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How to Keep a Long-Running Performance Fresh

I’m sure we all remember it, heck, we might even be living it right now. Those halcyon days of educational theatre, where we spend months rehearsing a show, only to perform it two or three times over the course of a weekend in May. All that preparation, all that work, only to get a couple of cracks at glory.

That’s a reference to a typical high school schedule, where you must work around numerous conflicts and extra-curricular activities. By the time we’re in college, rehearsal schedules tend to clock in at 5 to 6 weeks, and performances tally anywhere from the high single digits to maybe 20 to 24. Hardly enough time to get bored, or the performances to become stale or uninspired. But what happens when we grab that brass ring at last, the long-running contract? It could be a tour, or a Broadway show, even some regional theatres that operate continuous schedules, producing the same show(s) for years on end? We’ve finally been rewarded for all our efforts, and that reward is…to do the same thing 6 nights a week for the next 6 months, even a year, maybe even longer?

A quick glance at my IBDB page might reveal I’m not an expert on this subject (I have a strict rule about the shows I do in New York City—they must be unpopular, even if they are very good).

Look Ma! I'm a meme!
Look Ma! I’m a meme!

But seriously folks, I do know a little bit about this. I’ve logged over 200 performances as Ravenal in Show Boat, heaven knows how many performances of the title roles in Jekyll & Hyde, and I just passed 100 as El Gallo in The Fantasticks. And I’m still going. And these minor feats aren’t even a blip on the radar to someone like Broadway star Howard McGillin, who totaled more than 10,000 performances as that creepy guy in the basement in The Phantom of the Opera.

Now, if that last paragraph of not-so humblebrag didn’t completely turn you off, stick around and let’s talk about how to keep your performances honest and true to the work, while the mileage keeps climbing.

As actors, we have certain responsibilities. We must stay true to the author’s and the director’s vision. We must keep our bodies and spirits in as good a condition as possible, so that we can access our own abilities. We are responsible to our fellow actors, to give them what they need to be successful as well. But how do we do this, when we’ve been doing the same thing, night after night, week after week, month after month? Ah, we have now arrived at one of my favorite theatrical bits of wisdom, one I couldn’t believe more strongly in if it were my own.

Okay it is my own. Don’t judge me.

sincere

As actors in a play, we are all kids in a sandbox on a playground. We can create whatever we want, build what we need, tear it down and start again. If I don’t like what’s happening in the center of the sandbox, I can go check out a corner for a while, and build something there. Maybe a friend will join me. Maybe everyone will come to this corner and we’ll all play together. Or maybe someone will drift to a different part of the sandbox and the whole process will start again. But there’s something none of us are ever allowed to do.

We can’t go play on the slide. Or the swings, or the merry-go-round. We all play in the same sandbox.

Do you follow me? We’re allowed to use different colors, as long as we’re all painting the same picture together. Some actors are comfortable giving the exact, same performance night after night. And that’s fine. Some actors are more comfortable listening and responding, and letting the performance flow more organically. Neither is wrong, both are viable, we just all should be striving for the same goal. Telling the same story, staying true to the direction and the text.

But what about the boredom? Doesn’t it get incredibly monotonous after a while? If the answer is yes, then maybe it’s time to move on to something else. I would argue that the show is never exactly the same from one night to the next. We are all humans, affected by the events of the day, and those events can (and probably should) have some impact on your performance. Sometimes you make the most amazing discoveries from the oddest of circumstance.

Not long ago in The Fantasticks, my fellow actors and I completely fell apart with laughter during one of the scenes (thankfully the scene is supposed to be funny). I can’t even remember what happened, I just know that we started to laugh and couldn’t get it back under control. The audience had a good time with us, and eventually we all got it together and proceeded with the show. The following scene is a simple, lovely monologue that I get to deliver, and I suppose it’s been fine enough. But this one day, after splitting our sides with laughter and tears rolling down our cheeks, I entered the speech practically exhausted. I was unable to do what I normally did, so I just said the words.

And the speech was never better than that one night, when I just got out of the way, and let the words do the work. The show has a handful of fans who see it quite often, and on this day our most loyal fan was there. We spoke after, and had to acknowledge the um…foolishness that happened on stage. But he offered up, the moments found after that were new, vibrant and alive, and I probably wouldn’t have found them otherwise.

So really, it’s not that hard to maintain a performance for a long period of time. Do your best to stay healthy, get along with all your fellow artists, listen and respond. Even if your performance is “by rote,” as long as you don’t shoehorn your work into the path of someone else’s, it can appear as fresh as opening night.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s almost half hour.

Photo Credit: Grant Mitchell, Creative Commons License

Choosing the Audition Song That Lets YOU Shine

So you’re going to audition for a musical. You’ve got an appointment (or the strength and spirit to wait in line), and you are going to do your best to make your musical theatre dreams come true. You have your headshot and resume all ready to go and now all you need to do is to choose a song. Here are a couple of questions you can ask yourself to help along the way:

What show am I auditioning for?

It’s important to tailor your material to the specific audition at hand. You wouldn’t sing the same song to audition for Carousel as you would for American Idiot, would you? Think about the style of the score and make sure that you are showcasing your voice in a way that shows those casting that your talent would be an asset to this production. Pick out three to four songs in the right style so you have a couple to choose from.

Photo Credit: Grant Mitchell, Creative Commons License.
“You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan.” Maybe more than we’ll ever know. Photo Credit: Grant Mitchell, Creative Commons License.

What question can help you narrow down your three or four songs to one? What character am I auditioning for? Think about the qualities of the character you want to play and figure out which song best brings out those qualities in you. Is this character sexy? Meek? Loud? Quiet? Stylish? Clumsy? For example, if you’re auditioning for an nerdy, meek character, you might sing “Grow for Me” from Little Shop of Horrors. If you’re auditioning for a seductive character, you might sing “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees.  Choosing a song that highlights your qualities that liken you to the character will make it easier for the folks behind the table to see you as that character. You can find hundred of audition songs to choose from on the StageAgent Audition Song Database!

Next is a crucial question that many overlook: Do I like this song? If you don’t like the song you won’t want to practice the song and you probably won’t do your best job performing the song. It’s that simple. If you don’t like a song, don’t sing it. Nobody wants to see you feeling bored or uninspired while you’re performing. We want to see you singing your heart out and living your dreams. That’s what inspires someone to hire you and want to collaborate with you to create theatrical magic.

Veronica wants to create theatrical magic with you, but only if you choose your song carefully! She has sequined flowers in her hair which means she is all-knowing.
Veronica wants to create theatrical magic with you, but only if you choose your song carefully! She has sequined flowers in her hair which means she is all-knowing.

So you have a song that you love in the right style that feels like the character for which you’re gunning. Now we come to a more difficult question and that is: Does this song showcase me? If you are a classical soprano and you’ve chosen a to sing a Beyoncé song, you simply aren’t setting yourself up for success. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work on material that stretches you. It’s great to set goals and to work on broadening one’s skills, but those songs should be in a separate binder from your audition material. Maybe one day you can “Run The World” your way into the audition room, but today is not that day, boo (I can still see your Halo, though).

Just because Ron doesn’t have a halo, doesn’t mean he can’t see yours.
Just because Ron doesn’t have a halo, doesn’t mean he can’t see yours.

Remember that people want to get to know you during an audition. If a song doesn’t quite fit the style or make sense on paper, but you have a gut feeling that it’s the right song and you love it with all your heart, take a chance on that love. Originality and creativity go a long way and have the chance to help you stand out and make a lasting impression.

Photo Credit: William P. Gottlieb 1917-2006

How to Prepare Your Music and Talk to an Accompanist

Whether you’re auditioning for a regional production of South Pacific or the pre-Broadway workshop of the next Hamilton (Hamilton II: Peggy’s Revenge), you need to prepare your music and be able to confidently speak to an accompanist.

Let’s start with your sheet music. Sheet music is a wonderful tool as it allows you to communicate with the person playing the piano clearly and efficiently. Sheet music is also a coy and dangerous mistress because there is potential for disaster!

Step 1: Find the sheet music for the song you are going to sing. Just because the accompanist knows “Younger Than Springtime” by heart, doesn’t mean that s/he will be able to play it from memory (in your key) after four hours of playing auditions. Set yourself up for success by having the things you need.

younger than springtime
Tabitha is literally younger than springtime.

Step 2: Make sure your music is incredibly clean and legible. It’s best to keep separate copies of each song for a 16-bar, 32-bar, and full song audition. If you have more than one cut marked in the same piece of music, there’s potential for the pianist to misread the cut and start or stop in the incorrect place, leaving you looking unprepared. If you start your cut in the middle of a song, make sure to write the title of the song at the top of the page. If I know what song it is, usually I can be ready to start right away. If I can’t tell, my instinct is to flip pages back until I see the title, which eats up time. When copying music from an oversized book, make sure to reduce it. The magic ratio here is usually 93%. Telling the copy machine to reduce the image by this ratio ensures that all the notes on the page will copy.

Step 3: Put the song in the key for you. If you don’t sing the song in the key that it’s written, please transpose it or hire someone to transpose it. Once again, just because the accompanist can transpose on sight, doesn’t mean that they’ll want to be your best friend when you ask them to play “Astonishing” in C-flat major.

Photo Credit: William P. Gottlieb 1917-2006
“Did you say C-flat major?” Photo Credit: William P. Gottlieb 1917-2006

Step 4: Make sure that your binder is clean and organized. Most of the auditions I play are those that I’m also musically directing or casting. If you are someone I don’t know, I’m unlikely to consider you for a role if your binder has ripped pages and candy wrappers popping out of every nook and cranny. What I love to see are dividers between songs, a clearly marked table of contents and extra resumes and headshots in the front pocket of the binder so I can learn more about you while you’re doing your monologue or talking to the people behind the table.

Once your sheet music and binder are at their best, and you’ve gotten up early and dreamed your musical theatre dreams, it’s time to get to the audition and talk to the accompanist.

First off, the pianist wants you to be good. The pianist is your friend. The pianist wants you to be the person they are looking for. The pianist wants you to be a fantastic singer that is a joy to collaborate with. The pianist wants to dance with you on the opening night party of your big hit show. Okay, some pianists don’t care either way, but there will always be one jaded person lurking in the corner with their thumb in a pie. Your job is to be kind to them anyway because this business is small and theatre people talk!

The goal of your conversation with the pianist is to convey the necessary information in a pleasant, succinct, and efficient way. Say hello, introduce yourself, put your binder on the piano and open your binder to the page you’re singing from.

Now it’s time to give a tempo. Here are terrible ways to give the tempo and annoy your new musical collaborator: clap, snap, hit the piano, hit the wall, or hit anything within reach. Even if you are a conductor, don’t conduct at the pianist. First off, you’re too close in proximity and it’s uncomfortable and not the most efficient way to win here. Simply sing a line or two of your song. If the pianist has questions, they will ask. Remember, unless it’s brand new or a secret the accompanist probably knows the song. Even then, we might know it because most of us are nerds who can’t help ourselves.

brick wall
This is my tempo!

If there’s anything unusual in your cut, i.e., huge stops in the music, rubato sections, etc., make sure to explain that to your pianist before you sing. Then take the room, slate, and nod to your pianist when you’re ready for him or her to start playing. Sing your song, be brilliant, say “thank you” to the room, and thank the pianist and leave. Seriously. Even if your pianist had pie plate hands and played your song like a drunken baby, you need to politely say thank you before leaving.

Finally, here’s the number one mistake I see in the room: You forget your binder! Please remember to get your binder from the piano. It looks bad when you get halfway out the door and then say, “Oh crap, I forgot my binder…why do I ruin everything OMG!?” Especially after you’ve had a lovely audition and everyone in the room is considering where they can put you in their season.

 

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!!!!

Stage._Children's_Theatre_BAnQ_P48S1P12545

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.

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Trick-or-Treat on Broadway!

Pratfalls and Other Serious Business 
with Megan Loughran
Many people don’t know that New York City’s Broadway theatres participate in a long-standing tradition of stage door trick-or-treating.
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Come October 31st, anyone can don a Halloween costume and knock on any Broadway stage door, at which point the trick-or-treater will be given a fun-size candy and a quick audition. Here’s what to expect this year:
The treat: Green apple licorice
What to prepare: “Your best 16 bars, with a contrasting selection — if asked.”
The treat: Marshmallow ghosts
To prepare: “Seeking replacements for ensemble singers with ballet skills. Self-choreograph a 30-second ghost dance. Please make sure we can see your feet, even though this is not traditional for ghosts.”
The treat: Edible red sequins
To prepare: “16 bars of ‘Ghouls Just Wanna Have Fun’ or another Cindy Lauper song with a Halloween pun wedged in.”
**Not participating, British people do not have Halloween.**
The treat: Paydays
Looking to see: “16 bars of ‘The Circle of Life’ as sung to a small pumpkin you have carved into Simba.”
The treat: Tony-award shaped popcorn balls
To prepare: “A self-written monologue of 60 seconds or less about the unusual experience of growing up in a funeral home and/or being in a show with so many women on the creative team.”
The treat: Bars of actual gold
To prepare: “Please sing the entire score from start to finish, for we know you can.”
Please note: none of this is real. (I was told I had to add this to prevent people from bringing Simba pumpkins to the Minskoff, or thinking they could digest sequins.)

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