Some Thoughts After Performing in the Minnesota Orchestra’s Production of “Carousel”

Read these words.

Read these words.


I’m a terrible dancer. I don’t think saying that in a public forum will result in any shocked gasps or clutched hearts. I’m a terrible dancer. Watching a choreographer demonstrate a move is the physical equivalent of trying to follow a foreign film with the subtitles turned off: I know they’re doing something important, but I hope no one’s life depends on me figuring out what the hell it’s supposed to mean.

Asking me to perform someone’s choreography is a slap in the face to, not only all dance professionals, but to all people who use legs in any way in their professional lives. Civil War surgeons were kinder to legs than I am on stage. And, my arms are so embarrassed to be associated with my legs that they panic and just start flailing.

That being said . . .

I was recently in the Minnesota Orchestra’s production of “Carousel,” directed by the dazzlingly shod Bob Neu, and dance I did. I had to! We had a choreographer I had heard of and I don’t hear of choreographers. I can remember that the Autobot whose loyalty wavered between his own faction and the Decepticons in the first season of G1 Transformers was Mirage, but I can’t keep anything dance-related in my head. Mirage. That guy.


That guy.

We hadn’t even had a dance audition. Bob simply put faith in the fact that I entered the room without falling down the stairs and assumed I could waltz. Which may be an appropriate assumption for a normal human being. “I have to waltz!” I yelled at people. “So?” they invariably responded, “Anyone can waltz.”

I was once in a production of “And the World Goes Round.” Early on in the rehearsal process, I and another cast member were to waltz across the stage during a solo number. That’s all. Stage right to stage left. 1-2-3, 1-2-3. She tried to get me to successfully cross that stage for weeks. Finally, the director said, “You know . . . we’re just going to cut that.”

So . . . I had to dance.

Fortunately, I had two amazing dance partners in the course of the show. Erik Pearson and I were paired for the “Blow High, Blow Low” number. The moment he moved towards me I thought, “Oh, good. He’s so tall, everyone will be looking at him.” But, there’s something about working with someone who’s better than you that really pulls you up to, well, not their level, but up to an approximation of their level. We matched each other in enthusiasm and facial expressions and I felt, for the first time, confident while dancing on stage.

My other dance partner was Emily Gunyou Halaas. We were officially a husband/wife team-up in the town of . . . Wherever, Maine(?) and somehow managed to screw up all of our dances in new and creative ways each performance. But, and this is a big but

A) We screwed up with aplomb, and
2) I friggity flippin’ WALTZED, G!

The “This Was a Real Nice Clambake” dance had a brief waltz that I looked forward to each night. There was this thing we did with a picnic blanket spinny thing flippy around moment (if you weren’t there, I can’t describe it any better than that; if you were there, it was the picnic blanket spinny thing flippy around moment) that made every bus ride to Orchestra Hall worth it. I mean, other things made it worth it, too, but in that moment . . .

The choreographer was Penny Freeh, who is awesome. Not everyone on stage was a dancer (see paragraphs 1-10) and she somehow managed to get us all dancing without EVER. LOSING. HER. PATIENCE.

If you’re not familiar with theater . . . choreographers sometimes lose their cool. I’ll just – I’ll just leave it at that. Penny did not. Maybe we all just trusted her. Maybe she’s actually a magical being? Maybe? Probably. Probably that’s it.


If you want my body/And, you think I'm sexy . . .

If you want my body/And, you think I’m sexy

When we got our first rehearsal breakdown, I was a little shocked to see time set aside to block “Policeman” and to see next to the word “Policeman” the name (Phil). Naturally, I assumed this was some other Phil who had . . . not . . . made the cast list? Or, that it was a typo which would be resolved shortly. I was so convinced I was not actually going to play “Policeman” – a character with lines and everything(!!!) – that I didn’t actually look at the scene until the day before we were set to block it. I kept expecting an email to arrive from our amazing Stage Manager (Katie Hawkinson – amazing) saying, “Yeeeaaahhhh, I meant to type a different name. Not your name. It shouldn’t be your name. It’s another more ‘different’ name.” But, hey, I was actually “Policeman!”

The coolest thing about playing “Policeman” was getting to watch Bob work with the principals. Bob works at a rapid pace, throwing the actors up on stage – almost completely memorized, I’ll add – giving them basic blocking and then working the scenes. Really working them. One of the hardest things about directing a musical – which I’ve done – is actually finding the time to direct the musical rather than just shuffle people around. Obviously, Bob has done a million shows and so watching him was a master class in efficiency.

Bob had the principals during the day, so he got a lot of time out of them, then. But, this was a three week process. I’ve poured over that rehearsal schedule, dissected it, and figured out how to make it work in a typical six week period. I did this while observing the way Bob collaborated with the actors  – encouraging new ideas, blocking, fight choreography – while keeping everyone aligned to his very tight, very specific vision.

One of the most difficult parts of directing a large cast is ensuring that, at the end of the day, everyone on stage is in the same show. That requires a strong vision that the director sticks with. I got to stand close by during my scenes and watch Bob work with the leads, taking mental notes in the margins of my mind. I learned a lot about my own craft by watching Bob at his. It was truly an invaluable experience.


There’s always someone in every cast. You know the one. The actor who doesn’t get along with the group, who complains, gossips, rubs people the wrong way. There is always one.

Nope! I mean, with a set up like that, obviously I’m going to make it a switcheroo on everyone and BLOW YOUR MINDS but, really it was an extremely strong ensemble. But more than that, everyone in the show was kind.

Kindness . . . it doesn’t tend to show up in groups. Like, groups of kindness. But, every single person in

We're all crammed into a vending machine nook because as actors that's JUST WHERE WE BELONG!

We’re all crammed into a vending machine nook because as actors that’s JUST WHERE WE BELONG!

the cast was a kind person. I mean, we were all a bunch off goofs and weirdos, but that’s theater. Everyone seemed to genuinely care about the other people in the cast. To support their choices and want everyone else to do well. Again, that’s rare. I was nervous going in. Hell, I was scared. This wasn’t my world. I didn’t know many people in the show – none on the production side of things – I had trouble eating and sleeping and thinking in the week leading up to rehearsals. And, that first day? I relaxed. I fit. There was a place for me at this table and I went along for the ride.

I really clobbered that metaphor. Damn, that was painful.

It was an extremely positive environment. I do not take that for granted. Such good people.


The word “problematic” gets thrown around a lot in reference to “Carousel” and I’m going to go on record as saying . . . yeeeeaaaaah, not really. The characters are certainly mired in their era. The situation they are in is troubling. Their options are not the best in the world. But, “Carousel” is a play about people in a hard situation, with limited options making the best choices they can with limited world experience and failing miserably at those choices. The theme of “Carousel” isn’t “It’s okay to let your husband hit you,” even though Julie pretty much kinda sorta says that to her teenage daughter in the end. Julie is a broken character. She’s not the author’s voice. She’s not speaking the theme of the play. The Doctor at the end is. He’s the one who says, “Look, life is hard. And, we all make terrible mistakes. And, our parents make terrible mistakes. But, we can’t beat ourselves up over them. We can’t lose ourselves in the past. We have to keep pushing forward. Keep working towards a better tomorrow. Without fear of the dark” in so many words. It’s a message of hope, not answers.

I wasn’t looking forward to doing “Carousel.” I didn’t know the show well and always found it a bit flat. I was wrong. It’s a frighteningly complex play. The music, the lyrics, the dialogue, the staging – they all interplay and intertwine propelling the characters forward. There’s very little actual “story” so much as “lives being lived.” It’s heartbreaking. And funny. And an important show to understand in order to understand musical theater at all.

Mark Sweeney, I’m sorry I ever doubted you.

It was a profound experience for me. I’m so glad I auditioned.


And now, it’s over. I met so many wonderful people I hope to work with again. I reforged a friendship I’d thought dead and buried. I hung out with fascinating people. Mourned the loss of a literary great in the wings. Met a fascinating artist with a story to share. And, now I find myself in that post-show funk. A funk I haven’t felt in a while. The funk of forty-thousand years.

Because, it’s Thriller. Thriller Night.

Categories: Carousel, Just a stupid thing, Just a VERY STUPID THING, Theater | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Some Scattered Thoughts After Playing Sweeney Todd in “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

Sweeney-Todd-web“Where did you find the self-loathing and the hatred you brought up there?” “Well, I dug down deep, dredged it up, poured it out on the stage and stuffed what was left deep deep down inside until I needed it again.” “Ha ha ha ha!” “Yeah . . . “

I have literally dreamed of playing Sweeney Todd for over twenty years. By “literally” I mean I have had dreams about being Sweeney Todd on stage in front of people. These were never bad dreams or “actor’s nightmares.” I never felt incompetent or unprepared in those dreams because, if I knew anything, I knew Sweeney Todd.

My first exposure to “Sweeney Todd” the show was a hardback copy of the libretto we had in our high school theater library. I was obsessed with musicals and was already familiar with Sondheim through “Into the Woods” and “Company” so I took the script home and read it all the way through. I was astounded at the complexity of the tale. But, I was also confused about the main character. I couldn’t get a grasp on what he was like, what type of a person he was. His lines were so reactionary and al over the place. So, I got the soundtrack. Len Cariou’s portrayal of Todd was a revelation. On page, he read – to my high school mind – as a monster. Cariou brought grounded warmth to the character. Sweeney Todd stopped being a nightmare creature and started seeming like what I eventually came to see him as – a damaged man. A terribly sad, damaged man.

I couldn’t get a grasp on Sweeney Todd until I admitted that what makes him a living character are qualities I have in myself. It’s hard to look in the mirror every day and not like the person looking back at you. It makes for long mornings and seriously impedes your ability to do your hair. I have the ability, the capacity, to hurt people close to me. So does Sweeney! We’re halfway there!

Sweeney is traditionally portrayed by an older actor who is physically imposing. Someone who commands a room simply by entering it. I am not that actor. I had to command the room by sucking all the energy into me. I had to pull inward with so much force that everyone just got pulled along. It made me very tense. Very tense.

There are two basic approaches to playing a character who has spent 15 years in a hellish prison environment – they either come out toughened or come out beaten. Sweeney was beaten. Prison destroyed him. It sapped him of his personality, his self-esteem and his ability to command his life. Sweeney reacts to the world as if he is about to be hit. So, I played every scene in the first act like I was on the verge of getting punished.

I had three different physicalities for Sweeney. When he first appears, he carries himself like a whipped animal – surrounded by threats, ready to lash out, trying to make himself as small as possible. This is a natural reaction to his imprisonment. His second physicality is The Full Man. After he gets his razors back, Sweeney is able to carry himself with confidence. It’s a facade, but he uses it to function in public. Finally, there is The Cunning Animal. Sweeney adopts this pose when he smells danger to himself or his plans. In the second Pirelli scene, Sweeney vacillated between The Full Man and The Cunning Animal on almost every other line.

A lesser physicality was his attack pose: he used it when he charged Mrs. Lovette in their first scene together and it’s how he carried himself in front of the audience during the ballads. Arms back, chest forward. It’s a prison yard stance, when Sweeney was pushed to his limits.

“I didn’t even recognize you up there!” These are the greatest words an actor can hear. Or, the greatest words I can hear as a character actor.

Sweeney Todd is the story of people who are unable to see what is right in front of them.

Sweeney Todd’s central character is not Sweeney. It is Johanna. The three main characters each sing a song titled “Johanna.” The Judge wants Johanna incestuously and contrives to marry her in order to keep her. Anthony wants Johanna in order to “save” her and plots to steal her in order to have her. Sweeney wants Johanna as a perfect memory and plots to destroy everyone in her life in order to possess this perfect memory. None of these men have Johanna’s best interests in mind. The Judge imprisons her to keep her away from others. Anthony brings her to the most dangerous place in London so blind is he to the danger of Sweeney Todd. Sweeney does not even recognize her when she is in his shop and nearly kills her with his own hand. Johanna only escapes on her own recognizance. Her future at the end of the show is uncertain – certainly the police will want to discuss the murder of a certain Dr. Fogg.

I was terrified of losing my voice. I’ve never not lost my voice in the run of a musical. I’ve also never sung such difficult music in a show or had such a large role. The day I got cast I ordered the full score. The next day I contacted McPhail and signed up for weekly voice lessons. I told my teacher, “I need to learn how to sing a role like Sweeney Todd without losing my voice. I need to learn stamina.” He then proceeded to strip down my voice and build it back from the ground up. I sing completely differently now. It feels better and I don’t hurt my voice!

I had to be completely relaxed with my music before I could begin building a character. Because Sweeney is so tense, I had to be able to hold myself in a locked position without locking my throat. The only way to do this was to have zero worries about my singing. Again, I’ve never done this before.

Oh, and I was so tense that – despite not going to the gym for a month – I actually built muscle mass playing the role. Just through tension.

I had to make myself not listen to “The Beggar Woman’s Lullaby” each night or I’d start crying before my entrance.

I fell off the stage TWICE! In the run of the show. Both times it was my fault; both times I got hurt. My right leg still hurts where I scraped it up. BUT, it was secretly exhilarating!

Sweeney was the first role my twelve-year-old daughter has seen me play in a full-length show. I was proud to have her see it.

I was so freaked out by the role that I don’t think I spoke to any of my fellow cast members for the first month of rehearsal.

I think the length of the run was just right. Maybe in ten years I’ll have something new to bring to the role, but at this age, I’ve done about all I can with it.

I loved seeing the audience for the first time in Epiphany. No one expected me to swing down the stairs and address them directly. Watching them pull back and tense up was a joy each and every night.

I think I did a good job. I rarely say that about anything I do. But I think I did.

Categories: Just a stupid thing, Sweeney Todd, Theater, Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Some Thoughts After Seeing “The Unknown Matters”

NOTE: This isn’t a proper review because I am not a proper critic. This is a loose collection of thoughts I had today after chewing on this play all night. So, I may not touch on everything in the play and I didn’t take notes while I watched it. If I get any plot points wrong, mea culpa.

UM Postcard Front-crop

The cool thing about being friends with lots of artists is every once in a while one of them will produce something that makes you go, “Oh yeah. I’m friends with freakin’ artists!”

Last night, I saw Mark Sweeney’s original musical The Unknown Matters – playing at HUGE Theater as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival – and it pretty much produced exactly that sort of reaction in me.

Mark, for those who don’t know him, is a creator. He itches to create. Spend more than a few minutes talking to him and the conversation will inevitably drift towards whatever projects he’s working on, or thinking of working on, or considering not working on anymore. He’s not self-centered; he simply worries about his projects like they’re his children at summer camp. And, like a good parent, he holds them to some pretty high standards.

I’ve had to good luck to collaborate with Mr. Sweeney on a couple of productions – I directed him in a musical in 2009 and collaborated with him on an original piece for the 2010 Fringe – so I have experienced first-hand these standards. He has a vision for everything he does. He has a goal. And, he pursues that goal with a single-mindedness of a predator and the focus of a really focused predator. Sometimes, he reaches his goal, and when he does he simply tacks on what today we would refer to as a “stretch goal.” It’s tiring, honestly, but that is what makes Mr. Sweeney such an exhilarating friend. And collaborator. And artist. He’s like a good road trip: he may wear you out, but at the end of the day you’ve gone somewhere really cool.

Spending 45 minutes watching The Unknown Matters is like spending four hours with Mark in the best way possible. If you know him, you hear his voice and feel his presence in every line and note of the script and score. If you don’t know him, it functions as an intimate look inside the head of a person with an engaging outlook on the world around him.

But, it’s not a solo piece. It’s a play. Or, a musical. Or, a play with music. Or, a mediation with ukulele. It’s also a comedy.

The plot . . . is ephemeral. I mean, it’s there. It exists. It’s clearly stated. But, it’s slippery. It shifts.

In short, two scientists (Mark Sweeney and Katie Bradley) are living in an abandoned underground lab which is being crowd-funded with the help of Bradley’s brother (Izzy Waid).  Bradley is pursuing proof of the existence of potentially habitable exo-planets while Sweeney is seeking evidence of the existence of dark matter. Their pursuits are personal yet complimentary and their time together evolves into a playful routine. This is not a “romantic comedy” nor is it “science fiction.” Sweeney and Bradley’s relationship develops gently while the science fuels the narrative while never overwhelming the action. The two characters could be pursuing rare books, butterflies, health statistics, anything. As the story makes clear, what we pursue doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you are pursuing something.

And this is what begins to elevate the play beyond “speculative fiction” and into the realm of “personal narrative.” The frustration of the artist, the creator, plays out beautifully as Bradley and Sweeney interact across the HUGE Theater’s minuscule performing area. But, it is Sweeney’s frustration. It belongs to the writer. When he lifts his ukulele the first time and begins fingering a plaintive vamp, the tone of the show shifts inward and rests there for remainder of the story. What we witness takes on the form of a dream – the timeline jumps seemingly at random and Izzy Waid changes characters from scene to scene.

A quick note on Izzy Waid: he has the voice of a radio announcer and is about seven feet tall (more or less) but he manages to float in the background of scenes and appear seemingly at random from unexpected areas of the very small theater. Also, even at his most bombastic, Waid’s characters are engaged and engaging. He shares a brief beat with Bradley on one of his exits that is heartbreaking in its simplicity.

*BEGIN SPOILER* About halfway through the story, Sweeney’s character is put out of a commission by a mysterious illness that begins swelling his extremities. He is forced to leave the lab to pursue treatment at a hospital and his stay is repeatedly extended from days, to more days to weeks as doctors struggle to figure out his bizarre ailment. It’s a unique plot device that functions to isolate both of our main characters – allowing them to develop free from the direct influence of each other – while creating a harrowing journey for each of them. Bradley’s mind begins to slip a little and at one point hallucinates Sweeney’s presence while Sweeney begins to succumb to despair that his illness will ever be diagnosed and that he’ll ever leave the hospital.

The moment Sweeney notices the swelling in his leg is the moment The Unknown Matters stops being a play and starts being a heightened emotional experience. The reason for this is simple: the audience instantly becomes divided as effectively as if someone had slammed a wall down between both halves of the room.


Because those in the audience who know Mark Sweeney will recognize the symptoms of his own very personal and very public mysterious illness.

When you are friends with someone who has a disease – a disease requiring hospitalization, tests, and other unknown matters – it can sometimes take all of your energy to not grab them and hold them and demand they tell you everything they’re feeling and that they’re going to be okay. That they will continue and will always be the person you love and care about.

Whether he intended to or not, Mark has accomplished exactly that with The Unknown Matters. At the first mention of his swollen leg, Mark effectively steps off the stage, sits down next to you, takes your hand and guides you gracefully through his experiences, his feelings, his terrors and his insights. It’s breathtaking the ease with which he accomplishes this.

For those of us who know Mark, that is. I don’t know the effect this moment will have on everyone else, but I know it’s effective. And scary. There was an audible gasp in the audience the night I saw it – probably from friends – but the moment was shared. “Oh no,” we thought, “We’re about to see our friend in pain again.”

With this shift, the play stops being what it is about and starts being what Mark is about. Does that make sense? It stops being about two people in pursuit of the unknown and starts being about the pursuit of that which we do not know. It’s subtle. But, it’s distinct. *END SPOILER*

Did I mention this has ukulele songs all throughout it?!

Let’s not forget that Mark Sweeney is an accomplished musician. His songs are straightforward, something that, honestly, has bothered me in the past. Here, however, the repetitive themes and lyrics slide around the narrative, commenting on the action and being commented on by the action. Sweeney and Bradley’s voices blend gorgeously and at times Waid provides an ominous bass line that heightens the tension like a Herrmann score.

Oh, and Katie Bradley is incredible. Her manic performance rides the line between “deliberately quirky” and “realistically neurotic” quite well. She and Sweeney effortlessly connect and the story that passes between them every time they lock eyes could fill a hundred more Fringe shows.

Oh, and the use of silence is powerful.

Oh! And, the way the theme comes back around to and plays with the concept of waiting, is wonderful.

OH! And the writing on the wall –

And the use of movement to denote passage of time –

And the bittersweet ending –

The Unknown Matters moved me. It moved me as a friend, as an artist and as an audience member. I was actively jealous of how honest it was. Mark and Katie and Izzy should be proud of everything they’ve done.

Categories: MNFringe, review, Theater | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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