The Art Of The Note

Giving direction is an art. Knowing how and when to address someone about an issue, talking about criticism, can make or break a relationship, and in the case of theatre, the energy of a performance.

I’ve experienced directors and creatives who try to diagnose and prescribe a solution to a problem. I’ve also seen the interrogation of the situation, leading to a deeper understanding of the issue, and allowing the solution to present itself.

I’m of the mind of the latter; often the prescribed treatment can be premature. Rather, gently addressing the problem allows for clarity and understanding.

Hang On

At a certain level of ability, everyone can perform the job. When we reach the level of professionalism, competence, and confidence, the ability to perform doesn’t necessarily set you apart from other potential players.

I have this conversation often with other musicians: “they’re a great player and they’re really great to hang with.” There are also a lot of great players who are not great to hang with.

I used to think the ‘hang’ didn’t matter as much as the playing. It seems to matter as much if not more; it’s the communication, the comradery, and the time outside of playing that helps players play better. When there can be drama in theatre, knowing each other and spending time together keeps the work relaxed and enjoyable.

The Big Picture

Often we do not receive the opportunities we feel we are deserved.  It’s easy to point fingers and blame the circumstances.  In truth, there are so many variables to who gets the job and who doesn’t. When we look beyond the immediate moment, we are able to see the big picture.

Musicals are funny when it comes to hiring.  The first read-through of a new show can bring in all sorts of performers.  As the show grows and develops, the team can look for higher profile performers, actors who can carry the show and entice producers to bring in money.

And there are performers who do not get asked for the second or third run of a show; it’s frustrating at times, but the fact is if the show will run, there will be multiple opportunities to be a part of it.  And as the show grows, so do it’s needs.  Sometimes the leading actor of a reading becomes the supporting character of the produced workshop, or the production.  And often times the procures or production team is focused on the production, and actors have to respect the process.  Which leads to the big picture; sometimes the job doesn’t happen over-night.  It’s keeping the big picture in mind which helps performers see when they are hired and when they are not.

What They Don’t Tell You

I know this for myself, and maybe you do this too: we established opinions about other people, and about what they must think of us. It’s easy to create a lot in our minds on so little information.

Despite what we might tell ourselves or what we hear about others, none of us have the full story; we have a piece of the story, and it’s put through our own filters. And what is repeatedly striking to me, is when what is said about me (or someone else) in my absence is not what I previously had thought.

When we are absent from a conversation, the things said about us can be revealing, both good and bad; often better than we think. The narrative in our minds can lead to negative self-talk and self-doubt. It’s easy to think the worse about others, and even more about ourselves. Better to give the benefit of the doubt, because most likely we don’t have all the information about what others think.

The Long And Winding Show

A performer once remarked that performing a show every night is like taking a boat out on a lake: it’s the same boat and the same lake, but the wind will take it in a different path every time.

It’s the same show, with the same group of actors, but every night there will be slight variations. As shows progress over long periods of time, it’s hard to notice the slight variations that can change a scene: a line is dropped, the staging might shift, the vocal harmonies might adjust. All of the variables can and will happen.

The maintenance of a show is important; once a show is set, the lights always hit where the staging is set. The music is set with the harmonies. Every line of dialogue is important to cue the music the lights or sound. Consistency keeps the show at a level of excellence, and even within the consistency there is room to create a unique path for every performance.

Questions, Please

I suppose we’ve all heard the phrase, “ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.” Nice experienced questions, stupid or not, met with condescension. The tone of the answer implies: “you stupid idiot, why would you ask such a stupid question?” So who decides the intelligence of the question?

We all know something, and we all not know everything. This would suggestive sip that it’s easy for you to know something I don’t. One of the reasons I love working in theatre is because it is the meeting of so many different minds; the musicians, dancers, actors, directors, designers. What might seem obvious to one person might be a genuine question posed by someone else.

When we inquire about something, it makes us vulnerable; it shows our ignorance to something and opens the doorway to a conversation. When the person answering shoots down the question, it not only insults the questioner, but discourages further questions and then further conversation. Answer every question as though it is honest and intelligent. Makes for better communication.

Higher Arc

Sometimes we can feel as though we are on a “need to know” basis. If you don’t absolutely need to know the reason behind a decision; it’s hard to be given a direction or have a decision made, and not know exactly why.

We do need to know why to a certain extent, otherwise how do we connect to the direction? This happens in theatre often: a direction is given, and for performers, musicians, backstage crew, if the direction is void of purpose, it can be easily forgotten.

However, when there is a direction passed along, more often than not there are more reasons for that direction, that would take too long to explain. This becomes a matter of trust; there needs to be trust between the hierarchy of directors, actors and everyone in a production. I am often reminded to trust more, both in giving and receiving direction.

Use It, Or Lose It

I often hear about performers, “Wow, they have a gift,” “They are so talented,” or “They’re so lucky.” I think what audiences often see is the smallest slice of the process; and that is the final performance, not the years of training.

The performers we see could not present with such skill and expertise without the discipline behind it. What they do doesn’t simply just happen. I am reminded of this if I don’t practice; when I sit down to the piano without warming up or having played in a while, I feel like the Tin Man. Oil can, oil can. My fingers are stiff, less agile.

Like singers, dancers, actors: everything is a muscle. The voice is a muscle, the body is filled with muscles, the mind used to deliver the emotional understanding of a scene is a muscle. And when we don’t use them, we lose them. It is difficult to think that because once a master always a master. The student studies, and once the skill is mastered, they need to (and want to, hopefully) keep studying.

Some Of The Parts

Is what you do who are? Is what you everything that defines you? I’m a doctor, I’m a lawyer, I’m a pianist. I’m more than what I do. Sometimes it feels as if what you is what you are and only what you are.

I had the chance to catch up with a colleague. We discuss this feeling of doing more things than the job title required of us; often the job is limited to some of our parts; there’s more to us than the job. As freelance artists, we need to take on a variety of jobs: actor, writer, choreographer, rehearsal accompanist.

Nobody is just their job. I’m reminded of this every time I am surprised by how multifaceted people can be. And that should give hope; if there’s something you haven’t tried, it doesn’t mean you cannot include it in the sum of your parts.

Start From Scratch

It’s important to know where to begin; a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Often when we’ve traveled the same path day after day, we forget exactly how we get from point A to point B.  Think of your daily routine: traveling to work, to the store, to the coffee shop; now that it’s second nature, we so easily forget how we first made the journey.

I find this to be true in learning material for a show.  After we’ve learned the music, the lines, the blocking, we become so familiar with the rhythm and feel of the show; it becomes easy to forget every step and the meaning behind them.  As I’ve worked on material, coaching performers for auditions, sometimes the performances can fall into old habits, or sound tired.

The energy and work comes from starting fresh every time.  Every time you get up and sing, no matter how many times it has happened before, the integrity of the material must be maintained.  It’s the difference between holding that musical note for it’s full count, being clear with the rhythm, being clear with the text.  Starting from scratch is not to suggest we forget what we’ve learned, rather approaching the material fresh and interrogating every aspect of it.