As the run of War Paint continued, I settled deeper into my routine. A week or so after I went on for Ms. LuPone, the company had its first official “put-in” rehearsal – this one for the show’s four offstage understudies. It was a run-through of the show with full tech (although not with full orchestra – just a rehearsal piano). For me it was a bit like shutting the door after the horse had already escaped from the barn, but it was nice to step through the show in a little less stressed atmosphere, and to perform the piece with fellow offstage understudies Patti Cohenour (in the Elizabeth Arden role), Tom Galantich (as Thomas Lewis, Arden’s husband) and Tally Sessions (as Rubinstein’s associate Harry Fleming). The entire company, with the exception of the four leads, was called for this put-in, although they were not required to be in costume as we were.
Here are two photos as a “compare and contrast” exercise. Most of my Rubinstein costumes were finished, or nearly so, for the put-in rehearsal. First is the only photo I have approximating a “production photo” of me in the role; it was taken by our head of wardrobe during the put-in. I’m singing “Forever Beautiful,” Rubinstein’s amazing eleven o’clock number, which the elderly Madame R. sings in her boudoir surrounded by paintings and sculptures of herself. The costume still wasn’t completely finished at this point; in fact, as I was getting into it Lyle and I discovered that it hadn’t been put together properly at the waist. Lyle quickly ripped out a seam and fastened me into the thing with a big safety pin – fortunately this change happened during the Arden eleven o’clock number, so we had a bit more time than usual for the change. The jerry-rigging held during the number and the offending seam fixed afterward.
Next up is a photo taken much later in War Paint’s run. This one is in Ms. LuPone’s dressing room, and I’m wearing the completed costume. As you can see, there’s more embroidery over the bust and shoulders, and the gown has been fitted with a proper waistband. By that point in the run the wig master had also adjusted my wig style so it wasn’t scraped back quite so severely and was bit more flattering.
(NOTE: Included in the company’s contracts with the producers was a rider forbidding us to post photos on social media of ourselves or any company member wearing the show’s costumes. It was a detail either missed or disregarded by some members of the company, but the producers REALLY REALLY didn’t want photos of anyone wearing the Rubinstein or Arden costumes floating around on the internet. My guess is that they worried about losing control of the show’s “brand.” By the same token, any time a lead was out sick, the understudy going on in the part was prohibited from posting on social media that they would be performing the role, the rationale being that this would affect sales. You could post that you were going on if it was a scheduled absence – someone taking vacation or a personal day, for example – but not an unscheduled absence. (You could post after the fact all you wanted, though.) Since neither Ms. LuPone nor Ms. Ebersole had any scheduled absences from the show, Patti Cohenour and I were always flying under the radar when we went on. It was a bit of a disappointment, not to be able to announce when I was performing the role, but I understood. When Ms. LuPone or Ms. Ebersole went out, the producers handled disappointed ticket purchasers well, I thought – attendees who didn’t get to see the two stars were offered vouchers to see the show another time when the ladies were back on. I don’t know how many people actually took advantage of the opportunity to see the show again, but as a good-faith offer it was very smart.)
In addition to those two-a-week understudy rehearsals, I also had to be at the theatre by half-hour prior to every performance (I was usually there at 45 minutes to curtain, which would come in handy – more on that in a bit.) During the performance, I could either watch from the house – in a seat in the mezz or the rear orchestra if one was available; standing in the back if one was not – or watch/listen to the show on the backstage monitor in the ensemble ladies’ dressing room. One night I tried to shadow one of my ensemble tracks backstage, but it was nearly impossible because there was so little room in the wings and you were always in someone’s way. I discovered a third place to watch: the stage right fly space, where I could look down on the stage far below. It was a good place to track traffic patterns in the group numbers.
After the offstage covers had their put-in rehearsal, focus was shifted to getting the onstage covers ready to go on. During understudy rehearsals I was relegated to my ensemble tracks, and I can say now, without fear of reprisal, that it was an unmitigated pain in the ass. I was required to do the staging for one track per rehearsal, but was also called on to step in for the “specialties” (the solos and small speaking roles) for the other two tracks during the same rehearsal. Because of this, I never got a strong sense of each individual track – I was always having to factor in some portion of another track. Keeping the specialty lines and music separate for each track wasn’t hard (after all, I could run that stuff outside of rehearsal), but I had difficulty picking up the individual staging in the big numbers. With three tracks to remember and only three or four bodies to deal with instead of the twelve or so I’d have in performance, getting the traffic right was always a struggle. And because I was alternating the three ensemble tracks along with the Rubinstein track, weeks might pass before I’d have the chance to rehearse a particular ensemble track again. And there was really no place in the building to run the staging outside of rehearsal. Patti C. and I would sometimes step through numbers in the dressing room – Necessity Is The Mother of Invention, a big march number, lent itself most easily to this – but we’d have to squeeze between dressing tables and costume racks to do it.
(NOTE: If you were to look at the program for War Paint or even pull up its page on IBDB.com – the Internet Broadway Database – you’d see that there are only two people listed as ensemble understudies: dance captain Barbara Jo Bednarczuk and me. Everyone else is listed as understudies only for principal parts. This does NOT mean some of those people weren’t also “swinging” ensemble tracks – it just means they chose not to be listed as “ensemble understudies,” and negotiated that as part of their agreement with the producers. Protestations to the contrary, there is a certain “low man on the totem pole” stigma attached to swinging, especially if the actor in question has formerly played featured or principal roles on Broadway. Prior to War Paint, I wasn’t even aware this was a “thing.” Live and learn.)
A couple of weeks later the onstage covers got their put-in rehearsal, and during that rehearsal I covered the ensemble track of Joanna Glushak, Ms. LuPone’s onstage understudy. Not surprisingly, some of my costumes were not completed for that track, and due to a misunderstanding about wigs, my pin-curled head was exposed in several of the scenes. Afterward I spoke to the wardrobe department about the hat/wig issue and thought a speedy solution would be in the offing. Alas, not long after Joanna became ill 45 minutes before a performance, and as I was frantically trying to get prepped to go on for her, Wardrobe was still struggling to solve the exposed pincurls problem. It made for a terrifying experience, both backstage and onstage. It so happened that Patti Cohenour was on for Elizabeth Arden that same weekend (Christine Ebersole was out with a bad head cold, and Patti C. was fighting the same cold herself), so it was a rough time for all concerned.
And things were about to get rougher. Ms. LuPone had been fighting hip pain since tech, and that situation was rapidly deteriorating. There was also that damned company head cold, which would disappear for a week or two and then flare up again, first among the stage crew, then among the dressers, then among the actors and back again. Then the Tony Award nominations came out, with only four nods to War Paint (one each to our leading ladies, one for costume design and one for lighting design). Passed over for Best Musical – you can bet there was no joy in the Nederlander that day. And then the Tonys came and went, with no wins for War Paint and nothing to crow about in the publicity department. Sales began to lag. Spirits, too. In late September we were due for a one-week layoff so the two stars could have some time off; just before that break the producers assembled the company to tell us we’d be closing December 30th. We returned from our layoff with everyone rested but Ms. LuPone’s hip was no better; in fact it was worse still. Adjustments were made to her staging to limit the amount of sitting down and getting up, many of her costume changes were moved into the wings so she didn’t have to walk so far, and she was put into lower heels for certain scenes, but it didn’t help. She needed hip replacement surgery.
I was on twice more for Joanna (her other two absences were scheduled days off, so those performances were less frantic than the first one) but was spared having to go on in the other two ensemble tracks I covered. I ended up going on for Ms. LuPone six more times: another three-show spurt (that damn head cold again) and three single performances as her hip got worse. (And yes, notes and notes and notes afterward, every single time, and so many of the nitpick variety that it made me want to shriek.) It was hard to watch Patti suffer, but she’d throw her shoulders back and limp onto the stage and beat the hell out of her vocals and scenes. She was game, and amazing, but in the end, the pain was too much. The producers finally assembled us again and told us we’d be closing on November 5th.
Those last weeks were hard. Tempers grew short as unemployment loomed, hand-in-hand with the holidays. There had always been a certain amount of competition between the onstage and offstage covers, and that began to ramp up as opportunities to go on in the principal roles got fewer and fewer. (NOTE: Not only is there prestige in going on in a major Broadway role, but there’s financial benefit as well. Under the Equity Production Contract, when an understudy performs a principal role, s/he receives an additional one-eighth of her/his weekly salary for every performance. Or, as my fellow understudies were fond of saying, “Cha-CHING!”) Fortunately, I wasn’t on the receiving end of any of the ill feeling that resulted, but I was constantly on tenterhooks in case I had to go on for Ms. LuPone. One night an assistant stage manager came to me 20 minutes into the first act and told me to get into my Rubinstein prep because Patti wasn’t sure she’d be able to continue (she did). Another time I was walking into the theatre – I started arriving at the theatre an hour before curtain instead of my usual 45 minutes – and was told Patti was in pain and to get ready in case she couldn’t go on (she could, and did). I was struggling with my housing situation as well. I had to give up my 45th Street sublet on November 1st and had initially lined up another place that would take me through the original December 30th closing date, but had to let that go (along with the non-refundable deposit I’d made on it) when the producers moved the closing date to November 5th. I couldn’t find another sublet for just five days, so I ended up staying in the hotel right next to the theatre for the final week of the run. Company management helped me get a less expensive rate – only $250 a night (!), and John came up to spend the final week with me, so it wasn’t so bad. Still, my overriding emotion when the curtain came down on that final show was relief, and gratitude that I was going home.
SO…what was my big takeaway from the War Paint experience? That it was the hardest single theatrical job I’ve ever had. Yes, I made a lot of money, and yes, I have a nice fresh Broadway credit on my resume, and yes, I got to take the final bow in a major Broadway musical nine times – but I feel like I aged five years in those nine months. It was a LOT of pressure, made worse by the fact that I always felt like I was operating blind – that there was stuff going on behind the scenes that influenced actions and decisions affecting me, but I was kept in the dark about them. The constant nitpicking and notes, notes, notes about the most picayune stuff got to me, too. I found it impossible to get out of my own head during performances because any time I was a bit out of position or fluffed a line (said “the” instead of “a,” for example), I’d think oh God, I’m going to get a note about that. And I would.
And I got so tired of being at the bottom of the company heap. The understudies so often got little respect, and so often were an afterthought when it came to company events. (“Oh, and you guys are welcome, too” was the backhanded way we were invited to these things.) I think my lowest moment during the run was when I made a remark about my sciatica flaring up from so much sitting, and having one of the dressers tell me that I could do her job and she’d do mine and “just sit in a chair.” She was young and new at the job, and I know it was supposed to be a joke, but it still stung like hell.
So…would I do it again? In a word: no. Oh, I might understudy again, if it was a major star in a rewarding role, but I’d be damned sure I negotiated standby status, so I’d not only cover just one person, but also be guaranteed that I’d be the first choice to go on in that role. But I would never, EVER swing again. I wasn’t good at it; in fact, I think the people who ARE good at it are actors with a strong dance background – people who are good at picking up movement simply by watching, who can navigate from point A to B to C onstage without the benefit of motivation, who find satisfaction in that kind of work. I am simply not wired that way. Those actors who are can have all those roles…along with my endless admiration.
My sense of relief at the conclusion of opening week lasted right through Easter Sunday and the following Monday, which was technically our day off. In reality it was not a day off at all for the tired cast, which was summoned into the studio to record the cast album.
We understudies were poised to be summoned that day as well, as we’d been twice required to attend sessions where we weren’t used. One was the sitz probe (which is when the orchestra and cast members meet for the first time to work through the score), and the other was the day we filmed the B-roll (the B-roll is footage used for commercials and other publicity). The sitz probe was interesting, at least – it was great to be immersed in the wonderful voices and orchestrations – but being called for the B-roll filming was annoying. The onstage company was being paid extra for being filmed, but we just had to sit there and watch. Later on, however, the union ruled that since we were required to be in the building during the filming, the producers had to pay us the same as everyone else – so the joke was on them. This may have factored into the decision not to call us for the cast album recording, but I wasn’t sorry. We were now on a regular schedule, with no rehearsals except for a few hours of daytime understudy rehearsals on Thursdays and Fridays. I enjoyed a solid day off that Easter Monday, and on Tuesday worked on lines and music until I was called to the theatre for our first show of the week.
Everything seemed solid that evening, even though the onstage cast was tired after losing their day off to the recording session. There was also a cold working its way through the entire company. Ms. Ebersole and Ms. LuPone sounded a bit weary at the start of the Tuesday night show (in addition to the Monday recording call, they’d been called in to record the cast album starting Sunday evening, after the final performance of opening week – so they’d had a VERY long week), but an enthusiastic house seemed to buoy their performances, and I left the theatre Tuesday night in good spirits.
Wednesday was a two-show day, with performances at 2pm and 8pm. About 10:30 that morning I was pottering around my little sublet when I got a text from the stage manager. It read:
PATTI HAS EMAILED THAT SHE IS GOING TO THE DOCTOR THIS MORNING BC SHE HAS “NO VOICE” AND DOESN’T EXPECT TO PERFORM TODAY. OUTSIDE OF COSTUME ISSUES AND QUICK CHANGES, IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE THAT YOU NEED BEFORE GOING ON TODAY?
To which I responded:
RIGHT NOW I NEED CPR.
I didn’t really have time to be terrified. I needed to be at the theatre at noon to sort out costumes. Only about half my Helena Rubinstein costumes had been completed; fortunately, early in the rehearsal process the costume department had pulled “emergency” costumes against this very situation, so at least I would have clothes to wear. I would also be in the very capable hands of Lyle, Ms. LuPone’s dresser.
I made myself eat something (whatever it was, it tasted like sawdust) and warmed up a bit in the shower. I texted Patti Cohenour to let her know what was going on, then headed to the theatre and to Ms. LuPone’s dressing room. There I met with Lyle, costume designer Catherine Zuber and Robert and Richard (the heads of the wardrobe and wigs departments, respectively), and for the next 30 minutes I got in and out of costume as they sorted out each change and matched shoes, bags and jewelry to each outfit. I had about twenty minutes on stage to step through the last couple of scenes in the show and vocalize a bit, then retired to the dressing room to put on my show underwear and start getting into makeup. Richard pin-curled my hair and got me into a wig-cap and Ms. LuPone’s double wireless mic rig.
(A word about my mics and body mics in general: on Broadway and in most major regional theatres, lead performers wear two mics: their primary mic and a backup. In case the main mic fails – which isn’t unusual, particularly if sweat gets into the mic – the backup is ready to go. So the fit of the Rubinstein costumes wasn’t compromised, Ms. Zuber insisted I wear a mic belt with hanging pouches for the mic packs fore and aft; i.e. at the top curve of the buttocks in back, and right in front of the pubis in front. I was dubious in the extreme about this setup, but since I was also wearing Spanx pantyhose over the rig, everything lay flat and snug and nearly invisible. Suffice it to say I’m now a convert to the fore-and-aft setup. The microphones themselves were positioned at my scalp line and along one temple and their wires secured to my wig cap. The Rubinstein wig was seated on top of all that, pinned into place and the temple lace secured with adhesive for a nice, snug fit.)
As all this was going on, the stage manager also joined us. While I felt confident about the music and staging, I was less certain about the dialogue in some of the scenes. The reason was threefold: first, the few understudy rehearsals I’d had up to that point had been focused less on the Rubinstein material and more on the three ensemble tracks I covered. Second, since we had only “frozen” the show the week before, I was shaky on some of the most recent line changes. Third, I had not yet had a “put-in” rehearsal – a run-through of the entire show, in costumes and wig, with tech, with the full onstage company called. In fact, I had never actually done the latter half of the second act. Oh, I’d run the lines with Patti Cohenour and worked on them at home in my apartment, but I’d never rehearsed them on set – walked the blocking, handled the props, etc. I’d only watched it, and occasionally been called on to do the transitions into and out of those scenes.
Technically, since I’d never had a full rehearsal of the show, under Actors Equity rules I could have asked to perform “on book” – with the script in my hand. In all the furor of preparations, I didn’t even think about that, and my stage manager didn’t mention it. Instead, we ran lines together while I finished my prep. Some flowers arrived – a bunch of roses from Patti Cohenour, an arrangement from my agents back in DC, and a huge and gorgeous array of lilies from my husband (who was even then in the car driving up to catch the second show). I put them all aside to look at later. I was ready well before the “Places” call, and spent the time pacing the floor, humming the music, babbling snatches of dialogue and trying to stay calm and collected while other members of the company – including Christine Ebersole, John Dossett and Douglas Sills – stuck their heads in to wish me luck on their way to the stage.
The performance began, but since Helena Rubinstein doesn’t make her first entrance until about 15 minutes in the show, finally it was just me and Douglas Sills, waiting for our cue to cross behind the set to stage left, where we’d make our entrance riding the “gangplank” unit, representing Rubinstein’s return to the U.S. after several years out of the country. I got smiles and thumbs-up from the crew once we were poised on the unit. The scene on stage ended with the blast of a foghorn sound cue, I braced myself, and slid onstage to start my show.
I wish I could tell you each and every little thing that happened, but to be honest, most of it passed in a blur. Every time I came off stage, stage management handed me off to Lyle, who hustled me into my next outfit. (Both the leading ladies had costume changes nearly every time they left the stage. Because there were no dressing rooms on stage left – only stage right – Christine Ebersole, who made the majority of her entrances from left, never got to go to her second-floor dressing room during the show. She and her dresser worked out of a small quick-change booth in the upstage left corner of the wings. At least I got to change in Ms. LuPone’s dressing room – the only one on the first floor.)
The things I remember from that first performance were the bobbles: scaring stage management by exiting in the wrong place, right into the path of an oncoming set piece (I dodged it) and three times going dry on my next line – all in that latter section of Act II. The first time I got myself out of the jam; the second time John Dossett bailed me out, and the third time Christine came to the rescue. I also remember sitting down opposite Christine in the final scene – the first time the characters of Rubinstein and Arden come truly face-to-face in the show – and being completely and utterly gobsmacked at how beautiful she is. At that moment in the scene and in that light, Christine was luminous, and…well, it took my breath away. I was already in awe of her kindness – normally Ms. LuPone took the final bow in the show, but when I suggested I bow second to last and Ms. Ebersole take the final position, she said no. And when I took that last bow, the audience was lovely, and Christine gave me a huge hug. That’s the other thing I remember, and treasure.
Lest you think it was all sunshine and rainbows after that matinee, let me assure it was not. Yes, I got lots of compliments from the cast, but I was barely out of costume before the stage manager was back in my dressing room, with pages and pages of notes. I had roughly three hours to absorb them before I’d be back onstage for the evening show. I knew I needed to stay in the theatre and work, so some kindly cast members brought me a sandwich and a soda, and I sat with my script and studied until my husband arrived. He changed into his suit in the dressing room and then, at my request, went off to get some dinner while I continued to work.
The second show went more smoothly. One of the assistant stage managers quietly informed me that he could tuck script pages onstage where I could use them if necessary. I ended up only using them in one scene, in which Rubinstein is reading legal papers while talking to her lawyers, but knowing I had that option made me fear the scene less. Again I got reassurance and support from John Dossett and Doug Sills; again I had the last bow and a warm hug from Christine.
And again, I had notes. Pages and pages, this time not just from the stage manager but from the director as well. I was also warned that I would probably be on again for Ms. LuPone the following evening. By the time I was out of costume, wig and makeup, most of the company had already left the theatre, but John was waiting in the lobby, and we went to the place next door for a drink and a nosh, then back to the apartment and to bed. And no, I didn’t sleep very well – still too full of adrenaline. The show was on an endless loop in my brain throughout the night.
In the morning I was informed that I’d be on again that evening, although Ms. LuPone was improving and expected to be back for Friday evening’s show. I saw John off (although it had given me a huge lift to have him in the audience the night before, he had to get back to work) and I ran lines and music, then headed to the theatre around 6:30 pm and started the drill all over again. The Thursday night show was the smoothest yet, and while I was still not anywhere near relaxing onstage, I was, at least, starting to enjoy myself. It really was a joy doing those scenes with three Broadway heavy-hitters, and singing that beautiful score with an extraordinary orchestra.
All that aside, on Friday I was grateful to climb the five flights to my little station in the cramped ensemble ladies’ dressing room and once again listen to Patti LuPone’s masterful performance. That night, as I was leaving the theatre, she was standing in her dressing room, in her gorgeous “Forever Beautiful” costume, waiting for her next entrance. She hugged me and apologized (!) for putting me through such stress. I could only laugh. “Patti, that’s why I’m here,” I said, and went home to bed.
Next up: The Grind
From the very first day of rehearsal, the company of War Paint had been warned not to get too attached to the generous proportions of our church basement studio space. The production’s home would be the Nederlander Theatre, on 41st Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. The Nederlander is one of the oldest theatres on Broadway, dating back to the early 1920s, and was not originally built as an entertainment venue. (Wikipedia states that it was a carpenter shop; War Paint company lore disagrees, claiming it was a stable.) For a show that had its out of town tryout in the much more modern and expansive Goodman Theatre in Chicago, it was going to be a very tight squeeze.
To begin with, the Nederlander is taller than it is wide, and as is frequently the case with all but the most modern Broadway houses, that translates to very narrow wings. War Paint‘s set included a massive staircase, two big restaurant banquettes and a huge bed, as well as desks, glass-fronted department store display cases, rolling salon chairs and a bar. In addition, there were a number of very fast costume changes in the show, which would need to take place in those very same, very crowded wings. As the company moved into the theatre to begin tech, there was understandable apprehension over just how we were going to fit into the space.
Fellow understudy Patti Cohenour and I met up early on our first day in the Nederlander so we could explore our new digs together. On signing in, we discovered we’d be housed on the fifth floor (remember: no elevators). Not only that, we’d be sharing one large dressing room with the female ensemble: eleven women in one space. We trudged and gasped our way up to the fifth floor (the topmost dressing room space – at least the stairs were padded) and got our first view of what was to be our home for the foreseeable future.
A long counter with mirrors and a single shelf overhead ran down each side of the room, and each actress had been allotted a space about 30 inches wide and roughly half as deep. On the right hand counter, at either end, was a mini-fridge. At the far end of the room was a single window, with two sinks located just beneath it, and a pair of showers to the right, with a water cooler in between. (The single toilet for the eleven women was, fortunately, located just outside the dressing room.) The middle of the dressing room was taken up with a long row of rolling racks, stuffed full of costumes.
The “Character Women” (the three older ensemble ladies) occupied the left-hand side of the room; the “Arden Girls” (the five younger ensemble ladies) had the right hand side, and Barbara Jo Bednarczuk, our dance captain and swing for the Arden Girls, had her own counter at the front of the room, which she shared with a video monitor. Patti C. and I were assigned the last spaces on the right-hand side, beyond the Arden Girls, next to the showers. Patti had the farthest station, with a bit more counter space, but with the refrigerator right next to her and a foam fold-out mattress (like this) stowed under the counter just under it. (That was our required “Equity cot.”) My station was just to Patti’s right, and it had a couple of problems right from the start: its shelf space was unusable because a giant, elderly speaker, like a tin lollipop punched full of holes, had been hung there, and the metal support for the counter-top was beneath my station, which meant I either had to sit sideways or straddle it. I had just enough time to register this (and whack my knee on the support) before we were summoned to places – which for the understudies meant the Nederlander’s mezzanine. We descended five flights to the stage door level, dodged through the stage right wing and out the pass door into the house, and then climbed another flight of stairs to the mezz. On the house left side, approximately halfway up, we discovered our table.
It was actually a long, heavy tabletop, parked on trestles that straddled two rows. It was so high that you could barely see over it if you sat in a theatre chair – which you could barely do anyway, since the table had almost no clearance between its edge and the seats themselves. “Are we going to have to sit on the edge of the folded seats?” I complained, but after a few moments of combined outrage and bafflement, a few rows back I found a long vinyl bolster. It fitted down over the folded theatre seats, providing a kind of perch behind the table. There was just enough space for three people to sit (if you could call it that) side by side, with their binders open before them. Patti, Tom Galantich and I sat there most of the time; Tally Sessions usually elected to sit elsewhere in the mezz, along with Barbara Jo.
(In fairness, I should mention that the folks down below in the orchestra seats had the much the same setup and were really no more comfortable than we were. They – the direction team, stage management, creatives and all the designers and their staffs – had a bit more light and were closer to the coffee and snacks, but at least we didn’t have to climb the stairs to access the theatre’s restrooms – which were on the mezzanine level with us. And since the understudies were usually the only people in the mezz, we were able to move around a fair amount without disturbing anyone.)
Throughout tech, the company worked a “10/12” schedule. This meant that our span of day was twelve hours long (from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., for example), with a two-hour meal break somewhere in the middle. Sometimes we’d do a slight variant of this schedule, and work from noon until 11:30 p.m., and take only an hour and a half meal break.
The usual drill during tech was this: generally the entire company, with the exception of the two leading ladies (and often the two leading men) were called for “half hour” at the start of the rehearsal day. “Half hour” is a somewhat fluid period during tech, particularly at the beginning of the process, since actors and crew alike are still learning their backstage prep and timing. “Half hour” can sometimes be an hour long, or longer. During “half hour,” while the onstage company were in their dressing rooms, getting into costumes, mics and wigs, the understudies were given five minutes to get into mics and report to the house. (To save time and avoid both the climb up to the fifth floor and the madness of the ensemble women’s dressing room, Patti and I took to leaving our mic belts and mics in the sound department, located in the Nederlander’s basement. Since this was also headquarters for the entire run crew – wardrobe and wigs especially, and eventually the orchestra – there was not a square foot of space to spare. More on this later.)
Once we were in the house, we could use what remained of “half hour” to incorporate any new material into our binders (yes, the script and score changes continued apace), but more often we were called to the stage, to stand in for the principals while lights were focused, set changes sorted out and new lines and music folded into the mix. This was helpful to the director and designers, as it let them get some of the grunt work out of the way before the cast was called to the stage, but it was also helpful to the understudies. Since we would not be starting understudy rehearsals until well into previews, this gave us an opportunity to run lines and staging on the actual set. These were usually truncated runs, though – much of the time we were working on transitions between scenes – but still, they got us out of the mezz and on our feet. Once the onstage company was in costume and ready to go, the official rehearsal “clock” would be started. (Under Actors Equity rules, the cast must be given either a five minute break after 55 minutes of rehearsal, or a ten minute break after one hour and twenty minutes of rehearsal.) The downside of this schedule for the understudies was that we’d already been “on the clock” for half an hour or more. If we weren’t needed onstage we could usually grab a couple of minutes to pee or get coffee before heading to our table in the mezz, but Patti C. and I were often still needed onstage to rehearse with the company (the two leads were usually not called until later in the afternoon), so it was rare that we got our breaks in a timely fashion, at least during the morning sessions. (The other difficult part of this process was a carryover from the studio: the ensemble’s staging in group numbers was usually being altered and rehearsed while I was standing in for Ms. LuPone, so I didn’t have the chance to write down and work that staging in real time. I don’t think I ever stood in for any of my three ensemble ladies in a musical number – not in the studio, and certainly not once we started tech. There just wasn’t time.)
Of course, there were occasions during tech when we had to stop and sort out some problem, usually having to do with the automation (it’s rare to see a crew member onstage these days; set moves all seem to be automated now) or with trying to sort out how to get one scene’s worth of set pieces out of the way while getting another scene’s set onstage. This involved the crew having to “fly” set pieces up into the rafters of the theatre, fitting them together like some sort of super-sized Tetris game, while knifing the next batch of set pieces into their tracks on the deck so they could be swooshed on during transitions. The cast would be dismissed to their dressing rooms while these changes were mapped out, and it was a welcome opportunity for the understudies to relax: get up, walk around, make a cup of tea or step outside for a breath of lovely fresh midtown Manhattan air. My special spot during these break was in row H of the mezzanine, where I could lay on the floor out of sight, stretch my back and ease the sciatic pain from sitting on that damned vinyl bolster. (I am probably smiling in this picture because I’ve also gotten out of my microphone rig, which could be downright painful to wear for hours at a stretch. I should also point out that I’m wearing black, the de rigueur color choice not just for crew people, but for understudies as well.)
The most heart-stopping moments during tech were when we’d hear a crash backstage. As careful as the crew tried to be, there were times when things didn’t move as they should, or something or someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of the time it was nothing major – maybe someone dropped a prop – but once or twice the situation was more serious. Once a dresser got caught between two moving units and ended up with a badly bruised leg; another time one of the big Arden makeup counters got crunched and its glass front broken. These incidents had a sobering effect, and hammered home just how little margin for error we had, putting this great big show into the little Nederlander space.
Next up: Onward to Opening
Before I continue this narrative, I should tell you a bit about our rehearsal space. War Paint spent its first few weeks of rehearsal in the basement of The Church of St. Paul the Apostle, which is at 9th Avenue and West 59th Street in midtown Manhattan. If the word “basement” brings up visions of a cramped, dingy and dank space, let me assure it was not (unlike our theater, which I’ll get into later). That basement is used to rehearse the Radio City Christmas show, so it’s absolutely enormous. There was not only room for our taped-out playing area, there was space for a long row of tables facing it for the directing team, the choreography team, the creatives, stage management and way over at one end, the understudies. Behind this long row of tables ran a row of cubicle dividers, creating a “hallway” between the rehearsal space and the rear wall so that people could get to the bathrooms without disturbing anyone. Beyond the understudies was space for a grand piano and a table for all the music team. Elsewhere in the space was a separate studio where smaller scenes and music could be rehearsed, and private rooms for the stars and the two leading men (John Dossett and Douglas Sills). A third of the space was taken up by a huge “green room” area with couches, tables and a big kitchen area with microwaves, refrigerators and the all-important coffee maker. Coat racks and tall shelves with cubbyholes for our personal items divided the green room from the work area.
For the first couple of weeks, the two male offstage understudies were not called, so Patti C. and I had the understudy table all to ourselves. And we needed it. Our time in rehearsal was a constant battle with paper: new script pages, new music pages, diagrams of the set and Post-It notes. Stage management set up a big file box with a folder for each company member, and God help you if you didn’t check your folder throughout the day, because the creatives (composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and librettist Doug Wright) were always hard at work improving and tightening the show. I got in the habit of arriving early – sometimes as much as half an hour – to get my pages. Sometimes these changes were big ones, that encompassed multiple pages; more often they were tweaks – deleting a line here, adding another there, changing a lyric, changing it back – but I had to stay on top of each and every one. That meant pulling pages out of my binder, replacing them with the new pages, transferring any staging notes to the new pages (for the Rubinstein track I wrote on the pages in pencil; for the three ensemble tracks I used color-coded Post-Its) and highlighting the lines (again, color-coded) so I’d be ready when rehearsal actually began. After our meal break, and sometimes even after a ten-minute break, there would be still more new pages. I quickly learned that bringing lunch and eating it in the studio gave me extra time to incorporate and review the changes.
I also learned the disadvantages of our understudy table. For some reason it was a popular drop-point for anything anyone didn’t need at the moment: water bottles, discarded script pages, partially eaten food, lozenge wrappers, used Kleenexes. It was also not the best place to observe the show. Director Michael Greif used numbers at the lip of the stage to block the show (for example, an actor might be blocked to cross diagonally from 8 Left to 2 Right), but sitting at extreme “house right,” as we were, made it difficult to see those numbers. We could lug our big binders all the way over to the other side of the playing area, where the rest of the cast had a table, but there wasn’t much real estate available there and the view had the same problem, just in reverse. We couldn’t stand behind the people seated at the long row of tables because of the cubicle dividers. And when music director Larry Yurman got up to conduct a musical number, he usually stood just to right of center, so he, poor man, was always in our way. If we got too frustrated, we could usually consult someone in stage management or our dance captain to get the staging, but the only time to do that was during a break, and those poor people needed time to pee and get coffee just as much as anyone else.
The first couple of rehearsal weeks were devoted to getting the ensemble up to speed: reviewing their material retained from the Chicago production and teaching them their new music and movement. I followed along in my script as best I could, since it was all new to me. Occasionally I’d stand off to one side or behind the company as they worked on the choreography, trying to step through the movement myself, but I was usually in someone’s way and a distraction to those watching. Anyway, most of the time Patti Cohenour and I were standing in for Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole.
Until they arrived.
That was a weirdly nervous day in the room, Everyone seemed a little too loud, a little too bright. The two stars were greeted with applause and cheers. I was quickly introduced to them, and then everyone got down to work. Both ladies were cheerful and professional; they cracked jokes and smiled and finally the room seemed to settle down. Patti was a force of nature: one hundred percent committed and at full performance level from the minute she stepped into the playing area; Christine was more reserved, and I got the sense she was carefully calibrating how much energy was necessary in each scene. When they had an issue with the material their approaches were different as well: Patti attacked the problem with gusto and head-on, while Christine’s process was quiet and more circuitous. Either way, most of the time the ladies got what they wanted. If things got too tense during the process, the rest of the company was put on break until things were sorted out. This was especially the case when a new scene was being worked through. Those involved with the scene huddled together with the director, working through any issues, and everyone else made themselves scarce. (I’d been warned that input from the “peanut gallery” was unwelcome at these times.) At first I was asked to leave with everyone else, but since I was getting very good at making myself invisible when not actively involved, I was eventually allowed to stay at my table, eyes on my script and mouth firmly shut.
Just being in that room with those two women was like attending a master class every day – not just the way they handled themselves while rehearsing, but their comportment during the entire process. They knew when to break the tension with a joke and when to be serious; they knew when to withdraw to their private rooms and reserve their energy, and when to spend time engaging with the rest of the company. They knew when to compromise for the good of the show and when to stick to their guns for the sake of their own performances. But oh…those rehearsals. Hearing Patti belt out one of her big numbers made my hair stand on end. And the first time I heard Christine sing “Pink” (Arden’s last solo in the show), I dissolved in helpless tears.
Midway through this part of the process our two male understudies were finally summoned to rehearsal. I already knew Tally Sessions, who understudied Doug Sills, but Tom Galantich, who was John Dossett’s cover, was new to me. We all got very chummy very fast – we had to, since the understudy table was now VERY crowded. Elbow to elbow we worked on our scripts, highlighting and noting, pulling pages out and putting pages in, mouthing lines in the scenes and humming along with the musical numbers. And just as I was starting to get comfortable – just as it was all starting to make sense – it was time to move out of the rehearsal space and into the theatre.
Next up: The Nederlander.
It was a year ago today that I moved to New York City to start work on the Broadway transfer of War Paint, a musical about the rivalry between cosmetic titans Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. The show starred Broadway legends Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, and I’d been hired to understudy Ms. LuPone and swing three ensemble parts as well.
(Before I move forward, I should clarify what understudying in general means, and the different levels of understudy jobs. An understudy (also known as a “cover”) is an actor who steps into another actor’s role when necessary – in the case of illness, vacation or other absence. A “part” or “role” encompasses all spoken lines and onstage movement (also known as “blocking,” which includes any prop or set moves assigned to a particular actor) and, in the case of a musical, any sung lines or dance moves. In addition, an understudy must also learn the covered actor’s backstage movement: i.e. where that actor goes after an exit, whether it be to drop off a prop, change a costume or wig, or just to get out of the way of a scene change or another actor’s path. This entire package is called the actor’s “track.”
There are several levels of understudy work. An “onstage understudy” is someone who is appears regularly in the show (often a member of the ensemble or someone in a smaller role), who is additionally employed to understudy a principal role should the need arise. An “offstage understudy” has the same kind of assignment, but is not a member of the regular onstage cast. An understudy who is listed as a “standby” does just that; he or she “stands by” to replace a principal should the need arise, and has no other duties beyond that assignment. A “swing” is an offstage understudy who covers multiple ensemble roles and can be “swung in” to replace a regular ensemble member in case of illness or absence or when an onstage understudy is “swung out” to observe the show from the house and take notes about the role(s) s/he is covering.
Prior to War Paint, I had only understudied twice: I was an onstage understudy for the U.S. premiere of Dempsey & Rowe’s The Fix at Signature Theatre, and I stood by for Claudia Shear in the West Coast premiere of Dirty Blonde. I’d had other offers to be an onstage understudy, but I always turned them down. Understudying is hard, hard work, and at the regional theatre level you usually end up tripling your workload in exchange for a very small bump in pay. (And at the regional level, you’re rarely going to see a union actor hired as an offstage cover; that’s because union understudies have to be paid the same base salary as the onstage company, starting from the first day they’re called to rehearsal. Hence, at the regional level, most understudies are non-union. Not so on Broadway, where everyone in the cast must be a member of Actors Equity.) I had never, ever swung a show before, but that didn’t keep me from seeing just how difficult the work is, and how hard swings have to work to stay on their game.
I was already nervous enough about covering a major star like LuPone, and the pressure of learning three ensemble parts into the bargain really made me sweat. In addition, the vast majority of the cast had done the Chicago tryout of the show back in the fall, and I knew I’d be something of an outsider when I joined them. But I comforted myself with the knowledge that Patti LuPone was a real pro who rarely called out of a show – and anyway, her onstage understudy (who’d also covered her in Chicago) would probably be tapped first in the unlikely event Ms. LuPone called out.
On Day One of rehearsal, one of the first people I met was Patti Cohenour, who was standby for Ms. Ebersole. I was in awe. Patti Cohenour had originated the roles of Eliza in Big River and Rosa Bud in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (for which she received a Tony nomination), so I felt outclassed right from the start. Patti C., however, could not have been friendlier or more encouraging, and she was my anchor in the swirling melee of the rehearsal studio. I received my script and score that first day of rehearsal, so I didn’t even have the opportunity to familiarize myself with it before we dived in.
God, there was so much to learn! We started with music, and I was in panic mode right away as I tried to sort out which of my ensemble ladies was singing what. I quickly determined that I’d need different-colored highlighters for each of the parts I covered (I marked the Helena Rubinstein material in yellow, and doled out blue, orange and green to the three ensemble tracks). Patti C. warned me that Ms. LuPone and Ms. Ebersole would not be called for rehearsal for a couple of weeks, and in the interim director Michael Greif would be using the two of us to “stand in” for the stars. This made things difficult when it came to staging the big production numbers. I wanted nothing more than to sit at the understudy table and scribble the staging for my three ensemble ladies, but instead I was on my feet, script in hand, stumbling through the Rubinstein staging, trying to simultaneously write down that blocking while keeping an eye on the ensemble tracks. Impossible. Not enough eyes. Not enough brains. Don’t worry, I told myself; when the stars get here, then you’ll be able to watch.
Meantime, though, it was watch, watch, watch, scribble, scribble, scribble, stumble, stumble, stumble. There were a few times that the ensemble was called late or released early, but often that meant I was still called, either to work with the assistant director on the Helena scenes, or for a fitting (not only did I have all the Helena costumes to be fitted for, I had my own set of ensemble costumes, with additional costumes for the specialty roles each of my ladies played). So I had a solid eight hours of rehearsal most days, after which I walked home to my Hell’s Kitchen sublet, ate some food and fell into bed. Sometimes I stayed up late, trying to memorize lines and music and staging, but more often I’d get up early to cram in some study time before I went to work.
Next up: The Stars Arrive
This a continuation/conclusion of a blog from a few days ago, where I re-posted some of the blogs I wrote for FISKUR’s virtual book tour. I wrote a total of eight; these are the last four. I hope you enjoy reading them.
#5 – Writer, Know Thyself
There’s a game that writers play on occasion that I’ve never been able to work up any enthusiasm for, and that’s the “Cast the Movie of Your Book” game. The game bugs me for two reasons: 1) I’m superstitious and it feels like a jinx, and 2) I don’t strongly identify any of my characters with any actual person, living or dead.
And I don’t want readers of The Gemeta Stone series to be force-fed any particular “look” for the characters, either, especially the photo-shopped models that appear (often simply as bare torsos) on so many book covers. I want my readers to have the experience of reading the characters’ descriptions and imagining those characters for themselves.
That said, there are certainly elements of family and friends that I’ve incorporated – sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly – in my characters. (A fair number of them have physical characteristics in common with certain of my nieces and nephews, along with similar names.) I think it’s also safe to say that most of my characters have quirks that resemble my own, or traits I wish I had.
For example, my main character, Kristan Gemeta, values kindness above all and has tried his whole life to do what is right. It’s a theme that has always fascinated me, which may be why I find the endings of Babe and Sense & Sensibility to be so moving and satisfying. Both Babe the Pig and Elinor Dashwood struggle to do what’s right, even though “what’s right” may not be easy and actually stands in the way of their own happiness. Kristan’s innate decency is what I like best about him. His female counterpart, Heather Demitt, has a brave, impulsive nature that I envy, and it’s the thing I like best about her. Even my bad guy Daazna has a trait I admire: a ferocious desire to learn and to master new skills.
If I was to pick one character from the series who is most like me, it would probably be Ariphele, Daazna’s mother. She’s a middle-aged magic user of limited skill, a little on the lazy side, but very observant. She’s also sarcastic and has no qualms about goading her son, sometimes to incite him to greater achievements but more often just for the sheer pleasure of getting under his skin. Ariphele not only serves as a stimulus for Daazna, but she also humanizes him. She allows the reader to see him, not simply as the “bad guy” (although he can be very, very bad) but as someone with frustrations, doubts and desires just like the more heroic characters.
And that’s my main job as a writer: to create characters that are not just stock “good guys” and “bad guys,” but who are as fully-fleshed, as contradictory and as intriguing as the people who inhabit our real lives.
#6 – A Day in the Life of an Actor/Author
I think I must have been a farmer in past life. I always wake up early in the morning, no matter how late I was up the night before. This can be inconvenient because as well as being an author, I’m a professional stage actress and usually don’t get home from work until after 11 p.m. But I can’t help it – as soon as sunlight begins to creep through my window, my mind clicks into gear, even if my body doesn’t want to come with it.
If my body is super-reluctant, I’ll lie in bed for fifteen minutes or so and let my mind wander. Usually it wanders in the direction of whatever I happen to be writing, which these days is the final book in my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone. I’ll think about where I last left off, mull over plot points and listen to my characters talk in my head. When my body finally gives up and joins the party, I’ll get up and slog into the kitchen to make tea.
I drink a lot of hot tea in the morning – maybe about half a gallon. (No, I’m not kidding.) I’m picky about my tea – I don’t like tea bags – and use loose leaf Nilgiri, an Indian black tea which stands up to the milk and sweetener I take with it. While the tea is steeping, and if weather permits, I’ll step out onto my back deck and get a good whiff of the weather, then stroll around and visit my plants. If the weather’s inclement, I’ll spend some time watching the birds at my dozen or so feeders. Then it’s back to the kitchen for a big mug, and off to my little study to fire up the computer.
First comes the email. I have six different accounts – personal, writing, website, junk and even junkier junk, plus a super-secret account I only use to back up completed manuscripts and other writing. I check them all, answer what needs answering and delete the rest. There’s usually some correspondence from either my editor or my publisher, and sometimes I’ll hear from one of my agents (I have three: theatrical, film/TV and literary). Then I start about an hour’s worth of promo. I check into Facebook, post a bit and chat with friends, then head over to Twitter and spend some time participating in writer hashtag games (I’m a regular at #musemon, #meta4mon, #thurds and #51writers). For the run up to FISKUR’s release, I created a dozen or so graphics using quotes from the book, and posted one or two a week as a teaser. I’ll probably do the same for STONEKING, the third book in the series, which will release in early 2018. I don’t promote every single day because I don’t want to be one of those relentless authors who are constantly pimping their books – that’s as tiresome for my friends/followers as it is for me.
From Twitter I’ll cruise over to my favorite writers’ forum, AbsoluteWrite.com, and spend some time reading and posting there. Then I’ll go to Lumosity.com and play a few games to get my brain into high gear. By then I’ve usually drunk most of my tea, and am ready to start my day in earnest. My husband is usually afoot as well (he works from home, which is great because otherwise I’d rarely see him), so we’ll check in with each other before he heads downstairs to his office.
If I’m rehearsing a show, I’m called to the studio as early as 10 a.m., so I may have to truncate the schedule above. If I’ve got an early call, I’ll warm up in the shower, dress and head off to work. If I know I’ll have a sizable break during my rehearsal day, I’ll bring my laptop and work on my writing then – in my dressing room if I can, in the theatre lobby or a nearby coffee shop if I can’t. If the show is already in performance, I’ll write in the morning, break for lunch with my husband and then continue into the afternoon until it’s time to leave for work – unless it’s a two-show day. Then the laptop definitely comes along with me and I’ll write between shows during our dinner break. If I’m in a show where I have long breaks between entrances, I may sneak in some writing then, but most of the time I’m focused on the show. In fact, unless I’m between projects, I do very little writing in the evening.
As hectic and scattered as this may sound, I’m more productive when my time is limited. Every minute is precious then, and I don’t have the luxury of procrastination. I don’t spend a lot of time putzing around on the internet – I get right down to business. The creative atmosphere is really stimulating as well. Theatre people are generally articulate and often funny, and working with them can really get the juices flowing. It’s a crazy life, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
#7 – Throwing Rocks at Your Main Character
“The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” – Vladimir Nabokov
Old Vladimir is right. For a book to be gripping, the main character must have desires, needs and goals. Achieving those goals can’t be easy (otherwise, why tell the story?), so there must be plenty of big obstacles in the way.
I sometimes feel sorry for Kristan Gemeta, the main character in my fantasy series THE GEMETA STONE, because I’ve been abusing him for years. In fact, in an early chapter of KINGLET, the first book in the series, I literally put him up a tree and trapped him there (spoiler alert: no rocks, and eventually he got down). But that’s picayune stuff compared to what he has to go through in FISKUR, the second book, which was just released this month. It’s life-changing stuff that will scar him: emotionally, mentally and physically.
I don’t abuse Kristan just for laughs, and not just to advance the plot, either. It’s important to me, and to the story as a whole, that Kristan grow as a character. He’s a fairly straightforward young man when the reader first meets him in KINGLET – a little solemn, a little naïve maybe – and his approach to his problems reflects that. As his world gets more complicated and his obstacles more challenging, though, his mindset and his personality change. The more Kristan learns from his experiences, the more he’s changed by them, and the more complicated and nuanced his character becomes.
I think that’s what keeps him interesting, not only for the reader, but for me as the writer. Even as a child, it used to bug me when a character in a book didn’t seem to feel the effects of what happened in their lives (I mean, Nancy Drew was exactly the same from book to book, no matter what kind of adventures she experienced in the previous story). If I can always anticipate what Kristan’s going to do in a given situation, then he becomes dull.
This may be one of the reasons I don’t outline my books, or if I do, it’s a sparse, loose outline. I will start writing knowing more or less where I’m headed, but it’s never a straight road, and Kristan will occasionally surprise me by wanting to take a completely different route. And his route is always the more interesting way, so I’ll let him take the wheel. It’s the least I can do, after throwing so many rocks at him.
#8 – Searching for Inspiration
“I have learned, and been happy.” – T.H. White, The Once and Future King
There have been so many authors whose work has inspired my own, especially fantasy authors. I love Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Pratchett. But it’s T.H. White’s The Once and Future King that really spoke to me and made me want to write in the genre.
For the uninitiated, The Once and Future King is a retelling of the Arthurian legend, published by White in 1958 and made up of four earlier, shorter and substantially revised novels: The Sword in The Stone,The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind. (There’s a fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, which was published after White’s death.)
Like many people my age, I came to the book by way of the Disney cartoon The Sword in the Stone – a film I loved as a child – and the Broadway musical Camelot, which was inspired by the third and fourth parts of the book. I discovered that the original work was so much more whimsical and wistful than the movie, and far more stirring and melancholy than the musical. White’s prose is elegant, but it’s the characterizations that really make the story come alive. Arthur progresses from an innocent boy to a young warrior, to the idealistic king of Camelot, and finally, to a man beaten down by betrayal and the woes of the world. The wizard Merlyn lives backward through time, and he prepares Arthur for the trials he knows are coming by changing him into various animals so Arthur can experience their lives and use those experiences to shape his own rule when he becomes king. My own main character, Kristan Gemeta, has a similar struggle throughout The Gemeta Stone books to find a balance between power and compassion – although there’s no helpful magic-worker to show him the way. (Most of the magic-workers just baffle him.)
My copy of The Once and Future King is somewhat battered and its pages are yellowed and dog-eared. One of those dog-ears marks my favorite quote in the book – the one that starts this blog. I love it so much that I use it as my signature in emails, and I’d like to have it as my epitaph when the time comes. I can’t think of any better way to live one’s life than to spend it always learning.
FISKUR, the second book in my fantasy series THE GEMETA STONE, has now been out for a month. Its virtual book tour is complete, so I’m going to do what I did for KINGLET and put all the guest blogs I wrote for the tour here, for your reading pleasure. I wrote a few more of them for this release (my publisher, Fiery Seas, hired a new marketing person and she’s a real fireball), so I’m going to make this blog post a two-parter, so as not to overwhelm you readers. They’re on a variety of topics, and I hope you’ll find them interesting.
#1 – The Perils and Pitfalls of Researching the Fantasy Novel
I’m a fiend for research. In fact, it’s one of the things I like best about writing: learning new stuff which I can then incorporate into my stories.
Even when you write fantasy, as I do, you still have to ground your make-believe world in reality. The setting of my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone is a traditional European, medieval-esque world. My characters ride horses, use bows and arrows, fight with swords and live in and around castles. Fortunately it’s an era I’ve always been interested in, so I had years of reading (and stacks of books) on various aspects of that time.
However, when I was about to write my first one-on-one swordfight, I realized how little I actually knew about swordplay – beyond what I’d seen in movies. Fortunately, we live in the Era of the Internet, where information is yours for the taking if you just look around a bit. I found a number of sword-centric websites and YouTube channels that were extremely helpful, but when you’re trying to write a sword fight from a combatant’s point of view, there’s nothing like hands-on, real-life experience to give real veracity to your writing.
So I started casting around for a swordsmanship class. Fortunately, I live in a major metropolitan area where you can find a class in just about anything. Unfortunately, I’m a Woman of a Certain Age, so I knew I was probably going to be one of the older participants in the class.
I had no idea just how MUCH older.
First day of the course, I dress in yoga pants and a long-sleeved shirt and my new white sneakers and my gloves (the class brochure said to bring your own for hand protection; I’ve purchased an inexpensive pair of golf gloves). I drive to the community center, head to the classroom – and discover that my fellow students are children. And only children. The youngest is about six, the oldest…well, let’s just say I am a full forty years older than the oldest kid in the class. The teacher eyes me warily, the parents dropping their kids off stare as I slink sheepishly into the classroom.
We’re outfitted with masks and lames (chest protectors). Some of the kids didn’t bring gloves and get loaners from the instructor, some wear winter gloves and one bright spark actually has gauntlets. GAUNTLETS.
I line up with the kids. The instructor shows us some basic footwork but the kids are impatient and can’t wait to start slashing around with the array of foils, epees and sabres on display. The instructor hands out foils and we face her as she demonstrates various moves. We try them out, but the kids are getting antsy as hell (to be honest, so am I) and so eventually the instructor pairs us off to practice the moves we’ve just learned. I end up with a gawky twelve year-old who’s the tallest of the kids. As we square off, I’m thinking hard about Kristan Gemeta, the hero of my series: a small, slight young man who’s nonethless an excellent (albeit reluctant) swordsman who relies on his agility and powers of observation to defeat larger, more powerful opponents. I want to see if this actually works, but I tower over the kid, and due to his mask, I can’t read his face for clues. However, his whole being is suffused with embarrassment over being paired with a woman older than his mom, and that makes him awkward. Me, too. We clump through the exercises like a couple of ill-matched plow horses: me the heavy-footed old mare, him the knock-kneed, gangling colt. We’ve only gone a round or two before class is over. I’m sweating like a horse, too, as I slip past the parents.
I go home and tell my husband about my first class and he absolutely HOWLS. He says it reminds him of that episode of Seinfeld when Kramer takes a karate class with a bunch of children. He wants me to go to the following week’s class and TERRORIZE the kids, just like Kramer.
I am too pure-hearted to Kramerize the kids, though, and I return to class the following week resolved to learn regardless of the situation. And I do. Several of the kids have dropped out (no surprise there) so we get a little more individual attention. The instructor corrects our stances, adjusts our grip on the swords. I fight with the littlest kid, who isn’t interested in getting past my guard; he bashes my upraised sword ferociously, forgetting that he’s supposed to be fighting me. I defeat him and file that experience away under INEXPERIENCED OPPONENT, but then I’m paired with the oldest kid in the class, a girl of about fourteen who actually knows what she’s doing and feints past me again and again. She hands me my ass and is gracious about it. I file that away under HEROIC BEHAVIOR.
I absorb other lessons, too, especially once we start working with the heavier epees and sabres: how you forget to breathe when you’re fighting a determined opponent; how your neat, careful braid gets pulled loose by the mask and how the loose hair sticks to your cheeks and forehead; how surprising and painful it is to get jabbed in the shoulder with a weapon, even a blunt one; how your muscles tremble after a long bout and how you ache all over the next day.
After six weeks, the class was over. Am I a good swordsman as a result? No – I’m not even a passable swordsman. But I’m a better writer, at least when writing those swordfight sequences. My experience in that humble little class gave me confidence and allowed me to narrate those scenes with authority and describe them viscerally – and that’s worth a little time and humiliation.
#2 – Deleting a Favorite Scene, or My Writing Bleeds When I Cut It
One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a writer is when to acknowledge that a scene isn’t working. I’m not talking about when the scenario doesn’t flesh out properly, or the writing is forced and clumsy. That happens all the time, and I hack that stuff out quickly and without remorse, and start again. No, what I’m talking about is when a scene is good, and the writing so polished that it shines, but the scene just isn’t serving the story as a whole. Sometimes it’s just extraneous material that’s bloating the word count, but more often – at least for me – it’s when the scene isn’t moving the plot forward with vigor.
I remember one instance of this particularly well. In an early draft of Kinglet, the first book in my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone, I opted to start the book with a scene from the point of view of my antagonist, Daazna, as he arrives on the shores of the kingdom of Fandrall. Beginning with the antagonist is a departure from a traditional opening, which introduces the protagonist. I was happy with the opening and it’s how the completed book starts, establishing tension by displaying Daazna’s skill with magic, the ruthlessness of his character and his nefarious motives for being in Fandrall in the first place.
The very next scene introduced Robert, the king of the realm and father of the series’ main character, Kristan Gemeta. It was a beautiful scene, with Robert on the battlements of his castle on a clear spring morning, Robert is admiring the view, and for sheer pleasure, throws out his arms as if to embrace it. He’s interrupted by Maxwell, his senior knight and oldest friend, who ribs Robert about making love to his kingdom. The two chat about Kristan and how well he’s grown up, and together they descend to the council chamber, where the character of Kristan is finally introduced.
It was a nice scene, with solid character-building and good descriptions, and I was in love with the image of the king standing high above his realm with his arms outflung. The problem? It was too nice. All the tension I’d established with Daazna in the first scene had completely dissipated. Yes, there was conflict coming in the scene with Kristan and Robert, but I’d have to rebuild the tension I’d already lost. And with Kristan being introduced by Robert and Maxwell singing his praises before the reader ever met him – well, shades of Mary Sue.**
So I cut that king-on-the-tower scene. It hurt. I’d lavished a lot of descriptive energy on it but it was simply not serving the story as a whole. After a lot of trial and error, I settled on a completely different second scene, which began with Kristan and his horse Malvo and introduced the upcoming conflict with Robert Gemeta in a much more interesting and effective way. I’d been pleased with the original scene, but I was delighted with this one, so much that when it was finished, I said out loud, “Yeah, that’s the stuff!” ***
Still, I mourned the loss of that king-on-the-battlements image. Even though it was cut, it refused to die. It was not until several years later, when I was working on the fourth book in the series, that I finally had the opportunity to use it – in a slightly different and even more interesting way (you’ll have to wait until that book comes out to see how). Not every cut scene gets a chance at resurrection, though – an early draft of Fiskur: Book Two of The Gemeta Stone had a great frolic-in-a-waterfall scene that got cut as well. It’s still breathing, though, and waiting for its chance to be in a story.
Maybe in Book Five.
* Or, in the case of thrillers and mysteries, someone who is about to get killed off.
** For the uninformed, a Mary Sue character is one that’s idealized to the point of nauseating the reader.
*** I talk to myself when I’m writing, but most of the time I say things like “well, that sucks.”
#3 – Where I Write Is How I Write Is What I Write
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head
“White Rabbit” by Grace Slick
I write this sitting on a pair of house slippers.
That’s not entirely correct. I write this sitting on a tall wooden stool at a faux-granite countertop in a teeny-tiny sublet in midtown Manhattan. The house slippers are between me and the stool because the stool is hard and makes my sciatica flare up.
I am writing in this less-than-ideal environment because I’m temporarily in New York working on a Broadway show. I’ve been here for about nine months. Another week left, and the show will be closed and I will be headed back home to Virginia, where I have a proper desk and a proper chair in a proper office.
Do ideal settings make me write more? Or write better?
No. Sometimes the odder the writing environment, the more the ideas flow. I’ve written in coffee shops and restaurants, libraries, parks, trains, buses and airplanes, conference rooms, hotel rooms, laundry rooms, dressing rooms and theatre lobbies. I’ve written in lined notebooks, on scraps of paper, bits of napkin and out loud into a recorder, but I’m happiest if I can use my laptop on a proper surface with a decent chair. (Because sciatica.)
I don’t need silence; as long as the sounds around me aren’t blaringly intrusive, they’re just absorbed into the experience. If things get too loud, I can always put in my earbuds and listen to some music while I write.
Since I write fantasy, I rely heavily on my imagination, and the more I’m stimulated by my surroundings – odd though they may be – the more open I am to new ideas. Sometimes my desk and chair at home are too familiar, too comfortable, so I make a point of getting up and moving around every hour or so. (Also because sciatica.) I look out the window, go out on the deck, head into the garden and pull a few weeds. If I’m really stuck I go for a walk. Sometimes I’ll take a notebook with me, just in case inspiration strikes, but mostly I just walk and breathe and think.
My most productive walks are in nature and in solitude: open fields, forests and deserted beaches are best. I like both an expansive view and minute details: open ocean and grains of sand, towering trees and a chickadee on a twig, wide open spaces and a cricket at my toes.
But sitting on a pair of house slippers will work just as well. It’s all grist for the mill. My discomfort – as far as I can stand it – is another experience that I can use in my writing. It opens my mind, it releases my imagination, it feeds my head – far better than the potions and mushrooms advocated by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane in “White Rabbit.”
#4 – How I Started Writing
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories. I’m the middle child of a big Army family and when I was a kid we moved just about every other year and usually in the middle of the school year. I was always the new kid, and consequently it was hard to break into the pre-existing cliques. I was saved from being a lonely kid by always having siblings to play with, and endless games of pretend with them (and an ever-expanding cast of stuffed animals and dolls) gave me a solid grounding in the world of storytelling.
Later on, I graduated from acting out stories to drawing them. On pads of wide-lined, rough-textured elementary school notepaper, my younger brother John and I scrawled out complicated chambers inhabited by characters we called “Pirits.” Pirits were stick figures, clad in pointed hats and triangular gowns and as far as I can recall, were essentially sexless. Pirits were sucked into these chambers by a giant vacuum and then blown out into little sub-chambers, where the sheer force of the wind activated mechanical contraptions that fed them, put them into shoes, cleaned their hats, and whatever other goings-on our young minds could contrive. Stretched out on the floor on our tummies, with the notebook open between us, John and I would draw on our own page and describe to each other what was happening in our particular Pirit world.
When we’d learned how to read and write, we started creating little books of construction paper with illustrated stories of perhaps four or five lines. I can’t remember any of my mine, but one of John’s involved a little guy eating pizza with extremely stretchy cheese. In its entirety it read:
Would you like to eat a pizza pie? (picture of little guy biting pizza)
And try and try and try and try? (cheese stretches way out)
WHAP! (cheese recoils, hitting the little guy in the face)
You think and think (little guy ponders)
And WHAP again! (little guy punches the pizza maker)
I never said we were brilliant writers. The family thought the stories were great, though, and urged us to write more.
Our tastes and writing abilities expanded and matured. We returned to writing in notebooks again, only this time they were the more grown-up composition books – handy because they had sturdy covers that made a good writing surface. We started drawing comic books together, based on The Lone Ranger cartoons that ran on Saturday morning TV. Initially they were tongue-in-cheek spoofs, but later on we took the characters of the Ranger and Tonto, updated them and made them into contemporary secret agent-types. The stories turned from spoof to serious, with real plots and real villains and (gasp!) even love interests. John wasn’t much for the love interest stuff. Our creative differences meant we started writing our stories separately, on regular notebook paper, and enshrined them in separate ring binders. We’d still read and enjoy each other’s work, though. Even after we stopped writing them, we kept them for a long time. They finally disappeared from our lives, probably during one of our last moves as a military family (my dad was ruthless about throwing out stuff before a move).
Now, decades removed from our Pirits and construction paper books and fan-fic comic strips, my brother and I are both published authors. John’s book is a scholarly work called Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II. And I’ve got my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone. The first book of the series, Kinglet was released last August, followed by Fiskur, now available now from major retailers everywhere. The third book in the series, StoneKing, will be released in early 2018.
It’s funny how far enthusiasm, a little paper and some encouragement can get you.