Archive for the ‘ Theatre ’ Category

How do you remember all those words?

Adventures in theatre are often a source of amazement, albeit of a limited kind which tends to run out as soon as people realise that the Singing Librarian isn’t, in fact, card-carrying Equity member.  In fact, has never been paid to perform and is therefore not very impressive after all.  For those people who are still slightly star-struck or intrigued, one of the most frequently asked questions is ‘how do you remember…?’ either words, notes, moves or dance steps.  Or perhaps all of the above.  Sadly, there’s no particular secret to be revealed in the answer, as different methods work for different people.

Some people record their lines to tape and listen to this endlessly in the car as they drive to and from work.  Some people create mnemonics for their more complicated speeches.  Some people associate words with particular props or gestures – in the case of songs, this can be particularly helpful as the lyrics and choreography start to reinforce each other.  But essentially, the secret comes down to one simple thing – repetition.  The more often you hear, read or say the words, the more you’ll remember them.  The more frequently you dance a dance, the easier it is to remember, and the less conscious you become of each step, turn, spin or hop.  I don’t have any particular method; I simply read the lines through over and over, then speak them over and over, muttering scenes to myself as I trot along to work, or shelve books, or try to get to sleep.  Dances tend to be reserved for the kitchen and rehearsed while the kettle boils, the oven heats up or the sink fills with water.  This can be achieved with or without the music on in the background, and no doubt looks particularly odd when done in silent concentration.

I make sure that I practice something every day while in the midst of rehearsals.  Whether muttering on my way to work, singing in the shower or dancing in the kitchen, each repetition makes the words and movements more natural and more secure, ensuring that formal rehearsals are spent learning new things rather than trying to remember what we’ve done before.  By the time that everything has been set, I will perform my own potted version of the show in the lounge or the kitchen several times a week, comprising just those scenes and songs which I happen to be involved with.  Again, probably a very bizarre sight, as I rush around like a mad thing, trying to remember which entrance I use, which props I have in my hand, and how I react to everyone else’s lines and actions.

So you see, no secret.  Just the discipline of setting aside a few minutes every day and thus rehearsing outside of the rehearsals as it were.  For some people, the lines come more quickly or more slowly but it’s much the same for everyone – practice really does make perfect, and there’s no substitute for actually doing it.  And doing it again.  And again.  Ideally, you should be able to sing, speak or dance your pieces in your sleep by the time the show arrives.  I’m sure some people do.

Whose High School Musical?

Over the festive season, the BBC decided to screen the phenomenon of 2006 – High School Musical, a Disney production that took the teenage world (or perhaps just the female portion of it) by storm.  I sat down to watch it, not entirely sure what to expect, and found it to mildly entertaining with one annoyingly catchy song and a couple of fairly clever set pieces set in the school canteen and gym.  I can see why teenage girls love it, and thus being neither a teen nor a female, it’s hardly surprising that I didn’t find it quite so thrilling.  I am pleased it exists, though.  It has a better moral message than that other teen favourite, Grease (the opposite message in fact – Grease says ‘conform to get the guy’, High School Musical says ‘be yourself’).  And the inevitable, very swift release of a stage version for amateur performance should hopefully encourage more youngsters to get involved in live theatre.  I dread to think how many productions of the show will spring up in America this year.  It’s also nice to see a musical do so well in the music charts, even getting a top 10 single in both the US and the UK with ‘Breaking Free’.

Having watched the film, and decided that I have no need to buy the soundtrack or the DVD, I was interested to discover that the success of High School Musical is causing a bit of a stir with regard to intellectual property.  A man named Paul Cozby has filed a lawsuit against the Disney Corporation (which is terribly brave of him), as he feels they stole his idea.  He wrote a stage show called High School Musical a few years ago, which received a number of productions in Texas, and he feels that as well as the title being identical, the film shows a striking resemblance to his own work.

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Weill, not vile

Last week, I had the joyous task of creating a subject bibliography, my first assignment for my distance-learning MSc in Library and Information Studies.  The bibliography could be on any subject we chose, but could only cover material from the last five years and had to be arranged with a particular audience in mind.  Of course, I absolutely had to do this on a musical theatre subject, but the options are rather limited in this regard, as the only musical theatre people who tend to receive more than cursory academic attention are Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim.  I chose to compile a bibliography on the American theatre works of Kurt Weill, most famous for his German piece Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), source of ‘Mack the Knife’.  Why the American works?  Well, I don’t speak German, so I’ve always found it harder to connect with the works in that language.  Must try harder, I suppose.

This exercise was simultaneously fascinating and boring.  Searching for information can be interesting, and the hunt becomes a sort of game, but it can also be very frustrating to spend an age wrestling with a particularly high-profile data source only to find absolutely nothing of value.  I also discovered things about Kurt Weill that I never knew before, largely through use of the Kurt Weill Foundation‘s website, but also through reading extracts from some of the books and articles which I discovered.  I hadn’t known, for instance, that he provided music for a number of political pageants while in America, generally connected to his Jewish roots.  And I had forgotten that he’d been working on a musical version of Huckleberry Finn when he died, a concept that truly makes the mind boggle.

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Can someone strike the stage left flat?

Every profession and hobby has its own language, the words that make sense to those in the know, but sound like gibberish to everyone else.  Social groupings have them as well, of course, but these seem to serve a different purpose.  Professional jargon is what I’m talking about here, and specifically the jargon of the theatre.  Every production I’ve done as an adult has been in a professional theatre of some size or other, so I’m becoming a fairly fluent speaker, and every production has involved at least one first-time performer who had to get up to speed on theatre talk very quickly.

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What’s my motivation?

Generally, it’ll be the most pretentious person in the company who ends up uttering the immortal query ‘But what’s my motivation?’ when asked to move to the side of the stage, sit down or stand in a particular place in a grouping.  Generally the answer should be ‘because I said so’, or ‘because if you stay there, you’ll be in Fred’s way when he comes in’, but many directors will give in and supply a motivation, generally very spurious.  Personally, if I have to do something that doesn’t make all that much sense, I’ll just go with it unless I really, really think that my character wouldn’t do it.  Come up with any old reason, or at least make it look as though you (both actor and character) know why you’re now standing behind the chair, and everything will generally be fine.  There are more important things to worry about, and I have found that if the reason for your character’s actions is at all significant, you’ll already know what it is.

But that’s not the focus of this particular bit of rambling, which is about a different sort of motivation.  Recently I have been wondering what my motivation is for performing in the first place.  Continue reading

Singing Librarian flashback: Courtenay

It’s time to buckle those swashes, brandish those placards and be generally revolting in an agricultural way, as the Singing Librarian flashes back to Courtenay, performed at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury and the Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks, during July 2003.

This show is quite unique in my experiences.  It’s the only through-composed musical I’ve ever performed, it’s the only show I’ve been in that’s based on a true story, it’s the only time I’ve had a death scene, and it’s the only time I’ve joined a show mid-way through the rehearsal process.  Courtenay is a pretty new show, first fully performed in an outdoor venue (Theatre in the Park) during the summer of 2002.  After some re-writes, the authors (Christopher Neame and Ethan Lewis Maltby) were ready to bring it to the more conventional stage during 2003, and I answered a plea for more men to add to the ensemble.  Therefore, when I came along, most of the company had been familiar with the musical for at least a year, and all (apart from myself and two other fresh recruits) had been rehearsing with each other and the new director for some weeks.  Thus I had to scramble to catch up with learning the music, at the same time as learning Dido and Aeneas.

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Betty Comden

The world of the musical has lost a key figure – lyricist and librettist Betty Comden died of heart failure earlier this week.  Along with Adolph Green (who died in 2002), she contributed to such gems as Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town and Wonderful Townand Jule Styne’s Bells Are Ringing.  The pair also wrote various screenplays, including the wonderful script for Singin’ in the Rain, so their work is certainly going to outlive them by many, many decades.

Some of the more obscure musicals that Comden and Green contributed to (always, always a partnership) are particular favourites of mine, although come to think of it, I’ve only ever heard the music and read the libretti for these, as they are so seldom performed.  Their absolute best, in my view, was On the Twentieth Century, a farce with a score by the great Cy Coleman.  Set on board a train, it’s wonderful fun with a cast of larger than life characters who typify the comedic gifts of Comden and Green.  They created parts and song lyrics which are an absolute gift to the actor and the audience alike.  Their contributions to film and musical theatre will no doubt be greatly missed by a great many people.

I leave you with a verse from ‘Some Other Time’, a poignant song from On the Town:

Just when the fun is starting
Comes the time for parting
But let’s be glad for what we had
And what’s to come

Oh, well
We’ll catch up some other time

A trio of musical treats

Recently, I’ve made three trips to three different theatres (in two different towns) to see three very different shows.  From a classic to a new piece, from a star vehicle to an ensemble piece, they offered very different pleasures.  None of them were perfect, but none of them were a waste of time or money either.  I’m probably not all that hard to please if you throw a musical at me, but I think that all three were definitely enjoyable.

The first was by far the strangest, being Thatcher the Musical! (exclamation mark essential, and yes, it really does have a website, which includes a couple of sound samples).  Continue reading

Rodgers and Hammerstein – at last

It seems to me that Rodgers and Hammerstein are rather under-rated these days.  People tend to pass their shows off as trite, dated, old-fashioned or twee.  Well, either that or assume they wrote everything from Anything Goes to Fiddler on the Roof, and only gave up when Andrew Lloyd Webber came on the scene and wrote all the new shows.  Both views are, in my considered opinion, absolute rubbish.

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Fun and flimsy?

Oh, dear.  Another post that isn’t the promised musings on Rodgers and Hammerstein…  That will come.  It really will.   But before that, my attention was drawn to an article in the New York Sun which discusses the imminent return of Les Miserables to the Broadway stage, a few short years after it left.  The article discusses the various merits of the show, and quite rightly (in my view) praises it for its weight and ‘heft’.  However, the main thrust of the article rather got up my nose. Continue reading

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