UnEdited Focus: Directors Vision Paper
ED 7300C: Fundamentals of Teaching Theatre
Kelly Brady-Professor Fall 2020 CUNY City College
I was torn about how to approach this essay, but in the spirit of survival in the pandemic, I thought I would go from the “ # grateful angle”. I have been so driven and focused on whatever the next big best thing is, that I often take for granted the huge accomplishments I’ve all ready achieved. So with that as a spring board, I am so grateful for some of the incredible directors I’ve gotten to work with, from Mrs. McManus in Kindergarten to Mike Nichols on Broadway. I realized this an opportunity to celebrate the incredible influences I’ve had in my life. The trouble was doing so without name dropping, and saying the right thing, or simply trying to impress my cool teacher. Putting ego aside, the result I arrived at was two fold. First, if I wanted to write an authentic version of myself and my mentors, I should just tell the truth. And 2nd, don’t say Mike Nichols was your favorite director just to get points, you know he wasn’t.
Don’t misunderstand me, working with Mr. Nichols on the original production of Broadways “Spamalot” was a dream come true, but it was much more of an observation lesson. When thinking about his style, I am reminded of a “My Fair Lady” logo where a God like figure is in the clouds controlling things below on puppets strings. Mr. Nichols was a man of few words with a clear and precise vision. We would start each rehearsal running what we had finished the day before and he would then give notes. These notes would include writing fixes for Eric Idle, story telling and choreography notes, and then tech changes to stage management. Some of these changes were huge. He then would leave and expect his team to figure it out. He would return after lunch and repeat the same thing. There was a day that a brand new number was written, taught, learned and choreographed, just to be cut after lunch. He definitely knew what he was doing. This was Mr. Nichols last big Broadway Musical and last Tony win, so he had it down to a science. One must assume he was more hands on when he was younger. My
biggest observation was that he had the utmost faith in his choreographer Casey Nicholaw. This was truly a moment of Mike training Casey and handing over the reigns to help Casey become one of Broadways top directors. My biggest take-aways were: “You are not funny, the text is,” “Kill your Babies” and one day after an extremely bad coughing fit during a note session he said, “You all almost got to say, ‘I was there the day he died.” It sounds silly, but Mr. Nichols really valued being in the moment. That seems obvious, but to the disappointment of many of my students, that is not the reality on Broadway. Broadway is all about having something set, on certain numbers, lines said a certain way, and everything is the same every night, 8 times a week.. Yes of course, theatre is still a living breathing animal, but Broadway is meticulously structured. With Spamalot, there were moments that were allowed to be free each night and in the present moment. That was a dream. Unfortunately when other companies formed, the show was set and frozen so that all companies were as identical as possible. Most of my personal interaction with Mike was on our breaks when he would bum cigarettes from me. That came to an end when the company got a memo in tech from Diane Sawyer saying that Mike’s doctors insisted he stop smoking, so if the company could help support her that would be great. (Okay, opening night out of town in Chicago, I may have snuck him one, but how was I to say no.)
I began my life in the entertainment industry at 9 years old when I started Irish Dancing at my church. I turned “professional” at 12 when I was a back-up dancer for Michael Jackson in a Pepsi commercial. It was when I was 14 and started working at the local equity theatre that I began my true theatrical journey. It was at Balboa Parks Starlight Bowl, in San Diego California, that I got first introduced to the world of professional theatre. A world that would become my passion for the rest of my life. I spent eight years doing what some would call
“summer stock”. Some years I was in two shows, some years all five shows. Some years I had a principle role in one show and was ensemble in four. In total, I performed in 22 shows there and got an incredible education by actual experience. I learned from great Equity guests artists from LA and NYC and the final year was given my Equity Card. It was such an honor to receive “my card” from the theatre I grew up in. This was all under the leadership of artistic directors Don and Bonnie Ward. This was a time in my life that I ate, drank and breathed theatre. In retrospect, one would think my end goal was directing, I would observe all the rehearsals so much. I am small in stature, so I could sit underneath the tables at the front of the room without being in the way and watch scenes that I wasn’t even in. I was a sponge for knowledge. I went to a performing Arts school and then got a BFA in theatre from USC, and yet every summer returned to Starlight Bowl to work for the Wards. I can honestly say that was the best education I could have to propel me into my life of Broadway and regional theatre. Now with this information on the table one would think Don and Bonnie Ward had the biggest influence on me as a director. Again, my conclusion would be no.
A realized environment accompanied by motivated movement is what I find most effective in storytelling. Those are what I would consider some core values. Throughout my life there have been many identifying words placed next to my name. One word that has remained a constant is dancer. Since I have a dancers esthetic, eye and work ethic, it is Susan Stroman who has had the biggest influence on me as a director.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Susan Stroman three times. Once as a dancer, once as a dancer/principle understudy that replaced, and once as a principle. She has vision with permission. What I mean by that is, she has a very clear vision of what she wants, but allows the
company to bring themselves to the table. That way the vision can grow. One of the most important things she taught me was the value of research. The first week of the “Steel Pier” workshop was basically school. We were given research packets that included everything from dance marathons, Atlantic City, to the depression. Then we had actual dance class for 5 hours a day. We learned all the basic dance styles that would have been done at the marathons during that time. In the afternoons, lectures and guest speakers. The following week is when we actually opened the script. The next show I did with her was “Thou Shalt Not”, which took place in New Orleans. Stroman out did herself with traditional Louisiana meals, hurricanes and impromptu concerts by Harry Connick Jr. (He was the composer so he was readily available) Susan instilled in me the importance of the ensemble and that every person on that stage was valuable to the story. “Stro” demolished the stereotype that dancers are background and fluff who don’t sing and can’t act. Once a scene or number was set, we were then given the freedom to develop our relationships with the others around us. We were encouraged and required to create the environment, that the play is in. An audience could drop right into world of our protagonist before she even walked onto stage. By allowing every person in the room to feel like they are seen and allowed to contribute, one could feel the warmth and creativity in her rehearsal space as soon as you walked into her room. I believe that Susan Stroman’s legacy will always be as a choreographer and not as a director. I believe that slight is because she’s a woman, but that is another topic entirely. (More on this subject on the podcast broadwaysbackbone.com Guest:Susan Stroman)
Two meaningful productions I’ve seen that have impacted me on all levels were the Broadway revival of “Pippin” and the recent West End transfer of “The Inheritance”. Setting
“Pippin” in the world of the circus was so forward moving that it felt like the way it was intended to be told. Having such big production values ripped away at the finale gave genuine pathos to the end of the story. In opposition, “The Inheritance” used very little scenic design throughout the play and then would add in production value for intended momentum. It’s no coincidence that a combination of these two designs would look very much like the original production of my dream directing show.
My dream show to direct in a high school would be my favorite musical, “Ragtime.” I know this will be a challenge being that race is such an important part of the story and that needs to be honored. My dream would be that I can still diversify, figure out what roles can be gender neutral and what aspect of the show can include the disabled and special needs students. In this dream, the entire school is involved, even if just for a week. In addition to the drama department presenting the production (that had open casting to the entire student body) the English classes would be reading the book/source material, the History classes would be studying the early 20th century of American history, Science class could research breakthroughs during that time and the Music classes could be learning the melodies of the period. For a brief moment the campus would be in total collaboration.
I find collaboration to be a key ingredient in projects I’ve witnessed and experienced. I believe it also to be within my “Four-Te”. An additional benefit of a career in the ensemble is that collaboration becomes second nature. Except for when I directed and choreographed a production number for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, the majority of my professional credits, is as choreographer. When I am behind the table and someones right hand, I instinctually
collaborate. I spent two years assisting Malcolm Gets and can attest to nothing bruised and mushy about being second banana. There is strength in a team.
One of my most treasured moments happened at an opening night gala for an event I was on the production side of. Chita Rivera walked up to me and said, “Pull up a Chair.” One of the takeaways from this conversation that started with,”Sometimes you just need to talk to another dancer,” was: That there is a lack of specificity in much of new musical theatre. That is the result of there being too many cooks in the kitchen. Commercial theatre tends to have too much collaboration. She thought when there was a single vision like Bob Fosse’, Michael Bennet and Jerome Robbins the story was told with the purest heart.
For me personally I think my weakness is lack of authority. I want to appear to be amenable to everyone and just adapt to any situation seamlessly. I second guess myself when taking charge and being in command. I still hear the years of voices saying, “oh, you’re only a dancer.” To be a director, I need to discover my own version of myself and being able to control the room. My goal is to become a leader without losing my integrity. I admire the greats that Chita referred to immensely, but I need a new role model of leadership. No more of the white (insert any sexuality) alpha male example I have studied all my life, the forefathers of the #metoo problem. My goal in my directing is to become an authentic male, in-charge leader, who also exudes compassion and empathy.
This time last year I was working on the Pete Buttigieg campaign and attended a solo Chasten Buttigieg event on a barge in Brooklyn. As first gentleman, his platform would be the importance of Arts Education. He was accompanied by his childhood best friend who was a woman of color. They shared about how Drama class in High School was the only safe haven a
little gay boy and little black girl had in the midwest. He is now a High school Drama teacher in the mid west being a safe haven for the land of the misfits toys. A seed was planted that day what my end goal would be, if I ever decided to teach more full time.
The first week of the 2020 pandemic, the process of becoming a certified NYS Drama teacher began.