On Interviewing a Broadway Performer

In my capacity as a theatre critic for John Garcia’s THE COLUMN here in Dallas, I see one or two shows a month. Most are regional or community theatre shows. Occasionally, I’ll do a review of a touring company coming through town. It’s a gig I enjoy.

Of course, during Covid, there was no theatre to cover. Then I had two shows of my own to direct for local companies. It’s really just in the past two months that I’ve been getting back to doing this job that allows me to be of service to my theatrical friends and the audiences who may (or may not) want to go see a show.

This past week brought a new addition to my normal duties. Garland Civic Theatre is doing a little-known musical. It’s called “Carnival,” and really only one song from it, “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” is readily identifiable, even for stage musical aficionados. It opened on Broadway in 1961 to great acclaim, helmed by Gower Champion, who had directed “Bye Bye Birdie” and went on to direct “Hello Dolly” and “42nd Street.” More about that last show (which ran for nine years on Broadway) in a bit. “Carnival” is a musical adaptation of the movie “Lili.” It tells the story of an orphan girl who ends up in a tatty travelling carnival. Her only friends are some puppets, but behind the puppets is a broken man who needs desperately to be loved. It is part big-show, big-number musical, part dark contemplation of not knowing who you are, or how to make it into the next day. I would hope it would get done more, as it’s not your normal fare. Dramaturg alert!

One of the original cast members from the Broadway show ended up being a prolific director of musicals here in the DFW area. His name is Buff Shurr, and he just turned 95 years old. He was in the original 1961 Broadway production, first as a Roustabout and dance captain, and later on tour as Marco the Magnificent, alongside Jerry Orbach at the Schubert Theatre in Chicago. He was being honored on the opening night of this performance.

I had an opportunity to speak with him (and his charming and interesting wife, Janiz, who also worked on Broadway in the specialized capacity of doctor for theatre folks) for a few minutes prior to the curtain going up. He told me a few good stories about working with the original Broadway director of the show, Gower Champion, who regularly enjoyed a glass of milk with an egg in it for his breakfast. He evidently also smoked all the time, which didn’t end up going well for him. Mr. Shurr stated that Champion’s gift was that “He had a sixth sense of physicality. He knew how to group his actors, and to give you interesting rhythms.” Mr. Shurr then demonstrated the syncopated clapping and stomping of one of those dance moves, his whole body engaged, his face alight.

We got to talking about Broadway, and his career path. He told me, “I made one mistake—we all make mistakes, don’t we? Mine was that Gower liked working with me and asked me to come be his assistant on his next Broadway musical which was going to be based on a little Thornton Wilder farce called ‘The Matchmaker.’” Mr. Shurr turned him down to continue to choreograph Industrial shows, which produced a good income. “It was a mistake, that’s for sure,” Mr. Shurr continued. “That musical was ‘Hello Dolly.’”

He had to go meet his admirers who were gathering in the theatre lobby. He’d brought the hat he wore as the lothario Marco the Magnificent to the show, and charmed everyone when he put it on his head and struck a dashing pose. Still a performer.

That was when I took a few minutes to speak with Janiz. She told me she’d been called to be backstage on opening night of “42nd Street” in 1980 by the producer, David Merrick. “He told me just to stand in the wings and have my bag at the ready.” During the enthusiastic curtain calls, Merrick went onstage and announced that Champion had died that morning, not living to see his greatest hit onstage. Merrick had kept the news from the entire cast and crew and had asked the family to keep it a secret as well. Janiz told me it was gut-wrenching, that nearly everyone in the theatre started weeping and that one of the cast members collapsed from the shock. I actually remember hearing about his death while I was at Northwestern, studying theatre. It was striking to be standing next to someone who’d been there that night.

Let me tell you this—later, during the course of the show, there is a fun number, “Sword, Rose, and Cape.” In it, the dancers mimicked the clapping/stomping rhythms that Mr. Shurr had showed to me. I got chills. How wonderful that the continuation of some of Champions’ choreography continued into this production, which Mr. Shurr consulted on.

I wish I’d have had longer to speak with them both. There’s something about hearing that kind of history from someone who was standing on the boards in that space and time that is irreplaceable. Oral tradition is powerful for a reason. Speaking with both of these Broadway veterans gave me goosebumps, as well as a sense of continuity. I felt connected to the talented performers they were recalling who’ve slipped off this mortal coil. Yet here we are, still blessed by their work all these years later.

So to all of you singers, dancers, and performers upon the stage… please keep doing what you’re doing. Our world needs it.

On Visits Back and Good Friends

This past week I got to go back to a place that holds a special place in my heart. Johnson City, Tennessee. It’s where my husband and I lived for ten years, raised our kids, and found our rescue dog, who later rescued us.

It’s where we made great friends. The kind that you can pick up conversations with even though a long interim—over five years — has passed, it doesn’t seem to matter a bit.

A wonderful theatre company is producing my latest play there in September. JCCT is the longest-running theatre in Tennessee, and I am part of their 137th production year. My play was sponsored by Bravissima! It’s a group of philanthropic women who make a yearly commitment to support the arts in that community. I got to be in on the auditions, and workshop “Death By Design,” my funny, snarky murder-mystery send-up of Agatha Christie set in a modern-day Appalachian B&B. It’s got lightning, thunder, a variety of surprise deaths, twists and turns, and a real ghost. I think you’ll enjoy it.

We have a great cast and crew, and it’s helmed by a friend of mine, Melanie Yodkins. We had a lot of fun this past week, so I didn’t mind the work or the long hours. I got to teach three acting classes, meet new actor friends, and work with some extremely talented people. The play goes up next month, y’all should go see it if you’re in the JC neighborhood.

Going back to Johnson City was emotion-filled. Our family was very happy there, and there are so many memories. It’s a small town, but a growing one, so my memories of places didn’t exactly match up to current reality. I didn’t get lost as I drove around in my rental Prius (loved it! 57 miles to the gallon!), but there were times when I was slightly confused, old buildings replaced by new constructs. I was struck by what I’d forgotten. The hilliness. The green that is so vibrant it makes your eyes hurt. I made sure to get out and walk or hike daily. I didn’t get to swim in Lake Watauga or do the Laurel Falls hike that intersects with the Appalachian trail or swim with my old master’s swim group this visit. Maybe that was for the best, as this trip wore me out. And did I mention it is very hilly there? Like I think they added extra hills or something.

While the theatre kept me busy, I had time to visit too. Mom friends, Swim friends, dear friends. I had lunches and dinners and walks with as many as I could. In serendipitous timing, I even got to attend a fiftieth wedding anniversary party. Talking with old friends is so easy. You not only revisit memories but get to find out what is new, whose kids are married or have babies. You can talk for hours with ease. It made me misty and very grateful.

Friends put me up for most of my visit, too. I had cats for companions for my first five nights. Here is a picture of one of them, Doom.

I visited old haunts, walked the streets of Jonesborough, and drove out to Mountain View foods for a tasty handmade sandwich and whoopie pie. The overlay between my memories of those places, and their current reality wasn’t jarring, but it was there. A new park, a whole new development of houses, a tree missing.

What hadn’t changed was the love and friendship of the people I left behind. It was so good to reconnect, and to realize they are never really gone, and that new memories are just waiting to be made. #luckygal, indeed.

On What Goes On Before, During, and After a Community Theatre Play

Two days ago, my play “Like Kissing Moonlight” closed. Over 600 new people got to see this delightful production about a family navigating a crisis point. The actors did such a wonderful job. The audiences laughed, a few cried, all enjoyed their two hours in air-conditioning as temps spiked over 100 degrees here in Texas.

A few posts ago, I covered the odd verbiage that surrounds the theatre, and what Tech Week is like.* This post is about the activity an audience member doesn’t see before then, a pulling back of the curtain, if you will. What I can say with all certainty that all of us crew and performers want is to do a good show and that you have a good time.

I just thought a few folks might find this interesting.

There were nine actors onstage for my show. There were a lot more crew people and artisans that worked behind the scenes who brought the show to life. Here is a timeline of what goes on in the life of a little community theatre play. Please keep in mind that most of this is a labor of love. The pay is minimal if you get paid at all. The theatres themselves are mostly non-profit, too.

First, of course, the writer writes the play, then starts the often-arduous process of finding a theatre to produce it. This can literally take years. A dramaturg reads it, thinks it might be right for the theatre, and brings it to the decision makers. Seasons for Community Theatres are usually set 1-2 years ahead, as the rights to obtain popular shows are based on geographics. The companies such as Samuel French that own the rights to distribute plays will not allow you to do a newer show if someone nearby is also doing it. The theatre will then approach directors, who are usually booked a year or two in advance to see if they’d like to direct the show. The director will submit a proposed budget for the show, and what their vision is for the piece.

Once the play is locked in for the season, the director’s budget is approved, and the rights obtained (generally $100 per show) a producer is chosen, who will work on publicity and help staff the show, and who will be working what is called ‘the front of the house,’ the ushers, the box office folks, etc. They find a graphic artist designs the program and posters, as well as help assemble the design team for the show. They order the scripts or have them made. They handle the money and reimbursements, collecting receipts along the way, making sure the show stays in budget.

The Props, Costumes, Set, Lighting, and Sound designers are found and then sent a script so they can start planning alongside the director for the look and feel of the play. The designers also find running crew if appropriate, or sometimes the stage manager will take this on. A running crew are the folks who change sets, move props, and help actors change costumes during the actual run of the play. They become like family and cannot be flakey. The director finds a Stage Manager and perhaps an Assistant Director as well to help everything run smoothly. The bigger the cast, the more need there is for a strong AD. If it’s a musical, a Musical Director is brought in, and they find a rehearsal pianist, and make arrangements for any orchestra or band. Renting scores is incredibly expensive, so they watch who has those music sheets like hawks. If it’s a musical, you’ll need a choreographer too, and need to make time for them to do their work in the schedule. The director is in charge of all of these things happening in a timely manner, and replacing people if issues come up. It’s a volunteer army for the most part, so there is inevitably someone who thought they could do the show that ends up needing to be replaced. I have replaced nearly an entire cast. I don’t recommend it.

The director sets a rehearsal schedule and a point of contact, such as a FB page for easy communication. The producer makes sure the space for rehearsals and the show itself is available and posts announcements for actors to come audition. The set designer brings in a model or drawing of the set, and it is discussed before the go-ahead is given to purchase the materials needed to create it. This all happens 2-3 months out from auditions.

The director blocks (how the actors move around on the set so that they can be seen and heard at the right time and that they are making pretty pictures on the set as well, and can make entrances and exits) the entire show based on the set design, and meets with light and sound folks to be sure what they are seeing in their heads all match and that the physical equipment at the theatre can execute that.

The director then decides how they want auditions to run–readings from the script (called cold readings), prepared scenes or monologues, and if there will be call-backs or not. If it is a musical, the Musical Director is in on this too, and the choreographer. The stage manager and the AD and sometimes the Producer help make sure the auditions run smoothly and on time.

Actors come, bring a picture and resume, fill in audition forms, read for parts.

The Director, and anyone else who needs to have input, cast the show. The director contacts the people who are cast. This is a happy job.

First read-through involves the costumer who is taking measurements and sometimes the production photographer who gets headshots for the program. Schedules are handed out.

Rehearsals begin. This is usually a 4–6-week process, between 15 to 30 of them, depending on the show’s complexity. While the director is blocking the show and the actors memorize their lines and movement, the design team is hard at work building the set, gathering props and costumes, hanging and focusing lights, and designing the sound–doorbells, incidental music, whatever will enhance the production at hand. Sometimes the actors help build, other spaces have a crew of people who help build and decorate the set. If there are fight sequences or intimate scenes, a specialty person is brought in. We love our fight coordinators and intimacy coordinators because everyone gets to be and feel safe night after night.

The producer lines up reviewers, publicity opportunities, and makes sure the programs get designed and printed. The director approves and participates in publicity, as does the cast when asked. I love doing radio and television spots, other directors hate it.

Tech week comes… see my post about that. A production photographer comes in to get the shots needed for the reviewers and publicity. Tech week is for sure a full week of non-stop work for everyone. The running crew figures out what needs to go where, who has that fast costume change, that this piece of furniture needs to be placed in exactly that spot. The actors figure out where personal props (ones they carry on and off the stage) need to be, and the mayhem starts to settle.

Then, if you are lucky, you get a preview night, where friends and family or invited members of the community come to see the show. This is especially helpful if you are doing a comedy, as laughter (while dearly appreciated) needs to be gotten used to.

Opening night is always exciting! Call time for every show is usually an hour to an hour and a half before the house opens for the audience to sit down. Fight sequences are run through in slow motion, and vocal warmups soar from backstage. Gifts from director to the actors are given, the control of the show passes to the stage manager who calls all the cues of the show, and coordinates front and back of the house.

The curtain goes up… and hopefully… magic happens.

After the last performance of the show, everyone joins together to return props and furniture and borrowed costumes to their rightful owners. The set is taken down bit by bit; the flats stored for the next use. Sometimes you paint the floor back to black.

Then you go out for drinks and dinner and laugh so that the bittersweet pang that settles in doesn’t hurt quite as much. Yes, it’s true, that particular show with those particular people will never be together again.

But while we were together, all of us, front and back of house, on stage and off… we created something special.

That’s show business. Here’s some of the wonderful cast and crew. “It’s the people you miss.”

*On Tech Week and Theatre as an Alternate Language

On Tech Week and Theatre as an Alternate Language

I had a few comments last week that the theatre jargon I toss around sounds… odd to my non-theatre friends and readers. I’m forced to agree. The terms for things in the theatre can sound like we live in an opposite world. Like to “strike” means to work really hard to tear down the set, not to refuse to go to work. To “block” something means learning how to move on the stage in a specific way, not to be an immovable lump preventing forward movement.

Tech week, or hell week as many dub it, falls closer to being what it sounds like. It’s the time when the lighting designer, sound designer, and props designer move to the front of the line in terms of priority. Hopefully, your set is already done, although usually it is not. I’ve been in many productions when the last bits of paint are still wet when the curtain goes up. (And yes, these days there are rarely actual curtains going up – it is more of a move of lights going down on the house (the audience) and then to a blue or black-out and then the lights up on the first moments of the play.)

Those lights are hung, gelled (colored film that changes the colors of the lights), focused, and refocused during tech week, and gosh I hope you like heights. If you are in a fancy theatre, much of this is done via computer and you get the fun LED lights that you can program to change colors. If you work in community theatre, someone’s going up on a very tall ladder to wrench things around so that the stage is lit properly. Sometimes there’s a big grid that floats way up above the stage, and you walk around on that to fix the lights. Lighting techs are among the bravest people I know.

The mp3 sounds and incidental music are programmed into the cues (not pool sticks, but alerts that a new sound or light change is about to happen, or someone’s line (not an actual drawn line, but a string of words you’d say… a sentence to anyone not in theatre)). Then the person running the board (not like a board of directors, but an actual board that is in most theatres programmed, but still needs a human hand to make sure things happen in the correct sequence) needs to find the flow. In my current production, I have scenes that float between various locations on the stage, and we use sound and light to direct the audience’s attention to the correct spots. It would be jarring if those transitions were sudden. The design will reflect the flow, and the board operator makes sure it happens on time and that way every performance.

As ladders are climbed, holes drilled for cords, and the music stops and starts, the props people are decorating the set and building odd things that are in the script.

In my current play, a stick model of the Eiffel Tower is called for. Writers, you just can’t trust ‘em… wait, I wrote it…. The play I am directing right now* also has a lot of food in it, so the props people cook that each night. Biscuits, green bean casserole with potato chips on top, chicken and gravy, apple crisp… all prepped and then the dishes washed afterwards. The cast tells me it is all delicious, so score one for our props team.

All of the above is going on while at the same time, backstage cords are being taped over so no one trips, special blue lights hung backstage so actors can see while dashing from place to place and changing costumes in a blackout (when all the stage lights go off, signaling a change in location or time or that it is intermission.) Prop tables are set up, as well as baskets on either side of the stage so that the actors can grab their hand-held props with ease, and the prop folks can set them back later.

The costumer is in on this we-open-in-less-than-five-days action too, as the clothing the actors wear gets pinned, hemmed, and switched out for different choices. They make sure the actors can move in the costumes, and that there is nothing that can get snagged during an argument or a fight sequence. (The fight choreographer has been in long before this point, but sometimes they come back for a visit to make sure the actors are doing all their moves safely.)

The production photographer will come in at some point in this process as well, and you just make space for them to get the snaps that will (hopefully) go into the posts, articles, and reviews of the show that have been set up.

There is an entire many-hours-long rehearsal devoted to just tech, with lots of starts and stops as all the moving pieces start to come together. At this point, there are maybe four or five more rehearsals before the show goes in front of actual paying people. If you have a good director, there is very little yelling in this phase and they or the producers will hopefully feed everyone a nice meal and have snacks and water available. If you have a bad director, or if the show is woefully under-rehearsed, tech week can, indeed, be a hellish experience with lots of yelling and perhaps the tearing of hair and rending of garments. In either case, it is at least two eight to twelve-hour days in a row and a lot of getting home at midnight or later the next few days after that. You learn to take your vitamin C and that sugar and caffeine are your friends.

Yet, at the end of it, in spite of all the last minute jammed-in corrections, awkward fixes and jury-rigging… you have a beautiful, magical, ephemeral show. Like a duck or a swan, there may be an awful lot of paddling going on underneath the water at this point, but for the audience… magic.

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The photos in this week’s blog are by Steven A. Bracey. This last pic is my pic of him taking a pic… He was our production photographer.

*Like Kissing Moonlight at the Mesquite Arts Theatre in Texas. Come see the show if you can, runs June 10-26th on the weekends. Tickets: https://mesquiteartstheatre.org/tickets