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.