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 oxygen.com.)

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!