“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.

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)

Auditioning Part I: For musicals

In general, I find musical auditions to be more angst-inducing than for plays. For a play, you’re either reading from the script, or you’re preparing a monologue. There are many good monologue books out there, so finding material is not so difficult. Practice it, get it memorized (if required), read the play AT LEAST three times through, and then go do your thing.

But musicals? Yeah. You need, um, music. And maybe dancing. And possibly reading.

Yikes.

So I’m going to focus on the music part.

Things to bring to a musical audition: WATER. Your resume (if you have one). Head shot (again, if you have one). MUSIC, with copies for everyone who needs it. Mark the music. (More on this below) Throat drops. A pencil/pen. If it’s a dance audition, bring dance clothes and shoes (or wear clothes you can move in). Character shoes will usually work for dance auditions, unless otherwise specified.

Here are some hints/tips/general rules:

1) DO NOT SING: Sondheim. Just don’t do it. Almost all musical theater audition sites will tell you this. Sometimes people can pull of some “Into the Woods” stuff, and I know one guy who can sing “Being Alive” from Company like nobody’s business, but, in general, Sondheim is hard to play, and it’s hard to sing. So try something else.

2) Also DO NOT SING: Anything from massively popular musicals, because the directors are sick. of. it. So that means no “Wicked”, also no “Les Miz” (yes, it’s still in the “do not sing” category), no Rent, no “whatever the hottest musical is right now” stuff. It might not be a good fit for your voice, and casting directors want t hear you, not you imitating the opening of The Book of Mormon.

3) Sing something that shows your voice to its best advantage. This might sound obvious, but a lot of people don’t do it. Don’t try to sing soprano stuff if you’re an alto. Don’t try to belt if you’re not a belter. Play to your strengths. A vocal coach will be enormously helpful here.

4) Sing something you are comfortable with. This is not the time to try out new material!

5) Also, memorize it! You cannot bring the sheet music up on stage with you! (Unless the audition notice specifically states that you can.) Make sure it is memorized!

6) A note on the evil 16 bar length: Some places really mean it. Some don’t. Some will let you go a bit farther, and others will cut you off. In general, don’t sway too much from 16 bars. Make sure the phrasing makes sense; finish the musical thought (i.e, the verse, the refrain, whatever). But  do not take advantage of no length limits to sing entire songs, especially long ones. It is highly, highly rude. Sing something relatively brief.COROLLARY: If you are singing two pieces (like, a 16 bar ballad and a 16 bar up-tempo), you MUST stick with 16 bars, or the director/accompanist/other auditioners will kill you. DO NOT WASTE TIME.

7) Bring a clean copy, if at all possible, for the accompanist. Mark where you want to start, and where you want to end. Practice giving your tempo. I have a black binder that holds a few (3-5) copied songs, in page protectors, so it’s easier to turn. Some places ask for a copy for the director, so be sure you have that. Try not to bring the book since it’s bulky and can be hard to set on the music stand of the piano, depending on the model.

8 ) Some accompanists are awesome. Some are not. But YOU are singing here. If the accompanist totally messes up, don’t let it rile you–you can stop and ask him/her to start again. In general, I choose a piece that most accompanists won’t have trouble with. You don’t want something uber-complicated for them to play, unless you know the person, and know that they can handle it.

9) Remember your stage presence! Practice announcing yourself, your song, and what show it’s from. It’s theater! Be loud! 🙂

10) Try not to do too much Idol hand motions. You know what I Mean–the arms rising with crescendo, the random jazz hands, etc. Don’t be a statue, but don’t be over the top. Practice in front of a mirror or your voice teacher, or a friend. (Or all three)

11) Dress comfortably, especially if there is a dance audition. If you are auditioning for a certain character, try to channel that character in your make-up, hair and clothing choices. (For example: When I auditioned for The Importance of Being Earnest, I wore my hair half up/half down, wore a tea-length teal dress, and pearls. It worked–I got cast.) This is not the day to break in character shoes!

12) Usually the dance audition is given to you that day, as in you don’t know the combination beforehand. Concentrate and do your best. Remember to smile!

13) Bringing a resume is another way to up your game (I’ll have a post on that soon). Headshots are usually not required, but if you’re serious about auditioning for higher-level theater (regionals/Equity), it would help to have them handy.

14) Be polite to everyone–assistants, casting directors, staff, and other auditioners. Thank the accompanist and the directors when you are finished.

15) Songs from the show: Very few places allow this. If you’re not sure, ask. It helps if you are familiar with the show and can sing something similar to what the show is like, or something from the composer’s work. When I auditioned for Jekyll and Hyde, I sang something from The Scarlet Pimpernel.  If they do allow it, try to pick something less common from the show. For example, if it’s Children of Eden, and you want to audition for Yonah, don’t sing “Stranger to the Rain”–try to get the music for “Sailor of the Skies”, or sing part of “In The Beginning.”

16) Some places will do vocal testing–scales, intervals–to get a sense of your range. If you know your range in scientific voice notation, write it on your resume. It’s helpful.

17) It helps very much if you are familiar with the show you are auditioning for. Buy the CD, learn the music, read a synopsis or the libretto itself. The more familiar you are with it, the better you will prepare (at least, I think so). And if you get cast, you’ve already done a lot of prep work!

Bringing the show to you

The last tech rehearsal was tonight. So now…we present the show to you, the audience. Which is really the best part. Because no matter how much we may think something is funny, or moving, or great, we really can’t tell until you are in the seats, reacting as we tell you this story.

Audience energy is a vital, but ephemeral, thing. When I was doing Parade in 2009–which is a very heavy show–there are some laugh lines in the second scene. And if people didn’t laugh in those scenes, we knew it would be a long, heavy show. Because there’s precious little humor in a murder trial and a lynching. Drama, yes. Pathos, yes. Awesome musical moments, yes. But not humor. And when the audience isn’t with you, then it can be a long show for even the most dedicated actor.

That doesn’t mean force a laugh. But come to the theater ready to experience what we are offering you. Come with your full attention (NO GAMEBOYS, or texting during the show!), and be open to what’s about to be performed for you. Because theater before a live audience is such a wonderful and glorious thing. Every night it is different, and you, the audience, have a very important part to play.  We feed off your energy. We want to give you the best possible experience.

In the words of Jerry Maguire–“help me, help you!” Or, from Gypsy, “Let (us) entertain you!”

Live theater is a fantastic experience for everyone. But to get the most out of it, come engaged, come prepared to enjoy yourself. (And, of course, come. We did an Earnest performance for four people in a snowstorm, and let me tell you, we were really grateful for those four people!) We do what we do for YOU, the audience! (And, yeah, a little bit to satisfy our overweening egos–ha!)

So if you’re in the area, come on out and support local live theater! We would love to see you!

(RAGTIME is NOT appropriate for kids. It is a very PG-13 show due to racially charged language. So as much as I love kids, you might want to leave them at home.)