Friday, May 16, 2008

Time goes by and dreams go dry...


Hello again faithful blog readers out there!Let's have a little second semester chat, shall we?

These past few months have been far from relaxing. In fact, there were many days when I found myself running around in this state of panic trying to accomplish the next thing on my daily goals list. As I sit back and reflect upon what the months have actually been to me, they have proven to be so much more than accomplishments of the the silly goals list. They have been a threshold of experience I will look back on with many fond memories.
I think back to the first day of Merrily We Roll Along in class ( for those of you that don't know we met M,W 2-4:50 to rehearse) and remember just wondering exactly how the finished product was going to be. I think I can speak for everyone, including Michael Flowers, by saying that we were just unsure. It started as a "we'll see how this goes" project. We were handling every aspect of the show-lights,costumes,props and not to mention actually performing were all our responsibilities. For all of February we had night rehearsals as well as in class music rehearsals. At first the INSANE amount of words,lyrics and what seemed like even jibber-jabber-nonsense in the score at the time was overwhelming. Michael stressed how important outside preparation was over and over. There were days that we would run songs in a certain act and not come back to them for a month. I wondered what it would be like the first time we were all off-book in March. A huge challenge was just being prepared daily to be in the game with something we had not really fully jumped into in a while. In short, I feel like it took an extremely long time for the mechanics to sink in.
As off-book time merrily rolled itself along, I think it is okay to say that we were all playing it safe for quite a while. The show actually did not start to feel real until about two weeks prior to opening night. I think repetition was key. Actually, I take that back I KNOW repetition was key. It was exciting to see how the show flowed and what everyone worked on with their character/s. Some had more to work with than others. It was nice to see and feel an ensemble coming together. Little moments began to develop and I started to see exactly why Michael wanted to take on this particular show. I began to appreciate the beauty in the simplicity of the production as a whole.
Time, which seemed to be a consistent theme throughout the show,went by and opening night was upon us. We had a solid run of six shows. With the exception of a couple shows, we could not have asked for better audiences as a whole. After Thursday nights performance, we all appreciated the beauty of live theatre even more. WHY? You ask... A little keyboard malfunction...DRAMA! Okay, seriously, a majority of the second half of the show was done completely a capella. It was handled very gracefully, and actually made it that much more rewarding to have finished yet another show. I enjoyed hearing people's responses to the show--especially the student body's. I think they genuinely enjoyed it more than we all anticipated. Since the show is done backwards in time, I was curious to see just how responsive and into it people would be.
After thinking about reasons why people appreciated it so much, I came to the conclusion that I think the majority of audience members our age loved the honesty of the story. It is dreams. It is passion. It is what happens when one lets go of them. No single soul can predict exactly where they will be in years to come. It's scary, but we just don't know. So, for me, I can say being absorbed in the show was something I learned tremendously from and as Michael has referred to it- "a cautionary tale" that I hope touched as many people as possible.

Let's face it onstage and off- "...all of these moments I'll never replace..." (thank you, Foo Fighters for that lyrical wisdom). Until next time-Happy Summer!


Italy: A Retrospective

Well, I promised you a post about my trip to Italy and here it is. It's only about four months late, but better now than never, right? I didn't expect to have as little time as I had during the spring semester. So, Italy...

As you may recall from my previous post about the trip, we stayed and studied at the Accademia dell'Arte in Arezzo, Italy. By we, I refer to myself, Shelby Bowling, Leslie Brown, Christina Johnson, Stefan Neeley, Sarah Schiesz, and Skyler Vallo accompanied by Dr. Jackie Leary-Warsaw of the Music Department. Here is a picture of what the Villa Godiola looks like:
Jealous yet? Oh, just wait. And the view from the Villa:This is literally what we were surrounded by. It is breathtaking. And honestly pictures can't even come close to doing it justice. There is no substitute for the real thing; these are just mechanical reproductions...a term we came to use a lot in our Philosophy of Art and Performance class.
It can easily be said by everyone in our group that Philosophy of Art and Performance was our favorite class. The director and founder of the Accademia, Scott McGehee, taught us this class. We were given the readings for the class before we arrived. Each class period, we would sit in these ridiculously comfortable sofas and chairs, drink our morning or afternoon tea, and discuss philosophy for two hours. Not to say that is was always light and cheerful subject matter. The things we talked about were actually quite a bleak insight into our art. Our discussions ranged from arguing if anything can be original anymore to how our society has come to accept mechanical reproductions of the real thing as the real thing. So, what we all came away from the class asking ourselves was "If art is dying, or dead in some people's opinion, then why do we do what we do?" What I found amazing is that we kept talking about this stuff even when we weren't in class. It affected us all so much; and I still think about it to this day. I think that question is one that should always be on your radar as an artist of any kind. If you don't know why you're doing whatever is you do, you're probably should find something else to do...especially if you're in theatre. The payoff from theatre isn't that great even if you know why you're doing it. Like I said, pretty harsh stuff, right?
Our other favorite class was Stage Movement with world famous dancer Giorgio Rossi. We were all going into the class thinking stage movement in terms of stage combat because that is what stage movement is here at BSC. But this class was focused on how you use your entire body and connect it to your performance. This class was truly an experience unlike any other. We did countless movement exercises that taught us how to use our whole body to work with itself and not have any part of your body working against you. It was one of the most powerful, yet humbling, feelings I've ever experienced. As Giorgio would say "You have to be the biggest sun and the most humble man." Giorgio was full of wonderful little sayings like that. He was also very interested to learn other English words from us to add to his very heavily accented speech. His favorite word that we taught him was probably "hug." :) On the last day of class, he asked for all of our email addresses to keep in contact with us and kissed us all on both cheeks...the standard Italian greeting or farewell. A week after we got back he sent us all a picture of him and his son.
Our Alexander Technique class was only for two days, but it was set up so that we would do group work for one part of it and have individual lessons for the other. The individual lessons were absolutely the most helpful . Our instructor, a tiny woman from England who I can't for the life of me remember her name, observed our sitting, standing, and walking habits to determine what we could do to better use our body for performing and even for everyday life. For example, she noticed that my right arm hung a little lower than the left and said that that was the reason why I've had neck problems all of my life. She gave us the proper techniques to fix our problems and it was up to us to work on them. What we fix about our everyday body use would also fix those bad performing habits that we all have. I guess this is a good example of the old saying "Art imitates life."
Our Italian class...was taught in Italian. No English. None of us had ever studied Italian language outside of vocal pieces. This made the class quite challenging. Leslie and I had taken several years of Spanish and since the two languages are very similar we used our knowledge of that to help us understand a lot of the Italian. Although, the instructor would frequently tell us "No espaƱol" and laugh at us. We had Italian everyday and we learned most of the basic things we needed to know to get around in restaurants, train stations, shops, etc. On the day that we went to Florence, we saw our instructor at the train station and just started bombarding her with all of the vocabulary words we had learned the day before. She looked at us like we were crazy, but we had a good laugh about it.
Jackie was our Voice class instructor. We met twice as a group and twice for individual lessons. I think it can safely be said that our second group lesson was everyone's favorite. Jackie made us close our eyes and think about a song we were working on or have already worked on. She asked us questions to help us find out who it was we were singing to, what they looked like, and what the point of the song was boiled down to one sentence. What this did for us was connect us with our piece. Never before have I felt that I knew everything about this one song. It allowed us to really know the person who was singing, the actual character, and let them live inside of us. It's really a beautiful way to think about a song. I don't think I'll ever again have to question why a character decides to sing these words, rather than speak them.
I could write a novel about our adventures outside of class, so I'll just give you some of the highlights. In our free time away from class we would walk the 15 minute trek into the town of Arezzo and would sightsee, shop, eat, sightsee, shop, eat, and eat some more (we had a lot of gelato and cappuccino). On our first free Saturday we took a train to Florence and spent the day there sightseeing, shopping, eating...what else? Then the second week we left early Friday morning and took a train to Rome. We took a tour of Rome on Friday and visited the Colisseum, ancient Rome, the Pantheon, and other cool sights. On Saturday we took a tour of Vatican City. Some of us even got to attend a mass at St. Peter's Basilica. One! Then on Sunday morning we began our trip back to the States. I'm not going to sugar coat it...I'd rather be in the hills of Tuscany than smoggy Birmingham anyday.
Luckily for you, they are doing this trip again next year...and hopefully for years after that. You don't need to leave college without having traveled abroad; and what better way to travel abroad than to study your art form, right? I say that if you want to experience something that you will never forget, you need to start planning your interim now. Don't miss out on this opportunity.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Less Is More for "Merrily We Roll Along"

"How did you get to be here?" - the lyric from Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along that haunts me still, even after closing the show almost two weeks ago now...

No matter how many times I heard/sang this during the show (which was a lot!), it meant something to me, especially toward the end of the whole process. But what I seriously ask this question about is the production itself. It started off as one thing and we ended with something completely different.

A few days before spring semester began, Michael Flowers, the Department Chair and director of the show, sent me an email giving me the news that not only was I going to be in the show, I was going to be the Props Crew Head for the show as well. My first thought: "Oh wow, Michael must really trust me to be able to do two things at once. This is awesome. What a great opportunity!" My second thought: "Oh my God! The props list is four pages long!" Needless to say, I was a little daunted at the size of the props list...well over 100 props. And this was also going to be a scaled down, minimalist version of the show. During my first meeting with Michael, we discussed the time periods of the show and what all the props should look like. I was beginning to be a little more concerned. The good thing was that I had from February to April 21st to get all of the props ready. I had a crew of 8 to help me gather the props. That sounds like a dream to have 8 people on props crew, right? But guess what, the 8 people were also in the show, one of them playing "Frank", the lead character in the musical. So I guess you're wondering if there is any relief, a light at the end of the tunnel...well there is. As we began the rehearsal process, Michael started to come to the realization that in his effort to simplify things, he had actually made things much more complicated. For example, in the first scene we were going to start with an overstuffed chair, a lamp, a phone, a rug, a bottle, a glass, a bookshelf, two scripts, and two pictures. Keep in mind that this is in Theatre One, a very small blackbox theatre we had transformed to be in-the-round, and the stage was going to have to be cleared within a matter of seconds. As you might have guessed, it wasn't working out so well. As a matter of fact, most of the scenes in the show had tons of props, but we only have so much time (muscially) to get everything off and set up for the next scene. So Michael and I started talking and he came to the conclusion that we were going to cut back...way back. The first scene with all of that stuff came down to using only four black cubes. These cubes became the basic "furniture" used in almost every scene of the play. There were a few other real furniture pieces like a small rolling bar and two round tables, but for the most part everthing became extremely minimalist...much to my happiness and sanity. We even got rid of using any liquids in the show. If we drank something or poured something into a glass there was nothing there. It was just so much easier not to deal with actual liquids during performances.

What we all discovered about scaling back the production is that it doesn't take away anything from the show. We found that it wasn't necessary to have huge, elaborate sets with over 100 props. People have imaginations, right? Is it too much to ask for people to use their imaginations when they come to the theatre? From the reaction that we got from the audience (which was resoundingly positive every night) no one seemed to have a problem with the fact that there was nothing in the glasses that we were drinking out of. No one seemed to have a problem seeing the same four cubes used over and over again to suggest different locations. If we, the actors, believed in it then the audience shouldn't have any trouble suspending their disbelief. Oh sure, a Broadway show with a huge, elaborate set is quite impressive, but is it necessary? Does it create more of a spectacle to be ooh'd and ahh'd over rather than a story to be told? With Merrily..., the toning down of prop usage allowed the story to have utmost priority. The audience could spend all of their energy focusing on the characters and their relationships with each other; which is what theatre is supposed to be about anyway, isn't it? We live in an age where everything is done for us. We don't have to work to imagine anything. Have you seen an action movie lately? We sit there and are spoonfed entertainment that doesn't require us to engage it in the least bit. And unfortunately, most Broadway musicals have become this sort of entertainment. We pay over $100 for a ticket, are dazzled by brilliant special effects, and leave the theatre saying "Well wasn't that nice." And that's about where it the theatre lobby. But why wouldn't you want to see something that you can take home with you, keep talking about even after you have left the lobby. Do you really need all the flash or can you do without it in exhange for some food for thought? You decide...