Pre-Show Audience Rituals

Liz Chirico

  •  OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

I don’t know about you but for me the planning experience before any trip is almost as fun as the trip itself.  For years I thought I was strange but now there’s studies proving that some of the benefits of vacations come from the planning so I feel justified in my behavior now. But that’s not really the point. The point is, I have a trip to NYC coming up, a show will be seen (Waitress- expect a review next week) and here are my theater rituals. What are yours?

1. Whenever possible know the music. There’s 2 different camps on this one- be surprised or have the lyrics memorized. I’m the latter. The music helps me connect with the show, the characters and I love being pulled into the story before show time. In a way knowing the music beforehand allows me to experience more of the show. Because the songs are familiar I can focus more on the dancing, the set, the costumes and try to imprint as much of it to memory as possible. Then when I listen to the cast album years later, I can call up this magical experience again and again.

2. Arrive 30 minutes early- at least. In many cases the theater housing the show is as much as work of art as what’s happening on stage. Go early. Take a walk around the building if you (also helps you locate the stage door if you’re into that), savor that moment as you pass through the door and enter into the lobby. Look in all directions. Think of who has walked the steps you just walked, as a performer, an audience member. Then, find your seat.

3. Hit the restrooms before show time. Especially for us ladies this is a big one. There’s nothing worse than having to miss part of the show, or try to read your Playbill to find out what the number is right before intermission to try to sneak out and beat the crowds. Just go now.

4. Read your Playbill. I’ve usually been reading up on the show I’m seeing, the actors, etc. prior to going but it’s always fun to find connections with performers through their bios. I love knowing I saw that ensemble person in other shows, the actor in their breakout role came to my city with a touring show 2 years ago, etc. It makes everything more real to me somehow. Plus Playbill usually has trivia and articles about other shows and actors.

5. Adjust your seat.Then adjust again. Wouldn’t it be great if theater seats were like hair salon seats and you could pull a handle to pop yourself up a couple inches? (As someone who is 5’2 on a good day, I’ve thought about this often. (Inevitably about 5 minutes before the overture starts, Shaquille O’Neil’s long-lost cousin sits in front of me and I’ve lost my view. So in the winter, fold up your jacket and sit on it. In the summer I’ve actually sat on my knees. Move around a bit to find that sweet spot of viewing between the heads of the people in front of you. Without being a jerk to those behind and next to you, do what you need to ensure you can see. 

6. Act like a kid. Within reason, don’t kick the seat of the person in front of you or start whining. You know the pure utter joy kids have when they are experiencing something new, seeing something spectacular, having the time of their life doing something we may take for granted? Act like that. Seeing live theater isn’t something commonplace no matter how many shows you see. It’s always an adventure, an exciting, breathtaking, magical adventure. As the emcee says, “leave your troubles outside” and for those few precious hours let yourself be lost to and in the story.

An Open Letter to Community Theatre Groups...

Liz Chirico 

OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

A lot has been written about actors behaviors. How they should behave towards one another, in green room spaces, what not to do on auditions, etc. As someone who’s auditioned for and performed with a fair number of companies, here are some tips I feel those companies should keep in mind for the actors’ sake from auditions to set strike.

Many theater companies already follow all or most of my “rules” and if that’s you, thanks. If not, it’s all about baby steps in the right direction.

1.    Don’t treat us like cattle even at a cattle call.

I know some shows just don’t lend themselves well to time slot auditions. (But if there’s a way to utilize time slots by God do it. It’s so much easier for everyone.) If there has be a cattle call style situation try to respect my time the way I respect yours by showing up the required 15 min early. Be realistic with your evening. Don’t tell me the audition will take an hour tops and 3 hours later I’m still waiting to read. 

2.    If the answer is no, tell me. I’m a big girl, I promise.

So if there’s no space in this show for me, please tell me in a timely manner and using a semi-personal form of communication. I took the time to prepare for your audition, put myself on the line and shared a bit of me with you. That deserves more than you posting the cast list on Facebook and assuming I’ll get the hint.

3.    Feedback please!

When hundreds of people show up for an audition I realize you can’t possibly provide feedback to each of us. But try, please. All through life we’re told you learn from your mistakes and here I am asking, begging for notes so I can learn and I get nothing. Or worse I’m told simply, “we went another way”. How can I learn and improve if I’m not given the chance to understand what it is I need to work on? Your feedback will make me a better actor for one of your future shows. It’s a win-win.

4.    You are not my number one. #sorrynotsorry.

I’m ready and more than willing to dedicate a huge chunk of my life for the next few weeks/months to this endeavor. Please remember though that I have other things in my life besides your show. I have a job, I have a family, and I have responsibilities wholly unconnected to your theater group. So be upfront with your expectations of me. If you require me to attend a set build day, tell me in advance. And then please, have a plan of attack and stick with it as best as possible so I make sure to come on the day there will painting not power tools. (True story, I followed someone around one set strike to helpfully pick up the nails she nail-gunned out of set pieces. No one told me they would be hot.)

5.    I am a person.

Don’t yell at me. Don’t belittle me. Don’t play favorites. Invite everyone out for cast bonding (you know unless cast bonding is taking place at the bar in which case its bad form to invite those under 21). Part of why I’m here is to feel connected to others, to something bigger than myself.

If you treat me with the respect I deserve (and will always show you), in return I’ll work my butt off for you, the show and your company.

Photo: Ashville Community Theatre www.ashevilletheatre.org

Who am I? : The Post Show Blues

Liz Chirico

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

Post show blues are in full swing. Which I didn't expect given it was a dance show. The routine for this was so different from theater I naively thought the aftermath would be different too.

In the past they've faded as the next show, the next opportunity comes on the horizon. There's something achingly familiar and oddly comforting about the post show blues. Last year OnStage founder and fellow blogger, Chris, wrote about how to deal with the them. He talked about how the post-show blues mean it was a wonderful, transformative experience. Yup- totally on point. How, if you miss folks, you should reach out to them. I can pretty much guarantee I'll see the majority of these folks in September when dance begins again. (My fear of forgetting everything I've learned over the summer, however, is a topic for another post). And some of the women are already dear friends, meaning our conversations and outings will likely continue; though perhaps we’ll be less sweaty and slightly better dressed.

Embracing the break is something Chris mentioned that I’m having trouble wrapping my head around especially this time. I think what triggers the post show blues for many of us is that break and the unknown. Looking back on my 4 years in the performing world, there have been breaks. They've been needed- 2013 saw only about 8 weeks of me NOT rehearsing something so my hiatus was embraced. Last year, I had a wedding to focus on so it made sense to carefully select my shows. Now though there's nothing. An entire summer and more stretch ahead of me with no plan, no outlet in sight.

I think for many of us who perform be it theater, singing, dancing, it’s our release. We need it, we crave it like oxygen. It's when, for many of us, we can be wholly ourselves, let loose, escape into characters maybe we wish we were more like in real life. It's where we see progress, where hard work and dedication are rewarded in ways they might not be in other areas of life. In my job it’s hard to have quantifiable results that illicit praise from the higher ups, but I know if practice I'll learn the lines, hit the notes, perfect my pullback (still working on that one).

We all need to know we're doing something right, doing something well and when performing you have that feedback; in rehearsals it’s called director’s notes, at performances it's the applause. Maybe if life came with applause, our breaks would be more bearable.

I joke that I don't remember how my life was before I met my husband. The same goes for me pre-performing. How did I occupy my time without songs to sing and steps to dance? If I'm not on stage, if I'm not rehearsing- who am I? 

 

Break On Through to the Other Side...The Production Side

Liz Chirico

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

I’ve said before that no role is too small, that actors should assist with backstage work to truly understand all theater is. This spring, I decided to really put my money where my mouth is and try my hand at the other side the curtain. The production side.

I’ve assisted with productions before in a fundraising/marketing capacity. However it’s always for shows of company’s I’m a part of so I have a very real stake in the outcome. The more advertising I help with, the bigger the audience and the more laughs I get (I’m usually the sassy friend).  This time, I’m only working the production side as a producer for a local company’s (who I’ve never worked with before) summer musical, Pippin.

It’s only been a week of rehearsals and about a month of actually thinking about the show and I can tell you already I’m so far behind at least the director and assistant director/choreographer. I knew as actors we come well after creative juices have started but I had no idea how far in advance the process truly starts. They have been thinking, dreaming, and breathing this show for months. 

There’s so many moving parts to a production outside of the actors. I’ve been in enough shows I know how important costumes, sets and lighting design are but to me those are things that simply happen. Maybe I help paint a bit of the set (because you sure don’t want me using power tools, or any tools for that matter) but those elements happen around me while I focused on singing, dancing and learning lines. The energy and time spent on these elements, too often considered second-tier to the acting on stage, is tremendous. Now I am responsible for ensuring that those responsible for costumes, sets, etc. have what they need to be successful. Without these elements, sure the show might go on, but it certainly won’t be the same show.

Attending auditions on the other side was a huge eye-opener. First, going to an audition not feeling like I’m going to throw-up or pass out was an experience I wouldn’t mind repeating. Later that evening, sitting around the table as the director, choreographer and music director discussed who should return for call backs and why, I felt hope. There were people that auditioned who had worked with a member(s) of the creative team, had even worked with this company before with smashing results and they were still being discussed and scrutinized like everyone else. We’ve all seen examples that community theater nepotism is alive and well and I’m happy to report that at least in this theater, on this production, with this creative team that isn’t the case.

There’s still another 8ish weeks before opening night. I’m sure I’m going to see and learn a lot more. I truly feel that all actors should spend time involved in theater not on stage. Whether that’s as crew, usher, director, producer it doesn’t matter. What’s important is having a complete picture of the makings of a show from start to finish. I know that having this new perspective, and an appreciation for all that goes into making the show a success away from the stage will help when return to the spotlight.

Photo: uindy.edu

Just Feel It

Liz Chirico

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

2 minutes and 30 seconds. That’s about the length of an average song used in dance, at least the dances in my upcoming showcase. That’s all the time you have to connect with your audience, convey emotion, make them care, make them invested in you and your piece. All without saying a single word. 

For a theater person turned quasi-dancer, that last part is perhaps the scariest. Never mind. It’s all scary. I come from a world where I have a fully fleshed out character, sometimes with a name and backstory usually with lines but always with time. Time to connect with my audience, make them believe. I don’t have that luxury here.

What I have is music, and lots of “just feel it” from the choreographers. I’m sorry but I’m gonna need more than that. Feel what? Feel like I’m going to slip into a split (FYI my 34 year old body has never done a split so this would not be a happy thing) because of my new pirouette shoes that I needed help figuring out how to wear properly? Feel like on the dance spectrum I’m closer to Elaine from Seinfeld vs. Misty Copeland? This type-A girl needs more direction than a riff on the Nike slogan.

Fortunately this type-A girl doesn’t quit. Thinks about it (I think I’ve mentioned that once or twice here) but never actually went through with it. Instead I practiced. I watched my fellow dancers, tried to absorb the technique, listened to my choreographers when they gave notes- hell I went up to them a couple times and begged for critique/feedback. I tried to put it all together. Tried to take how the movements and the music affected me, how I felt when I practiced just for me and translate those feelings outward.

Still something was missing. Normally onstage, I am not myself; I’m playing a part and so I’ll do things, say things, take risks I would never dream about doing in real life. I struggled trying to be myself in these pieces and let myself shine through to connect with the audience. Then I realized- why couldn’t I give myself a dance character? Give myself a backstory and let me as the character feel those emotions and convey them to the audience. 

Now we haven’t had our showcase yet so I don’t know if it’s worked from the audience perspective. But for me, I’ve been able to perform better in at least one of the numbers I struggled with since I’ve given myself a character to portray. I feel more in touch with the music and the movements and I believe ultimately that’s the goal in dance. Hmm, perhaps my choreographers were right. Perhaps “just feel it” was enough direction all along.

My Show Tune Recollections

Liz Chirico

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

It's amazing how songs can evoke really specific emotions or how they are tied to specific people. And I don’t mean the actor you watched sing the song for the first time. No matter when I first heard these songs, they are now forever tied with a particular moment or person in my life.

“I Have Dreamed” from The King and I

This was part of my husband and my first dance. I say part because the other part was a tap number (his idea!) to Andy Grammer’s “Good to Be Alive”. You all know my love of The King and I, how long I’ve loved the show and what this show means to me. Now this song will forever be linked with the best day (so far- I’m only 34) of my life.

“Gaston” from Beauty & the Beast

This song flashes me right back to the age of 13 at the Lunt Fontaine Theater watching Beauty & the Beast for the first time. The dancing, the costumes, the music, the beer classes clinking- it all came together in one magical “aha” moment. That I loved the theater. That it needed to be a part of my life some way, somehow. Music, theater, dancing has been a part of my life since then in different ways and I’m reminded of its power every time Gaston starts his strut.

 “For Good” from Wicked

I've always had mixed feelings with this song and the whole show frankly. I was blessed to see Idina and Kristen way back in 2004 they were, obviously, fantastic. But shortly after the show hit the mainstream hard, it took on this other life and I started hating on it hard. Everyone, including little kids, started singing the songs. They sang about how they were defying gravity, how to dance through life, how they were changed for good. IMHO, you can't sing that song till you have some amount of life behind you. I’m proudly 34, with a good amount of life in those years and this song is now forever linked to the relationship I have with my best friend. Much like Glinda and Elphaba we have our differences, we have our misunderstandings but we have each other. At the very least, I know my life wouldn’t contain nearly as many shenanigans without her.

“Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun

I have seen this show. Not unfortunately with Bernadette Peters but I’ve got her cast album so I can pretend. Rather this song flashes me back to one of the first times I performed on stage as an adult. During mic check, one of the guys decided to be cheeky and sing the line, “anything you can do, I can do better.” In my head I replied with, “I can do anything better than you.” To my surprise and delight the entire company on stage sang that line and a couple more than followed until our poor sound guy reigned us in. That feeling of being around people like me, who knew the next line to a musical theater song, who sang that line loud and proud and who thought nothing wrong with it- it’s a feeling I had never had before a feeling of belonging. It’s that feeling that keeps pulling me back into the world of theater and dance no matter how many times I say, “I’m just gonna take a little break.”

Photo: Matt Farcher as Gaston and the cast of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Photo by Joan Marcus

No Regrets

Liz Vestal Chirico

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

I startedcommunity theater when I was 28, and dance when I hit 32. I’ve been singing since I could speak (God gifted me with a good voice or so I’ve been told) but it still took until college for me to seriously sing with the intent of improving vs. just belting out the latest N’Sync hit in the car. It’s not that I didn’t know these things existed; I always loved the performing arts. I would see the shows in NYC, buy the soundtracks and spend countless hours in my room or in the backyard putting on my own version of the shows. With me as the star of course. Hell I even had my Tony award speech written and rehearsed.

For many reasons, taking dance lessons, singing in choir and participating in theater simply wasn’t an option for me as a child. Did I want to take dance with my friends or join the high school chorus groups? Of course. I’ve always loved that world, of music, expression without words, dreamed of becoming a character who’s more than me. But it just couldn’t and didn’t work. This piece isn’t about poor me, if only, what if; instead this is about embracing that any time is the right time to followyour dreams.

At 28 I was single-ish, bored and unsure of myself. Thanks to an ad at Starbucks, I found theater. I auditioned, was cast in the chorus and immediately hooked. I swore once grad school ended and my nights freed up, I would be back on stage. Fast forward to 3 years later. I was back on stage only this time armed with a year of voice lessons under my belt. See I knew singing was my strength and if I wanted any hope of being cast as more than “3rdchorus girl on the left” (still one of my favorite roles though, see my earlier post about the joys of the ensemble) I needed to work at it. The same as I worked at anything else in life.

Now fast forward another couple years. I have never been what you’d call coordinated. But I grew up idolizing Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelley and CydCharisse. I wanted to dance and dance like them. I started small, tap dancing. It came (fairly) easy to me and I loved it. I stayed with tap my happy dance zone until this past winter. That’s when I pushed myself WAY out of my comfort zone by auditioning for and joining a dance company. My comfort zone is currently like a dot on the horizon to me since I’m not only tapping but also in contemporary, lyrical and hip-hop numbers. And if you’ve ever seen a picture of me you’d know that me and hip-hop are not synonymous. (Unless hip-hop suddenly became very preppy and obsessed with matching their purse and shoes).  It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, dancing, and I would be lying if I said it’s been easy. Far from it. There’ve been more tears and thoughts of quitting than I’d like to admit.  But I’m still here (please read that as Elaine Stritch, this is a theater blog after all).

The point is, it’s never too late to dream. It’s never too late to chase after your dream, to give it everything you have and then some.  Had I danced and sang and performed as a kid I might have burnt out by now. I probably wouldn’t have invested the time and energy into rehearsing and practicing as I do now. I definitely wouldn’t appreciate all I’ve learned, how I’ve grownand all it’s given me the way I do now. My dream of calling myself a dancer is within reach- my first dance showcase is next month (in MA if you’re curious!) and beyond that it’s to keep doing what makes me happy. To keep singing, dancing, pushing myself beyond my limits. Because all the good stuff happens when you have no idea what you’re doing.

Summer Nights… and Days: Suggestions for Singing in the Car

Liz Vestal

OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

~~~~~~

With the warmer weather settling in, though not as quickly here in Massachusetts as I’d like, it’s fast approaching the time of year when you jump in the car, roll the windows down and belt out your favorite song. It’s like singing in the shower; everyone sounds like Idina Menzel or Bryan Stokes Mitchel when singing in the car.

Not everyone has the confidence to belt with the windows open while random strangers listen and potentially judge. Start small. Sing while jogging- if you’re anything like me you’re too winded from the exercise that your voice isn’t much more than a whisper. Sing while mowing the lawn- the sound of the mower will help drown you out until you have more confidence. When you’re ready to take the summer-time sounds to the next level here are my favorites to belt. What are yours?

Best female solo- I’m a fan of the classics so “If I Were a Bell” is belted a lot. If you’re looking for something more modern, “Forget About the Boy” from Thoroughly Modern Millie works well. Especially if you’ve recently suffered a break-up. And if you have, forget about the boy! 

Best flip-flop number- “Agony” from Into the Woods for females. It’s just fun AND you can really have fun while singing it. For men try “Someday” from Memphis. And if you can find a few others to serve as your backup singers/dancers all the better. 

Best duet/group number- Of course “Something Good” is on this list. It’s a wonderful power-of-female-friendships song. I would also add “Leave Me Alone” from Sideshow. It gives you the chance to yell and take out some aggressions. Which you shouldn’t have ‘cause it’s summer but just in case. A wonderful all-male duet (besides Agony- see above) is “Lily’s Eyes” from The Secret Garden. It’s not an easy number so I’d recommend saving it for August/September when you’ve practiced all summer. As for a big group number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” is super catchy. Seriously. Listen to that song and TRY to keep your hips from moving.

Best to brighten your day- “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” Extra bonus points if you can sing with the British accent…and whistle. 

 

A Theatre Season: "One is silver and the other’s gold"

Liz Vestal

OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

~~~~~

I was a Girl Scout for a hot second growing up. I remember very little save for this song, “Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.” This is a wonderful way to approach looking at theatrical company’s seasons. The best ones combine a mix of new, fresh musicals and plays and still revive old standards.

Quincy Community Theatre

Quincy Community Theatre

New shows are great. Shows like Hamilton, Fun Home, Next to Normal, Rent- they push the envelope and shed light on topics that may or may not have existed 5, 10, 20 years ago. They give voice to new talents in their composers, lyricists, librettos. They reflect the times we live and maybe show us where we’re going. 

New shows can do things the classics can’t. Because they are new the rules aren’t written or at least don’t apply to them. The shows can feature anyone, in any role, doing virtually anything and it’s fresh and exciting. Audiences are more willing to follow a new show into unchartered territory than they are for a beloved classic. And yet the classics are still important.

Provided we’re looking at them through new eyes, classic shows like South Pacific, My Fair Lady and She Loves Me to name a few, have their place in today’s modern theater community. I’ll use the current revival of The King and I, as an example. While it’s sad that it took until 2015 to feature Asian actors portraying Asian characters it brings a new perspective and modernizes the show in a way it didn’t have until now.

People always ask why I re-read books, watch the same movies over and over and it’s because while they stay the same, YOU constantly change and evolve. From the last time I saw a show/movie till now, new experiences have happened to me causing me to look at things from a different viewpoint. I’ve said before that I never understood Lady Thiang’s character until I saw the revival last year.  It’s because events happened to me, reshaped me in a way that allowed me to understand that characters viewpoint. The classics need to come around again, at least once a generation, so we can all be reminded of where we were and what has changed in the interim. 

A good theatrical company, a good theatrical season will feature a mix of the new and modern pieces with fresh looks on classic tales. Whether silver or gold, it’s all precious.

Learning New Tricks

Liz Vestal

Don’t discount me. The “old” one. The one who creaks when she stretches, who doesn’t know her port de bras from a pas de bourree. The one who maybe didn’t pick up the combo at auditions but who can sing well or you needed a “mom/older sister” type.

Directors and choreographers- I get it. It’s your name on these productions, the dance numbers. You want it to represent you and showcase the best and the brightest. You think we don’t want to do our best? You don’t think we know that we aren’t the most talented, that we don’t look all that great in the little sparkly spandex number that really only 5-year olds should wear? Believe me, we know and it makes us all the more determined to do our best. To kill ourselves in and out of rehearsals. To ask you to break the combo down just one more time, to beg you to record the routine and put it up on Facebook- now please. We know we have a lot of ground to make up, and we don’t want to let you down. 

Photo: Diablo Theatre Company

Photo: Diablo Theatre Company

We don’t want to let our families down either. Families, kids, spouses, friends who endure hearing “I can’t, I have rehearsal” 3 or 4 days a week, only to find us rehearsing still on the nights we’re supposed to be “resting”. Families who pay to see us in those ridiculous sparkly spandex outfits that suddenly don’t seem so awful because it represents everything we learned in 4 weeks, 6 weeks, 10 weeks. We may not be dancers but damn it, we’re dancing.

We don’t want to let ourselves down either. We know people look at us, women of a certain age, when we tell them we’re dancing (not that we’re dancers- most of us wouldn’t consider that term applying to us) in a musical, or with a dance group or company. They think, hell YOU might even be thinking “how can you possibly keep up” and you know what? We think that too. At every rehearsal, during every combo when we are just a beat behind. But we know dancing is what makes us feel young, alive, happy, fulfilled. So we do our best to ignore that voice in our head and all those looks. And we come and practice, and go home and practice some more. Because we don’t want to give that voice in our head the satisfaction of being right. 

Agnes De Mille said, “Many other women have kicked higher, balanced longer or turned faster. These are poor substitutes for passion.”  Man was she onto something. Maybe we took dance as kids and burnt out then but we’re ready for another try. Maybe circumstances didn’t allow for us to pursue our dream of dancing until well into adulthood. Maybe we never stopped dancing but we had a few kids and suddenly our body isn’t capable of what we remember. Regardless I’m willing to bet us old gals have more passion for what we’re doing than anyone else in the room. 

All we want is a chance. The chance to show Ms. Director and Mr. Choreographer that with a little extra time and work (mostly on our parts, sometimes on yours) we can do it. We can be just as good as the girl whose legs are up to my shoulders, maybe as good as the one who’s danced their entire life. We’ll make you proud, our families proud, but mostly we’ll make ourselves proud. Proud that we didn’t let ourselves be intimidated by that roomful of teenage girls in their snazzy black leotards, that we persevered despite having minimal or no dance experience, that we pushed ourselves outside our comfort zone and achieved more than we ever thought we could

Because with age comes wisdom. The wisdom to know that you only have one life and one chance and you better give it all you can. Five-Six-Seven-Eight