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kennedy

Hey, Broadway, Time for a Camelot Revival!

All who appreciate good theatre have been given a once-in-a-lifetime gift in the past 18 months, and that gift is Hamilton. In case you live under a rock, yet somehow are reading the StageAgent blog, Hamilton is the story of Alexander Hamilton, a man who was never President of the United States but was just as influential as any in the birth of our nation. Hamilton created our financial systems, the Coast Guard, The New York Post, and was named the first Secretary of Treasury in the United States. Oh yeah, and about 240 years later, some guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a hip-hop musical about him. And it won all the awards. We’ve made up awards to keep giving to this show, just to show how grateful we are. In the time it took me to write the last sentence, it picked up two more.

hamiltonmeme

I kid, but seriously, the hype is real. A true but mostly-untold story, Mr. Miranda (along with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler; director Thomas Kail; musical director Alex Lacamoire; and author of the book, Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow), wrapped a semi-biography in the language of this generation—in rap and hip-hop. And Miranda had the vision to tell the story with actors who traditionally would never cross lines of race or gender, so that it can speak to a contemporary teenager who may feel completely disconnected from the founding fathers. And it works beautifully. The bar for excellence has been raised sky-high in the way that great artists have always done.

Hamilton shows its protagonists not as we idealize them to be, but as what they are: people. Fallible people, honest people, hard-working people, desperate people, hungry people. A group of men and women trying to do something nearly impossible—birth a new nation in a new land, with new rules of governance, without a motherland to support them. The country was founded in blood, sweat, slavery. For better or worse, the freedoms we enjoy today are built on this foundation. We shouldn’t look at the Founders as superheroes in powdered wigs, but as humans, sometimes deeply flawed, sometimes incredibly inspiring. Hamilton gives us this opportunity.

Uh…I thought this was supposed to be about Camelot…

I’m getting there. Camelot arrived on Broadway (the first time) in 1960, starring Richard Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guenevere, and Robert Goulet as Lancelot. Written by Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe and Moss Hart, Camelot is the story of Arthur, and his journey from foolish teenager to King. (I don’t really have to give you the plot of Camelot, do I? Moving on.)

camelot

Camelot is a story of inspiration, of reaching for the stars. It is widely known that President John F. Kennedy was a huge fan of the show, and would often listen to the cast album before he went to bed at night in the White House. He was particularly fond of the closing lyrics:

Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot

For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.

The Kennedy Administration was often referred to as the “Camelot Era.” Idealistic, hopeful, ever-striving for the next goal. When America truly entered the “Space Race,” it was Kennedy who said:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others too.”

President Kennedy delivering the his famous “Moonshot Speech.”
President Kennedy delivering the his famous “Moonshot Speech.”

King Arthur was idealistic too. Perhaps a bit naïve, but hopeful. In his powerful speech closing Act One, Arthur says:

“This is the time of King Arthur, and we reach for the stars! This is the time of King Arthur, and violence is not strength, and compassion is not weakness. We are civilized.”

Sound familiar?

Camelot, of course, is about some other things that aren’t so inspiring. And it doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. Arthur fails his mission to keep the peace in the kingdom, war has come to his doorstep—war caused by an adulterous affair between his Queen and Lancelot, spurred on by Arthur’s bastard son (he was no saint, I suppose). But even as the battle is upon him, Arthur turns to a young boy who has come to join the fight, and instead sends him to hide, to live, and to tell the story that for one moment, however brief, there was a glorious kingdom known as Camelot.

Back here in our universe, it’s been an interesting month or so, to say the least. And many of us find ourselves in an uncertain world. It’s a good time to be reminded that it’s always the right time to do the right thing. Arthur didn’t want to sit at the head of a table, he wanted it round, so that all were equal even though he was King. He wanted a world governed by reason, about what was right, not who was mighty. He had a partner in Guenevere, not a subordinate, but an equal.

Throughout history, art has reflected the time in which it was created, whether it serves as a mirror for the present, a reminder of days long gone, or a glimpse into the future. Those who appreciate art often look to it for guidance, or inspiration. Hamilton gives a gritty edge to what has often been a whitewashed history lesson. Camelot presents a magical, idealistic take on the rules of governance. If ever there was a time to have both shows running on Broadway, I think now is that time.

Besides, who doesn’t want to hear Audra McDonald sing Guenevere?

YOUR MISSION

No Summer Gig…No Big Deal

When last we met, I was extolling the virtues of summer stock theatre, that magical place where you build your skills as a performer, meet fascinating (and not-so fascinating) people, and try very hard not to embarrass yourself at the closing night party. But what if you’re not doing stock, what if you’re in the City (or elsewhere) for the summer, not necessarily performing?

Time is gift given lightly and rarely appreciated. We (humans) are one of the few creatures on the planet with a system for measuring time, both spent wisely and wasted. We always think there’s more time, that the sun will rise tomorrow no matter what we do today, so why worry about how much we get done in a day? Procrastination is the enemy my friend, and while I don’t live my life by the clock, I’ve learned to recognize when time has been gifted to me, and how valuable it can be.

So you’re not doing stock. Maybe you were too afraid to audition, maybe it doesn’t pay enough to support your basic needs in life, maybe every summer theatre was doing The King and I and A Chorus Line, and you’re basically a Gordon MacRae clone (look him up, kids) and there is no job for you to have. Or maybe you chose to stay where you are and pursue other avenues. Stock is great, but there’s more to being an actor than chasing a job. There is more, right? Guys? Anybody?

Maybe I’m optimistic, but this time is a gift. This post is certainly NYC-centric, but I encourage you to apply it to wherever you are.

The first and most obvious answer to “What do I do with all this time?” is STUDY. There are acting classes, dance classes, voice, yoga, personal training—all tied directly to the care and well-being of the actor’s instrument. So care for it! Years ago I was in a seminar with a now-retired agent who gave this plain, simple advice:

If there’s something you don’t like about yourself, change it. Need to lose ten pounds?  Need to gain it? Always wanted to be a blonde? Do you wish you were a better dancer?

Is it time for an acting class? Whatever it is that you feel is holding you back, you probably can change it. The only thing you’re really stuck with is your height.”

I’ll admit, the Frankenstein in me sunk a little at that last part.

dontbumphead

We currently live in a “love yourself” society, a society of “I am enough just as I am.” And believe me I am all for that, but you have to carry a bit of realism with you on that journey. Yes, you are enough sir, but if you want to play Superman in the next big summer blockbuster, you probably want to put down that donut. One of my favorite things to say to clients (in the personal training world) is this: June will eventually be September. Should we spend that time pursuing our goals, or spinning our wheels?

So study. Exercise. CARE for yourself; we forget that so easily. If you can’t afford certain classes or feel that what is offered currently isn’t for you, then read plays, movie scripts, great novels, whatever. Sing in your shower, dance in your living room. See movies—not just the blockbusters in the theatre, but the greats. Citizen Kane is typically hailed as one of the greatest films of all time. Ever wonder why? Maybe you should see it. And Casablanca, All About Eve, East of Eden, The Dirty Dozen. The word study has a wide, wide interpretation.

YOUR MISSION

CHALLENGE YOUR FRIENDS!

Form a group of peers…some kind of…peer group (I really hate myself sometimes). Meet once a month, bring your monologue or song you’ve always wanted to try, enlist the help of some better dancers to fix the hitch in your time step. (Is it obvious I can’t dance? I think so) Get everyone together and read a play aloud. Find ten friends and have a “great movie” party, then order pizza and talk about it!

In my early years in New York City I organized such a group, cleverly called…The Audition Group. We met once a month. I lived in a building in Manhattan that contained a studio with a baby grand piano, and I could reserve this room basically at my leisure. I would grab an accompanist friend (several, over the course of the year), and nine of my actor friends and I would each pay them $15 dollars to play for us for three hours. Our piano-playing pal would make $150 bucks for the night, and we would do our audition pieces for the group, and take suggestions, criticisms and occasionally even praise. It’s a great way to get your material up to snuff before you sign up for that casting director’s workshop.

ticketstub

GO SEE STUFF!!

Do you have any idea how much free theatre there is in this city? Go to your magic Google machine and type in “Free theatre in NYC.” Seventeen million results come up. There are numerous free Shakespeare companies in the city, not just the really popular one in the park. Summer is the home season of the New York Musical Festival, The Fringe Festival, The Midtown International Festival for Crocodiles (okay I made that one up), but you get the idea. Not all of it is free but a vast majority is either free or super-cheap. And of course, some of it is…let’s say, variable in quality. But there’s always something to be learned.

And if you’re not already doing this, start playing the Broadway Lotteries. Hey, someone’s gotta win.

WORK. This one may not sound like much fun, but you might as well make some money. Summertime is big for the restaurant business, and if you’re a waiter it can be big for you too. Pick up the extra shifts, stash that money away so that you can breathe a little easier when you have to give your own shifts away just to make it through the Fall auditions.

PLAY. All this focus can wear anyone out. Sign up for a bowling or a softball league, go on dates, visit your family, go lie in Central Park and stare at the sky (not while it’s raining).

sheep

New York is amazing in the summertime, people are out and about, sometimes they’re even happy. You see families having picnics, children playing in playgrounds, tourists staring at a billboard while we loyal residents silently curse their very existence…it really is a magical place.

Most of all, BREATHE. It doesn’t always feel like it, but we are lucky, lucky humans. Recharge your batteries, your spirit. You’re going to need them.

red barn

An Ode to Summer Stock

What a feeling! You get that call on your cell phone (back in my day, we had answering services and we liked them…cough, cough, shakes fist at sky…), and you’ve got a job for the summer doing theatre. Someone is ACTUALLY PAYING you to do theatre! What a rush! What a high!

What the hell do you do now?

red barn

This isn’t a nuts and bolts article about subletting your apartment and forwarding your mail, this is more of a “What to expect when you’re expecting to do summer stock” piece. First of all, for the uninitiated, what is summer stock? Stock theatre companies perform several shows over the course of…the summer (I hate myself sometimes). You learn a show, tech it, open it, and the day after you open, you rehearse the next one, while performing the previous one at night. So you are constantly working, either rehearsing, performing, sometimes helping with the stagecraft of it all, maybe even ushering or selling raffle tickets—you can literally do almost anything while you are employed as an “actor” in a summer stock company.  

I mean no disrespect by using quotation marks around our beloved profession, it’s just that we often aren’t asked to do anything other than act. Certainly if you are a union member, you perform, and that’s all that can be required of you. But if you are young and new to the business, there’s nothing wrong with learning as much as you can about what it takes to really run a theatre company. You should know how to hang a light, paint a flat, manage a box office, empty the garbage, press some laundry—these are good life skills! Don’t bemoan them too much if they fall your way; learn from them and take these skills with you wherever you go. And of course you develop such an appreciation for the design team, the tech crew, the management staff, all the people who share the same goal as you—producing the highest-quality theatre you can.

So—what to expect. Let’s start with your arrival at the company. Generally speaking, housing is provided for you, but if you are a non-union actor (and we all were at some point) your living conditions may be…less than ideal. You could (uh, will) have a roommate; you may have two, or even three. You will be sharing a bathroom with a lot of people, which will cause you to wake at ungodly hours of the morning to ensure you have hot water for your shower, or you will make the choice to share your smell with your new friends. If it’s a non-union company, you probably won’t have air conditioning (and maybe not in a union company either). So it’s probably going to be a little less than comfortable.  

Don’t bring everything you own. Keep it as travel-friendly as possible, avoiding any arguments over spatial issues with your new friends. You will be crowded; that’s just how it goes. You’ll need one nice outfit for parties, but beyond that you just need casual and rehearsal clothes. Think like a minimalist; it makes life easier in a communal living environment.

heyroomie

You’ve shown up, unpacked, and you’re ready to begin rehearsal. In many cases you already know what roles you are playing throughout the summer, but sometimes you don’t. Sometimes producers need to see more of what you can do before they offer you Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. You may have gotten the job though the Strawhat or Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) combined auditions, and they may only have spent twenty minutes or so with you prior to offering you a job. Occasionally there will be large roles yet to be cast in a big summer stock season, and you have a period of time available to show your best work. Do that.

In a non-union company, rehearsals can be long, but generally speaking most companies adhere to a standard 8- or 9-hour day, at least until tech begins. Many companies, even if non-union, adhere to the union guidelines for breaks and meals (5-minute break every 55 minutes or 10 minutes every 80; 1 hour for lunch, 90 minutes or more for dinner). And they often adopt the union rules leading into a performance, which can vary a little but generally mandate a specific period of time before the half hour evening call, to allow for meals, rest, and preparation.

You learn the first show, go through that baptism of fire known as tech, have an opening night party and you are rewarded with…another show to learn.  

In the beginning of the stock season, this will be so exciting. You CANNOT WAIT to get to the next show, do something different, show your wide range as a performer. But you never know how it’s all going to turn out—maybe the new director doesn’t notice how wonderful you are. Or maybe you’re allergic to the mold in the house and you’ve now got the bubonic plague that will last 3 months. Or maybe you don’t do very much in the new show. Maybe you hate the choreography. Maybe you’ve been overlooked for a good role…again…but you trudge honorably to the next show, and the next.

And then comes summer stock’s dirty little secret—CHILDREN’S THEATRE!!!!

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With all due respect to children’s theatre, it’s not why anyone came to work for any stock company. It is however, an absolute necessity to the health and vitality of the theatre, and for the cultivation of future audiences and performers. This kind of theatre is very inexpensive, entirely profitable, and the lifeblood of many stock companies. Unfortunately, it’s also the annoying uncle who won’t go home. You rehearse it around the mainstage schedule (meaning on your limited off time, usually after a mainstage performance). As if you weren’t exhausted enough, you have this to contend with. But contend you must. These may be your largest roles all summer, you’d better try to enjoy them. And at the end of the day, you’re going to be making lots of children laugh and scream, and as a parent, I’ll tell you there’s nothing better.

So you endure, because that’s the job. There’s good stuff coming down the pike, you can feel it. West Side Story is only two shows away, and you know they’re going to cast you as Anita. You just know it! All you have to do is finish the run of the show you don’t really like, then get through the next show that you truly can’t stand and won’t be doing very much in, and take out the garbage and paint the scenery and settle the disputes in your cast house (because you have been elected House Mom), and your reward awaits!

Hopefully. The truth is, who really knows? You just keep grinding away. You fall in love with someone, or maybe even a couple of someones, you get your heart broken, you break one in return. You don’t really learn to be an actor, but you can learn to be a professional. You serve the theatre, your friends, your employers, the Gods above. And then one day, likely in August, it ends, and you each go your separate ways. Some of the people you’ve met, you’ll never see again, and that will be okay. Some you will remember fondly. A few will become your lifelong friends.

embrace the moment

Stock is hard. Some actors do it once and never pursue it again. But it can also be so, so rewarding. My closest friends in life, I met through stock. I went through major life changes, including the loss of a parent, while working in summer stock. Those people were there for me, and I love them all to this day. I met my wife there. We’ve been married for nearly sixteen years and have two amazing children. There’s a perfect tree in this town where we worked, the kind of tree you’d see drawn in a children’s book. I think about it all the time. I don’t really know why, but I imagine my ashes scattered there when I’m gone, a tribute to the place and the people that helped me grow up, helped me find my way.  

I hope the same experience for you.

Designer

Actors and Costume Designers: Building a Perfect Relationship

Whether you’ve been cast in a college production of The Pirates of Penzance,  a community theatre production of Steel Magnolias, or the Broadway national tour of Kinky Boots, you—the actor—are only one of many people creating the character you will portray onstage. A key figure in the development of a character is the costume designer, and the relationship between actor and costume designer is the most intimate in our industry. Designers see actors in their most vulnerable state, exposing the insecurities of body and image.

Clothing is the most intimate and relatable design element. Everyone wears clothing, and everyone has opinions about clothing. Often what we wear says more than any words or actions do: Who we are. Where we’re from. What year it is. How much money we have. How much money we want other to think we have. These are just a few stories clothing tells in real life and onstage, making the relationship between the actor and the costumer one of the most important.

Happy female tailor holding tablet computer

Only by working together can these two artists craft a character. Here are five keys to making the most out of your relationship with your next costume designer.

  1. Come with an open mind

It’s true—there is no bad idea. There may be ideas you don’t like, but know that compromise is always possible. And know that your designer could bring inspiration to the table you wouldn’t have found otherwise. Think of it as a relationship that has potential to grow into a successful artistic partnership, if you’re willing to let it.

  1.  Be willing to cooperate

If you hate wearing yellow, tactfully explain why it clashes with your skin tone, but know that a designer doesn’t choose the color of a costume on a whim. Costumes are designed as dramaturgically as a play is written. Designers consider historic and cultural context as well as aesthetics. They’ve spent years studying design, making them experts in color theory, fit, and how to design the larger picture of a play, beyond a single dress. You, as the individual actor, can’t always see the whole picture. You may not know what you look like onstage juxtaposed with lighting, scenery, and other actors. Your designer does, trust that. Have faith your designer wants you to look amazing, whether you’re playing a homeless vagrant or a 19th-century socialite.

Swatches

  1.  Come prepared

There’s nothing more embarrassing for both parties than an actor who doesn’t wear underwear to a fitting. So, wear underwear, and come prepared to talk about the foundation garments your character and your body need to best perform. A designer wants you to be comfortable, and foundation garments are the place to start. What brand of underwear fits you best? What type of bra are you most comfortable in? Do you prefer short or tall socks? Do you wear orthotics?  These are all questions your designer will ask. Chances are, if you know the answer it will strengthen your relationship, and get you the underwear you need on the first day of tech instead of the last.

  1. Keep the lines of  communication open

There is a fine line between compromising for your own comfort, and changing a designer’s intention. If a pair of shoes really doesn’t feel right, say something. No one should have to wear shoes that don’t fit. When something doesn’t feel right, or comfortable, say something sooner rather than later. Never suck it up. If, for some reason the designer won’t compromise, you are at least opening the door to conversation. Nobody wants the actor/designer relationship to sour. Speak your mind, but know the designer deserves to speak theirs as well. It takes two to make a great costume.

  1. Know your character

Sometimes costumes are written into a script. Other times they’re part of the director’s vision just as much as they are the designer’s. But, it’s up to the actor to communicate their version of a character to the designer. For instance, a costumer might begin with pants for an empowered female character, but if the actor is playing the role as someone who wouldn’t wear pants, everyone’s vision adjusts. It’s same situation for an actor’s body type. Before casting, a designer may design a garment that isn’t practical or flattering on the body of the actor who is ultimately cast. If you go into a design discussion or first fitting ready to share your discoveries of your character, the costumer can share theirs and you can build a strong character together.

The beauty of theater is its fluidity. It’s a group effort. The collaboration is always worth it. As long everyone keeps an open mind and their own artistic integrity, there’s no way the product will fail. So, next time you meet your costume designer, remind yourself—you are an artist, your designer is an artist, and together you will make art out of something as seemingly simple as clothing.

Scott Ward Abernethy in The Magic Tree at Keegan Theatre in Washington DC.  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The Hearts of Monsters: Why We Need to Play Villains

“You are terrifying!” came the enthusiastic greeting as I stepped into the post show lobby. . I had grown used to it by then, and knew from the grins on the faces of this pleasant older couple that it meant they’d enjoyed the show. I smiled back sheepishly and offered a genuine, though bashful thank you, trying to distance myself somewhat from the character I had just played. Each night, I even made a point of dressing up more than usual when I went to the theatre. This was my first production in a new city, after all, and I wanted to be sure that everyone knew I wasn’t really a sociopath.

Scott Ward Abernethy in The Magic Tree at Keegan Theatre in Washington DC.
Scott Ward Abernethy in The Magic Tree at Keegan Theatre in Washington DC. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

I’ve always been drawn to eccentric characters –or, perhaps, I have always been drawn to the eccentric in the characters I play – but playing Doc in Ursula Rani Sarma’s The Magic Tree was my first opportunity to play a genuine “bad guy.”  In the time we spend with Doc we  are introduced to him as a would-be rapist, and witness him in the act. He is a very, very bad guy.

Over the course of the rehearsal process, I had delved into the Doc’s damaged psyched, felt his pain, and tapped into the genuine pleasure he feels in committing horrible acts.  I had intellectually acknowledged that for Doc, a wounded animal, morality didn’t mean the same thing it meant for me. Yet, I found myself in tech still walking onstage knowing I was there to do a horrible thing. Doc needed to walk on stage knowing something awesome was going to happen.  

And then my director told me to stand up straight.  What a little thing – and yet, in that small note was the key to unlocking my character.  I may have been feeling guilty, but Doc was a man without knowledge of that guilt.

Stand up straight. That’s all it took, and suddenly, there he was. He didn’t care about laying low, and he wasn’t there to commit a serious crime. He was there for a party, and everyone else was ruining it. Now I could see how truly ugly he was, how deep it went for him. When I saw the bottom of that dark well, a cruel light washed over parts of myself I try to ignore; and once that happened, how could I do anything but love him. The moment I stopped concerning myself with how much I hated Doc, I loved him. I had spent so much time trying to understand him, It seemed foolish to have denied it for so long. I loved him for being human, and now I could play him.

People may not be born with ethics, but we are born with empathy; and while it atrophies easily, it can also be the easiest, and most rewarding to stretch. After this point I noticed myself exhibiting more patience in day to day interactions, going out of my way on impulse to grab a door or carry a package. Occasionally, this came from my sense of guilt about spending so much time with a horrible man, but it was more often from the way it taught me to be attuned to the pain and the yearning in each of us.

Brianna Letourneau and Scott Ward Abernethy in The Magic Tree at Keegan Theatre.
Brianna Letourneau and Scott Ward Abernethy in The Magic Tree at Keegan Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

 

Would I throw someone like Doc in prison? Absolutely.  Still, my calling as an artist has taught me that Doc, and every character – angel or villain – has something important to teach me.   Iago has something to teach me.  We can learn as much or more from Edmund, Captain Hook, and Javert than we learn from Edgar,  Peter Pan, and Jean Valjean. We are all more alike than different, and there isn’t one of us that doesn’t know something the rest of us do not. In a world where we judge an article with a “like” or a comment before we even read it, it is difficult not to pass judgment – and all the more essential.

In the theatre, we must have empathy.  Playing Doc, I had the opportunity to give him something he probably never had, something I cannot help but to give to any character I play: love.  This is the great gift of our craft. As we hope to hold the mirror up to nature, we must be the first to find the hearts of monsters.  

 

News, thoughts, opinions and advice for the performing arts community.