The Little Mermaid – The Music of a Generation

When I was asked to music direct The Little Mermaid last year, I jumped at the opportunity.  I immediately started listening to the cast album on an endless loop – at home, in the car, at the gym – letting the music fill me up and transport me back to a place of innocent wonder.  You see, I had the great fortune of growing up during the Disney Renaissance.  That period of time from 1989-1999 where Disney had an amazing resurgence of animated musical hits which included Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan.  But it was The Little Mermaid that started it all.  As someone who grew up during this time period, it seems natural that I would be drawn to these films and their scores.  “Part of Your World” was my very first audition song at the tender age of 9.  But what is it about The Little Mermaid and many of its Renaissance counterparts that has made it a timeless treasure that still appeals to audiences of all ages today? Is it its foundation in a classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale?  Is it a series of popular animated sequels?  Is it the adorable collection of characters?  Yes.  But, most of all, it is the music.

When The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, it won the Academy Award for Best Score and Best Song – “Under the Sea.”  It’s not hard to see why.  One only has to hear the opening few notes of marimba and steel drum to recognize Sebastian’s underwater dance party.  To truly understand what is special about the music of The Little Mermaid, we have to look to its composer – Alan Menken.  Menken has had a truly formidable career,  composing music for over twenty films and almost as many musicals.  Menken has a distinct musical signature.  You know when a song belongs to him.  Yet he is also able to create a unique musical world for each of his stories.  In fact, he is the man behind the music for six of the musicals in the Disney Renaissance.  This is no coincidence.  Disney has a long history of employing in-house composers.  From the 1960s-1980s, it was the Sherman Brothers, who gave us Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Charlotte’s Web and The Aristocats.  Alan Menken came in the late 80s and created a new musical landscape for Disney films, and indeed for an entire generation.  What makes the music stick, aside from excellent songwriting, is its ability to create a cultural phenomenon.  The songs from The Little Mermaid are more than just nice melodies sung by cute animated characters.  They were part of the cultural landscape of their era. They permeated cassette tape players, school talent shows, and karaoke nights.  They passed from one generation to the next, becoming a part of our cultural identity.  I have been assigning students “Part of Your World” in their voice lessons for the past ten years, and have yet to meet a student who has never heard the song.

The real question is – what comes next?  Alan Menken is still writing music, of course.  But who will be the musical voice of the next generation?  Will is be Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the composers of Frozen?  Those songs certainly permeated the cultural landscape for all of 2014, but will they last the way that the songs of The Little Mermaid have?  With a sequel and a Broadway production in the works, Disney certainly hopes so.  Perhaps in 30 years we will look back and say that Frozen was the beginning of the second great Disney Renaissance, just as The Little Mermaid was in 1989.  Only time will tell.

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#specificssetyoufree

Two summers ago, I had the pleasure of working with an assistant director who introduced me to a little phrase that would change the way that I looked at acting.

Specifics Set You Free.Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 11.21.11 AM

It’s something that one of her college professors would tell them in class.  We soon adopted it into our daily mantra, and it took us through our 4 weeks of summer acting camp.  As I began using the phrase more and more in my daily work, it opened up my eyes to the power of language and details.

So what does it mean anyway?  Simply put: the clearer your choice, the easier it will be to do the rest of your work.  This is true not just in theatre, but in daily life as well.  Think of the business world.  If I am starting a business, I want to make sure that my company has a clear mission statement and identity.  The clearer I am with those choices, the easier it will be to sell my product.  It’s hard to market something that is nebulous.  A similar perspective can be taken on workplace communication.  The most problems come up through misunderstandings.  Be specific about what you need and want in order to achieve your goals.  Sending a clear message means that everyone is on the same page and that your work will flow more easily.

IMG_5369Theatre presents us with the strange task of getting up on stage in front of an audience and then acting naturally.  It’s amazing how many times I’ve given the note, “Just walk normally.”  As soon as we stand up on stage and starting “acting,” we somehow forget how just just BE.  A director gives you movement and stage direction, which you are then expected to embody in an organic and normal way.  It can quickly become incredibly stilted and awkward.  Enter specifics and details to save the day!

It starts with the basic actor questions: Who am I?  What do I want?  What is in the way of getting what I want?

Answer these questions as fully as you possibly can based on the clues you gather from the script and your own creative imagining of the character. The more specifically you can answer these questions, the easier it will become to embody the character, rather than feeling like it’s something that’s being put upon you.  Once you know who you are and what you want, then you can start going after it.  Take action.  This may sound obvious, but it is important to ACTUALLY DO things when you are on stage.  If the stage directions say that you whisper something in other character’s ear, actually whisper the words you think your character would be saying.  Don’t just go “psst psst psst.”  See things as they occur in the moment.  We rehearse plays for many weeks before they open, so of course all the actors know where the villain is going to enter, or when magic is going to occur.  It is important, however, to behave as if it is all really happening for the very first time.  Think.  How would you react if you suddenly saw a ghost, or your long lost love arrived, or you heard a gunshot?  Decide what you would do in that moment.  Be exact.  Once you are given blocking or choreography, hit your marks exactly every single time you do it.  Once when I was in a show, we had an understudy go on for one of the ensemble members.  It didn’t seem like a big deal since she didn’t have a huge role in the show, and I didn’t interact with her very much on stage.  However, in one very intensely charged scene, my character was supposed to run into her on the street, get scared, and then turn around.  We had rehearsed and performed the moment dozens of time at this point.  The night that the understudy went on, she stood slightly upstage of where the regular actress usually was when I ran into her.  It wasn’t a huge deal, but it did momentarily shake me.  For a second, I became present on stage and had to problem solve how to get around her.  It took me out of my character and the momentum I had generated in the scene.  I hadn’t even realized how much I depended upon and expected that actress to be in the exact same spot every single night.  Mind you, we are talking about the difference of a foot at most.

IMG_6151IMG_4989The details matter.  They matter very much. They are what separate something acceptable from something great.  This year, I introduced the concept of Specifics Set You Free to the teenagers I work with, and they have completely embraced the concept.  It informs all of our work as a company.  It makes me a better director, it makes them clearer actors, and it makes our work as collaborators even stronger.  Being teenagers, they have also created a hashtag to accompany all of their Instagram pictures.  I love that they have accepted this as our mantra.  I see it in their growth as actors and as young adults.  I see it in the clarity they develop from rehearsal to performance.

We’ve all heard the famous quote “God is in the details.”  I don’t know about God, but I do know that I see miracles occur every time one of my young actors is brave enough to get up on stage and tell a clear, inspired story to a room full of people.

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The Company Way

If you follow this blog at all, you know that I am most passionate about my work with young actors.  A year ago, I had the good fortune to be hired to work with the Civic Arts Stage Company; first as the music director, and eventually as the director of the program.  Civic Arts is a partnership between the City of Pleasanton, California, and Bay Area Children’s Theatre.  Roles are open to students between the ages of 8-18.  We produce two musicals and one play each season.

We just kicked off our second season of the Pleasanton/BACT partnership with a two-week rehearsal intensive for our first production of the year, Doctor Dolittle, Jr.  It was far and away the most enjoyable, inspiring two weeks of my summer.  As I ponder what it is that makes Civic Arts so great for students and staff alike, I keep coming back to the idea of a Company.

There are many different ways of producing theatre.  Most companies tend to hire show by show.  That is, hiring new actors and directors for each show they produce within a season.  There may be some carryover.  Many companies have regular or resident designers that they like to use for costumes, props, and lights.  And once they’ve found a director they like to work with, they may try to bring that person back for one show each season.  By and large, though, each show brings in a new group of artists.

Another option is to have a resident company of artists.  The actors are hired to be a part of the company’s entire season and play different roles in each show.  The Oregon Shakespeare Festival follows this model.  Other professional theaters are connected to training programs where up-and-coming actors have the opportunity to play a variety of small roles in all of the company’s shows – American Repertory Theatre (Harvard), Trinity Rep (Brown), Asolo Repertory Theatre (FSU).  I like to think of the Civic Arts Stage Company as a smaller version of these renowned training grounds.

At this point, we are seeing many of the same students audition for each show we produce.  As the students return, they are honing their skills, having opportunities to perform in different sorts of roles, and learning the theatrical repertoire.  They are also forming strong bonds through this work.  During our two-week intensive we not only rehearsed the show, but also offered workshops in auditioning, improv, monologues, dance, and physicality.  The actors also wrote and shared short speeches on issues of intolerance that are close to their hearts.  All of these exercises served to bring the company members closer together.  They were already an extraordinarily supportive and kind ground of young actors.  By the end of two weeks, as one student described it, they were family.  All of this serves to make them more comfortable and trusting of each other on stage.  They will be more likely to take onstage risks because they know that their colleagues will not let them fall.  From the director’s perspective, all this only serves to make my job even more fruitful.  These brave young actors are open to anything I toss at them, and soak up every new bit of information the adult staff shares.  They embrace new company members with open arms.  One actress who is new to both our company and theatre in general, commented that she had no idea theatre would be so much fun.

I am looking forward to continuing to grow with the Civic Arts Stage Company throughout our season.  As our actors return and improve, I also find myself growing as a director.  How else will I keep up with them?

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“So how do you do it with just words and just music?”

“It’s all uncharted.”

Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles took the UC Berkeley Greek Theatre by storm last IMG_4766night.  The performance was the last stop on her “Little Black Dress” tour.  Sara crisscrossed the country this summer, mostly playing songs from her newest album, “The Blessed Unrest.”  It’s a new album, with a new, more electronic sound, she’s backed by a new band, and is sporting a new, glamorous style.  In under 8 years, Bareilles has gone from singing in a UCLA a cappella group and playing small venues in LA, to being a celebrity judge on The Sing-Off, living in New York, writing music for the Broadway adaptation of the film “Waitress,” and performing with Carole King at the Grammy Awards.  Her first major studio album, “Little Voice,” debuted on the US Billboard 200 at number 45, selling about 16,000 copies in its first week.  Her latest album, “The Blessed Unrest,” debuted at number 2 on the Billboard200, only behind Jay-Z‘s Magna Carta… Holy Grail. It sold 68,000 copies in its first week of release.

“It can’t be a mistake if I just call it change.”

Things have certainly changed for Sara B.  Her ability to evolve and innovate her material is what keeps her work so compelling.  The crowd at the Greek Theatre last night was incredibly diverse – well, not in gender, but at least in age.  Tween girls at their very first concert were belting out “Brave” alongside 30-somethings who have been singing “Gravity” as their bad relationship anthem for years.  But one thing hasn’t changed.  One thing brought the crowd of over 8,000 people together last night.  Sara’s unique ability to speak truthfully. 

“Because I found I was made to be exactly like me.”

I’ve been preaching the weighty words of Sanford Meisner to my students this week: “Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”  This is what makes a performance real and compelling.  What makes it difficult is that we often have difficulty behaving truthfully in real circumstances – forget about imaginary circumstances.  Maybe it’s her theatrical background.  Maybe it’s just good parents. But Sara Bareilles seems to have mastered this art.  Everything about her show comes off as earnest and real.  She is funny.  She is profound.  She is vulnerable.  She is hard as nails.  There is a point to every one of her songs.  

“I wanna see you be brave.”

Last year, after her move from LA to New York, Sara embarked on the “Brave Enough Tour: A Special Solo Journey.”  She left her band behind, and went back to the beginning.  Playing small venues without any opening acts or backup musicians.  She played piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, ukelele, and squeeze box.  No videos, effects, or spectacle.  Just Sara and her music.  She sang:i-am-brave-enough

Once upon another time
Somebody’s hands who felt like mine
Turned the key and took a drive
Was free
Highway curve, the sun sank low
Buckley on the radio
Cigarette was burning slow
So breathe
Just yellow lines and tire marks
And sun-kissed skin and handle bars
And where I stood was where I was to be
No enemies to call my own
No porch light on to pull me home
And where I was is beautiful
Because I was free
 

“I’ll get my little black dress on.”

SaraBareillesDB 3Last night’s setting was completely different.  Sara played all of her usual instruments, but she was also backed by a six-piece band. Drums, guitar, bass, cello, violin, and keyboard.  She also has three new female backup singers.  But Sara and her message remained the same.  Be brave.  Be yourself.  Don’t date douchebags.  Between making fun of Berkeley fans for cheering for the word “cantaloupe” and an impromptu verse of “Let’s Get Physical,” Sara moved the crowd with her stories of her difficult decision to leave LA (and a relationship) to start anew in New York, and dedicated her song “Hercules” to anyone struggling with depression.  She performed new arrangements of classics such as “Love Song,” “Gravity” and “Come Round Soon.”  And – joy of joys – she premiered a song from her new musical, “Waitress.”  The last finale of the night was a performance of the song “Satellite Call.”  As Sara sang, the audience became dotted with white lights.  Each of us, a small satellite reaching out to someone else.  The song says:

This one’s for the lonely child2014-07-15-22-41-03
Brokenhearted, running wild
This was written for the one to blame
One who believe they are the cause of chaos and everything
You may find yourself in the dead of night
Lost somewhere up in the great big beautiful sky
You were all just perfect little satellites
Spinning round and round this broken earthly life
This is so you’ll know the sound
Of someone who loves you from the ground
Tonight you’re not alone at all
This is me sending out my satellite call
This is so you’ll know the sound
Of someone who loves you from the ground
Tonight you’re not alone at all
This is me sending out my satellite call

 

In her song, “Chasing the Sun,” Sara asks:sarab-tour

So how do you do it,
With just words and just music, capture the feeling
That my earth is somebody’s ceiling 

 

How do you pay homage to the past without dwelling on it?  How do you look into the vast unknown future without feeling terrified?  Sara may not feel like she has the answers, but for so many of us who listen to her music, she shines a bright, bright light of truth.

Heck.  She even helps fans plan their wedding proposals!

 

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All the Sounds of the Earth Are Like Music

Music truly is all around us.  It’s in a Robin’s song, the rustling of leaves, and waves crashing against the shore.  But how often do we actually stop to hear the sounds of the world around us?

My running team only has a few rules: No strollers, no pets, no wimps, and no earbuds.  At the beginning of the season, some people were astonished at the requirement of leaving the headphones at home.  “How can I run without music?” someone asked.  There are many reasons for this rule.  First, part of the point of the team is social.  We should be building camaraderie and community.  We are encouraged to talk to our teammates on runs, rather than being isolated in our own musical world.  And, of course, there is the safety factor.  If you have earbuds in, how are you going to hear an approaching car, a passing cyclist calling out, or another person approaching?  It is important to be aware of your surroundings, especially if you’re out running alone.  Some people claim that they need to listen to music while running in order to establish a rhythm or pace.  Indeed, there are many apps that you can set to play songs that keep a certain tempo so that you are guaranteed to be moving at a certain number of BPMs.  Our coach would stress, though, that your own internal rhythm is more important. The first thing we learned at the beginning of the season was how to breathe.  Now, when I run, I focus on the rhythm of my breaths.  I hear my breath coincide with every two footfalls.  That’s the only cadence with which I am concerned.  If I get tired or bored, I can also always focus on world around me.  I’m fortunate enough to live in an impossibly beautiful part of the country, so every run usually also includes amazing scenery.  There’s so much to see and hear.  Who needs earbuds?

I’m on vacation this week, and this morning I decided to get up early and go down Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 10.37.37 AMto the beach to watch the sunrise.  There were a few other people on the beach at 6:15am, but for the most part it was me, the surf, and the birds.  It was an important moment of oneness.  At first it seemed so quiet in comparison to the midday beach crowds.  But as I rode my bike along the shoreline, I became aware of just how many different sounds I was hearing.  The rushing of the waves as they rolled toward the shore; the wind blowing past me; seagulls crying and birds chirping; shoes crunching on the sand; my bicycle cruising along the beach; leaves blowing in the wind; squirrels and other critters playing in the dunes; bugs calling to each other; cars on a nearby road; an army helicopter flying up above; my own breath.  The natural world creates a veritable symphony of sound. It’s no wonder that composers have been creating pieces of music based on the sounds of the earth for hundreds of years.  Take Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring:

Or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons:

These two pieces, written hundreds of years apart, one by an American and one by an Italian, both expertly evoke a natural setting.  Whether it’s the sun rising over the mountains, or the changing of the seasons, the two pieces somehow find a way to create an aesthetic that makes the listener feel as if he is actually seeing these things.

On Wednesday, I spent the morning volunteering on a project for Habitat for Humanity.  Out of sheer coincidence, the woman who I was partnered up to work with turned out to be an audiologist.  We had a fascinating conversation about ear_cochmusic, sound, and hearing.  One of the most poignant parts of our discussion had to do with cochlear implants.  According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, A cochlear implant is a small, complex electronic device that can help to provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing . . . Cochlear implants bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. Signals generated by the implant are sent by way of the auditory nerve to the brain, which recognizes the signals as sound.” I shared with her the story that my college ASL professor had told us about the day she got her cochlear implant.  She said that when she came out of surgery and they first turn on the device, she just burst into tears.  She had never heard before in her life, and suddenly there was so much.  My teacher also told us that even now she would sometimes remove the external part of the device and return to silence because all the sound could be too overwhelming.  Susie, my new audiologist friend, told me that she runs into this with patients all the time.  Young children are the best candidates for the implants because their brains are still developing and they an easily learn to differentiate sounds as any hearing person would.  The older you are, the harder it is to learn to pick out the important sounds and ignore the rest.  In that sense, the person getting the cochlear implant is starting from scratch as if he or she was a baby first learning to hear and speak.  We don’t realize how many sounds we are processing at a given moment.  With 28 years of practice, I am able to have a conversation with a friend in the middle of a loud restaurant because my brain and auditory nerves know how to focus on the tone of my friend’s voice and ignore the sounds of music, clanking dishes, and other chatter.  Lately, after living across from a construction site for almost a year, I’ve become remarkably good at blocking out the sounds of hammering at 7am when I want those last few precious minutes of sleep.  Those of us who are musicians have an ever finer tuned ear.  With practice and training, we are able to pick out a choral harmony line to sing, or identify the oboe line of a symphony.  

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Nina Raine’s play “Tribes” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  The protagonist is the only deaf child in an otherwise hearing tribesfamily.  His family didn’t want him to been seen as someone “handicapped,” and so they taught him to read lips and speak, and her never learned sign.  As an adult, he meets a young woman who grew up hearing in an otherwise deaf family, but is now losing her hearing and is struggling to come to terms with it.  He claims that she is the lucky one because she at least had some time to experience the entire loud, audible world.  She, on the other hand, avers that he’s the lucky one because he doesn’t know what he’s missing.

I find ASL to be a profound and effective language.  In fact, sometimes it is a much more direct form of communication than speech.  It is extremely beautiful and artistic.  The language also comes with its own vibrant culture.  I know that there are some deaf families that choose not to give their deaf children hearing aids or cochlear implants.  At the end of the day, I personally disagree with that choice.  I understand the cultural and familial value of the deaf world, but on a day like today when the world is simply abuzz with music and sound, how could anyone want to deny a child the opportunity to experience such a wonder?

We live in a loud and wonderful world.  Most of us are fortunate enough to have the ability to hear its every nuance and song.  So take out your earbuds and listen up!

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Be Kind to Your Parents

I often use this blog as a venue to write about my work with children.  In reviewing my archive of past entires, I realized that I left out one very important detail of my work – parents.  It is impossible to work with children and not encounter their parents.  In fact, if I didn’t ever encounter my students’ parents, something really would be wrong!cartoon2207

Parents can be challenging.  They ask too many questions.  They overbook their kids.  They don’t understand the value of your work.  They hover.  They think they know more than you do.  They don’t respond to emails.  They send you too many emails.  They’re over involved.  They’re under involved.

Parents can also be amazing allies.  They advocate for their kids.  They support their artistic and academic endeavors.  They volunteer to help build sets.  They arrange carpools.  They value your work.  They feed you.  And, let us not forget, they sign your checks.

Though I do not always work with them directly, parents are an essential part of what I do.  After all, they are the ones who are telling their kids that it’s okay to try out for the school play, or take voice lessons, or play the piano.  They are investing time, energy, and money into the pursuit of an artistic accomplishment.  At first, I think I was afraid of parents.  I didn’t want to them to somehow “get in the way” of the work the student and I were doing.  And I certainly didn’t want them treating me like “the help” or telling me how to do my job.  I was young and defensive.  Over time, though, I have learned that parents are really the key to mine and their child’s success.  I need the parents to understand why our work is valuable.  Beyond that, I need them to encourage their child to practice when I’m not there.  Whether I see parent_flutethe student once a week for a voice lesson or three times a week for a rehearsal, there is still the need for work to happen in between.  Talent aside – the more that the parents encourage practice at home, the more prepared and successful the student is in the lesson or performance.

Parents are also an amazing gateway into understanding their children.  They will often share sensitive information about how a student is struggling in a certain class or having some social challenges – things that the student may be nervous or embarrassed to tell you herself.  And, of course, you can learn so much about a person simply by studying his or her parents!  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. stivers-1-19-04-piano-lesso

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The Frozen Phenomenon

If you have kids in your life in any capacity, odds are that you can sing “Let It Go” from memory.  The hit song from the new Disney feature Frozen has swept the nation.  It seems that every child in America has seen the film, downloaded the soundtrack, and proceeded to listen to each song on endless repeat.  Not since High School Musical or the early days of the TV show Glee , have I witnessed my students become so completely enraptured with something musical.  And while High School Musical and Glee seemed mainly to excite the kids who were already interested in music or theatre, Frozen has an unprecedented mass appeal.  The middle school choir that I accompany is singing “Love Is An Open Door” in their next concert.  I head the same song playing in a Berkeley coffee shop that I walked into last week.  The children that my friend babysits for can act out all of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman.”  I’ll even admit to listening to “For the First Time in Forever” while out on a jog.  But it’s the Oscar-Nominated song “Let It Go” that seems to have become the anthem of a generation.

Good Morning America hosted an “Epic Frozen Sing-a-long” last week featuring Idina Menzel, the New York City Children’s Chorus, and the stars of several viral YouTube cover videos. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/gmas-epic-frozen-sing-long-live-22678570

The film was released just three months ago, and there are already thousands of cover videos on YouTube, including Alex Boye’s Africanized Tribal version:

The Piano Guys’ mashup of “Let It Go” with Vivaldi’s “Winter”:

And, of course, little Maddie and Zoe:

What is it about “Let It Go” that appeals to kids and adults in such a massive in such a massive way?  ABC’s Nightline recently aired a segment during which they talked to song writers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez about the song’s inspiration and message. http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/video/frozen-songwriters-reveal-hit-songs-inspiration-22693456

I was trying to think of a movie or song from my childhood that had the same effect.  The closest one I could come up with was “Part of Your World” form The Little Mermaid.  It seemed like everyone knew that song, and it continues to be popular today.  “Part of Your World,” though, has a decidedly different message from “Let It Go.”  The Little Mermaid is entirely about how Ariel wants to physically change in order to leave the underwater world where she doesn’t fit in.  With legs, she is able to go to the human world and meet the handsome prince whom she loves.  She goes to extreme lengths to change.  “Let It Go” is about being true to yourself.  Elsa has a great and potentially dangerous power.  She is afraid of hurting the people around her, so she keeps it shut away until it is impossible to hold it back anymore.  “Let It Go” is her great release.  She decides to forgo the world and what people think in order to be free to explore the depths of her power.  In the end, it is the bond between Elsa and her sister, Anna, that saves the day; and neither girl has to compromise on values or power.

It’s a striking message.  In this era where accepting people for their differences is on the forefront of most educational campaigns, “Let It Go” provides young people with a striking anthem.  Who among us can say that he has never felt oppressed or unable to work to his fullest potential?  Kids are told “No” all the time.  Here comes a song that is all about saying yes – Yes to being different.  Yes to taking chances.  Yes to finding your own way.  Last week during a dress rehearsal for a show I’m directing, I could hear half of the cast singing “Let It Go” from backstage.  It has brought kids together in a remarkable way.  Boys and girls alike can relate to its message of finding inner strength.  There’s a remarkable series on YouTube called “Kids React.”  In this episode, boys and girls of all ages are shown a video of “Let It Go” which seamlessly transitions between 25 different languages.  Their reactions are priceless and enlightening:

It is clear that Frozen has made an important mark on our cultural history.  We will see how it holds up in the long run.  A full-length Broadway production is already in the works.  “Let It Go” is nominated for an Oscar, and Idina Menzel will be performing it life at the awards ceremony tomorrow.  Interestingly, Disney had pop star Demi Lovato record an official cover of the song for the soundtrack release, but it’s Idina Menzel’s version that everyone seems to be listening to.  I have a feeling this is because her voice is a lot stronger.  People are attracted to the power and brass that her voice conveys.  Lovato’s just doesn’t carry the same weight.  The official video is below.  And if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I recommend that you get to the movie theatre or order the digital copy before you’re left out in the cold.

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The Spark of Creation

Over the past two weeks, I have had the good fortune of being called in as a collaborator on two new musical projects.  In New York, new musicals were part of my daily bread.  There was always a reading or a workshop to play for.  Here in the Bay Area, however, while we do see quite a few new plays, new musical works are far rarer.  Of course, this makes sense.  Musicals are more expensive to produce, and in the regional theatre scene where a multitude of companies are competing for a smaller audience base, risk and reward must be looked at seriously.  These days, then, being approached about a new musical project is more exciting then ever.

I took on one of the projects, and am now the Music Supervisor for a unique and exciting experiential theatre project.  This is not just a musical where the audience sits in their chairs and watches the show in front of them.  In this case, the audience is a part of the show, and the show is really all around them.  It’s an interactive 20’s era Speakeasy.  Actors are planted throughout the crowd, so you might overhear part of a conversation about the stock markets, or a quarrel between two performers.  There’s also a more formal cabaret show, complete with chorus girls, a chanteuse, and a comedy duo.  Although much of j0439466-11the evening may seem off-the-cuff from the audience’s perspective, every single moment has been scripted, songs from the era have been painstakingly chosen to serve the story, moments have been rehearsed, lights have been programmed, and what was a raw studio space has been completely transformed in to an authentic 20s bar and performance venue.  Every character has a story and is connected to the other players.  While there is nothing traditional about the way the material is being presented, the evening absolutely has a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and a moral or point.

How does a piece like this come to be?  Like anything, it starts with an idea.  In this case, it was an idea that the producing director had been mulling over for years.  Perhaps he was just waiting for the right moment and the right group of people to collaborate with.  A production of this magnitude does indeed take an army.  Multiple producers and investors, two writers, a music supervisor, two pianists, an innovative set designer, two stage managers who run the whole show via video monitor from a hidden booth, security guards, support staff, a four-piece band, and 30-some odd actors.  All of these people have to believe in the idea, for this is not a typical rehearsal process where 30 published scripts come in a box from the licensing company and you already have a picture of what the show is “supposed” to look like.  This is grassroots theatre, where the piece is being created from the ground up.  Songs are chosen and then thrown out.  Scenes are written, tried out, and then rewritten.  Characters are created and others are cut.  The beautiful thing about this sort of project is that everyone has a voice, and it really is tailor-made to fit the people who are there for the building process.  And the work is never done.  As long as the show is running, changes will continue to be made.  I love working for this particular company because there is always a push to be better.  It’s hard work, but it is also invigorating to always have that constant fire burning as we continue to work to improve our show.  If the show runs for more than two months, new actors will begin to replace original cast members who have to move on to other projects.  Much of the show will, of course, remain the same, but some new material will have to be picked to compliment the new performers’ particular strengths. 

I think that this sort of creative and collaborative theatre may be the wave of the future.  SpeakeasyThere will always be companies that do stock musical theatre.  Audiences will always come to see Les Miserables and The Sound of Music.  But as far as new work is concerned, and especially new musical work, one must be innovative.  Make it unique.  Here in San Francisco, people love themes, dressing up, designer drinks, and secret venues. The audience may come in for a chance to wear a gorgeous vintage dress and a fun night on the town, but they are going to walk away with so much more.  And for those of us on the directorial team, it is our duty to make sure that the “so much more” never loses its spark.

Intrigued?  Come see our show. spk.logo.full.black

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How To Succeed

This week, I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to my role as a director and leader in various theatrical settings.  I found myself in a situation where I needed to clearly articulate the various aspects of my job and how I am able to do each of them successfully.  Following the structure of Frank Loesser’s “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” here’s “How to Succeed in Theatre With a Lot of Hard Work.”

How To Apply for a Job

There are three important steps to follow when applying for a job (in any field).  The first, Picture 2and most important in my opinion, is to make sure that all of your information is kept up-to-date.  Take the time to update your resume, website, LinkedIn, and Facebook pages every time a new event occurs in your professional life.  Taking care of these updates as they come along will ensure that you have all your materials ready to go any time a potential job arises.  In my field, an important part of this is compiling photo or video documentation of my work.  Be a squeaky wheel and make sure that you are given copies of any production materials.  This is your calling card when it comes to booking future work!  The second step is to write an excellent cover letter (or email).  This should be direct, confident, and enthusiastic.  Step three is to go into the interview with confidence, but also with reverence.  You want to show your potential employer that you are the right person for the job, but that you are also excited to learn more (genuinely, of course!).

How To Advance From the Mail Room

While we all like to be picky, I think when you’re starting out, it pays to say yes to all Picture 1opportunities.  If something really isn’t a good fit, of course, say no.  But you really want to soak up as much information as possible.  Direct at the Community Theatre level, and intern at the professional level.  Volunteer as an usher at the big houses in your area so that you can see the best of the best.  Be open.  Listen to everything you can.  Read every book on your craft.  Study, study, study.  Show up early and leave after everyone else.

How To Sit Down at a Desk

Picture 4There are some less glamorous aspects to being a Director.  We all want to be in the rehearsal room, inspiring actors to take brilliant leaps, and creating art.  Frankly, though, 75% of my work happens outside of the theatre.  I have to create the time and space to be a manager – creating a production schedule that accommodates the schedules of my actors, co-directors, and designers.  I have to be in constant communication with all of those people as our project develops in order to implement ideas and changes.  There are dozens of emails to send, calendars to manage, meetings to attend, music to edit, scripts to cut, and blocking prep to write out.  None of the artistic genius can even begin to occur if the administrative foundation is not in place.

How To Dictate Memorandums

COMMUNICATION IS EVERYTHING.  Be clear and transparent.  Make sure that your requests and schedules go out in a timely manner so that designers, producers, and actors have the time to implement any changes and bring in their best work.  Say please and thank you.  Really.  People just want to be seen and heard.  Show the people on your team that you value them.  It’s so important and so easy, yet often glossed over.

How To Develop Executive Style (How to commute in a three-button suit, with that weary executive smile)

Make an effort to look professional.  We’re not talking about business suits and dresses here, but it is important to make a good impression.  You never know who you’re going to have to interact with on a daily basis – be it producers or parents.  You want to look like someone who could be in charge (especially on the days when you’re questioning all of your career choices, which will inevitably happen during the peak of tech week).  Even if you don’t have an encounter with one of the higher-ups, being put together is also a sign of respect for your actors, music director, choreographer, or anyone else you might be working with on a daily basis.

How To Observe Personnel

Give your team feedback.  Find value in other people’s work.  A large part of being a director is about seeing and hearing the people around you.  Be open to the creativity and ideas that other people are bringing to the project.  Utilize people’s strengths and help them overcome their weaknesses.  Be subtle and graceful.

How To Select Whom to Lunch With

Lunch meetings are very important.  They provide a key opportunity for networking and feedback.  The less formal setting makes people feel free to speak more openly.  Lunches and coffees are a chance to meet with your other team members and get their honest feedback on how the work process is going for them.  As far as the actors go, some directors like to keep a clear line, while others don’t mind socializing with the cast.  I typically keep myself a bit separate, but I do like to check in, especially when I’m working with young actors.  I won’t sit with them for the entire lunch or dinner break, but I will pop over and say hello.  This is a good time to talk about something other than the show that we’re currently working on.  Ask about their day – what they did at work or in school, how they spent their days off, etc.  Listen and learn about who they are as people.  This will make your work with them on stage so much more fruitful.

How To Avoid Petty Friends

There is no room for attitude or rudeness in my world.  Honestly.  Stay away from the divas.  They will pull you down a destructive path.  The theatre is a world of collaboration.  None of us got anywhere by being petty or exclusive.  I’m in the position I hold today because I worked with directors and actors who gave me the opportunity to be heard when I was younger.  Remember that there is no play without a whole slew of people standing around you.  Do everything you can to make sure that those people standing by you are supporting you, rather than filling your ears with negativity.

How To Begin Making Contacts

Invite people to come see your work.  There’s no risk in sending an email invitation.  People will either come or they won’t, but I can guarantee that no one will be offended by the invitation.  If there’s someone in your local theatre scene whose work you admire, send them a note and tell them so.  We all love positive affirmation.  Even those people who you think have reached the top anPicture 3d must hear it all the time – strangely enough, sometimes they need it the most.  Ask questions.  Most people in the world of theatre will say yes if you ask them to coffee or lunch in order to pick their brain.  We’re a very social breed of people, and who doesn’t love to talk about their own work?  A coffee is a benign way of making business contacts without directly asking for a job.  Finally, go see theatre!  Here in the Bay Area, I run into people I know every time I go see a show.  You never know who you might get introduced to.

How To Walk into a Conference Room with an Idea–Brilliant Business Idea–
That Will Make Your Expense Account Zoom!

I’m not sure how many of us in the theatre world have expense accounts or are pulling in six figures, but there are certainly many ways to live a successful and fruitful life in this business.  Self-confidence is important.  This is very different from ego.  It’s that essential core knowledge that you have ideas that are worthy of being heard.  Perhaps you’ve caught on from everything I’ve written thus far – most of a director’s job is to make other people feel supported, seen, and heard.  It’s easy to do if you believe in the project and in the ability of those people you have chosen to work with.  What’s difficult about being a director is that there are fewer people to tell you when you’re doing a good job.  It can be lonely.  A solid self-confidence is key.  The payoff will come in seeing your vision for the show come to life.  The payoff will come in seeing your actors rise to heights they never thought possible.  The payoff will come in hugs and thank you notes.  The payoff will come in getting invited back to direct again.  But it starts with an idea.  Dream big.  Pitch your ideas with enthusiasm and gusto.  Be so infectiously passionate that it would be impossible for anyone to say no.

This Book Is All That I Need

I don’t think you can really learn directing or leadership from a book.  You should absolutely read everything on the craft that you can get your hands on.  That’s simply a requirement for developing expert knowledge of your field.  In the end, though, it’s about showing up and doing the work.  Sometimes it’s the glamorous work of character development, stage combat, and special effects.  Other times, it’s the monotonous clicking of the keyboard as you write dozens of emails.  Both have great value.  Put in the work.  Just like in the early days of your career, you will still show up early and leave late.  Invest in the people around you.  That’s how to succeed.

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Who’s Who In The Cast

A large portion of the success of any production comes down to casting.  No-Mans-Land-Waiting-for-Godot-Playbill-10-13

We see it all the time in the movies and on Broadway.  Producers know that by casting a world-renowned actor or a popular celebrity, there is a greater chance of people buying tickets to the show.  Pop singer Carly Rae Jepson of “Call Me Maybe” fame is about to step into the role of Cinderella, Michelle Williams is playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Neil Patrick Harris is starring in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are wowing audiences as they perform Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land in repertory.  This sort of casting is no mistake.

But I’m not just talking about celebrity casting for the sake of bringing in audiences and making money.  I’m looking at casting as the main ingredient to the show’s on-stage success.  Think of it like baking.  The script is your recipe – hopefully it’s a good one.  The oven is your stage – these come in all sizes and varieties.  Old, new, convection, gas, electric.  Designers have worked to create the perfect space in which to create your masterpiece.  The director is the chef – mixing ingredients together, following the recipe, but occasionally also throwing in a dash of something special.  You might even have  line cooks or sous chefs in the form of your Assistant Director, Choreographer, or Music Director – the other people in the kitchen making the dish come together.  The actors are the ingredients, and, as in cooking, you want to make sure you are using the best possible product.

Whole-Foods-006In some cases, you are fortunate enough to be working at a company with a large budget and Equity contracts.  You get to choose from a pool of well-trained, experienced, professional actors.  This is the Whole Foods of casting.  Everyone is polished, and will hopefully bring a level of excellence and pedigree to your production.  Like shopping at Whole Foods, though, these actors can be expensive.  Most of my casting experiences have been more of a Trader Joe’s sort of experience.  You’re not getting all organic, gluten-free products, but everything is tasty, affordable, and fun.

In my work with young actors, I look at the casting process as a farm-to-table sort of experience.  We’re picking the fruit right off of the tree, and working with actors who are fresh and eager to learn.  There’s not a lot of fancy packaging.  The kids are a bundle of raw material.  They mostly haven’t yet learned formal acting techniques.  At best, some of them are starting singing lessons or dance lessons, or have done a theatre camp.  Others are coming in with no experience whatsoever.  But they are young and energetic and ready to learn.  Then, like in cooking, it’s about finding the most magical balance of these raw photo(1)ingredients.  You need a few stalwart, hard-working pros to provide that good flour base.  You need the sweet young sixth graders who just want to play and learn.  You throw in a few good eggs – the goofballs who know all about comedy and aren’t afraid to make a big splatter.  And, of course, you need a good dash of spice.  Too much or too little of one ingredient can throw off the whole dish.  There may be a couple of test batches – arranging and rearranging combinations of headshots in order to get the best balance of these flavors.  In the end, though, if you take your time, pick the best products, mix them together bit by bit, then really all you have to do is put it in the oven and let it bake.

I just don’t recommend poking your actors with a toothpick to see if they’re ready to perform.

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