Theatre: It’s not a job… it’s better

Liz Chirico 

  • Massachusetts Columnist

Americans are obsessed with work. We work too much, don’t take enough vacation, bring the job home on nights and weekends and start most conversations with strangers using the line “So what do you do for work?” We understand and accept whether readily or grudgingly that our work, our jobs, are a priority. Why isn’t there that same level of acceptance with our hobbies?

If I said, “I can’t go out this weekend, I have to work” it’s immediately accepted and understood, no questions asked. If I replace work with “rehearsal” or “dance”, it might be understood but it’s not really accepted. It’s thought of more as fooling around, as something kids do but adults should have grown out of years ago. Nope. Sorry. Wrong answer. 

I fully appreciate that unless you’re intimately connected with the world of performing whether it’s singing, acting, dancing, etc., chances are you’re only familiar with the finished product, the final performance. Few people outside that world see all the hours spent rehearsing for that show. They don’t see the hours you spend practicing and honing your craft when there was no gig on the horizon. They don’t know what you gave up, the dinners with friends you had to skip, how you juggle rehearsals, workshops and classes to improve yourself for the next show, the next performance. They only see the main event which, if it’s done well, looks effortless. By working so hard to perform our best we put ourselves in a Catch-22. No one can really understand the effort, time and sacrifice that goes into being our best and so to them it seems trivial and unimportant.

Is it merely payment that turns a task from a frivolous hobby to one deemed worthy of devotion? There are people who spend hundreds of hours volunteering with various charities and non-profits and those hours spent away from family, friends and “other” activities is applauded so it can’t simply be a monetary thing.

Is it because they are helping others with their charity work? Performers help others too. They help people escape their routine lives for a couple hours. Plus I’m helping myself. I’m gaining new skills, self-confidence and friends. But because I’m not paid in the traditional sense and I’m not literally, physically helping others, somehow all of what I’m gaining and giving are deemed less important and therefore can be skipped in lieu of other more worthy tasks. 

It’s unfortunate, unfair and simply not the case. If you choose to learn a new skill by devoting hundreds of hours to practice, making sacrifices in other areas of your life to improve yourself, than it is important and good whether others see it or not. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all.

Keep plugging, keep telling them what you do and keep showing them what you do. Invite them to the finished product or better yet, invite them to a rehearsal or to watch you practice.  Maybe they’ll understand, maybe not but regardless keep what makes you feel your best. 

Photo: Endstation Theatre Co

The Actor's Perspective: Getting "Off-Book"

Jennifer Kuzmeskas

  • Massachusetts Columnist

Wait, what? Did the director really say I need to be off book for the opening by this rehearsal? Isn’t it kind of early in the rehearsal process for that? There are so many moving parts to this.

How am I going to remember all of this?  

The opening of this show is pretty difficult, but after some work I was pretty sure I had it down. I could sing it at home, in the car, walking into my office, in the shower, I was sure I had this thing down by the time rehearsal came around. Then the Music Director started playing, the song began and it’s like everything I worked on had completely slipped out of my head. 

Fortunately, I was not the only one that felt this way; the group was mixed about half and half.

There are a few people who have done the show before, those that have, knew their parts well and had no issue. Luckily, for the rest of us the Director and Music Director recognized this and allowed for some extra “music time.”  A totally invaluable 3 hours! The Music Director is a music teacher by trade and those skills obviously carry over into her Music Director role.  

I mentioned in a previous post that we are doing what I am calling theatre in the ¾. Blocking has started and this is going to be such an exciting way to perform. Let’s face it, every actor/actress wants their moment in the spotlight. Well, the really cool thing about theatre in the ¾ is there are three center stages. There is room for the entire cast to frame those three sides of the stage and everyone can be seen. For a large cast that is a really cool thing to accomplish. 

While I still consider us to be in the early stages of the rehearsal process, so much is already getting accomplished. The music for the opening has been taught, instructions on the blocking are complete and no books should be required to run this part of the show. Plus a lot of other blocking has been completed and all the songs in the first act have been run at least once.  In fact, though it sounds scary, next week will be our first “put together” of Act I…off book. 

“Off” and “book,” when put together, are two scary words for community theatre performers. It means you can no longer have that security blanket known as a Libretto/Script in your hands while you are rehearsing. All those blocking notes you took, all those lines, lyrics and notes you have been reading over and over again, you need to put them aside and do it all on your own.

If you’ve done your “homework,” it shouldn’t be a problem and for a little comfort, in most theatres, you can still call for a line if you can’t remember it.  

*Note to readers* from here on out, I will end the column by answering the question, “So, how do I think it is going?” So here goes…right now, I think we are doing well. If we, as a cast and production team, can come together to do a full “put together” of Act I off book I think we will be in really good shape. It will show us what we still need to work on, what hasn’t been done and what we are getting better at. It’s hard to believe we are already at the point of being able to put together a full act of a difficult show, but here we are. This gives us plenty of time to tweak and improve before presenting this production to an audience.   

 

Why You Should Hire a Theatre Person

Jennifer Butler

  • Massachusetts Columnist

Lately I have been torn between doing what I want to do and what I need to do. I want to write blog posts and other things but I need to be looking for a full time job. I know that I should be writing cover letters and searching online to find the perfect job, or at this point, any job that will be full time status and give me benefits. But instead, I am calming my anxiety about finding a job by writing. The anxiety of finding that full time job comes when I read the job description and find that I am either over qualified or under qualified. I feel like Goldilocks trying to find something that is just right.  Most of the time I have the qualifications that they are looking for but not the experience or subject knowledge for the job. 

I know how to write and edit. I am organized, hardworking, and dedicated. I have goals and I want to achieve them.  At a recent interview they asked if I would give up theater if I was hired and I politely answered “no”. Theater made me who I am and has helped to shape me into the person who sat at that interview.

What I felt like doing was screaming out “You need to hire a theater person! The person you are looking for is sitting right across from you”.  Sure, I may not have the experience but that can be learned. I already have the skills that are hard to teach someone and I can learn the terminology and the computer program that I would use. 

If they want someone hardworking, hire someone who has worked in theater. They work tirelessly for hours upon end, for months, to make sure that the lighting and sound effects are timed to the second and that each prop has their own spot; that everything is perfect. 
If they want someone who can multi-task, well here I am. Theater people are required to balance their time and they do it well due to the frequently demanding rehearsal schedule. 

You want someone who is committed, dedicated and loyal?  Well look no further! Who is more committed to something than a theater person?  As theater people, we commit to the rehearsal, tech and performance dates, months in advance, and not only are we committed to the work but take pride in what we do. The theater people that I know give one hundred percent, both to their craft and their work, all of the time. Now that is the type of person you want working for your company.

You want someone who is organized?  Well here we are, for 3-4 months at a time, balancing rehearsals, day jobs, meetings and family commitments. Keeping balance and managing time comes in handy, especially during tech week. We keep lines, blocking, prop and costume notes all written on the same script, yet we can keep them separated. And with calendars. (Yes, those things are our best friends.) We are not only organized on the set but we know how to manage time well. Especially during tech week and in making sure that we are meeting work and show deadlines simultaneously. 

So, yes, in an office setting your employees may not have to figure out where to hang a spot light or make sure that the door closes at the right time. But if you are looking for someone who is hardworking, dedicated, committed, and knowledgeable then look no further than your local community theater. You can teach a subject but you can’t teach dedication and hard work. So when you’re down to a few candidates and one of them is in involved in theater give them a chance, they may turn out to be exactly what you are looking for. 

 

The Confidence to Say I Belong Here

Liz Chirico

  • Massachusetts Columnist

Remember that basket full of eggs from a couple weeks ago? It worked. I have been cast in my bucket list show. And in the role I wanted. In fact, I even have a bit more of a role than I expected. Needless to say I couldn’t be more excited and joyful if you told me Christmas was tomorrow. 

When I first started this post, I thought the direction it would take would be more of a “holy crap, I’m not qualified for this role/part with this company.’ But I’m coming up blank in that regard. Instead I can only think about what I’ve done, how far I’ve come to reach the point I’m at today. I always thought of myself as a singer first, then as someone who can act a bit and perhaps if you stuck me in the back row and squinted, maybe I was a dancer.

In the last couple years I’ve worked really hard to improve on all fronts. Some probably thought I was crazy enrolling in tap class at 32, and auditioning for a dance company at 34. I took roles with a variety of companies to be taught by and learn from a variety of directors, choreographers and fellow actors. And it worked. The hard work, the crying, and the endless practice all comes together. Recently, a friend referred to me as a triple threat. I think I just might agree. 

Now, you might read this and say “man- she thinks highly of herself.” Not really. But I don’t think believing I have talents and skills that I’ve worked hard to develop makes me conceited. I think it makes me confident.

That’s what I’m taking into tonight’s rehearsal. The confidence to say I belong here. I don’t care if I was the first person cast or the person on the line that barely made it. The point is I’m in, I’m here.  And this role is far from the end because I’m far from the end. I know there will always be someone who sings better, jumps higher and that’s fine. I’m me though and that’s pretty good.

Photo: (Julia Day / Albany Student Press) The cast of "Spelling Bee" practices a song during rehearsal.

Professionalism in Theatre

Jennifer Butler

  • Massachusetts Columnist

Just the other day I went on a job interview.  We all know that a passion for writing and the arts does not always pay very well, so I have been on the hunt to find a job that can help with paying the bills. 

Long story short, I arrived early for the interview and waited a half hour (15 minutes past my scheduled interview time) before the process began.  The person who was interviewing me shut off his office TV and his cell phone after I sat down, and over the course of the ten minutes that I was there, he used the phrase “My bad” multiple times. This was all after I found out that the marketing job I thought I applied for, instead, is a door to door sales job, which if it had been advertised that way, I would not have applied for at all. I wish I was making this up but I left there feeling like I just filmed a pilot for a new office comedy or was on one of those hidden camera shows!  I had been on interviews before but nothing as unprofessional as this one was. It got me thinking. Earlier this same week, I sat on the other side of the table, so to speak, when I was on a panel to help interview and decide on a director for my community theater’s spring play.

Being the interviewer and having little experience in this area, I wanted to make sure that I was polished and professional, that I represented this theater company well. So as usual my anxiety kicked in, being that I had only been in this situation once before about a year ago.  Leading up to the interviews, I had prepared for them, just as I do every meeting and interview that I attend. I made sure I had read the play and reviewed the prepared questions. I also obsessed over what I was going to wear. I wanted to be as professional as possible to best represent my community theater and all those involved with the show. 

The candidates came in one at a time, we asked all of them the same questions, discussed their vision for the show and their past experiences. The four of us on the interview panel interviewed with a common goal in mind; finding someone to work well at our theater, who had experience, and the ability to put on a professional show which our theater is known for.  

When we asked several candidates why they wanted to work with us, they responded “because I heard you are great place”.  They heard about our theater’s reputation, and that is what I think people would want; a place that you know is professional, puts on quality productions, and is a place people want to go back to.

The main point that I am trying to make is that as the interviewer, you should be professional and keep up the reputation of the theater or company that you are representing. You want the candidates to be excited about directing the shows, to give them a positive experience so that they want to come back and enjoy working for your theater or company. 

What it comes down to is that no matter which side of the table you are sitting on, whether it is for theater or for a day job, both sides need to make sure that the outcome is going to be beneficial to all those involved. 

 

I’m Not Rude, It’s Just Auditions.

Liz Chirico

  • Massachusetts Columnist

My name is Liz and I’m tremendously rude at auditions/callbacks. There. I said it. Man does it feel good to have that off my chest. I’m not normally like this. I’m normally a enormously likeable and sweet, a downright chatty person. It’s just… auditions, the nerves, the what-ifs. 

Give me my own littler corner (I don’t need a chair) and let me look at my music one last time. Let me listen to my recording. Let me run through a dance routine to limber up before it’s time for five-six-seven-eight. Let me close my eyes and go through some deep meditative-yoga breathing. Sometimes that’s the only thing to calm my nerves, settle my shaking hands and prevent my throat from tightening into something air can barely pass through let alone sound.

My very demeanor is exuding “leave me alone” and that’s probably to people who know me well and can realize it’s only nerves. I recognize it’s a fine line between someone understanding it’s simply nerves vs. I’m a cold, rude person in real life. But I can’t help it. My eyes look down, my lips won’t curl in anything remotely resembling a smile. Sometimes I don’t even know who else is at auditions with me. But if you overhear anything it’s equal parts psyching myself up and snippets of my monologue I’m repeating to help calm my nerves. 

I realize that for some, they may deal with those nerves by talking, maybe even excessively so. I’m all for that. Auditions are tough enough- do what you have to in order to survive. But please, find someone with their head up, smiling as they look about the room. If you approach me and I don’t answer your question with anything more than a one word mumble, don’t take it personally. I’m not rude, it’s just auditions.

Photo: David Lassman / The Post-Standard

An Actor's Perspective: The Rehearsal Process

Jennifer Kuzmeskas

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

After the long wait between auditions and the first rehearsal the wait is finally over! The rehearsal process is off and running.  Being the first rehearsal, everyone was super excited, possibly the only time everyone will be there early. You could feel the excitement in the air! Everyone was all smiles and I can’t even begin to tell you all the people I hugged. 

It started as most first rehearsals do; the director gave a speech about how excited he is to get started. This happens to be one of the director’s favorite shows, so his expectations are high.  We were also lucky enough to find out about all the different things he plans to do with the show.  Some of the best shows I have done, and had the most fun performing, are the ones where the vision was different from the same old production. You know the productions, where the show is the same thing you have seen at every other community theatre in the area just with different people.  

It was such a different experience to hear about all of the unique ideas the director has planned and his vision, before we even got started. We were able to get an image in our heads and know where the director was headed from the very start.  And, I must say, this version will be different from any other production I have ever seen of this show.  There will be moving stairs, trees and other set pieces. The idea is to do something similar to theatre in the round; I am calling it theatre in the ¾. There will be a square stage, pit behind the stage and audience on the other three sides.  

Unlike most directors and groups, this director also shared how important this show is to him and this particular theatre group. He explained how he wants this show to put the group on the map. I am fortunate enough to live in an area where the arts are alive and well, there are many community theatres to perform and work with.  It’s obvious; this director wants this to be the best experience and show for all involved. To kick things off he wanted to give the cast their first bonding experience and great memory, we had cake and toasted to having fun and creating an amazing show together.  It may sound like a small thing, but what a great, easy way to get everyone to share a positive experience and share a memory right from the start.  

There are many other ideas too, but those will come out as the rehearsal process goes on.

After all the posts on Facebook and having not seen each other since auditions or callbacks it was nice to put some faces with names.  Everyone had a chance to share their name, the role they are playing and a fun fact about themselves.  We have so many great people in this cast…we have someone who has been on Deal or No Deal, a couple that got married less than a month ago, someone who just received her Master’s degree, another couple that just closed on a house and someone else who teaches Math and offered to help those still in school with their homework.   

After a few more logistical discussions, the moment we had all been waiting for, we FINALLY got to sing together. Hearing all the talent and voices come together was truly amazing.  We jumped right in too, after a vocal warm-up we started with the opening of the show. Our leads had the opportunity to start showing their stuff too.  I can honestly say the talent in this show is unbelievable. Between the director’s unique vision and amazingly talented cast, I am very sure that this is going to be one of those shows that should not to be missed.  

The director says, off book for the opening at the next rehearsal…time to hit the books (or should I say libretto)! 

Photo: Waterworks Players

The Best Theatre Friendships

Liz Chirico

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

It’s easy to make friends. As a kid you have your classmates, kids on the playground, those on your sports team or at your dance studio. It’s easy in college. You’re living in close proximity to so many people your age, sharing common interests, having meals together. And then adulthood comes crashing down. There really should be a halfway house for those just out of college and not quite ready for the stress of living on your own sans friends. But I digress.

To make friends as an adult takes persistence and luck. It takes trial and error. More importantly it takes understanding and compassion. But friends are wonderful, necessary and important to help us navigate this crazy thing called life. There is no better place to find inspiring friendships than in musical theater. 

Here’s my run down on the best theater friendships. PS- this list is in no particular order, lest someone feel the need to key my car. 

1.    Millie Dillmount and Dorothy Brown from “Thoroughly Modern Millie”- one was wizened and street-smart, one was wide-eyed and innocent. Sure their union started under a lie or two but in the end everything worked out. Plus they have a fun song-and-dance number. Who doesn’t want to tap in the elevator with their friend? Or a person they just met?

2.    Shrek and Donkey from “Shrek”- on the surface a completely unlikely pair. In fact a good chunk of the show is devoted to Shrek wishing Donkey would just leave. But like all good friends they come to trust and depend on each other realizing that it’s those very differences that make them work so well together. (Now if only Congress could get that memo…)

3.    Reno Sweeny and Billy Crocker from “Anything Goes”- I always suspect Reno had a bit of a thing for Billy. And that’s she’s a little indignant over the fact that he doesn’t seem to have a thing for her but rather, he’s after this Hope girl. Anyway. These two care about each other in words and actions, constantly building the other up. We all need to be built up from time to time and these two aren’t afraid to compete to see who can be nicer towards the other.

4.    Jenna, Becky and Dawn from “Waitress”- these 3 could not be more different and yet the same. Each is terribly unsure of herself, her place and just wants to be loved for who she is. They understand and support each other’s decisions, despite not always agreeing with them. That understanding, to me at least, is a fundamental rule of friendship.

5.    Tony and Riff from “West Side Story”- They are another (albeit imperfect) example of friends understanding one another without necessarily agreeing with each other. Tony understands Riff’s need to fight though he desperately tries to talk him out of it. And despite his objections, Tony supports Riff to the end.

6.    Elphaba and Glinda from “Wicked”- I couldn’t have a list of the best theatrical friendships without Elphie and Galinda! After another rough start (I’m sensing a theme…), these two see something beautiful in the other by looking past the superficial. They have their share of disagreements, of not seeing eye-to-eye but despite it all they remain bonded. Because ultimately they only want what’s good for the other and each makes sacrifices to ensure their friends happiness. Plus For Good is the ultimate friendship anthem, which never fails to make me cry. 

Brian d'Arcy James, left, as Shrek and Daniel Breaker as Donkey in "Shrek the Musical." Credit Joan Marcus

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket… and other things about eggs.

Liz Chirico 

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

We’ve all heard it. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. This way if you trip and fall, smashing all the eggs on you in the process (anyone else remember that scene from Summer Stock?) you still have those few, precious saved eggs and breakfast won’t be ruined after all. Yeah. That’s pretty much impossible to do, theatrically speaking, for me anyway. 

Last fall I auditioned for 2 great shows, with companies I’d head only good things about and featuring people I respected. First came audition prep 101. Picking the right audition song to show off my voice type, AND in the style of the show. The 2 shows and companies were drastically different so I couldn’t just pick one song and be done. Fortunately I’ve been involved with musical theatre a few years now so I was able to reach into my repertoire and brush up a song I’d sung before leaving only one entirely new song to learn.

Because of all my prep work, I rocked the auditions. Both of them. In fact I rocked them so much I was offered a part in each show. Of course one offer came slightly before the other making for an intense couple days of email watching. Then came the “which role do I take” game with pro/con lists, ROI talk, tears and when all else fails, coin flips. (I’m kidding. I’ve never decided what role to take based on a coin flip. Yet.)

Ultimately I picked a show and I truly believe it was the right decision for me. But bottom line- I tried divvying up the eggs and it became a stressful, harried couple weeks. Why didn’t I just do both shows you ask? Not only did the rehearsal schedules overlap far too much but I tried that back in 2012. Being in 2 shows simultaneously isn’t horrible if you don’t ever want to see your friends, family, the inside of your home (except to sleep-barely) or your cat for 8-10 weeks. I happen to like my friends, family, and my cat and I love my bed (and sleep) so being in 2 productions wasn’t going to work for me this time. If we’re continuing with the egg-metaphor, I believe this method is called keeping all the eggs for yourself. 

Fall audition season is now in full swing and I have firmly put all my eggs in one basket. One very lofty, basket of a bucket-list show. Back to Audition Prep 101; I scheduled some voice lessons. I’m speaking with a former director/choreographer of mine for tips and advice on how to nail the audition. I’m putting more into preparing for this audition than some work related projects. (Except if my boss is reading this. Then I’m totally focused and will nail the calendar year-end solicitation piece. Promise.) This time, if I don’t make it into the show there’s no back-up, no other musical theater outlet on the horizon until well into the winter. I don’t know if I can survive that long. (I do know that there will be lots of visits from my friends Ben & Jerry to have any hope of surviving.) But I knew that I didn’t try for this show, this bucket-list show, I’d always wonder. I’d always wish. And I’d never forgive myself for not trying. So I’m putting all my eggs into this show’s basket and hoping for an omelet. 

An Actor's Perspective - Rehearsals Begin

Jennifer Kuzmeskas

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

The week is FINALLY here, the week rehearsals are finally going to begin.  The audition process is over, the cast list has been posted all over social media, everyone has said how excited they are to get started, the rest of summer has been enjoyed by all and it’s time. It’s time for that first meet and greet. I am one that takes the summer off from being in a show.  I spend the time with friends and family and I enjoy some other interests and hobbies in life. But, when the time comes, I am more than ready to jump back into a show.  

There are many things I look forward to when getting back into a show. I am not even sure I could tell you about all of them here. Number one on that list I look forward to is, seeing old friends and number two is meeting new friends.  After perusing the cast list for this show it’s a pretty even mix of both. I am even lucky enough to have a small world story unfolding. There is a woman I used to work with many years ago, that hasn’t done theatre in years whom auditioned and was cast.  I am very excited to be catching up with her in this process.  But I digress, there is no better feeling than walking into a room of people who will come together and be a family, at least for the duration of the show.  

The amazing thing about community theatre and especially this group is the family mentality. Often if you are new to a group and really don’t know anyone, you might feel like the outsider at first.  Everyone is hugging and saying hi and catching up, but you don’t know any of them yet.  This group though, welcomes the new and returning in the same way, with open arms.

There is a welcoming air in the room that cannot be explained, but is comforting.   

As rehearsal starts there are the usual pleasantries, usually a description of what to expect at rehearsals from the Director and Music Director, maybe some paperwork that might be passed out. You might even go around the room so everyone can learn each other’s name and what parts they are playing. Then comes the first time that you all get to sing together. That first time everyone sings together is always a special moment. You get to hear the beginnings of what will come and you already start thinking about what it will be like come performance time.  

For me theatre is an escape and having that escape is the third thing I look forward to. I can honestly say I have enjoyed my summer. I have spent time with friends and family, I have seen some shows, spent some time on the beach, went swimming and enjoyed wearing sandals and shorts everywhere I went. Now though, it’s time to escape from everyday life, a couple of nights a week for a few hours and go join another world, a world completely different from my every day. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my everyday life too. My other half is the center of my world and if I loved him anymore I would bust, my family is the best family I could have ever asked for, I have some of the best friends on the planet, but like everyone else there are trials and tribulations in life, it’s not always smooth sailing. So for a short period of time I get to escape those trials and tribulations and join a fictional world and be someone besides myself. 
Those of you reading this who have done community theatre before, I know, I have only scratched the surface of all that comes with starting down a new path toward another performance. I am confident all those feelings will come out in future posts though. It’s a long rehearsal process and though I am painting a pretty rainbow, or yellow brick road, if you will, like anything else there will be poppies, flying monkeys and many other challenges to overcome.  

Right now though, I am anticipating the fun, excitement and enthusiasm that all comes with that first rehearsal. Knowing that all those old and new friends will become family for a few months. Then at the end of our journey together we will get to share our love and passion for what we have created with an audience.  

Oh, and no, for the record, I am not doing Wizard of Oz. 

Photo: Delaware Theatre Company