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.