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.
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.
Back in July of last year, I was headed to the beach for a family vacation when I got The Call from Cynthia, my literary agent: we’d received an offer for my fantasy novel KINGLET. In fact, we’d received two offers.
To say I was gobsmacked would be putting it mildly. I had been anticipating a quiet week of sun and sand but instead, my stress level began to ramp up. I was excited, of course – who wouldn’t be? – but how can one relax at such a time?
Two offers – both from small, independent publishers. Publisher #1 was a brand-new outfit, based in Atlanta, with a real go-getter attitude and waving a contract that included a nice advance and a generous royalty split.
(For those unfamiliar with the world of publishing, an advance is a sum of money paid to the author up front, in anticipation of book sales. Royalties are the monies – usually a percentage of the book’s cover price – paid to the author from those sales. If an author receives an advance, their book must “earn out” its advance before the author receives any additional money – in other words, if Author gets a $1k advance, their royalties are withheld until Publisher recoups that $1k from the book’s sales.)
Publisher #2 was based in Alabama, with a two-year track record, offering a decent but less-generous royalty split and no advance. On the face of it, this looks like a no-brainer choice, right? Choose the one offering the most money, right?
Actually, nope. Further study of Publisher #1’s contract revealed that their royalties were based on net profit – meaning that certain expenses had to be recouped before royalty payments began. This is a business model one sees fairly often in new, undercapitalized publishers. It’s a bad deal for the author, because in this scenario the author ends up paying for the publisher’s cost of doing business. I’ve seen some publisher business models wherein the cost of cover art, editing, printing, marketing and distribution are all creamed off the top before the poor author sees a dime.
In the case of Publisher #1, they wanted to recoup the cost of printing the paperback edition of my book. They were planning on using offset printing rather than the more common small-publisher print-on-demand (POD) process. However, while it results in a higher-quality book, offset printing is far more expensive than POD, and in this case, was projected to cost more than double the advance Publisher #1 offered. This meant that the book would have to make more than three times the advance before I’d be paid a cent of that generous royalty split. This, coupled with the publisher’s lack of real experience in the business, made me leery of the deal.
I should add that all these negotiations were ongoing via email and phone calls while I was supposed to be relaxing in the sun (ha), and I complicated matters further by first cracking the screen of my laptop (I closed it on one of my headset’s earbuds) and then dropping my brand-new HTC 10 cellphone in the toilet (I was carrying it with me everywhere in case of phone calls from my agent, and had it in the back pocket of my jeans when I went to answer a call of nature). The phone immediately died, which resulted in a near-meltdown from me – thank goodness for my husband John, who took all the appropriate steps to activate the phone’s “Uh Oh” warranty (was ever a contract clause so aptly named?).
The upshot of all this drama was that I opted for Publisher #2, Fiery Seas Publishing. I signed with them for both KINGLET, the first book in my fantasy series (to be released in August 2017) and its sequel, FISKUR (to follow three to four months after KINGLET). The ink was barely dry on the contracts before the publishing process started. I was assigned an editor, filled out a lot of paperwork to assist in the marketing and promotion of the books, and spent several days writing and rewriting what would eventually become both the back cover copy for KINGLET and the meat of Fiery Seas’ October press release announcing the acquisition of the books. The publisher provided me with some nice art to accompany my own social media blast on announcement day, and meanwhilie my editor Vicki forwarded her first editing pass on KINGLET to me, along with her compliments on how clean and tight the manuscript was. It was small comfort as suddenly everything I’d written seemed awful and I was sure I was a talentless hack. Vicki was incredibly patient as I made a number of tweaks and returned the m/s for its second editing pass.
For once I was grateful that my 2016-17 theatrical slate was pretty bare, with only a summer show, a holiday production and a few miscellaneous gigs on the books. Even though that meant I wouldn’t be making much money, it translated to more time for both the publishing process and to continue writing on the series. As the holidays approached, I finished the third book, fired it off to my trusty beta readers, finalized Vicki’s second pass on KINGLET and her first pass on FISKUR.
And then I booked WAR PAINT.
Suddenly my time was no longer my own. In the space of a few weeks, I had to complete the run of my holiday show, negotiate the WAR PAINT contract, travel to NYC to look at potential sublets, and upend my life in general, while trying to enjoy Christmas and New Year’s (ha). I signed a one-year contract for the show and prepared myself for the move to NYC, all the time driving myself crazy with worry over how I could learn and rehearse a Broadway show AND maintain my commitment to Fiery Seas AND keep writing the rest of the series.
Once again, the upshot of all this drama is that I could, and did. Because Vicki had kept us so far ahead of schedule, I was able to complete the second round of edits on FISKUR and review the galley proofs for KINGLET without undue pressure, as well as work with my publisher and cover artist on the covers for both KINGLET and FISKUR. (If you float your cursor over the “Writing” tab above, you can click on KINGLET to see that beautiful cover, but you’ll have to wait a while for the FISKUR cover reveal. Trust me, it’s equally gorgeous.) I’m currently working on the final draft of STONEKING, the third book in The Gemeta Stone series, with book #4, RAGIS, already in rough draft form.
Everything continues on track for WAR PAINT’s April opening and KINGLET’s August 2017 release. I’m still overwhelmed by it all, but so grateful for both opportunities. As tiring as it’s been, and often nerve-wracking, I know how lucky I am to be experiencing not one, but two huge life events at the same time.
Two years ago, if you’d told me that I would be simultaneously working on a Broadway show and getting ready for the release of my first novel, I would have laughed at you. Nay, guffawed. I had no plan to return to The Great White Way, was happily ensconced in regional theatre, and had barely begun looking for an agent to represent my book. But the world whirls on its merry way whether you like it or not, and I keep wishing there was some way I could put the brakes on both projects just long enough for me to sit back and appreciate the bounty of riches that has landed in my lap. I decided I’d blog about them, as a way of stopping time a bit.
So I’ll start with Broadway first. I’m currently understudying the legendary Patti LuPone and swinging three ensemble roles in WAR PAINT, now in previews at the Nederlander Theater. I’ve had a number of non-theatrical friends ask me “what does a swing do?” and I can now tell you from experience that it’s one of the hardest jobs in show business (right up there with stage management, in my opinion). A swing’s job is the same as an understudy’s, except that a swing covers multiple tracks (a track being a particular performer’s journey through the show, including their spoken lines, sung material, entrances and exits, set or prop moves and costume changes). The swing must be ready to “swing into” any of those tracks when a performer is absent or otherwise unable to perform.
What this translates to in real life is that I spent most of my rehearsal time sitting and watching and taking copious notes. In the studio I was parked at a table off to one side with the other swings (there are five of us), but once we moved into the Nederlander our table was up in the mezzanine, which afforded a great view of the stage and made it a lot easier to observe specific moves. We also had the freedom to move about the theater and watch the show from different angles.
As Ms. LuPone’s understudy, I was (and still am) occasionally called on in to step into the role of cosmetic titan Helena Rubinstein during our daytime rehearsals. It’s a taxing role, and in order to give Patti plenty of time to rest (especially if there’s a show that evening), she isn’t called when we’re focusing lights or running transitions from scene to scene or doing other tweaks and adjustments to the show. Last week, prior to our first preview, we did a run with our wonderful orchestra, mostly for the sake of timing the show. I had the great privilege of standing in for Patti that afternoon, and even though I was not in costume and occasionally had script pages in hand, it was still thrilling.
Costumes – can I just say the costumes for this show (by the amazing Catherine Zuber) are absolutely stunning? I had my first fitting with her last week, to try on “emergency” costumes for the Rubinstein track. My own set of Rubinstein costumes are being constructed as I write this, but the “emergency” ones were pulled from stock against the very slim chance I’d have to go on before mine are completed. Even so, the care that Ms. Zuber and her staff took with fitting those costumes and choosing all the attendant accessories was just awesome. I’ll also have a set of costumes for the ensemble tracks I’m swinging, so a lot of fittings are in my immediate future. (I’ve already been fitted for wigs; I’ve seen a couple of them in the wig room but haven’t had a chance to try them on yet. Stay tuned.)
Once the show has its official opening (April 6th), then I’ll rehearse four hours a day, twice a week, with my fellow swings and the other understudies.( “Other understudies?” you may be asking. Yes, indeed. Typically, in a Broadway show, each major role is covered by two people: a swing and a cast member who performs in the ensemble.) Meanwhile, I’m required to be in the theater for every performance, “standing by” in case I’m needed. I hope I’m not. But to quote the Immortal Bard, “the readiness is all.”
Next up: A Bounty of Riches – Part 2 (Getting Published)
“Atmospheric entry is the movement of an object into and through the gases of a planet‘s atmosphere from outer space. There are two main types of atmospheric entry: uncontrolled entry, such as in the entry of astronomical objects, space debris or bolides; and controlled entry, such as the entry (or reentry) of technology capable of being navigated or following a predetermined course.” – from Wikipedia
I’ve been back from Alabama for four days now, and I guess you could say it’s a controlled re-entry. The trip from Montgomery by car takes twelve hours and change, and at this stage in my life I refuse to drive for 12+ hours, particularly after a week of performances and closing festivities. So I took the most expedient route home (avoiding I-95 because I hate it so), drove for eight hours and then stopped for the night at a motel on I-81. That night on the road gave me a chance to detach from Alabama and fix my thoughts on home.
I really enjoyed my time at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Aside from a some minor quibbles with the artist housing (a TV set so dated that I couldn’t attach my beloved Wii game and a ceiling that leaked during the frequent ferocious Alabama thunderstorms – really, I’ve lived in far worse), I was comfortable and happy. I missed my husband and I missed my house and my garden, but that’s the price you pay for working away from home.
It was interesting revisiting the role of Ursula, too. Aside from the tentacles and the basic hoopskirt format, the costume was very different. At Olney, Pei Lee’s costume design resulted in a sleek, scary Ursula, and the makeup design (executed by fellow cast member and airbrush whiz Gracie Jones) lent an harsh and somewhat alien aspect to the character. Due to the configuration of the stage, I only had two practical tentacles (you can read more about them here) and only two eels (Nurney Mason as Flotsam and Robert Mintz as Jetsam) to help manipulate them. At ASF, Brenda van der Wiel’s design provided SIX working tentacles, more cleavage, and a towering wig that was three parts Marie Antoinette and one part Paula Deen. My makeup design, by David Rowland, featured lots of glamour and glitter. Ursula’s look wasn’t all that was different: in addition to my Flotsam and Jetsam (Jeremy Pasha and Brandon LaShawn Curry), I had a six-member eel ensemble which swirled and twirled and essentially did my evil bidding in both my big numbers:
I found, once I got into the ASF costume, that Ursula began to change. She wasn’t nearly as sinister as her Olney counterpart; she giggled and flirted and preened like a true Southern belle. I had the same navigational difficulties that I had at Olney – too big to fit through doors and too bulky to sit in a chair – only this costume was even bigger and heavier, weighing in at a whopping 36.5 pounds. Once again, when not onstage I had to sit off by myself, out of everyone’s way (in this instance, on a stool in the scene shop behind the stage right wing, where all the set pieces were kept – I got to be good buds with the crew).
When not performing, I spent my time in my apartment writing (still banging away at Book #3 in my fantasy series while my agent tries to find a publisher for Book #1), or reading (I think I roared through nearly twenty books in two months), or I’d go out for a stroll in the Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park (where ASF is located). The park was quite lovely, with ponds and trees and walking trails and even the occasional bird. The Southern heat took some getting used to; by the time I left we were averaging 95+ degree days with high humidity, which made the outdoors feel like a swamp and the air-conditioned indoors feel like a freezer.
On my days off I explored the area, mostly looking for good birdwatching, but the summer heat really put a crimp in that activity, not just for me, encumbered with my binoculars and camera and birding bag, but for the birds, who I’m convinced had left town for the mountains. I really didn’t see much that I hadn’t already seen, even on an overnight trip to Dauphin Island off the Alabama coast. (I’d love to go back there during the spring migration, though – I bet it’s amazing.)
Because my mom’s home isn’t more than a five-hour drive from ASF, my mom got to see the show. This was especially exciting because she hasn’t seen me perform since 2009. Her friend Sandra drove the both of them down, and they really seemed to enjoy the show. I even managed to get Mom up onstage with me post-performance for a photo op. I got a similar shot with John when he came to visit, and after that it seemed like the doors were flung open and EVERYONE wanted a post-show picture with Ursula! I didn’t mind (I got to take pictures with some absolutely adorable kid-relatives of various company members), and David Rowland (who was also responsible for my wig) and my dresser Ruth Fink were always very patient and gracious about waiting for me, not only for these photo ops but also when I did a post-show discussion (which was at least once a week).
Graciousness was a large part of my Alabama experience. Everyone was so courteous and helpful – from our company manager, Crystal McCall, to the stage management team under the leadership of Hannah Jean Farris, to the crew members (especially stage op Tony Gordon, who got me into my flying harness, as well as into the air, for every single performance). Everyone in admin, front of house, box office – even the security guys – were just as enthusiastic and supportive as they could possibly be. And I never for a minute felt like their many kindnesses were anything but genuine.
And I can’t say enough good things about the cast of ASF’s Mermaid: hard-working, cheerful, consistent and just plain fun to be around – especially Jeremy and Brandon, the nicest eels a Sea Witch could ask for.
So as I head back into my more cosmopolitan (and perhaps slightly more jaded) existence here in the DC Metro area, I’m hoping to keep a little bit of that Alabama sweetness with me – by passing it on. Mean ol’ Ursula’s doesn’t just have a spangling of glitter, she’s got herself a sugar coating, too. Y’all better watch out.
As some of you may know already, I’m reprising one of my favorite roles this summer: that of Ursula the Sea Witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. This time it’s for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, AL. It’s always fun to revisit a role, and here’s the really fun part this time around: Ursula gets to FLY.
(Bear in mind that since Ursula is an octopus – sort of – that her scenes are water scenes. This means that her flying is actually more of a grandiose floating, a wafting, a gentle settling on the ocean floor. At least that’s the goal.)
I’ve always wanted to learn the art of stage flight, but I’ve never been cast in a role that called for that special skill. Fortunately, the director for this production of Mermaid, Geoffrey Sherman, is a man of singular vision and exquisite taste – meaning he agreed with me when I said I thought Ursula’s first appearance should be aloft.
Five of us will be flying in the ASF production of Mermaid: me, Michelle Pruiett as Ariel, Billy Sharpe as Scuttle the Seagull, and ensemble members Danielle Marie Gregoire and Andrew Eckhert, who are the stunt doubles for Ariel and Prince Eric and will also be performing some aerial gymnastics in “Under the Sea.” Michelle has flown before, but the rest of us had not, so there were varying degrees of nervousness involved as we all gathered early one Tuesday morning for “Flight School.”
Our flying director was Daniel Kondos of ZFX Flying Effects, who spends some 300 out of 365 days of the year traveling from venue to venue to instruct actors and crews in the fine art of stage flight. First we were all fitted for harnesses: Michelle, Andrew and Gabrielle were put into somersault harnesses, which gives them the freedom of movement they need for their swimming sequences (as well as allow them to rotate 360 degrees!). Billy and I were fitted for simple seat harnesses, which will basically allow us to be raised and lowered.
The harnesses had to fit good and tight. Once we thought we were well and truly buckled in, we were required to squat and the straps were tightened even more. There was a certain amount of wincing and groaning as we all got used to binding in unusual places. One’s flabby bits tend to get shoved up around one’s ribcage or down by one’s thighs. The somersault harnesses were trickier to fit, as the center of balance has to be just so.
Billy was first in the air: with Dan’s instruction and the assistance of fly crew, he performed some basic up-and-down, back-and-forth action and then hurried off to dance rehearsal (Scuttle not only flies, he tap dances!).
Next up was Michelle, who was very relaxed and graceful in her rig (she’s played Ariel before, as well as Peter Pan). She took a few practice twirls and somersaults before determining that the swivels weren’t in quite the right position, so while her harness was being adjusted, I got ready to become airborne. It would be fun to say I was nervous and jittery, but to be honest, I felt like a little kid at Christmas – I was so thrilled I couldn’t stop grinning. Here’s my first flight, with Dan directing:
The original idea for Ursula’s entrance was that I would get rigged up off stage left and be lifted above the proscenium level. Then I’d be flown into position above the set (out of the audience’s line of sight) and be lowered in for my Big Entrance. Unfortunately, with all the lights in the way, I couldn’t be lifted high enough to be hidden. A rethink was in order, and while that was going on, Danielle and Andrew took their first spins in the harness (literally: Dan had them do a couple of somersaults to see how their rigging fit). Here’s a look at their maiden voyages:
It was great fun watching everyone dipping and swirling around the stage, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the air again. Finally the big set piece representing Ursula’s Lair was brought into position and after a brief confab with Geoffrey, Dan and the flight crew, I was lifted into the rafters off stage left (about 30 feet up). With a slight up-and-down motion reminiscent of an octopus bobbing through the briny, I was lowered to the stage area just to the left of the Lair.
It was good, but not quite good enough. After another confab, we repeated the journey, only this time I alighted briefly on top of the Lair before being lowered to my landing spot on deck. Much more effective! When we added the entrance lines and music, plus my rehearsal skirt just to get a sense of how it would all look, I think everyone was happy:
So this old dog learned another new trick and is feeling pretty happy about it. I can’t wait until we get into tech, so I can get back in the air again. I’m eager to experience what happens when I’m completely tricked out in Full Ursula, tentacles and all. Meanwhile, my dreams are all full of flying!
I’ve been fortunate to have had a long and rewarding career in musical theatre. I’ve done Broadway, a National Tour and countless regional theatre productions. I’ve appeared in world premieres, revivals and revisals, in roles dizzying in variety. In 2014 alone, I played an aging stripper, a Jewish mother, an amoral British money-lender and the mother of artist Georges Seurat.
But there’s one kind of role that’s always eluded me: a shrieking, mugging, scenery-devouring, terrifying-funny psychotic. I’m talking, of course, about playing a Disney villain. More specifically, a villainess – since the few major Disney bad guys pale in comparison to their female counterparts.
So when Olney Theatre Center announced that they were producing Disney’s The Little Mermaid as their 2014 holiday show, I was beside myself. I love Ursula. She’s a slinky, slimy, sexy sociopath. Her big number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is brilliant. (Side note: Ursula is one of the few Disney villains who actually sings.)
Since the role is such a plum, naturally many of my fellow actresses were interested in it as well, but I was shameless in letting the good folks at Olney know that I really, really, REALLYREALLY (really!) wanted to be seen for the role. To their credit, they did not shy back in horror at my eagerness, and when auditions rolled around I was called in to read. As it turned out, shameless was exactly what director Mark Waldrop was looking for. To my delight, I was offered the role, and accepted with greedy alacrity.
Becoming Ursula, though, was going to take more than just me being eager. The Sea Witch is a grand creation: part human and part octopus, she’s an undersea nightmare that has to be translated from the anything’s-possible world of animation to a flesh-and-blood actress treading the all-too-solid boards of a theatrical stage. It’s a major challenge, but when I discovered that Pei Lee was going to be designing the costumes for Olney’s production, I knew I was in good hands. Pei and I have worked together in the past (that’s some of her work on Olney’s 2012 production of Cinderella to the left) and I’m a huge admirer of her creativity and attention to detail.
Because Olney’s PR department wanted to do a publicity photo shoot in October, Pei got in touch with me in late July to start work on the Ursula costume, specifically on the character’s headdress, which would be featured in the photos. We met so she could make a wrap of my head (a complicated process involving plastic wrap, scissors, felt-tip markers and a LOT of tape), and approximately a month later I went out to Olney for a fitting.
Even unfinished, the headdress was amazing. It had the shape and flow of Ursula’s hair from the animated feature because it’s made of a lightweight fabric called FossShape (which can be sewn and then “frozen” into place using heat). It fit like a dream and was even comfortable. Pei had included details like reversible sequins (which can be shifted from white to black) and during the fitting, roughed in “sideburns” to complete the look. We were both tremendously pleased with the results.
Since the photo shoot was going to focus on head and shoulders, we also had to do a makeup trial. The day of the shoot I came in early, and we played with both water and creme-based makeups for about an hour. Rather than the purple-skinned Ursula of the cartoon, Pei wanted a paler version with just some gray-lilac shading beneath the cheekbones, with teal, black and purple around the eyes and bright red lips. While we liked the translucency of the water-based makeup, applying it with a makeup sponge was tricky and the results somewhat uneven and streaky. Since the photos would be edited and the publicity team, along with our Ariel, Laura Zinn, were waiting, we decided we’d revisit the makeup issue down the road. I got into the now-completed headdress, a rough mockup of the Ursula costume (which was far from ready) and we did the shoot. The photos turned out great.
Our second makeup trial happened during the third week of rehearsal, when we needed to shoot a green-screen video for a special-effects moment which occurs late in the second act. The costume was still being built, so the rough mockup was called into play again. For the makeup, we had a little more detail this time, including some whacked-out tinsel false eyelashes I happened to have in my kit. However, we still weren’t happy with the streaky results of the water-based foundation, but didn’t want to sacrifice its translucence for a smoother but opaque creme-based makeup. (We also decided that the lashes, while fun for the video shoot, were a bit too pale and fragile for eight shows a week.) After the video shoot, I scrubbed my face and went to rehearsal. While talking over the shoot with fellow cast members, I mentioned the makeup issues and our dissatisfaction with the streaky application. One of our Mersisters (Gracie Jones, who plays Andrina) looked thoughtful. “Why don’t you try airbrushing?” she asked, and on being quizzed further, showed me photos of airbrushed zombie/ghoul/ghost makeup designs she was currently producing for Markoff’s Haunted Forest in Dickerson, MD. (Great article about the Forest here, if you’d like to know more.) “I’d be happy to do your makeup,” Gracie added.
Well, you can bet I pounced on that offer. I texted Pei, and 48 hours later we were into Ursula Makeup Trial #3. Pei, Gracie and I (well, Pei and Gracie – I just sat there) experimented with the airbrush technique for a good hour. The application process was super-smooth and even, and took half the time of the previous sponged-on trial. Our first version ended up looking a little too ghoulish, so I washed off and we started again. This time I pincurled my hair, as Pei wanted to see the finished makeup with the headdress.
With a little lighter hand on the shading, Gracie was able to produce the results Pei wanted. She was also able to lay down a base of teal and purple for the eyeshadow, and using a template of Pei’s design, even swooshed in Ursula’s wildly arched eyebrows. The smoothness of the application, not to mention the time saved, was cause for celebration.
With Gracie’s work done, she cleaned up while I added the fine details (yes, I actually did something more than just sit there the whole time). I finessed the brows, applied a thick, sturdy set of lashes, lined my eyes a la The Black Swan, gave myself a full cupid’s-bow mouth in bright red, and for the finishing touch, added Ursula’s signature beauty mark. Pei brought in the headdress, we popped it on and voila! URSULA!
(Side Note: One of the problems we’d struggled with in earlier iterations of the design was my own eyebrows interposing themselves into the mix. Using my brows as the line of demarcation between the teal and purple shadows, along with Gracie’s airbrushing, made that problem literally disappear.)
To say we were three happy campers would be the understatement of the year. At last Ursula’s face was in place!
Up next: Tentacles, et al.