A Director’s Advice

About this time every year I send a note to the cast to prepare them for the week ahead.

This year it struck me that some of my advice to performers might be extracted and interpolated as advice to the audience as well.  There will be a “show.”  That’s obvious.  And we all want to make the most of it — no matter on which side of the footlights we might be. While the cast and crew are doing their best to prepare backstage, I wonder what sort of preparation will be going on in the house.

Here’s my note….


We move into the theater tomorrow.

Then we’ll have three fleeting days to take this production from pretty-good-rehearsal mode to Knock-Their-Socks-Off performance mode. After that, we’ll have a scant four opportunities to show ‘em what we’ve got; and to make ’em glad they decided to leave their sofas and spend a few hours of their time with us.

By this time next week it will all be over. The performances will all be done, the set will be struck, we’ll have taken everything back to the warehouse, and folks will be saying their goodbyes at the post-performance cast party.

Basically what I’m saying here is that you should get set to say your goodbyes to “The Grand Duke.” It’s one of several “little” G&S shows that only comes around every fifteen years or so. And we will certainly not ever all see it together again.

So let’s seize the moment!

To my mind, the best way of saying goodbye is with a heartfelt embrace. Let’s love this show while it’s here. Let’s love each other. And let’s love every opportunity we have to make our audiences love our “Grand Duke”.

A lot will happen in the coming days. I know each of you wants to give the absolute best performance you can. And I can promise you that you will surprise, astound, and also disappoint yourself in that endevour. Some of you will overcome what seemed to be unsurmountable hurdles. Some of you will break through to an entirely new realm in your personal performance history. Some of you will make unimaginable mistakes. There will be high notes. There will be flat notes. There will be missed cues. And there will be unforeseen spontaneous rounds of applause. Each of us will find ourselves in the midst of all of these scenarios to some degree. That’s theater. That’s life.

Here’s my advice…..

Breathe. Find a way to take a moment before each rehearsal and performance to relax and to calmly think about the task at hand. Put aside whatever may be stressing you in the outside world and strive to peacefully and competently enter the space; dedicated to joining the ongoing process of perfecting and presenting this production.

Focus. Once you’ve entered the theater, you should be 100% focused on this production and completely dedicated to preparing yourself to perform. If at all possible, don’t bring cellphones, laptops, homework, or any of the other myriad anchors which keep us tethered to the outside world. The theater is a sanctuary. Let’s treat it as such.

Acquiesce. That means to accept without protest. What I’m asking here is that you enter the theater with no carryover emotions from the outside world, nor with a firm agenda. There will undoubtedly be work going on before you arrive. So, while it is good to enter with your own personal goals to move you toward performance mode, please be prepared to go with the flow. We will do our best to establish a collective pre-show routine and to allow each of you the time and space to do what you need to do. But there will be moments of chaos. If we can each enter the space quietly and with a receptive attitude, we’ll have a much better chance of taking on the chaos in our stride.

Know Your Place. Each of you will be assigned a backstage space. It may be only a few square feet, but it’s yours (it’ll most likely be in front of a mirror). Please find your space and try to confine your “stuff” and your personal business to that area. Don’t encroach upon someone else’s space and (gently) don’t allow them to encroach upon yours.

Listen Big. There will be calls throughout your time in the theater letting you know how much time you have before opening curtain and second act curtain. There will be calls summoning you to the stage. There will also be calls requesting your presence at warm-ups and company meetings. Listen to these. Gauge your activities accordingly and be ready to perform/participate when called upon.

Listen Small. We’re about to cram a lot of people into a small space to do a big job. Cast, Crew, Orchestra, Production Staff, Theater Staff, etc. People, each and every one. People have strengths and weaknesses. People have emotions. People have needs. Most of the above advice has been to encourage you to be prepared, to be self-sufficient, and to be strong. But everyone won’t be able to do that at all times. Please be aware of the signals folks around you may be giving. Someone may need space. Someone may need quiet. Someone may need attention. Someone may need help. Try to tune in to those needs. But be careful not to over-react. Often the best thing we can provide to someone in distress is space. Help if you can, otherwise get out of the way.

Start Again. Okay. You’ve gotten yourself into the space. You’ve gotten yourself ready to perform. You’ve dealt with whatever problems/emergencies have come up (or you’ve backed away and allowed others to take care of the problems). You’re standing in the wings and about to make your first entrance. Now it’s time to go through the entire process again…. but this time you’re applying the mantra to your onstage life: Breathe. Focus. Acquiesce. Know Your Place. Listen Big. Listen Small.

And for goodness sake “Sing Out Louise!”


Grand Duke 3.jpg

(Dean Kivotidis as Ernest, Stuart Albert as The Grand Duke, Jim Burnette as Ludwig)

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The Long Hundred or Half-Way to “Hamilton”

So here’s something to think about as we prepare to move into tech week for “The Grand Duke”…..

“Score” is an archaic way of saying “twenty.”  You know, like Lincoln’s famous “four score and seven years ago” — which meant “87 years ago.”

Six Score was called a Hundred.  So, for a long time a “Hundred” was 120.  Then we moved to the ten-based system of counting and the modern Hundred (100) was born.  During the transition period between the two systems 120 was called a “Long Hundred”.

Why am I telling you this?

1776.  A bunch of colonists rebelled against the tyranical and arguably insane King George.

1896 (120 years, or Six Score, or a Long Hundred later).  Gilbert and Sullivan wrote a fictional account of squabbling actors getting themselves into all sorts of trouble as they attempt to overthrow a despised despot in “The Grand Duke”.  The story involves duels, deceit, jealousy, betrayals, and multiple love interests for one aspiring politician.

2016 (another 120 years later).  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton” swept the Tony Awards and became an indelible part of our cultural landscape.  It also features duels, deceit, jealousy, betrayals, and multiple love interests for one aspiring politician.

2016 was also an election year, as you may recall, and the cast of “Hamilton,” in a stunning moment of life imitating art, caused a bit of an uproar when they publicly and poetically spoke to the powers that be.

Coincidence?  You tell me.

But things do seem to happen in cycles.  And I’m intrigued to find myself — right here and right now —  in the midst of reviving this political musical comedy which was created at the halfway point between The American Revolution and the revolutionary “Hamilton.”

Am I saying that our production compares with “Hamilton”?  Of course not.  But it is interesting to note the many tangents and parallels between the two works; and to recognize how each of them touches on both historical and contemporary events.

I’m constantly finding echoes of the past in “The Grand Duke.”  Both the past as Gilbert and Sullivan knew it, and the past as you and I know it (much of which would’ve been their future).  I also see surprisingly relevant reflections of what’s happening in the world today.

So it’s historic, contemporary, and futuristic all at the same time.

And gold-loving despots with insane hair never seem to go out of fashion.

Grand Duke 1.jpg(Stuart Albert as “The Grand Duke”)

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The Final Ten Days Are Upon Us…

Our Preview Performance is one week from tonight.

We’re about to graduate from rehearsing in conference rooms and rehearsal halls to performing on the magnificent stage at the Carolina Theatre with costumes, props, make-up, sets, lights, and a full orchestra.  And we’re ready for the upgrade!

Tonight we ran the show in a cramped room under fluorescent lights.  We ran everything, beginning to end.  The simple truth is that we could open tomorrow if we had to.  I’m not saying we were perfect tonight.  But we have a show, with music and choreography, that tells a story and entertains.

Our job over the next week is to not only add all the theatrical trappings, but to cut the fat and eliminate all the little mistakes from our performance.  Pace could be more brisk.  Volume and energy could be enhanced.  Confidence could be boosted. There are a few remaining moments of confusion which need to be ironed out.  All these things and more are on our “to do” list for the coming days.

Here’s a brief synopsis of what will happen in the upcoming whirlwind week before we meet our first audience.

Friday night we’ll have a final run-through of the show in a rehearsal hall.  I have some small staging issues to work out, but it will otherwise be a beginning-to-end performance of the show.

Saturday is the final workday in the warehouse — during which the set will be completed, deconstructed, and prepared for packing and transporting to the theater.

Sunday is sitz-probe.  The cast will sing through the entire score with the orchestra.  No staging, no scenes, no choreography.  Just music.

Sunday evening the set will be packed into the truck.

Monday morning the set will be transported to the theater, unloaded, and reconstructed on the stage. Lights will also be hung and focused and all sorts of other technical aspects of the show will begin to come together.

Monday night we’ll run the show on the set with no costumes and only piano accompaniment.  During this run-through I’ll begin to establish lighting cues and levels with the lighting designer and stage manager.

Tuesday night is when it really starts to look like a show!  Costumes and make-up will be added.  And we’ll run the show with a full orchestra.  Meanwhile, we’ll contine to refine lighting levels and cues.

Wednesday night is Final Dress Rehearsal.  This should be just like a performance — and it’s our last opportunity to solve any remaining issues.

Thursday night is a Preview Performance.  We will have an audience!  Tickets are discounted because it is a “preview.”  Technically it’s still a rehearsal and there’s always the chance that we’ll stop the show to resolve an issue if necessary. Chances of stopping are slim, but it’s a possibility.  The other big point of tonight is that we’ll begin to get the feel for how the show plays in front of an audience.  We’re hoping for a large crowd so please join us if you can!

All that happens in one week.  And then…

Friday is our offical Opening Night!

Saturday is our second performance.  Please note that Saturday’s showtime is 7 PM (as opposed to 8 PM on Thursday and Friday).

Sunday is a 2 PM matinee — and our final performance.  Immediately after the show we’ll deconstruct the set, gather up the costumes and props, and pack everything into a truck to return to the warehouse.

That’s ten days in total.  In a mere ten days we’ll pull it all together, put it out there for all to see, and then pack it all up again.

Theater is a fleeting thing.  Don’t let it pass you by!

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The Eyebrows Have it!

I love working on scenes  with actors.  I absolutely love it!

Last night I wrote about the art of watching. Well, tonight’s rehearsal was about watching, and talking, and taking action.

We looked at several scenes — and some songs that play like scenes — and broke them down beat by beat to identify motivations; clarify what’s being communicated to the audience; amplify volume of both voice and gesture; sharpen the focus; add more layers of action, reaction, and intent; and resolve issues which had once been stumbling blocks.

That last one might be my favorite: turning stumbling blocks into pedestals.  They say the moments you hate in early rehearsals will become the ones you love, if you work at it.  And it’s true.  When we take the time to identify and discuss problem areas, a clunky exit can be re-imagined as a victorious one.  A bumbling chase scene can transform into one with pinball precision.  Manipulation of costume pieces can clarify a string of confusing plot twists.  Repetition of a simple action can form a scintillating comic rhythm in a moment which was previously somewhat flat.

And everyone loves a dramatic eyebrow!  One breakthrough moment came when I encouraged an actor to tell the story with his magnificently expressive eyebrows (what would I give for eyebrows like those?!). That one little suggestion opened a floodgate of character embodiment, made the storytelling crystal clear, and fostered a delightful new connection with the audience.


Performances begin next week.  Get those tickets!!


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Watching the Work

I teach acting on Monday nights, so was late to tonight’s “Grand Duke” rehearsal.

We’re in the final week before moving into the theater; which could be a time of chaos and stress.  So it was wonderful to walk into a roomful of calm, attentive people in the midst of reviewing material and cleaning up staging! Everyone focused, everyone working. Dance Captain, Pam had things well in control. So I quietly sat with Donna at the Stage Manager’s table and reviewed my notes from yesterday’s run-through.

And then I watched.

They worked and I watched.

I’m not going to say I didn’t participate at all but, for the most part I was an observer.

There’s a strangely little-known fact about a performance. It must be watched — constantly.  Yes, it will ultimately be seen by an audience.  But at every step in the process it must be watched by directors, stage managers, choreographers, musical directors.  Only an outside eye (ear) can tell if the overall structure is balanced and holding together; and if each of the actors seems to understand their particular role and how it fits into the overall performance.

The actors are also watching themselves.  Each of them is accutely aware of their own performance and is constantly self-correcting, self-challenging, and re-calibrating.

The developing performance must also be watched by costume designers, lighting designers, set designers, properties designers, tech crew, etc.  They’re building the world in which the performance will happen. The performance must fit that world.  And that world must fit the performance.

So we all watch as a performance grows.  And we continuously work towards a perfect fit of all the pieces into a unified whole.

Your first chance to watch the work is Thursday, March 30th.  Have you got your tickets?



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Get Your Tickets!

What happens when a group of entertainers decide to perform on the politcal stage?


The hilariously convoluted plot of “The Grand Duke” involves covert conspiracies, rigged elections, secret signs, death-less duels, insider trading, profiteering, legal loopholes, bickering divas, multiple marriages, jilted lovers, and myriad moments of mirth, madness, and mayhem.

What’s more, this rollicking comic opera tells its tale through a plethora of musical styles — intricate choral harmonies, soaring solos, haunting duets, a shimmering madrigal, an effervescent drinking song, a rousing gambling song, and many more of the joyous, melodic concoctions for which Gilbert and Sullivan are famous.

As usual, we at The Durham Savoyards have put our inimitable spin on the proceedings.  Look for outlandish costumes and make-up, quirky characters, complex staging and choreography, and timeless yet oh-so-topical references throughout.  You may even recognize a despot or two.

You don’t want to miss it!

“The Grand Duke” opens with a preview performance on Thursday, March 30 at 8PM.  There’s another performance on Friday, March 31 at 8PM.  Another on Saturday, April 1 at 7 PM (note the earlier time).  And a final performance on Sunday, April 2 at 2 PM.

Then it’s all over (cue sad trombone).

So get your tickets now by calling the Carolina Theater during business hours at 919-560-3030. Or call Ticketmaster 24 hours a day at 800-745-3000.   You can also purchase tickets online at this link.

We’ll see you at the theatre!


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Giving Up

We’ve come to that time in rehearsals when I think about giving up.  Not “throwing in the towel,” but giving up control.

The scenes are blocked, the songs are choreographed — now the cast must take the reins.

It’s always a bit of a shaky transition.  There are the first wobbly steps as everyone gets off-book.  Lines will be dropped, entrances will be missed, staging will be mangled, and dance steps will go awry.  It’s a time of mistakes, of self-deprecating expletives, and of sympathetic laughter.

But the cast struggles through, from beginning to end.  (I think it’s important at this point to run the show from beginning to end.) They own their mistakes, beat themselves up a bit, review their notes, drill problem areas, and then do it all again.  And with every iteration the show becomes more confidently theirs.

I’m still watching; still taking and giving notes.  But now my notes are mostly reminders of existing rules rather than introductions of new concepts.  And even those notes will become fewer and farther between.

Slowly but surely I’m giving up control. And they’re taking over.

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