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?