Ignorance is This

When you’re supposed to read the book, but you watch the movie instead, you’re cutting corners.  When you’re preparing for a test, and you’ve only read the cliff-notes, you might miss some of the details.  When you’re a performer and you only listen to the cast recording in preparation for your role in a production, you’re missing a whole lot.

When I’m music directing a cast of actors I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.  I try not to make assumptions, and respect that everyone has a different learning curve and a different process.  However, there are those occasions when you want to bang your head against the wall in disbelief.

This happened once, as it sometimes does; I worked with an actor who was not prepared with their role.  When I asked how this person prepared, it was clear that they had only listened to the recording; what else was needed?  For one thing, the part to sing might not be the part featured on the commercial recording.

Not every cast recording is perfect.  Few are.  And the performers take liberties with the material that they’ve worked to create with their cast and their creative team.  Listening to someone else is just hoping for a decent imitation.

Yes, listen for reference, but if we want to be our own artists, we have to work past that.  In the court of law, ignorance is no excuse.  The same holds for the rehearsal process; there is all due diligence expected.

Cool Intentions

Actors love to ask ‘why.’  Why does my character do this?  Why does he say this, or talk to this character, or fight with this character?  They need to know the intention of the character.  The writers and directors need to be ready with an answer.

I love actors for this reason.  At times it’s infuriating, trying to convince them of the intention behind their song lyric, or action.  They are brilliant bullshit detectors.  They can smell the false reasoning or thinly veiled lie that comes with the answer to their question.

I’ve been on both sides of the discussion.  As a music director I need to know the reasoning behind the characters to better teach and coach the performers.  When I’m writing, I consider actors the guinea pigs that can help inform me of what I need to know.  Often they ask questions I’ve not yet conceived an answer for.

What is troubling and unsatisfying is when, like a child asking a parent ‘why,’ the parent simply says: “because I told you so.”  Actors are inquisitive and will have questions; the creative team can provide the answers and hopefully have a meaningful discussion about the subject.  When they sugar coat their answer with fluff, but don’t get to the substance, it’s like eating a whole bag of Cheetos, but still being hungry for a meal.

If It’s Not Baroque

You cannot work in theatre without working on a few revivals.  Whether it’s Oklahoma, or South Pacific, or even something more contemporary as Seussical, for example, they are produced and they need to hire performers to make them happen.  It is completely understandable to produce and perform from the canon of shows available.  What doesn’t make sense, or seem warranted, is the need to rewrite, or adapt a tried-and-true show.

I worked on an old show once, where the director wanted to rewrite the ending.  “It’s too boring” was the phrase that made it through the gossip channels during the production.  Not only is it illegal to rewrite and change shows licensed for a specific theatre, but it undermines the material given to the cast of actors.

Are you suggesting this show isn’t good enough?  When we start to work and rework shows that are published, produced, established, it opens the floodgates for any aspiring director/creative to start tweaking other creatives’ work.

Imagine if I took a paint brush to the Mona Lisa.  Well, DaVinci didn’t get it quite right, and I find her smile rather lacklustre.  Try explaining that to a judge.

A revival is not only the representation of a classic production, it is also telling of the time period it which it was written.  We go to see South Pacific for it’s message of tolerance, war and peace, race and struggles.  We can find many aspects to the show already.  It would be unjust to the material to rewrite it, adding a hip-hop, techno-style ending, just to spruce things up.

And the danger many directors run into, though they wouldn’t want to hear it, is trying to put their stamp on the production. “I’m going to change the ending, and that way people will know this is my production of Oklahoma.”  Well no; if you try to mess with a show, a show which people are excepting certain things from, they’re going to wonder who screwed up the show, and quickly turn to the credits in the Playbill.  If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it.

How Could I Ever Know?

I’d venture to say that every person, at one point or another in their life, believes that if they simply ignore a problem it will go away.  Likewise, if we ignore another person, they’ll leave us alone.  But when people don’t communicate with us, whether they are personal or business contacts, we cannot know what is happening with them.  We cannot be understanding or sensitive to their circumstances.

There are gigs in which payment isn’t always timely.  We hope everything goes smoothly, but then checks get lost in the mail, or forgotten.

They say the squeaky wheel gets the oil.  As freelancers we persisted, knowing every little bit helps.  And we’ll go after every little bit.

On a particular gig, I found myself in this predicament.  An employer seemed reluctant to pay on time.  They were also on radio silence for some time.  As it turns out they’ve just been swamped.  Have you ever been given that excuse: “I wish I had gotten back to you, but you know… swamped.”

I knew the tactic; after many exchanges I wondered if i had done something wrong.  It was simply a case of neglectful bookkeeping.  It is not my fault, nor my business to know that there are other irons in their fire; and by the long stretch of silence, how could I possibly understand the delay?  How could I know?

People are far more understanding if you take the two seconds needed to simply explain the ‘swamped’ position you’re in.  They’ll understand.  We need to communicate, and own our part in any exchange.

Thank You For The Music

Today, like so many holidays throughout the year, performers are working.  We’re in parades and concerts, preparing for the next project.  It’s hard to take a day off when we don’t necessarily go into an office and punch a time-card to work.

It also means that the work can take us away from home.  The holiday shows that are traveling around the country and full of working performers who are not with their families.  This means taking time with the other people you work with, sharing the holidays with them.  For many other jobs, you take today off, and go home.  For actors, musicians, and the staff of theatrical productions, they might be off working, and celebrating together.

I am amazed how people in these situations adapt and bond.  There is the small, tight-knit community of performers who spend nearly every waking moment preparing, and performing; the work brings them together.  I am thankful to be a part of the community that comes together, even when we are away from home.

Simply The Rest

When you lose your voice it might be a slight inconvenience.  When your voice is a source of income, it is a huge problem; for public speakers and vocal performers of all kinds, their voice is their livelihood.  Which is why giving it time to rest is essential.

I was working on a production where a singer needed to be put on vocal rest.  It might appear like a diva-move, but I strongly encourage a singer who is not feeling well to lay out and stay quiet.  There is no apology needed, no explanation; just make it known and rest.  Any singer will tell you their favorite tea, throat coat, mixture, you name it.  But until the voice comes back, there’s not much to do but be patient.

Some vocalists will claim that they are not singing, but they’ll speak all day.  I find this counterproductive.  If you call in sick to work, you don’t go out and play, you stay home and recuperate.  The same is true for vocal rest; if there is a rehearsal and a singer is not singing, they are not talking at all, both in and out of rehearsal.

Vocal health is strongly influenced by stress levels and anxiety.  If you’re worried it won’t get better, and keep trying to produce sound while sick, that will only prolong the healing.  Take the rest and stay quiet.  Period.

Hey, Mr, Producer!

I’m talkin’ to you, sir.  There are two forces in theatre: the creative and the administrative.  We need to have both in order to have theatrical productions; on one end, the creation and development of the work.  On the other end, bringing the work to life by funding the production.  Both have to work in harmony for the work to survive.

I spoke with a colleague about this issue.  How do we as creatives talk to producers and artistic directors?  How do we explain the energy and time needed for pre-production work?  And when the issue of preparing scores, reducing scores, re-orchestrating them, how do explain that?  Words like ‘re-orchestration’ is a foreign one to producers.

My friend had the approach of education; if he can show them the hours it takes.  It takes weeks to re-orchestrate a show.  And it doesn’t come free.  Often times I see the producers who are concerned with the bottom line, as they should be.  But if they don’t see the work it takes to rework an entire musical score, they don’t appreciate the amount of time it takes.

When people expect something for nothing (or very little) it creates an atmosphere of exclusivity.  Why should I give more of myself to the production and to the theatre company, if I’m not compensated for it?  And if I’m not appreciated for the time and efforts, where is the incentive?

As artists we fall into the trap of loving what we do; if you won’t do it for this amount, we can hire someone else.  There are too many actors and not enough jobs.  But that doesn’t mean a producer should lowball every offer they hand out.  An artistic director and producer should be constantly educating themselves on the jobs of the people working for them, so they can appreciate them more, even if they cannot pay them more.

Help!

It’s helpful to know when to call out for help.  We can’t call 911 every time we break a fingernail, but if there’s a legitimate emergency, we gotta make the call.  Likewise, we don’t want to accuse someone of violating our personal space every time someone gives us a hug or a kiss on the cheek.

In theatre, it is hard to know when too close is too close.  People flirt, kiss, hug, whatever they want to show affection.  I’ve been in the situation where someone has been more touchy upon greeting me than I’d like; it’s hard to show discomfort or disdain especially when they might be the director or producer and in a position to hire.

The term ‘sexual harassment’ doesn’t exist in theatre.  You can complain, but then you’d be difficult to work with.  Harsh but true.  And the more friendly you are, the more people like you.  Where emotions are acted out on stage, it’s easy for the actor to portray the melodrama in real life.  You have to know when to speak up and when to be gracious.

I once had a handsy stage manager who, by the description, couldn’t keep his hands to himself.  Sounds like I’m describing a scenario at a junior high.  Welcome to professional theatre.  I had a meeting with this person and a third-party (never talk to someone one-on-one alone).  At that point I needed to say something.  Please keep your hands to yourself.  No, really.

There may be a legitimate casting couch in some circles; there is a ceiling to sleeping your way to the top.  There are no hard and fast rules.  I’m sure there are in some workers’ union handbook, but the reality is, sex sells, and flirting helps.  However, you might want to consider how you are viewed by your peers and what reputation you create by your actions.

Showmance, Showmance

As I was preparing for a production once, a friend (not in the performing industry) happened to ask if romances occurred during the production.  Showmances, as we know them, do indeed happen.

In a profession such as performing, where appearances matter, touching and kissing are often a part of the job, and the sex is scripted, it’s no wonder people grow fond of one another when they’re in a show.  It’s also an industry of emotions; we are constantly acting out some emotion or another in the context of a scene or song.  That can be exhausting, but also make us incredibly sensitive and in touch (or out of touch) with our true feelings.

That said, the possibility of a showmance is all too easy.  For some of us, it’s something you grow out of, for others, you don’t.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with dating someone at work (or is there?) as long as you keep it professional.

And while it might be frowned upon in the workforce, or company policy not to date your boss, there’s hardly any precedent or rule that says you can’t date the director or producer.  You should wonder how it might appear.  Or if you care.

On The Road Again

For many performing artists, living in a large metropolitan area like New York, L.A., or Chicago is a necessity.  Artists need to go where there’s work.  And sometimes it means living in a major city so you can find work outside of the city.

Traveling is practically unavoidable for performers.  They’re in one city, or a tour of cities, playing one night here, one night there.  But if you ask them where they live, they’ll answer New York, or another large city.

This is largely in part because they’re more likely to get hired for shows and performances out-of-town from the town they live in. Many tours and concerts are hired in New York, and sent out-of-town.  I cannot count the number of friends and colleagues who have apartments in New York, but are mainly on the road.

So often we sublet, or couch-surf between engagements, waiting for the next trip to take off.  And while it’s expensive and often a pain to live in a congested city such as New York, which I love (not the congested part, but the city part) it’s where you need to be if you want to work regionally.

There is an assumption that is not altogether untrue: if you live in New York, you must be good.  If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.  Performers live there for the opportunities that often take them away from home.  And there are good performers in small towns and lousy performers in big cities; but the gigs are all coming out of the big city.