Archive for directing

Brilliant Moments in the WOODS

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, REVIEWS, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2014 by erikball123

My favorite line in INTO THE WOODS has always been the Witch’s “I was just trying to be a good mother.” It’s widely received (on the stage anyway) as a laugh line to transition a moment. But in Rob Marshall’s version of this story, it’s a poignant, remarkable bookmark that made me almost tear up sitting in the Red Rock Regal Cinema. You see, everyone LOVES Sondheim. (And if you’re a theatre person and don’t…we’ll stone you to death.) But, the thing is…WHY do people love Sondheim? As a patron, is it his release from formulaic musical convention? As an artist, is it the challenge of skillfully crafted material? As a young actor, is it the blood, bad buys and nuances that are so much fun to love of hate? I think the answer is YES on all accounts. But, I would ask you to look past all of this for one moment…and look at the relationship between WORDS and MUSIC.

bernadette

Bernadette Peters (the Original Broadway WITCH) rehearses with Stephen Sondheim.

 

I’ve argued with anyone who has ears that Stephen Sondheim is a poet. The words he uses in his songs are cleverly and perfectly set to the moment. High schools across the country have presented INTO THE WOODS…heck, there is even a Tumblr site dedicated to low-budget Milky Whites, that I find most amusing. (https://www.tumblr.com/search/lowbudgetmilkywhites) From a producer’s perspective, INTO THE WOODS has a wonderfully twisted ensemble with parts for skilled vocalists, up-and-growing “green” performers, and optional ensemble parts. It has little dance (which is always a concern for drama groups) and costuming, set and prop elements can be as simple and complex as you’d like. The only tricky element is the source material, which in turn bookmarks this musical as a perfect example for those theatre groups hoping to engage students in lessons about simply telling a good story. (And for those who have a hand for creating transportive theatre, the show is a wealth of opportunity.)

Rehearsal for Faith Lutheran's INTO THE WOODS (2005). Andrew Eddins and Cash Black portrayed the tormented Princes. (Please Note: Kelly Odor and several lunch tables are in the background!)

Rehearsal for Faith Lutheran’s INTO THE WOODS (2005). Andrew Eddins and Cash Black portrayed the tormented Princes. (Please Note: Kelly Odor and several lunch tables are in the background!)

I’ve seen about a dozen live INTO THE WOODS productions. (Including one I directed in a high school gymnasium.) I’ve seen wild variations. One included a minimalist production told in an aristocratic living room during a thunder storm, as each high-society snob acted out the parts in turn “making up the story” as they went along. Interesting. I’ve seen video projections, puppetry, one told inside a closed book store and even one production where the Witch transformed from beautiful to ugly (instead of the other way around) and they played it off that the Witch preferred it that way. Hm. I’m sure there was an intended creative choice there and an accompanying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” message they were trying to send (much in the same light as Violet’s invisible scar, in Violet – The Musical, maybe??) Lots of fun to be had with characters we all know already…which is why I think directors feel magically compelled to “reinvent the wheel” (as snobby critics say) in their artistic vision of this particular musical. (Which is why it is so often regarded as a “good musical to produce.”)

The Central Park INTO THE WOODS.

The Central Park INTO THE WOODS.

 

The Original Broadway cast was superb…I show the filmed production to my classes…and it served as a springboard for Bernadette Peters to be cast in platinum as the production’s “forever Witch.” (Much in the same way that we’ll compare everyone who plays Elphaba to Idina.) The Broadway Revival, which started out in L.A. and featured a GIGANTIC giant foot that stomped on patrons waiting outside when it transferred to New York was wonderfully bland. I blame Vanessa Williams as unconnectable Witch, but that’s just me. (Loved her in Ugly Betty!) The British version wasn’t really well-received and included the new song “Our Little World.” (I can take it or leave it. I usually disregard it. The show is long anyway. Do we really need to lament more on the Witch and Rapunzel’s relationship and combing her hair?)  The Central Park, free admission production offered about 4 years ago was untraditional and offered a creepy Witch, a jungle-gym of a set and a Little Red in a bicycle helmet! I can hardly wait to see the Roundabout Theatre variation that is slated to head to Broadway very soon. (I’m ga ga over the piano concept in their minimalist design. Wackadoodle!)

Roundabout Theatre's INTO THE WOODS.

Roundabout Theatre’s INTO THE WOODS.

INTO THE WOODS is everywhere, which was why I went into the theatre today curious. I was pleasantly surprised at Marshall’s “CHICAGO” and I liked…not loved…liked, Burton’s “SWEENEY TODD.” What was going to become of another one of my favorites, and arguably a more often produced musical (moreso than CHICAGO and SWEENEY TOOD) at a high school level. I’m always worried how the non-theatre-going demographic is exposed to theatre in general. Live theatre is the most essential storytelling device we have in the world today. Music is the only thing we as a culture universally share as a binding agent. (We all love music.) Put the two together…and we have the opportunity to move mountains. As a director, I have the privilege (and burden) of shaping a production in the manner in which I hope to offer it up to an audience (full of the most critical theatre-loving critics and first-time theatre goers). When you take a musical that already means so much to you, personally…and redevelop it as a movie…the opportunity to loose integrity is great. (I would argue that the elimination of the chorus of pie-eating patrons in the Sweeney movie made the London masses, a collective character and important voice in the story, made the movie more about a monster of man…instead of the fact that we all might have a little bit of a monster inside of us. “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” How do we know to think about that, if we don’t have a collective voice telling us? But, I digress.)

The cast of Rob Marshall's movie version of INTO THE WOODS.

The cast of Rob Marshall’s movie version of INTO THE WOODS.

The Rob Marshall INTO THE WOODS is quite possibly the best theatre to film adaption I’ve ever seen. It’s a wonderful story, presented thoughtfully without any loss of integrity. Those who love the musical will love the movie. Those who have never seen the musical will not miss out on any “inside jokes” or thematic elements potentially lost int he translation. There aren’t any. It tricks you. It’s not a movie-musical….it’s a musical-movie. On three different occasions I burst into a round of applause after a musical number, forgetting that this was a movie, not a musical. It nips and tucks in all the right places, and while I’ve been hearing a drone of “I wish the song NO MORE was included” among my theatre friends, I would argue it was not needed. The handling of the Mysterious Man was well-done, and the elimination of the physical Narrator (replaced wisely by the voice of the Baker, foreshadowing the tear-jerking final moment…which was BEAUTIFUL) made the song a bit redundant. They covered what they needed to cover…and good news!…you can still sing that song in the musical! Other missing musical elements are minimal, but as you’ll note, they were all connected to theatrical devices within the story that were eliminated in the movie. Nip tuck, nip tuck. (It’s a movie…without an intermission.)

What struck me as the most profound choices in the film were the choices. Allow me to highlight a few. *SPOILER ALERT*

  • The fact that there wasn’t a single title or credit at the beginning of the movie…brilliant. Immediately it plunked us down into this world. Before we could blink an eye…we were 20 minutes into the film and all of the exposition was laid out for us and we were actively engaged.
  • The contemplative “On the Steps of the Palace” was whimsical and perfectly staged as a moment in time. How often have we scrambled our brains to make a decision in a heartbeat…millions of times throughout a day? How wonderfully theatrical of our director to present this song in such a way, and deconstruct the moment that we all know as a simple act of leaving a shoe behind. Fun stuff.
  • The Princes’ song “Agony” (a borderline stereotype portrayal of the rugged and babyfaced Princes we all know from their respective stories) found two very likable characters temper-tantruming through splashy waters as they gaze upon their kingdom. It was thoughtful, well-filmed and hilarious. You INSTANTLY championed these two devise characters.
  • There is a danger in putting Johnny Depp as the Wolf. Who doesn’t love Johnny Depp? Those not familiar with the show may be heart-broken to only see him for ten minutes of screen time and catching stills from the set prior to watching the movie made me nervous. In performance, traditionally the Wolf is either portrayed as a personification of the age-old lesson of “don’t talk to strangers” or as a evil man of some kind, because all men are dogs…or, rather, wolves. The publicity photos saw Depp as a sort of Zoot Suit wearing gigalo. (Aside from the addition of some fun fur…Depp kinda looks like he was taken right off the street in his usual wears and onto the movie set!) I was pleased to see that HOW Depp portrayed the Wolf. It was very wolf-like…darting between trees to catch a glimpse, his trademark sneer when offering a sprig of flowers to the girl….it was VERY fun. I didn’t care how he was dressed…all I cared about was the fact that Depp was “the wolf” and how it was related was acceptable to me. Sometimes I wonder if I analyze stuff too much. HA!

depp

  • The kids were GREAT. Daniel Huddlestone as Jack and Lilla Crawford as Little Red were perfect fits. (I would have loved a bit more snarkiness from Red…but, I’m being picky.) Emily Blunt is a superstar as the Baker’s Wife. James Cordon is adorable and sympathetic as the Baker. Everybody loves Pitch Perfect’s Anna Kendrick IN Pitch Perfect. They were quick to critique her in this film…but I would argue that she gave Cinderella the exact amount of torment. I was initially worried that she’d be too contemporary, but she was wonderful in the role. Tracy Ullman, Chris Pine….shoot, the entire cast was simply well-suited for their roles. Is there an award for CASTING a movie?
  • Now let’s talk about Meryl Streep. Preface: I’m a huge Bernadette Peters fan. I’ve always thought Streep was a great actress, but I never understood the tidal wave of hype about her. (In the same breathe…what’s up with the torrent love affair with with Barbara Streisand? I like her…but I don’t get the obsession. Another blog post for another day.) With that said…I cannot imagine another actress who could have played the role better. She sang beautifully and extracted from us the perfect about of sentiment and emotion. We loved her…we hated her…we feared her…and (most importantly) we found ourselves feeling sorry for her. In the song “Children Will Listen” (which is a song that could stand-alone as the show’s landmark) we were transported from the world of many characters’ strife to the inner struggle of a would-be mother and her desperate struggle to connect with her child and shield her from the dangers of the world. It’s beautiful. I LOVED “Last Midnight” for the same reason. I love how I can COUNT ON my students getting pissed off when the Witch disappears at the end of the Broadway version. “Did she die?” they ask. Maybe…maybe not. She’s definitely gone. They HATE unresolved. (Remind me to never read them the folk tale “The Lady and the Tiger.”) The Witch is at the center of this story…and Streep connects in every right way. (And I love the blue hair.)

I’m thrilled that another generation of could-be theatre goers will be exposed to this movie variation. It tells a great story and more importantly it relates (through WORDS and MUSIC) that truly no one is alone in their pursuit to communicate, be needed, protect and survive tragedy together. It’s a bedtime story and when the Baker is telling the tale to his son in the final moments…and the camera peels away…you desperately want to remain, a part of the audience. But no…our director takes us out of that world…and then for the first time presents the title: “INTO THE WOODS” reminding us it’s just a story. Wow. Brilliance.

INTO THE WOODS is the story of all of our lives, (whether we’re Bakers, Princes, Witches or Giants) and can effectively remind us that at the end of the day, we’re all going into a world that presents dangers, and only together can we survive and more importantly thrive.

I sit, poised and ready to purchase the Blue Ray upon its release. I have the projector in my classroom warmed up.

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The Process of Creating: Handle with Care

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, DIRECTING FOR THE STAGE, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2012 by erikball123

There are element of the process of developing a character that is worth sitting down and taking notes on. I would also argue that the deconstruction of any audition is worthy of spending countless hours on. The preparation before an audition, rehearsal or show is the nuts and bolts of an actor’s process and what puts the fuel in the ‘ol gas tank, as far as I’m concerned. A person’s reflection of the piece (actor, audience or otherwise) is the greatest joy and one of the most rewarding experiences theatre has to offer. But most importantly, I think is the fundamental art of storytelling. Above all things…did the audience walk away having been educated or entertained by an effective story?

All of these concepts, and more, are stations in a student actor’s process.(When I say student…I mean teen, adult, seasoned professional, etc.) Some advance on them like a mighty general leading an army. Other at least acknowledge them.

I’m in my ninth year of teaching high school theatre, and I want to say on the onset that my reflections in this post carry the weight of the culminating years. I don’t want to put any specific class of students under the microscope, but there needs to be something said about all students of theatre at a high school level…I suppose because I’m curious if there is a common thread in America. If so…perhaps my brain won’t explode.

You see, I teach bloody talented students. It sickens me sometimes how blessed they all are with talent. Therein the problem lies. I think they know their talented…and for me, I’m consistently distracted from teaching theatre, and find myself herding talented sheep back to the pasture so that they may continue to graze…whether they believe they need to or not.

Flashback. I remember a group of high schoolers with a fairly average skill set, who enjoyed tackling rinky-dink productions. There was really nothing terribly special about the after-school drama program in my home city. We all did it because it was fun. I supposed in the very end, I can look back and say that we weren’t challenged enough, I suppose. I recall a production of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”  my freshman year. The adaption of the play left a lot to be desired…and I remember the name of the director was Jolly, which I thought was funny…but what I remember most was this one ensemble member. He was a townsperson and didn’t really have a large part…kinda kept to himself. At first, being the sensitive guy I was, I thought he was kinda a dork. He was always rehearsing by himself…thinking up new “moments” to create onstage. He didn’t really relate with the others much…but when directed to do so in the scenes, he was careful, polite and professional. I remember his freckles. He was always trying to dig for something more substantial in his character…which I (at the time) found silly. His character didn’t even have a name in the program! (Oh, but his character had a name onstage! And fears and quirks…and business cards! I’m serious…the dude made business cards!) He was always taking creative chances. Some worked…some didn’t. Okay, most didn’t. I recall Jolly being frustrated with him because of his over-zealousness on several occasions and he was the butt of many jokes. When the show opened…I remember thinking to myself…”he’s so over-the-top.” And that first night when the Ensemble stepped forward to bow…the audience roared. That young man made a definitive impression upon the audience in an overall lack-luster play. I don’t recall him upstaging anyone. I just recall a genuine, honest dedication to the part. And while Tecumseh, Michigan probably isn’t best known for it’s appreciation of the fine arts, I will say that the relationship between actor and audience is an honorable bond and I learn a valuable lesson in that show. That bond is one I take for granted all too often. I did back then…and I still do today.

Students at my school don’t have enough outlets for their talents. I would argue that on average the students are renaissance men and women. Some play instruments, some play sports, some are involved in outside activities, some perform in community theatre, some write music, short-stories or poetry, some sing opera, some tap dance…and some are the most compassionate, caring, God-fearing, lovely people I know. I will go on the record to say that the last nine years have been the most rewarding of my life, as I grow and learn from them daily. With that said…I cannot understand, with the wide spectrum of opportunity lying at their feet…(and if you’ll excuse me as I narrow the scope a bit, as I focus on just theatre) why don’t they thrust themselves forward with the enthusiasm of a puma pouncing a gazelle? One thing is for certain…the school I teach at has limitless resources and opportunities for them to succeed. (I might argue that we could use about two more drama teachers to satisfy the current demand, but I’ll leave that personal sob story and political soap-box program proposal for another post.) I want to name just a few resources that I have the pleasure of surrounding myself with daily.

  • Students attend class in a large drama classroom. (That doubles as a green room / reception space.)
  • Students perform in a 792-seat Chapel / Performing Arts Center with a state of the art fly-rail system, sound board and lobby.
  • Students work on producing shows in a large, scene shop, costume storage room, two dressings rooms and a set-building scene shop patio…all at our disposal.
  • A four-show theatrical season, a summer theatre program, a structured budget, a chorus of after-school activities that include middle school mentoring opportunities, service events, International Thespian Society, trips to California to attend the Musical Theatre Competition of America…and I could go on and on.

“…these students HAVE talent…they DO succeed…they WILL “bring it.” The problem is…they don’t have to CARE about it.”

What I’m talking about today is simply this….I think we are seeing a new dawn of students growing up in a world where they don’t HAVE TO care about anything. I love my students. Believe me…these students HAVE talent…they DO succeed…they WILL “bring it.” The problem is…they don’t have to CARE about it. Please note…I’ve worked in this school for my entire teaching career. I don’t know any other dynamic and I can imagine that my statements could very well be challenged. Please regards my musings with the open-mind that this school…this classroom…these students…this is all I know. Perhaps I’m ignorant. I’m actually okay with that. Pastry chefs are usually quite satisfied spending their entire careers working on pastries. Please forgive me if I offend schools with diminishing theatre programs (or no theatre program!) In the big-picture, I’m blessed beyond what I deserve…and so are my students. I hope you can ponder with that in mind. I’ll get back to the pastry kitchen now.

Students don’t have to care. Now, this is not including some exceptions of course. There are always those who are wonderfully careful about every faucet of their high school existence. But, overall the students in the private Lutheran school I teach at wear a cozy blanket that keeps them safe and warm. This same blanket provides them with reassurance that their days are filled with comfort and security. It shelters them from being weathered and is a soft place to fall at every corner. I think our school/faculty does a great job of providing a quality education to all who enroll and anyone who attends Faith Lutheran is a better person because of it. What I’m talking about specifically is ART. The ART of doing theatre. The appreciate of the strength, courage and sacrifice it take to learn and perform good theatre. It takes an artist who is willing to drop their inhibitions, sacrifice their senses, wander into uncharted territories every day and face a challenge that will beat them down again and again before picking them back up and regenerating them with faith, knowledge and rivers of creativity they never even knew they had. I’ve seen this magic work in high school students. It not a pipe dream…and we’re not talking Vegas smoke and mirrors. The problem is, it requires the student to lose their cozy blanket and expose their creative hearts, unsheltered.

I find that often, my students are unwilling to do that.

I’ve stood in front of them like a starched, spectacled Patton…I’ve delivered masterful speeches, riddled with fancy, encouraging words telling them how proud I am of them. (And every word I spoke was the truth.) I’ve seen them succeed in so many way…I’m losing buttons on my shirt I’m so proud! And in the grand scheme to things, you might be able to step back and look at my argument as a nit-picky, trite commentary. I see it differently. I see students who want so badly to be told that what they are doing is worth something. I see students who find homes in the theatre because it’s the only home they know. I see students who are gifts from God. (And there can be no other explanation.) I need to find a way to SHOW them that the ART of doing theatre….the ART of effective storytelling…the ART of doing the art, is what is the most rewarding thing of all. It’s a sense of urgency one gets when they are without a warm blanket…standing naked in the cold.

I think the problem is everybody has instant access to everything nowadays. I mean EVERYTHING. If I wanted a pizza, right now…I could have one. If I wanted a bear trap right now…I betcha there is someplace in Vegas I could get one…right now. It ridiculous really. I mean…how am I supposed to appreciate anything? And I grew up with parents and grandparents who did a GREAT JOB of making sure I didn’t grow up with an inflated sense of entitlement. What about the kids today? This is all they know. They are LOST without their conveniences. I can’t imagine any of my students in an impoverished school situation attempting to accomplish what they do in the drama program at Faith Lutheran. Heck, I can’t imagine what would happen to them if i didn’t allow them to have lunch in my classroom every other day.

I want it to be know that I can’t blame them. This is all they know…and this is what they’ve grown up with. But, is that good enough? I argue…from a creative aspect…no. If you want to perform (or work in any industry that requires you to create) you must learn to appreciate the process of creating. If you cannot see the worth in it, then you will find yourself resentful and finding shortcuts to get jobs done that you once took great creative pride in doing before.

I had a nightmare two days ago. My wife was a psychology minor in college and when I can remember my dreams, I like to share them with her. Perhaps she can see into them more clearly than I? I was onstage…a big stage…and people were applauding. I recall feeling rushed. I ran offstage and someone threw me towel. It hit me in the face. I wiped my face (I was sweaty) and I ran into a hallway and threw the towel down. I remember more than any other detail that I was upset about the applause. Not mad…not sad…just very upset. Unsettled. I woke from that dream and had a hard time getting back to sleep. The next day at school I couldn’t escape that feeling…and later talked about it with my wife.

“The recognition you receive for doing what you love sometimes comes at a great expense, especially when that same audience doesn’t see or understand what happens before, after or backstage during the show.” I thought there was wisdom in that. She thought the perfectionist in me is constantly fighting for the chance to create…and when the opportunity presents itself, any challenges in the process, and especially afterwards there is applause. But they are applauding for a character in a fictitious situation…not a grand effort by a hardworking artist. (Can you remember the name of the artist off the top of your head who painted “American Gothic?” I can’t. It’s just an example.) There is always someone standing just offstage who is unwilling to simply offer a towel…some relief. Rather, through expectation, it is thrown at me. Forget the fact that we’re fortunate enough to even have a towel. My “throwing the towel in” as I storm off, unsettled…is probably what made me feel so upset when I woke. I didn’t allow myself the chance to see what I did next. I ended things with me giving up.

All to often we get wrapped up in the immediacy of things, that we cannot see the forest from the trees, creatively. People forget that beyond the rehearsal notes…beyond the red scarf or the poofy shirt….beyond the “things” that make up theatre….there is a story being told by a storyteller. The art of telling that story is so hard…but it’s such a beautiful, fulfilling thing.

It was probably the most vivd dream I’ve ever had…and you know something…there are probably a million holes in our analysis of the dream itself…but if you think about it, whether my interpretation carries water with any of you or not, the bottom line is I’m no better than what I accuse my students of.

I think my students don’t have to care about doing theatre…because they are so used to it just being done for them. All they have to do is show up with their bags full of talents. But, I suppose if I’m going to be any mentor / teacher to them, then I need to figure out a way to ensure that what they show up for is a boot camp. A ground zero settlement of structure and opportunity that allows them to fall on their face…skin their elbows…and callous up! Imagine the joy one might feel after creating a character for themselves. Envision a high school musical generated by the collective efforts of a thriving ensemble who have generated something original, refreshing and telling. Who cares if Jimmy-Bob didn’t splatter-paint the barn correctly?! (The OCD side of me says “I DO!!!” But, I must stifle that side of me!) I need to be willing to allow them to fail so that they may succeed. I believe then and only then…will they see that they have the talent and opportunity to create, and be proud of it, every time.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to truly do this. It the same voice inside my head that compels me to spend 6 hours making a single prop or re-write an entire play in a format that more pleasing to the eye. This inability to give it up to the students makes for twinkly-good productions…but leaves my students entitled.

I need to allow my students to be that freckled-face hopeful who annoyed the hell out of director Jolly! I can play Duck Hunt with every chance they take onstage, shooting down moment after moment, guiding them through every line of dialogue…but if I’m a teacher of theatre, I need to be willing to allow them to fail. I’m encouraged by the fact that I have a talented group of kids who are smart enough to rise like a phoenix in the ashes.

That darned Junior back in high school probably doesn’t know the impact he made on my “Emperor’s New Clothes” experience. I find it funny that while I had a lead in “Emperor’s New Clothes” and nightly I (figuratively and literally) “disrobed” my juvenile appreciation of theatrical arts…today I look back and realize that it was a focused, joyfilled Junior who exposed a more vulnerable heart that I ever could. Jolly should be proud.

Today I hope that lovers of theatrical arts (onstage and off) can take a moment to reflect on what the theatrical arts provides them. How can the risk of burying yourself in a creative process (that requires so very much of you) be both rewarding and some of the biggest chances you’ll ever take.

Students of theatre…you are trusted every day to create wonderful stories. Every day is another lesson in another classroom that you must willingly step into so that you may work. Find great comfort in the opportunities that you have. Allow yourself to be vulnerable, so that you can march into battle with no armor, no weapons, and a trust in your own skill-sets and the help of your fellow cast mates. The victory after that battle will be great. More importantly, the story told will be legendary.

Pawn My Drama

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, DIRECTING FOR THE STAGE, LIFE IN GENERAL / RANDOM RAMBLINGS with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2011 by erikball123

I’ve been into stupid little reality shows like Hardcore Pawn and Pawn Stars lately. I’m diggin’ on Storage Wars too, but that’s starting to get old, and scripted. I think what attracts me to such television silliness is the mystery behind people’s stories. What is in that storage unit that makes the risk of purchasing it at a premium so appealing. What mysterious chain of events brought Mr. Cecil Stickyfingers to the pawn store today to give up his prized possession. The suspense of actually seeing that the cardboard box holds dirty laundry instead of Uncle Billy’s gold coin collection is what builds the suspense for me. The let down after seeing Cecil find out that the autographed skull of Abraham Lincoln was really a knock off is what creates the storyline for me, I guess.

In general, my stomach ties itself in knots when I’m faced with confrontation. In the big picture, I find myself working very hard to move forward, with every project, every challenge and every journey. The speed bumps that slow me down are things I like to deal with quickly and quietly. I’m not a fighter. I get frustrated and hurt when people cannot see that all I want to do is create something positive…something good.

I’m also found out that I’m not sentimental. This realization surprised me. My wife said it simply “well, you’re not sentimental.” At the time I took it personally. Then I thought about it. She’s right. Tangible items in my life mean very little to me. It’s not that I don’t care about things…rather, I care VERY much about people, and feelings, and emotion…to the point to where the object doesn’t matter.

So, why do I find entertainment value in watching people fight and toil over objects? I suppose it has to do with the convenience of it all. Have you ever thought WHY people put “things” into storage? I’ll give you a few suggestions:

  1. To store for a future event / date / project.
  2. Because they don’t have room for said valuables in their homes.
  3. Because they want to hide it.
  4. Because they want to forget about it.

Pawning is different. People give up their valuables for money. A quick pay off to get them through today, so they can peacefully look forward to tomorrow. The tangible items doesn’t matter in the “now,” and the knowledge that later, when the dust settles, they can obtain that object back (if they pay the price) is appealing.

I find these concepts particularly interesting to me lately.

As you can see, it’s been about 10 months since my last post. I’ve been a smidge busy. I’ve been involved in a total of 6 theatrical productions this year (technically, and onstage), I taught full time, starting my own radio show and was recently hired into a professional acting gig. That’s just the work I’ve been involved in. It’s been a long year.

A long disheartening year.

Granted, I find value in every experience, good or bad, because I truly think you can learn from all, but this year was different. I’m losing faith in my fellow actor. Perhaps even, my fellow man. (Cue dramatic music.) The creative person (especially theatrical actors) by nature is extroverted. They are emotional, passionate people. I pride myself on being one of them. But, I cannot grasp the notion of sullying relationships and taking such a huge personal vested interest in a creative project that it voids out human nature and creative collaboration. These are fundamentals that I believe are staples in creating good theatre.

The state of theatre in Las Vegas is the opposite of what I think everyone believes. There is plenty of theatre to do here in the Valley. All types too. You can keep yourself pretty busy by hitching yourself to any of these proverbial horses. With that said, it’s really a small city. Getting my foot in the door here as a director / designer, etc. was relatively easy. (Pay your dues, be respectful, believe in your product and work hard…and you can too.) But, now that I’m here…I don’t know if I want to be.

I respect my fellow directors / actors. The modern day theatre company is VERY hard to manage. I applaud the theatre companies in town. (Some manage well, some do not…but they all manage.) With that said, I have found little joy in my work this year. There was several times where product or personal feelings stifled the creative process. Several times egos clogged the flow of communication and collaboration. The desire to be top dog or to have the “Best” award…fueled the focus and scope of the project. I found myself in the wake many times…because I don’t like conflict.

Some people might view it as “not having any Balls.” Ah, Irony. I don’t view it as such. I just think there is a way that a collection of artists can generate something together without making it solely about them. I’m reading a book on one of my idols Tim Burton…and he talks about how he cannot work for an ego-driven machine. He has to allow the creativity to breathe and live….that’s where the joy comes from. I’ve worked very hard this year…but I’ve found very little joy.

I was sitting here tonight…my wife away to the Utah Shakespeare Festival with her book club…watching a rerun of Hardcore Pawn. While you won’t find me anywhere near the Detroit Michigan back streets…I sometimes wish I could bring the drama that breaks my spirit to the Pawn Shop. Cash it in…and maybe, just maybe, be back for it later, when I can deal with it.

Or, even better. I could rent a storage unit. Pile my frustration, my over sensitive nature…my paranoia….my dread that what I try to create through theatre is amounting to nothing…..pile it into a storage unit…get a sturdy padlock, and put it away. Perhaps never to be seen again. Maybe someday they’ll auction my unit off and I won’t ever have to worry about it again. That would be so nice.

I wonder if that would be the coward’s way. A friend told me that I should be very proud to be a drama teacher, and that it takes a special kind of person to do what I do. I appreciate that. But, I also think it takes a special kind of person to believe in WHAT they do. (And that goes for anything, not just theatre.) I suppose so long as I continue to believe in WHAT I do, then how in pans out in the short term doesn’t really matter. In the long term, I’m building on what I know, and propelling forward to create a better tomorrow.

Bill Cosby said “Yesterday is a ghost. Tomorrow is a dream. All you have is now.” I like that. Kinda supports my Super Pawn Drama idea. Perhaps I don’t need the inner-city Pawn shop…perhaps I can find a way to pawn my frustrations away so that “now” is what is the most important. Creatively, anyway. That makes sense to me.

I wonder…if Picasso knew that his paintings would be sold for millions, do you think he would have bought better brushes or worked in a different light? I don’t know. I do know he wasn’t focused on the future. His scope of work is unending.

I feel like I had an unending year. I’ve decided not to judge it…or cry over spilled milk…instead, I’ll pawn it away in my secret Pawn Shop….and focus on right now.

I’m not sure how much I’ll “get” for pawning it…but it’s more than I currently have.

The Transformation of “Beauty and the Beast”

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, DIRECTING FOR THE STAGE, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2008 by erikball123

Kari Curletto (Belle) and I during a particularly harrowing rehearsal during the first run of “Beauty and the Beast.”

When I first went into rehearsal for P.S. Production’s version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast last April (’08), I found myself very excited to jump into the colorful role of Gaston. This classic Disney tale has long been my favorite Disney movie, and I was thrilled to be a part of what was sure to be an amazing show. Rehearsals started with the usual aligning of schedules, theatre games and exercises and day-to-day rituals of choreography, vocals and blocking. Things went just fine for a while. I was feeling confident. But, then after about a week or so, (particularly when it was my time to beging in-depth character development), I found myself getting frustrated about what I was able to offer in my scenework. (Or, rather, what was being received by the audience…aka: the director.)

If you never met me, or are unaccustomed to my work ethic…allow me to detail my mind set. I’m a very energetic, passionate dude, who admits to an occasional A.D.D. fueled speed bump, but will always give 100%, all of the time. (Simply because productions demand that…and because I love to perform and consider the opportunity a great priviledge. It is my way of offering thanks…my devoted time, efforts and talents.) I try not to be arrogant…but I think the performing profession demands a level of confidence in order to be successful, so I try to over compensate that with an even greater level of gratitude and support for others.

I love working with others because I feel like I can take away ideas, processes, disciplines, etc. that I have not thought of before. There is no sense of “leading role vs. ensemble” in my little world. (Yeah, right, you say.) I truly believe that the best work comes from a strong, unified ensemble where everyone is there to build a perfect story. Anything we can learn from one another becomes part of that ensemble’s efforts, and anyone lucky enough to be in the room at that time should benefit from that.

With that said, the frustration I felt came from the inability to provide what I felt was being demanded by Belle and LeFou, my scene partners. (Both of these actors, by the way are very good friends…and brilliant. I mean it. I have no reason for false flattery.) I found myself at war with…myself! I wanted so badly to provide the nuance, the look, the gesture, the posture, the motivation…the whatever!…so that the moment in that story reads well to the audience, and adds to the show.  We worked and worked and worked. We tried games and exercises…we switched roles and even sat and had in depth discussions about the characters.

I will tell you the director’s name. It’s Phil Shelburne, and he’s amazing. For weeks this sort of frustration brewed in me. Over time it bubbled and grew into an acute determination to make something out of a character I had trouble connecting with. Phil never gave up on me, and even in the moments when I felt completely removed, he would ask me questions like “how did you feel about that?” I would answer. And he would simply look back and smile and say, “okay. Let’s do it again.” And we would. And I would be tired. And I would be stressed. And out of that repetition…out of that unwillingness to compromise….out of that “tough love” for lack of better words, Gaston slowly crept out. I remember at one point Phil looking over to me during a final dress rehearsal and saying “…now that was something. Why must you battle me, Erik!” That felt so good. But it also made approaching this second run of Beauty and the Beast that much sweeter.

I look at this upcoming second run of the show as my opportunity to work with what I already know in a very different way. My instincts tell me to remain comfortable and rely on already engraved processes, connections and discoveries. But, I want desperately (and so does Phil) to reinvent this character.

This week when I began character development work with Phil and others, I felt myself slump back into that same frustrating rut. (Dang it!) It doesn’t help that I was having a “bad” week. (Locked my keys in the car, incidents in class with students kept my frustration levels high, etc.) But, let’s be honest. Those are excuses. Theatre is an escape from reality. But, especially last Friday I noticed something I never realized before. My roadblock…or rather, oversized speed bump…was the fact that I was thinking about it too much. (Phil says this to me all the time. That I’m the very definition of a cerebrial actor. Someone who thinks too much. Imagine that. Wish my high school career was peppered with comments like that! Phooey on you Mr. Glenn!)

But seriously…I would be in the middle of a scene and instead of LISTENING to my partner….I would be thinking about what I should be doing. Instead of REACTING to my partner….I was thinking about how to react. Silly, isn’t it? Some may say….well, just STOP DOING IT! But that’s what’s going on…I notice myself THINKING, and I’m struggling with myself to STOP THINKING, during the scene! Yikes! It’s a bad, bad thing. Sounds crazy, I know! But add on top of that a wildy enthusiastic personality who ONLY wants to do well for the show and make his fellow cast members and director proud….and you’ve got a fine, fine mess. On a Friday, no less! (I even bought cookies!)

I’ve been there. Someone once said that a true actor find’s the difficulties of the actor’s art infinite. (I think it was Stella Adler. Correct me if I’m wrong.) Well, I suppose I’m on the road to being a true actor, because I’m frustrated. I slept in until 10am yesterday hoping to put to rest those icky feelings and re approach this week with new found vigor.

I suppose the show would sit differently with me if everytime I walked in the room, everything came completely natural to me. I always thought the thrill of theatre was watching a character or a scene or an ensemble develop and come to life on stage. I witness it as a director at my school all the time..but as an actor in someone’s else’s vision…I have a deep sense of responsibility fueled by a restless determination. I find myself like a lion tamer most of the time, attempting to put on a good show while keeping my restless self at bay. (With a whip….’cause they’re cool.) I am determined…you’ll never see me give up. The discipline and challenge of the theatre haunts me…but I’m not scared. My horns are down and I’m ready to charge.

Whoever said the art of acting is easy needs to be hit in the head with a snow shovel. I will let ya’ll know how things turn out this week. I’m in training. I’m drinking figurative Gaston protein shakes, and pumping Gaston iron on the road to a beautiful new Beauty and the Beast production. I’ll get there. But I promise I’ll try not to think about it.

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“New, and a bit alarming. Who’d have ever thought that this could be? True, that he’s no prince charming, but there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see.” – Belle

DISNEY’S BEAUTY & THE BEAST is playing at the Summerlin Library and Performing Arts Center throughout the months of October and Novemebr ’08. Click here for show information. Click here to purchase tickets.

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