Three Short Anecdotes Wherein I, Or People I Admire, Get Schooled About Theater
Reprinted with permission from Samuel French's Breaking Character.
Oh, look – suddenly it’s July, and I’ve just wrapped my first semester teaching college students (Pace University Musical Theater BFA kids WOOT!). Turns out, that platitude that’s all “blah blah when you’re a teacher, the act of teaching teaches you blah blah blah” is actually… a completely real thing. As the semester trundled on and I needed to continue disseminating pearls of wisdom, I found myself harking back to the pivotal moments that helped me codify and shape my own artistic worldview – read: the instances in which I, myself, got “schooled.” Revisiting them also helped me remember what my core artistic values and goals are, and commit to them anew.
Here are three anecdotes that appeared this semester with some degree of frequency. I think the morals are fairly evident, and I hope you find them as illuminating as I did (and do) [see "Note"].
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A few years ago, I got to be part of the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop. If you do the ASCAP Workshop (which, without question, absolutely everyone should), the deal is that you put together a reading of the first hour of your musical, and perform it straight through for a panel of Thoughtful Individuals and an invited audience. Here’s the catch: the Thoughtful Individuals include Stephen Schwartz (always) and other artistic Titans – anyone from Adam Guettel to Joe DiPietro to Dick Scanlan to Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. In other words, you better sit the EFF down and put your GD listening ears on.
In addition to Mr. Schwartz, my panel included Bob Alwine (Associate Producer at the glorious Goodspeed Musicals) and Peter Schneider (who was the President of Disney Animation when they came up with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and The Lion King, nbd). After the reading, I was fielding some tough questions about the book (it’s always the book, isn’t it) and Mr. Schneider asked me if I had done a storyboard of my show. Ever the defensive artist, I was like: “Of course I did! Who do you think I am??” (clarification: that didn’t happen – it was more like, “… yes, He-Who-Gave-Me-My-Childhood?” *kowtows*). And Mr. Schneider said to me:
“Okay, but you know there’s only one way to really storyboard anything. The storyboard itself has to be at least eight feet by ten feet in size. The reason is that, if the storyboard is eight feet by ten feet, the wall on which it is mounted has to be even bigger than that to accommodate it — which means that the entire room has to be even bigger still to accommodate the wall that accommodates the storyboard. And, once you’re in a room that big, then and only then are you in a room big enough to hold your ideas.”
Ed. note – I now believe this to be true for all theatrical disciplines, e.g. if you are a singer, don’t condition yourself to merely sing as big as your practice room. Environment affects work intrinsically; being aware of it and calibrating accordingly can have a profound effect on the work’s emotional magnitude, and the quality both of the risk and the reward of that which you create.
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The Money Note
I once attended a performance of a show [and before you ask, “which show” is irrelevant – I anticipate that, after hearing this story, you will be able to come up with a miniumum of seven (7) nearly-identical examples from your own catelogue of fraught theatregoing experiences].
My friend and I were seated next to two fancy and cultured Society Women – not theater professionals, per se, but connoisseurs, advocates and patrons of the arts – the kinds of people who (thank God) keep theater happening year in and year out. Imagine Lucille Bluth-types, but less… racist.
About halfway through the first act, there was a number where the protagonist came downstage center and sang about his Feelings. As he did so, he spread his arms open, and the twinkling set flew away, and the orchestra swelled, and he optioned up and aced that Money Note like the stuff of legend. It was all very BigAndImpressive and all the hypnotizing, disorienting stuff I knew I was supposed to get all fanboy about, but… buuuuutttttt… ugh, something was wrong and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
And then, just as the applause began, out of the corner of my eye, I caught one of the Society Women slow-clapping – she turned to her compatriot and, with incredible angst and consternation, said: “I… I just… don’t… care!”
Ah. There it was. Truer words ne’er had been spoken. It was the most concrete example I had ever witnessed of supreme theater glitz simply… not cutting it.
Your audience has to care. As far as I’m concerned, there is no more important goal in all of theatermaking than to get / allow for your audience to care. All the bedazzling and flying sets and high-notes-that-feel-great-to-sing and the Fact That A Musical Is A Musical – none of them have a direct link to an audience caring, and therefore have little to nothing to do with why we’re all doing this in the first place.
So… what, then? What is vital, what is essential to a satisfying night at the theater? The best answer I’ve heard is from…
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… and this story comes c/o my dear friend Anne Morgan, Literary Manager and Dramaturg Extraordinare at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. The year Anne graduated Emerson College, the school also gave an honorary degree to Mr. Forman, director of such cinematic masterpieces as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus.
Upon receiving his degree, Mr. Forman said, “Thank you for this honor. I have only abided by two rules in my films; I offer them to you, students, as you go off in the world and create your own work:
Tell the truth,
Don't be boring.
… thank you.”
And then, having nothing to add, he sat down.
NOTE: Sam Willmott and associates will not be held responsible for providing, wholly or in part, artistic illumination, “Eureka”-moments, or mild-to-severe epiphanies. Mostly, he just thinks these are good stories.