"Voice- 10, Dance 3" : For the “Actors Who Move Well

"Voice- 10, Dance 3" : For the “Actors Who Move Well

This one is for the actors who move well.

For the ones who make their way into the singing portion of any audition with all the confidence in the world. 

Who leave the house with a tea in one hand, a carefully selected outfit, a dose of determination and a well-stocked book of familiar tunes and monologues safely tucked under their arm.

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A Light in the Dark: Mental Illness & the Arts

Alexa Juno

In recent history, Broadway has accumulated its fair share of shows that deal in the theme of mental illness. From “Next to Normal” to “Dear Evan Hansen”. From “Spring Awakening” to “The Light in the Piazza, the theatre community of late has made mental health a deservedly important priority in their storytelling. Whether it’s Diana Goodman’s struggle with schizophrenic bi-polar depression or the uphill battle with dementia depicted in “The Father”, the theatre community has unquestionably aided in the exploration and normalization the plight of mental illness. In placing characters struggling with these afflictions at the forefront of their storytelling these works have played an indispensable role in humanizing a population and de-stigmatizing their conditions. 

The normalization of mental illness via the theatre has been a point of pride within the worldwide theatrical family and their ability to illuminate the plight of the mentally ill is an unquestionably laudable endeavor. However, for a community that has placed such a high premium on its ability to tell the stories of the mentally ill, the conversation surrounding mental health within that community appears to be sorely lacking.

In the wake of last year’s news of a former Broadway dancer brutally murdering his boyfriend,  many in the theatre community were quick to point out the inconsistencies in the mental health conversation for performing arts professionals. A simple Google search confirms this theory, with inquiries into “mental illness in theatre” being met with articles such as “Five Musicals That Discuss Mental Illness” and many column inches devoted to the bravery of writers and actors for tackling the subject matter. Yet for all of this theatrical grandstanding, it seems that when it comes to the mental health of arts professionals, there are shockingly few easily accessible resources for an issue that is hugely more common than we realize.  

Much research has shown that theatre artists, actors specifically, are more prone to emotional instability. A study done at the University of Adelaide in Australia just this summer showed that actors are more prone to suffer from anxiety and depression, conditions that stem from lack of employment security, general work environment, perfectionism, complex interpersonal relationships, drinking culture within the arts, and “vicarious trauma” from absorbing the emotions and experiences of various characters. And not only did actors prove more prone to these conditions, the actors in the study were also tested as being less likely to report them.

Marcus Bellamy, sadly, isn’t even the first high-profile case of mental illness in the theatre community this year.  Last summer, a Broadway stagehand, who friends said was prone to bouts of aggression after a head injury, was gunned down during an altercation with police in midtown Manhattan.  The theatre community in Chicago is also bouncing back after an expose of a traumatic and long-lived cycle of abuse at Profiles Theatre was widely circulated this year.  For over a decade, an unstable actor, Darrell Cox, exercised a reign of terror over the company of Profiles both onstage and off, leaving many to question his mental health and leaving more than one actor in his wake on shaky emotional ground. 

A quick scan of the health care coverage of theatrical unions (Equity [Actors/Stage Managers], Local 802 [Musicians], and IATSE [Stagehands]) tells us that the mental health coverage for these professionals is more than adequate, with all offering low co-pays and a reasonable amount of covered time for in and outpatient treatments. So if coverage isn’t the issue, then what is? And what of the members of our community who have yet to attain union status? How are those who have not reached the topmost rungs of our industry to navigate the financial hurdles of treatment in a notoriously unstable profession?

Ben Platt, Michael Park, Jennifer Laura Thompson in Dear Evan Hansen Photo: Margot Schulman

Ben Platt, Michael Park, Jennifer Laura Thompson in Dear Evan Hansen Photo: Margot Schulman

From disordered eating, to struggles with self-worth, substance abuse, injury-induced isolation and an almost unavoidable depression that sets in when experiencing the rejection associated with an artistic path, a life in the arts is rife with potential to negatively impact a practitioner's mental health. So why would this facet of the artistic experience not be more widely discussed and resources readily available? Where is the section on Playbill.com for Health Resources? Is there a thread on the BroadwayWorld message board for effective mental health treatments and alternatives for arts professionals? Where is the sing-a-long video for Dancers With Anxiety?

In terms of heart, the lack of conversation about mental health within the arts says nothing of the character of the typically supportive arts community. This is merely a symptom of a widespread hesitation to discuss mental health in any vocation or capacity. And it is this lack of discussion that so many find concerning. This inability to acknowledge that those within the arts are uniquely vulnerable to mental illness and that the struggles of mental illness are far more than prevalent in this industry than many of us know.  

But I believe we can and should do better. For a community that takes so much pride in putting on shows that add to the discussion surrounding mental health, we should make a bigger show out of recognizing the potential for mental illness within our sphere and do more to protect and empower our own. 

SHOWBITUARY: Something Rotten!

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Parting is such sweet sorrow.  This week it was announced that well-liked Broadway hit, Something Rotten!, would be packing up its Broadway tent and heading out on tour. 

What to say about our dear Bottom Brothers and their fictional invention of the musical? The only word that comes to mind is “fun”.  Not every theatrical experience is meant to be a core-shaking one and Rotten! you certainly fall into this category of musical.  A rollicking, often hilarious evening of pure entertainment. Not life-changing, but far from frivolous. As much as I enjoy a satisfying heady night of theatre, sometimes you just want to laugh.  And on the random Friday evening I chose to spend in the company of your company, I did in spades.

Some cynics might say that your audiences took less satisfaction in the show itself and more in the fact that they were able to identify so many of the references within it, but what would be the harm in that? It was a harmonious blend of the familiar and brand new that endeared audiences to this Shakespearean romp for so long.

Perhaps for some, some of the more obvious humor and the gimmick of playing off other musicals wore a little thin by the second act. And while it’s true that the score was less than memorable and the choreography could have been more diversified, despite your flaws, I must applaud any wholly original musical that can not only make its way to Broadway these days but remain there for some time.

With 10 Tony Award nominations and a perfectly respectable run, with a well-received tour sure to follow, any critiques one might have about the show are moot at this point.  Rotten, you and your tireless cast have done your job. You have kept audiences thoroughly entertained and provided total light-hearted escapism to thousands over the past year. In a time where the world can seem so dark and uncertain on such a regular basis, we all need to find time to laugh. And if we are to judge a show’s success on the happiness it brought into the world, well then, I’d say in their time on Broadway, these Bottom’s surely came out on top. 

For Your Consideration: Theatre Artists and the Moral Code of Social Media

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Columnist

This week, a discussion on a friend’s Facebook page caught my eye. The friend in question, after multiple auditions and callbacks, had failed to secure a role in a production. When some admittedly rough footage of the rehearsal process was released this week, said friend, a usually supportive and unfailingly kind individual, fueled by some combination of career disappointment and genuine dismay with the state of the production, posted up the footage with a short, snarky epitaph. 

As with any great unpopular opinion, a small swarm of mildly to highly outraged fellow actors quickly pounced on the post and denounced it with some words about the mean-spiritedness of it all, arguing that in the already difficult landscape of the performing arts, artists within that realm should support and not publicly lambast one another. Subsequently, my friend, whether moved by conscience or just trying to get his notifications to stop, wound up removing the offending post. Shortly thereafter, he replaced it with a note about how in the future he would consider the ramifications of his words and do better to respect the sanctity of our community. 

Now, aside from the fact that, I, too, felt the footage was less than great and was somewhat mollified to know that someone else shared that feeling, the difference between us is that I happened to not go public with my feelings that day. But as a journalist, a person who gets paid to write about theatre and gives the occasional bad review with no repercussions, the whole thing left me wondering about the nature of criticism within our industry. The principle of “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all” has been drilled into most of us since birth, but should that principle be upheld more so in the case of theatre artists critiquing other theatre artists, and if so, to what degree?  

A few years back Broadway actress Morgan James came under fire for an unkind tweet regarding the Shakespeare in the Park revival of, “Into the Woods.” Many, including fellow actor, Matt Doyle, and composer, Scott Alan, took the stance that as theatre artists it is incumbent upon us to support one another and that with so much criticism of the performing arts that exists, it should not be those within the industry tearing down the work of others.

While it is true that the theatre is very much a tight-knit family and a little respect does go a long way (particularly in terms of keeping one’s reputation afloat), is it truly an unspoken law that theatre artists are expected to completely reserve any and all criticism, even in the face of subpar work? Shouldn’t members of such a critical industry have a thicker skin when it comes to these sorts of criticisms? And, in terms of the community as a whole, do private interactions count or is this merely a social media issue? 
 
We are all familiar with the passive ruthless cattiness of the theatre community. We have all done the mean girl thing. We have all been part of one conversation or another where actors, directors, and entire productions have been ruthlessly torn down. Arthur Laurents talked shit in letters, Michael Riedel makes a living out of stirring the pot, and even Sondheim had a very public go at the revival of Porgy and Bess in The New York Times. Given the fact that the level of negative discourse that goes on behind closed doors (and in front of them) within the theatre community is borderline medical fact, is there a certain amount of pretense in all of this sanctimony? Would these same comments been received with such vitriol had it been made in a more intimate setting?

Some would argue that the intent, tone, and timing of these comments would make all the difference in how they’re received. Sure, both Morgan James and my friend could have done better in how they chose to express themselves but that doesn’t seem to be the argument here. The issue at hand is negativity of any sort coming from within the community. And so, by that standard, IS there a good way to go about this or is it just purely verboten?

So, this week’s column is less of a column and more of a cogitation for inquiring minds everywhere. Social media: Friend or foe? What is the line of decency when it comes to theatre artists critiquing other theatre artists? 

Scalpers vs. Suits: The Battle for Profits on Broadway and Beyond

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Between “Hamilton” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, 2016 is shaping up to forever be known as the year of truly inflammatory ticket prices. The steep price of theatre has long been a point of contention for regular and potential audience members for some time, with 2001 seeing people refinancing their homes to see “The Producers” and folks in 2011 forking over up to $600 dollars for premium seating to “Book of Mormon”.  But in this year of not one, but two, juggernaut shows, along with the advent of increasingly prevalent ticket-bot technology, producers on both sides of the pond have begun to proactively combat the issue of legal scalping.
 
With face value prices for many shows already out of reach for the average theatregoer, the secondary ticket market has not helped matters. Top prices for re-sold tickets on either side of the pond will shock even the most well off of theatre fans.  At its highest point, a trip to Hamilton ran at least one, truly desperate fan $10,000 for a single seat at Lin-Manuel’s final performance. Resale prices for one ticket to both parts of “Cursed Child” could run fans £4,999.00 per on the secondary market. In order to protect profits and the interests of investors, this issue has caused Jeffrey Seller, the suit behind “Hamilton”, to increase face value prices with premium seating going for as much $849 a ticket.

While waging this war on the secondary market, however, some feel that the producers have begun to further compromise the likelihood of dedicated, if less affluent, fans from ever crossing the threshold of the theaters. But with their first responsibility being to investors and ticket bots gobbling up whole blocks of performances before fans even have a chance to peruse the seating map, the impetus to cash in on these bots is understandable and necessary, even for a mega-hit like Ham. A fan can’t be swindled if they never had a shot at the seats in the first place. 

A more audience-friendly initiative, however, has begun sweeping New York with Lin-Manuel Miranda joining forces with Senator Chuck Schumer to outlaw the use of ticket bots and instate a $16,000 fine on hackers re-selling tickets to theatre, music, and sporting events at outrageous markups. And while it is a great start to a necessary effort, the law would not address the Ticketmaster-legitimized fan-to-fan scalping, an issue that would be best addressed by a percentage cap on re-sold tickets. (Though I’d be interested to learn what percentage of those juicy mark-ups goes right back into the pockets of good old Ticketmaster. A number that will tell us everything we’d need to know about whether or not the ticket outlet plans on ever addressing this issue.) Additionally, a government backed review led by Matt Waterston, a professor of economics from the University of Warwick, has begun to put pressure on British politicians to pass legislation to curb “touting.”    

The most recent development in the ongoing battle between scalpers and producers reached new heights this week when the magical folks over at “Cursed Child” began turning scalped tickets away at the door, leaving at least 60 or so Potter fans left bereft on the sidewalk, holding what are now very overpriced bookmarks. Fans who have been identified as having purchased scalped tickets (through confirmation e-mails that are now necessary to gain entry to the theater) receive “refusal of entry” letters to use as a bargaining chip to get their money back through resellers. 

It was certainly a left-field move and it didn’t take long for outrage at the policy to reach the internet, with many theatre and Potter fans crying foul. At first glance, the ire of rebuffed ticket holders seems far from unjustified. Why are fans who have already paid a great deal for their seat being punished for the actions of hackers? 

But while Potter fans may feel personally victimized by the new policy, it is an unprecedented and  necessary action to ensure the diminishment of online scalping practices. A sort of “cutting the snake off at the tail” approach that could drive down the demand for scalped tickets. By eradicating the value of tickets purchased on the secondary market, the producers of “Cursed Child” have begun, in some small way, to impact the demand end of the supply, an action that will discourage audiences to purchase through scalper and, by extension, discourage scalpers from buying up tickets. You can’t move a worthless product, plain and simple. 

As with any good omelette, you’ve got to break a few eggs and in this case, the producers of “Potter” certainly seem to be onto something here. While tickets to current performances are still out of reach, the policy has potential to have a much more immediate effect on the secondary market for “Potter” tickets. It’s a bold and somewhat unpopular move, but one that serves as a necessary placeholder while further reaching policies like Schumer, Miranda, and Waterston’s make their way through the legislative process.

The popularity of shows like “Cursed Child” and “Hamilton” are unquestionably unprecedented for theatre fans and industry insiders alike. Which is not to say the theatre hasn’t weathered huge hits in the past, but those were virtually nothing compared to the circus surrounding these two behemoths. And as with any unprecedented event, there will be unprecedented issues. And unprecedented and experimental solutions will arise from those issues. So, think of this as our experimental phase. 

The one thing we can all agree on, however, is that the egregious reselling of tickets is a hideous problem, one that is getting progressively worse by the day. Theatremakers and legislators on both sides of the pond have heard our cries for reasonably priced seats and are working to combat these scalpers, one in a seemingly more unsavory fashion than the other. But make no mistake, no matter how you see it, these are both valuable contributions to a valiant effort.  One whose rewards may not become apparent until long after the hooplah around these shows has dried up. So before writing off these theatre makers as heartless-money-grubbing-fan-disappointing drones, understand that no matter how these policies affect the current situation, they are stepping stones to a more fair and cost effective future at the theatre for all of us.   

The Reality of Dreams

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Dreams are an indispensable part of human life.  From the time we are very young, we are encouraged to concoct these ambitious flights of fancy, to nurture them, to invest in them, and if they stir our souls enough, to follow them and work hard to attempt to make them a reality. 

I’m not talking practical stuff like having a sensible job that pays the bills or buying a house in the suburbs either. “DREAM BIG”, they tell us. “You can be anything you want to be.” they say.  They spew such cliches as, “Follow your heart’s desire”, “You can do anything you set your mind to” and any other number of Disney-tested platitudes with the hopes of encouraging us into shaping the future we would most like to be a part of.  

For some of us, it’s Broadway. For others, it’s law school. Some people want to walk on the moon while others are training for the Olympic trials. But whether your dream is to take Beyonce’s crown as pop Queen or to dance the lead in Swan Lake, at some point or another, this goal was implanted by a stirring in your soul, an instinct that led you down this path of turning your aspirations into fully-formed realities.

The idea that somewhere there is a perfect job, man, time, place, etc. for each of us keeps us in forward motion, promising a sense of completion that hangs before our eager faces like the proverbial hot dog on a string.  What they don’t tell us, however, is that the work doesn’t end once the dream finally does come to fruition. That once we’ve achieved, or have begun to achieve,  whatever goal it was that set us in motion in the first place, that is when the work really begins.

I first happened upon this particular truth when cast in my first lead role in a professional show.  When I got the call that I would, indeed, be joining the cast of this particular show, my initial instinct was elation. After years of audition after audition, dedicated practice, and the familiar refrain of the truisms regarding dream fufillment I had been fed all my life reverberating in my head, I had achieved at least a portion of my dream of working professionally in the theatre. The excitement was too much. Yet after some overjoyed phone calls to friends and family, regaling them with the news of my success, reality started to sink in and my once solid euphoria began to melt as I examined the script and began to metabolize the work that still lie ahead.

I have always been first and foremost a singer, and years of performing in shows in minor roles or in the ensemble had afforded me the opportunity to participate in theatre in ways that made sense to me. A reaction here, a laugh line there, I had always been comfortable in my theatrical function and though I auditioned for many, the idea of leading a show and having to create a fully-formed character that would take the audience on a journey had never seemed like a real option. Once the realization that I would truly be “acting” in this outing set in, I was overcome by a sense of all-consuming terror that only proved to materialize further as I got in the rehearsal room with people whom I considered to be, “real actors.” 

As it tends to do when a person begins to achieve their potential, impostor syndrome set in, and in my first several days of rehearsal, watching trained professionals seamlessly embody the other characters in our show as I stumbled my way through characterization and physicality made the idea that I did not belong here seem more reality than unfounded fear.

The anxiety also managed to seep its way into the things that seemed to come naturally to me. In attempting to find a voice for a character that was truly a stretch from my everyday self, and learning a score I would be singing a great deal of, combined with the stress of the experience as a whole, I inadvertently gave myself the beginning stages of vocal cord nodules.  So, now my voice, the tool I could previously whip out at a moment’s notice to embolden my reason for being cast, was now in peril.  Fear began to overtake every element of the process, even once reducing me to a pile of tears on my kitchen floor, weeping, and hugging my dog the night before we began dance rehearsals, sure that the choreographer would be horrified at the leading lady’s lack of natural dance ability. 

It was a shitty time, to say the least. The experience so far had been nothing like what I’d imagined all those years of idealized dreaming. But I had a job to do. We were well into the rehearsal process and I was not about to give up this opportunity I had waited so long for. That is when the real work began.

Vocal healing was the first order of business. I did away with the vocal cord shredding character voice I had adopted, and replaced it with something more sensible.  My diet also changed drastically, as I 86’ed caffeine, alcohol, smoke and anything else that might do further damage.  I went back to routine, beginner vocal exercises and warm-ups to fortify my instrument and began sleeping with a humidifier turned up so high that there was condensation forming on the walls of my bedroom.

Lack of dance ability be damned, I began filming rehearsals and assigning myself the homework of continuing my dance training at home. I consulted with the better dancers in the show to improve my form and ability and worked those numbers until my limbs knew what to do without me even telling them.  I also began to train, hard.  I committed myself to at least two hours in the gym several times a week, running six miles at a clip at my best.

In terms of acting, though I have never felt fully comfortable with it before or since, I began to see my fellow company members not as barometers against which to hold myself, but teachers to be observed and learned from. I took note of how they seemed to so fully embody the characters they portrayed and the ease with which they presented themselves onstage and tried my best to emulate them.

As the weeks wore on, I grew increasingly more comfortable in my role and as three weeks of sold-out performances in the East Village came and went, I felt so pleased with what I had accomplished, that I found myself inexplicably crying in amazement as the curtain came down for the last time.  

The fact that I am sitting in a coffee shop at 2 PM on a Wednesday writing this, instead of auditioning or coming up on a break at rehearsal, should make it obvious that I have not continued on as an actor. But that is not to say the work hasn’t ended. 

I have recently found confidence and satisfaction in a new career path, something that has always come totally naturally to me, writing. Recently, I have been afforded opportunities to reach a wider audience writing this very column and working full-time for a one of the largest theatrical news organizations currently in operation. But, of course, as with all dreams, and writing has been one of mine since I began idolizing Jo March in my childhood, once the elation wore off, reality set in and it became clear that the job does not come without its share of headaches. 

The impetus to produce content is no longer a periodic impulse, but a weekly necessity.  Ideas have to be there even when they aren’t and all my energy outside of my editorial duties is put into materializing those ideas from thin air. It is also incumbent upon me that I continue to develop my craft. Reading quality writing, daily practice, and a return to writing classes are all in order to ensure my future in this business.

So, I guess the real goal of this column is to encourage that we stop romanticizing our dreams in a way that leads us to believe that once you reach the imaginary mountain top, you will be automatically absolved of any continued effort. To educate those in the throes of the climb that while your current intentions can lead you to the heights you’ve always dreamed of reaching, the journey doesn’t end when you reach the summit. To inject a dose of reality into the notion that achieving your desired outcome isn’t the finish line, but the first leg of a race that will present greater obstacles the further you run. 

So, by all means, buy into the platitudes. Reach for the stars. Follow your heart and work hard. Dreams do come true, every day, but it is up to us to ensure that they remain a reality.    

Photo: Phillipa Soo in 'Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812'; Photo by Chad Batka      

Invisible Heroes: An Ode to the Tech Team

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Having spent much of my theatrical history in the realm of the actor, the ins and outs of the tech world still remain very much a mystery to me. But being that it is Tech Week here at Onstage, I feel it my due diligence to honor these unseen heroes of our craft in some way. However, taking into account that my personal history with technical theatre is decidedly limited I cannot, in good conscience, sit here and try to get into the realities of working in tech.

I don't have the resources to pontificate on the artistic and technical expertise required of a lighting designer, the challenges faced by a sound department attempting to fill every nook and cranny of a space with story, or the teamwork and precision of stagehands executing hundreds of cues to the second. I can't discuss the total disregard for personal safety involved in hanging and aiming lights or the trials of a costume designer's hunt for the perfect mid-century fabric. I've never styled a wig or navigated  a bridge. And I certainly don't know how to program a board, or how exactly anyone coordinates all of these elements from a stage manager's chair.

When it comes to the finer points of tech, I am, admittedly, a novice. But what I do know, however, is that the contributions of a great tech staff go far beyond the manual labor of running a show and that "Tech Week" itself in all its endless, frustrating, rewarding glory, may bring many headaches to those in its throes, but it also brings the incredible alchemy of teamwork and the unmistakable magic of theatre with it.

I was 9 years old when I made my first theatrical outing and those first weeks with the cast and creatives had misled me into thinking the work we did in rehearsal was all there was to putting on a show. Just a bunch of old and new friends, jammed into a community parish center (All-Catholic 'Fiddler on the Roof, represent) learning songs, doing scene work, and stumbling our way through choreography. A merry band of plainclothes regular Joes putting on a show for each other. We sang, we worked, we laughed, we carried on. It was a fun thing to do.   

Then, Tech Week came. And suddenly, the air was different. There was a feeling of urgency everywhere you went. It was a far cry from the relaxed joviality of the preceding weeks and the process took on a sterner tone, but the excitement was palpable. And in that week, a whole new side of theatre revealed itself to me. Huge boxes of equipment were rolled in, scaffolding was built, lights were hung. People shouted cues and instructions from all corners of the auditorium. Adults flew in different directions, moving scenery, hoisting flies, climbing ladders, tossing cables from 30 feet in the air, etc. 

It was then that my young mind realized that this was how theatre really happens. 

More mesmerizing still, in that week, magic began to take hold of our little play.  The sets, once painted slabs of wood in our gymnasium, were now onstage, an assembled work of art that put us squarely in this little village of Anatevka I'd heard so much about. The lights created space and mood that did not exist in the natural world. As costume racks and makeup kits came rolling out, our squadron of players transformed from parents, students, and clergy to matchmakers, milkmen, and Cossacks. Executives became butchers, pharmacists became fearsome ghosts (complete with ghoulish reverb), priests became rabbis, a company became a show.

Our backstage, once an area populated only by actors, was now shared with mythic figures called stagehands. Clad all in black, they looked like a coven, and fittingly so, as some heavily coordinated sorcery enabled them to transform the stage each time the lights went down.  They were a dynamic crew who moved quickly, hit their marks, became annoyed when you got in the way, but ultimately kept the show intact and us all safe.

Tech Week was also a time for awareness. Of listening and figuring out my position in what was now a hectic new atmosphere; a time of beginning to understand my place in not just a cast, but a show.  A week of learning the truth about the real work that goes into creating live entertainment.

Tech Week is also the first time I learned very basic tech etiquette and standards of professionalism. It was a time understanding not only my accountability to the performing itself but to the backstage atmosphere and tools of the trade. To the importance of safely hitting my marks onstage and off, to the sanctity of costumes (no eating), to the responsibility of prop(s) (use it onstage, put it back where you got it, and don't screw around otherwise), to the proper care of things like body mics and wigs. These are all lessons learned from working with some amazing technical counterparts and gaining an appreciation for the work that they do. Through witnessing their artistry firsthand, I have been made a much more effective and generous contributor to this art form.

On that show and each show since, I have been mesmerized by the incredible tech crews I've had the privilege of working with. They truly are the beating heart of what we do. They are most valuable and the least visible, the most dedicated and the most seldom rewarded. They are the difference between a script and a show, a cast and a company. They make intangible visions come to life. They do in one week what it takes the rest of us months to do. 

And so, while my knowledge of the technical realm may be limited, my work has been made immeasurably better through working alongside of these people.  And even though they may be invisible to the audience, in my experience, the tech crew and the wonderful work that they do goes very far from unnoticed. 

Let's Talk About Directors

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Columnist

col·lab·o·ra·tive
kəˈlab(ə)rədiv/
adjective
adjective: collaborative
produced or conducted by two or more parties working together.
"collaborative research"

For as long as I've studied theatre, one of the main points reiterated by professors and artists alike is that theatre is a collaborative art form.

Driven by spirit of collaboration, one of the foremost principles of creating theatre is to foster a generous, respectful, and inclusive environment in which artists can safely come together to produce a cohesive vision.

The nucleus of this vision is the director. The captain of the ship. The Skipper. Head-Bitch-in-Charge. This person is called upon to build the creative framework upon which their fellow artists will create. However, the function of a director is not limited to visual and emotional aesthetics. In fact, the bulk of a director's job is to coordinate professionals across many different disciplines and to work with them in a way that is fair and thoughtful to execute an artistic objective. 

When talking to a friend this week about his current project, he had some choice words about a director he is currently working with. Through his frustration, he vented to me about being given line readings, followed by nit picky notes about the specific inflection of the line reading, compounded by relentless repetition of said line until the actors met the director's exact specifications. As if that weren't bad enough, he then regaled me with the horrors of micromanage-y "gesture blocking", the public belittling of cast members, loud complaining about having to "simplify blocking" for one actress, and an overall condescending, tyrannical approach with his actors. 

This is not the first directorial horror story I've heard and surely won't be the last. Let's face it, we've all worked with bad directors before.

My own, personal history includes one director who would meanly berate me so often that my fellow actors began to joke that, "Alexa never does anything right." His normal behavior included (but was not limited to): openly making fun of line readings and replacing them with his own, frequently lambasting the company, and ruling with an iron fist. He even once shut down an actor's query about the direction of a scene with the words, "Trust me, I'm a professional." The implication there being that the actor in question was not a professional (or as much of a professional that he seemed to think he was) and that even the slightest questioning of his vision was inappropriate. The experience was traumatic at best, and at its worst, reduced me to regular panic attacks throughout the process. 

It does not take a genius to figure out that this is a horrible way to run a show. But what shocks me most is that while this issue is so hugely prevalent,  many actors, presumably unwilling to risk job security, rarely speak up about such incidents. 

Maybe it's that the education in directing programs focuses mainly on the craft but not the community. Maybe these are not "people persons" (in which case, 'the hell are you doing in theatre?) Maybe some people become directors to satisfy some of their more Napoleonic tendencies. I don't know. The point is, this type of behavior directly contradicts everything we've been told about the nature of collaboration.

In the theatre, the first thing we strive to create in a company is a sense of trust.  We explore, we play theatre games, we bond. We take time and great care to fortify our relationships because at the end of the day, we are putting ourselves in each others hands. The director should be the nerve-center of this trust building process. 

When a director undermines his actors by doing things like giving line readings, he or she is directly subverting the trust we strive so ardently to build.  In so many words, phrases, and actions you are telling an artist that you don't respect or trust them enough to carry out their own interpretation of a character within the larger scheme of your vision. 

The best rehearsal rooms I've ever been in were the ones where exploration was encouraged and rewarded. These environments are also conducive to producing the best work possible. Directors like the ones I refer to come to the room with a fully assembled vision, having given no thought to the fact that there will be other artists present for this process. When an actor is denied even the remotest artistic autonomy,  they stop being the vibrant personalities you fell in love with in the audition room and start being chess pieces; stiff, lifeless, and shuffled around from place to place with no real intention of their own. Additionally, in denying your actors the opportunity to explore, you are also cutting yourself off from what could be invaluable contributions from the people who have done hard work to fully understand the characters they are portraying. 

And if you think this sort of behavior is only damaging to an actor's enthusiasm for the work, it can also harm them emotionally. Artists, as we know, are incredibly passionate people, and actors specifically have trained to keep their emotions accessible. The uncertainty of working on a new piece can often be an anxiety-ridden exploration.  Each actor comes with their own experiences, history, triggers, and process. It is imperative that a director be able to navigate these variables with understanding. When a director is emotionally abusive or unnecessarily brash, it can and does take its toll on the emotional and mental well being of their actors. This will not only affect the work they do for you, but can have longstanding effects on an actor's confidence long after the curtain has come down.

And so, I think it is important when choosing the path of "director" that these artists be well-versed in not just the craft of theatre, but the emotional intelligence necessary to navigate the many personalities found in a rehearsal room and the democracy of art. And if you don't want to take it from me, here's a quote from one of the most respected directors of our time, George C. Wolfe: "I love talking to actors, and I like actors...To be really honest with you, there are two schools of directing. You stand where you are and demand actors come to you, or you go to where they are and you charm, seduce, empower them to go on the journey in the direction that you think is correct."

At the end of the day, we are all people, we are all professionals, and we are all trying to do the best job possible. So, directors, get out there. Seduce, charm, empower, and most importantly, TRUST. Your company and the work will thank you. 

Photo: vt.edu

Telephone Hour: Why the Cell Phone Epidemic in Our Theaters Matters More Than You Think

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Columnist

We’ve all been there. Mid-show, encased in darkness, snugly nestled in seats that were clearly designed for the pocket people that roamed the earth when theatres were built, enraptured by an emotional solo or enthralled by a dramatic monologue. The room is silent. All eyes are forward. The culmination of years of relentless dedication and labor play out before our gaze. A writer’s story, a director’s carefully calculated vision, the innovations of countless designers, a performer’s years of training and study, and the seamless product of a hardworking crew hitting their marks, beautifully coalesce into one, singular moment. And then-- the unmistakable sound of the default iPhone ringtone 

As of late, the topic of cell phones in the theatre is one that has been written about ad nauseum within our community and it seems like every week there’s a new incident for those of us with public manners to roll our eyes at. We’ve had Patti screaming at audience members and snatching phones, Laura Benanti holding ‘She Loves Me’ to shame a phone user, people filming the sex scene at ‘Spring Awakening’, Sara Bareilles’ jokey-yet-dead-serious- pre-Waitress jingle imploring audience members to turn off their phones, Benedict Cumberbatch literally begging audience members to stop filming ‘Hamlet’, and my personal favorite, the guy who climbed onstage to use a fake set outlet to charge his phone before ‘Hand to God’.

Then there are the experiences witnessed firsthand. A ring during one of the most tender moments of ‘The Color Purple’, two phones going off literally minutes after the cell phone announcement at ‘The Crucible’, the completely abominable behavior of a matinee crowd of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ that saw several phones ringing, relentless chatter, and at one point, the gleam of an iPhone flashlight sweeping across our row, presumably as someone consulted the Playbill to see how much show was left so they could finally check Twitter.  

The latest of these, to the shock of no one and everyone, have come out of ‘Hamilton’. One would think that a show that people are re-financing their homes to see would be immune to this sort of behavior, but I digress.The show’s star, creator, and all around nice-guy, Lin Manuel Miranda, is not suffering the indignation gladly, tweeting public shamings of those using cell phones. He tweets:

“Our illegal photographers tonight: white guy black cap, 3 rows back, 3 seats in. Older woman 9 rows back, 7 seats in. We. Can. See. You....They're that specific because I report them to SM offstage. Then an usher comes to make them erase their pics...  You worked too hard to get those tix. I worked too hard to finish this show. So when I see your phone instead of your face ...it's gutting. It sucks. I block you out. I'm sorry. Too many people are working too hard. You forfeit.”

As a composer and librettist, Lin’s perspective has certainly shone new light on an issue that up until this point has been regarded as an audience disruption and a distraction to the actors. Now, I will obviously not discount that mid-show disruptions are annoying and the danger to a distracted actor is very real, however, Lin brings a new angle to all this. How often to we get to hear from a writer on this subject? Aside from the actors, we never get to hear from anyone behind the curtain about this. Lin’s take not only acknowledges the obvious environmental factors, but has introduced the idea that this isn’t a crime to one audience, one specific time and place, a singular deflated moment, but to theatre as a whole. And he’s absolutely right. 

As an art form, theatre is specifically designed to transport.an audience to an entirely different time and place. Most shows are built upon the notion that the audience is willing to be transported. (That’s why there’s no windows and you’re in the dark. We’re trying to trap you, like a supermarket or a casino.) Each and every second counts and has been crafted by countless individuals to create a complete experience. 

In that way, a ringing phone or the LED light from your screen is not just an affront to your fellow audience members and the company onstage, but to each and every person working behind the scenes to keep that experience intact. To the writer who put love and effort into a story they felt needed to be told, whose words were meant to be heard as an uninterrupted body of work. To the director whose vision has lovingly shaped each and every beat of the show. To the stage manager sitting offstage calling hundreds of cues to the second and to the stagehands that react to those cues with an equal amount of precision. To the designers, choreographers, dance captains, wardrobe departments, lighting and sound board operators, conductors, front of house staff, and all of the other hardworking people in and outside of the building who contribute to just one evening at the theatre. 

And I think perhaps this is the most important facet that has been left out of the cell phone conversation. To enter a theatre is to enter a machine, full of living, breathing human cogs and wheels that keep it running smoothly. To use a phone within that machine is not simply disruptive to those within the immediate area, but a criminal wrench thrown into the mechanics of what we strive to create. A kink in a chain of hundreds of people who have trained and worked tirelessly to create what you see. A slap in the face to all those who strive to produce an uninterrupted and flawless product.

So, please, turn off your cell phone. Be transported. Come completely to the theatre or forfeit.

Too many people are working too damn hard. 

SHOWBITUARY: "American Psycho"

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Our next 2015-16 season casualty is, “American Psycho.” 
 
"Psycho", when your transfer from London was announced, my usually very decisive gut instinct was rendered ambivalent. Despite the cult following of your source material, both the book and film versions, and the respectable success of this production in the West End, your viability on Broadway always seemed questionable to me.
 
In the tradition of highly-stylized British theatre, the probability of your success lay somewhere between the rollicking triumph of, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” and the shocking failure of Lucy Prebble’s, “Enron.” And though you came bearing what appeared to be some stunning technical aspects, it seems the horror element fell short and your show never quite found the crucial balance between high-brow camp and drama. 
 
In terms of your critical reception, the overall feeling was strictly mixed, leaning toward no particular pole. Most applauded the slick presentation and visual exploration of Ellis’ themes of greed and excess in the Reagan era. They lauded both the technical achievements and fabulous retro choreography. Ben Walker’s Patrick Bateman was well-liked, yet the puzzling misuse of both Jen Damiano and Alice Ripley was never fully rectified. 
 

Ben Brantley wrote one of those rambling, seemingly endless reviews about you where he dances around his own opinion in favor of hearing himself talk, makes you think he liked it for a second, and then tacks on a finishing sentence indicating that you ultimately weren’t that great. Contrarily, Entertainment Weekly described you as, “perversely enjoyable” and enjoyed Duncan Sheik’s clever, surprisingly catchy, electro-pop score.  
 
So, what went wrong? Maybe you did bungle the horror of a horror musical. Maybe you just got lost in the season. Maybe in the post-American Horror Story landscape, we must work harder for scares than ever. Or, maybe, this production was more invested in communicating Ellis’s disdain for 80′s excess and the madness bubbling just below the surface of materialism than delivering them. 
 
Looking at the footage (I did not get to see this and I’m sorta pissed about that) and taking into account The Hollywood Reporter’s recounting of audience members cheering for various gory movie moment replicas and weapons, I think overall you may just be better suited to off-Broadway than on. Had you dialed up the black humor, dumped a few more buckets of stage blood, and moved a few blocks south, this could've give the downtown crowd (y’know, the people who read Bret Easton Ellis novels) a murderous nostalgia-fest they can root for.
 
For now, you and Benjamin Walker’s abs will depart the Great White Way. And though differences of opinion concerning your fate are sure to abound, it is universally agreed that we all lose there.
 
Now if you’ll excuse me, I simply must go return some videotapes. 
 
 
 
At the time of closing, "American Psycho" played 27 previews and 54 regular performances. It received two 2016 Tony Award nominations for Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design, as well as Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle nominations in various categories.
 
This production is survived by: Benjamin Walker as Patrick Bateman. Alice Ripley as Patrick’s Mother/Mrs. Wolfe; Heléne Yorke as Evelyn Williams, Patrick’s girlfriend; Tony Award nominee Jennifer Damiano as Jean, Patrick’s secretary; Drew Moerlein as Paul Owen; Krystina Alabado as Vandan; Dave Thomas Brown as David van Patten; Jordan Dean as Luis Carruthers; Anna Eilinsfeld as Victoria; Jason Hite as Sean Bateman; Ericka Hunter as Sabrina; Holly James (seen in American Psycho's London cast) as Christine; Keith Randolph Smith as Detective Kimball; Alex Michael Stoll as Craig McDermott; and Morgan Weed as Courtney Lawrence. Also featured in the company are Sydney Morton, Anthony Sagaria and Neka Zang. Theatre Owned / Operated by The Shubert Organization (Philip J. Smith: Chairman; Robert E. Wankel: President)Produced by David Johnson, Jesse Singer, Act 4 Entertainment, Jeffrey Richards, Will Trice, Greenleaf Productions, Rebecca Gold,John Frost, Trevor Fetter, Joanna Carson, Gordon Meli Partners, Clip Service/A.C. Orange International, Nora Ariffin, Jam Theatricals, The Almeida Theatre Company, Center Theatre Group (Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Stephen D. Rountree, Managing Director; Douglas C. Baker, Producing Director), Paula & Stephen Reynolds, J. Todd Harris and The Shubert Organization (Philip J. Smith: Chairman; Robert E. Wankel: President); Produced in cooperation with Edward R. Pressman; Associate Producer:Carlos Arana, Jimmy & Sara Hendricks Batcheller, CTM Productions, Stella La Rue, Lucy Lee, Jamie deRoy/Terry Schnuck, Nate Bolotin and James Forbes SheehanOriginally produced by The Almeida Theatre Company and Headlong TheatreBook by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; Music by Duncan Sheik; Lyrics by Duncan Sheik; Based on the Novel by Bret Easton Ellis; Orchestrator: Duncan Sheik; Vocal arrangements by David Shrubsole; Musical Director: Jason Hart; Associate Musical Dir.: Charlie RosenDirected by Rupert Goold; Choreographed by Lynne Page; Associate Director: Whitney Mosery; Associate Choreographer: Rebecca Howell Scenic Design by Es Devlin; Costume Design by Katrina Lindsay; Lighting Design by Justin Townsend; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier; Video Design by Finn Ross; Hairs, Wigs & Make-up: Campbell Young Associates; Associate Scenic Design: Jason Ardizzone-West; Associate Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian; Associate Lighting Design: Joel Shier; Associate Sound Design: Joshua Reid; Associate Video Design & Animator: Austin Switser Executive Producer: Foresight Theatrical and Allan Williams; General Manager: Foresight Theatrical; Company Manager: Daniel Hoyos Technical Supervisor: Hudson Theatrical Associates; Production Manager: Hudson Theatrical Associates; Production Stage Manager: Arthur Gaffin; Stage Manager: Lee MicklinMusical Supervisor: David Shrubsole; Musical Coordinator: John Miller; Conducted by Jason Hart; Keyboard & Guitar II: Charlie Rosen; Acoustic & Electric Guitars: Thad DeBrock; Drums: Marques WallsSpecial Effects Consultant: Jeremy Chernick Casting: Telsey + Company and Craig Burns, CSA; Press Representative: Jeffrey Richards Associates; Marketing: Type A Marketing; Digital Marketing: Situation Interactive; Advertising: AKA; Photographer: Jeremy Daniel; Dance Captain: Holly James