About This Blog

I really like theatre, and I like writing and talking about it.

This blog is mostly about my relationship with theatre, the moments that make me fall in love with this art form, and the times when we don't always get along.

I'll be writing about things that I like, that I think are good and interesting and want to share. I will probably also write about things that I don't quite get, or think are wierd. I may also write about things that aren't theatre, strictly speaking, because it's my blog and I can.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Focus on the Actors?

I was a bit irked yesterday by an email I received from my theatre company. It was an audition announcement for our next show, and came with a little note from the director explaining the concept, which said "...the play specifically calls for as little costume and set dressing as possible. What does this mean? This means this is a show for ACTORS!"

This drove me crazy. We're talking about a contemporary, intimate relationship drama. What are they going to be wearing, ballgowns? People seem to have this attitude that if everyone isn't in corsets and frock coats, they're not wearing "costumes", or that if the show is contemporary, costumes aren't important.


You want to communicate to your audience right away who these people are or how they live. This play is about a married couple who are both writers, and set in their home. Are they well off, or do they struggle to make ends meet? Are they preppy academics, or cutting-edge rebels? Do they live in Cape Cod, Arizona, or Brooklyn? These are all opportunities to flesh out the characters, and these details can be communicated to the audience through the costumes and set dressing.


It doesn't help the audience for the actors to wander on stage wearing whatever clothes they happened to have on that morning. That tells them nothing about the characters. It doesn't help the actors, either. Often, the key to realizing a character is looking in the mirror and seeing that character looking back at you.

That's not to say that you can't be completely transported by a well-acted show with minimal tech elements, but you need to create an environment in which the audience's imagination can fill in the blanks. Where you put the negative space in a play is a choice, too.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Sugar/Caffeine Death Spiral

I have a bit of a problem with my current show; I get off of work at 5pm, but rehearsal is not until 7:30. I work at about the mid-way point between my house and our rehearsal space, so I don't have enough time to go home first, leaving me with about an hour and a half to kill before I can head over there.

I've been doing a ton of overtime at work (yay, time and a half!) to fill the gap, but I don't get home from rehearsal until almost 11 o'clock at night, resulting in some very long days. And a very tired girl.

During the day at work, I start flagging. I would love to do something to get my energy up, like do some jumping jacks, or run around the building, or have a 10-second dance party.

Sadly, these things are generally frowned upon in a business environment. So instead, I turned to the only two options available to me: candy and caffeine.

I can't drink coffee--either it has more caffeine than I can handle, or the coffee is just too acidic, and it makes me super nauseous. So instead I drink black tea, although I can't have too much of that either, especially on an empty stomach. It has the odd result that I will have a HUGE sneezing fit (13 sneezes is my record). Physiologically, I don't know how those two things are related. It makes zero sense.

I also have a co-worker who has a candy drawer in her desk full of Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls, and Mike & Ike's. I try to pack myself lots of healthy snacks to deter myself, but a fistful of Tootsie Rolls is more enticing than string cheese when you're trying to make it through the afternoon. But since I'm out of the habit of eating really sugary foods, a) I feel gross afterwards, and b) I can feel my veins vibrating.

I do sometimes manage to take naps during the day at work; a few people have couches in their offices, and there's a creepy nylon one in the breakroom. I think the next step is taking naps sitting up at my desk (while still typing, if possible).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Greatest Lesson I Ever Learned From Theatre

When I was in seventh grade, my school started a drama club. In the fall we did three short comedic one acts, and I got cast in a pretty good part. In the spring we did a full-length, mostly dramatic (it had some funny bits) play. I was feeling so confident at the auditions, I just got up on stage and read through the script. I'm not sure I even looked at it before I went up there.

I did not get cast.

I remember pushing through the crowd at the back of the auditorium to look at the cast list taped to the wall, and looking over it again and again, but it remained the same. I was only an understudy. I managed to get out to the parking lot before I started crying.

Rehearsal was twice a week after school, and I may have only been an understudy, but I went to every single one. I didn't have any friends that year, and didn't have anywhere to be after school. So I went to rehearsal. I made friends there, and I would watch the scenes, or do homework, or study lines for the characters I was understudying. And if any of the actors weren't there that day, I would fill in for them.

Three weeks before the show, a girl in the cast realized she had a major basketball tournament the same weekend as the show. She had to decide which one was more important to her. She chose basketball, and I got her role.

The next year we did Alice In Wonderland for our fall show. I was worried I wouldn't get a good part, since I had such a small role in the previous show. But I was thrilled when I found out I would be playing the Queen of Hearts!

It turns out, I had made a huge impression on the director with my dedication and enthusiasm. She was willing to take a bigger chance on me in the next show once she saw how hard I worked.

I think that's important lesson you can apply to any job, not just theatre. You may not like the job you have right now, but if you kick ass at it, people will notice. It can take a while to earn people's respect and trust. But opportunities will come to you once you do.

No Small Parts

Seriously. There aren't any.

I remember a lesson from the summers when I went to a theater day camp during my vacations. We went to see a show at another children's theater--I don't remember what the show was, I think it was based on a Tomie dePaola book. The only thing I remember about it--and what we all agreed was our favorite part later--was the girl who played the goat. She had zero lines and her character was not important to the plot. Our camp counselors asked us why we all liked her so much, and why she was so interesting to watch.

It was because she was having fun. She was fun for us to watch because she was clearly having a great time playing her role.

Another good example is a production of Twelfth Night which I designed for my theater company this past summer. The character Fabian is usually kind of a throwaway role--he shows up halfway through the show which no introduction, everyone just acts like he's always been there. He helps out some other characters in their scheming, but that's about it. The director gave the role to Tracey, who played the role as a man. She's a great comic and Shakespearean actress, but he didn't have a female role that she fit in that show.

Well, she completely owned it as Fabian. She took a nondescript character, and turned it into a comic foil so funny, she consistently got spontaneous mid-scene applause. She's also the only person I know who can ad-lib Shakespeare successfully.

So now I find myself doing a Shakespeare play, and while I'm on stage a lot, there's not a lot of information about my character in the script, and I don't have a lot of dialogue. So I did the most important thing any actor can when creating a role- I made up a backstory for myself. A lot of it was based on the experiments we did with Laban Movement Theory; I discovered what kind of movement felt right for my character, and then came up with a reason why he might act that way (we're women playing male characters).

Thanks to my background development, I now have a character who has specific motivations and relationships that inform how she reacts to what's going on onstage, which gives me something to do even when I don't have lines. The best thing is, even though I completely made up this character's personality, my director is being completely supportive. He's even finding opportunities in the scene for my character to have more specific reactions. And as a result I'm having a lot of fun playing him.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Stage Combat

I gotta be honest; I love doing fight choreography. It probably comes from my latent desire to be an action star. I took Kung-Fu lessons when I was a kid, and I was part of a filmmaking club in college that specialized in action/thriller films, so I got to learn how to do stage fighting.

I remember doing one really long day of shooting for a thriller about a home invasion--my attacker and I spent most of it wrestling on the floor of a tiny bathroom before I chased him into the kitchen, and ultimately killed him with a meat cleaver. The bathroom was barely big enough to fit the crew, and we did a lot of shots with the cameraman standing on the toilet and the director hiding in the bathtub. I was so sore I couldn't move the next day, but it was extremely rewarding, and we got a great reaction from the crowd at our school film festival for the brutal fights.

So I'm really excited to be doing a lot of stage combat in the show that I'm rehearsing right now. Fights present a lot of challenges on stage; you need to make sure everyone stays safe, but you want the fight to look chaotic and spontaneous, but you need to keep the movement clean enough that the audience can follow the action.

One of the most important things is to make sure the audience isn't concerned about the safety of the actors. It's a weird dichotomy, but you need to maintain suspension of disbelief. The audience needs to believe that the character is being hurt, but not the actor. If they're actually worried for the actor, it will pull them out of the moment.

In my opinion, the most importants traits are to appear deliberate and determined. Each movement has to have a specific purpose; you can't flail or stumble about, even when you're the one taking the hits. I think the best way to sell taking a hit is to "ragdoll", but you still need to make it clear where the impact was, and how much it hurt. Which leads to the other element: determination. You have to act the fight. Are you angry? Scared? Tired? The fighters need to look determined to win the fight, both in their body language and facial expression.

When learning the fight choreography, you have to start out v e r y  s l o w l y, and then speed the action up. If you've ever watched DVD outtakes about fight scenes, you've probably heard the stunt coordinators say that learning a fight is like learning a dance. It sounds a bit cliche, but it's really true. Something we just started doing organically in rehearsals, and which I now use as an actual technique, is to narrate the fight as you walk through it. To literally say out loud:
"I go for a right hook"
"I duck and punch you in the ribs"
"I stumble back"
"I grab your shoulders and knee you in the gut"

It sounds really cheesy, but not only is it a great way to help remember the fight choreography, it results in clean fights.

So those are my thoughts on stage combat. We're learning another big fight tomorrow, and I'm really looking forward to it. Because not only is fighting on stage fun to do, when done well, it makes your show more memorable.

It also looks really cool.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Le Comte Ory

I went to see this live screening this past Saturday morning. I had a very full week, and almost didn't go. But these are three of my favorite singers, and I've enjoyed all of director Bartlett Scher's previous work for the Met, and Catherine Zuber designed the costumes. So I dragged myself out of bed, threw on something barely resembling clothes, slapped some Nutella on a slice of banana bread for breakfast, and I went.

It was well worth it. It would've been a huge shame to miss Juan Diego Florez, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato all in the same show, each of whom is the best in their fach. Besides which, Florez had come directly from the birth of his first child (a son, Leandro). As in, the baby was born at 12:25 PM EST, and the opera began at 1:00 PM. He was clearly running on adrenaline and fumes, but did seemed completely focused on his performance. In the title role, Florez is disguised both as an old hermit and a nun, and his shameless mugging was hilarious.

Oddly, I'm not usually a huge fan of tenors. Sure, I've seen tenors who have been very good, but I don't find myself moved to adoration like I have been with baritones. There are certainly more baritones whose careers I follow than tenors. Don't know why that is. Open to suggestion. But Florez is definitely the exception for me. His voice is thrilling-it has such a bright, exciting sound.

Director Bartlett Scher decided to give this show a sort of a framing device--it is kind of an odd opera, as it is a medieval French farce set during the Crusades, with music composed by an Italian. To try to marry the two sensibilities, Scher set it in a theater during Rossini's time, so you can see period set mechanics and stagehands. For the costumes, Zuber made it look like they had just raided whatever was in the wardrobe closet. It was full of frothy pink confections, but the only thing I didn't entirely like about it was sometimes you'd catch a period from the future--I'd catch a Regency era gown here and there, and it was a bit distracting. But they did fun things like creating a storm with guys on the side of the stage shaking thunder sheets and wind machines, and someone was welding to create lightning (although the camera was having a hard time catching it).

Part of this stage device was a grumpy stage manager, played by Rob Besserer. It was essentially the same character he played in Scher's The Barber of Seville a few years ago, when he played the mute servant. I find it amusing because:
a) he looks like this little stooped over old guy, until the curtain call when he straightens up, and you realize he's the tallest guy on stage
b) he's the same dancer who played Herr Drosselmeier-my favorite character- in the DVD I have of Mark Morris' The Hard Nut.

Other things I enjoyed about the production:
- Choreographed stagehands twirling about while moving trees, therefore dubbed "treeography"
- A bunch of (often bearded) man disguised as nuns, hiding all the wine they've stolen under their habits. They also had a hilarious dance number.
-Rob Besserer's in-character creeping behind Renee Fleming as she introduced the broadcast
-The trio for the three leads as Ory sneaks into Countess Adele's bed, not knowing she's already got his page Isolier in there with her. They are ostensibly in the dark, so there was lots of hilariously entangled limbs and misplaced groping.

Here's a video of the scene I'm referring to, which I kidnapped from the Met's website:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

So...What Did You Think?

Another blog I follow lead me to an interesting article today, and I think it's an important topic that people who work in the arts (or have a lot of friends in the arts) need to address: how to tell your friend what you thought of their show.

The linked article is great, and I definitely suggest you read it. I would also like to share two memorable experiences I've had with this, one many years ago, the other quite recently.

As a student, I had a large role in a production of The Crucible. Another actor from the production and I were good friends with a girl who was doing Our Town at her school a few weeks before it opened, so we went to see it. Our friend was good, but many of the other actors were flat and it was generally a dull production. But when we greeted our friend after the show, we told her how good she was, and found some nice things to say about the show.

A few weeks later, she came to see us in The Crucible, and afterwords when we asked what she thought, she just said "I didn't like it". That was it! Now, I know the show wasn't Tony-worthy; it was a student production and obviously had its problems. But it was not completely without merit, and had a lot of really good moments. None of which she chose to mention.

As for the other story; I'm currently involved with a well-reviewed production that is enjoying a successful run in Los Angeles (I was the dramaturg; in this context I mostly acted at an artistic consultant). The play is notable for its "love it or hate it" twist ending. A friend of the company came to see it, and afterwards loudly announced to his friends that he had figured out the twist for himself, was disappointed by it, and from that point on had ceased paying attention.

So three of his friends are on stage, giving physically strenuous and emotionally gripping performances, but he doesn't like the plot twist, so he's just completely checked out. ???!?!!

Based on the above, I would like to provide a few tips for going to see your friends' shows:
-Stay for the whole thing, and make sure your friend at least sees you afterwards. You are there to support your friend, and not just for your own entertainment, so even if you're not enjoying yourself, stick it out.

-Give your friend a "Good job", whether it was deserved or not. Don't ruin the post-performance afterglow.

-Come up with something nice to say about the production; cool costumes, fun choreography, that one really funny bit. Anything, so long as you don't just say "Good job" and then stand there staring at your friend.

But the most important thing, really, is to know your friend. If you know he's really thin-skinned and can't take criticism, pick out a few strong points to praise, and hope the topic never comes up again. If you see a serious problem that may hurt your friend's career in the long run and needs to be addressed, find a way to gently inform him of it. But if you have the kind of friends who are capable of objectively deconstructing their own work, you can actually tell them what you thought of it (but I'd recommend this for drinks a week later, not in the lobby after curtain calls)

But with any luck, your friends' shows are all really good, and you'll never have this problem.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Playing with Laban Theory

I'm starting rehearsal on a new play (which I'm in), and after two days of just reading through the script, we did a night of movement. We did some stretching, and vocal and physical warm-ups, and playing some games to get us working together as a group.

For me, the most interesting part was the time we spent on Laban Movement Theory. You've probably dabbled with a bit of this if you've ever taken an acting class--walk in a circle, notice what part of your body you lead with, try leading with something else, etc. I've done this as an exercise plenty of times to develop a walk or movement style for a character, but never gone much further than that.

What we did in rehearsal yesterday was a little more in-depth, exploring four different contrasting ways of moving:
Direct vs. Indirect
Sudden vs. Sustained
Light vs. Heavy
Free vs. Restrained

I seriously wish I could've had a tape recorder in my head, because I noticed so many interesting things that I wanted to remember for later. When we were playing with indirect movement through space, I noticed if I was charging through the center of the room, and then suddenly changed direction, that seemed like a character who was very inconstant. Using indirect, restrained movement at the edge of the space, I felt more like a character who was very hesitant and unsure. It was enlightening to notice my personal emotional response to movement; when we were playing with restrained movement, I curled into a ball in the middle of the room; and it felt very exposed and scary.

For the character in this play, I thought about what kind of movement felt natural to me, versus how I thought my character would move. My ideas thus far had been that he is suspicious and conniving, masculine, and aggressive (this is a cast of women who are mostly playing male characters, but not actually "as men"). The kind of movement that felt right for him was a confident, swaggery walk, and I often found myself prowling the edge of the space, then picking a destination and charging straight across to it. In one exercise, we were asked to think about how we relate to people who are moving the same way we were, versus those who weren't. I found myself keeping and eye on people moving similarly (either as rivals or possible cohorts), while people who were using lighter, freer movement irritated me ("who are these frolicking idiots? Get out of my way").

This gives me some new ideas about how to play my character, who may not be so fleshed-out in the script, but who I can bring detail and specificity to. I have new tools to use in how to bring him to life. And now the cast has a common language that the director can use so the cast will understand what he's asking for.

I'm also pleasantly achy from a yoga warm-up we did; I think I'll need to incorporate that into my daily routine so I don't run myself down.