“Food, Glorious Food!”

The New York Times recently ran an article about Eating and Opera, which I found interesting and instructive. I haven’t had to eat much onstage, but I do for Bernarda Alba–Act III opens with a dinner scene. Our director has concocted a rice/peas “main dish” for us to eat, and there’s also a bowl of grapes and three bottles of liquid–although those aren’t able to be drunk, since they are tough to open (as I found out during tech week). So the tumblers on the table stay empty.

I eat a few bites of rice, and try to get a few grapes. The grapes work the best since they’re liquid, essentially. The rice can be OK, but if it’s dry, then it’s not so great, because it can get stuck in the throat and cause issues (again, as I learned during the first few performances, since we didn’t have the food during tech). Some of the other actresses, though, don’t have this problem and plow through their helping. The director knows how much to give each of us by now–the food is plated during the Act II/III intermission. We also have bread and a few other things for the first act.

When I did Earnest, there was food involved–those cucumber sandwiches, and tea!–but I didn’t get to eat any of it, sadly. I’ve never had to eat as part of a musical. Even in Oliver!, “Food, Glorious Food” is mostly imaginary. 🙂 There’s no “pease pudding”, “hot sausage and mustard” or “cold jelly and custard.”

The biggest problem I’ve ever had with food is backstage–you have to be careful not to knock it over! We do eat the grapes throughout the performance–a healthy way to keep off hunger! And I was known to sneak a few sugar cubes (yes, actual sugar cubes!) during the Earnest run. (hey, it was a long show. Needed sugar.)

I think it’s fun to have the food. It definitely adds to the realism of the show. But it also has its drawbacks, in that property needs to be washed (all the plates, and cutlery) at some point, plus keeping us stocked with food. I wouldn’t mind something to drink in the dinner scene, but then you have to worry about spills on costumes, so I can definitely see why we’re not doing that.

But some “opera chicken”? Heck, I’d say yes.

Flying dishes, and c. –notes from the first two shows

So, the show has opened! Squee! Time for notes:

  • Opening Night, as usual, was a lot of fun. We had a group of girls from the local all-girls school and they seemed very attentive and focused, which is always good. 🙂
  • During the dinner table clear in Act III, one of the glasses rolled off the table. Inwardly cursing, I went around and got it and continued on. I was worried that you could see my annoyance, but the director said yesterday you couldn’t, and I “got an A” for the rescue of the glass. 🙂 We changed the timing a bit before last night’s show, but I think this scene is just going to “evolve” for a bit. That’s not a bad thing.
  • Performances during a long run do evolve a bit. Not to the point where blocking and timing and rhythm are changed, because then directors get mad (!), but things like intonation and inflection, and attitude of characters. I did this myself a bit last night, and I heard some of the other actresses do it, too. I think it really adds to the performance as we go deeper into these characters, and it keeps the performances alive.
  • The last Act–in particular the last scene–is just awesome in performance. So much adrenaline. It’s not so much acting as it is reacting. I just love it. 🙂

No redeeming qualities

That’s hard work!

So yesterday the director was talking to us, giving us some notes. To me and another actress, he said that he was enjoying our character portrayals. “They have no redeeming qualities!” he said, a bit gleeful.

I was confused. Sure, Angustias isn’t someone I’d pick to be my best friend, but she’s not horrible. She doesn’t try to steal her sister’s fiancé (Adela) or tell lies that lead to disastrous consequences (Martirio). If anything, she’s “more sinned against that sinning.”

So I mentioned this to the director, also saying that I’d been working on making her nicer–but he cut me off. “No! No! Don’t do that.”

“Um…OK?”

So: I’m really interested to see what the audience has to say about her. She’s definitely got some personality problems, but she’s not bad. She’s got three sisters that seriously dislike her (Amelia, the fourth, is mostly indifferent), a mother who is a bit, well, strict (to put it mildly), and she’s 39 years old. She’s never dated. She’s finally engaged, to a man that her sisters lust after, and she knows that he probably isn’t in this relationship for her awesome mind or body. She’s not blind.

Angustias and I have some things in common: We’re both the oldest, we both have sister(s) (I’ve got a brother and a sister), we’re both Catholic. I can understand where she’s coming from: I know people/situations that apply to my work here. Really, she wasn’t that much of a leap to create. Some of the venom and rudeness that comes form her is a bit foreign to me, but it’s also really fun to get to say what the character is (probably) thinking. Verbal sparring is a lot of fun.

Production development is also coming along–some of the set pieces are going up, and our awesome costumer has been bringing in pieces for us to try on. Tonight she had me try on a pale pink nightgown for the end of Act III, which I think worked well. I think we might all have nightgowns now. 🙂 The set isn’t very elaborate–a table, chairs, and the entryways–but once the entryways are in, it’ll make life a lot easier, because we can cement the blocking.

We open in 8 days!

 

THE END

So, today we OFFICIALLY finished blocking the entire show.

We are done!

If you’re familiar with the show and you’re coming to see ours–be warned. We did change some things, throughout, but especially in Acts I and III. Most of them are for space consideration: it’s a small theater, so we don’t have a lot of space in the  (ahem) “Wings”, or in the dressing rooms (even though that area has been doubled (an upstairs level added) since I did Earnest here last year). So we can’t have crowds of “extras” or lots of offstage space for action to occur. That’s OK. It’s still going to be a darn good show! We ran all of Act III, mostly off-bookish. Saturday we run the act off book, and then Sunday we start run throughs of the whole shebang off book. On Sunday, we also start getting our set built in! Yay! It’ll be nice to have concrete doors and to know how much space we have for certain entrances/exits.

It’s a great cast, and I think we’re putting together a quality show. It’s different, but very passionate.

I’m going to be sleeping with my script

This show is sort of frustrating for me.

Normally, I can learn lines really easily, almost effortlessly. This show–not so much.

Now, it could be because I have more lines than I’ve had in awhile. It could be the most lines I’ve ever had in a straight play. Musicals are somewhat easier, because the cast albums play on constant loop for me (car, iPod), or I’ve already memorized the lyrics many moons ago. This–no CD. No easy music or memory tricks. Just the hard slog of read, repeat, read, repeat.

Just when I think I have an act down, I find out…I don’t. Act II is the hardest act for me, because I talk the most. It’s coming. It’s probably about 90% memorized. But that other 10% is just killing me. And I feel like I’m letting everyone else down, even though I’m not the only one asking for a line.

The problem for me is that it’s not just me having a conversation with one person. It’s me having a conversation with four or five people. And of course the rhythm is always different in rehearsal then when you’re reading the script at home.

So I’m redoubling my script efforts. I might even have one of my siblings run lines with me tomorrow. 🙂

Today we ran Act II straight through (off book) and then part of Act I, which we hadn’t done in about a week. Surprisingly most of it was still there.  Next week (Monday) we start Act III. We’ve already blocked the first scene, and fortunately I have much less to do in this act than I do in any other, but it’s a complex act for some of the other actresses–big chunks of text.  I have my lines in the beginning of the act and then one line at the end. 🙂 Of course, blocking the end is going to be a bit…challenging. 🙂

So we’re totally off book for Acts I and II, and should have III by next week. Then we head into running the show. Then it’s tech week! Wow. Three weeks left until we open! (Not even that. Like two weeks and change.)

I’m going to be sleeping with my script, that’s for sure.

 

 

More P&B thoughts

More thoughts from yesterday’s Porgy and Bess post: one of the complaints from the creative team and some of the actors is that there isn’t any back story for the characters, thus they seem one-dimensional. So the creative team is adding back story.

Back story is something actors do on their own, in order to more fully flesh out the character once they are onstage. You don’t depend on the script to give you everything about your character–some things you decide on your own. Yes, the actor needs a back story of some sort to bring a character to life, but that doesn’t mean the author has to provide you with it. Some of it is your own work! That’s one of the fun things about acting!

Normally, hints of back story are evident in shows, usually in the “I Want” song, where a character express what s/he “wants”. Some examples: Belle’s “Belle” in Beauty and the Beast; Elphaba’s “The Wizard and I” from Wicked; “It Might As Well Be Spring” from State Fair; “Where Is Love?” from Oliver. In Les Miz, we understand Fantine’s history from “I Dreamed A Dream”; we get Christine’s back story in Phantom of the Opera from “Angel of Music” (and the accompanying dialogue). In plays, you’ll get it too, like Abigail’s relationship with John Proctor in The Crucible. So I would guess most shows provide you a structure that you can base your back story on, as an actor. But if you want more, you have to come up with it, as you study the character, and then find ways to communicate that onstage. Theater would be mighty boring if every character’s entire life story was introduced before the plot could get underway!

 

How do you solve a problem like…

Porgy and Bess?

The American Repertory Theater in Connecticut is putting on a new version of the Gershwin American opera classic. And some people–most notably Stephen Sondheim–are not happy with it.

Why isn’t Mr. Sondheim happy? Because it’s much more of a “rewrite” than a “revival.” The director is adding “back story” which, apparently, isn’t in the original P&B. Audra McDonald, who’s playing Bess, sees her character as one-dimensional. So the powers that be are changing that. The highly-praised ending, Porgy’s “I’m On My Way”, is being tampered with in (some say) unacceptable ways.

The crux of the debate is: When is it re-staging–bringing a fresh eye to an older work–and when is it against the composer’s intentions? Sondheim states that he’s overseen several re-stagings of his works–most notably with Company and Sweeney Todd–and that he approves the changes those directors have made. Obviously he’s not against new ideas, per se. The big difference, however, is that Sondheim is alive, and able to give a thumbs up or down to what directors do to his pieces. The Gershwins aren’t. Whose to say, as the director does, that they would have changed Porgy and Bess eventually? (I think that’s a bit presumptuous–what, is she having seances with the Gershwins on a regular basis?)

Obviously, directors have a vision for their pieces. Sometimes they set Macbeth in the 1940s, and sometimes Hamlet is a modern-day retelling. These can be very brilliant. They can also be awful. But what the current production is doing is fundamentally changing the show as written. This is equivalent to what people used to do to the end of Lear–Cordelia lives! Lear lives! All is well! But that fundamentally changes what the story is about, and what the audience is meant to take from it.

One of the biggest problems I have with this is the way the director talks down to the audience. Apparently, she thinks we have the attention span of gnats. (She’s quoted in the link above.)

There is a fundamental difference between reinterpreting, and rewriting. For example: The recent production of Earnest that I was in moved up the story period to the Edwardian era, instead of the end of the Victorian era, where Wilde originally placed his story. This happens all the time in opera. Some people actually have fits about this. But really, sometimes it works. And again, sometimes it doesn’t. But we didn’t change the characters, or add extra speeches for Earnest, or anything like that. We stuck with what Wilde wrote and made our interpretations based on that.

Opera, especially, is where people tend to be very sensitive on this subject. Audiences boo interpretations and directors they don’t like. Mary Zimmerman’s La Sonambula is one example of this. It sounds like what’s happening at the A.R.T is a director taking original material and then adding/subtracting to serve her own needs and what she thinks “today’s audience” wants.  As an audience member, I find that insulting. As an actress, I’d be sort of horrified. Not that a play is a SACRED TEXT, but messing with authorial intention? Not something I’d be really keen to do. I’ve been very lucky to work with directors that haven’t done this.

Bottom line: if you want to gut something, write your own version.

(And a note: In the case of Zimmerman–I have to say I like what I’ve seen of her opera direction. She gives her actors/actresses something to do, and I love her version of Armida)

The Audition Notebook

A few years ago, I read on a theater message board that people should have an audition book; that is, a binder where you write down (a new page for each) every show you audition for, the theater, the date, the director, the parts you read for (or sang for), the song you sang/the reading you gave, people you met at the audition, feedback, and the final result.

I keep it in a loose-leaf notebook, and I’ve found it to be pretty useful, especially for musicals in re: what songs work better than others, audition cuts, etc. If I’m cast I write the name of my character and what numbers I was in (in a musical).If I’m not cast…well, at least I auditioned! Auditioning practice is always good. It’s also useful to have names, places, etc. for when you re-audition for a company–you can refresh yourself on names, and you know what sort of reading/song to give, based on your previous experience.

Theater bookshelf: Ideas for Actors

I really shouldn’t go to Half-Price Books, because I always find something and end up spending money.

However, this book was really worth the $8 I paid for it.

Ideas for Actors, by Jon Jory, will best benefit a theater actor (musicals aren’t really covered), but all the tips and tricks are fantastic for actors of all stripes. It’s divided into several sections: Text Study, Technique, Movement in Space, Words, Strategy, Comedy, No-Nos, People Stuff, Building the Role, Veterans, States of Being, and Stations on the Line (which includes “Opening Night”, “table work”, etc. This is really helpful section!). You can read the book straight through, or use it as sort of an encyclopedia of tips. Anyone who’s interested in improving their craft would benefit from reading it.

The Angel of Music

 

Most actors remember that pivotal show that opened the magic of theater to them.

He’d get us center, orchestra seats for any show coming to town so as a kid I’d be watching Phantom of the Opera with my jaw to the ground. I was like ‘This is what I’ve got to do! I have to do this!’

–TJ Thyne (AKA, Hodgins on Bones)

For me, it was The Phantom of the Opera, and I imagine a lot of kids my age (20s/early 30s) feel the same way, either about this show, or Cats, or Les Miz. And for me, it started with the music.

Sierra Boggess as Christine

I don’t even remember how I got the tape. (Yes, tape, people) First, it was the highlights tape. My best friend, Anne, and I loved it so much we’d listen to it on our walkmans on the bus ride home from school. Pre-Internet, it was harder to find out show tidbits, but I bought The Complete Phantom of the Opera and devoured every detail, from the show’s inception to the libretto. Then I got the complete recording–two tapes, four sides. I learned every note of every part.  I could sing the octet “Prima Donna” in a split-personality way, alternating rapidly between prominent melodies, or just sing any one line.  I practiced it in my bedroom. I learned that the high D at the end of the song “The Phantom of the Opera” was recorded, so the actress didn’t have to sing that high every night.

The show was coming to town after my eighth grade year. Anne and I were dying to see it, but my parents and I had missed buying tickets, so we were pondering going to Toronto (where the show was playing all the time).

Then we got lucky!

The run sold out so quickly that they added more weeks. And my mom got tickets for August 14, at 8:00. In the front row.

I was dying. I was dead. I was convinced heaven could not be better. My next door neighbors had seen the show, and when I went over to baby-sit their kids, I leafed through the glorious, white-covered and red-tasseled souvenir program like it was a sacred text. Oh, Christine’s dress at the end of Act I! Oh, the final trio! I wanted to be Christine, tossed in a love triangle between the richer-than-God childhood sweetheart and the tormented musical genius (who was slightly crazy).

The Day came. I wore an emerald dress, embedded with discreet sequins, and heels. I bought my very own souvenir program. We were escorted to our seats.

“Watch out that the chandelier doesn’t fall on you,” the usher said as he seated us.

What? Fall on me?

OK, I knew the chandelier fell. But I didn’t think it would fall on me. Great. Thanks, Mr. Usher, you have ruined the first act for me, I’m now worried about being decapitated!

When the chandelier rose up at the end of the prologue, it was so close I could touch the beaded strings. And until the ballet from Il Muto, I was enchanted. Then I remembered–chandelier.

I scurried off to the bathroom, thinking I’d get out of it that way. The ushers told me to hurry back, I didn’t want to miss the chandelier! (Yes, yes I did) One of my indelible images of that performance is the female ushers, in their white shirts and black skirts, sitting on the stairs, peering through the box openings to watch the action onstage.

I made it back in time for the beginning of the Rooftop Sequence. Oh, my little 13 year old heart was taken by “All I Ask Of You”, and the Phantom’s tormented reprise from the Angel that towered above the proscenium.

And then the chandelier fell. Slowly. I have to say, I was somewhat disappointed in that–I wanted some sort of thrill to it, some sort of danger! Oh well.

I still remember the names of the leads that night. I remember being entranced by Raoul, soaking wet behind the portculis, and his shirt unbuttoned as the garrotte hung around his neck. How Meg finds the mask “and picks it up in her small hand.” How did he disappear like that?

Phantom, for me, was the beginning of my real love with musical theater.