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54 PHASE 2: COLLABORATION

Timetable 2: setting your production in motion

Contact designers and begin discussions (ten weeks prior to rehearsals, or


according to your theatres practice; find out what expectations for commu-
nication with designers are when you accept the job). Get design discussions
started early enough to have a productive experience. Consider following a three-
tiered process:

1. design discussions centered on your concept, passion and ideas for the
production;
2. designers bringing research and simple design responses; then
3. arriving at finished designs with models, plans and sketches.

This all needs to be accomplished in time for draftings and patterns to be created,
or scenery and costumes to be acquired or built.

Choreographer and musical director collaboration begins (ten weeks prior


to rehearsals). Your closest daily collaborations happen with the choreographer
and musical director. Begin meeting with them as soon as youre ready to discuss
your conception of the show. Youll need to develop a shared vision and deter-
mine the action and tone for every moment. This will become the foundation for
choreography, musical treatment, casting and all performance decisions.

Script breakdowns (six weeks prior to rehearsals). Among other critical tasks,
directors are responsible for anticipating scenic, costume and casting needs.
This eventually boils down to a series of lists that everyone in the production will
depend upon. These lists include:

Cast-by-scene breakdown. This is a listing of every character involved in each


scene. If youve got actors playing multiple roles, list what character that actor
plays in each scene. The list often ends up in the form of a large grid with scene
numbers and song titles along the top and actor names (with their character)
along the left side. You fill each of the grid squares in with the role being played,
or simply place a check mark for each scene the actor is in, if they play only
one role. Scenes are quite long in many musicals as long as an entire act. So,
youll want to designate smaller scenes within these large units. Your costume
designer, stage manager, choreographer and musical director will follow this
breakdown closely and may ask to revise it for good reasons. Be sure to date all
documents so everyone is working from the most current version.

Props, costumes, technical elements breakdown. This scene-by-scene


analysis details every technical element you can identify in the script or that you
PHASE 2: COLLABORATION 55

imagine using. Every spoon, pickax, cake of soap, bucket and water bottle you
expect to use should be here with notes about how youll use it, if at all out of
the ordinary. Stationery that gets written on nightly will need to be replenished.
Food that gets eaten must be acquired, prepared and kept refrigerated. In some
cases youll have allergies or special food needs that must be accommodated.
Get ready now. Youll also note how many days pass in your story, seasons, time
period, etc. as you begin to assess the special design needs of your production.
Communicate your expectations in writing if you want things to go smoothly at
fittings and dress rehearsals. Also, if you envision pyrotechnics, fog, rain or any
other special production elements, note that here, so your designers and pro-
ducer can begin negotiating who will provide that service.

Audition announcement (at least one month prior to the first audition). Casting
for commercial productions can start several months prior to beginning
rehearsals, while schools may have a different schedule. Announce your audition
schedule and requirements at least a month prior to the first audition so you can
attract the best talent and allow them time to prepare.

Clear budget information. Part of successful directing lies in your ability to work
within limits. Even the biggest organizations have limitations. Be sure youre
aware of the labor, time and financial limitations for each area. You and your team
might come up with a brilliant multilevel set for Working. But, if you cant build
it within your time, financial and skill limits, youre conspiring toward failure. Take
the essence of good ideas and find a reasonable way to achieve that essence.
Sometimes, reallocating resources from one area to another can help. At other
times, you may need to think outside the box or release some of your attachment
to a particular part of the vision in order to ultimately succeed in fulfilling its
essence. This all begins with understanding your limitations.
PHASE 2: COLLABORATION

CHAPTER 3

3.1 The passionate center 57

3.2 What is a choreographer? 59

3.3 Theatre dance vs. concert dance 59

3.4 Musical collaboration 61


C O L L A B O R AT I V E P A R T N E R S CHAPTER 3

The passionate center UNIT 3.1

The Conception phase largely involved you working independently, imagining a


production. As we move to the next phase of production, your roles primarily
involve working with other creative partners.

As directors of musicals, we are, ultimately, invisible. While we can suggest,


implore, bully, inspire and beg actors and collaborators to take our suggestions,
the choice of whether to do so and how is theirs. If youve done your job well,
by opening night you are useless. Attend your premiere if you like the ceremony
of it. But, your presence is irrelevant to the actual performance. The lowest-paid
stagehand has far more utility in guaranteeing the success of that particular
evening than you. Yet, you are clearly responsible for something essential about
the production. Stage pictures and blocking aside, the director leaves indelible
fingerprints all over the production. So, how does the director of a musical matter
and why does he or she make such a difference in the long run? The simple
answer is that the director is a guide to everyone involved in the production. Your
obligation as central interpreter of the texts is the essence of the job.

But, a director is much more than just a dramaturge for a musical. He or she is
also a kind of spiritual leader for the whole company. No actor, designer, stage
manager or dancer goes into musical theatre because they hope to be prosaic
and mundane for a living. We all enter the performing arts with a secret wish that
58 COLLABORATIVE PARTNERS

the experiences we embark on will be magical. We crave getting lost in a story


we love and identify with deeply. And we live to take our audiences with us. If
were lucky, a rare handful of times in any working life we do experience that
magic. The script and score may provide the spark, or a particular actor in the
company. But, very often it is the director who first risks entering the extraor-
dinary realm of passion, detail, deep care and energy, assuring all who choose
to follow that its a safe place and that he or she will chart the course through the
unknown territory of rehearsals and production. This may be your most vital role
in any production.

Stories of great directors inevitably relate examples of their passion, commit-


ment, and attention to detail. But, these stories sometimes also tell of a ruthless
determination to achieve goals regardless of the feelings of their collaborators.
That may work for some directors. Much more often, though, leading with a
genuinely held sense of why the story matters to you is the best way to infect a
company with a passion for telling it. Musicals often deal with deeply emotional
experiences of love, loss, discovering a sense of purpose or achieving difficult
ends. These are powerful stories youre choosing to tell, and finding a passionate
center as you begin is not negotiable. While no actor or audience member may
be able to say quite why, without this source of passion fueling a production,
everyone will feel its absence acutely. No amount of spit and polish will make up
for a heartless production. Ill add here that you cannot make a show with no heart
and soul have a heart and soul. But, most shows, even if weakly crafted, are built
around a worthy intention with some kind of universal appeal.

We have already discussed putting your ideas about a production in writing.


Identifying, articulating and specifying your passion is just the beginning of your
work as emissary and disciple. When you share it, you must mean it, because
youll share it often with designers, cast, producers, important audience mem-
bers and donors. Each of them needs to be inspired, or infected by your sense
of the passionate heart of the story youre asking them to invest in. The habit of
finding that passion for yourself is like coming to know your role as an actor. In
fact, directors are role players. To achieve your important ends, you must do
whatever it takes to fulfill a musicals potential to affect its audience. The job
requires benevolent manipulation of your company. Sometimes you play a nur-
turing parent. (On rare occasion, you may be a disappointed one, as well.) At other
times, you may be a punishing physical trainer or a gleeful audience member. As
with each of these roles, the part of spiritual leader requires real commitment and
it must be as sincerely embodied as any actor playing Mama Rose or Hamlet
because your audience for each performance, your company, is highly sensitive
to insincerity and depends on your creative inspiration to feed their own.
COLLABORATIVE PARTNERS 59

Excellent directors embrace these critical roles and prepare themselves for the
long-term physical and emotional challenges of the job well in advance. It is a
marathon, not a sprint. You will be required to sustain focus, commitment and
goodwill long after a reasonable person would have ceased to be able to do so.
I have just begun to enumerate the complex logistics of the job and stresses that
will come your way, even under the best circumstances. Your ability to maintain
the passionate center of the show and let it fuel every encounter and decision
will likely be a defining factor in the success of your production.

Now lets talk about two of your most vital partners in the enterprise: choreo-
grapher and musical director. Together, the three of you are often referred to as
the creative team. Lets find out why, and how we can maximize the benefits
flowing from those relationships.

What is a choreographer? UNIT 3.2

In most musicals you will work intimately with a choreographer, whose job it is
to create the dances and formally staged movement for your production. If you
have a dance background, you may take on those duties yourself, or share some
portion of them with your choreographer. This section will explore the role of
choreographer and offer some useful approaches to maximizing your collabo-
ration with this key creative partner.

On the broadest level, directors of musicals interpret existing texts (music, lyrics
and script), while choreographers create an entirely new dance text that coincides
with them. This distinction is valuable to understand from the beginning of your
process because youll serve as inspiration, editor and advisor through the
creation of the dances. Most often, there is virtually no written guide to the dance
sequences in the script. Your choreographer is the person whose work most
closely integrates with yours and with whom you will spend the most time
defining the story, production flow, style and integration of all the many elements
that make up your show. She or he is a kind of co-director and even co-author of
the production.

Theatre dance vs. concert dance UNIT 3.3

Dance in musicals is different than concert dance, though it may employ similar
techniques and choreographic forms, and even the same dancers. What distin-
guishes concert dance from your work is that musical theatre dance expresses
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character experiences. There is no such thing as abstract dance in a musical


because theatre pieces live in tightly defined (if sometimes fanciful or highly
unrealistic) imaginary worlds with clear rules of behavior, specific given circum-
stances, and character relationships that surround the dance and must align with
it. Even dance sequences that seem to be pure spectacle almost always maintain
a clear relationship to the world of the musical. If they dont, they should probably
be cut.

Dance is often powerfully emotional and non-literal, which is why we are so


moved by it. Dance can express joy, despair, rage and a whole host of other pure
emotions with a heightened passion that even singing doesnt always achieve.
It can distill those experiences and engage one or a hundred characters in the
process of telling your story. We often see the danced moments in a musical as
among the highest emotional peaks in the story. If a musical is a work of total
human expression, using every avenue possible to tell a story, then dance
completes the triumvirate with speech and song. Our goal is to integrate dance
so completely into the storytelling that it feels both inevitable and completely
logical in the world weve created. This takes preparation and craft.

Collaboration with your choreographer involves inspiration and support. The work
youll do in creating a clear action outline for musical staging (Unit 6.1) is the
starting place for collaboration with your choreographer. She or he will need to
understand the world of your musical as youve conceived it. The more clearly
the choreographer understands all of what youve imagined, and the sooner
she or he is involved in the process of defining that world, the more seamlessly
the choreographers work will integrate into the tapestry of action in your musi-
cal. From the audiences perspective, there is no apparent division of labor
between director and choreographer. All they see is a continuous dramatic
experience filled by the lives of the characters in every sort of action, behavior
and activity.

Part of what helps many choreographers succeed in creating dances for a musical
is a clear set of guidelines, even restrictions, defining what must happen in each
danced sequence to tell the story. What must happen is not the same thing as
what can happen. While dance sequences often have some storytelling obliga-
tions, a great deal can accompany and illuminate those events, with broad latitude
as to how they occur. Some dance sequences carry essential plot information,
while others ornament the plot in deeply satisfying ways. Typically, you wont
have the same sense of forward plot momentum in dance sequences as we get
in many scenes and songs. What you gain instead is an enhanced sense of the
spirit of your characters and their world.
COLLABORATIVE PARTNERS 61

Your work together begins by creating a scenario for important dance sequences,
a clear expression of the dramatic action, an understanding of location and who
must be or can be involved, and defining any other storytelling obligations. Youve
both probably begun thinking about this before your initial meetings. But, true
collaboration involves shared creation. What results from this exercise is probably
closely related to the short description you did for each scene and musical
sequence in the questionnaire on p. 20: unit analysis. With that as a starting
place, you and your choreographer will listen to the entire musical sequence,
fantasizing and brainstorming ideas of what might happen beyond the funda-
mental script obligations to clarify style, attitudes of the characters, and what
kinds of vignettes might occur.

We often swing between two options for dance sequences. On one hand, we
remember the strong narrative obligations of simple storytelling through dance.
This often includes character exposition and establishing important given circum-
stances of the world of the musical as weve already discussed. On the other
hand, we embrace the impulse toward pure dance and spectacle, full of emotion
and passionate expression. The choreographer marries these two impulses and
often works between them. Your job as the director is to spark and encourage
the choreographers creativity. Your occasional visits to the dance studio as a
fresh set of eyes give you a clear perspective she or he cant easily maintain. This
is among your most useful collaborative functions. Support what works and help
clarify the rest.

Musical collaboration UNIT 3.4

The other central artistic partner youll depend on every day is the musical
director, whose job it is to marry the musical text with the scenes and dances so
you are left with a totally integrated, seamless experience. More than simply
keeping time for the orchestra or teaching notes to actors, a great musical director
brings the dramatic world of your show to life through his or her sensitive
integration of onstage performers and below-stage musicians. Music is the
unifying force for everything that happens in a musical. It can take the rough
edges off a clumsy transition, reinforce an emotional point and stimulate audience
(and actors) toward a climax. Notice, too, that the musical director is the only
member of the creative team who has to be there at each performance.
Performers will go on without their respective guides. The designs will be
presented without their designers, once youve opened. But, a musical is hugely
dependent on the conductor even to begin. The first moment of excitement and
62 COLLABORATIVE PARTNERS

anticipation is his or her lowering the baton for the downbeat of the overture. And
every significant dramatic moment in the show will be led and followed by the
conductor. Once you open, the musical director is also essentially a performer.
The total focus required to wed all the elements weve discussed with a genuine
sense of presence to the actual performance taking place is exhausting, and
requires supreme focus and sensitivity to all the many technical, dramatic
and intangible factors that make a musical theatre performance great.

As you can see, the musical directors job has many strands. It will include at least
the following:

teaching the music to the cast;


adjusting and selecting the proper key for each song;
adapting interstitial music for scene changes;
coordinating and adapting underscoring with scenes;
coordinating and adapting dance sequences, including developing new
dance arrangements as needed (and allowed by contract);
rehearsing and preparing the orchestra;
supervising all aspects of orchestra personnel management (sometimes in
coordination with an orchestra contractor, who does the actual hiring of
players);
maintaining the musical integrity of the entire production;
conducting the orchestra;
supporting and aiding the cast, no matter what level of technical singing
ability they possess.

Moreover, some productions require the conductor to also play piano or keyboard
during performances.

Because so much work is done in isolation from each other, the musical director,
choreographer and director form a creative trio that must share a clear and
unified vision for the show, so that all independent decisions are an expression
of the same collective interpretation. Most often, this begins with the director,
but is enhanced and embraced by all members of the team. Veteran Broadway
musical director Edward Strauss says the best directors respect and revere the
talent of the people around them and are confident the musical director,
choreographer and designers all know more about their respective jobs than
they, the directors, do. Excellent directors support, empower and celebrate the
work of their collaborators, rather than second-guessing or undermining creative
decisions they didnt make. This atmosphere of genuine respect and trust is a
central factor in most of the many successes Strauss worked on, including
COLLABORATIVE PARTNERS 63

Anything Goes, Guys and Dolls, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the
Forum and Urinetown.

There is no shortcut to deliberately working though a show in advance of


rehearsals, deciding on the tone of each number, the essence of each character
and the dramatic terrain of the show. These are what Strauss calls common
areas that form the basis of all the individual decisions youll make in your
separate rehearsals. The very successful director Jack OBrien has a tradition he
follows as part of his pre-production process, especially with new musicals. He
brings his choreographer, musical director and any other key members of his
team together for an intensive weekend of reading and playing through a show,
scene by scene, song by song, from beginning to end, stopping as needed or
desired along the way to discuss each moment. By the end of this immersive
experience, all collaborators are very much on the same page and share a unified
vision of the story to be told. Everyone has had a chance to put their idea on the
table, discuss its merits, pilfer freely from others in clarifying or rejecting it, and
has gained a sense of ownership of the vision they will fulfill as a unified team.
You may be able to do something similar with your own collaborators. Even if it
doesnt involve a single weekend retreat, find the time needed to go through
this kind of process with your own team. You will reap huge dividends in terms
of ease of communication, efficient use of rehearsal time, ability to work inde-
pendently from one another while following the same lead, and a sense of clearly
unified storytelling.

Great directors understand that each collaborator must have autonomy in their
respective part of the production. As Edward Strauss says, Each member of the
team gets to rule their own part of the castle. So, you will not criticize the way
a conductor works with her orchestra, or how a choreographer cleans the steps
with his dancers unless he fails to tell the story, threatens the safety of a company
member or doesnt meet the standards of the production. This respect for each
others territory and trust in their work methods is essential. All members of the
creative team, the director included, work to serve the storytelling need of
the overall production. This is the source of all creative decisions and of genuinely
shared success.