doesn’t seem complete without them.  It is sometimes safer to go with what is expected, what is familiar.  It takes a little more nerve, and can be more of a risk, to go down a new road.  But, sometimes the risk is worth it. 

For My Servant Joseph, I was dealing with my own memories of a very special event, while trying to encourage a new cast, most of whom were new to the material.  We had some resources I didn’t have before, including a large stage and a good budget, but I didn’t want to just drop the previous show into a more elaborate setting. 

I do think a change should be a thoughtful improvement, not just a random difference, and a new set of performers need the freedom to create their performances without the expectation to simply mimic a predecessor.  By (mostly) resisting the urge to mold the new in the image of the old, I was able to pump up the volume (with enhanced sound design, sets, lights, props, full costumes, choir members as narrators and suggestions of multiple locations) and be a part of another very special event.  Thanks to everyone involved, and all who came to support it.  Well done.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

I Dreamed a Dream

I guess everybody has anxiety dreams.  There are the classics, like dreaming of being in school and not being ready for a test, or not even knowing what the subject is. There's the dream of realizing you have no clothes on.  Ha!  These are for amateurs!  I have compared notes with other performers, and we seem to have our own particular brand of panic inducing gifts from Queen Mab.  

I find myself onstage, stuck in the middle of a scene that is vaguely familiar, but totally unrehearsed.   There is an audience, of course, so I can't just leave.  I'm not sure if others around me know what they're supposed to be doing, but I do my uncomfortable best to fake it.  Now, even at my most awake, I'm not very good at ad-libbing.  I have friends who can make up lyrics on the spot - rhyming, no less - and never miss a beat. Not me.  I wish I could.  No, I need a script, a specific plan.  Once that plan is in place, I can adjust and adapt, but in these dreams there is no plan.  All I am really aware of is the need to entertain and the inability to gracefully get off the stage.  I know no lines, I have no blocking, I am stuck.  And I am quite sure the audience isn't buying a moment of it.

I have a show opening next week.  Six days.  I am confident it will go well.  The cast is strong, the support crew experienced and reliable.  Nevertheless, I rarely make it through an opening without a crazy dream or two reminding me that things can go terribly wrong if there is a lack of preparation. 

Tonight we do a costume check.  In a couple of days we move into the performance venue, bring in the set and set the lights.  We’ll check out the sound system, work with the mics, adjust our blocking as needed.  I’ll position myself in the orchestra pit, hoping the choral members can actually see me from the stage.  I’ll send six skirts off to be hemmed by a much appreciated volunteer and get the eight borrowed hooped petticoats out of my back seat.  Details, just details, but all important ones – all things that someone needs to attend to so the audience can sit back and enjoy the performance.

Lorne Michaels, of Saturday Night Live fame, was loosely quoted as saying, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s eleven-thirty.”  That could be the mantra for all live theater, not just live television.  The lights go down, the curtain goes up, and there you are, ready or not.   It’s enough to give you nightmares, but it is also the stuff of dreams.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I Feel Pretty

Time flies when you're having fun.  Or when you're up to your eyeballs in theater projects.  It has been so long since my last post, so this one is a bit longer than usual.  I've been too busy doing to write about doing!

One of the tasks that often falls in my lap, sometimes by default, is costuming.  I am currently in a familiar mode.  Costumes are in various stages of completion and scattered all around the house.  I found someone willing to hem the 6 full skirts that are yet to be completed, but I have more work to do before I can get the skirts to her.  The tops are mostly done - mostly.  I've saved the hardest for last, probably because the progress is slowest with the more difficult pieces.  

I have a love hate relationship with costuming.  I am glad I know how to sew.  I would never go back to not having a serger and am loving my new dress form (since I am not the same size as everyone I sew for and trying things on repeatedly gets a bit tedious). However, I am not a confident designer, so I second guess every choice until a garment is completed.  Endless combinations of fabrics, patterns and trims swirl through my brain like a mad scientist trying to develop some magic elixir.  But the magic I seek is visual.  And since I can only dream what it would be like to throw down a piece of fabric and attack it with just imagination, scissors and a french curve (that's a design tool, right?), I am limited to using tissue paper patterns that I adapt and combine with an odd a blend of mathematical precision and reckless abandon.   I've developed a somewhat misplaced confidence in my ability to make any length of fabric somehow be enough for my design.  That means I've also developed some interesting skills at piecing together scraps.

I am learning as I go, however.  I have to fight my natural tendency, when costuming, to make clothing that is too street worthy.  I have come to realize that the best costumes are often a little bigger than life.  Wilder colors, extreme shapes, fanciful trims.  It depends upon the theme of the show, of course.  There is a place for understated and true to life, but an outfit that will likely be seen from a minimum of twenty feet away often needs to pop, needs to look like a costume.   Everything doesn't need sequins and beads, but there are certainly appropriate times to go for a big impact.   

The show I am currently costuming is set in middle America in the 1830s - 1840s.  It is still pre-civil war, pre-Victorian, but not prairie or frontier clothing.  Wedged somewhere between  the elegance of a feathered chapeau and the down home casualness of a calico bonnet, I've found skirts, blouses, vests and bodices that I hope will all appear unique, interesting, and fairly true to the period - or at least what is perceived for that period.  Oh yes, did I mention it all has to be done within a budget of less than $40 per outfit?  

What would theater be like if we had unlimited budgets, throngs of skilled and willing volunteers and (while I'm dreaming) endless queues of  patrons with bulging wallets? I'll probably never know, and don't have too much time to worry about it.  I've got sewing to do. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Music of the Night

One of the tech tools I like is Power Point.  Yep, the go-to software for sales presentations and school reports.  I found an unconventional use for it in the theater - sound effects for a play I directed last year.  It had dozens of sound cues, many of them very short and critically timed.  I created a PP presentation, one slide per sound, and it worked out beautifully.  I plugged my laptop into the sound board, and the sound operator was able to advance the slides, each with the appropriate sound attached, according to the cues which were also written on the slides (“cue for next sound …”).  The sounds can be set to play automatically when the slide advances, so one click, and the sound effect is played.  No struggling in semi-darkness for the stop button on a CD player, no rapid advancing of tracks when cues are spaced closely together.  I also created a video for the preshow music, embedded in a slide (visible only to the light and sound techs),  so it would indicate exactly when the lights were to dim, when they should go to blackout, etc., during the music.  Not that I’m particular …

I hadn’t initially planned to use it that way.  I set it up for rehearsal purposes in a new theater when other equipment wasn’t readily available (and when I was curious to see if such a plan would work).  Then I discovered it was easier to insert or edit one slide at a time than always burning a new CD each time there were changes.  And I make lots of changes!

I’m sure there is software out there specifically designed to work this way, but I already had PP, knew basically how to use it, and was able to clearly indicate cues for sound techs who may not be too familiar with the show.  For shows with typical songs and underscores, it would not be any better than standard methods (CD, minidisc, MP3 playback, whatever), but for this one, it was a great option.

I also used Power Point for a choral program, presented on a small stage that was little more than a white (yes, white) box.  Instead of using it for sound cues, I used it as a slide show behind the performers.  One wall became the screen, and a musical presentation that would have otherwise been fairly static, became more visually interesting.  There’s nothing novel about using PP for a slide show, but it was a simple way to add an interesting backdrop in a casual theatrical setting when resources were limited.  

Friday, July 1, 2011

Make Believe

I spend a lot of time with music editing.  It’s a strange hobby that has fascinated me for decades.  In my last post, I talked a little bit about some of the kinds of things I’ve done.  Since my purpose in this blog is partly to share ideas that others might find useful, let me dig into some of the techie aspects of theater and performance that I find so interesting, and which I realize may cause someone else’s eyes to glaze over.  Sorry.

I've been interested in sound reinforcement and editing ever since college, when I took a course in “theater sound” as part of a short lived dream to be a recording engineer.  I remember sitting in a lab with a reel to reel (ask your grandparents) trying to splice something in just the right place.  Now I do it with such ease at the computer.  I can’t count the number of people who I’ve worked with on recording projects who have been amazed with how easily sound can be manipulated.  It’s why we have popular singers who can’t actually sing, but that’s another story.

Fast forward several years, to when I took a community college class on recording techniques.  When a friend of a friend, who happened to be a professional sound engineer, came to class with me one day, I got the gold star for best show and tell.  Since he had worked on the Salt Lake City Olympics, they wanted to know how they managed to get teeny tiny microphones on the ice skates in the opening sequence to pick up the sound of the blades gliding across the ice.  The teacher of the class was quite disappointed to learn that the sounds had been prerecorded.  Yes, even live TV uses theatrical tricks.

When I directed Jane Eyre a few years ago, several of the chorus members were used as narrators.  With limited resources (not enough body mics) and a large theater to fill, I wondered if they could be heard while speaking over a musical underscoring.  I prerecorded all their dialogue and put it on the track.  Then they spoke along with their own voice during the performance.  I don’t think anyone suspected it, and the narration could be clearly heard.

Another time I was running sound for a very casual musical review.  This was a lighthearted church production, with an enthusiastic, if not terribly well trained cast.  When they repeatedly struggled with knowing where to start singing after an extended narration (a twist on the song “Tradition” from Fiddler), we cheated.  I recorded them singing the first few words and blended it in with the track.  Since it was their voices already, no one was the wiser, they had more confidence, and it sounded like they knew what they were doing.  Yes, sometimes theater is all about the illusion!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Sound of Music

I’m a geek.  I embrace it.  I let my geek flag fly.  I have never used a pocket protector or strapped a calculator to my belt, but I like computers and spreadsheets and details.  I also love how tech tools can enhance artistic opportunities and expression, especially regarding sound engineering.  

I recently read how some professionals have done recordings using their IPad, and the author of the article wondered how long it would be until smart phones became portable recording studios.   I have long been a home recording hobbyist, so I found the concept sort of fascinating.  But since I just last week upgraded my recording software, and sit at my computer surrounded by my keyboard, mixer, external soundcard and comically large speakers (OK, I didn’t buy them mainly as computer monitors, but they happen to work that way!), I think I’ll keep what I’ve got.  These tools have allowed me to do not only recording, but lots of manipulation of sounds for theater projects.  (I’ve used software by Magix for years – inexpensive but powerful.  I just upgraded to Samplitude 11.5 Producer.) 

Most of the shows I’ve been involved with use prerecorded tracks, something I do not have the skills to create myself.  But it is often long after those tracks have been obtained that the need for changes is discovered.  Maybe the scene change music isn’t long enough – or is too long.  Maybe a song is in the wrong key, or a dialogue underscore section is too fast.  Usually there are a least a few sound effects, like a telephone or doorbell, that are easier to include right along with the music track.  Sometimes several sound effects are layered to create the right sound, or they may be intentionally left as separate sounds which must then be cued individually.  I did sound design for a show last year with thunder (sound effect) and lightening (lighting effect) that needed to be timed together, and they needed to be cued by dialogue, so it all had to be done on the fly.  I kept an endless loop of rain sounds running, and used a separate sound source for individual thunder claps.  No sleeping on the job for that one!

Another somewhat elaborate effect layered the existing background music, sirens, barking dogs and gunshots.  It was a 10 or 15 second clip that the audience probably didn’t really think about, but which heightened the mood and emotion of that scene.  I wouldn’t even want them to think about it.  Sound enhancement is often more about helping the audience to feel what you want them to feel than it is about expecting them to really listen.  And sometimes, when it’s done right, all they notice is the feeling.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Consider Yourself

There is a new TV show called The Glee Project.  It is a reality show (aren’t they all?) about singers hoping to get cast for a 7 episode feature on Glee.  What makes this particular show a bit unique is that it really is an extended audition.  It is conducted by the show’s original casting director, along with its vocal coach and choreographer.  There are no audience votes turning it into a popularity contest, and the directors are looking not just for the next big thing, but for someone who can be an interesting character on Glee.  (You can watch it on

The show’s director specifically said, “It’s so subjective,” pointing out that it may not be the best singer or actor or dancer who is automatically selected.  They watch the hopefuls as they interact with others.  They watch for attitude and ability to be part of a team.  Being directable – able to cheerfully take suggestions and try something different when asked – is valued.  They don’t necessarily go straight for the most talented, but are drawn to the ones who stand out because of their special combination of abilities or personality.  I will be curious to see the fate of the pretty girl who has already declared herself on camera as one of the best singers there (or did she say THE best?).  Yeah, keep on telling it to the camera…

Spoiler alert – the first two episodes are over, and two people have been cut.  In both cases, the one who was “not called back” was dismissed because of attitude.  One was difficult to work with, the other viewed as being too negative.  I always find it interesting to see the process that others go through, especially professional directors, and found it especially interesting that it is pretty much what I do.  That isn’t to say I’m up there with the pros, but it does show that almost wherever you go, people will look for the same kinds of things.  I guess after all my preaching about the importance of the whole package – talent and personality – I am reassured to see professionals weighing identical concerns. 

I finally announced the (essentially) complete casting for Xanadu, after auditioning, doing call backs, trying to determine which qualities I really needed in which characters and how different actors would look/sound/perform together.  I am so looking forward to working with a group that is talented, excited about the show and who genuinely like each other and should work well as a team.  They say that casting is about 90% of a director’s job.  Yeah, my job is done!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Strange Magic

I finished my three rounds of auditions, then callbacks, and entered the deciding phase for both productions.  Even though one of the shows isn’t happening for months, I hate leaving people hanging.  I figure once they express an interest and willingness to be in a show, it is just common courtesy to give them an answer in a timely manner.  Selfishly, I want to get a commitment from the ones I want to work with before they are snatched up by some other director for a competing show! 

So, I just posted a cast list for Xanadu. Or at least a nearly complete cast list.  I still have a few decisions to make.  I also cast another show this past week, and started rehearsing it last night.  It has been a whirlwind of callbacks, deciding, considering, planning.  Hence, no posts for days.

Sometimes the whole process can throw me for a loop.  I’ve had people show up at rehearsals who haven’t been cast, still feeling hopeful, I guess, or perhaps not really understanding the audition process.  It’s bad enough to reject someone in an impersonal way (email:  sorry, you didn’t make the cut), but to have to essentially do it twice?  No fun. 

I’ve frequently had people drop out very early in the game. even between auditions and the first rehearsal.  It goes with the territory, and I sometimes even try to plan ahead for it.  I once cast a group of 80-some people for a large theatrical/choral production, which was more than I really even wanted.  What was I thinking?  By the time we opened, dropouts had brought us down to 63 people, which is about what I had aimed for initially.  It turned out for the best, as I didn’t need to replace those who quit.  More often, dropouts are a problem that must be dealt with by the director, but they can also work to an actor’s advantage.

My first big role in high school, as Lucille in No, No, Nanette (a show that no one ever does anymore, but is really very cute) was the result of replacing the girl for whom I was the understudy.  She got sick and had to drop out.  My most recent role on stage, as Truvy in Steel Magnolias, was also a role that was initially given to another, who also needed to drop out for health reasons.  I so appreciate people who are willing to jump in with a good attitude and not feel slighted for being a second choice.  Xanadu’s Broadway star, Cheyenne Jackson, who was a perfect Sonny, took on the role after the initial lead was injured in a (wait for it…) roller skating accident.  Only in New York!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Where Did We Go Right?

I've heard it said that you can watch a TV show or go to a movie and easily forget it, but that live theater stays with you.  That may be true, even though there are some shows I’ve seen that I’d just as soon forget.  Some of the stranger ones –

I once watched Patti LuPone on Broadway in a rendition of Sweeney Todd that was so unusual that my friend said she sat there thinking, “I could have spent this money on more purses on Canal Street!”  She totally hated it, and it was Patti LuPone!  I did hear they eventually toned down the deafening screech played each time someone died.  I like Sweeney Todd, but this was a little out there, even for the demon barber of Fleet Street.

I was really excited to see Michael Crawford on Broadway, in his first role since Phantom.  Dance of the Vampires.  You’ve never heard of it, have you?  It opened and closed with no fanfare, which was for the best.  When one of the characters started singing Total Eclipse of the Heart, I don’t think it was supposed to be funny, but the audience laughed.  Yeah, it was that kind of show.  Apparently it was big in Germany for years.  Go figure.

Probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen was a professional touring show.  Out of deference to the schools and others who continue to do this show (which I’m sure is great when done well), I will leave the title to your imagination, although I will say it’s not even six degrees away from Kevin Bacon.  What bothered me wasn’t the actual material, it was the way it was put together.  I didn’t like the casting, the acting, the set.  I didn’t like the main character at all, who was too old for the role, too cocky, and just not nearly engaging enough.  I have seen high school shows I’ve enjoyed more, and these were supposed to be pros. Instead of enjoying it, I sat there thinking it looked cheap and amateurish.  I expected more.

I’ve seen plenty of community plays, church musicals, professional tours and several Broadway shows.  I think you come in with a certain expectation as an audience, based upon the company, and if that expectation is met, you are pleased, even if it isn’t top notch.  When I direct, especially in a small setting, I always encourage the cast to make it better than what people expect to see.  Then I love hearing from the audience that it was better than what they expected!  Yeah, that’s the goal.  Reach a little over your head, and the audience won’t be wishing they’d spent their ticket money on a purse!  

Thursday, June 9, 2011

There's No Business Like Show Business

There is an old Joan Crawford movie where she is directing the remodel of a luxury apartment.  When the contractor tells her that she can’t have a picture window in the middle of a load bearing wall because of all the structural problems, she tells him to knock down the wall anyway.  With a roll of his eyes, he agrees.  She got what she wanted, and he dealt with the logistical nightmare of making it work.

She had the vision, he had the expertise.  We see these collaborations all the time in the arts.  The author needs the editor, the musician - the engineer, the architect - the contractor.  The dreamer needs the doer.  Every John Lennon needs a George Martin.   

Sometimes the pairings are less obvious, less direct.  The choreographer needs dancers, the director needs actors, to be sure, but they all need builders and technicians and stage hands.   To survive financially, they need bookings and promotions and someone looking after the light bill.  Someone has to worry about schedules and budgets and enlisting volunteers.   The rent must be paid, the props must be stored, the audience must somehow appear and taxes must be filed.  Ignore any of those considerations for too long, and it doesn’t matter how much talent you bring to the stage.   

Unfortunately, the ones who pull such creative genius out of their hat, whether a script, a dance or a concert, are sometimes less enthused, or even less equipped, to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.  The very nature of dealing with the pesky details goes against their natural view of creation, and they just want to “knock down the wall,” without necessarily knowing how to keep the ceiling from falling in.  Sometimes it is not that there is a disregard for what must be accomplished, but that the right brain realities are so foreign to the left brain free thinking artist. 

That is part of the reason I believe theater companies need a diverse group of volunteers to help them thrive.  I was briefly on the board of an orchestral group.  Now, I don’t think I’ve ever played in an orchestra (does junior high band count?), but I was able to offer some assistance with organizing and coordinating.  Some of the most valued volunteers can be those who aren’t secretly waiting for their place in the spotlight.  Love the arts, but feel you aren’t talented enough to participate?  Don’t be so sure.  Maybe you’re the perfect person to help knock down the walls.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On the Street Where You Live

Community theater sometimes gets a bad rap.  Sitcoms portray characters playing scenes on tiny stages with wooden actors and garish costumes.  I won’t pretend that doesn’t happen in real life.  It does.  I even believe there’s a place for wooden actors and garish costumes (maybe … somewhere).  Having an outlet for artistic expression among amateurs, a place where people can learn from each other in an environment where they are not being judged against the best of the best, is a good thing.  Every mom or dad who has cheered on a grade school thespian knows that self confidence and pride can be built in simple ways and that sometimes a sincere effort alone is worthy of praise, even if not a Tony award.

We see wonderful examples of creative expression in local art festivals.  In any community celebration across America you can find artists with photos and paintings for sale.  There’s not a Rembrandt or an Ansell Adams among the bunch, but people still buy and display the pieces that lift them, that touch them in some way.  These painters and photographers are able to express themselves and have their efforts appreciated, enriching the artist and the community alike.

Whether on the stage or the easel, we should applaud and support local artistic efforts.  That doesn’t mean we have to love everything produced just because it exists, or embrace mediocrity.  I am a firm believer in high standards and quality production values.  I also believe that quality is not just the domain of professional theater companies.  There are a lot of worthwhile shows being produced on small stages all across the country.  
(Check out closing weekend of KED’s Taming of the Shrew - photo below!)

Small theaters are the training ground for tomorrow’s professionals, a creative outlet for those who prefer the structure and security of a “real” job, or the ideal performance venue for those who perhaps lack the training, talent or desire to pursue theater full time.  They perform in schools and rented halls, church basements and empty shopping malls. 

There is no way that a community theater can compete with a professional show’s budget  and scale, but there are gems on the local scene.  For those of us who are just crazy enough to want to be part of the small stage theatrical world, we can help discover and polish those gems.  We can bring visions, our own or that of others, to life, and live to tell about it!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

I Hope I Get It

Many people, even seasoned performers, get nervous before an audition.  As a director, I actually enjoy the process.  Nobody’s judging me and I get to see lots of theater friends, old and new.  I get to see the beginning of the vision coming together as I put faces with roles.  It can be fun, at least  until I have to make the very difficult calls about who is in and who is out.  I know that I am going to disappoint many people, and there’s just no way around it.  I don’t like that part at all.

I once had a woman call me, wondering why she wasn’t cast when she didn’t see anyone else at auditions who she thought did better than she did.  She wanted answers.  She started singing to me on the phone.  It was … really awkward.   

I’ve had people come up to me immediately after an audition and ask what they could have done better.  I appreciate the desire to improve and to receive feedback, but sometimes my honest answer would be - be older, or be taller, or be a different physical type – suggestions that are not really helpful to them.  If you aren’t cast, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done something wrong, but it may be that you just weren’t what the director was looking for, in ways that may be totally beyond your control. 

You shouldn’t automatically expect that the director is locked into casting the closest clone to the Broadway version of that character.  Very few roles are so specific that there isn’t creative leeway.  However, if you are far outside the typical type for a role, or don’t bring all the specific skills desired, be prepared to bring something very fresh and interesting to your audition to spark the director’s interest.  I have seen that happen and been pleasantly surprised, finding myself willing to go in a new direction.

In community theater, there are often compromises made, with few triple threats in the amateur world.  The director decides which talents are most important to the role.  Sometimes it won’t be the best dancer or the best actor, or even the best singer, who gets cast, much to the frustration of the best dancers and actors!  The point here is not that all directors are awful and capricious (a topic for another day), but that even if you think you are perfect for a role, the director simply may not agree.   Try not to take it personally – and try not to take it out on the director!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Razzle Dazzle

The auditions I’m involved with start this weekend, so let me add one last random note on vocal auditions.  I personally don't care if the song is memorized. I've heard lots of people apologize for not knowing the words, but I figure it isn't a memory test, it's a singing test. I have no doubt about your ability to ultimately memorize a song. However, your best opportunity to give a good overall impression may be just during the time you are singing. So, if you can really perform it, all the better. You don't have to put in pyrotechnics and backup dancers, but your personality and star quality will probably come through more easily if your eyes aren't glued to the page. If you can shine while glancing at your notes occasionally, that doesn't bother me a bit. Of course, I can only speak for myself.

If you happen to be sick, go ahead and mention it, but I find it often ends up sounding like an excuse, so try to not make a big deal of it.  I've heard too many claim illness as though they'd be Tony Award winners if only the pollen count wasn't so high.  I've heard people sing just fine while sick, even if not at their best. I can tell if someone's congested or if their throat is sore. Their voice may not be as well supported or strong, and range may drop.  But sickness does not destroy sense of timing or pitch or confidence, so most directors will be able to look past your sniffles and scratchiness. If you really think you need a healthy opportunity to show 'em what you've got, ask. Likely, they've been able to determine what they need, and will let you know if they want a second look.

Remember that the very worst thing that can happen is that they'll pick someone else. That's not really that terrible, is it?  I’ve never seen anyone injured or attacked at an audition yet.  They won't post a video of your audition to Youtube. They won't tell all the directors in town not to cast you. They won't prevent you from auditioning again in the future. Try not to let your nerves get the best of you, take a breath, and try to learn something from the process!

Final advice – be confident.  If you aren’t, use your acting!  Pretend!  Ask questions if you need to.  They want you to do your best, really.  They will be nice.  They’ll smile when you sing (the nice ones, anyway - the ones you’d want to work with).  They’ll say thank you when you’re done.   Let your personality come out.  They know you’re nervous, but they’re looking for potential.  Be memorable, be interesting.  
Razzle dazzle ‘em!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Putting it Together

There are lots of things I consider as I look at potential cast members, not always consciously, but they come into play as I think about who I want on my team.  Aside from a talented group, here’s my wish list for the kind of people I’d like to have around. 

I want people who play well with others, who are pleasant to be around and whose demeanor improves cast cohesiveness. I’d rather have a peacemaker than a gossip.  Those who can handle the inevitable stress and help defuse it are highly valued. 

I love responsible people, who arrive on time and arrive prepared.  They are the ones who pay attention to the rehearsal schedule, even the changes!   They let me know as early as they can what their conflicts are and yet do their best to make themselves available.  I actually had someone ask me once if she had a chance of a small part in a simple show if she could only rarely come to rehearsals.  Uh, no.

I appreciate people who are helpful, who are willing to assist with other tasks at the theater. Sometimes there is a whole separate crew to handle costuming, set construction, wigs, makeup, props, etc. Often there is not. People who are willing to pitch in are golden.

In a perfect world, all cast members would be mature and independent.  I can dream, right?  They’d pick up after themselves, remember to bring their scripts, realize the dressing room needs to be shared and that props don’t put themselves away.  Little things become big things when stress mounts.

I would love everyone to be a diva in terms of talent and general awesomeness, but not a diva in terms of being high maintenance and emotionally demanding.  I want to work with people who know the appropriate time and place to voice concerns, which is usually not at 90 Db in front of the whole cast.  I admire people who can have patience with themselves and encourage others when the going gets tough (or when the costume doesn’t fit or the song is hard to learn).  A positive attitude goes a long way in a situation that is, by nature, emotional and demanding. 

Oh, the drama!