Opening Night: A Director's Turmoil and An Actor's Triumph

Lara Williams

  • OnStage Texas Columnist

As of the final dress rehearsal, the show was completely out of my hands. We had rehearsed for 7 weeks and it was time to show the audience what we had learned. So there we were, opening night...and then it happened; a missed cue. But the cast kept going and I don't think the audience noticed. Then a microphone gave some feedback. Uh oh, the audience would definitely notice that. Luckily that character didn't have many lines in that scene and the tech booth was able to make adjustments on the fly. But as we kept going, things kept happening to make me cringe. Someone missed a dance step, someone else came in too early on the chorus, the lights skipped a cue and went to the next scene. And there was absolutely nothing I could do. 

At intermission, my husband and the tech director tried to calm me down by reminding me that these were things I had no control over. But the most important thing they said to talk me down off the ledge was how well the cast was adapting. They were taking it all in stride and persevering. But I was too caught up in what was totally out of my control to enjoy it. In fact I got so frustrated, that I walked out of the auditorium to the lobby half way through the second act because I couldn't bear it anymore. 

In the lobby, the producers reminded me of the same things. The cast was handling it and they would be fine. But I guess it was my maternal instinct kicking in. I don't expect anyone who isn't a parent to understand, but there is this feeling when you see something going wrong for your child and you are powerless to help. That's what was happening with this cast. Some of these performers were still new to theatre. I was afraid that these little glitches were going to get into their heads and make them start doubting themselves and their capabilities. But this cast proved me wrong. They powered through all the slip-ups and technical errors and when the audience came out of the auditorium, I heard a little girl yell, "That was awesome," as she ran by to go get her picture taken with some of the cast members. That's when the spell was broken for me. That's when I realized this cast is ready to do this on their own. 

There is a reason a director's job ends when the show opens. Once there is an audience, the cast have to start problem-solving on their own. How silly would it look for me to stop a scene and fix it with an audience sitting around me? I have to trust that with everything we covered in our rehearsals, they are prepared for whatever comes their way. What started out as my own personal hell, turned out to be a victory for the cast of this show. I know now that all of our hard work over the past month and a half has paid off. They have taken ownership of this show and I could not be prouder.

Photo: Eric Y. Exit

Why You Should Always Be Doing Your Best Work

Lara Williams

  • OnStage Texas Columnist

“If you’re not going to go all the way, why go at all?” - Joe Namath
 
As an actor and director in community theatre in a small city, it’s hard to not hear all the backstage gossip. One thing that really disappoints me is when I hear someone say that they need to do a really good job in a particular performance because a specific person will be in the audience. Or I’ve heard that a performer wishes they had known that an individual was in the audience before the show because they would have done a better job. What?! That doesn’t make any sense to me. 

I get frustrated watching a performance where the cast was given direction or choreography that didn’t suit the scene because the person telling them what to do was too busy to come up with something better and wasn’t paying enough attention to notice what a poor job they had done.
 
Or even when a moment in a song or scene could have used a really neat lighting effect, but the lighting designer didn’t pay attention to what was happening on stage and in the script so this exciting moment on stage is punctuated with a period instead of an exclamation point.
 
You get my drift. And you’ve probably seen the same things and felt the same frustration over these shortcomings. I must tell you, I am baffled as to why they ever happen, in any kind of theatre but especially in community theatre.
 
You are volunteering your time to perform in community theatre. That is time that you could be at home with your family or friends, picking up another shift at work for extra pay, or countless other things. Instead, you chose to come and spend several hours each week learning blocking, building and painting sets, sewing costumes, gathering props, etc.
 
Why are you doing this? Because you love it! You love meeting these new people, creating together, and you love to entertain. So why wouldn’t you give it your all? Wouldn’t you like to know that your time was well spent? There are a couple of points to explore in this topic.
 
One of them is that the cast and crew of a show are a team. Actors, the crew is busting their butts to get that scene change as tight and short as possible, so you owe it to them to be in place and on top of your cue when the lights come up. Also, how about you show them some gratitude once in a while? The crew doesn’t typically get to go on stage for a bow, nor do audience members ask for their autographs or to take pictures with them after the show. A simple ‘thank you’ would be appreciated. 
 
Sound engineer, the cast has spent unknown hours rehearsing their lines and songs not only in rehearsal, but also at home with their family, in the car while they drive to work, etc. The least you could do is be ready with their mic or sound cue. They’ve done all that work to learn this and make it sound just right; please make sure they are heard.
 
Directors and choreographers, these actors and dancers are trusting that you are going to make them look good. Please don’t come to rehearsal and make up your blocking or choreography on the spot or use this opportunity as the first time to look over the music before you teach it to them. That is insulting, especially if you are being paid and the actors aren’t. Also, your name is going in that program as the one who taught them what to do on stage. Don’t you want people to think you did a good job?
 
Another point is that you are all, including the people who do not appear on stage, contributing to a performance for a PAYING audience. They are spending hard-earned money and free time on a night at the theatre to be entertained by you. It’s easy to lose sight of that, so I think we could all use a reminder. Who knows who is in the audience? Should it have any influence on your performance? Yes and no. Should a specific person sitting in the audience dictate how well you perform? No. Does the fact that there is someone, anyone watching your show mean that you should put everything you’ve got into that performance? Yes! It doesn’t matter who they are, it matters that they are there to watch something that you have been working on for at least a month or two. How about you show them that you are proud of your work and that all the time spent on the show was well worth it? You might be inspiring the next Audra McDonald or Aaron Tveit to break out of their shell. There might be a married couple who are going through a rough patch and came to watch your show to forget their troubles for a little while.
 
There are countless ways that theatre, and art in general, impact us. I, for one, would like to know that what I did on that stage, whether it’s acting in one scene in a two-and-a-half hour show or directing a very moving scene, was good and that I did the best I could.
 
Don’t ever walk away from a show wishing you had done better. Always do your best.

Photo: theatre.uiowa.edu

TNT: A Conference for Theatre Kids of All Districts

Mikayla Cassandra Moats

One of my most profound memories of all time is sitting in a high school in Boerne, Texas, talking about theatre with other sixteen year olds from all over the state. Specifically, about how small towns in Texas often lack the necessary amount of “weird theatre kids” that we found in that room, about how that classroom in Boerne, Texas at the Texas Nonprofit Theaters’ YOUTH Conference (or TNT) had just the right amount of weird theatre people.

"Dula" created by Paul Elliot & Jeanie Cunningham
Produced by OhLook Performing Arts Center
October 2-11, 2015
More photos: http://bit.ly/DulaPhotos

In a state where it sometimes feels like being a theatre kid means being ostracized by your friends more interested in football than Footloose, it can be hard to find people like you.

Especially when some schools, like mine, have no to little theatre. Luckily for me, I’ve found my place in the local community theatre, Brazos Valley TROUPE. Even there though, most of the kids are so much younger than me, and those who aren’t I’ve known since I was younger. It gets old trying to tell the same six people about how much you love Hamilton again when they want to tell you how much they love Wicked. Again. You know their opinions, and they know yours, so after a while, there’s nothing new to talk about. It often feels like there’s no new insight to get on different musicals in a football town.

At TNT though, there’s always someone who’s going to the conference for the first time. There’s also someone you met for the first time four years ago and they’re the most important person in your life now. Someone’s always wanting to be included by strangers, someone’s friends are always saying things like “you just have to meet so and so from Artsview because they’re so nice” or “I guarantee you’ll meet at least one friend, don’t worry.” The conference is not a competition, which is one of the most fantastic things about it, because it feels like everyone wants everyone to succeed in what they’re doing, year after year. I have been to five TNTs in my lifetime, in places like Lewisville, Boerne and Bastrop, and I can say without a doubt, it feels like one of the safest communities where people can just get together and love theatre.

TNT itself is almost a weeklong conference and every year a different city will host it. It starts in June, a youth theatre company has a group of their kids and chaperones load up into cars or on a bus or plane and get ready to head out to whatever city is hosting it. Next, everyone is greeted by the current president of TNT at the conference, and given the information they need to know about who’s hosting, what the venue is and any general housekeeping things while the first company set to perform sets up backstage. Each performing company has an allotted time to set up, perform and tear down. There’s a break, and the process repeats for the first block. Then there are workshops, often including topics such as diction, acting, costuming, stage combat, dance, or other theatre related things. More companies perform throughout the week, and there are plenty of social events that everyone can choose to participate in. At the end of the week there’s an awards ceremony for outstanding actors, outstanding members of workshops and other things. Finally, everyone says their goodbyes and they exchange Twitters and Facebooks and wait for the next year.

This conference is one that brings those who attend more friends, mentors and teachers in theatre than any other place I’ve ever been, while still being fun. The last two years Dr. Jason Moats’ workshops has created videos where members of the conference are asked questions such as to name one thing to describe TNT; two of the most common answers were “friendship” and “home.” I think that really sums it up; TNT is many of these people’s home to leave and return, year after year.

The House Jac Alder Built: More Than Just a Theatre, a Theatre Community

Alexandra Bonifeld

On Friday, May 29, 2015, theatre marquees across North Texas went dark. At curtain speeches, theatre managers asked audiences to stand and share a moment in reflective remembrance. At other venues, rehearsing casts clasped hands and bowed heads in silence. These were all gestures to honor the life and accomplishments of Theatre Three’s Jac Alder, who died at age 80 on May 22, 2015, due to respiratory failure. Actor, stage director, set designer, architect, coach, mentor, educator, community-builder, inspirational visionary, teller of amazing tales and the longest-serving continuous executive producer/director of a professional theatre in the United States. Jac oversaw at least 378 main stage shows during his 54-year tenure: shows he applied for rights to produce, produced, directed, acted in, designed and/or promoted. At openings, Jac greeted audiences with a warm, wry, never-canned curtain speech. Audiences knew they were welcome at the house Jac built, as did the thousands of actors, directors, designers, musicians, interns and production staff who flourished under his creative roof.

In 1961, Jac’s wife Norma Young founded Theatre Three, along with Jac, Esther Ragland and Robert Dracup, producing plays intended to “expand understanding of the human condition.” They opened with what became the company’s signature theatre-in-the-round format at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel and soon expanded to a converted garage near downtown Dallas. In 1969 they leased a larger space at an uptown retail center, the Quadrangle, doubling seating capacity. A successful capital campaign allowed them to purchase the building in 1985. Young gave the company its name to represent the three essential elements she defined as “co-equal”: the playwright, the production and the audience. She remained artistic director until she died in 1998.

Theatre Three founders Jac Alder, Norma Young and Camilla Carr in 1961.

Did Jac realize he would transcend the ordinary as a visionary theatre producer? That fire blazed hot and early and continued to warm those he touched until the end. He embodied the mission of Theatre Three with such joyful, thorough commitment, it gave him the aura of a bodhisattva.

Jac possessed a sixth sense for spotting talent and a wealth of generosity to foster it. Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning playwrights honed their chops as Theatre Three actors or in workshops there, including Beth Henley, Doug Wright and Tracy Letts. When I interviewed some of the region’s distinguished artists for this tribute, I heard over and over what sounded like a mantra: “Jac took a chance on me, an unknown, and gave me my first professional artistic gig.”

Theatre Three founders Jac Alder, Norma Young and Camilla Carr in 1961.

Theatre Three founders Jac Alder, Norma Young and Camilla Carr in 1961.

Theatre Three’s designated acting artistic director, Bruce R. Coleman, described the genesis of his 30-year working relationship and friendship with Alder:

“When I was finishing college, a friend recommended I interview for a general internship at Theatre Three. I met this amazingly open, honest man wearing huge glasses, a bright yellow shirt and a crocheted blue necktie. Even though I was a visual art major in college, he saw something he liked and hired me. A year later he turned aged-23 me loose to direct my first show, a Harry Chapin retrospective musical. Jac launched my life’s career as a director/designer. Theatre Three has produced almost every Sondheim musical, and I have the honor of being the only other director at Theatre Three allowed to direct Sondheim.”

Respected regional actor/director Cameron Cobb was the last person to perform on the mainstage with Jac Alder (in Freud’s Last Session in 2013). He had this to say:

Jac Alder in “Freud’s Last Session” at Theatre Three in 2013.

“I felt extremely lucky to do a two-hander with Jac because I knew that I would get access to the inner workings. What I really found, in the work on- and offstage, was a man who truly operated with childlike wonder and joy at being able to do the work of the theatre. Jac was deftly aware of his status in the theatre scene and classy enough to use it to help others as opposed to himself.”

Actor Wendy Welch recalls how fiercely original and personally committed Jac was: “My mother, Anne Jackson, taught voice to most of the region’s professional musical theatre actors, many at Theatre Three. I grew up there, surrounded by all that excellence. Jac and Norma inspired me to make theatre my career. Right out of SMU,  I was cast in Theatre Three’s The Gondoliers, with Jac playing my father. I found him intimidating and fascinating, outrageous and fearless, an  utterly honest artist and surprisingly socially and politically aware. He had a genius for life. In recent years Jac would wear only black, white or grey to the theatre, almost a uniform. One night he appeared wearing brightly colored clothes. I asked: Why the change? He said he was in mourning for his country for eight years and had put all his bright clothes in storage. With Barack Obama’s election, he could wear bright colors again.”

But to Alder, a commitment to civil rights and social justice issues was more than a fashion statement. Color-blind casting? He employed it long before it became a thing. In 1961, the very first play Jac directed was Ossie Davis’s Purlie Victorious. He produced three of August Wilson’s plays, the first before Wilson won a Pulitzer, when no other “white” theatre company in the region would do so.

Dr. Janice Franklin, professor of music and humanities at Mountain View College, longtime musical director at Theatre Three, explains how Jac’s advocacy affected her life as an African-American artist: “Jac and Norma offered opportunities to African-American actors, singers and directors that nobody else was doing here at the time. So forward-thinking for that era, Jac and Norma developed a unique, holistic vision and welcomed leading the region in being inclusive. When I arrived in Dallas in 1974 with a freshly minted Master’s degree in music, I found myself auditioning to become music director for several shows at Theatre Three. Never mind that my background was classical music, not musical theatre—Jac took a gamble on a talented, well-trained musician and taught me theatre on the job. My career as a musical director, an African-American woman, flourished as a result.”

Franklin shares the most important thing Jac taught her: “He helped me understand that the ultimate gift a dying person could give a loved one is permission to participate in their passing, an ultimate act of love and vulnerability. He felt it was an honor to be participant, to hold their hand as they moved off the stage of this life…”

So very “Jac.”

A celebration of Alder’s life is scheduled for July 13, 2015 at City Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District. All are welcome to join in acknowledging Jac’s many gifts, unique vision and legacy, and to help honor him after his last graceful exit.

For more information about the celebration or Theatre Three, contact Lois Leftwich:lois@theatre3dallas.com ( 214) 871-3300, option #2.