Theatrical “Authorship”: Collaboration is Key
As we all know, when mounting a theatrical production, a creative team, production team, and cast come together to bring a vision to life. Each of these groups of people is essential to the process of successfully animating that vision, and must contain well-qualified, efficient, professional team members who complete the various tasks associated with said roles. For most of my life, I have served as a performer within various theatrical productions, and up until last year, within the realm of the theatrical world, I did not identify as anything but a cast member. Over the years, I had gained an extensive amount of knowledge and experience as an actress, singer, and dancer, but I had always wanted to expand my horizons by gaining a wider range of theatrical experience outside of my comfort zone. So, in January of 2014, I applied to direct a musical, the dark comedy and cult classic known as Little Shop of Horrors, for Greasepaint Productions, Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges’ completely student-run musical theatre organization. I was excited by the prospect of bringing my creative vision to life, worked diligently on my application, and ended up being approved to be the director of Greasepaint’s Little Shop of Horrors for the spring 2014 semester.
My directorial debut was an experience that, although amazing in many ways, at times, frustrated me beyond belief. There were times during which I felt incredibly claustrophobic, there were times during which I wanted to pull all of my hair out, there were times during which I completely resented everything, and there were times during which I completely doubted myself. Hell week took on an entirely new meaning for me, and I was honestly surprised that I emerged relatively unscathed on opening night. However, my directorial debut also taught me a great deal, particularly concerning theatrical authorship. I naively began the process of directing Little Shop of Horrors believing that the show would be one cohesive vision that belonged completely to me and that I was the clear author of the show. However, the final product ended up being very different than I’d expected it to be. I was the helm of a ship rather than the entire journey that I had attempted to pre-plan, and I learned that when it comes to theatrical authorship, collaboration is key.
I began to learn about the importance of creative collaboration in the theatrical world right away, during the Little Shop of Horrors audition process. When mounting a production at a small college, it is always difficult to predict how many people will actually come to audition for said production, and therefore it’s impossible to know if the people who do actually come and audition will fit the qualifications for the characters that make up the show. At Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, this challenge is multiplied by the fact that many more women than men are always in our talent pool due to the fact that Bryn Mawr is a women’s college and Haverford is a coed college. There are four characters in Little Shop of Horrors that are traditionally male and played by men: Seymour Krelborn (the protagonist), Audrey II (the man-eating plant), Mushnik (Seymour’s employer and the owner of Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists), and Orin Scrivello (a sadistic dentist who is dating Seymour’s love interest, Audrey). In my original vision for Little Shop of Horrors, I had planned on casting each of these characters as men (as done on Broadway and for most productions of Little Shop of Horrors). However, only three men auditioned for my show, and I now had a bit of a predicament; only three of the four male characters could actually be cast as male, and I had no other choice in the matter. I was forced to rethink things, for the audition talent pool was out of my control and I therefore had to tinker with my original vision of the show. Since an abundance of female talent had showed up at auditions (around twenty women), I decided that I would cast either Mushnik or Audrey II as a woman (since gender is not a crucial part of either of those characters’ identities), but I wasn’t sure which yet.
The day of callbacks arrived, and I had many important decisions to make. I had people sing and read for each character, and when it came to the male characters, I knew whom I wanted to cast as Seymour and whom I wanted to cast as Orin right away. I then heard a few women and one man sing and read for Audrey II, and loved the way that the man played and sang for the character. So, I decided to cast him as Audrey II knowing I would now need to cast Mushnik as a woman. I was worried about finding an actress who would be able to handle the role, and my worry intensified after I heard various actresses sing and read for the role and wasn’t taken with any of their interpretations of Mushnik. When a few members of my production team and I were discussing who to cast as Mushnik, however, a couple of them brought one woman who had impressed us at auditions that we had no idea what to do with to my attention. She had been called back for Audrey and for the Doo-Wop Girls, and we all believed her to be a skilled singer and actress, but did not think she was right for any of the roles she had been called back for. Thus, after discussing the matter further, we decided to take a chance, cast her as Mushnik, and make Mushnik a female character even though we hadn’t seen her in the role yet. My original vision of Mushnik had already completely been scrapped from the show; the rehearsal process hadn’t even begun yet and the overall vision of the show had already started to change from “mine” to “ours.”
Throughout the rehearsal process, I would listen to different actors’ opinions on their characters and how they believed their characters should act during each particular scene, and started incorporating actors’ ideas into the show. I also started to work with Abby (the woman I cast as Mushnik) on creating Mushnik as a female character. Mushnik is a strong comedic role, and I intended for the character to be exaggerated and over the top, high in energy, high strung, unsympathetic, and to have a strong Yiddish accent. However, the way Abby played the character was entirely different from what I had originally intended Mushnik to be. Abby played Mushnik as sarcastic, cynical, bitter, and frustrated yet sometimes strangely compassionate, and she did not put on an accent. I began noticing some great acting decisions Abby was making and realized that, although I honestly hadn’t been fond of her interpretation at first, her version of Mushnik was also very funny in its own way. I had a talk with Abby after one rehearsal, and together, we created a backstory for her version of Mushnik in order to solidify and strengthen female Mushnik as a character. We decided that female Mushnik had dreams long ago that she had been forced to abandon due to the fact that she had gotten married at a very young age. Her husband, Mr. Mushnik, started the Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists business shortly after they had gotten married, but after a few short years, left her for another woman and moved out of Skid Row, leaving Mrs. Mushnik in charge of a flower shop that she had never wanted in the first place. This would explain Mrs. Mushnik’s sarcasm and cynicism. Mrs. Mushnik also seems to have a soft spot for Audrey at certain points in Little Shop of Horrors, and Abby and I decided that this was due to the fact that she sees many similarities between herself and Audrey; Mrs. Mushnik does not want Audrey to end up with a fate like hers (Audrey is in a bad relationship and so was Mrs. Mushnik, Audrey seems to have abandoned her dreams and Mrs. Mushnik does not want her to do so since that’s something she herself was regrettably forced to do). Mrs. Mushnik as a character had therefore become a collaborative effort between Abby and I. Additionally, it was interesting to me that after each performance, some audience members would approach me and praise the decision to cast Mushnik as a woman (especially ones who had already been familiar with Little Shop of Horrors before seeing Greasepaint’s version). A couple of students even exclaimed excitedly, “Mushnik is so much better as a woman! The character just makes so much more sense that way!”
I can with absolute certainty say that each and every member of my production team contributed to the final product of Little Shop of Horrors and added unique perspectives and ideas to the mix. For instance, my set designer, Henry was completely in charge of designing the plans for and supervising the building of the Little Shop of Horrors set. I spoke on the phone and met with him a few times to articulate my ideas and requirements for the set in terms of the blocking I had come up with for the actors, and based on our discussions and some additional ideas of his, he designed a fantastic set that was easy to put together in a short period of time. However, he did end up making a few changes to what I had originally wanted for my set in order to make it work with the resources we had for the show. For instance, originally, I had wanted my set to contain a window made out of Plexiglass and for “Mushnik’s” to be painted onto it backwards (since the set was the interior of Mrs. Mushnik’s flower shop and I wanted the window to appear as it would from the point of view of those inside the shop). However, it soon became clear to Henry and I that it would be much more difficult for us to obtain Plexiglass than we had originally anticipated. So, he decided to plan for the space on the center “wall” (made out of a painted flat) that was to be set aside for the Plexiglass window to be a square painted with light grey paint and then black and green for lettering (“Mushnik’s”) and decoration; the window was now to be painted onto the set instead of constructed out of Plexiglass. We had Erica, a member of my stage crew and a skilled painter, paint the window onto the set once we had built it, and our collaborative plan worked out perfectly (trumping my original vision).
I collaborated closely with my choreographer, Emily, in the process of creating Little Shop of Horrors as well. At first, I didn’t think I would even require a choreographer to work on my show, for Little Shop of Horrors doesn’t necessarily require any complex dance numbers. However, I decided that I wanted to bring a choreographer in to work on the show when I realized that the Doo-Wop Girls, three central characters in the show who are meant to resemble a girl group of the 1950s or 60s, should probably dance in a more professional and synchronized manner than the other characters in the show. I have over nine years of dance experience myself, but I knew that directing on its own would be a huge commitment (and choreographing in addition to directing would be a lot for me to manage in addition to my studies). My assistant director recommended Emily for the job, and after I had offered Emily the position of choreographer, I met and spoke with her on various occasions to discuss what the Doo-Wop Girls’ dances should look like. We mainly spoke about the rock and roll, doo-wop, and early Motown influences of the music of the show’s score, and I told Emily that I wanted the Doo-Wop Girls’ movements to be sharp and in sync with each other (due to the fact that they are a girl group of sorts, reminiscent of the Supremes). However, I also wanted some of the numbers (which would be taking place on an elevated platform) to be low key, since I didn’t want the actresses playing the Doo-Wop Girls to injure themselves by performing motions that were too intense on top of the platform. Emily and I decided that she would choreograph the dance numbers that would be taking place in the actual stage area while I would choreograph the dance numbers that would be taking place on the platform according to how they would correspond with the action occurring on the actual stage during those numbers. After Emily had initially choreographed her numbers, I based the style of the numbers I choreographed off of her style so that the dancing in the show would seem to flow and have one coherent style. Audience members praised the show’s choreography highly, so this strategy apparently worked out very well.
Little Shop of Horrors started out as one cohesive vision that had been authored by one person on paper, but through the process of bringing it to life as an actual theatrical production, it became a collaborative effort. Treating a piece of art as something that is a collaborative effort rather than as something that has one author is, in my eyes, being true to the nature of art. Art is meant to be up for interpretation, but when there is only one “author” credited, solely her/his interpretation of the art and the “author” her/himself become the only things that matter. A work of art should feel open and inviting, and people should feel comfortable engaging in a dialogue concerning said art during its creation and after it has been created.
Collaborating with others is both inevitable and vital to the process of creating theatre. It improves the work significantly, it is humbling, and if done in a professional, respectful manner, it keeps everyone relatively sane (well, as sane as we theatre fanatics are capable of acting). When opening night of Little Shop of Horrors arrived, I was able to witness the vision that my collective team (emphasis on the word TEAM) and I had brought to life together. What I saw before me was a beautiful combination of various types of skill and talent, like a tapestry that had been woven together to create something truly unique and wonderful. It was one of the most rewarding moments of my life.