By Timothy Huang
Getting cast in a musical that is tried and true might require all the same talents that are needed for getting cast in a brand new musical. But is it the same thing, really? Is the application of how we use our skillset different in a workshop context? I sat down with three of my favorite composer lyricists, Adam Gwon, Anna Jacobs and Adam Overett and asked them about their process in workshop. Here’s what they had to say.
Tim: We don’t have the benefit of a pre-existing cast album or a million Youtube clips for our work, so sometimes when I get into process, I wind up spending more time than I’d originally planned teaching music to singers. Which results in less time for dissecting the narrative. It’s usually the singers who are also musicians that wind up making the most of the environment. These are not always the same thing. How have you maximized that time and what if anything should singers have in their “bag of tricks” so as to avoid the above?
Anna Jacobs: Before I go into a process, I will usually ask the stage manager to share with the cast a DropBox link containing recordings of the score… listening to the recordings is by no means mandatory, but they’re a resource for anyone who isn’t as confident reading music (or who just has a lot to sing!). I really respect and appreciate performers who are aware of their own learning style and know where and when in a development process they need to put their time. I also think it’s really cool when a performer tells me “hey, I think that’s as far as I can get with this song today – let me record us playing it through and then I’ll take it home and live with it a bit.”
Adam Gwon: I’ve cultivated a posse of music directors that are pretty kick-ass at teaching music quickly: the best MDs are not just accompanists and teachers of notes, they’re directors in the directing sense of the word. When a music director ties together character arcs, dramaturgy- all the big picture stuff of the show, things tend to go faster. Of course it helps immensely to have actors who are also musicians, and I am definitely more likely to hire back actors who can sight read and make changes on the fly.
Adam Overett: Being able to sight-sing music, or read accurately and quickly, is so important to me that it’s one of my top factors in making casting decisions for presentations or demos. My first thought when I need to get something done fast is, “Who will take next to no time in learning notes and rhythms, and be able to deliver a solid performance straight off the page?” I absolutely recommend that singers improve their sight-reading skills, by taking a class or practicing with a coach or however they can. It adds enormously to a performer’s professionalism — something I value very highly — and castability for new work.
Tim: I’ve had this happen where someone will audition for me with a standard audition song, and really nail it. They have their beats, they have their vocal technique down etc., and then they get into the room and don’t give themselves permission to create or invent daringly. In an environment where characters can change drastically from the beginning of the process to the end, that’s kind of a necessary skillset. What does a performer have to do to show you in the audition room they have what you need?
AO: Two things: Thoughtful preparation on new material is big. Someone who comes in knowing the sides/songs and who has already made clear choices on them, shows me that they are committed and diligent. Then, someone who can listen to an adjustment and take it in the room. It doesn’t have to be the “right” choice in either case — they just need to commit to something, and also be willing to recommit to another choice. These things add up to being what I think of as “game to play” If someone comes in without this work done, they don’t really want to be there, and the desire to be there is essential. I want someone who is game to play.
AJ: For full productions, I usually ask for anybody called back to sing a 16 or 32-bar cut of something their character sings from the actual show they’re auditioning for. Also, I ask other writers and MD’s and directors about their experiences working with performers who are new to me. Just ask Adam. 😉
AG: Vocal technique is a given, and is much more universal. What I look for is a really strong sense of text work in an audition: work that allows an actor to treat lyrics as if they are occurring in the moment, the same way that dialogue works. It’s not just park-and-bark. The lyrics are like dialogue, and there are beats even within lines that actors can take advantage of.
Tim: I’ve had actors in the room who are super playful and very present. We’ve already established this is a must in a workshop or reading environment. On a few occasions that sense of play wound up being kind of a distraction to the creative team because we ourselves didn’t know how to get the scene to do what we needed it to do. It’s so, so tricky… Has this happened to you? (No names please…)
AG: I can’t say I’ve found myself in that exact situation, but I get how easily that could happen. There usually comes a point in rehearsal, especially with the super-condensed timeline of a reading, where I’ll say to the director privately, “Hey, there so many great ideas bouncing around the room, and the creative energy is terrific, but for the rest of our time together, let’s focus on making what’s on the page now the best it can be.” It’s really a time management issue, to my mind. No matter where you are in the development process, at some point you have to “freeze” what you’ve got and let the actors live in it for a moment, and table the play for the next round.
AJ: Ha! So this is actually a quality that I see as a plus. You can always direct someone to tone a performance down, but it’s much harder to direct them to dial it up. The more choices a performer brings to the table, the better, in my opinion. But also, I tend to write pretty weird characters.
AO: I don’t think I’ve experienced this in rehearsal either, and I’ve been lucky for it, but if it becomes self-indulgent, it’s no longer about contributing to the storytelling, and that will work against everyone’s process. Again, it’s about being “game to play” — part of being game is knowing when it’s not your turn to field the ball.
Tim: When in process, what’s your take on an actor voicing a question/concern over dramatic content versus musical content? Is there a difference? How do you draw a distinction between changing the work in service to the character and changing the work in service to the actor portraying that character? Put another way, how do they have to ask you to change stuff so that you’ll change stuff and not blow them off?
AJ: I love fielding questions from actors – dramatic and musical – as it teaches me a lot about the material I’ve written and what I actually want from it. Questions that start with “I wonder what it would be like if I…” and “What does the character mean when she says…” and “Is it okay if my instinct here is to…” are my favorite types of questions. From there, the performer and I will have a discussion about the dramatic content, and then someone will make the appropriate adjustments. I love tailoring my work to specific actors, particularly musically – that process helps me to make my scores even more singable and imaginative. Musical theater is all about collaboration, yo.
AG: Music and story are completely intertwined in my book, so any question about plot or character gets my antennae up, even if it’s for my bookwriter. Part of the fun of rewriting is tailoring a character to a particular actor. The biggest way you can get me on your side is to demonstrate that, on some fundamental level, you trust the material. If you suggest a change, and throw a hissy fit about it after I explain why I don’t agree, that’s a surefire way to get me to dig in my heels about other questions you may have down the line. I really am out to make the strongest work possible, and the best idea always wins. It’s a collaboration, which means, writers included, you may not always be right. So, it’s about mutual trust, really.
AO: I love getting any honest responses from actors. The way I see it, by the time it gets to the stage in front of an audience, it has to be the actor’s show — the audience never sees “what the writer wants,” only what the performers deliver. At the same time, [in workshop situations] people often just haven’t had the time to really dig into the material and their difficulty might be a result of that. So if I think that’s the case, I’ll try (through the director) to get the actor to understand or work with it. How can they ask in a way that will make the change happen? Frankly, a big difference is simply in attitude. Putting down the material without giving it the college try is a good way to not get it fixed. In contrast, when I see people who are game to play, and they’re having trouble because of the rules or equipment I gave them, I’m eager to help them out.
Tim: How do you feel about people auditioning for you with your own work?
AJ: I mean, which writer doesn’t need their ego massaged from time to time?
AG: My ego certainly feels really good about it! Though I will say it is probably easier for an actor to fall flat in front of an author singing the author’s own work than with something else. Just because we have really particular ideas about how it should be done, and it’s harder to impress and surprise us with something we’ve written ourselves.
AO: This is flattering, of course, and it shows a very welcome willingness on the performer’s part to do their research, but it’s only a plus if you actually love doing the song. For me, the best audition material shows your own excitement, your passion, your sense of humor if appropriate, your sense of (here’s the main word again) play. If there’s material of mine that someone genuinely likes doing, terrific! But that aside, it doesn’t really earn valuable extra points (except for my own ego-warmed gratitude) and there’s certainly no requirement or expectation to do it.
For more information on Anna Jacobs, please visit http://www.annakjacobs.com/
For more on Adam Overett, please visit https://adamoverett.com/
Adam Gwon can be found at http://www.adamgwon.com/
And to see a website that was built before the advent of the smart phone, come see me at http://www.timothyhuang.net/
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