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Let Them See Your Vision

Sunday, 28. April 2019 23:06

Artists working in the style of other artists is a fairly common practice that I have written about before, specifically about the uses of imitation and artistic theft (also here). Imitation and artistic theft are usually considered ways to develop as an artist: we imitate a style to learn from it or we take from here and there and make a new thing out of it. Perhaps the resulting work is derivative, but it also has some originality in it. So I was surprised and more than a little dismayed to discover how widespread the practice of copying theatre productions as closely as possible with little-to-no new input is.

The internet has made it really easy to find out what the hot shows are and to see enough of them to reproduce the style, the set, the costumes, and at least some of the choreography. What some directors are now doing is gathering that information about show that is currently popular and then attempting to produce that same experience on their home stages. This happened, for example, after the 2013 revival of Pippin, which was based on a circus metaphor. As soon as the show became available for non-professional production, circus-based Pippins popped up all over the place. Many productions attempted to reproduce the world of the circus that had been seen on Broadway; others just took the circus metaphor and production style. It was as if there were no other way to produce this particular show.

And this happens again and again. So what we are beginning to see in non-professional and academic theatre is copy-cat theatre. Very often the first move of the director or designer or choreographer is to the internet to see how others have done the show—so they can reproduce that. Some directors will go to New York to review shows, again to see how they’re done. Perhaps it’s an attempt to cash in on the national reputation of this or that show. Or perhaps it’s the result of artistic insecurity. Or perhaps it just a time-saver; everybody is incredibly busy. No matter the reason, it’s still reproducing someone else’s vision.

The same thing happens in other arts. “That film was terribly successful, so let’s make one like that,” or “that movie was successful; let’s make a sequel.” But in film, even if it’s a copy-cat film, it’s not an attempt at exact reproduction. And the same is true in other arts. If an artist paints too much like another, more successful artist, it’s called at best homage and at worst plagiarism.

Usually what happens is a painter or sculptor or photographer will follow a style or trend. This allows the artist to become part of the trend, which is useful commercially, but retain his/her own vision within that trend. Indeed, Creative Live Blog just this week published an article entitled “7 New Wedding & Portrait Photography Trends for 2019.” The article cites some examples, then distills the trend to generalities and suggests some ways photographers might participate in the trend. And no doubt some photographers will read this article and follow some of the paths, but to do so successfully, they will have to insert their own vision.

And inserting our own vision is what all of us as artists need to do. Those of us who became artists because we wanted to put our vision out into the world have no trouble with this. However, others of us came to work in the arts for other reasons; we are the ones who need to allow ourselves to go beyond copying, regardless of our insecurities or time constraints. We need to let our audiences see our own visions.

Category:Creativity, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

You’re Always Auditioning

Monday, 15. April 2019 0:08

Auditions suck. Just ask any actor. For that matter, ask any director. The problem from an acting point of view is to demonstrate that you are the best choice to perform a given role with—if it’s a generous audition—a couple of prepared monologues and a cold read against people you’ve never met. In just a few minutes you have somehow convince a director that after you’ve learned the lines and had some time to work on the character, you will be able to bring this character to life on the stage. It’s an impossible task. And it’s just as bad from the director’s point of view.

This is why directors use other means to help them make their casting decisions. Some even use casting directors, who also use methodologies in addition to the actual audition. Directors will call other directors and their friends to find out about potential actors. They go to shows and observe the actors, how they work, how they perform, what they might be capable of. They network. They invite actors they think might be able to do the job to come in. They interview. Then they hold an audition, sometimes to see if what they thought was true really is true.

Directors are in the judging business; it’s what they do. And they mostly do it all the time. The wise actor learns, hopefully sooner rather than later, that s/he is always auditioning.  Audition time is not limited to the time the actor is actively auditioning.

Here are a couple of stories to illustrate. A good while back an actor I know went to an audition. She is a bubbly out-going person and a man walked by as she was getting out of her car. They had a brief conversation about the difficulty of finding parking spaces. Then they met again in the elevator that she was taking to the interview/audition. Again they had a brief up-beat conversation. They both got off at the same floor but went in different directions. She checked in for the interview, waited a few moments and was ushered into the interview room. Behind the desk sat the man with whom she had just made friends. Her formal audition went well, perhaps because she had already auditioned and didn’t know it. She got the job.

The other story didn’t turn out quite as well. We were casting a musical; when I say we, I mean I was the director; additionally there was the musical director and the choreographer. We were doing an open callback, which is to say that all those called back were in the room. There was one actor we had pretty much decided would be the second lead, but we wanted the callback to confirm that decision. The actor that we had in mind was in the room when we got there, as were a number of other actors. As we got settled, we noticed that the actor we had in mind was not only overly loud and boisterous for the situation, but he was displaying an inordinate amount of egocentricity. His behavior was offensive and unacceptable. Each of us decided individually (we discovered later—we did not discuss it at the time) that we would rather not put up with that behavior and attitude for the rehearsal period. Fortunately, there was another actor there whose callback was excellent; he was the actor who got the role.

Behavior and attitude before and after the actual audition matter. In fact they matter all the time. It’s something actors need to know.  And it’s not just in the theatre that this happens. Wedding photographers, for example, are auditioning every time they meet potential clients.  Even when they are shooting, a potential client is watching and judging—deciding if this is the person they want to do their wedding. Graphic artists are always auditioning for the next project. Painters are always auditioning for the next commission or the next show or both at the same time. Writers audition for readership for their next book. Both stage and film directors are always auditioning for producers. No one escapes.

Like stage directors, people who seek creative services ask others; they watch, they evaluate—before they ever get around to calling for an appointment.

Not only actors, but every creative person who sells his/her work is always auditioning; there is no down time. It is something that we all need to be aware of—all the time.

Category:Marketing, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

The Most Thankless Job in Theatre

Sunday, 25. November 2018 22:18

Recently I overheard a couple grousing over the fact that the performance that they had paid several hundred dollars to see would feature not one, but two understudies that evening. They were understandably disappointed, but their rancor was unwarranted; they had no idea of the reason for the substitute performers. One presumes that management did not make the replacements lightly. Moreover, this was a touring company, with no real “stars;” while the performers were skilled, none were terribly well-known. Yet the couple somehow felt cheated at seeing performers they didn’t know replace other performers they didn’t know. All this was before the performance, so the relative quality of the performers was completely unknown (and, of course, would remain so).

Those performers, the understudies, have one of the most thankless jobs in the performance industry. Unless an occasional performance is stipulated by contract, a person who is an understudy has to not only know the role s/he may never perform, but he also has to study his/her principal performer so s/he can take the place of that performer with minimum disturbance to the production; in other words, s/he seeks to replicate the performance of his/her principal. At the same time, the economic exigencies of live production often require that the understudy carry another role to help justify his/her salary.

Unlike in the movies, the understudy does not suddenly become the star who eclipses the sidelined actor, s/he does her job, replacing the principal actor, until such time as that actor returns to the stage. This sort of thing happens in all live performing arts, because the mentality of the performing arts is that the show must go on, whether that show is theatre, dance, musical concert, or circus.

Lyn Gardner questions that mentality in her article, Must the show really always go on? In the article Gardner discusses the burdens that are placed on actors by a profession that not only demands that the show go on, but that the actor, unless s/he is incapacitated, be there to insure that that happens. Of course, when the actor is incapacitated, the show is either cancelled (anathema to producers) or the understudy goes on.

Over the last three years, I have had to promote understudies to principals in at least one show a year. In every case, the understudy took over the role and ran with it. This points to the efficacy of choosing capable understudies. However, in the non-professional theatre, it’s a job nobody wants. The understudy has to do all the work, and the likelihood of actually getting to perform is, under normal circumstances, very small. Done correctly, it’s enormous work with little to no payoff. But it’s a necessary job.

And it’s not only necessary from the producer’s point of view. Most who are involved with live production think this way. Despite Gardner’s admonitions, actors themselves think this way. I have seen actors perform with fevers, flu, colds, sore throats, sprained limbs, and personal emotional upheaval. They did this because they, like almost all of us who work in live performance and our audiences really do believe that, one way or another, the show must go on. And the way that often happens is through the craft and artistry of the understudy.

Category:Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

Let Go

Monday, 19. June 2017 1:41

You may have heard that the Albee estate denied the performance rights to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the producing organization, the Complete Works Project, had cast an African-American in the role of Nick. The director, Michael Streeter, spread the word in his Facebook status and the story took off. Responses have appeared on all media and support both positions. Nobody questions the right of the estate to deny rights for whatever reason, but there is great diversity of opinion on whether this is a good or bad choice.

A friend who is a director and actor said that he thought he would have to side with the Albee estate in this particular situation, but that he wished that playwrights would release their death-grip on their plays. And they do have a death-grip, whether the playwright is living or is represented by an estate.

The first such restriction I observed was shortly after the Mickey Mouse Protection Act of 1976 in a contract for a college production of one of Neil Simon’s plays. The contract said that not a single word could be changed. Since that time, such a restriction has become standard, and one of many. The Albee estate-Complete Works rights denial is the first time I have heard of a copyright owner rejecting a specific cast member.

“Artist’s Rights,” can be taken to ludicrous extremes. For example, Arturo Di Modica demanded through his attorney that because he created Wall Street’s Charging Bull, he should have been consulted before Kristen Visbal’s sculpture, Fearless Girl, was installed just feet away. Di Modica said that “the adjacent art has changed the meaning of his work and violated his legal rights” (ironic, given that the bull, like the girl, was installed without permission).

There are two reasons I agree with my friend’s “death grip” comment on playwright’s rights. First, theatre is a collaborative art: there is an originator of the script and then the interpretation of that script by a production company. This is similar to the composer/conductor-orchestra relationship. The fact is that by allowing any group to produce the work, even with restrictions, the licensing agent is allowing interpretation. Set, cast, blocking will be different in each production. Restrictions applied to professional productions are not required of amateur productions. Some restrictions do not take into account the specific audience that will see the work. These taken together produce an inherent inconsistency in licensing with regard to protecting the “artistic integrity” of the work. Indeed, And at least two of the articles I read (here and here)—citing Shakespeare and Chekhov as playwrights whose work is interpreted in a number or ways and whose work lasts—suggest that if the Albee estate continues its current policy, it well essentially condemn Virginia Woolf to obscurity.

Both Tennessee Williams and the Williams estate have taken a position almost opposite the Albee estate’s position. Williams allowed his work to be done by almost any group, and the estate has followed suit. The results have been a broadening of understanding and appreciating Williams. For example, a 2008 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof featuring an all-black cast demonstrated that the play is powerful regardless of race.

The second reason, in my mind, applies to all artists:  Once the artist declares the piece done, it exists in the universe as an entity unto itself. Regardless of his/her rights, the artist needs to have enough confidence in whatever s/he has created, that s/he can let go of the piece and get on to the real work of the artist—creating. A solid work can stand on its own—if the copyright owner will let it.

Category:Communication, Marketing, Presentation, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

Art Evolves

Monday, 13. March 2017 0:01

Occasionally, someone will ask me if the show is what I wanted it to be. The short answer is “no,” but that always seems a little abrupt and not what those who ask really want to hear. I think I am supposed to say something thoughtful and positive and “artistic” as an answer. The truth for shows is—as it is, I think, for almost all art work—that it never turns out exactly the way you thought it would. There are simply too many variables.

Neil Gaiman in Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions, says much the same thing about writing stories: “once the story was underway, the real ending became inevitable. Most of the stories in this volume have that much in common. The place they arrived at in the end was not the place I was expecting them to go when I set out. Sometimes the only way I would know that a story had finished was when there weren’t any more words to be written down.” Gaiman is not the only author to make such a claim. Many writers talk about how the characters in a book or play or short story take the narrative in an unanticipated direction.

In the case of theatre anything can happen: an actor gives an unexpected line reading. The costume designer comes up with something completely surprising. The lighting designer wants to do something “fresh.” The assistant choreographer makes an off-hand comment. The musical director changes the tempos.  And it happens in other arts as well: the model shows up with a tattoo the photographer didn’t know about. A light burns out in studio and the subject looks different in the new lighting. The film editor got a new idea overnight. The sculpting medium has a mind of its own and doesn’t carve the way the sculptor anticipated.

This idea is not unique to me. An art professor that I know tells students that things arise in the doing that cannot be anticipated.  His opinion is that the act of making art creates a situation in which something “worth doing” might happen, even if that thing is the realization of what the artist really should be doing.

The artist, of course, has the choice of ignoring the unexpected and forging ahead with whatever his/her vision is. Or the artist can respond to the unexpected either by treating it as an interference and working around it or by incorporating it into the work. In either case, the work of art evolves according to the artist’s response—often for the better.

Insight (I hesitate to use the word inspiration, because I’m not exactly sure what that is, except unreliable) can come from anywhere. It can be something overheard, something read, something seen. It can be the result of an interaction with a collaborator or with a friend or with a stranger. It may come from talking to oneself or a dream or a daydream or out of the air.

Art does not spring fully-realized, Athena-like, from the head of the artist. Insights happen. Serendipity happens. The unanticipated happens. Happy accidents happen. It seems to me that part of what makes us artists is sensitivity to all of the things that occur in the process of doing our work and choosing from among them to create art that is far richer and has far more depth than the piece we had in mind at the beginning of the process. We must learn that part of our job is to let our art evolve.

Category:Creativity, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

No, It Doesn’t Always Come Together

Monday, 20. February 2017 0:16

Just over a week ago I was sitting alone after a fairly trying rehearsal, thinking about what we had accomplished and where we ought to go next. Probably I was scowling, which seemed appropriate. It was then I heard someone say, “Don’t worry; it always comes together.” My first impulse was to give a really snarky reply, but I thought the better of it. What would be the point in abusing someone who was not really a theatre person and who was living in the happy delusion that shows always come together?

Then this week after a choreography rehearsal, during which much progress was made (choreography had been a bit behind schedule), the student assistant director made a statement that seemed to indicate that if all the pieces were caught up, the show would somehow mysteriously fall together. This was a little better, but not much.

The fact of the matter is that shows don’t always come together. And those that do, don’t come together by accident or magic.

In most cases there is a certain shared energy in a company that seems to grow as opening approaches, and this helps a production come together. But most directors know that that energy is not enough to build an artistically cohesive production.

Shows come together when someone makes them come together. Ideally it is the director who causes the show to come together, a director who guides/forces/coerces/manipulates the company into coming together, which may be more or less difficult depending on the cast, the designers, the production, and the interpretation.  I have even known directors who purposely initiated director-focused company ire in order to weld the performers into a unit. That works because shows can also come together if a cast, as a whole, is reacting to an incompetent/hateful/unbalanced/weak director. Failing one of these scenarios, the show will not come together, and the results will not be pretty.

A show not coming together can manifest in different ways: often the actors seem to be in different universes or all going in different directions artistically or thematically. The musical numbers may not fit seamlessly into the show. The lights or sound may not coordinate properly with the acting and staging. The costumes may not work with the rest of the show.

But a work of art not coming together is in no way limited to theatre. If the conductor cannot somehow bring together the separate elements of the orchestra, the score, and the interpretation of the score, the concert will fall flat. The same holds true for a choreographer and the dancers.  And a film director is very likely to produce a disjointed movie if he/she cannot bring all the various pieces together.

Nor is the problem limited to the collaborative performing arts. If a photographer and subject don’t somehow come together the result is probably a wasted photo session. The same is true of a painter or sculptor and his/her subject.

In fact, no good art “just comes together.” The disparate elements of any work of art—whether it is performing or visual or plastic or written, whether it is a script or a poem or a novel or a musical composition—must be cajoled, massaged, manipulated, orchestrated—and sometimes forced—to come together. This is the source of a great deal of an artist’s angst—knowing that all the parts must somehow coalesce into a unified whole—and having to work to make that happen. Sometimes, it is not intuitive, or even instinctual; sometimes it is the greatest challenge in making art. And it’s a challenge that we must meet repeatedly—every time we create.

Category:Creativity, Theatre, Uncategorized | Comment (0) | Author:

Quit Your Whining!

Sunday, 26. July 2015 23:33

Frequently, I hear artists complaining about the lack of support the arts receive in today’s America. Theatres, except those on Broadway and a few select others, are running at less than capacity; some run at such reduced capacity that a half-house is considered good. So we whine.

Older artists will tell you that this was not the case in the past, that there was a “golden age” when all seats were full and paintings flew off the wall. How long ago that was depends largely upon the age of the artist making the statement. And there was a time—within my memory—when theatres had far more audience support that we see today. That, of course, was before 200+ channel cable television and the internet. Now we have not only the competition of cable television, but of multiple web sites streaming video and games on demand 24/7.

So those who were just looking for an entertainment to fill their time now have more choices than they can consider. Why would people dress to go out and sit with other people they don’t know to see actors perform when they can sit at home in their underwear watching the best that Hollywood has to offer? In terms of entertainment, many audience members see little distinction between live theatre and streaming video, so live theatre artists whine.

What also seems to be gone are the days when buying original art was popular, if such days ever existed. Walk through any gallery; visual and plastic arts are not moving, particularly those pieces that are priced in the three-digits-plus range—at least until one gets to the multi-million dollar level. (And those auction purchases seem to be not so much about art as about conspicuous acquisition and investment.) The vast middle-ground moves very little original art, and for much the same reasons that theatre doesn’t: reproductions are everywhere. If a person is looking for decoration (and, face it, most people are) there are thousands of pre-framed lithographs of both famous and unknown work, “original oil paintings” mass-produced in “painting factories” in Asia, illustrations, internet images. So why pay for the real original vision of a living artist? The artists whine.

But whining about today’s conditions is not productive; neither is longing for the “good old days.” Those days, if they ever existed, are gone; now we have to deal with it what is.

A multimedia artist I know says that acquiring art is like making a love connection and I think she may well be right. The collector sees the art, connects with the art, wants or needs to have an on-going relationship with the art, which means, unless the art is available to view on the internet, that the collector must buy the art. So the art goes home with its new owner to continue the love relationship.

And we know there are all sorts of “love connections,” some deep and long-term and some shallow and temporary. Different aspects attract differently, and most know that we can change those to attract a different sort of interest from a different sort of person. Likewise, the artist can modify his/her output to attract a different kind of collector.

That’s one way of dealing with things. Another way is to remember why we got into art (or art got into us) in the first place. It wasn’t about money. It was likely about having something to say or having a need to create. If we remember why we do it, and recognize what the market conditions really are, we can produce our art, put it out into the world, and quit our whining.

Category:Audience, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

The Modern Audience: Two Approaches

Monday, 1. June 2015 0:05

Much has been written about the place of live theatre in the contemporary world. Part of what is interesting about that topic is the artist-audience connection in the 21st century. Two things have brought this to mind recently. The first was an article in The Telegraph about award-winning playwright and screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard. In the article, Stoppard complained that he had to rewrite a scene in his newest play, The Hard Problem, three times “making a particular allusion more and more obvious each time.” He says that over the last 40 years the audience’s knowledge of Shakespearean drama (to which Stoppard makes constant references) has steadily declined to the point that such knowledge is almost non-existent. For Stoppard this is a devastating turn of events.

The second incident was Kneehigh’s recent production of Tristan & Yseult as part of the Alley Theatre’s 2014-15 season. This production was arguably the best piece of theatre to have been presented in the Houston area for a number of years, yet many potential audience members chose not to attend. Some that I talked to said they had planned to skip the production simply because of the title; some because of the description: a tale of an ancient Cornish love triangle, the same love triangle that appears with different names in the literature of many different cultures and countries, classic and archetypal in every way.

Like Stoppard, most artists give meaning to their work through reference and allusion both consciously and subconsciously, and most assume that their audiences will “get it.” If they don’t, a large part of the complexity of the work will be lost, and even though the work may be engaging, even entertaining, it will not be perceived in its complete fullness, with all the overtones and undertones.

What happens when the audience does not have the classical education to understand the references and allusions in the production? Stoppard’s choice is to rewrite and dumb it down.

Tristan & Yseult, on the other hand, was in no way dumbed-down. Audiences did not have to have a classic education to understand and appreciate the show. Such an education enriched the experience, but was completely unnecessary, because the creative team moved past verbal allusions and, incorporating broad references to both historical and modern western culture, employing not only acting, but music, dance, and elements of circus. This group brought a very old mythic, archetypal story to a very new audience with all the meaning and immediacy that is possible. In fact, Theatermania said that the show was “a sensory feast. Each design detail is integral to the story, and brilliantly put to use by Rice and her cast. By the end you’ll be willing to follow them anywhere, be it Cornwall, Ireland, or beyond. The performances are incredibly committed. Kneehigh is the gold standard of theatrical rigor, fortified by a heavy dose of fun.”

While we might take issue with an educational system that leaves an audience ignorant of Shakespeare and other classics, the fact is that today’s audiences lack that background. This lack of classic education and inability to grasp allusions and references is not something that impacts only dramatic arts. Serious visual and plastic artists must deal with it as well.

And there are choices in how we, as artists, deal with it. We can, like Stoppard, rewrite and dumb-down things until the audience “gets it,” or, like Kneehigh, find new ways to present material that connects today’s audience directly to meaning, regardless of how classical or archetypal that might be.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Theatre | Comments (1) | Author:

The Case for Craft

Monday, 4. May 2015 0:44

Every day it seems that there is at least one article in my news feed about creativity; some days there is more than one. And since we in the US are an entrepreneurial society, I find my email full of announcements for this or that seminar or webinar or workshop in creativity—for a small fee. (There’s probably a future post in this.)

Let me be clear: I am certainly not opposed to creativity. I have blogged about it many times and probably will again. But what I’m not seeing in all this talk about creativity is any discussion of craft. In fact, there seem to be very few discussions about craft and the mastery of craft at all. The message is almost that creativity and self-expression are all there is to making art. This, as many of us know, is not the case. If the prospective artist does not have a mastery of the medium, then all the creativity and self-expression in the world are essentially useless.

This is an issue in a number of arts, but is more pronounced in some. For example, there are a number of photographers who use only “canned” effects to achieve their final images. These are likely the same photographers who neglect to learn all of the dials and settings on their cameras. After all, both cameras and software are very smart and can do most of the work so the photographer actually needs to learn very little. However, while images created that way might be technically quite good (exposure, shutter speed, color), they may be very much lacking. Julian Calverley in an interview about professional photographers shooting with iPhones, notes “Just because you own a nice camera, doesn’t mean you can take a great shot. Composition, lighting and understanding a subject are things that will always remain.” Calverley also notes that the photographer needs an eye for a good shot and lots of skills to make that shot possible. Craft.

In another field, actors who achieve some measure of success early on often rely on whatever skills they may have developed or show an extraordinary devotion to one particular school of acting. The result is that their acting quickly goes stale because they are essentially one-trick ponies who demonstrate little inclination to develop their craft in different directions, or sometimes even to try to improve at all. If you talk to seasoned actors, men and women who make their living on the stage or in front of a camera, you will hear them discuss their “tool kit.” If you explore the metaphor further, you discover that those actors have gathered techniques from a variety of schools and sources and use ideas from the entire spectrum of available theory, including personal invention. Moreover, you will find that those actors continue to train, experiment, and hone their craft.

In an earlier post, I posited that great art requires great craft. The gist of that argument was that mastery of craft underlies all great—or even good—art. This is really obvious in arts such as music and ballet, where it is simply understood from the outset that the artist must master his/her instrument before anything approaching art can occur. Artists in other fields where a wrong note or a missed step are not so apparent should take heed. The necessity for mastery of craft is no less necessary—if that artist wants to excel.

We must learn not only to use our tools but to master our craft in every sense of the word, then work to maintain that mastery. Only then can we give full expression to our creativity and perhaps make lasting, meaningful art.

Category:Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (3) | Author:

Focus, Energy, Concentration, and Presence

Monday, 6. April 2015 0:24

The difference between Broadway actors and student actors is often not talent—at least not completely. It is the energy, focus, presence, and ability to exist in the moment for the length of the show and the length of the run. These are things that are difficult to teach and difficult to learn, at least to judge by what we see in the classroom—and on stage. However, I recently saw an outstanding example of these qualities in an actor, and that caused me to rethink.

What happened was that I accepted an invitation to a final dress rehearsal of a children’s musical. The cast was made up of acting instructors, mostly members on Actor’s Equity, one child lead, and an ensemble made up of selected students. Never having seen a children’s show by this particular organization, I had no idea what to expect, nor did I know who was involved, since there were no programs at this rehearsal. I was pleasantly surprised. Production values were excellent; I had seen some of the adult performers work before and was not disappointed in this production. The ensemble consisted of 15-20 kids of varying ages; all had wireless microphones, indicating to me that they were not just background, but were expected to really sing and be heard. And they acquitted themselves well. The identical precision that one sees in a seasoned ensemble was missing, of course, but what replaced it was a youthful energy and individual interpretation of direction and choreography that revealed a great deal about each actor’s mindset and level of development (a blog for another time, perhaps).

What really struck me was a single member of the ensemble. This was a young woman of about 14 (her age was later confirmed). When the ensemble was singing and dancing, she most often occupied a position immediately left of whichever principal was featured in the number. She did not need the propitious positioning to be noticed. It is difficult to remember any performer who exhibited more focus, energy, concentration, and presence than this teenager. I later learned that several other audience members had a similar response.

In every number, she was fully engaged, focused, and performing with an energy that is seldom equaled. And she did it number after number. So rare is this type of performance that I found myself waiting for her next stage appearance and concentrating on her more than the principals. If there was music playing, she was channeling it with her whole body whether she was singing or not. When there was no music, she slipped convincingly into whatever character she was playing at the time.

Some would say that the director should have asked her to tone it down. I have to disagree. Given that she was working with professionals, the director should have asked those professionals to step up their game. This was not a case of “the kid was cute;” this was a case of the kid was superlative.

Why take the time to write about an ensemble member I do not know in a children’s show that has already closed? Because what she did was exactly what we who teach want actors to do: exist in the moment, completely focused on the role, hitting the stage with outstanding presence, and performing with unflagging, almost preternatural energy.

A more important question is why this teenager exhibited these characteristics and other same-aged members of the ensemble with the same teachers did not. My guess is that she not only listened to her teachers, but somehow had the internal mental and emotional mechanisms to put it all together.

That is the part that nobody I know knows exactly how to teach. We all say essentially the same things about concentration, focus, energy, presence, mindfulness and the necessity of these qualities. We provide exercises and methodologies. But only one in 50 (if that many) will put it all together. Those are the ones who get the work. Those are the ones who, when they are on stage, we must watch.

These are difficult qualities to instill in students. One wonders if we just haven’t yet figured out how to teach our students how put it all together, or if it is inborn and we just help develop it. My suspicion is that it is a combination of several factors: the instructor’s ability to clearly explain these difficult concepts coupled with the students’ ability to absorb information and the individual student’s mental, emotional, spiritual makeup, plus all those other factors, unique to each student, that determine the level of the student’s commitment and his/her willingness to implement new ideas.

Whether I have an acting class or not, this subject occupies my thoughts frequently. If you have any related thoughts you would like to share, I would certainly appreciate hearing them.

Category:Education, Theatre | Comments (1) | Author:

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