Monday, October 13, 2008
I entered the rehearsal process a few months later than everyone else. The cast had several weeks in Montreal but because I was hired late as a replacement, my first day was in Tokyo (May 28) when everything was already in full swing. I was very tired because I don't sleep well on planes and had been wide awake at 5am on my first day. There was a lot of information to process; names, staff positions, storyboard, the biggest set I've ever seen, and more French than I've heard since my class at Southern. The working language is English, but the real working language is French :)
I had received some impromptu character instruction at my audition in Montreal, so had been thinking along those lines as I studied the songs before arriving. My character, called Abraka, is a magician of the Earth and Francois Girard our director (The Red Violin, and Silk) wanted something strong and mysterious. He kept alluding to a "slight of hand" kind of mischief that made Abraka something impressive but slightly unnerving. I had envisioned some sort of wizard's costume and a few cool flight cues (I was asked several times if I was afraid of heights).
When I sat down with Francois and his assistant directors at my first rehearsal, things had seemingly changed a bit. No wizard costume but cool flight cues, one of which took me to the top of the space at 15 ft per second (the flight cues have been cut since, but they were really fun for a few weeks). He gave me the rundown of the show's concept which is based around the Tarot world and follows the white fool "Zed" on a journey of discovery. Abraka had become a king in this world and ruled over the Earth. I was curious to see if the change in title would affect the overall image of the character since it's hard to be the powerful, noble King Arthur and the mysterious Merlin simultaneously. That fact became the hurdle of this process for me.
We tried several things over the next few weeks to find something solid for Abraka. I had started blocking rehearsals by responding to the space. It was a huge set and I knew that anything too subtle would just get swallowed so I tried to make clean, noticeable choices with my voice and body. Instead of just turning a head, I'd turn my stance, hand motions became arm motions, and I was making good use of the massive cape I wear in the show. Something to know about me is that I'm more of an outside actor first. I like to work on the things that an audience can see of my character and then connect it for myself later. Rodrigue (a former Cirque performer in Love and Varekai) had been helping me develop the character through movement. I spent several mornings in the lobby of the theater twirling in the cape, finding things that drew attention, moves that made use of the costume. The hard part was that with so much fabric, twists of the torso or shifted leg positions didn't read. I was forced to concentrate on my arms, head, and twist the costume to mimic my stance underneath it.
After Rodrigue and I were satisfied with our initial results, a blocking rehearsal came up as a chance to try some of our material. Afterwards Francois promptly told me to "stop dancing" and to concentrate more on the mystery. The best laid plans :)............Rodrigue still insisted that the movement was solid and fit very well so we worked on a middle ground and eventually found it. A lot of the character revolves around the act I'm involved in. With time it has moved from a response to different tricks and positions to a commanding, authoritative conjuring. That familiarity with the flow of my stagemates gives the illusion that Abraka is the cause of the action. This creates a lot of power already, so I could then search for some nice moments to infuse a little mischief and mystery. Francois gave me a nice general outline of places to walk the space as a lurking figure biding time until "invoking" the next bit of grandeur. We have found a nice balance so that Abraka adds as much as he can to each act without being a distraction. I found something unexpected in laughter, actually. My first number is part of the Chinese Lasso act. These are young guys doing flips through ropes and it's a very upbeat, fun number so the first introduction for Abraka has to match that. I found mischief in a playful, younger king at the beginning of the story. It works to use the magic of the act for Abraka's amusement, therefore having control and trickery together.
Beyond character work, I witnessed a different way to put a show together. We would spend several hours on a single number or section even though the act itself had all it's pieces already. It was kind of like constant tech rehearsal since light, rigging, and sound cues were being programmed and tested during blocking time. I remember several days not doing much singing or acting because I was a moving prop in a costume for the lighting designer. It took a lot of patience because we seemed to always hurry up and wait for someone else. The language translation among french, english, and japanese slowed things a bit, too. The upside was that we spotted problems right away. The show is a technical giant with more lights than I could ever count, a huge ball in the center ceiling that transforms into a trapeze net when lowered, two parallel pendulums that come in from over the audience to create the highwire setting, a stage full of traps, and a center lift/revolve that can be loaded with several cartridges that serve the needs of each act. There were some technical performance aspects that were different too. I had never used in-ear monitors for a stage show before so the added channel chatter and music directly from a band mix instead of wing and house monitor speakers made focusing a little more difficult but I have found it to be necessary since our bandleader takes visual cues from the acrobats to start certain musical sections so that everything fits nicely no matter what pace the act takes.
Improvisation is another huge part of the process that I've been adapting to. It can be a little stressful but it forces everyone involved to find something solid in the moment and then build on that as a permanent part of the act. The one time I'll never forget is another lobby rehearsal in the beginning when we were trying to develop the character I play during the juggling act. The scene is set up as a fire section and the character of Kernoon (a god of the underworld) rises from underneath the stage and commands fire jugglers and characters that line two stories of the set with torches. I was asked to step into Kernoon (who only appears in this number) after an acrobat was injured in a bike accident. He and I were similar in size and since I was singing the act anyway, they asked me to handle it.........fire and all. So during this improv lobby rehearsal(without fire then), I was walking around in foot-high boots, fire-pots strapped to each hand, and a 60 pound costume. The director said "go" as the composer started the music (which is in very odd time) and three or four more creative team members watch as I try desperately to all of the sudden get inside this character and make up fitting movement and remember the gibberish text I'd been handed earlier that week. Apparently things went well cause Francois drew on that experiment a lot when forming the number with me onstage. Right now I make that number up every night :) It obviously has a basic structure and I have a library of melodic and rhythmic forms that I've probably done at some point, but I take the feeling of the act, interact with the characters around me, and use the heat of the two fire torches in my hands to try to organically create something hellish.
Most of what I sing in the show is written by a wonderful composer, Rene Dupere. There are small points in each act, though, that need short accents or brief sung passages that I was given the liberty to put together myself. The trapeze and banquine acts contain a good bit, and Rene and Francois even let me come up with a variation on one of Rene's melodies to use as the second half of the bow music vocals!!! Johanna Lillvik, the female vocalist, was given the same liberty and came up with a great harmony line for those bows.
Even though the show is open to the public now I feel we're still continuing to build on our rehearsal objective. This show will evolve a lot through the next few months and I can' t wait to see what emerges.
You can check out some initial footage on YouTube or the ZED website. The japanese version of the ZED site has a few clips under MOVIE. A lot of the singing isn't me since we haven't done a proper audio recording of the show for media purposes yet, so they used stock stuff, but the YouTube clip from the press conference in June is me during the Banquine act.
As always, questions are welcome. Take care guys!
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Tony (Michael Seward)
Jets vs. Sharks
Michael Flowers intervenes between the two gangs
When I was handed the rehearsal schedule for West Side Story exactly four weeks ago my first thoughts sounded something like this: "Wow, we have a really long time to rehearse" or "I have plenty of time to learn the rest of the dance for 'Cool'" or "November is a long ways away." Now my thoughts sound something like this: "Holy crap, where did the last four weeks go?" or "We open in four weeks!" or my personal favorite "Do I ever stop dancing?!?" Yes indeed, the past four weeks have absolutely flown by...and we haven't even worked on Act II yet.
We began the arduous eight week rehearsal process with music rehearsals. This is the part I wasn't too worried about. I've seen the movie I don't know how many times and how could you ever forget Bernstein's brilliant arrangements or Sondheim's timeless lyrics. Our music conductor, J. Lynn Thompson, expected nothing but the best, even on our first night of rehearsal. I think jumping right in to the music was quite a shock for a few of the cast members who had never been in a musical before. Right now, we're rehearsing just with our piano accompanist, Katie Holmes. I think we're all in for a very nice surprise when a 25 piece orchestra joins us several days before the show. Just the thought of an orchestra playing this music live sends shivers down my spine. I'm told that there is nothing like singing over an orchestra.
When did I become a dancer? Apparently four weeks ago. I'm postitive that I've never been so sore and have never pulled so many muscles in my life. Our choreographer, Abe Reybold, is as professional as they come and he expects the exact same thing out of us. Although we are not doing the original Jerome Robbins choreography we're still pushing our dance and movement skills to higher levels. Way back in April of this year, Abe taught our department about one minute of the choreography for "Cool" so that a.) Abe could get a feel for what he had to work with and b.) we would know this part of the dance for the audition. After not having done this dance in four weeks I was rather surprised that I remembered it when it came time to stage "Cool." It's a good thing I did because we had about three or so more minutes of the dance to learn. We spent two rehearsal nights (that's three hours per night) working on the rest of "Cool"...that's six hours of rehearsal time just for one number! Granted, it is one of the more complicated numbers in the show, but that just goes to show that just because we are not doing the original choreography doesn't mean we are slouching in the dance department.
Michael Flowers, our director and fight choreographer, has gone out of his way to make all the fight scenes in the show look as realistic as possible. Michael envisioned West Side quite differently than you might have seen before in another stage production and the movie. Michael wanted our production to have a rough, dirty, and grungy feel to it. Nothing is really bright, bouncy, or pretty anymore (except maybe "I Feel Pretty"...ahem). This idea has carried over into every aspect of the production, such as the set design, costumes, character development, dance choreography and of course the fight choreography. Although we the actors are very safe during our fight scenes the audience will be far from easy. We have also put in a great deal of time working on our fight combat. There are two scenes in the show where almost everything is stage combat: the Prolouge and The Rumble. We spent two nights of rehearsal each on these two scenes. That's 12 hours so far of work just on fight combat. Our goal for these fights is to, while being extremely safe, make the audience believe that we are really beating/killing our partner. Oh yes, there will be blood, switchblade knives, guns, bats, fists, knees...I could go on and on.
On top of remembering music, all of the dances, and the fight choreography we have to act too! Can you believe it? I dare say that we have talked about and developed our characters so much that they might actually be real people. I can't really talk about other characters, so I'll tell you about mine. I'm playing the role of Baby John. Baby John is a member of the Jet gang. If you've ever seen the movie then you know that Baby John is portrayed as a blonde haired, blue eyed, rather wimpy young fellow. It would be so easy for me to just take that sterotype and run with it; but not with this production. Michael's concept does not have any room for this kind of character. This forced me to see Baby John in an entirely different light. Before I had even read the script, I saw Baby John as the youngest member of the Jets, probably around 16 years old. Then, as I began reading the script one of the first descriptions of him is that he is the youngest member of the Jets. As I continued reading, I never really found much justification for why Baby John should be played as a young and wimpy kid. I saw him more as a troubled young man who feels the need to prove himself because of his age. Would some wimpy kid ever be allowed into a gang in the first place? Probably not. As can be seen by some of my fight choreography, my character doesn't have any trouble taking care of himself in tough situations. I think his name is John, but because he is the youngest member of the gang he is labled with the nickname of Baby John. He probably really hates being called that and that just makes him try to prove himself all the more vehemently. He is just a kid, though, and in Act II we begin to see his true nature surface after the Rumble.
This is the kind of thought and time commitment that has gone into this production of West Side Story. Intense? You bet. Moving? Absolutely. Life changing? You tell me...