Direct and to the Point: Give the Note

Instead of trying to trick your actors into doing what you what them to do by means of some exercise (without explaining the purpose of the exercise) why not just give them the note?

The actor/director relationship is one that has to be based in trust. If you have a long history of working with someone, you can skip to whatever the shorthand formula between the two of you is – do this exercise here, insert this tool over there. However, if you’re new to an actor and you try to skip over the “getting to know you phase” and go directly to “I’m going to get you to do exactly what I want you to do”, I start to feel manipulated. And defensive. Which isn’t where any of us do our best work. I begin to sense that you want something from me but you’re not telling me what that something is. Trying to figure out how to deliver what someone wants is hard enough when they tell you what they want. It feels near to impossible when they don’t tell you.

Sharing is great. It’s amazing when you can pool the brilliance and experience of all the minds on your team to crack open the story. However, springing an exercise on your actors by saying “this is what we’re going to do today” isn’t sharing. It’s dictating. And explaining why you dictated something after you’ve dictated it, doesn’t mean you didn’t dictate it. It means you want people to excuse your dictating because you think it was such a good idea. And it might be a GREAT idea. But I’m much more likely to feel like I’ve been shoved around and I can’t have a open conversation with you.Note Image

Time is always short in any rehearsal process. And your shortcut may well be the fastest way to get to your desired result. But the fastest solution isn’t often the most lasting solution. Taking the time to build solid, respectful relationships will have a significantly greater payout in the long-term.

Give the note. Give up a little bit of control. Recognize that we both have training and tools and tricks. We’re both creative. We’re both problem solvers. At the end of the process, I’m the one who has to embody the choices we’ve made. If I can get there in a way that I’m comfortable with, in a way that makes sense to me, that’s an excellent solution for both of us – you have what you envisioned and I feel valuable for being able to give it to you (and I feel comfortable doing it). Value the way I might add to the process. If I get stuck, then, please, by all means, offer up your exercise and together we can figure it out.

Or at least have the conversation. Beforehand. It doesn’t have to be long and involved. It can be as simple as “Hey, I’m looking to get more of a feel for such and such in this scene. Would you mind if we tried this to see if we can find more of that?”There’s nothing worse than not having any idea why you’re doing an exercise. Will some people fall into what you want them to discover? Sure. But monkey’s with typewriters will eventually make words. Rather that leaving it up to fate, why not just fill everyone in on what it’s all about and let everyone get as much as they possibly can out of it.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Direct and to the Point: Talley’s Folly

This post is inspired by Roundabout’s recent production of Talley’s Folly. A reminder that these show specific posts are not necessarily meant to be a review in the traditional sense. Rather, they are meant to speak to what I think the key elements needed to make that piece really hum – a perspective that I think is much easier to attain when you’re just sitting in the audience. So, here we go…

This might possibly be my most favorite play. Ever. The humor, the ferociousness, the boathouse. I love it and I can’t wait to work on it one day. These are my thoughts…Talley's Folly Script Cover

– Sweet Tooth.

This is an incredibly sweet play. And the pieces fit together perfectly. As such, I think it’s important to make sure it doesn’t get too sweet. I think this can be done (or helped) by allowing the salty parts to be salty. Which is to say, allow the arguments to be real arguments. These two people are stubborn and afraid, both of which are excellent qualities to build quick tempers. The arguments are the only conflict in the play. Let them rip. With in the first few pages of the script Matt says, “Sally, one of us had better go for a walk and cool off. Both of us can’t be angry.”…which makes more sense if one or both of them are angry at this early point in the story. Ultimately, I think the whole play is an argument. It’s an argument that’s happening in the right way (both parties stay engaged in the discussion, neither one stonewalls the other) and for the right reasons, but they are fighting against each other (or for each other, in Matt’s case) right up until they’re able to see they’re actually on the same side. If this couple is really going to make it, they need to have the argument out. Plus, what’s more satisfying than love that’s overcome a huge obstacle?

– Eggs.

Matt’s speech about how we are all eggs is the crux of the play. Nobody wants to be cracked. While Matt has come for the sole purpose of cracking himself open to Sally, this is not in any way easy for him. If anything it has a sort of suicidal/sacrificial feeling to it. He is terrified to expose himself in this way. This is the only thing that MIGHT win him the only girl he loves. And there is a distinct possibility that once she knows about who he is, that she will want nothing to do with him. If there were anything else he could do to win Sally – ANYTHING else – he would do that. But nothing else will do and he’s driving himself bonkers with how much he loves her. Sally, on the other hand, is fighting tooth and nail to keep Matt from cracking her shell. She is certain that if he were to know her full history that he would shun her. She wants desperately to bury how much she loves Matt. It’s only by burying any trace of that that she can continue living in the safety of her own shell.

– Him.

Matt should be lovable, but not without darkness. He chooses to live on the side of lightness, but he has both sides. He’s become a clown out of necessity. But in order to really appreciate the need behind that reflex, we have to see the mask drop. It might only happen once (in fact, it probably shouldn’t happen much more than once), but it has to happen. Humor is an attempt to distract or diffuse tension. But he’s got to get real (and vulnerable) at some point if he’s going to get Sally to take him seriously.

– Her.

Sally is a hellfire. She may have once been the golden child who would continue the family business, but I would wager that she was never a wallflower. As Matt says about her, “Boy, you get angry, you really are a mountain daughter aren’t you.” Additionally, by the time we meet her, she has nothing left to lose. If she wasn’t already, she’s become quite the rebel – getting fired from Sunday school for endorsing unionization and intentionally bringing Matt home for dinner as way of trying to show her family how narrow minded they are. She’s also something of a caged animal with regard to this situation. Matt is systematically stripping away reasons she’s used to keep him at bay. What she feels for him is tremendous and she violently wants not to feel it. She can avoid (she thinks) being humiliated and heartbroken if she can just fight him off.

– Pedal to the Medal.

Both of these characters are super smart and seldom at a loss for words. Like a fencing match, each statement is to defend, deflect, attack or egg on the opposition. And at any point it’s conceivable that Sally could walk out and leave. As such, the pace can be pretty fast. If there’s a pause, it can’t allow her walk out. Similarly, with Matt’s Probable Lit speech, I think the pace needs to be pretty brisk. This is something that he can’t linger in. If he lingers in it, he risks getting really emotional about it. Which it not the idea. I’ll grant that he may have to be figuring out how he’s going to say it as he’s going along (since he’s never voiced this out loud) but he can’t slow down with it. What he wants to do is convey the information, but stay out of the experience of reliving it. And to get it over with as fast as possible. He knows Sally has a story to tell (according to Aunt Lottie). He knows he’ll have to play his cards before she shows hers. He has to say “this is the whole, entire, ugly deal with me”, before he can demand the whole deal from her. I think if he slows down in telling this story (or is too clear in telling it), that makes it look a little calculated. It makes it look like “I’m telling you this story because I actually already know your whole deal and we’re more perfect for each other than you know – and I’ve known it for months – and I’m just waiting for you to get with the program.” Instead of “Jesus Christ, this is a mad leap of faith and I have NO IDEA what will happen after I vomit all of this information at you.”

– Details.

In the first couple of pages, Matt says, “Actually, I came here to talk to your father. That’s the way I’ve been told these things are done in the South.” To which Sally responds, “You’re not in the South. You’re in the Midwest.” And then continues talking about the differences between the South and the Midwest. I think in order for the dialogue to continue on as scripted, Sally can’t actually hear the first part of his line. She can hear “in the South” which cues her indignation at being called a Southern. But I don’t think she can hear much of the rest. If she hears it, she’ll know explicitly why he came. There will immediately need to be a whole other conversation. I don’t think she fully knows why he’s come until much later when he says that he’s been meaning to talk to her about changing her name.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below.The more the merrier!

Direct and to the Point: Once

Let me begin by saying this is easily one of the most beautiful pieces of theater that I’ve seen in a long time. Director, John Tiffany, and his cast and crew have created a phenomenal piece of story telling and deserve every inch, ounce and centimeter of the Tony’s they won. From start to finish, it was absolutely wonderful, joyous and heart-aching. Each and every element – the upstage mirror that let’s the actors retreat from the scene while still being accessible to the audience, the simple but specific furnishings, the adding and subtracting of minor costume pieces to show a shift in time or place – contributed to needs of the story. It’s the kind of Broadway experience that makes me excited and proud to work in this industry…and very sad that I don’t seriously play half a dozen instruments. I was familiar with the movie version of this story and was thrilled to find that this retelling of it was even more engaging than the original.

Elements I particularly loved:

Playing.

The show opens with a fantastic jam session performed by the actors/musicians. The audience is invited to purchase drinks from the bar onstage (which is also the set). This is brilliant on multiple levels. First and foremost, it establishes a fun and energetic atmosphere both for the audience and for the performer which is a win/win situation. There’s nothing worse than a lethargic audience or a bland performance. Additionally, it is a superb way to establish the world of the play and let the audience feel like insiders.

Listening.

No one listens to music the way musicians listen to music. There is a focus and intensity which they can direct into listening that puts most of us to shame. One person intently listening to someone or something can catch and capture the attention of an entire Broadway house. It’s a great point of reference for how active listening should be done and an excellent reminder how compelling and elegant just standing in place and directing all your attention towards something can be. And this show in particular uses listening, both to music and to each other, with gorgeous ferocity.Once Logo

Transition, Transition, Transition.

If I had my druthers, transitional blackouts would be highly frowned upon. I know they’re a necessity for many shows, but often it kind of feels like a cop out. The beauty (and challenge) of theater is that it’s happening live, right before our eyes. That means, on some level, we don’t really expect the time and place to magically shift all by themselves. So, rather than pretend that invisible stagehands (dressed in black so you won’t see them in the dark) make things disappear and reappear, why not use the transition as an opportunity to further your story in a non-verbal capacity? These are my favorite kinds of transitions and this show does a beautiful job of making the most of them. Here, moving the furniture serves as a break from the verbal, left-brain side of the story and a switch to the musical, physical and right-brain side of the story to lovely effect. (Billy Elliot, when it was on Broadway, also used their transitions to great effect.)

An On-Stage Audience.

I think true creativity is coming up with an interesting (and functional) solution to your constraints. The scenario for the scene in which the song “Gold” is first sung, is that Girl has signed Guy up to sing in an open mic night, which requires the ensemble of actors to serve as audience members. Up until this point the music for each song has been either generated solely by the actors within the scene or with cast members adding to the orchestration from their seats around the edge of the stage. In this moment, the cast members sit facing upstage (as an audience to Guy’s performance) and play their instruments from this arrangement with their backs to the audience. It’s a solution that is at once both obvious and innovative. Super smart all around.

Barrier By Language.

Another great example of operating within your constraints, is the use of projected subtitles in this show. Girl speaks both Czech and English – Czech to her family and roommates and English to Guy and the other townspeople. Early on in the show we see the English translation of her conversations with her mother and roommates projected on the set. Later this conceit enables one of the shows most gut-wrenching moments.

By A Nose.

We love (and hate, and get annoyed with, and generally experience things) specifically. Each relationship has it’s own lexicon of phrases and gestures and it’s that specificity that really makes a relationship ring true. While all of the relationships in this show are richly specific, one of the moments that really melted my heart was between Girl and her daughter. During Act II, Girl’s daughter pops up from behind the bar and hugs her, they then proceed to rub noses before Girl pulls her in for a hug. I have no idea if this was a director inspired moment or an actor inspired moment and, in all honesty, I don’t really care. What I care, is that it reads as a gesture that is beautifully unique (and true) to their relationship.

* Special thanks to Ed and Linda Paradine for treating me to this production.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Direct and to the Point: Into The Woods

This post stems from The Public’s most recent production (remounted from a previous production at Regents Park) of Into The Woods. I’ve seen one other production of the show. And unlike some of the other theater lovers of my generation, I have not listened to the soundtrack ad nauseum. All of which is to say that I consider myself only casually familiar with the show.

Into The Woods LogoOverall, I think one of the challenges with this show is getting it to congeal. This is a show with millions of characters and almost as many plot lines. As such, hard to get all those characters to be in the same world and all those plots to relate to each other. I find the theme of parent/child relationships to be a huge component of this show. By not double casting any of the parents or children, and therefore having each child’s respective ghost parent be present on stage toward the end (if I remember correctly, during No One Is Alone) this production did a great job of highlighting that. The other major theme for me (at least in how I’m currently thinking about the show) is one of violence and when/how/if it’s usage is justified.

Specifically, my thoughts on this production are as follows…

– A Little Boy for a Narrator.

One of the notable distinctions of this production was the use of a little boy to be the story’s narrator. I really enjoyed this. It was a conceptual twist that really served the story well. I think anytime you can make a shift like that and have it completely integrate and inform the story, it becomes really exciting for people who are aware of previous versions. (Without detracting from the story, for anyone who might be seeing it for the first time.)

– Sexy Little Red.

In this production, the choice was made to have Little Red and the Wolf’s encounter be a sexual one. For me, in the specific context of this production, this interaction was a bit too graphic to fit within the conceit of being part of a little boy’s imagination. While I recognize that there are sexual innuendos scattered throughout the text of this show, I think they need to not be the focus. I think they need to stay implicit because making them explicit gives them, for my taste, too much importance. I wonder if instead, that Little Red and the Wolf’s relationship is one that could revolve around violence.

– And About That Wolf.

In a world where Giants are actually giants and witches are actually witches with spells and powers and whatnot, I think the Wolf should be a wolf. In this production the Wolf was merely a man in pursuit of Little Red. It didn’t bother me initially, but increasingly I think that there should be an effort to render him as a wolf. Though the story may be allegorical, the world, in actuality, is magical.

– Giants in the Sky.

I LOVE when theater is theatrical. I love when you can invite an audience to use their imagination to complete then picture. The use of puppetry elements to create the Giant in this production was absolutely magical.

– Witchery.

I think it’s crucial that we as an audience feel something for the Witch. Of all the parents we see in this story, she is the one who has done everything the way she should with regard to raising her child – and it still blows up in her face. And she owns up to that. That should be heart wrenching. And I think if you allow for that depth of pain, then you earn the bitterness for her final number.

– Getting the Glass Slippers.

Cinderella’s storyline goes something like this: I want it, I get it, it’s not really what I wanted at all. But the thing is, if you’ve fought really hard to get what you want, you’re supposed to want it once you get it. That means two things with regard to this piece. The first is that there’s a greater pay off to be had if Cinders works really hard to get what she wants. This probably means that contacting her dead mother could be a much bigger deal. It’s one thing to pray to your dead mother. It’s a whole other thing for your dead mother to respond and be able to help you in some way. I’ll grant that the world of the play is a magical one, but a miracle should still be miraculous. The second thing is that she needs to try really hard to like what she gets once she gets it.

– Mr. and Mrs Baker.

If there is a central plot line for Into The Woods, it belongs to the Baker and His Wife. As such, we need to care about them. For me, that means I need to believe in their relationship at the start of the play. If a relationship is fundamentally broken, it deserves to dissolve – there’s no sense fighting if there’s really nothing worth saving. If a relationship is fundamentally solid but is struggling to figure out a problem, that’s when I’m rooting for them to make to the other side. This is admittedly difficult to establish since they are arguing when we first meet them. However, some of the research that’s out there (if you haven’t already, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink) would seem to indicate that it’s not that people in healthy relationships don’t fight, it’s just that they fight ways that don’t destroy their relationship. So I think the key might be making a real effort to try to have them both be arguing for the relationship instead of against each other. It’s a subtle distinction, but I think that’s where the answer is.

– Her Fault.

The Baker’s Wife gets into something of an ethical quagmire when she cheats on her husband with the Prince. Potentially, it’s her blind idolatry for his royal highness coupled with the stumbling blocks she and her husband are experiencing in their own relationship that get her into the situation. But it’s how she gets out of that determines whether the audience will hate her. It’s worth noting that at this point in the show her husband has gone out of his way to give her the one thing she desires, and therefore our loyalties are likely to be with him. Additionally, the Prince has just told her their interaction was nothing but a one time fling. And then she has to decide what she’s going to do next in a direct address to the audience. I think choosing to return to her husband (not defaulting back to) is important. The lyric “just remembering you had an ‘and’ when you’re back to ‘or’ makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before” needs to be true. It’s the “ah ha” moment that song has been building to. What she has with her husband has to be more precious than it ever has been previously as a direct result of her indiscretion with the Prince. There’s not a lot of space in the song for that discovery, but I think that’s the one thing that can redeem her to the audience.

– His Fault.

This thought actually came from reading an interview with Dennis O’Hare about his experience playing the Baker. O’Hare mentions that the hardest thing for him to understand about the Baker was how quickly the Baker gives up his son. And he’s right. It’s definitely a point worth shifting through. Every parent tries to do what they believe is best for their child. Sometimes when a parent believes that they are unfit to raise (or unworthy of) their child, the best choice they can think of becomes abdicating their role as parent to someone else. It’s presumably a choice that is riddled with guilt and shame. But it should be a choice. And it should be a choice that the audience gets to see.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Direct and to the Point: Well, hello.

Hi. I’m Cotton. I’m an actress living, working, auditioning and generally fighting the good fight here in New York. I suspect that one day I’ll be a director, since that seems to be the filter that I view just about everything through. The thought of directing right now is totally overwhelming. However, one day I think it will be inevitable.cotton wright 4

To that end, I’m starting this blog. The intention will be to make somewhat universal observations about what works (or doesn’t) with regard to storytelling in the theatrical medium and specific observations about what seem to be the crucial components of certain “classic” works (i.e. – works that would be likely to see a second life on the regional theater circuit or revival on Broadway). What are the things that are things that make a story pop? What are the things that allow the audience to really buy-in to the ending? What are the things that are really tricky to execute in a satisfying way?

The aim is to generate a catalog of key sights and things to think about for future directing ventures. And also to generate some dialogue on how to most effectively and cohesively communicate stories. In an ideal world, no one ever gets offended by anything that’s posted on this blog. But “ever” is a long time, so that seems like a tall order. As such, I apologize in advance if something that I say here rubs you the wrong way.

With all that in mind, here we go!

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Who’s in the Room: How it works…

Hello hello –

Actors’ Equity turns 100 this year. And while this is a fantastic achievement, our union is slow to embrace the technology available to us. As such, getting information continues to have its challenges. In this day and age, where it’s so easy to share, I figure why not make use of it. So, here we go…

This blog is being created for the purpose of having a place to share the “Information For This Audition” sheets that are created for every EPA (Equity Principal Audition) or ECC (Equity Chorus Call). This is the piece of paper that the monitor fills out detailing who’s in the room, what their title or position is and how to contact them.

Why would you need this information? Well, if you keep a log of your auditions or send follow-up notes to folks on the other side of the table and forgot to get their details, this can be a great place to reference. If you were not able to be at the call, you can check here to see who you might be able to submit a headshot/resume to. Or if you were tied up in the morning and are debating about whether it’s worth trying to be seen, checking here may help inform that choice.

Right now, these are just the photos that I’ve taken from the auditions I’ve gone to or happen to be in the vicinity of. Which is to say, not every audition will be on here. But you’ve got to start someplace. If you’ve got pictures of the Information sheet from auditions that are not on here feel free to send them my way, and I will happily post them. Email is the best way to contact me and that information can be found here.

Additionally, feel free to look for them on Instagram. Each shot will be tagged with two tags. The first will always be #whosintheroom. The second will vary to reflect the theater or audition (ie. #merrygoround or #wicked). You’re also welcome to look for me there – CottonShots.

Let’s see if we can make this work. Fingers crossed!

– Cotton

 

* Special thanks to Nikka Graff Lanzarone for her excellent naming suggestion 🙂