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.
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.
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
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.