Stage & Music Direction
University of South Dakota
Taking on stage direction for a phenomenally popular show that also happens to use puppetry extensively when you have never done puppetry yourself is daunting. Add in music director duties on top of that, and it might seem impossible. However, I was truly fortunate to be able to bring two exceptional, professional puppeteers to work with me and the cast. Doug Strich, a USD alumnus and marionette puppeteer in New York City, flew back to Vermillion for a week of puppetry basics like eye focus, breathing, tracking movement, lip sync, as well as giving us a physical warm-up regiment that,built up the muscles needed for the kind of puppetry this show demands.
Jennifer Barnhart, a veteran of Sesame Street and one of the original cast members of the Off and On-,Broadway casts of Avenue Q, also worked with the cast through several live teleconference sessions. As the actor who originated the roles of Mrs. Thistletwat, Girl Bad Idea Bear, as well as being the second-hand for Trekkie Monster, there was no one more qualified than Jen to coach us in this style of puppetry. She provided a wealth of exercises that we warmed up with every day, and she innately knew how to help the actors bring their puppet characters to life and to act through, not with or over, their puppets. She also helped us explore the dynamics of puppet-to-puppet and puppet-to-human communication and touch, as both are integral elements of this show.
Once we had completed our sessions with Doug and Jen, I had plenty of insight and technical know-how to provide the feedback on puppetry that the actors needed to maintain complete believability ,throughout the show. To a person, the actors all grew to respect the tremendous amount of detail and physical stamina required to play this kind of puppetry night after night. As they grew more confident in their puppetry, the cast began to fully integrate the puppeteer and the puppet, as is the nature of this show. It was remarkable to watch the human recede, yet always be fully present, as they communicated through their puppet.
These types of puppet characters have a certain type of stylized voice that is expected and necessary for believability, so in my capacity as music director, the cast and I explored finding stylizations that worked for speaking but could also be carried into the singing, with its greater demand on vocal range and stamina, without damaging the actors vocal cords. In some cases, this meant softening the “puppet dialect” a bit in order to be able to maintain vocal health over the full run of the show. Overall, the collaboration with Doug and Jen, the profound growth in the cast and me, and the overwhelming response from audiences made this show one of the most rewarding that I have worked on.
Photos by Raimondo Genna. Used with permission.
Scenic Design by Benjamin Kramer; Lighting Design by Jim Hovland; Costume Design by Linda Wigley Scribner
Joseph and the Amazing
Black Hills Playhouse
As the stage director, I didn’t want this production to feel like Donny Osmond’s version of the musical, and what I conceptualized in my initial research and communication with the production team was a traveling minstrel caravan of performers who just happen to be putting this show on at this time. This allowed us to be more metatheatrical with our design approach, which was important because the stage at the BHP was undergoing some renovations, and we didn’t have any soft goods to mask the wings. Therefore, the traveling minstrel caravan setting, was established outside the theatre with the actors performing many different circus and story-telling skits for the audience as they entered the theatre. When it was time to begin, the cast flowed in, brought their costumes in on rolling racks, changed in view of the audience, and established the aesthetic that they were actors performing multiple roles. Scenic designer Valerie Bright created a fantastic multi-purpose minstrel wagon on a revolving set which gave me and the actors many opportunities to play with movement and staging.
This show was originally written as a school musical intended for young audiences, and one of the challenges it presents is tying together the various musical styles, several of which are silly and seemingly come out of nowhere, into a cohesive through-line story. To help accomplish this, I had the cast read the original Joseph story in the bible so they had a solid frame of reference to work from. We also established early on in the rehearsal process the playful, bright, and youthful aesthetic that would serve our minstrel caravan “world-within-a-world.”
Music direction for this show meant researching the different styles Lloyd Webber wrote in, from 1950’s rockabilly to calypso to old-time country music, and being able to communicate to the cast what each idiom required of them. This part of the process was relatively simple, and quite a lot of fun. What was less fun, and took more time than anything else in this project, was that there are two different versions of the score in use, and we had the print music for one, but the rehearsal/performance tracks for the other, so this meant that I had to go through every song prior to the start of rehearsals and mark all of the cuts, additions, key changes, etc. that were different in the tracks from what we would be reading from in rehearsal. After that, I certainly knew that music backwards and forwards before we started rehearsals!
Photos by Black Hills Playhouse. Used with permission.
Scenic Design by Valerie Light; Lighting Design by John M. Ryan; Costume Design by Rachel Mathews
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
University of South Dakota
Putnam County was a blast from auditions right through the final curtain. As a show where adults play children in archetypal roles such as “the nerd,” the tree-hugger,” the overachiever,” etc., my first challenge as stage director was casting the right people for these roles. In order to see who really could embody these heightened yet specific character types, and also think and act extemporaneously as the nature of this show lends itself to some improvisation every night, I had everyone who was called back dress as the character they were called back for, and from the moment they walked into the callback, they were to be in character. We held an impromptu spelling bee and talent contest right there in the callbacks (the talent show was to give the actors a chance to sing as the character). Outside of laughing harder than I have at any callback before or since, I was able to observe which actors had prepared and thought out their approach to their characters, who was a quick thinker, and who had the vocal and comedic chops for the show.
Once into rehearsals, I encouraged the actors to continue to explore, discover, and refine the character work they started in callbacks, while also searching for the truth, humanity, and real fears that each character faces. One of the beautiful facets of this show is that composer William Finn provides substantive, and at times heart-wrenching pathos to the character arcs, which not only balance but actually heighten and justify the humor; it was important that every cast member knew what was a the core of their character’s motivation for winning the spelling bee.
Musicically, this show is more complex than I initially expected. The harmonies are textured and rich, and this meant that extra time was needed in rehearsals to get everyone solid on their parts. Additionally, we needed to establish the overall vocal tone and timbre of the show that would be consistent throughout the show, which I wanted to be bright, crisp, more straight than spin on the vibrato, and highly energetic. The cast embraced this aesthetic as part of their overall character development and the final result was a well-paced, highly entertaining, and heartfelt production that I am very proud of.