Not Getting Carried Today

No Carry-On Baggage

We all have situations in our lives that take priority.  They can take our focus, and rob us of being present and available to those around us.  Performers are often given the task of drawing upon their own experiences when delving into a new character or situation on stage.  If we are not careful, the drama in our lives can take us away from the drama on stage.

No Carry-on baggage please.  Leave it at the door.  Let it go.  It is a fallacy to think that we are the only one with drama in our lives.  It is equally false that someone else’s personal drama is so paramount that it should bleed into a rehearsal or performance.  We’ve all been there.  And this is not mean to be cold or unfeeling.  It’s a hard thing to do to let the things in our lives, that are on our minds daily, not go into our work.

It’s a fine line.  And as much as we can say the personal baggage should not enter the work place, the rehearsal or dance studio, it will.  The real question is how do we deal with it.  So often we are there for each other through illness and hardship.  The theatre community is the most resilient when it comes to supporting each other.  And we are also a community that thrives on drama, on and off the stage.

What is appropriate drama?  I’ve been in rooms with other creative types who are dealing with a world of drama.  And it is human nature to want to know what is going on, to be a part of each other’s lives.  But the best people in these situations are able to acknowledge their situation and move on to the work.  It is the people who use their situation as a crutch, or a hindrance to the rest of the process that is not helpful.

You may have heard the expression: leave your ego at the door.  Or in this case, leave your baggage at the door.  I had an experience recently with an artist where business needed to be taken care of, but the time was spent on personal matters that did not concern the project or me.  And there is only so much one can do, listening to tales of woe.  I am supportive with the best of them, but how much must one endure before they are sucked into someone else’s world of crazy?

This business of show has many pitfalls.  One in particular is the amount of craziness we all encounter, and the legitimate problems of colleagues.  And it’s hard to tell the difference at times.  We are constantly faced with a lack of work, lack of housing, lack of money.  Many of us have family troubles, relationship troubles, and creative disagreements.

And yet we must check the baggage at the door and fly solo.  If we were all allowed every piece of baggage and every piece of personal property on to the plane, we’d never take off.  If each cast member in a musical were allowed to air each and every concern, worry and woe to the cast in rehearsal, work would not get done.  Travel light, and keep flying.

Brother, Can You Turn On A Dime?

It’s crazy how fast things can turn around.  It’s equally mind-boggling how long it can take for opportunities to happen, jobs to come along, or for the phone to ring.

Disclaimer: my previous blog entry, “Another Closing, Another Show” was to demonstrate the fragile nature of the freelance lifestyle.  Thanks for the words of support regarding the closing of “Pageant”, but as this article suggests, everything can turn on a dime.  As Sondheim wrote, “Top billing Monday, Tuesday you’re touring in stock.” One day you’re top dog, the next you’re a supporting role.  It’s not always linear.  It’s not always fair.  You have to enjoy the game.  The long game.

Recently I had one of those ‘turn around’ moments.  The phone rang and the opportunity presented itself: someone left a production, could I step in?  Rarely does it work out like that.  But it does.

As performers we work and work and work… to get work.  For actors their job is not acting.  Their job is auditioning.  Acting is what you get to do after you’ve done the work.  That’s a gross generalization, but you get the idea.  What we do, what we are called to do: act, direct, make music, etc. is what we get to do after we work to get the gig.  Strange as it sounds it’s often the case.

After landing the part of Han Solo in the Star Wars franchise, Harrison Ford made a great observation: he could finally get to work.  It was clear that once he had gotten that level of exposure he was hireable for other projects.  Mandy Patinkin had a similar hope after winning the Tony for Evita. He thought he’d never have to audition again.  Sondheim still had him sing for the part of George in Sunday In The Park With George.  Sometimes we still have to get up and sing.

It’s rarely the case that we don’t have to continue to pound the pavement, proving ourselves and our worth as artists.  And after a long dry spell, work can fall into your lap when you least expect it.

A friend of mine working in TV and film in LA put it best.  She likened the experience of auditioning and looking for work to the visit to the meat market: you take a number and you wait for your number to be called.

To have the patience to wait for your proverbial number to be called, you must have a few things.  You have to count on a certain measure of talent and ability.  You need technique, training and a whole lot of determination.  If you are willing to look at the big picture, and make the long-term investment, then you can weather the harsh terrain that is the auditioning/job hunt environment.  That said, it can all turn on a dime.

Both my parents are ministers, and my father often makes analogies to parables, to illustrate life.  There is the parable of the sower who went to sow some seed: some seed fell on fallow land and did not grow.  Some fell on land with weeds and was consumed.  But some fell on fertile soil and grew.  The sower was broadcasting the seeds.  Like a radio signal, the seeds are cast to fall where they will, being picked up to grow, like a signal picked up on a radio frequency.

We can’t count on the turn of a dime.  We have to develop and cultivate our relationships, projects and performance opportunities, knowing full well some of them won’t grow.  Some of them will fall on fallow soil and nothing will come from them.  But the projects, ideas, and relationships that do grow, can become wonderful opportunities.

From all this work, even the work that doesn’t work out, we are prepared.  And with preparation we’re ready when the phone does ring, and the world does turn on a dime.  Being lucky is when opportunity and preparation meet.  Be ready.  You never know when things might turn on a dime.

Epilogue: to those for whom the gig does not work out, be gracious.  There are more gigs out there, and you are judged not on the future, but on your past behavior.  Exit with dignity.

Wash That Feeling Outta Your Hair

But don’t throw yourself out with the bath water…

There are times where we feel we don’t measure up.  I’m reminded of the old saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”  You want to get rid of the crap, but not lose the important stuff, like a baby.  I’ve never actually thrown out bath water, or tried to throw a tub filled with bath water and a baby, for that matter.  If you have, please let me know.  Or perhaps call child services.

When you are performing, creating, or doing anything in the arts, you’re under constant scrutiny.  You can feel scrutinized by those around you: your audience, colleagues, teachers, but mostly by yourself.  You’d think when most of us are self-centered artists, we’d give ourselves a break and indulge in some good old-fashioned ego trip.  Not the case.

We can be on top of the world, and in the worst pit of despair in the flash of a second.  It’s like that scene in Princess Bride, when Wesley is strapped to the torture machine, sucking the life out of him.  That’s what it feels like sometimes.  And right now I’m laughing at myself for the times I’ve felt that way.  It’s all so subjective.  A compliment from another creative, or audience member can set us alight for the rest of the day.  Likewise, a bad performance, rehearsal, or lesson can set us off into a great depression lasting for days if not weeks.

Why can’t we just be happy?  I say ‘we’ because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who goes through this rollercoaster of emotions.  And it’s not all about me, is it?  Or is it?

There is a constant comparison to everyone around us, and no matter how we try, there are times where it seems as though everyone is doing it better: better singing, better work ethic, better diet, better exercise.  And this sort of thinking throws us into a tailspin.

It always seems to happen to me when I’m between gigs.  Immediately after a performance or project, I go from being on top of the world, to wondering if my life has any meaning at all.  It’s hilarious to think of it on the outside, but in the moment it can be utterly debilitating.  And what can you do?

Oh, so much.  The minute I feel that urge to throw myself out with the bath water I need to busy myself in some other work.  No one gig defines you.  We are always more than the sum of our parts, yet we identify with our work more so than I think in other professions.  “I’m an actor,” “I’m a producer,” “I’m a writer,” and so on.  There’s no clear line from working and not working for many of us.  And so if we’re not on a gig, doing what we feel called to do, what are we?  How do we define ourselves if not with our work?

I say I’m a writer.  So what have I written lately?  I say I’m a performer.  When was my last show?  We drive ourselves round and round with questions we ask ourselves, that if gone unchecked, can stall us from the next gig.

When we say, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” I think we mean “Don’t lose the good with the bad.”  We all have bath water: negative emotions and bullshit ego trips that can make us crazy.  Throw that out.  But don’t forget there’s more to you than that; it’s not all one-sided.  It’s not black and white.  There’s a lot of grey area between who we are and the work we do as artists.

Just because you’re not doing the biggest gig of your life doesn’t mean you’re not doing something important.  Hanging on to things from the past, last month, last week, yesterday, only keeps us from the moment.  And equally important is not to get caught up in the days or weeks or months ahead.  Keep the baby, throw out the bath water, refill the tub and start fresh.

What Can You Choose?

Making a choice

I saw a show a while ago.  Without naming names it was … interesting.  My father used to say, and still does, that there are ways of commenting on performances without being rude or crass: “It was interesting,” is a personal favorite.  “I’ve never heard it done like that before,” “Boy, that sure was something,” to name a few.

The show I saw was a unique experience.  The other rule of thumb I follow is when invited to a performance, I take the approach of: “If I didn’t pay for a ticket, I can’t afford an opinion.”  In other words I reserve my thoughts, as I am a guest of the ticket-holder.

In this case my friend also knew the producers on the show.  And we were invited to talk to the director and writer.  Unfortunately for them it did not relieve any of my confusion about the show.  In fact I became more confused as someone asked them: “What was the show about?”

What the director said next is the reason for my posting.  He said: “We’d like to leave that up to the audience, for them to decide.”  He went on from there, but I was a little dumbfounded.

Is it the audience’s job to decide what the show is about?  I submit that every audience member will bring to the theatre his or her own experiences and that will influence their impression of the performance.  But to solely rely on your audience to give meaning and interpretation to your performance does not ring true.  Dare I say, it sounds downright lazy.

So I ask you the reader: what do you expect going into a performance?  On the one hand I don’t think it should be the sole responsibility of the audience to give purpose and understanding to a performance.  Likewise, the creative team should not spoon feed every thought and choice of a show to an audience.

There has to be a balance.  A wise friend once told me you must have a point of view.  Make a choice.  It’s not about being right, or being wrong.  But you can’t be everything at once; then the performance is void of meaning.  That was the case with the show I saw; it tried to be everything, or nothing.  I don’t honestly know.  At one point the writer said X represented Y, and Z was really A, and B was Q, etc.  I could replace the letters with what he actually said, but the point is made: utter confusion.

And the icing on that confused cake was the director telling us it was the audience’s job to make sense of the show.  What seemed so apparent to me was that because they, the creative team had not agreed on, or made for that matter, a choice, then they left it completely up the audience.  That’s fine if it is completely post-modern and abstract.  But that was not the show.  At least not what I thought.

Art can be up for interpretation.  Things can be representational, and ten people can come see the same performance, and have ten different opinions on what the show meant, what the message was.  But regardless of the audience, creatives have to have a point of view.  And for god-sake, make a choice.

Another Closing, Another Show

In Philly, Boston, or… New York.

Shows close.  A lot.  Shows close when ticket sales are low and they cannot afford to meet their weekly budget.  Shows close when there is too much game in town, and they can’t seem to find their audience.  Shows close when they cannot find the right ‘name’ people to keep the public’s interest.

Last night was the closing night of Pageant Off-Broadway.  I had the pleasure of working with the outstanding creative team and cast as the music director for this hilarious show.  It was an incredible experience.  It came to an end with a great closing night and a celebration.  But it’s back to the job hunt for many of us.

People outside the theatre world see this as the price of being a performer: constant uncertainty.  People inside the theatre world, in the closing show, can see it as the end of the world.  And I suppose it can be.

I recall my first Broadway show closing.  I was playing Spring Awakening (I try to have a “Dragnet” rule when talking about shows: “The names are made up but the problems are real.” For this one I think it’s safe to mention.) and received the notice; in reality I read the article on Playbill.com.  I think the article heading was: “And Then There Were None: Spring Awakening closes on Broadway”.  There it was: my first Broadway show closing.  It was a feeling of utter devastation: the loss of income and the loss of work.  But also the loss of that feeling that I had some stability, something to hold on to, something with which I identified myself.

Another time I was hired to music direct a show in town.  What could be better than music directing in New York City?  Everything was planned: auditions were happening, and I had just closed another show and felt great moving on to the next one.

I get on the subway that chilly March morning, excited to go to work.  I show up to the production meeting to an empty room.  I check my phone; a voicemail popped up.  The producers did not have the money and the show was cancelled.  Poof.  Just like that I was, once again, unemployed.  I think I sat in the Starbucks for about 20 minutes, depressed.

It fascinates me the way people handle disappointments like a show closing.  On the one hand, it happens all the time.  On the other hand, to the person to whom it is happening, it’s everything.  And so often it’s the shocked response of: “how can this be happening to me?”

Not to sound indelicate, but it happens.  Move on.  We all have to; otherwise we can find ourselves stuck in the vicious downward cycle of depression and paralysis.  Been there, done that.  As performers we have to deal with the uncertainty with some measure of dignity and aplomb.  Keeping a brave face is just as much a part of our job as anything; no one wants to hire someone who’s constantly down and depressed.  However if it happens to you, have a good cry, drink a bottle of wine, but tomorrow start up again.

I’m reminded of a musician friend who put it best.  When the market crashed in 2008, everyone in the business world freaked out.  Banks closed and jobs were lost.  Her response was brilliant: as musicians and artists we deal with jobs coming and going all the time.  So many business people were not prepared for the shock.  In today’s economic climate, it can happen to anyone in any profession.  That leads me to another topic: do what you love anyway, because no profession, at this point, is really secure; except maybe plumbers, morticians and tax accountants.  But that’s an article for another day.

My grandfather once asked me about how I deal with the freelancing musician lifestyle.  I replied: I find certainty in the uncertainty.  I am secure in the knowledge that there is no security.  I don’t know what made me say that but it just came out.  And it’s true.  If I can accept the rollercoaster of shows opening and closing then I’m able to navigate the freelancing life with some sanity.

That said, it’s never easy to face the change that comes with the end of a production.  But that is the only real constant: change.  We can try as hard as we want to keep things the way they are, and try to stay in control of our lives.  I suppose this goes beyond theatre, and shows.  It goes into life.  Change is inevitable and we all have to face it.  But we can look at a show closing as an opportunity to allow new and better things into our lives; meeting new people and starting new shows.  New projects should be something to look forward to.  Hopefully we can look at it that way when the time comes.

Make Them Hear You

Social Media: The Double Edged Sword

So there are days, many days I dare say, that I am surfing the internet, wasting valuable time.  Well, nothing is really a waste, however if I spent half of my time on the net doing something more productive, I guarantee the world would be a better place.  Am I alone in this?

I love Facebook.  True confession.  I love skimming for the latest cat pic, video, football players twerking, comedic buzzfeed video.  Whatever.  But what often trips me up is reading about other people’s accomplishments.  So often I read how wonderful everyone else is, and as I lie in bed, or at my desk, wasting time, I get jealous.  I am filled with resentment: “Why am I not doing that?” “How come they are doing that!”  And so on.  You fill in the blank.

So maybe I don’t love Facebook.  Love is a pretty strong word.  But it is my ‘go-to’ procrastination station.  I think for a lot us in the performing arts, it’s easy to compare ourselves to the world we find online: what are they doing, who’s doing that show, or who got the gig etc.  And likewise when we’re the one’s with the gig, the show, the concert, the TV spot, where better to shout our success than on Facebook?  We don’t all have a mountaintop from which to scream, so Facebook is a far second.

And what I really love is the humility with which people profess their gratitude for the newly found success: “I don’t usually do this… Buuut I’m so thankful for being the star in X on that new show Y.”  “I’m just so humbled by X because it really taught me Y.”  and my favorite: “I’m just so lucky, and I’ve worked so hard, and finally I get to enjoy this.  Oh thank God it’s all worth it.”

I do not doubt anyone’s gratitude or heartfelt thanks to the Lord for their good fortune.  But I do question their motives for posting it on Facebook.  I really want to ask them: who are you talking to?

I recently took up jogging.  Serious jogging.  Well, serious for me.  Six to seven miles at a time, thank you very much (yes I’m using the blog instead of Facebook to announce how wonderful I am).  I started posting my jogs on Facebook; some people commented with admiration, humor, and some with playful spite.  Then my boyfriend remarked that I really didn’t need to put that on Facebook for everyone to see.  And he was right.

Who was I talking to?  Myself?  All my Facebook friends?  I felt accountable to everyone when I posted my success in jogging: “Look at me, I did something.”

Whenever I book a show as a music director, or write a piece of music, I feel compelled to tell the world.  Who doesn’t?  When we are measured by one gig to the next, one performance to the next, one success to the imminent threat of being closed down, or ending a gig without the next one booked, who can blame us for wanting to cash in all we can on that?  When we are on a gig, we are on top of the world.  When we are ‘between engagements’ as I’m fond of saying, it’s the worst feeling.  And when we turn on the computer and click on the Facebook tab on our web browser, who doesn’t cringe a little at reading about everyone else’s current gigs?

It’s slightly masochistic.  It’s the car accident from which we can’t look away.  We can’t resist scrolling down and seeing all the good things that other people are proclaiming far and wide, and all we can do is smile and say through our teeth: “Good for you.”

Keep one thing in mind: everyone shows us only what we want him or her to see.  And what better platform to do that, than online?  You show us only what you want us to see, and in turn, we develop a view of you.

So show us your best.  Show us how to be truly thankful for the work when you have it.  And gracious when you don’t.

Think Happy Thoughts

I revisited the story of Peter Pan recently.  Its magic and wonderment are still felt today; everywhere I look I see incarnations and new iterations of the famous story.  What makes it so captivating?

I thought about this from a performer’s perspective: we all know the boy who wouldn’t grow up, could fly, and lived on a magical island, Neverland, etc.  But the part that caught me was how he was able to fly.  He tries flapping his arms, jumping, running.  And when he meets Wendy, Michael, and John, they try the same approach.  No, it’s not in any of those methods.  “Think happy thoughts.”  It’s that simple.

If you think happy thoughts you can fly away.  How wonderful would that be?  On second thought we’d have a lot of brokers and politicians, perhaps, flying away from their duties.  But if you focus your energy and emotions on positive thoughts, you can literally lift yourself off the ground.

Image, if you will, you’re about to perform in front of thousands of spectators.  They are all eagerly awaiting your entrance on the well-lit stage.  And then it happens: stage fright.  Anxiety.  Whatever you want to label it; it’s the debilitating fear that can catch any of us at any stage in our careers… on the stage.

I recall a very well-known composer I worked with relaying this feeling to me.  He was well into his career and from the look of it he had nothing to fear.  He was in a concert with several other well-known composers.  As they were waiting anxiously in the wings one turns to him and says, “Gosh, I hope I remember what song I’m playing.”  The next one says, “I hope I can remember my lyrics.”  Keep in mind they are talking about the their songs, they wrote themselves.  My friend turns to them and says, “Guys I got you beat.  I just hope I can remember how to play the piano.”  Think happy thoughts.

I studied voice with a teacher who worked at the Metropolitan Opera.  Again, you look at her career and think she’s gotta be set.  I was dealing with some serious nerves of my own when we were preparing for a cabaret concert.  She said sometimes as she is getting ready in her dressing room before a performance, she would take those feelings and put them aside.  She would actually leave the feelings in the dressing room.  She would be back to get them after the show.  Hey, whatever works.

Just today I was offered yet another thought about this process we all face as performers.  I was talking with my parents about the myriad of projects I have in the works.  There’s a bit of anxiety that surrounds projects and performances you yourself have invested in, both time and money.  It can lead to high anxiety and other paralyzing emotions.  Think happy thoughts.  But rather than anxiety, I say, it’s emotional investment.  How can you not be emotionally tied, in some form, to the work you do when the work is yourself?

Talking to another friend afterwards, he made another simple yet direct observation: the day you stop having the emotional connection to your performing is the day you need to give it up.  And that sounds harsh.  But he’s right, and kinda brilliant.  If you are constantly performing and constantly phoning it in, not feeling anything, sweetie, everyone in the movie theatre watching your life is saying: “Get outta there.”  To that point, the negative emotions, the fears, the worries are definitely powerful.  But imagine if you had the power to fill your thoughts with equally positive emotions?  Imagine if you could be as thrilled and able as you are nervous and anxious?

Peter Pan is a wonderful story.  The message is clear: think happy thoughts and you can fly.  Or in our case, perform with confidence.

When You Walk In The Room…

Hold your chin up high, and say hello.

Disclaimer:  The names are made up (or omitted) but the problems are real.

Tonight is a great day to write about auditions.  Recently I’ve played some auditions, for new and old shows.

I’m amazed at the variety of preparedness on the part of the auditionees.  One of the first actors to come in brought a songbook with a stiff spine.  The book would not lay open on the piano, and the casting director had to hold the book open while I played.  The next couple actors came in with loose sheet of music; some sheets laid flat on the music stand, others kept falling down.  And my favorite is when the actor auditioning throws the music on the stand and walks away, no mention of the cut, tempo, or where they are starting.

I feel like all these actors need to back to freshman audition technique 101.  The director assured me that some of these actors are not “real singers,” and somehow that is supposed to excuse their bad audition habits.  There also seems to be a correlation between how poorly the actor interacts with the accompanist, and how poorly they audition: the worse they are to the accompanist, the worse their audition goes.  I see this happen regularly.  And I understand their behavior is usually caused by nerves, lack of preparation, and/or lack of comfort.

What I do not understand is that this all is avoidable.  And it’s obvious, to me anyway.  Photocopy your music and put it in a binder.  When faced with bad audition technique, I had a director once point a finger at me and say, “Well you know it’s your generation that is doing it!” Funny thing is I actually see it more in older actors. Again, no names, just observations.

Perhaps they think they don’t have to prepare as much?  Perhaps because they’re older and have done this before, they don’t need to put their one song in a three-ring binder, or get a fresh copy of the crumpled pieces of tissue paper they call their audition song, which they’ve been carrying around in their pocket for the past 50 years.  I know it sounds harsh, but it happens.  Without trying to make a gross generalization, some people come in expecting me to know every tune, but more specifically their tune.

Actors auditioning: your accompanist should be good, very good, but making assumptions like that can be hazardous to your audition.  Certainly there’s a lot of repeated repertoire, and most of it is familiar to most accompanists.  But I don’t know how you sing “Anyone Can Whistle.”  Ballads can be easier to pick up on the spot: they’re slow, lyrical, and if the singer leads the accompanist can follow.  It never hurts to check in with your accompanist, sing a little of the melody so they can get a feel for your tempo, style, etc.

Please do not ignore your accompanist.  I can’t count the number of times the actor has walked in the room, the director or casting director introduces everyone, and the actor completely ignores the one person in the room who can actually help them get the job!

All this is to suggest, perhaps go that extra bit of preparation.  Get clean copies of your music and clearly mark them.  It’s funny how a full day of playing auditions can render any accompanist to a mental pile of mush.  They may be fantastic, and pick up all your cues, but having your cuts and tempos clearly marked, can really make a difference.

And the most important thing (and then I’ll step down from my soapbox): smile.  Be happy to be there.  It’s your time.  It may only be four or five minutes, but you might as well enjoy it.  And say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ to your accompanist; it’ll work wonders.

On The Blogway: a little stage write

Thanks for stopping by and welcome to my new blog!

I decided to start a blog because I want to create a platform for discussing all things theatre, both in and outside New York City.  I work with various performers who frequently ask about auditions, building their books, and technique.  This seems like a good opportunity to alleviate some of the myths behind the process of getting from the practice to the performance.

That’s it for now! If you’d like to be kept updated with my posts.  I’ll be posting regularly, so stay tuned and keep in touch!

Cheers, Micah