Friday, September 28, 2007

Focus and Dedication

I've just returned from meeting Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher extraordinaire. This has been a dream of mine for a while now and I'm almost jumping out of my chair.

But wait, I can hear you say. He's a baseball player. What does he have to do with the arts?

Well, athletes and artists have a great deal in common. Both are asked to make huge sacrifices to follow their profession. Most athletes make very little income and need another job, as do most other artists. Both groups need a lot of study and practice to hone their skills. Both need to make their work fit in with the work of the team. And both need to have incredible drive to succeed.

I really love what this article says in the second half. You get a real sense of the man and where his priorities lie. The owner of the store who did the signing today told me that he didn't care about how much the autographs cost (that was negotiated by his agent) but only wanted to talk about how the store was partnering with his charity. And he was incredible with everyone who wanted his autograph - spending time with them when they wanted it, being encouraging with the kids.

In the intervening time since Summerworks, I have watched the way he pitches. When he's on, it's poetry. What really sticks with me is the way he focuses on what needs to be done. He allows himself to get angry when things don't go his way, but almost always he expresses it then shakes it off and gets right back at it. That's a valuable skill for anyone.

I asked him to sign a baseball, along with one word that summed up success for him. He wrote dedication. That's something I'm going to have staring at me every morning to remind me what I need to do.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Odds and Ends

Tomorrow High School Musical closes at the theatre, so I'm sharing other things I've noticed during the run.

*Get'cha Head in the Game becomes more brilliant every time I watch it. The number is so intricate, the timing so precise, it blows my mind. I found out that the basketball sounds come off a synthesizer, which just makes the soundscape even more amazing. And I didn't mention before just how fantastic John Jeffrey Martin is in the number. He manages the switches from team leader to lovesick boy and back effortlessly. I just love how he delivers the lines when he's trying to shake himself out of it, and his dancing is even more impressive because he's singing his way through it.

So, so going to miss watching it. Hopefully The Mouse will be smart and record this show. I'd buy it.

*Ron Bohmer, who plays Coach Bolton, has been in Toronto before, playing Alex in Aspects of Love. In one of those amazing quirks of fate, I ushered that show at the Elgin Theatre - and thought it was one of the biggest pieces of crap I had ever seen. (Nothing to do with the actors or the director, Robin Phillips, who did the best they could with it. I honestly don't know what Andrew Lloyd Webber was smoking when he came up with that one.)

What is really weird is that for some reason I have the glossy program from the show and not the free program we handed out each night, something I can't conceive of paying money for. Obviously the universe wanted me to have it available now. It was fun showing it to him tonight and talking about that show, 16 years later. Now I have to keep my promise to stage management and have them pass the program around backstage tomorrow.

*Love the variety of styles of performers spoofed in the audition number. I especially love the dancer who strictly does Fosse moves throughout.

*Slow-mo is so cliched on film now, but can still be incredibly effective on stage. That's the case here, where a basketball is moved on a stick by a referee to create the climax of the show - the scoring of the basket that wins the championship. By using the basketball as a puppet, with the spot following the ball itself, the moment has much more impact - even if people laugh as it first starts. And again, the choreography is exquisite.

*Noticed a lot of the choreography in the second half involves bouncing. While I'm not a fan of the look, I understand the reasoning - to raise the energy and build to the finale, which it does quite effectively.

*While not a big fan of the songs he wrote for the show, I have to say that I'm incredibly impressed by the musical arrangement Bryan Louiselle has done. I love the choices he made for the music that moves us from scene to scene.

*The biggest problem I have with the show is that the scenes where the drama teacher and the coach are alone on stage together are filled with very pointless movement. They keep backing away and moving back and forth where it makes no sense intention-wise. It drives me crazy.

*My co-workers are really enjoying the show. I can't tell you how many times I've seen people bopping around during the end of the second half, both inside and out of the house. And we all agree that Get'cha Head in the Game is a masterpiece. The energy at work has been so high, it's been really good for us - especially after having lived through 5 months of Phantom of the Opera.

*It's also been really wonderful to watch the audiences. I've seen some amazing outfits/costumes being worn by some of the children. I've seen probably every bit of HSM merchandise under the sun. And their anticipation and excitement has been highly contagious so that despite all the challenges we've had this show accommodating them, it's been a lot of fun.

*One of the leads, Arielle Jacobs, is keeping a fantastic blog that is worth checking out.

*In the end, I liked the work the cast is doing, and all the people I've met connected with the show have been welcoming and I'm glad our paths crossed, however briefly.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Theatre as Memory

Recently I was told of a lead in a musical who snubbed the young fans waiting for him after the show. The person telling this story was deeply outraged, claiming she'd be so grateful to be in that position she'd do anything they asked of her.

Now, I think there's a definite danger of being used by a large production company who plays on your desperation and gratitude, and I hope she never finds herself in that position. Yet I can't disagree with her main point. Blowing off fans at stage door isn't cool.

Which led me to wonder - why do I think like that? After all, our responsibility as artists is to the work. We can't control how an audience is going to react. And there is certainly an epidemic of encroachment into the private lives of actors. (A friend of mine who was a lead in a very popular TV movie has told me tales that are shocking.) In the end, the actor is performing a role, a role that ends when the performance is over.

So why do I have a problem with what that actor did?

I've determined that for me, it comes down to theatre existing as memory. Unlike other media, our work only lives on in the memory of those who were there. So what we really do is make memories.

Why do we make art? My answer is to touch lives through a transcendent experience. That experience for the audience is not just the performance itself, but the environment immediately before and after. And one of the common threads of humanity is the need to be acknowledged and treated with respect. This is why it is so important to take care of our audience's needs as much as we can. One could have the most amazing experience of the performance only to have it tainted by a perceived experience of disrespect. Sadly, most of us remember the negative over the positive.

Theatre, in the end, is a communal experience. And that means honouring all responses. And if the response is wanting to meet an actor who's work has touched you, enough that you'll make the effort to stand by a stage door, then I feel that respect needs to be paid.

It takes guts to hang out at a stage door waiting to meet a stranger. I believe we need to support this courage. IMO, the biggest failing we have as a society is that we discourage risk. Too many people sit on the sidelines, unwilling or afraid to go after what they want. Yet it's the risk-takers that create value in society. As artists, our lives are all about taking risks and I believe our biggest contribution to society is to serve as an example to others, to inspire them to do the same. This is how we better our world.

On a slightly more prosaic note, I don't know of any artist who doesn't have a story about meeting an artist in their formative years that inspired them. That person waiting at the stage door could be a great artist of their generation if they get the encouragement. We have a responsibility to develop and nurture the next generation of artists to ensure the future of our art. And it could just be a few kind words at stage door that does it.

On an even more prosaic note, it's a good career move. Almost everyone who has been in the business a long time makes a point of meeting the fans. They know that people remember the personal touch, the feeling of brief connection, and that will turn their casual support into following and supporting their future work. It's that future support that helps prolong a career.

All of which ties back to theatre as memory, and the importance of creating good memories. It's a responsibility I feel we all have to our audiences. And in the end, it's a few moments out of our time that creates so much positive, creative energy. So why not do it?

The Whitlams with Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Tim Freedman has been a huge influence on me, so talking about his work was bound to happen eventually.

The Whitlams are an incredibly successful Australian band. Over the years, Tim has forged connections with the Australian classical community, leading to shows where their music is performed with orchestral arrangements. This fall they're doing another tour with orchestras across Australia. This clip is from a recent rehearsal, playing their breakthrough, and still most famous, song, No Aphrodisiac. Watching this just jazzes me right up.

I do have one question, though. Tim, what's with the poofy hair?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Linkage

I'm working on a post now, but had to post this link. It's a fascinating article about media concentration and the validity of non-mainstream work. Long, but worth it.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Brevity

May be the soul of wit but seems to be hard to find for bloggers. Well, for me, anyway. And with a very busy weekend coming up, all my great ideas for entries shall have to wait until Monday.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Raoul

After talking about High School Musical, my thoughts have gone to the last show at the Princess of Wales, Phantom of the Opera. I had plenty of time to formulate thoughts on the show since I worked it for ten weeks. I hadn't liked it when I saw it back in 1989 and I still didn't think much of it, although I do like some of the music. However, the cast were superb and acting the crap out of it. Most of them were constantly trying new things to make it more real and resonant.

One of my biggest problems with the show is that I have no sympathy for the Phantom, and very little patience with people who go on about how Christine should have went with him. No, she shouldn't. He was a cold-blooded murderer, terrorist and extortionist. I don't care how bad his life was. He always had a choice. I hate how the show tries to manipulate me to feel sorry for him. I'm immune.

I also really don't care for Christine. I couldn't quite figure it out for the longest time because she feels really weak and yet she shows a spine of steel through a lot of the play. Considering the Phantom played on her grief for her father to manipulate himself into her life, her confusion is understandable. I don't for one minute believe she is sexually attracted to the Phantom. What I see is that he speaks to the artist in her and inspires her to reach for her highest self, but does it as a father figure. So any thought of sexual attraction feels false to me, although I know that's exactly what Hal Prince was going for (look at the design of the false proscenium to get proof).

Then someone pointed it out. She never tells either man she loves them, although she obviously loves both. They make big declarations of love and she just accepts it, not really giving of herself in return. She just exists, really. I don't feel I know her as a person at all and because of that, I don't really care what happens to her.

Yet from the very beginning I've been madly in love with Raoul. It wasn't until this production that I finally got to see him played as the man of action I've always instinctually felt he was. I see so much to admire in him. He's the one who, once he's convinced the Phantom is real, steps up and takes action to end his reign of terror. He's the one who is honest with Christine and loves her for who she really is, not as an object or a voice. (My proof of this is that the play establishes that they spent a lot of time together as teenagers.) The first chance he gets, he takes the risk and tells her he loves her. He's the one willing to sacrifice his own life for her freedom.

How can one not love a character like this?

I was lucky in that both men who played Raoul during the run, Michael Gillis and Greg Mills, were willing to listen to my thoughts on the character. A little cheeky? Maybe, but I care so much about Raoul that I wanted to see him done justice. Michael had the character down (a sanity-saving thing for me) but he actually took my notes and experimented with them, something that was thrilling and gratifying to me. Greg had only played it for two weeks when the show left Toronto but I could see him growing into the character as he spent more time playing him.

I'm going to share the contents of an email I sent Michael about the character. I've added some notes in brackets to clarify where in the show I'm talking about for those who don't know it intimately.

My thoughts on Raoul:

His keywords - command, power, control, love and compassion

IIRC, in post-revolutionary France, men who had titles acquired them through having money and/or power. Raoul would have been brought up with always having his word obeyed without question, except by his parents. The nobility motto is never let them see you sweat. Leave the ranting to the Phantom, petulant child that he is. Raoul is ALWAYS the better man. He should be passionate, determined and focused in his dealings with all things Phantom.

With Christine, he is always loving and compassionate. "Where is your red scarf?" (and the next two lines when he first visits her in her dressing room), I think plays best with teasing affection. Put to lie the Phantom's line "he was bound to love her when he heard her sing" (said in the end of act one) - he's an unreliable narrator and we shouldn't take his word for it. After all, why else would a 14-year-old boy jump into the sea to get a girl's scarf? He had to have a thing for her from way back. And the more compassionate he is with her in her fearful moments on the rooftop (All I Ask of You) and "twisted every way"(during the second notes scene in act two), the more resonance the "show some compassion" line has.

"The disaster will be yours!" (The end of the second notes scene in act two.) Yes, he's pissed - he sees the woman he loves in utter terror, the theatre he's aligned himself with under siege - but this is a threat and a promise. It needs to be controlled anger. The audience should feel his leash. It makes Raoul that much more of a threat. Isn't it more terrifying when someone has his anger barely under his control instead of venting it?

"Show some compassion!" (When Raoul is against the fence, trying to get into the Phantom's lair near the end of the play.) This line works better as passionate, not angry. At this point he's scared, worried (about) what has happened to Christine, probably angry at himself for not keeping his word and protecting her. All these notes should be there, with his fear for Christine the overriding concern.
One thing I did note later on when Greg took on the role is that if Raoul is completely focused on Christine to the exclusion of all else, it ends up making Raoul weak. Greg made a completely legitimate choice when he first started playing the character that way - after all, Raoul's main function is as the romantic interest. It made the notes/Prima Donna section really interesting but it really diminished his impact in the second act. Raoul's the patron, the leader, and there needs to be hints of that persona from the very beginning. Greg realized that as well and was integrating that side of the character when the show left.

I could go on, but it's now very late. (Why is the time stamp off? It's almost 2am.) I didn't think I'd write this much. Just goes to show that when I get on something I care about, it's very hard to shut me up.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Lab Cab

Sunday afternoon between shows, I madly rushed over to Factory Theatre to take in a bit of the second annual Lab Cab Festival. The multi-disciplinary festival takes place over two days in every nook and cranny of the theatre property, with all events free. It's definitely inspired by Tarragon Theatre's Spring Arts Fair, which I believe is now dead, leaving its offspring to carry on. Lab Cab started out as a monthly cabaret format but migrated to the weekend format last year and it works really well. It's a wonderful place for people to test out short works.

Since I had about 40 minutes, I didn't think I'd have time to catch anything but the art installations and catch up with some people but I did manage to see two pieces: one of the Critic Series, created by Belltower Theatre and performed in the Green Room; and Binder Twine, a wild west dance piece by Company Blonde Dance Projects, performed in the Parking Lot - they were kicking up some gravel near the end. Very different but both wonderful.

I also had a chance to talk to Jon Kaplan. What was nice was that I had no problems talking to him now. I guess enough time has passed. I thanked him for providing me with additional feedback by answering the email I had sent him about his review of Kingship de Facto. He told me that it had been a good learning experience for him too, since he'd never been asked for feedback in the way I did and that it was nice to be able to expand past the 75 words he's allowed in his reviews. So all is well and it feels really good.

I came back to work exhilarated, both by the work and seeing some of my colleagues. It was a mad rush (and I had to postpone dinner until my break later on) but totally worth it.


On another note, in talking about High School Musical yesterday, I forgot to give props to the director, Jeff Calhoun. I found out from this blog that it was his idea to structure the number to provide more narrative. Honestly, as a fellow director, I should know better.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Adaptation

Hello my faithful readers (I know there's at least one of you). After some R&R, I'm ready to come back and talk about interesting things. I've had one topic request and I will get to it...just not today.

My paying gig these days is working at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. Currently the show playing is High School Musical. I was dreading this show but to my surprise it's actually quite good. I should know better by now - Disney is actually quite innovative in making stage versions of their products. But I really was sick of hearing everyone gush about how great it was that this show was bringing a new audience to the theatre.

A friend described the movie version as "Grease for a new generation" and the show's premise is an outright steal from that show: couple meet on vacation, she transfers in to his school without knowing it, he's the king of the school and she's the brainy type finding her way. From there it turns into a surprising commentary on being true to yourself and your dreams, a complete flip from Grease where the couple each participate in the other's world in the hopes of impressing and belonging.

What is really blowing my mind is one number in particular called Get'cha Head in the Game. Until I was prepping for this entry I hadn't seen another version of it. YouTube has an out-of-focus film version - I'm amazed The Mouse hasn't stamped all over it. You'll find an audio clip of the stage version if you click on the link above but it doesn't sound the same. (I'm guessing it's from the original Atlanta version and was massaged for the tour.) Neither version in my mind touches what I'm seeing on stage every night.

The song is set in basketball practice and starts off with an echo from one bouncing ball. Another bounce is added, then the sound of squeaking shoes on the court. With these everyday sounds as a base, the music is added in. The choreography (huge props to Lisa Stevens - she's Canadian!) uses a combination of basketball and hip-hop moves, with basketballs being moved around the stage while acro and breaking adds extra visual excitement. If you go to Show Reels on Lisa's site (have I mentioned how much I hate all-Flash sites?), the first number on the reel is this beginning minus the initial audio build.

The song is about the boy deciding to go for both auditioning for the school musical and asking the girl out. Twice during the song his mind leaves the practice and goes elsewhere. This is achieved by changing the lighting to an almost dark stage with a couple of spots and having the chorus of players massed in a tight group as backup singers. They get in that position from their practice moves in an incredibly organic way. It effectively sets up visually the conflict in his head. You can see what it looks like if you go to Lisa's site and click on News, it's the pic on the right at the bottom.

When the song hits the climax, basketballs are dropped from the grid for a visual and auditory punctuation that raises the song even higher and now with every person on the stage with a ball it sets up a fascinating dynamic where balls are passed back and forth or used as props in the dance. The group is so tight that when a ball gets away from one performer, the person who gets it handles it so smoothly to return it that you wouldn't even notice if you weren't looking for it.

The rest of the show is fine (have I mentioned the choreography rocks?), but this number is the one I sneak into the house every night to watch, and will be what I will remember and miss about this show when it is gone.

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