Can’t help but laugh every time I think on an actual conversation I once had with an actual Hollywood Producer. He was a huge Civil War buff and very interested in our Loudoun County, Virginia Civil War history... but he was also a part of the System, and he just couldn’t stop giving everything “The Hollywood Spin.”
The beginning of the end of this whirlwind of a conversation came when I tried to tell him the story of the Loudoun Rangers.
I told him that "As far as anyone knows, they were the only Union troop ever formed in Virginia. Captain Samuel Means formed the troop out of the sons of Quakers and German farmers with ties in Pennsylvania. Can you imagine? Quakers were anti-slavery (with a couple exceptions), and the rest were pro-slavery - but they'd all grown up together - worked alongside other boys in local businesses. Then came the war, and they go off and join separate armies.
“Good,” he says. “Good story tension.”
“Definitely! Loudoun was a deeply divided County, but mostly Confederate and the Rangers had a horrible time. They were always getting ambushed by the 35th Battalion — another local cavalry troop.”
“Okay, so you’ve got your under-dog theme going. Who could [INSERT NAME OF HOLLYWOOD ACTION HERO] play?”
“Oh! Uh, well... probably not Captain Means. He was older and married.” I brightened with a thought. “Actually there was a Drillmaster, Charles Webster; the Rangers liked him a lot. But he’d be an anti-hero, ‘cause no one was sure where he came from or what his real sentiments were....”
“Anti-hero is good. Everyone wants anti-heroes. Now, you've gotta’ have this guy be the Loudoun Ranger in charge - not necessarily in official charge, but the one who's the real leader of the men."
“Wellll, that's real. Everybody disliked Captains Means because he was too detached - never seemed to be around for the actual fight. So Webster became the natural leader.”
"Good, good," he says. "But there's got to be even more conflict in the actual troop. Like... Means should turn out to be working for the Confederacy..."
"Uh... um. Pardon? D’you... you mean as a spy? There was only one Union troop formed in Virginia — did I say that? — and he would never ever have considered —”
“This thing has to sell,” he said. “Needs more tension.”
“More tension? More tension.... Oh, I know! Can’t forget Sgt. Beatty! Actually, [insert current good guy action hero] could play Sgt. Beatty.”
“The Loudoun Ranger that Confederate John Mobberly tried to kill. Mobberly was a boy the Confederates loved - a local legend - and he was one mean son of a gun. By the end of the war, even Confederates didn’t want anything to do with him. He shot Beatty, walked his horse over him, shot him again, then got off his horse and stole his boots.”
“Hmm. [INSERT NAME OF GOOD-GUY HOLLYWOOD ACTION HERO] might want to play Mobberly...”
“O-kay. He's playing bad guys now?”
“Oh, sure! He got tired of the good guy stuff. Boring.”
“I see. Well anyway, Beatty miraculously survived.”
“Mobberly almost killing him? And at the end of the war, he and two other Rangers and three citizens ambushed Mobberly in a barn and killed him. When Mobberly saw their faces right as they were about to shoot him, all he said was, 'Oh, Lord, I am gone.' And they blew him right off his horse. Pretty dramatic. I mean, can’t you just see that? A dark barn, a hay loft... and he sees Beatty’s face with the huge scar - the guy he’d tried so hard to kill.”
He clearly did not see it.
Then the producer says, "Now, what about the hero's love interest... Gotta have a love interest. You talked about a Quaker girl... journalist?”
I gulp. “You mean, Lida Dutton?”
“Yeah, yeah, Dutton. The one who wrote that... that thing... for Union soldiers.”
“The Waterford News?”
“Yeah. So Lida will be the love interest for this guy..."
“Beatty???” Having a hard time keeping my voice down.
"Yeah. The Captain.”
“Sergeant... Beatty?" I took a deep breath. “But.. Okay, here’s the thing: Lida and Lizzie DID fall in love and marry Union Lieutenants, but Lida married John Hutchinson of the 13th NY, and Lizzie married..."
"— Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter. Y’know, we have a saying in Hollywood: Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story! Ha-ha-ha!"
"Guess I'm never gonna' make it in Hollywood,” I mumbled. But he was still talking.
“You’ve got to entertain the public, and history.... well, it’s just not that entertaining. Who’s gonna’ sit around watching the real thing crawl by?”
Then I lost it. “But what’s the point of bothering with history if it isn’t real? If you don’t know what people are actually capable of — the good and the bad — how can we learn anything? Unless we know the incredible evil we’re capable of, how can we ever hope to change? And how can we develop hope for the human condition unless we see real flesh and blood heroes?”
There was a momentary pause in the conversation, followed by hearty laughter.
And then he changed the subject. And at the end of our phone conversation, he said to be sure to send him the history of those Loudoun Rangers - What a great movie they’d make!
But the Loudoun Rangers are safe beside me in a file, and they won’t be heading for those California hills anytime soon. Hanging on to them just seems like the civil thing to do...
Meredith Bean McMath is a Civil War Historian and the former Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Theatre. Run Rabbit Run Productions. Her company has produced two Civil War documentaries... and she was kind of hoping this guy would turn out to be more of a HollyWHEN than a HollyWHAT? More on the amazing history of the Dutton sisters of Loudoun County, Virginia may be found HERE.
FOR COMEDIES OR DRAMAS Choose a one to two-minute monologue in the style of the play, and make certain it has a story arc (beginning, middle and ending) so you can show your range.
Note: Never memorize a monologue from the play being produced unless a director asks and avoid monologues requiring accents.
Practice, practice, practice... and then follow the format below. Paperwork: Whether auditioning by videotape or in-person, fill out the audition form carefully. You'd be surprised what details will catch a director's eye.
• If creating a video audition, send it in as soon as possible.
• If in-person, arrive a little early (actors can bow out and you'll be able to skip the line)
SHARPEN YOUR ACTING SKILLS LIKE A PRO EVERY DAY BY...
1. OBSERVING CHARACTERS, CHARACTERISTICS, AND SCENARIOS OF THOSE AROUND YOU - THE WAY PEOPLE WALK, SPEAK OR HAVE AFFECTATIONS, i.e an interesting walk, a voice, an odd laugh, or unusual mannerism.
2. KEEP NOTES OR A JOURNAL OF IMAGES, SOUND BYTES AND SENSORY EXPERIENCES THAT GRABBED YOUR ATTENTION.
3. A personal favorite: EVALUATE ACTORS WHEN YOU SEE A PLAY OR WATCH A FILM. ASK YOURSELF WHAT'S WORKING, WHAT ISN'T AND WHY?
We know auditions are usually an actor’s LEAST favorite activity (Second only to Tech rehearsals that run past midnight).
So much pressure and anticipation.
And that’s just the first 10 seconds in the waiting area…
But you should enjoy the audition process as much as is humanly possible!
So, after auditioning actors for more than 30 years, here’s a list of things I think you should know:
1. Directors are natural optimists, so we like you the second you walk in the door. Truth: no matter how distracted we, as Artistic Staff, may appear, we are always hoping you’re exactly what we’re looking for;
2. Auditions are more fun and a lot more successful when you come fully prepared. Really prepared. Ridiculously prepared. So learn the “Professional Audition Techniques” blog post. Follow them, and you can’t go wrong (with us or at any other company). Ignore the techniques, and you’ll spend the entire audition in an uphill battle to win our respect;
3. We look for actors who work well with others in creative collaboration. Yes, that’s unusual. We want actors to build and serve the story along with us. Input. Cooperation. Conversely, if you talk behind someone’s back or belittle someone’s idea, you’re gone;
4. If we are holding auditions, 95% of the time, no roles have been pre-cast. Exceptions occur when we are repeating a show or putting on a dinner theatre production. But, again, this is rare;
5. Probably obvious, but the more you audition, the easier it gets. Practice makes perfect… and less anxious; 6. If we believe you’re right for the role, you will be cast in the role. Doesn’t matter if we’ve known you for 30 years or 3 minutes, if it’s your first audition or you had the lead in our last show. We have a reputation for high quality theatre productions for good reason;
7. And what if you don’t get a role? This has zero effect on whether you’ll be cast next time you audition. Why? See No. 3. We take casting seriously, knowing it’s one of the most mentally and emotionally demanding duties we have, and we want you to know we spend a lot of time making our final choices;
8. It’s okay to ask why. In the end, we are very clear about why we think a certain person is either right for a role or is not a good fit for a particular production, and it may help you, as an actor, to know why we made a certain choice, so feel free to ask.
So look over these notes, and ENJOY YOUR NEXT AUDITION!
"You may have people in your life who don't expect much from you — don't value your potential or input — for whatever reason: too young, too old, too inexperienced? I am not one of those people." If you’re an actor who’s been in one of my theatre productions, you've heard me say something like the above... on the very first day.
And as rehearsals progress, you've probably also heard my favorite mantra: "That was perfect! Now do it again." When I direct, I tend to treat young actors like they’re adults and all actors like they're professionals - each one of them with opinions and ideas that matter. And if all goes well, by the end of a production the actors own the show as much as I will... because that's when the magic happens.
Above are some of the best actors I've ever had the pleasure to work with - each an expert at developing characterization. L to R are Sue Derrow, Maddy Curtis Vencil, Garrett Milich, Christopher Saunders and Suzy Alden rehearsing a 2013 production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Craig Thoburn.
I learned how to direct from being the Producer for dozens of shows and watching our different directors use their unique techniques. Some held BA's, some Masters and some learned by the seat of their pants. Some of these directors liked to have the actors do exactly what they say. And, hey, if a director is brilliant and creative and can get actors to actually DO exactly what they say, I'm sure the show will shine (But if the director is not brilliant, well...).
Me? I want actors to do so much more than just mimic my intent or the meaning of the play. Some directors spend most of their rehearsals doing "acting exercises". And if the actor is able to fight the boredom, they''ll make it to Opening Night. I like exercises but believe should be done at home. Actors desperately need time to build the scenes themselves... together. And then some directors do all their work in casting and just expect the actors to show up with their lines memorized - ready to go. This is actually almost all professional theatre... and it only works in professional theatre. So for several years I watched all those directors apply their styles and techniques and picked three to study intently - best community-focused directors I've ever seen: Dolly Stevens, Tim Jon and Tom Sweitzer. All three start with actor respect and end with actor ownership, and I cannot see directing any other way.
Characters in A MUSICAL LITTLE WOMEN, above. Each had a personality to play out: the March sister who knows she has a prize, flanked by a scheming girl at left and a sweet, enthusiastic friend at right.
BUILDING A PLAY ONE CHARACTER AT A TIME
So, about those professional actors who just show up ready? Yes. I want actors to internalize the process like professional actors do - with things they would have learned in drama school. So I'll start them off with the my Director's character concept, but then ask them to read the script and make that character their own. I encourage full character development, even if they have no lines or are a member of the Chorus.
As we go along, I'll teach Method Acting, which involves improvisation and emotional recall, and then go over how they might best learn a script: audio, visual or movement - whatever helps them get where they need to be. And as rehearsals progress, I'll start soliciting their ideas. And if their idea serves to:
1. Further the plot,
2. Reveal more about their character, or
3. Set the audience up for a pay off (in this scene or a later one), then I’m going to try to work it in.
When actors of any age approach a play this way, they start finding relationships and possibilities that as director I might have missed. And I will always want to be open to their idea, because amazing things might come of it.
BE WILLING TO KILL YOUR FABULOUS IDEAS
When I became a published author years ago, I had to defend my choices to an editor - based on the same three rules above. So what if I spent five hours crafting that paragraph, or thought I had the most clever conversation going? If it doesn’t develop a character or relationship, further the plot, or provide a payoff, I had to be willing to let it die. Note: clearly this requires the director to know the play inside and out, because if you haven't prepared yourself, you're going to get defensive. Add a really tiny ego, and you just... might... SNAP.
So in my directing world, I have to come in prepared and confident... but also realize I might not have the best ideas in the room. Yes, I know I have a creative brain, but why wouldn’t I tap into a larger creative brain if I had the chance? Actors have more time to dive into these characters. Give them the space, and they're going to find things there I didn't see. And as all the actors do the same, relationships and situations things are going to happen - good things: "If she's going to react that way because of what happened earlier, as her sister I would know that, and that completely changes the way I should react..."
Above: the stellar cast of Run Rabbit Run Theatre's TAMING OF THE SHREW
And, as a result of all of the above, actors begin to take ownership - of their characters, a scene and the play itself. And this is where the magic begins. So even though this will replace the absolutely brilliant idea I had as the Director, well... gulp... let's do this instead. And the audience will thank you for it... literally.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE REALLY BAD IDEAS?
Okay. What if your actor comes up with an idea that just won’t work? Is truly horrible? Makes no sense to the character's history, etc.? And they present it to everyone before I've heard it?
Then I have to thank them for the idea, say No, and tell them why. Why? Because
1. I want them to know suggestions are respected and appreciated, and the next one they have may be perfect (and often are),
2. Explaining why it won't work helps everyone understand more about the character, the plot or the scene mentioned, and
3. An explanation gives everyone in the cast a chance to further understand the setting, the character or the plot of the whole thing.
Obviously at this point a couple of things are crucial: a directors needs to love their actors enough to know how to say no diplomatically or actors won't offer ideas for fear of retribution. But directors also need to avoid wanting actors to loooove them, or they'll never know how to say no to a bad idea, and the whole cast and the whole play will suffer. But, in the end, whether a good idea or a bad one, thanks are due to actors. Because their process and commitment is how a good play becomes great.
ACTORS' INSIGHTS WITH PHIL ERICKSON AND PENNY HAUFFE - 4-minute Video (Click!)
LAY DOWN THE GROUND RULES
Lest you think rehearsals should devolve into a free-for-all “sharing time,” I'll point out ideas are solicited only at certain times in the process:
1. Creative input falls mostly in the beginning of the rehearsal schedule. Group discussion is good. And this is also a great time for the Director to underscore the story arc of the play, the scenes, and the characters.
2. Then when we begin to run scenes regularly, actors are asked to hold their ideas until the next break - and then share those ideas only with the director.
3. Crucial to the entire process: actors do not get to suggest what other actors can do. Ever. They can certainly ask why another character does something, but... that's it. Simple reason: every actor must be entirely focused on their own character/s, their actions, feelings, backgrounds, etc.. This is the process professional actors use, and I love bringing it to community theatre, because, when actors take this process on, shows get reviews worthy of professional productions (Think I'm lying? Check out Run Rabbit Run Theatre reviews).
And when an actor is completely focused on developing their character in a scene, it often leads another actor to have a revelation about their own character.
Lastly - without exception - an actor should never simply tell another actor to “do it this way" or "try it this way". Why? Well, because that would be called directing.
WHAT WOULD MARK TWAIN DO? Advice to Actors from Mark Twain by Meredith Bean McMath (pictured below with Mark Twain in Bermuda)
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." - Mark Twain
I was reading a column about Mark Twain's book, Seven Life Changing Lessons You Can Learn from Mark Twain (“Dumb Little Man" Column, Business Insider), and I thought, Hey, this MY life, for pity’s sake! My weird little theatre life, with its broad, odd, wholesome, creative, charitable views of the world - found all because I chose NOT to vegetate in a little corner of life. And those that join me in organized chaos have the pleasure of inhabiting dozens of people and perspectives, new worlds and old, and all sorts for magic and mayhem.
"I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened." - Mark Twain
Well put, sir. For the pleasure of inhabiting a completely different perspective for a time, an actor will risk self-respect and criticism, face sleep deprivation and midnight terrors. and live through some terrible things. And the things that happen to them in real life? Those feed into the actor’s art and enhance the richness of every character portrayed.
"Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living; the world owes you nothing; it was here first." - Mark Twain
Ah. The actor who walks into auditions wanting a particular role… then argues with the director about casting choices. Yes. That’s going to go over well; do that. And then try auditioning again… anywhere but here. Of course, Twain could also be describing life as a director. And, yes, I tell myself to get over myself... a lot, actually. And I better, because…
"When people do not respect us we are sharply offended; yet in his private heart no man much respects himself." - Mark Twain
I hate a bad review, but if I don’t leave room for improvement, what do I think I am, perfect? Ridiculous notion. Every really good actor I know doubts themselves, because they’re always reaching for perfection. Conversely when an actor has said (however shyly) they believe they are good, nothing good has ever come of it. And then there is Twain's great advice for getting organized:
"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one." - Mark Twain
Spot on, spot on. And when chaos descends — as it will, without fail, one to ten days before opening night - I remember these wise words, as well:
"When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear." - Mark Twain
Twain may not have been thinking specifically of the theatre when writing this last piece of advice, but it sure does come in handy to a thespian - it certainly does.
TEN THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE TAKING A SHAKESPEARE ACTING CLASS TAUGHT BY A VERY IMPORTANT INSTRUCTOR WHO HAS WORKED WITH THE GLOBE THEATRE IN ENGLAND, FORLORDSSAKE
1) If the Very Important Teacher From Britain Who's Worked With the Globe Theatre ever asks you to share any facts you might know about Shakespeare, say something no more detailed or thoughtful than, "Uh... born in England?" or you will be asked why you bothered to come if you already know everything.
2) The teacher is likely to tell you it is ACTing, not thinking... blinking... snorkeling... especially not thinking.
3) While noting Shakespearean scansion, the five beats of a line should be counted on five fingers: pinky first, thumb last, last, last, while saying "te-tum" on every beat. No, I said "te-tum". Now say it again. No. You still haven't got it.
4) Teacher may ask you to perform emotional recall even while claiming this is NOT Method Acting, forgodssake (similar to any politician promising four years of things like peace).
5) Consider the possibility that Stanislavsky frightens the English and is a good subject to avoid.
6) Read Shakespeare aloud with your tongue stuck on your lower lip, because, you must assume, Teacher thinks public humiliation is good for you and this classroom exercise will perk up Teacher no end.
7) Consider the possibility Teacher's need to humiliate each and every student has nothing to do with the educational process and everything to do with a little voice inside Teacher's head that says, "That'll show mother”?
8) Teacher may also hear a tightening in your throat which is completely imperceptible to you. This will indicate to teacher that you are a SELFISH actor who never gives ANYthing to an audience. When this happens, the proper thing to do is stop breathing and smile, because if your throat wasn't tight before, it is bygod tight now.
9) ... and note-taking. Stop taking notes.
10) Did I hear you thinking?
Didn't tell anyone what I did - not even my partner in life. Just quietly filled out the application and took it by a mailbox. Stomach queasy, I shut my eyes and took a deep breath.
Why did I keep it to myself? Because if you're an author and a playwright, 9 times out 10— No. Make that 999 times out of a thousand, you're going to send your sweet little puppy off and never see it again... or get a letter back telling you how ugly your puppy is.
So I was more than surprised to receive notification that my play Case 22 made it into the 2010 Capital Fringe Festival in D.C.
Hey, it's not like they picked the play after reading it. They only see a synopsis, but in 2010 there was an 80% increase in applications and a long waiting list, so it felt pretty good to make it. Made me feel as though I'd won something, and I guess I did: an opportunity to produce a play that is, as Shakespeare would say, "not for all markets." Certainly not for my local market. Case 22 is a dark farce — not the sort of fodder folks around here are used to seeing me produce… seeing anyone produce, actually.
So why did I write this one? Playwright Martin Blank’s has said great playwrights “ask important questions and then try to answer them”. I don't pretend to have the answers, but I do believe Case 22 asks an important question: When a sane teenager wants to leave an abusive home, why does that teenager have to be deemed crazy before they can get any real protection?
Somebody will argue (and many have) that social services is there to help those teens, so we needn’t be concerned. Well, those people are welcome to write a play about all the happy endings out there, but they’ll have a hard time finding them. Case 22 is based on true events, and unfortunately the play represents the statistical majority.
There are two incontrovertible facts in the world of community assistance:
1) Physical abusers rarely stop abusing, and
2) American courts are generally geared to keep families together "at all costs."
And because of these two unavoidable truths, happy endings are rare as hen's teeth. I’ve worked in local theatre for many years, and that world is filled with open, accepting, kind, generous, and enthusiastic people. Due to this unconditionally welcoming environment, unusual kids find safe haven here. So, too, do the children and youth who live in abusive homes. The facts behind Case 22 occurred while I was producing a play and getting to know yet another young girl who had found a degree of refuge in theatre.
Turns out she couldn’t contact Social Services herself for fear of retribution, and so a friend and I went on her behalf. And in no time at all, we smacked up against the two impossible facts mentioned above: “Keep that family together!”, and "Your abuser will never stop hurting you”.
As a result, despite our best effort to engage the system in her protection, she got very little help. Soon after, Case 22 came to me in a torrent. The words poured out of me as characters screamed the story in my ear.
I waited for a production opportunity to present itself, and when the Fringe application deadline loomed, against all odds I went for it.
Naturally when it was accepted I became terrified — terrified it wouldn't come together as hoped, that no one would come, they'd come and not understand, or get it and I'd have to deal with — who knows what.
And, although I was wrong on all counts and this particular play received an excellent review from DC Metro Theatre Arts, I know perfectly well that's not going to happen every time I submit a work - not even that one.
There's only one thing I know will return: the paralyzing fear failure.
But I know the most worthwhile questions to ask are likely the most frightening to pursue. And I have a list of important questions here, don't you?
Yes, live theatre is the place where miracles can happen. And, for that possibility - the joy and pleasure of bringing a play to life and bringing an audience to their feet - the risk of public humiliation is always worth it. But the risk is real. Forget a line and had to improvise? Missed a cue and forced the entire cast to improvise? Your skirt fell down!?! I've seen it all. But I’ve also seen a struggling actor “click” with the character on opening night and bring down the house. Worth it. So what do we do about those nerves? For me, they show up in nightmares - the one where your history professor is performing your wedding ceremony and you realize you're dressed in pajamas. Nightmares involving public humiliation are the worst, and that's why I consider actors the bravest of the brave. When the army is forming a front line to charge the enemy on the battlefield, bring up the actors. Just tell them that beyond that row of critics holding semi-automatics there’s an eager audience waiting, and off they’ll go. And in community theatre, they don’t even get paid to run that gauntlet. Many, many years ago, I became a volunteer in the acting army when I joined the cast of the former Growing Stage's production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
I hadn’t been in a stage play since college where I was cast as Angel #2 in Medieval Plays for Christmas at William and Mary. I had one line. What I learned from that experience? When the moment arrives to speak one line you’ve practiced four thousand times, it's impossible to make that line sound normal.
Next, I tried live radio theatre here in Loudoun County, Virginia. Radio Theatre is the LAZ-E Boy Recliner of theatre experience: no memorization, very little rehearsal, and no costumes, set, publicity or lighting. Go ahead and wear those polka-dot pajamas! Huge plus. But it has no audience, and that's a big, fat negative. So, after all those years I dared to "tread the boards" again and auditioned for a local production of Taming of the Shrew. I'd been hooked on Shakespeare ever since my third grade teacher, Mrs. Romito, cast me as "Lady Capulet" in Romeo and Juliet and explained to me and my best friends (who played Juliet and Nurse) what all the dirty jokes Nurse was telling Juliet meant.
But in the modern day, after being Angel #2, I was hoping for at least two lines... while terrified to have too many. Respectful of my wishes, Director Tim Jon gave me a few lines… in four different roles.
We began rehearsals that July with a cast from every conceivable walk of life who all had one important thing in common: no free time. Planning a rehearsal schedule takes the skill of an airline pilot (Coincidence our co-Producer and fellow actor, Stokes Tomlin, was a retired airline pilot?).
Tough as scheduling turned out to be, the real "fly" in our ointment was a missing actor: our original "Hortensio" bowed out due to illness. But Tim Jon soldiered on, and we moved forward with no Hortensio at all. If you’re not familiar with Taming of the Shrew, Hortensio is a rather large role. He's the guy that winds up marrying The Widow. Did I mention one of my roles was The Widow?
Soon it was six weeks from Opening Night and still no Hortensio. The cast and crew had called every actor we knew that fit the director’s description, which had by now narrowed to “Breathing" and "Possibly male”. Days ticked by. The Widow began having nightmares about history professors and polka-dot pajamas. Rehearsals were surreal, as half the time I was reading for Hortensio, too. You can sprain a muscle doing that. And that is why four weeks before opening night, I came to rehearsal deeply depressed. But acting is an amazing art: once practice begins, you somehow come to believe that everything will turn out. I easily lost myself in the beauty and humor of Shakespeare again, the movement and characterizations, and the overall thrill that is live theatre performance. Not to mention getting to work with great people like Tim Jon, who is one of my favorite directors, actors and mentors.
Speaking of great directing, I’ll bet most folks think of acting as speaking lines. A good director will help you understand that acting consists of listening and reacting to each other’s lines. A great director will have you doing that every second you’re on stage, which pleases the audience no end. But you still have to be ready to save the day. So, when an actor forgets a line, you might be the very one needed to bring the scene back on track or, when a piece of the set falls down, help everyone stay in character - little things like that.
In short, you hang together or die alone.
As a result, you make friends for life with some of the most caring, intelligent, creative and generous people you’ll ever meet. And when you get together, you share stories like old war veterans... which brings us back to our missing Hortensio - and the theatre miracle.
It was a lovely August night, and we were practicing our lines in the center of our soon-to-be-public-stage, the courtyard of Leesburg, Virginia’s Market Station - a cozy Globe Theatre-like space surrounded by excellent restaurants.
At some point, a very tall, mustachioed fellow in a three-piece suit stepped out onto the balcony from The Tuscarora Mill Restaurant above us. Now, we were used to people watching rehearsals, so we proceeded show business as usual until he called down in a friendly tone. “So, what are you doing?”
“Shakespeare!” we called up in unison.
“Taming of the Shrew,” our Director, called up.
The fellow nodded, stepped up to the railing and loudly, clearly and with great humor said, "You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate and Bonnie Kate and sometimes Kate, the Cursed! But take this of me, Kate of my consolation, hearing thy mildness praised in every town, thy virtue spoke of, and thy beauty sounded (though not so deeply as for thee belongs), I am moved to take thee as my wife!"
We were dumbstruck at first, but as the man continued quoting lines from our play, we began to nod and smile among ourselves, and our Director - who looked as though he’d eaten the proverbial canary with cage - said, “And there’s our Hortensio".
When the fellow was done, we applauded loudly and asked for more. He laughed and shook his head. “Funny. That’s not the response I usually get.” Then he said something about loving Shakespeare and launched into Hamlet’s soliloquy.
So Tim offered him Hortensio on the spot, and, God bless him, he took it.
Four weeks later we opened the show, and I’m pleased to say we sold out every night, few lines were muffed, no sets fell - nor any rain, nor any costumes - and Shawn Malone (who was co-manager of The Tuscarora Mill Restaurant back then), had a blast playing Hortensio and the audience loved him. Many years later Shawn confessed he'd come out to speak to us, because restaurant guests had complained about the noise. Well, God bless them, too.
Shawn is a fabulous actor who, I’m happy to say, has been in many, many performances since. My personal favorite is Ghost of Christmas Past in Once Upon A Christmas Carol (see 2018 pic below where he’s scaring the daylights out of Ebeneezer Scrooge).
The other night, Shawn ran across a pic of Hortensio and The Widow at right and sent it over. He reminded me about the article I'd written so long ago, so I thought it was time to update and re-post here (The piece first appeared in my "Good Neighbor" column in Gale Waldron’s former Loudoun ART Magazine).
In summary, if Shakespeare was correct and "All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players", theatre must be the best of all possible worlds. So, give it a try sometime. And be sure to look for me: I'll be the Director in the polka-dot pajamas.
Once Upon A CHRISTMAS (above) is the award-winning musical adaptation of Dickens' classic tale: Music by Diane El-Shafey, Accompaniment by Carma Jones and Book Adaptation by Meredith Bean McMath.
"And I say... God Bless it!" Ebeneezer Scrooge's Nephew, Fred, explains the Christmas spirit to his Uncle Scrooge.
Yes, there’s been a thousand Christmas Carol adaptations over the years - a lot of musicals, too. So why in the world would we - the creative trio of Diane El-Shafey, Carma Jones and myself - dare to write another? Because we knew they’ve all had one crucial storytelling element missing that we could bring to it… and in a way no had ever done before. For an hour and a half, ebeneezer Scrooge will go on a journey that leads to his redemption. And the audience is with him every step, because very scene will be woven throughout with unique characters and joyful, poignant and hilarious music - everything anyone needs to fall in love with the Charles Dickens’ classic all over again. And one thing more…
In the year 2010, Diane and Carma sat down and wrote the musicm, and I adapted a script from A Christmas Carol to create a musical which Dolly Stevens of The Growing Stage produced at The Old Stone School in Hillsboro, Virginia.
We tweaked it and tweaked it, and, in 2012, my company, Run Rabbit Run Theatre produced it, and I directed the show at the Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville.
That production won a DC Metro Theatre Arts "Best of 2012" designation, along with Phil Erickson (Scrooge) as “Best Actor in a Musical”, Diane El-Shafey as “Best Musical Director”, and myself, “Best Director of a Musical”. We produced it again in 2018, and every show has had full houses and an enthusiastic response.
So, how did we catch the true spirit of this story? Well, I've wanted to write a stage version of A Christmas Carol ever since I was a child. My family lived across the Potomac River from Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., and we attended A Christmas Carol there nearly every winter. I’d read the book many times, and, every time I saw the story performed, I knew something was missing. When I grew older and began to write plays, I finally put my finger on the problem: in order for an audience's to feel the full impact of the story, they needed to invest themselves in every character from the very start - especially Mr. Scrooge - and to do that, the audience needed to to feel more deeply about Scrooge before he became cold hearted. I didn't want audiences to simply hate Scrooge for his choices and be glad to see him suffer until he repents. That’s a shallow investment. I wanted them to care about the man, see the deep well of his loss and yearn for him to change. And I wanted audiences to see Scrooge yearn for that change, as well.
By 2010, I'd been blessed to produce several musicals with Composer Diane El-Shafey and Assistant Composer and Accompanist Carma Jones. They complemented each other perfectly: Diane creating words and piano score, and Carma assisting with music and creating instrumental score. They were professional, and their musical range - from depth to charm - was astounding. During our years together, I'd been writing the historic fiction novels and (scripts) for original plays, adaptations and musicals and had become an award winning 19th century historian. I had a layered knowledge of 19th social behavior, dance, etiquette and folk music and that era’s unique humor. Yes, the audiences of A Christmas Carol needed to invest in the characters, but they also needed to invest in 19th century London! With all that, I knew I could bring things to A Christmas Carol no one else could - or ever had. After seeing an especially disappointing Ford’s Theatre stage production of A Christmas Carol in 2009, I called Diane and suggested we create a musical adaptation. As I began to explain why I had the audacity to approach such a task, we realized we were on the exact same page. When Carma said she was happy to join the project, we jumped right in.
We began by looking at the story from a modern audience's perspective, pretending our audiences had never seen or read the story and knew nothing of 19th century London. We also looked at the tale from Charles Dickens' point of view. His 19th c. readers already understood the story's context: a London Christmas was a well-known quantity to them: the bustle of an English market place, the warm hearths and happy homes - nothing was knew.
Watching Dickens push it away was horrifying to them, and we needed modern audiences to understand. Did we succeed? A reviewer put it this way: "McMath, who adapted the classic Dickens novel for the stage, and Diane El-Shafey, who wrote the production’s original score, have surrounded Scrooge with all the teeming life that fills London, or Loudoun, or any place with music — not just jingles that stick to the bottom of your shoe, but beautiful music that matters and makes sense.” - Mark Dewey, DC Metro Theater Arts, 2012
Now, Charles Dickens had chosen to start his story in Ebeneezer’s office as he’s rude to his poor assistant, Bob Cratchit. Next we see cold hearted Ebeneezer reject a request for donations, and lastly tell his cheerful nephew, No, he would not attend the party that night. Dicken’s 19th century readers knew the amazing good that even a small donation could do in poverty-stricken London, and they could easily imagine the wonderful dances and parlor games Fred had planned and Scrooge would miss, but modern audience need alllll those blanks filled in. And a musical can enrich their imagination and touch them in ways nothing else can. So we decided to start the show smack in the middle of a London Christmas Market, with a glorious song describing happy anticipation of Christmas Day.
As Londoners sing, our audience sees all the baked goods and toys and hears laughter and flirtations alongside shouts of wide-eyed children. And every person there is a one-of-a-kind character whose words, action and song brings the moments of Christmas anticipation to life. For instance, the first time our audiences meet the charity workers who’ll visit Scrooge is as they pass through the generous crowd and the younger charity worker flirts with a Ribbon Seller. As the song plays on, we meet Scrooge's nephew, Fred, as he buys his Uncle the beautiful Christmas wreath he’ll soon try to give him. And in a little while, we meet Scrooge himself treating these delightful Londoners with utter contempt.
Next, we go to Scrooge’s office - where Dickens started his book - and our audiences have a much deeper understanding of what Scrooge has chosen to reject. And that night, when the Ghost of Christmas Past, pulls Scrooge to back to his youth - to the Marleys’ party, just as the book describes, but we go further into Scrooge’s life: we see a kind and happy Scrooge playing parlor games and singing a romantic duet with his love, Belle. After the party - again, per the book - the young Scrooge will break off their engagement. But she sings “Belle’s Song” to him, begging him to come away from his greed.
“The play's most poignant moment combines El-Shafey's beautiful music with Annie Stoke's [Belle's] beautiful voice and our own memories of the loves we've lost." - Mark Dewey, DC Metro Theater Arts, 2012
And the audience who had truly liked his young self is deeply struck by the loss of his soul.
I once asked professional singer Annie Stokes (Belle... and half a dozen other characters in the 2012 production) about the musical, and she told me what she loved most about the show was the beauty of the music, and then the challenge and pure unadulterated fun of becoming a different character every time she stepped on stage.
During the story’s journey, we remain accurate to the book, but the bold music and characterizations - 34 actors creating 125 characters - paint each scene in rich colors that flow all the way to the frame's edges. Our best reward has always been audience response - especially the children. Audience members told us they felt they were seeing Dickens' classic story with new eyes.
And, just as our creative team hoped, A Christmas Carol, suddenly meant more to them. "McMath, who adapted the classic Dickens novel for the stage, and Diane El-Shafey, who wrote the production’s original score, have surrounded Scrooge with all the teeming life that fills London, or Loudoun, or any place with music — not just jingles that stick to the bottom of your shoe, but beautiful music that matters and makes sense.” - Mark Dewey, DC Metro Theater Arts, 2012
After all, as The Ghost of Christmas Present has said, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour!”
I don’t trust people who present me with a list of rules. Tried and true methodology? Sure. Experience? Absolutely. But as soon as someone tells me it has to be done a certain way or it isn’t going to work/isn’t right/will fail, I balk. I balk, because experience has told me, art can’t progress unless you think outside the box. In my world, intuition and creativity always trump the rules. Always. Trust your creative instincts and work with people who trust their creative instincts, and you cannot fail. But the inherent freedoms that exist in the Art World naturally attract control freaks. They can't help themselves. They must create tidy rows. Your job is to FIGHT THEM... as politely as you can.
STAY OPEN! You never know when inspiration will come to you. A walk through a hardware story can cause a set change that boosts the feel of an entire production. You can walk past an odd space and suddenly wonder if you could perform there. Meet a stranger and something tells you they’d be perfect for the next show. So you ask if they’ve ever thought about acting. Well they did act, in fact, a long time ago. And you cast them, and the audience goes crazy for them. Stay open!
DREAM. And if something looks like it won't work, dream bigger. I have yet to be disappointed living life outside the box. As for Control Freaks, you have to be on your guard against...
• The actor who tells another cast member how to say a line (Without fail, the worst, most insecure actor in the group);
• The director who directs by humiliation (A person who consistently brings actors to tears shouldn’t be allowed to direct anything but traffic);
• The crew member who says if it isn’t done exactly their way... Phhhffft.
Creativity always has to trump control. And artists HAVE to trump control freaks, but, well... just remember to be polite.
Meredith Bean McMath is a prize-winning playwright, award-winning historian, stage director, speaker and former Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc.