Five actors, Five (easy?) Pieces….

There’s a hefty chunk of Act I (two scenes and three songs, to be exact) which is performed by the same five actors.  No chorus, no entrances, no exits.  That’s a long haul.

This section has been staged for some time, but it benefits from re-visiting often to keep it sharp and focused.  Tonight we broke it down to both sharpen blocking and choreography, and identify intent and action within each scene and song.

The initial scene is basically “Well this is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into!!!”  

The triple exclamations points here are on purpose.  My note is for each actor to exaggerate their character’s personal dilemma.  Bigger, bolder, broader. Everything should be truthful, but blown out of proportion for comic effect.

The following song: “I have an intricate plan which is hard to follow — until it isn’t.”

No exclamation points.  It’s more like a question mark. My note here is to embrace the initial confusion which gradually gives way to understanding — and more unified choreography.

The next scene: “By George I think we’ll do it!!”

Only two exclamation points here.  There is still some bickering, but the scene is all about clarifying the details.  Here’s a question, here’s an answer, here’s a problem, here’s a solution.

The second song is a lovely madrigal which exclaims “What a World, What a World!”

One exclamation point.  Here, for the first time, all five characters speak with a unified voice in a moment of somber reflection. The intricate music suggested a clockwork mechanism to me.  So the choreography, while relatively simple, is extremely precise and includes a combination of unision and individual motions.  Calculated stillness followed by mathematical shifts in position and formation.  I’m afraid it’s a bit of a bear to learn.  So we’ll be reviewing it as often as possible.

The final song suggests “Forget Your Troubles, Come On, Get Happy!!!”

Three exclamation points again, and this time with gusto!!! Now we jump from somber unison to happy-go-lucky unison.  The inspiration here is a gang of pals in a 1940s musical who are dancing in the streets and carefree as can be.

Then the five exhausted actors march off the stage and take a break for a bit.

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Small but Mighty

Tonight was a small rehearsal.

Due to various conflicts and illnesses, I worked with a small number of principal actors. And we focused on small moments in the production.  It’s the kind of fine detail work I love — but rarely have the time to explore when working with such a large cast.

For instance, there are three measures of music at the top of the Act I Finale which needed a little something to flesh them out.  Similarly, there are four measures later in the Finale in which Ludwig and Lisa were merely crossing Stage Right, but the music calls for more flourish than mere walking.

We broke down the duet between the Duke and the Baroness and punctuated it into finely tuned individual beats rather than continuous unison motion. We also definied clear switches from pompousness  to silliness throughout the number.

A scene between Ludwig and the Duke received a similarly detailed treatment.  We established intricate beats and rhythms — and inserted a shaking-by-the-shoulders followed by a triple face slap — which vastly enhances the humor.

We then worked on amping up the showmanship of Ernest’s solo — realizing that energizing the face and hands is the key to properly selling the previously established footwork.

Small changes all around.  But the difference is a Mighty one.

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Outside In, Inside Out

It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day here in North Carolina.  I took my coffee outside this morning and enjoyed the blooms of daffodil, hellebore, and flowering quince as I did a little walk-about of my awakening garden.

Then I drove into town and spent three and a half hours in a cold, windowless basement along with thirty or so other folks — all committed to creating and presenting the best darn production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Grand Duke” we possibly can.

We’re far enough into the rehearsal process that Sundays are now largely dedicated to reviewing already-staged material.  I still have some staging to do, but we also have plenty in our back pockets which must be learned, re-learned, and kept fresh.

We ran Act I in it’s entirety.  Hooray!  Still a lot of cleaning up and memorization to be done, but it’s fully staged and in good shape.

Then we ran what we have of Act II — which is a large chunk of the middle, but not much of the beginning nor the end.  Still, a good deal of material to review and refresh.

In addition to encouraging the cast to become more and more familiar and confident with the material, reviewing the staging allows me to sit back and watch what we have wrought.

I can step out of “teaching” mode and critically observe.

One big insight this “observing” mode offered today related to our Human Roulette Wheel, which we’d just staged earlier this week.  I knew it needed a little more work, but was generally happy with it.

But today I sat back and watched; and realized the structure was all wrong.  I had created the same “gimmick” for all three verses.  The original concept was still strong, but the choreography was redundant and a bit clunky.

So we turned it inside out!  Now verse one is outside the wheel, verse two is inside the wheel, and verse three is outside the wheel yet again — with a slight variation.  There’s still a bit of tweaking to be done at the end, but the new flip-flopped structure is vastly more intriguing.

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la roulette et la danse des ours

After re-visiting and re-inventing the opening of Act I earlier this week, we delved back into the midst of Act II.

When we last left our intrepid group of revolutionaries, they had infiltrated the Grand Duke’s Tower and had begun drinking his wine, when a Herald arrived to announce the arrival of mysterious regal visitors.  So, of course, the revolutionaries hid themselves behind the golden curtains in order to provide a real surprise for their surprise guests.

Tonight we staged what we’re affectionately calling the “Bear Dance.”  It’s three pages of silly, frivolous, mad-cap music with no singing.  There’s sneaking, startling, screaming, and chasing.  “Bears” came to me as inspiration and so “Bears” we are — with a bit of Keystone Cops thrown in for good measure.

Then there’s the following number, which extolls the financial virtues of encouraging the masses to gamble on a game in which the bank always wins.  For your entertainment, we’ve created a Human Roulette Wheel….

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Rehearsal is all about doing it over.  And over and over.

We repeat things — music, lines, blocking, choreography — to learn them, to get better at them, and — sometimes — to realize they’re not working and need to be re-invented.

Tonight I re-invented the opening number.  I’d wanted it to feel chaotic and somewhat disorganized but, no matter how many times we rehearsed it,  it remained a blurred lump of aimless activity.

And it was all my fault.

I finally realized I’d been going at it all wrong.  In order to create the effect of chaos, I needed to give the number focus and structure.  Rather than one long string of simultaneous actions, it needed to be a staccato series of brief, but highly focused actions.

And now, after several hours of breaking it down beat by beat and identifying the specific actions and timing for each of more than twenty cast members, the opening number is vastly improved.  It makes much more sense to the cast, it’s telling a story, it’s setting the right mood, and it’s finally achieving the chaotic effect I’d been hoping for.

I’m thankful that directors get do-overs too.

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Who’s Gonna Clean Up This Mess?

What to do when a mysterious, sword-wielding Herald arrives unannounced? Well, technically he is a “herald,” so he has arrived to do the announcing — but there’s still the mystery factor and the wielding of the sword. And the fact that he’s interrupted the toga party we were having in someone else’s house.

I suppose there are many things one could do, but what we’re doing is side-stepping, bunny-hopping, pointing, rotating in formation with a “three stooges” sound effect, sneaking, confronting, surrendering, retreating, flapping hands, and side-stepping some more.

And figuring out a way to get rid of all the wine glasses!

Then we all run and hide to await the arrival of the Prince of Monte Carlo and his be-yoo-ti-ful daughter.

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Jolly Jolly Jinks

Tonight represents a first for me…. I choreographed a large section of the show without listening to the music!

I normally sit with a recording and listen to it over and over again as I create choreography.  I listen and visualize; and then go back to the score to make notations.

But I didn’t have that luxury for the last section of the Act I Finale.  I was forced into situations in which I had my score, but not my recording.

To be fair, I had listened to this section of music a few times before. So I had a bit of musical memory.  But I had no in-the-moment aural back-up as I created the staging.  And I was a little nervous.

I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t really read music.  But I can tell a quarter note from a half note, I notice when one note is higher or lower than another, and I can usually discern when the tempo changes.

So I sat with the score, imagined the music to the best of my ability, and did my job.  And my job is to Tell The Story.

And gosh darn-it, it worked!  I taught it, they did it, and it worked!!

The Story Was Told. And entertainingly to boot!

A lot happens in the Act I Finale.  A faked-from-the-get-go “election” takes place.  Some folks are happy and some are not.  All seems well until a technicality is uncovered.  Politics become personal. Then one person becomes extremely unhappy.  There’s a moment of general sadness. And then everyone decides to be self-centered and happy anyway — fantasizing about the the havoc they’ll create, the fun they’ll have, and the clothes they’ll wear when they take control of the state.

The “self-centered and happy anyway” section is what we staged tonight.

It includes The Jinks Jive (repeated when appropriate),  “I Dream of Jeannie,” The Twist, Side Stepping with Hand Flapping, “Ooooooooo,” Reverse-A-Roo, Switching Places, Stealing the Front Line, Side Stepping without Hand Flapping, “Jane Fonda,” Lateral Bobble, and Spiral Ad Nauseum.

And with that Act I is officially staged.

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