Discussing racial issues is hardly easy; often I think we avoid the topic altogether for fear of offending anyone and everyone. In fact, the more I find myself talking with colleagues about race in theatre such as color-blind casting, it becomes more complicated. What instances can we cast anyone for a role, making the role color-blind, and what roles, what shows need to follow an ethnic guideline in the character breakdown?
I’ve had this discussion many times; most recently with a group with a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Discussing this is meant to do just that: discuss it. This is not a topic I’ve completely come to terms with, and there are exceptions. For example, could you cast South Pacific with a black Nellie? Probably not because the story hinges on her issues with race and acceptance. Could Allegiance be done without Asian cast members? Not exactly; it’s the story of the interment camps of Japanese Americans during WWII. Race has a story to tell as well.
I find in the performing arts, there are many places where, thankfully, we are celebrating diversity, pursuing inclusivity and demonstrating acceptance through our art. But what becomes of the racial tensions in story if the race of the character is no longer a part of the story?
Frustrating situations arise often in theatre, to say the least. We disagree on a schedule, a preference of music, the process in which we learn. And so on. Demands are put upon us and we react to them. Is getting angry useful?
I had this conversation with a colleague who I noticed had remained calm through a challenging circumstance. “What was the use of becoming angry?” was the response. Why waste the energy on the frustrations, when it could be better spent on being constructive?
Sometimes anger can be useful. If we don’t book the audition or get rejected in some way, the disappointment can fuel us to work harder. Anger can be a motivational tool but I’ve found myself allowing the feeling to corrode the work. It can grind everything to a halt because it can steal the focus. And what do we gain from that?
There’s never enough time. I heard that all the time in school: there will never be enough time once you get out into the ‘real world.’ I hate to admit it but it’s true. I can’t recall the day I last had to sit and practice. We are expected to pick up the material we are given at a faster rate; and more importantly we need to be able to be efficient.
Working under a deadline is both invigorating and scary. When I’ve worked on a new musical, there’s a short amount of time to put it all together: time is money after all. Working with actors has taught me that there are as many different processes as there are people. Everyone learns differently. But, everyone must learn the material.
In a short amount of time, knowing how to break down the material into bite-sized, digestible amounts is as valuable to a performer as being able to perform. If you do not approach a large amount of material in a way that actually allows you to learn it, it’s liable to seem unattainable and terrifying.
When procrastinating with a bottle of wine, or Netflix is tempting, breaking the songs, the scenes, and the entire musical down is key to being able to learn.
Often we think of city-life and business as impersonal and without feeling. However, in the time-is-money culture, there is a difference between being time efficient and being cold-hearted. After seeing hundreds if not thousands of actors auditioning for a production, it’s easy for the casting room to feel like a revolving door: one actor out, the next one in. There’s little time to be overly cordial.
For my own experiences, I appreciate when time is not wasted, and respect is maintained. I’ve had those moments where someone is overly effusive, or feels they need to put on a display of affection when it’s unnecessary. I sometimes think that if we show preferential treatment to one person in a casting or business scenario, we need to show it everyone, lest we appear to having favorites.
Be that as it may, there are people we may know, or prefer, or show some sort of acknowledgement to; it happens. In the postmortem of an audition, we sometimes wonder if the casting team didn’t care about us, or if they were cold. Sometimes it’s none of those; they could simply be busy, and above all, wish to respect your time.
How many people does it take to fix a lightbulb? There are countless versions of the joke leading to punchline that it could be done better by someone else. It is easier to sit on the sidelines, with a greater perspective to see how something is done and to comment, self assuredly, “I could do it better.”
Process is a funny thing; when we work on our craft, our art, it can take on a life of its own. It’s the process that leads us to the creation, or the lightbulb. It’s the process by which we are judged, and how we screw in the proverbial lightbulb.
When we have the urge to correct or adjust someone else on their process, we should remember that they might learn a little differently. They might care for their lighting and light bulbs differently, to use the analogy.
When we do it ourselves, not just commenting on it, we learn how hard it can be, whether it’s screwing in a lightbulb or creating a work of art.
If we’re truly open to criticism, than everyone’s opinion can suddenly carry weight. If we look for advice and notes on our work or our performance, too many people are all too willing to chime in. So to whom do we listen? Whose advice really matters, and whose do we discard?
I had this conversation with a director, whose opinion and viewpoint I appreciate. The question I recall was: “When is enough advice enough? When does a writer (in this instance) stop taking notes from others?”
The reply: Never. If you truly want to get a sense of what could work, what might be better, then the writer never stops looking for the input.
This is where I will put in my two cents (for what it’s worth). If the writer, composer, or other creative artist is going to be able to create, then there has to be some safety in that process. There are countless artists who talk about closing the door to their studio, keeping the work private until it is ready. But I find in the collaborative field that is musical theatre, we are inundated with criticisms and too often I hear an insight that, while might be constructive, is often negative and hindering to the process.
When other creatives dive in the editing process with phrases like “that can’t work,” or “that’s too long” or “don’t do that,” the free-flow of ideas comes to a halt. From my own experience, and when talking to other artists, it can be a debilitating situation: all of a sudden what you thought might be good becomes something that is deemed inappropriate by others who are only privy to a portion of your work.
The alternative to criticism and advice in this manner, is perhaps inviting the questions, engaging the dialogue, but always keeping the free-flow of ideas open. And at some point the writer needs to take the advice he or she wants (hopefully positive, constructive words), and move on.
Every new idea, new invention, new work of art, new life, is messy and often crude. It’s often undefined and needs help getting nourishment so it can grow and become something more. When we work at creating something new, it’s far from fully formed; in my house the first draft is commonly referred to the ‘shitty first draft.’ But it’s the necessary first step.
I know I’m not alone in having found difficulty getting past that crucial first step. In musical theatre we so desperately need the help and advice of trusted friends and colleagues. Too often I’ve worked on a new project that is met with premature criticism. The ‘nay-sayers’ quickly point out all the issues that are wrong. It’s hard to not take the criticism personally, however I’ve also found there are the nurturing artists who can see potential; they can see there’s something to be developed.
Giving feedback, and knowing when to give feedback is an art form all its own. When we are involved with something new, particularly a new work of theatre, it’s going to need development. It’s not done. Writing is rewriting, as we so often say like a mantra. If we put too much criticism on something new, the writer who is already questioning the validity of the work is liable to throw it out completely, doing away with the good and the bad.
If you rush the process, any process, your liable to miss a step or two along the way, and end up with a less than stellar product. If it takes 30 minutes to bake a cake, but you want it done in 10, it’s not going to be a very good cake. Likewise trying to get results too quickly, without respecting the time of the process is putting the cart before the horse.
Perhaps it is one of the many issues in the performing arts is rushing the process. We want to impress, we want to win over our audiences, and backers with the money to fuel our passions; sometimes we step out on to the stage long before we have the repertoire fully realized or rehearsed.
The conflicting force at work in this situation, is using the excuse that the work is not ready. I need more time; lifetimes are spent not being ready. Sometimes we need to push ourselves (and others) to get out and try the material, whether it’s a stand-up comic routine, or a broadway musical.
The more we work our craft, the better we are at understanding how long it will take. How long does it take to write a song, a scene, or a musical? When are we ready and when do we legitimately need more time?
It’s a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of taste. What you think or I think about a performance or the music, or the way a production was staged: it’s all a matter of taste. When we study and we are conditioned to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ the habits manifest in being fearful of the ‘wrong’ and longing for the ‘right.’ That doesn’t seem right to me.
When I’ve played for performers the discussion of right and wrong choices in their process and performance often arise. I strongly believe there are no absolutely wrong choices or right choices, but better, stronger choices. For example, if the motivation for a character is passion or revenge, their acting choices are stronger than a motivation of friendliness, or affability. We talk of strong choices that work themselves into our interpretation of song, and how we gesture and act the song.
There are as many opinions as there are artists, some better than others. And as we study and take lessons, work with directors, we must always consider the source. Not every opinion is one you want to integrate into your process, but hopefully with second, third and even fourth opinions, we can begin to take our pick of ideas and suggestions, that help us create a more well-rounded and stronger performance.
Application of a skill can be as important as the skill itself. We can use a hammer to build a house or to tear it down. It’s all how we use the hammer.
Application in performance is similar; we learn the techniques and methods of performing, but it’s how we apply the methods and techniques. In singing we talk about belting, legit soprano, chest and head voice. They can all sound very different. But with a solid technique, it’s possible to utilize the different timbres like colors on the pallet.
When I studied classical piano, that was all well and good, but not every gig uses classical repertoire. And although I know how to play the piano, knowing how to apply that to each gig and each situation is half the battle. For singers I find, knowing how to apply the voice and technique to the song and character is as important as knowing how to sing.