Monday, October 31, 2011

Les Miserables and the Nature of Tweaking

Yesterday I went to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to a performance of the national tour of Les Miserables. It was a matinee, and the last performance for this stay at the Kennedy Center.

I enjoyed myself. I have listened to that music for years now, having first seen the Broadway production of it as a student in high school with my family. My mother saw it even before it was on Broadway, when it made its North American debut at the very same Kennedy Center all those years ago.

I don't intend for this to be a review of the production I saw, but I will mention that it seemed different. Rushed in places, not as poignant or powerful in others. Some music was rearranged. Further research after I got home revealed that this was done on purpose. This national tour is employing a slightly more modernized staging, according to the articles I have been reading. It seems that in some circles people were beginning to believe the original staging, (with the now absent trademark rotating barricade and such) was becoming obsolete for modern audiences, and hence was made trimmer, faster, and, once again according to what I was reading, with a plot that is "clarified."

I am not sure one of the most beloved and successful musicals of all time needs to be made "fresh", or sped up. I certainly don't feel anything needed to be "clarified", as I never found the plot to be particularly complex. It's not as though there are many twists and turns in the original. But, that is show business for you. Still, I think as a whole it was less powerful than the original staging. Smaller. More subdued. But it was still Les Miserables for the most part, and still a pleasure to see, and to hear the classic tunes with which nearly all theatre people are at least familiar, even if not fans of the show.

It did get me wondering about that age old question. How does one find balance between keeping something fresh, and keeping faithful to the original intent of a piece? With something like "Les Mis", it isn't as much of a question. It is still a very tightly controlled piece after all these years. Owners and producers still have huge authority over exactly when and where it is performed. There is little room for variation, unless of course, like with this current tour, it is designed specifically by said authorities to be different in key places. But is that good or bad?

I have come to believe that as with many things in theatre, it depends on the nature of the show. Legal issues aside, as an actor, and even as a director, I am usually quite opposed to the popular notion that a playwright owns every single performance of his show until the end of time, and therefore ties the hands of each theatre that performs it. This distant, god like direction from afar in the nebulous mass of "copyright law" constrains theatre in many ways. Especially on the community level, (where, let's be adults here, such boundaries are often ignored, in hopes they will never be noticed.)

Assuming I have a good director that gives me freedom, I usually love being in shows that are not under such restraints. That leeway to create a character, coupled with every other actor on stage doing the same thing, under the direction of someone who is also free to create their own vision is to me what makes theatre alive. It makes it art. It doesn't happen nearly as often as it should.

Then you have something like Les Miserable, which, one could argue, became the phenomena that it is due to the very nature of the staging, the orchestration, and the vocalization. As I said before, if you are in anyway involved in theatre, you have heard of Les Miserables, or else you are locked up in an iron mask talking to nobody when not on stage. So the show has, for good or bad, become a part of the theatre as a whole. And when that happens, might not it be fair to conclude that it has transcended innovation? That like a lighthouse its purpose is not to be fancy, pretty, or mobile, but to remain, exactly as is, so those far and wide can focus upon it? Reach for it? Know that no matter what it is always there, unchanging? I am not insulted by such changes as made to Les Mis for this tour. I just wonder if they were needed to keep it "alive". It seemed to be painting the peacock a bit.

I still think each production of this musical could be unique by allowing some variations in voice, character interpretation, dance numbers. Costumes. So long as the music itself remained essentially in tact. It is, after all, a musical. So I don't suggest that there can be no variation. Indeed I am in the odd position of suggesting that there could be both more personal variation allowed in individual performances, and less variation in the overall impact of the entire production.

In the end, I have no precise answer for these questions of how much freedom artists and producers and directors should have and should not have in any given production. Sometimes as an audience member, I want familiarity. Sometimes as an actor I want freedom. Again, some shows invite one, others invite the opposite. My preferences fluctuate. There may be no formula, if we are talking about pure art, and not legalities. (Which tend to end this debate in an instant, when called upon.)

What do you think? How much variation, change, and updating is needed to shows like Les Miserables? Is any show above the occasional tweeking? If so, how do you determine the cut off point?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Basics of the Base

Last night was the second full rehearsal for me for what we are calling "An Evening of Nostalgia". One of the cast members was absent, and a table full of sound props was in place, but other than that, things were basically the same as the night before. Though I did experiment with using a cigarette during the first half of the show, and that went well. I feel it will add a bit more to the character I am playing.

Actually, I should say the base character I am playing, since we all are playing not only the roles within the skits, but also the radio performers themselves between skits, and at the start of the play. I still have work to do with all of the above, but odd as it sounds I think I will in some ways enjoy my mostly silent base character the most. I am fascinated by that era and radio during same. not so much the shows of the era, as I don't know much about them, but by the nature of the medium back then, and the nature of the people involved in it.

I have a bit of a unique challenge in this regard, however. My base character is ostensibly the stage manager of this production. As such he is on stage first as the audience trickles in, performing equipment checks and such. He is also, in theory, supposed to be giving cue to the sound people and the musicians. (Though the timing of that has not been worked out very well as of yet.) Yet this stage manager is also reading three parts within the skits himself. I'm not sure if this would ever actually happen. But since it is happening for our show, the problem lie in explaining, to myself if not to anybody else, why the stage manager's job is so vital for the first two skits, and then becomes non-existent for the second half of the show. (I won't be giving the cues while I am performing.) This detail may not bother a lot of people, but these are the things about which I am always thinking when I am becoming a character in a play. Especially one as open ended as this.

Yet that open ended nature of the character may help with this dilemma somewhat. We are to each write a fake biography for our base character, to be included on a poster in the lobby of the theatre during the show. Not only does this give me a good launching point for a character, (I have sometimes employed this technique on my own to give more depth to my performances), but I may use it to make mention of what someone would be both stage manager and performer in one show. I will have to work on that, but I look forward to creating it.

I'd also like to create a bit more variation in the voices I will be using for the various skits. One of them has a distinct sound, but I need something else for the supposed horror story. Something richer than what I have been using. Despite the setting of that piece, I'd like to avoid an accent, but it may be just the thing I need. More consideration is required on this topic as well.

We don't meet again until next Tuesday, with some set work being done by the director and others on Saturday. So it should look even more like a radio station by then.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Miked Up

Having missed last week's rehearsal for the Radio Hour due to weather, last night was the first time I was able to rehearse the entire show. It was an interesting experience.

To begin with, in my absence, I have been assigned the lead for another of the four plays we will be doing. Given that this would make me one of the leads in three out of the four at this point, I felt a little awkward. Especially since I have been assigned a new sit up in the booth and play the stage manager for the fake production. (Giving sound cues, and pretending to turn dials, that sort of thing.) I mentioned that not only did it seem somewhat unfair for me to have that much air time, but also that it may be difficult for me to be almost constantly "on the air", while also trying to portray the stage manager who is supposed to be out and about doing things. The lead for one of the comedies was given to someone else, even though the fear was they wouldn't sound young enough. (I thought it sounded fine, but I didn't hear any commentary on that issue one way or the other.)

There are still a few hitches to be worked out, of course. It is early. But as we get closer, things should get tighter and more comfortable.

The subject of cigarettes was brought up. I had planned to mention that at some point myself, actually. I figured many of them would probably be smoking one. Certainly a stage manager who is running about trying to get a show together is a character that lends itself well to having a smoke in his hand. Though we can't actually light them, and being that close to the audience, I wonder if the effect would be too fake. I also wanted glasses for my character, but as yet cannot find any that are period appropriate.

On the subject of period, I won't be able to use a binder for my script, as a late decisions was made to make the scripts exactly period as they would have been in the 1930s. So we will all now have to hold the papers in our hands. Some have even suggested dropping each page to the floor as it's read, but a final decision does not seem to have been made on that idea as of yet.

A local husband and wife musical team have agreed to provide the show with live incidental music. (Piano and drums.) Dance and singing routines between the plays are also being worked out with certain other people, to add to everything. It is hard to judge from last night's read through since it is so early, but it seems to run about two hours with intermission at this point, though again, it didn't have the singing acts added on yet. And things will get a bit faster as time goes on.

We rehearse again tonight. (Wednesday). The plan is to rehearse twice a week, between now and the time we open on November 11. That is about six rehearsals remaining. Barring huge problems, that should be sufficient to mail this thing down.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


I only realized a short time ago, than I missed the six year anniversary of this blog! Not that I had any huge plans for same. I made a big to-do about the five year anniversary last year, because five years feelings like more of a solid, milestone type of number, like to or 20. Still until this year I have tried to at least acknowledge the anniversary on the day itself. (October 7.) This year, it just went out of my head.

Which in a way is acceptable I suppose. In the end this blog isn't so much about blogging itself, as so many blogs are. It is about, of course, my adventures, opinions, trials an tribulations in the world of theatre. Local amateur theatre. Something to which I have been dedicated for quite some time now. The story isn't so much how long I have been blogging about it on a regular basis, (though six years is quite impressive for a blog if I do say so myself), but rather that through ups and downs, great shows and really lousy ones I am still doing this theatre thing.

True. As a freelance writer I have more control over my schedule than many other people would have, and hence I can dedicate time more easily to this pursuit. Yet It still makes me a bit nostalgic when i think of how many people back in my college days, (where I first started theatre) no longer do it on a regular basis.

Back then it was almost a given that everyone would go on to do it in some fashion, professional or not. And don't get me wrong, many of them have. Some to pretty decent, albeit not national acclaim. Yet the percentage of the "theatre people" from back at Marietta College that find they cannot or don't really want to do theatre these days is a bit surprising.

I don't want to go back in time. I don't want to relive my college years. But that sense of urgency, raw creative power, and 100% dedication to the craft is something I miss. Something you don't find as much of in many community theatres. (Some more than others, yes.) It is for that reason that even in the present day, during even the smallest of shows, there are those ghosts of Marietta theatre walking about with me. Even those people to whom I no longer speak are, in subtle ways, present in the far removed mist of subconscious as I walk the boards in theatres they have never and likely never will see. They don't direct or control what I do on stage of course, but I would be lying if I said they were absent. Sometimes it is pretty potent, and other times it is a mere shadow. But always in some fashion, even if only for a split second, it is there.

In the end, I am glad of it, despite some of the disadvantages to those memories. It means that some facet of it is somewhere still in me. It means that even one day if this blog ceases to be, the actor in me, unlike some people I have known, will probably never cease to be.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Signing On

Last night I was over at the Full Circle Theater Company, wherein I do most of my acting these days, for a first read-through of my next project. The title is tentative at this point, but the gist of it, as I mention in a previous post, is that it will be a staged "radio show". Emcee, radio station set, sound effects, microphones. Everything designed to look like a radio performance in the 1930's. 1938 to be more precise. Actors will have their scripts in their hands, so memorization is virtually non-existent.

The script consists of four short radio plays, along with some incidentals between each play. There is no intermission written in at this time. It is supposed to take just over an hour.

The piece was written by a local writer, and it is she that will be directing the production. By her own admission, she has not even looked at this script, (which is unpublished) for several years. Not since she and some other actors she knew performed it as part of a project she was working on at the time. So, I have no reference point for the script itself. No previous productions I could look up online or ask around about. All precedent will come from the memories of the director.

However it was made clear that it is pretty fluid at this point. She expects there will be both addition and subtractions to the script as we all get familiar with it, and feel out what sort of show it is to be. Certain aspects are already clear, however. That the actors will never leave the stage, and hence be in character the entire time. That before the play the cast will be milling about in the lobby, interacting with patrons. (Not my favorite thing to do, but I have done it before.) And that at times the audience themselves will be a part of the performances.

And of course we will be dressed in period costumes. Or at least as close to same as we can get with our own wardrobes. I myself think I can pull off 1938 with the clothing I have at my disposal. It is going to be easier for men, than women, I would guess. I will probably just go with white shirt, black pants, a tie, (possibly a clip-on bow, if appropriate, as I have one of those), and perhaps a set of suspenders, if I can find a pair that will go along with the era. Simple enough. Time will tell if that will work or not. (It was more difficult to pinpoint what men wore in 1938 via online research than I thought it would be...I kept getting the same picture of Orsen Welles...though he was on the radio at the time the picture was taken, so it was more helpful than I thought.)

As for the reading itself, it went well. Casting is not 100% solidified yet, but it would appear I am to be the lead in the first skit---a fantasy wherein a man by use of his imagination, becomes a talking bird. I also read for one of the "dramas" (though there was much laughing during the reading), based on an Edgar Allen Poe short story. I think I like the fantasy better than the horror story, but be that as it may, those are the two I read for. (Not counting one tiny appearance in a third skit.) The final skit in the collection we did not read last night, due to the time. I have not yet read that one over myself, so I am unaware of what it is about at present.

Not everyone who is in the play showed up last night, but most did. I already know most of the people involved, so that is always a comfort.

I am not sure yet when we perform, but I think just one weekend in November. We are to meet again next week for another read through, and of course I will be looking over the script between now and then.

Friday, October 07, 2011

"The World's Toughest Community Theater Coach"

Loyal blog readers I hope will check out this write up about me by Andrew Beaujon over at He spoke with me via phone a few weeks ago and has on several occasions read both this blog and my articles over on ShowBizRadio. I think the piece is fair and accurate for the most part. To strangers I may appear a bit more morose than I actually am, but the spirit of my theatrical approach is certainly well represented in the piece. Give it a read!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Back to the "Air" Waves.

Sometimes you never know where a theatre project will come from. In the last two months, I have been asked to take part in two different projects.

The first is still in planning stages, so I don't want to say too much about that one until more is known. But the second one seems to be a go.

The Full Circle Theater Company is planning to have a radio-show production, in the spirit of the 1930's radio serials. There are several such scripts out there, and while I am not certain what the exact nature of this show will be, I have been asked to participate. I have a potentially busy November, but I agreed to take part in this endeavor. It sounds fun, and will, I would imagine, require less of a time commitment.

Loyal blog readers may recall that back during the 2009 holiday season I was cast in a production of "It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play". At the Winchester Little Theater. I had a great time doing that, and though I am sure the Christmas spirit aspect of that show added to the experience, the concept of a staged "radio show" was fun in its own right, and I imagine it will be again, regardless of the nature of the script.

Dates are not certain at this time, but it will be two weekends in November. And again, I have no idea what the story is, how many people are involved, or even who else is taking part. But the WLT didn't do their radio show last year, so I didn't get a chance to enjoy playing radio star then. With this I may get to again. No pun intended, but stay tuned.