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Reflections from a week on Broadway

Not every young actor yearns for the bright lights of Broadway, but many do. This summer, I travelled to the Big Apple for 30 hours of professional development training with The Broadway Teachers Workshop. 11 workshops with Broadway professionals, 4 Broadway productions, 3 post-production talk backs with the cast, 20 pages of notes, and 100 new Theater Educator Colleagues – needless to say, this is a lengthy post!

A lot of what I learned will be shared in an Acting Workshop I’m leading upon my return. But I’m excited to integrate all of the knowledge throughout my programs for Treasure Valley Children’s Theater (TVCT)!

Some highlights:

A conversation with Jeff Calhoun, director of Broadway’s “Newsies” and Tobin Ost, Scenic Designer for “Newsies” 

This session was a surprise. We were suppose to meet with the director of Matilda, but he was taken ill. Jeff and Tobin popped in and shared their “Newsies” experiences and concept with us. A few thoughts stood out:

  • transitions between moments are the director’s best opportunity to contribute to the book (the story of the play).
  • a directors job is to put the best creative team together, gather all the ideas, the best idea wins
  • protect your actors, play to their strengths

Working with young actors, led by Deborah Abramson, children’s musical director for “Matilda”, and Tim Federle, novelist, actor, choreographer and director who has appeared in MANY Broadway hits.

This was one of my favorite sessions, probably because the advice and techniques shared really reinforced that I do my job well. They aren’t really using any techniques that I don’t already have in my tool box, BUT these little tid bits of advice stuck with me:

  • if the young person struggles to relate with the material, help them identify an experience in their life – or a figure they admire and want to be like – and channel that energy
  • offer new and fresh intentions to help them break out of technicality and redundancy
  • keep rehearsing, even after the show has opened
  • at the end of a rehearsal, have them write down one thing they want to do better at the next rehearsal
  • give them permission to fail and encourage them to go for it every time – they won’t know their limits if they don’t push themselves
  • encourage kids who are double cast to work as a team and support each other – you can do this by acknowledging and talking about feelings of competition and insecurity
  • address challenges immediately and with the full support of the cast and crew, hold everyone accountable

We were also treated to a surprise visit from two young “Matilda” cast members, Sawyer Nunes (Swing) and Madilyn Jaz Morrow (Swing) – who shared a little about their experience as new-to-Broadway young actors.

I had the opportunity to take an early-morning acting class with Michael-David Gordon, a teaching artist and actor with the Irondale Ensemble in New York. Michael-David was INFECTIOUS! He is a natural performer and his teaching techniques were very effective. We played some wonderful diagnostic, impulse, listening and focus activities that I can’t wait to implement in TVCT programs!!!

Directing with John Rando, director of Broadway’s “A Christmas Story the Musical” among MANY other Broadway shows. Again, I appreciated this workshop as it reinforced my own technique as a director. However, there was some excellent advice regarding taking time to work the scene that leads into a song. The moments before a song are some of the most wonderful in a well-directed musical. Some of John’s advice:

  • follow the journey from the beginning of the scene to the start of the song
  • talk about what the characters want internally
  • give the actor an internal motivation, not external direction
  • try a discovery rehearsal before blocking – a method that can help identify true movement and intention for the actor

Because I took the early acting class, I had time to fit in a Gershwin Musical Theater session with David Loud, Music Director, Arranger and Conductor for numerous Broadway hits including “Porgy and Bess.” I’ll be honest, I wasn’t all that excited about this workshop, but I am SO GLAD I WENT!!! David opened my eyes to an era of musical theater that I’ve been neglecting, and he did it with the help of Broadway actors Liz Callaway (Tony nominee, Emmy winner “Merrily We Roll Along” “Baby” “Miss Saigon”), Betsy Wolfe (“The Last Five Years,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) and Lewis Cleale (“The Book of Mormon,” “I Do! I Do!”). Some great tips:

  • write out the lyrics of a song before you learn the music – read the lyrics as dialogue to find the meaning and story within the song
  • sing a song to express not impress
  • musical breaks are as much a part of the story as the lyrics, don’t overlook them

Teaching and Acting Shakespeare with John Basil, Producing Artistic Director and founding member of the American Globe Theatre, was a mind BLOWING class. John is an excellent facilitator and suggested Shakespeare’s body of work should be approached more like a crossword puzzle than a poem. Shakespeare left clues in the first folio versions of his 37 plays. These clues act as stage and character direction for the company of actors. For instance,

  • funny sounding names indicate a comical character
  • capital letters indicate the start of verse while small letters starting a sentence indicate the text is to be read as prose
  • Shakespeare used punctuation and miss-spelling to indicate stage direction and intention – many of the modern day translations are not true to Shakespeare’s original text, which is why it’s best to study the first folio
  • alliteration, like the repetitive use of the ‘K’ sound, is intentional to create comedic effect
  • Words indicate stage direction, truly “suit the action to the word and the word to the action”

“Matilda” Dance Class with Heather Tepe, Swing for “Matilda” and played Baby June in Bernadette Peters “Gypsy” directed by Sam Mendes, was so much fun! We learned a part from “Revolting Children.” The choreographer for “Matilda” was inspired by a kickboxing/martial arts style of movement – it was a great workout. And it always surprises me how the actors, of all ages, are so well conditioned to sing full voice while dancing at that intensity.

I ended my workshop series with a Comedy Sports session led by “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” co-creator and actress (Logan Schwartzandgrubenairre), Sarah Saltzberg. Sarah shared some great games to reinforce improvisation and creating meaning within the scene. More tools for the TVCT tool box!

I also took classes regarding soft-goods for set design, projection design, and Music Theatre International tools, but I won’t recap all that information or this post will NEVER end!

You can’t go to Broadway and not see a show – and I saw four of them! We also had talk-backs with the cast after three of the performances. I’ve recapped the good stuff below:

“Newsies” – This show has received a lot of hype and is beloved by many a young, aspiring actors. I have loved the story for years and was even one of the many pestering Disney to release the rights for stage production years ago. Well, they rewrote the story for the stage and some of the changes I like. I love the greater role of the reporter, the intention change for Medda, and some of the new songs. But I have to be honest, the sets overwhelmed the acting and starting a big musical with a ballad just doesn’t work in my world. Overall, it was very well performed and I’m certain we’ll be using some of the material in class work for our students. When will it be available for other groups to produce? Not for quite some time, unfortunately. Disney expects at least 12 more months on Broadway before it goes on tour. We’re looking at at least 2-3 years.

TALK BACK: Andy Richardson (Crutchie), LaVon Fisher Wilson (Medda Larkin), Adam Kaplan (Morris Delancy), and Jack Scott (Race) visited with our group after the show. They shared some interesting thoughts about making it to Broadway. Some highlights: “the leads might have all the dialogue, but the ensemble creates the world the story is telling.” “Be a jack of all trades, not just master of one.” “Keep good grades and be responsible, this craft takes discipline.” “Be nice to everyone because you never know who they know.”

“Matilda” – It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a show that took my breathe away. “Matilda” achieved this and more! The story is a dark one, to be sure. But it’s so smartly written and directed that even the moments of levity feel authentic. The acting was incredible, particularly from the young actors – they are so fiercely dedicated to the show and the craft, and most of them (ages 7 – 14) are making their Broadway debuts. The four girls playing the lead role of Matilda had no professional experience to speak of when accepting the role. And these kids work hard! They still rehearse twice a week and come in 2 hours before each performance (8 a week) for warm ups and to get ready.

The sets were imaginative, the special effects very exciting, the energy was out of this world, and the acting was superb. Best of all, this is the type of show that we can produce in our community and people will love it! I can’t wait to start workshopping this material.

TALK BACK: The director, Matthew Warchus, joined us for the talk back. It was fascinating to hear about the evolution of the production and the scenic design. We also heard from several of the ensemble actors and Lauren Ward who plays Miss Honey. It is apparent that the entire cast is very proud of this production and working with the young actors has reintroduced that magical energy many of us remember when we were performing in our first productions as young actors.

“Pippin” – I’ve never liked this play. The story of a rich kid trying to find his purpose just doesn’t speak to me. And the themes of temptation and the devil feel overdone. It’s just a personal opinion, so get over it you “Pippin” lovers. The re-imagining of this old musical is indeed exciting. The use of Cirque is effectively distracting from the tired tale. And performances from some of Broadway’s legends makes this show a fun “fan” occasion. I didn’t hate it. But I wouldn’t go see it again.

“Cinderella” – So, let’s be honest, “Cinderella” like “Pippin” is an overdone show. I did it in college and haven’t looked at the material since. Kids and families love it for the romance of it all. I had heard that the new Broadway show was well done so I settled in for a nice night with an old story. Boy, was I surprised! They’ve re-written the book, given greater depth to all of the characters, including poor Prince Charming. They’ve added modern humor and freshened some songs – even added a few new tunes. WOW!!! I found myself lost in the story, laughing out loud, and sitting on the edge of my seat. This new version is indeed a treat and a show that can also be produced in our community without all the typical tricks of Broadway.

TALK BACK – We were joined by many of the actors from “Cinderella” for our final talk back, including Laura Osnes (Ella), Santino Fontana (Topher), Harriet Harris (Madame), Ann Harada (Charlotte), Greg Hildreth (Jean-Michael), Kristine Bendul(Ensemble, Asst. Choreographer), Andy Jones (Ensemble, u/s Topher). What stood out for me was that the majority didn’t intent to pursue musical theatre. Many were given amazing opportunities based on their experience and commitment to other theatrical disciplines.