Tuesday, December 23, 2014


This post is inspired by Roundabout's current (remounted) production of Cabaret, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams. Although I was familiar with the music and had a loose notion of the plot, this was the first time I'd ever actually seen a production of this show. This is perhaps the least familiar I've been with a show that I'm posting about, so I'm still very much in "thinking mode" about this one, but here we go...

- Who's story is this?
I'm not sure who's story this is. That seems completely dumb to say, but it's true. I had always assumed that it was Sally's story. Or perhaps Sally and Cliff's story. Maybe that comes from having seen Liza's face associated with it more times than I can count. And I guess it is her story. But to me, the more interesting story is the one between Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. In Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz's story you see the rising Nazi sentiment of Berlin destroy the possibility of two people finally being able to share their lives together. In Sally and Cliff's story, the Nazi's presence is almost a sidebar. Due to the way this piece is structured (the effect that the Nazi presence has on the story, the way its presence is revealed and songs like "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" and "If You Could See Her"), it seems like the Nazi sentiment and the way it made cowards and enemies out of neighbors was at least one of the concepts that Kander and Ebb intended to punctuate. Making the story Sally's seems a little asking people to pay attention to the cop who's writing out a parking ticket, while there's also "subplot" revolving around a cop who's engaged in a high-speed car chase. But just because something is more interesting doesn't mean it's where the story is.

- About the sex. 
There are a lot of show numbers with in this musical. Many of the songs are presented as the various acts of the Kit Kat Club. Which is to say, many of the songs in the show do not advance the plot with their lyrics. Rather they tend to act as commentary on the story. Since that connection is not overtly present in the lyrics, I think it's important make sure that the staging and choreography focus on highlighting those parallels. Most of the numbers in this production did that very well, but the few that didn't just kind of passed by as naughty nightclub numbers.

- Sensitivity vs. Survival.
In this story we find two couples - one younger and one older - but both with a sensitive man and a survivalist woman. While the details of these relationships differ, I find it interesting that the need to survive is what ultimately ends them both.

- About Sally
This production paints Sally as a very infantile sort of woman, which, while it may be a valid option, is completely unappealing to me. I think Sally is absolutely the life of the party. But I think being the life of the party is how she's survived living in a very cold and difficult world. She's the life of the party because she her life depends on it. She's made of steel, even if she is unable to ultimately free herself from the destructive patterns of her life. Even in her opening number, "Don't Tell Mama", I think the role-play of playing sweet and innocent is much more exciting if it's played by someone who is actually a strong woman. I mean, it's fun to watch a cat play, but it's much MORE exciting to see a tiger playing. The thrill of danger and power that can be turned on at any point is much more engaging than knowing you've already seen the full extent of what the damage would be. Plus I think letting Sally be a stronger character fits better with "Mein Herr".  I also think this affects how we experience her decision to get an abortion and go back to the Kit Kat Klub at the end of the show. If she's been forged by the necessities of her life and is someone who has had to take care of herself, that strength and determination makes what she does a decision of survival. If she's infantile, it makes it a childish impulse.

- About Cliff.
Bill Heck turns in a great performance as Cliff. However, I think this role ultimately makes more sense with someone who is more of an underdog. Cliff stops working for Ernst and ultimately leaves Berlin as a result of not being able to stomach the rising Nazi sentiment, specifically as it relates to Herr Schultz. I think this kind of response is something that makes the most sense if someone is an outsider, an underdog, someone who's not one of the cool kids. If you're a strapping alpha male, it's easier to bury your head in the sand and stay put, because you can convince yourself that things aren't actually that bad in your life. Ernst still likes him and still has good paying work for him. He's got the girl (who might be pregnant with his child). It's significantly easier to stay put. I think Cliff has to be able to empathize deeply and personally with what Herr Schultz is experiencing, in order to up root everything and run away. I think if Cliff is that underdog, who is well aware of how ugly bulling can get, and he's watching the situation get serious for Herr Schultz, then he knows the only thing he can do to protect Sally is take her and get the hell out of Dodge. I also think you don't want Cliff to ever seem like a viable physical threat to Sally. I think once he becomes a potential physical threat, he's just like every other guy she's ever been with. There were a few moments in this production where Cliff briefly resembled Stanley Kowalski, which I don't think serves the story in any way. I think the tragedy of Cliff is that he's not strong enough to save Sally from herself.

- The MC.

I thought Alan Cumming did a marvelous job balancing both the notion of having fun with his role as host, yet also giving weight to the gravity of the situations. I think that is key for this role - having someone who is fun and unpredictable, but can let the mask drop in the second act. For that reason, I would love to see Christian Borle do this role as I think he does a great job at being able to flip between those two extremes. I also wonder if the MC is a figure that Sally constantly sees. What I mean by that is, in this production, the MC, as our narrator, wafts in and out of scenes - sometimes as commentary, sometimes as set dressing - without the other characters acknowledging him. Which I think is right. But I wonder if there's milage to be gained in Sally being the only one to be aware of him in the scenes outside of the Kit Kat Klub. Frankly, it might just make her look crazy, but I would be interested in trying it.

- The Elephant in the Room.

I love the way Ernst is revealed as being involved with the Nazi party. I think it's incredibly effective and I love that you don't see it coming. However, I wonder if more could be done to build up more of a peripheral Nazi presence before that without diminishing that payoff. At one point Cliff is arguing with Sally about the severity of what is going on with the Nazis and he says something to the effect of "haven't you been paying attention to what's in the papers?!" implying that you would have to be completely obtuse to NOT know how big of a threat this was. But, quite honestly, I didn't have any awareness that Cliff had been paying attention to it to begin with. As an audience member, I know we're in Berlin in the 1930s, but what specifically that means with regard to the cultural saturation of the Nazi party, I don't immediately have a context for. Especially, since no mention of it is made in the show for so long. 

- Maybe This Time.
The song "Maybe This Time" functions sort of like an aside. It pops up right in the middle of a scene an presents us with Sally's inner monologue. In this production, they staged this by pulling Sally downstage in isolated light in front of Cliff. Which is a nice visual and certainly helps us understand that the song is now commenting on the scene. But given that Cliff (and what he's saying) are the emotional impetus for the song, I think it might be stronger to have Sally upstage of him so that she can both sing her nightclub number and still visually reference the reason that she's singing that number.

- Life is a Cabaret.
This song marks Sally's return to the Kit Kat Klub. For this production, they had her dressed in a very simple black sheath dress. This might be the most that her body's been covered for the entire production. I'm not sure this costume choice really serves this moment. While I could see Sally's character justifying to herself that this moment is about taking back the reigns of her life, ultimately it's putting her back in a state of victimhood, at the mercy of the Kit Kat Klub. As such, I think part of the awfulness of returning to the Kit Kat Klub is being forced back into the skimpy outfits and having to perform for any man who happens to be there. (As a side note, I would also like to see her outfits be a little less revealing over the course of her living with Cliff. I understand that she's a person who doesn't really feel the need to cover up. But I think when you're in a relationship that feels safe - and I think she has to allow herself to feel safe and at home to some degree in her relationship with Cliff in order for us to feel any sort of loss when they fall apart - the need to constantly be showing leg or cleavage subsides. Also, given the fact that they reference it being cold enough outside for everyone to need coats, I imagine Cliff's apartment might also be a little chilly.) My other quibble with this moment in the show, was that the end of this song sounded exactly like everyone else I've ever heard sing it. This is the climax of the show and Sally's breaking point. I think the phrasing of that should feel personal.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Beware The Logical.

Much of the work I've done as an actor has been bringing new works to life. This process is always a bit of a whirlwind, but it can be really invigorating from a creative standpoint because you, the director, and often the writer are building what the story is from the ground up. The scripts are printed pages, not a bound and published book. Rewrites are happening, sometimes right up until opening night. Everyone is hustling

Sometimes, in this setting, a playwright will help you out by breaking up long speeches into separate paragraphs. (Often, when you're working on a script that has been previously published, the text for those longer speeches just appears in one big, long block.) This formatting helps quickly determine where the character's thoughts change. After all, Grammar 101 would indicate that you should start a new paragraph whenever you switch topic, and, at minimum, you have to know the points that make up your argument. However, once you understand what that shape is, I think it's important to be willing to separate the emotional ebb and flow of the character from the arguments within the text. I'm NOT saying ignore the text. You still have to communicate the information. What I am saying is the emotional state of the text may not align exactly with the information. The words about anger might not actually be angry when you say them. It probably makes sense for the emotion of anger to be somewhere in the neighborhood of those words - showing up maybe a sentence or two before or after - but for the words and emotion to line up exactly may actually end up feeling a bit flat. Sometimes there's more mileage to be had (and more truth) if we're able to let things get a bit messy.

I was fortunate enough to train with Fiasco Theater at one point (If you don't know them, you should. They are fantastic.) and one of the principles that they really encourage is that you try to remain as open minded about your character's emotional state as you can. Know your given circumstances and pursue your objective, but don't pre-determine how your character feels about it. Be open to the text and see where it takes you. And if you don't find anything interesting, try out an emotion that seems completely inappropriate and allow that to be your starting point. Rehearsal is the time to try these things out.

When we're overtaken by emotion in real life, we don't transition gracefully from one argument to another in a logical manner. Especially if we're making a perspective changing discovery about ourselves or the world around us, as the characters we play often are. We're just much sloppier than that in real life. Our mouths often say things we didn't know we felt until after we've said them. We say them and THEN we process what we've said. Or sometimes, something happens in our lives where we thought we would react one way and when the moment actually comes we don't. We thought we would be able to keep it together, and instead we're a total blubbering mess. We thought we'd be nervous, but instead we're totally calm. We thought we'd be laughing, where instead we're crying. 

Emotions are messy. Especially, in situations where we're saying these words aloud for the very first time - which is the effect we're trying to recreate in theater. The fun in watching theater is when we get to see someone discover how they feel about something When we get to see them at the point when they don't know what their next move is going to be. When we see them come unhinged. That's a riveting moment. That when we're on the edge of our seat, holding our breath. And I think that complexity comes when we allow ourselves to color outside the lines a bit.

Experiment with where you can skew the alignment with the text and your emotional state. Your audience is smarter than you think they are. You don't have to hold their hand for every step of the way. And your characters can be more complex if you let them.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Last Five Years

This post stems from the most recent revival produced by Second Stage of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. (What can I say? Sometimes, life gets a little backed up.) Given the rather cult-like following that this album has, it's striking that the last time this show was produced in New York was in 2002. Which is to say that Norbert and Sherie Rene are the definitive voices of this show for my generation.

This was the first time I had ever see a staged version of this show. I was delighted by the personalized choices that both Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe made through out the show. They did an outstanding job with the material. What also interested me with this production was the fact that it was directed by Jason Robert Brown himself. Given that this piece is known to be fairly autobiographical in nature, having the writer/composer direct it presumably gives you the opportunity to see the work the way the writer intended it.

- Working It.

Overall, I was struck by how hard both of the actors were working to act with their imaginary scene partners. This show uses three types of address:
- Jamie and Cathy sing to each other (The only number we see this in is "The Next Ten Minutes")
- Jamie and Cathy sing to themselves/the audience (Much like an aside or a direct address where the character is trying to process what's happening in their life and kind of using the audience as a sounding board. We see this in "Still Hurting" and "Moving Too Fast")
- Jamie and Cathy sing to imaginary versions of each other (Jamie sings to imaginary Cathy, Cathy sings to imaginary Jamie. We see this in "The Schmuel Song" and "I Can Do Better Than That").
Conceptually, there's a lot to like with regard to this format. "The Next Ten Minutes" becomes incredibly powerful and poignant by being the only real interaction the characters have. On top of that, I think the point of this musical is to show the separate versions of how this relationship crumbled. And in the interest of telling that story, I think it's helpful to have the rest of the songs be one-sided. However, I think what we lose in the moments where they're singing to imaginary versions of each other outweighs what we gain. I think really great actors are great because they are present and responding to what their scene partner gives them in the moment. And while there's a certain amount of technique that can be called on when one has to act with an imaginary partner, it's just richer when there's another body. Additionally, I think we, as audience, miss out on too much of their relationship. I think we would feel more for them if we could see what their relationship really was at it's best and at it's worst. I would be interested in trying to stage this in such a way that the actors were on stage and present for all of the scenes where it's implied that they are. I'm not sure if that's logistically possible. In the event that it's not, I would even be curious about what would happen if a "chorus" (another man and woman who didn't speak but stood-in for imaginary Cathy and Jamie) were added. I realize this could get weird fast, but I feel like those images of how Cathy and Jamie interact are so important.

- Good Guys and Bad Guys.
I don't find Cathy a very likeable character and I think that's largely to do with the structure of the piece. When I say "likeable", I don't mean "nice". I mean a character that we want to watch for a couple of hours. Someone who has some kind of redeemable quality. We meet Cathy when she's "Still Hurting". (Comparatively, we meet Jamie when he's just fallen head-over-heels in love.) In this configuration, I think it's really important to give Cathy something to fight for in that first song in order to keep that number from turning into a pity party, which is valid but perhaps not so useful. I think it's important for the audience to be able to like her at the top of the show, especially since they can't root for her. While I think most audience members, if not all, will know (or figure out) where the show is going (ie - that there's not a happy ending for these two people), the audience can root for Jamie in a way that I don't think they can't do for Cathy. By meeting Jamie at the beginning of his journey we can hope for a positive outcome for him (even when we know that's not what we're going to get) by virtue of the fact that we're moving forward in time. With Cathy, because we start at the end of her journey, it's significantly harder to root for her. We know how her story ends. There's nothing to root for. I think the best we can do is make her as likeable as we can. I think it's important that at any given point these are two good people who happen to not be good for each other. I'm curious what the effect would be if the show were played backward, starting with Cathy falling in love and Jamie having an affair. (Although, I admit that there's something very satisfying dramatically satisfying about the reveal that Jamie is having an affair after he's been such a likeable character up to that point.) I also wonder what the effect would be if the story was played chronologically, with both Jamie and Cathy both beginning with falling in love and ending with the end of the relationship. It's possible that playing it chronologically saps all the life out of the piece, since the opposing time progressions do create some interest, but I would definitely love to try a run like that in rehearsal.

- Overhead.
This production made use of video projections as part of the scenic back drop. I feel like projections are generally something that we in the theater are still trying to figure out how to incorporate in a successful and effective manner. With this production, sometimes I thought these projections helped and sometimes I thought they didn't. Going back to my initial quip about wanting to see more of their relationship, I wonder if projections could be used to goose that up a bit. Perhaps they could be used kind of like home movies.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Inspiration #2: Sam Mendes

This bit of inspiration comes to us by way of Vanity Fair Magazine. The original article can be found here. Or you can read the full text below. Enjoy!
Sam Mendes"At its spring gala, the Roundabout Theatre Company honored Sam Mendes, prolific director of theater—his King Lear and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are both currently playing in London—and films, including Skyfall and American Beauty.
The event, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan, included speeches and performances from Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, and Alan Cumming, who did a number from Cabaret, which Mendes is bringing to Broadway this season. Some Mendes collaborators weighed in via video, including one clip in which Judi Dench and Daniel Craig joined in singing “Cabaret.”
After reviewing his career highlights, in depth, the British Academy Award winner said, “One of the things I love about Americans is you do massive ego trips incredibly well. Blimey. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many photographs of myself. I didn’t even know they existed.” Mendes also noted that while tributes are wonderful, they are backward looking, and then decided to share what he’s learned along the way. “If there are any directors out there in the audience, or anyone who’s interested in directing, I’ve written 25 steps towards becoming a happier director. These are them:
  1. Always choose good collaborators. It seems so obvious, but the best collaborators are the ones who disagree with you. It means they’re passionate, they have opinions, and they’ll only ever say yes if they mean it.
  2. Try to learn how to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. Direct Shakespeare like it’s a new play, and treat every new play as if it’s Shakespeare.
  3. If you have the chance, please work with Dame Judi Dench.
  4. Learn to say, “I don’t know the answer.” It could be the beginning of a very good day’s rehearsal.
  5. Go to the ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus, in Greece. It makes you realize what you are a part of, and it will change the way you look at the world. If you’re an artist, you will feel central, and you will never feel peripheral again.
  6. Avoid, please, all metaphors of plays or films as “pinnacles” or “peaks”; treat with absolute scorn the word “definitive”; and if anyone uses the word “masterpiece,” they don’t know what they’re doing. The pursuit of perfection is a mug’s game.
  7. If you are doing a play or a film, you have to have a secret way in if you are directing it. Sometimes it’s big things. American Beauty, for me, was about my adolescence. Road to Perdition was about my childhood. Skyfall was about middle-age and mortality. Sometimes it’s small things. Maybe it’s just a simple idea. What if we do the whole thing in the nightclub, for example. But it’s not enough just to admire a script, you have to have a way in that is yours, and yours alone.
  8. Confidence is essential, but ego is not.
  9. Theater is the writer’s medium and the actor’s medium; the director comes a distant third. If you want a proper ego trip, direct movies.
  10. Buy a good set of blinkers. Do not read reviews. It’s enough to know whether they’re good or they’re bad. When I started, artists vastly outnumbered commentators, and now, there are a thousand published public opinions for every work of art. However strong you are, confidence is essential to what you do, and confidence is a fragile thing. Protect it. As T.S. Eliot says, teach us to care, and not to care.
  11. Run a theater. A play is temporary, a building is permanent. So try to create something that stays behind and will be used and loved by others.
  12. You are never too old to learn something new, as I was reminded when I learned to ski with my 10-year-old son. He, of course, did it in about 10 minutes, and I spent four days slaloming up and down, looking like a complete tit. But, don’t be scared of feeling like a complete tit. It’s an essential part of the learning process.
  13. There is no right and wrong, there is only interesting, and less interesting.
  14. Paintings, novels, poetry, music are all superior art forms. But theater and film can steal from all of them.
  15. There are no such things as “previews” on Broadway.
  16. Peter Brook said, “The journey is the destination.” Do not think of product, or, god forbid, audience response. Think only of discovery and process. One of my favorite quotes from Hamlet—Polonius: “By indirections find the directions out.”
  17. Learn when to shut up. I’m still working on this one.
  18. When you have a cast of 20, this means you have 20 other imaginations in the room with you. Use them.
  19. Please remember the Oscars are a TV show.
  20. Get on with it. Robert Frost said, “Tell everything a little faster.” He wasn’t wrong.
  21. The second production of a musical is always better than the first.
  22. Learn to accept the blame for everything. If the script was poor, you didn’t work hard enough with the writer. If the actors failed, you failed them. If the sets, the lighting, the poster, the costumes are wrong, you gave them the thumbs-up. So build up your shoulders, they need to be broad.
  23. On screen, your hero can blow away 500 bad guys, but if he smokes one fucking cigarette, you’re in deep shit.
  24. Always have an alternative career planned out. Mine is a cricket commentator. You will never do this career, but it might help you get to sleep at night.
  25. Never, ever, ever forget how lucky you are to do something that you love."

Friday, October 10, 2014


This post is inspired by the current Broadway production, directed by Diane Paulus. It is certainly excellent revival, as evidenced by the four Tony awards it received. It utilizes much of (or at least harkens back to) the original Fosse choreography and adds to that a whole slew of acrobatics and circus tricks in order to fully immerse the audience in this 3 ring circus - spectacle of all spectacles. 

My previous experience with Pippin was playing Berthe in college (like you do) under the direction of Louise Quick (who, among other things, was part of the original company for the original Broadway production of Pippin and assisted Bob Fosse on several projects) - so I was familiar with the show but had not revisited it for a number of years.

My thoughts are as follows...

- Too much or not enough? 
My continual question with this show is whether it packs more punch if it's super glam or if it's tragically decrepit. I feel like I'm more familiar with the glam (or spectacle) version, which I think is certainly in keeping with the story. The leading player and his company are putting on a show filled with magic and illusion. But I wonder if there's milage to be had if the reality is that it's a complete wasteland and the players really having to work to make the show seem glamorous. I wonder about setting it somewhere atrocious (the thought that comes to mind is a concentration camp, or a prison, or something of that sort) and how that could punch up the stakes. I feel like the message of this show is that life is generally pretty awful. It has moments of beauty, but over all it's painful. And yet in spite of that pain, it's still worth living and connecting with each other. I think the more clearly unglamorous reality can be, the more poignant that becomes.

- Dancing with the devil. 

I LOVE the idea of a female Leading Player. That being said I would love to see more power and danger in that character regardless of whether they are male or female. The Leading Player clearly calls the shots. She's the one who's orchestrating Pippin's journey. He's the one who has to decide to move on from portion to the next, but she's the one who's directing him. I think the closest we get to seeing the Leading Player as this puppet master is in how the Leading Player interacts with Catherine. I would love to see more of that with the other players as well. Catherine seems to be the only player that the Leading player has to put in her place, which makes sense. Catherine is our human anchor in the show. She's one of the players, but of the players, she's the one who hasn't completely conformed to the tribe. So it makes sense that she's the one the Leading Player has to reprimand, but I would love to see other players also be controlled by the Leading Player. The Leading Player rules by fear and manipulation. In that kind of dictatorship, you have to be constantly exerting your domination over the tribe. If all we see of the other players is how happy they are to be under The Leading Player's charge, I think it greatly lessens how dangerous she is. The Leading Player is peddling a "happy escape" in the form of suicide, but I think it's valuable to see the cost of that escape manifested in the other players through out. I also think it's interesting if the Leading Player is potentially losing her grip on the tribe. I think that could potentially add to the urgency of converting Pippin. Obviously, it's important for the Leading Player to capture Pippin (otherwise, why spend all this time and effort chasing after him) but if the Leading Player's position is secure within the tribe, it doesn't seem like that big a deal if Pippin gets away.

- An emotional journey? 

I'm learning that one of the things I really want from my theatrical experiences is to have an emotional, empathetic response to the story that's presented. I have yet to feel something with regard to watching Pippin. Which I find strange. Granted, Pippin is sort of brat. He has everything and he's still not happy. It's kind of hard to feel bad for him. At the same time, it's a very human thing to be discontented with our lot in life, regardless of how good it may be. So I feel like there's the potential for us to feel something for Pippin, but, as I say, I've yet to experience that. There is a part of me that wonders if the script and score are structured in a way that undercuts an emotional response, that wonders if the show is designed to be a bit Bretchian and keep an emotional connection at bay. I don't know the answer to this, but if and when I direct this, I would love to try to find more of emotional current to it.

- Enjoy the Good Times. 

Carrying the notion of goosing this story's emotional impact forward, I think it's important to see Pippin really fall in love with the domestic life he has with Catherine and Theo. That picture of having a home and finally belonging somewhere should be the most beautiful moment in the show. After all, this is why Pippin forgoes ending his life. Pippin flees this when it gets difficult, but in order for this to really be a loss, (and for him to realize that it's worth struggling through the difficult parts) he needs to be fully in love with it. 

- Love Song. 

I think it's important for Love Song to be honest and open and real. This is where we see Catherine in love with Pippin and Pippin equally in love with her. Not puppy love, but real love. And where previous scenes with Catherine may feel more like "performance" as per the Leading Player's insistence, this scene should be completely true. It should also be something that each of them needs desperately, especially Catherine, who as a widow, enters into this very much as a adult. This is a situation where she was going through the motions of doing what she was ordered to do and ended up becoming emotionally invested in the result. 

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Monday, July 14, 2014


This post is inspired by the production of Violet that's recently been revived by Roundabout Theatre, directed by Leigh Silverman. This is the first production of this show to grace the Great White Way. I was first introduced to this show in college and absolutely fell in love. I needed to get this post written ASAP because I'm about to leave to go play Violet in a different production of Violet with The Commons Group up in Waitsfield, VT, and I imagine I may have new or different thoughts to add. So, away we go...

- In general.
I was rather sad about the loss of intimacy. Granted, my introduction to this show was in a small black box theater, so that certainly colors my visions of what I want from a production. But the material, both the book and music, lend themselves to a more realistic (and less showy) performance. (I actually think this show would make a great little indie film. I don't know many indie film makers who shoot musicals, but a girl can dream.) I imagine it's got to be tricky to make the American Airlines Theater (or any theater that seats upwards of 700 people) feel intimate. However, Once managed to create intimacy at the Bernard B. Jacobs (which seats over 1,000), so it has to be possible.

- On My Way.
I think it may be important that we don't see Violet smile until "Luck of the Draw". Musically, "On My Way" certainly has joyful element. However, Violet reveals to Flick in a later scene how she had to lie to herself and act like it wouldn't be such a big deal in order to muster the courage to make this trip. To me, that indicates that "On My Way" is heavily dosed with anxiety and terror for Violet. This is the very last thing she can do to try to fix her face. And while it will be amazing if it works, if it fails, there will be no other recourse. She will be doomed to live out the rest of her life alone as the monstrously deformed woman up on the mountain. Also, in the later scene with Flick, Flick says "most people think faith healers are frauds...as a rule." This is something that Violet can only argue by saying "what if he's the exception?" She's a smart cookie. She can't argue that he's not a fraud. She can only argue that he might not be a fraud, which is far from a guarantee that he'll be able to heal her. Additionally, "On My Way" marks the point in our story where Violet has to go out into the world, to be seen by a whole new group of people. If it's bad to be viewed as hideous by the same townspeople you've known for the past 25 years, it's got to be substantially worse to have to venture into fresh ridicule and disgust.

- Luck of the Draw.
In this production, there were some changes made to the book and score from the original Off Broadway production. One of these changes comes toward the beginning of "Luck of the Draw". Originally, the lyrics read as follows:

Father: All you got's a pair of queens and nothing more. Once you bet, you get to draw some. That's what losta queens are for.
Young Violet: A penny?
Father: That's a pair a queens.
Young Violet: A nickel?
Father: There's the bet I saw.

In the current version, the lyrics are sung in this way:
Father: All you got's a pair of queens and nothing more. Once you bet, you get to draw some. That's what losta queens are for.
Young Violet: [no response]
Father: [as Young Violet] A penny? [As himself] That's a pair a queens.
Young Violet: [no response]
Father: [as Young Violet] A nickel? [As himself] There's the bet I saw.

While I think this is a fun little change, I don't think it ultimately works. With this change we don't really get to see Young Violet learning to play the game or be invested in wanting to play the game. It also makes Father's first win over Young Violet seem more like extortion rather than a hand that she played poorly and lost. I don't think this serves to develop the relationship that Father and Young Violet have. I think one of the really lovely components of their relationship is that he treats her, largely, like an adult.

- All to Pieces.
I feel like "All to Pieces" might be the first time we really see joy in Violet. She finally gets to put on "the show" of what it would be like to be all these gorgeous, sexy women that she's been studying for years. That being said, I don't think it's goofy. I think she's having a great time, but I think she's dead serious about it. Which is why she gets so upset with Flick and Monty when she realizes they have stopped paying attention.

-  Always Be Storytelling.
With "Let It Sing" and "Raise Me Up" in particular, I think it's incredibly important to make sure that you are actively storytelling. These songs are so powerful as music, that it's easy for them to just become about the singing and the music. Which I might be able to support in a concert format, but at the theater it causes me to start thumbing through my program. Plus, I think they actually play a huge role in the arc of the story.

- Lay Down Your Head
I think there's a huge opportunity for comedy in "Lay Down Your Head". Perhaps this stems from my belief that falling in love always makes fools of us. In this song Violet is singing Monty a lullaby. However, during the bridge she starts to get caught up with how much she's feeling and the music crescendos and, without a breath, moves back into the chorus. I think within that swell it's possible for Monty to stir slightly (because Violet's singing has gotten a bit louder) and for Violet to have to immediately switch gears back into the lullaby to get him to resume sleeping. I've never seen it done, but I think it could be brilliant.

- Down the Mountain
In this production, the choice was made to have Young Violet come out for "Down the Mountain" with blood on her face. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this choice. (In the previous version that I had seen, she appeared without blood.) On the one hand, the blood is certainly visually striking. On the other hand, I'm not sure it's necessary. And I feel like it potentially highlights some logistical issues. If someone gets a severe cut to the face, that's going to bleed profusely. From a first aid standpoint you're going to want to bind that, especially if you have you have to carry someone all the way down the mountain to get to the doctor. Without the blood (it seems plausible to me in a show where we never see Violet's scar, that we wouldn't see the blood from the inciting incident) I think it allows the focus to be on the emotion of the scene. I guess I'm leaning toward the notion that blood is too strong of a visual for that moment on stage. I'm not sure.

- Last Time I Came to Memphis. 
"Last Time I Came to Memphis" replaced "You're Different" in this production, and for my taste, I prefer "You're Different". In "You're Different" what Monty is essentially saying is "you're weird...but I think that's what I like about you". In "Last Time I Came to Memphis" Monty is basically saying "I like loose, drunk women". In both instances, this is a song that Violet hears - with "You're Different" she's pretending to be asleep, with "Last Time I Came to Memphis" the scene has been restructured such that she's awake. To me, hearing someone say "I think I like you, even though you're weird" is much more appealing than "I sleep with lots of women". The first one makes me inclined to want to actually develop a relationship with them, where as the second one is kind of repulsive. At the end of the show, when Violet thinks she's been healed, she comes back to the soldiers base to see Monty in the hopes that they will like happily ever after together. I think he has to be likable in order for that to make sense. Monty's a bit of a hot head, but "You're Different" allows us to see that he's also sweet. Part of the reason that Flick is the better match for Violet in the end is that he's more mature and is potentially able to love her in a real and adult way. Monty, on the other hand, is young enough to think that the Vietnam War will be exciting (a reminder that the show is set in 1964, at which point the US has already been involved in conflict for the past 9 years) and immature enough to not know how to interact with Violet after they sleep together other than buying her candy and soda. In fact Violet refers to him as being just a boy multiple times. To this end, I also think that Monty should be cast as a bit younger and a bit slighter. Colin Donnell does a fine job with his portrayal, but he's definitely a man. If Colin Donnell is being sent to Vietnam, I think "Well, you might come back. You look like you can take care of yourself." Where as with someone of a smaller build who looks a bit younger, I'm more inclined to think "Oh my god, you're just a baby. You don't know the first thing about war and the only way you're coming home is in a body bag." As morbid as that sounds, I think that's what you want to tug at in your audience when Monty is leaving for Vietnam - the fact that these were kids being sent off to die. 

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below.The more the merrier!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What's Not Working?

Columbia University has a class for their graduate film students called, appropriately enough, Directing Actors. This class gives students the chance to try their hand at casting and shaping performances, but also offers them a chance to hear about the multitude of ways that different actors approach what they do.

Periodically, I've had the pleasure of being an actor for this class. My favorite professor for this class, thus far, is Shira-Lee Shalit. After each scene is presented, Shira-Lee asks some questions about what the rehearsal process was like, what we're focusing on and such. After which she finishes up by asking the actors, "What's not working for you?". Increasingly, I think this question is crucial to the most fruitful actor/director relationships.

The hierarchy of theater say that directors are the puppet masters and actors are the puppets. Like all great relationships, things work best when each side values and respects what the other brings to the table. But at the end of the day someone needs to make the final decisions and someone needs to go out on stage and execute them. Within this dynamic, I think actors often don't feel able to bring up what's not working for them (or if they feel compelled to, that they may not do it in the most constructive way). If we accept the notion that each actor should be the expert on their character, this is a huge lost.

Inherent in our work is the notion of pretending, faking it, creating illusions. Coupled with that, there's never enough in the way of time or resources. At some point, certain corners have to be cut. We fake props, we fudge certain costume pieces, we choreograph stage combat to hide the fact that we're not actually making contact. Illusion is a necessary part of the equation. The danger in this is that it may creep into our storytelling. That it may easier to quickly fake our way past the parts of our story that aren't quite congealing than to really examine how to fix it.

Additionally, if there's something that feels awkward to you, as the actor, but you're not getting a note on it from the director, bringing it up feels a little like you're being needy or being the actor who always has a problem with something. (You know, like the actors who use the phrase "What's my motivation for that cross? I'm just not feeling it.") The objective is not that it feel right to you as the actor. The objective is that it convey the story to the audience as the director envisions it. In the best of circumstances, it would feel right for the actor AND convey the story. But if it can only be one, my preference would be story over actor every time, even when I'm on the acting side of the equation. However, just because the note is not being given doesn't mean that that issue isn't an issue. It may be that the director knows there's something wonky going on but isn't addressing it because they're not exactly sure where the root of the problem is. Or it may be that the thing that feels awkward to you on page 23 is what's causing the problem that you're experiencing on page 27 (that you ARE getting a note on). Conversely, no one wants to be the director who micromanaged all sparks of life into the ground.

I like to think of directors as smart people. I like to think that the really good ones do a great job of collecting the right group of people for any given project. And that they do a great job of editing all the elements of the story together. I also like to think of actors as smart people. I like to think of them as experts with regard to their piece of the pie. Each actor perfects his own part and the director takes all those parts and assembles them into a whole. If, as a director we can be brave enough and generous enough to ask "what's not working?" we stand a chance of having a very intimate conversation about the work we're doing from a perspective that might never have occurred to us. We stand a chance of making it a truly collaborative process. And, perhaps most importantly, we stand a chance of having a really integrated piece of work.