I had the good luck to spend much of last week in New York City where I attended the Musical Theatre Educator's 2017 Conference at NYU. Fascinating presentations, lovely colleagues; I learned tons. The surprise guest speaker was none other than George C. Wolfe, esteemed playwright and director and producer, and I was agog. Did you know he's actually a living landmark? Did you even know there was such a thing as a living landmark? Mr. Wolfe spoke of many things, addressing diversity, the emotional challenges of being a creative artist and the basic "how-to." Everything he said was poignant and pithy and important but I was most struck by this remark: be foolish and ferocious.
While there I took in some shows; first, Sweet Charity at The New Group with Sutton Foster and my old friend Shuler Hensley. Yes, Sutton was stupid-amazing-good and so compelling playing Charity, but what spoke to me most was Shuler's performance. Down to his boxer shorts in the elevator scene, his bumbling was infectious, his foolishness as the character in that moment so beautifully endearing and authentic. Which made the heartbreak he inflicts at the end of the show all the more, well, heartbreaking. And he sang the pants off it....
At the Roundabout Theater I saw Holiday Inn, re-worked from the film by the same name with music, of course, by Irving Berlin. I chose to see it because my dear darling friend, the truly wondrous Megan Sikora, was starring as Lila Dixon, the sassy song-and dance gal. (Take a tour of her dressing room here - yes, she is that charming and engaging all the time!) One of the things I admire about Megan is that she’s always willing to take a risk: to step outside her comfort zone and try something new or different in her work, even if it means being a little (or a lot) silly for a minute. She gave the most ferocious performance, doing perfect splits while belting her face, getting tossed around the stage upside-down and sideways without breaking a sweat or missing a note and shaking her sequins nonstop, all with great heart and warmth and truth. And a little bird told me she will be on a small screen near you in the future. Ferocious indeed.
So how do we instill these qualities in our students, that willingness to go to either place or both? So often I see my college students struggling with a fearfulness that just stops them in their tracks; they resist those foolish, ferocious urges and then they get stuck. I wanted to bottle Shuler and Megan’s performances for my students, to tell them about how Megan and I tried a million silly things before we hit on what worked in one tiny moment in an opening number, how Shuler makes himself totally vulnerable in rehearsal and achieves greatness in performance (Oklahoma, people.)
On my return from New York I was slated to attend three different productions of Beauty and the Beast Jr. Now I love to see my kids but three B&B’s in one weekend felt a little onerous. It can make one feel a bit foolish to twirl about dressed as a plate or a fork, or walk the boards with candelabras for hands or to be stuck inside a rolling teacup for most of a show. So I was surprised to find myself more and more moved at each performance. I’m telling you those were the most dedicated plates I’ve ever seen, the sturdiest, most loving Mrs. Potts, handling her Chip-on-a-cart with professional grace, and the double-cast feather dusters taking the cake with their commitment to character (and their fabulous 11-year-old French accents!!). Who knows if they are going to move forward with this crazy life, but they certainly seemed ferocious enough to do it, fully inhabiting a world where dresser drawers sing like champs and a fork can steal a whole production number..
I watched them knowing that the world of musical theater is changing rapidly and will be radically different by the time they are part of it professionally. I mean, look at all the talent in, yes, Sweet Charity and Holiday Inn, but also in Hamilton and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. These shows require the traditional technical qualifications – being a triple threats, playing instruments, having incredible stamina – and the new ones too: Comet is immersive theater (this fun podcast is about all things Natasha, Pierre); Hamilton looks back, upside-down and sideways in musical styles and themes so it can look forward, and those that perform it have to, too (I love this article about how Hamilton came to be). And of course all of these shows need actors to be open and available. So how willing are we to just be authentically and beautifully and foolishly ourselves, in all our ferocious glory?
That’s my challenge as a teacher: staying abreast of what my young students need to learn as they find their ferocious, and giving them room to be foolish. It feels like a strong choice for my New Year's resolution. And I just might require those college students to see a kid’s production or two….
Annie Jr, anyone?