American Theatre Wing Seminars 'Working in the Theatre'

Once again, in its 30th season of seminars, the American Theatre Wing played host to the key people who generate theatre off and on Broadway. With names both legendary and as current as the shows now lighting up the Great White Way, the cast of characters included actors Lea Salonga and Edie Falco; producers Fran Weissler and Margo Lion; "Hairspray" writers Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O'Donnell, and Thomas Meehan; and director-choreographer Graciela Daniele. Held at the CUNY Graduate Center and hosted by ATW chairman Isabelle Stevenson, the five panels Back Stage saw this fall covered production, performance, design, writing/direction/choreography, and a full seminar on the creation of Broadway's biggest new hit, "Hairspray."

The Playwright/Director/Choreographer Seminar

"What really keeps you going is an idea that wants to be born, an idea that wants to get on stage," writer Michael Kunze told his fellow panelists at the opening session of the American Theatre Wing's seminars, as they discussed the drive behind theatrical creations.

Kunze, whose show, "Dance of the Vampires," has since opened on Broadway, continued, "Why do you go on as a writer? Because you feel responsible. Because you know that without you, it would never be on stage."

It was passion for a particular idea that kept them going, sometimes for years, other panelists indicated. "Annie" took seven years to reach the stage, director-lyricist Martin Charnin confided, while Rupert Holmes admitted to an even longer gestation period for "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," which he created from Dickens' final, unfinished novel. "I thought about it for eight years," said Holmes, and finally, with encouragement from Joseph Papp, "I merely took three years out of my life and wrote it."

The multi-talented panel, which also included director-choreographer Graciela Daniele and directors Marion McClinton ("Jitney" and "King Hedley II") and Lawrence Sacharow ("Three Tall Women"), shared their wisdom with aspiring high school students in the audience. They urged the students to learn their craft while also absorbing theatre history, but not to lose their individuality by imitating others.

"When a young writer sees how successful an Andrew Lloyd Webber is, he loses his approach to what his vision is and begins to write like Andrew Lloyd Webber," said Charnin. "But what you can't do is lose your own voice—no matter what the din is."

The panelists themselves represented a remarkable diversity of skills. McClinton, for example, is a playwright as well as director, and Sacharow is both educator and director, running Fordham University's theatre program in Manhattan. Kunze is a novelist-dramatist-lyricist, while Holmes, once a performing artist-songwriter, used his writing skills for "Say Goodnight Gracie," his one-man show about the comedian George Burns now on Broadway. Charnin's multiple labels include writer, lyricist, composer, director, and performer, while those of Daniele extend to choreographer, writer, lyricist, director, and performer.

But the panelists focused on the one profession they do not fulfill—namely, the producer. They were concerned that producers were no longer the initiators of shows, as in the past, now that large corporations, far removed from theatre itself, underwrite the projects. The present-day backers are more interested in follow-up products generated by the shows than in the shows themselves.

Moderator Theodore Chapin (president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization) asked the group, "Do you find it makes you more resistant if you have to answer to a phalanx of people who don't know what they're talking about?"

"I do," Daniele replied. "That is why I choose to work in the non-profit area."

"What we need desperately today are good producers cut from the bolt of cloth when I was starting out," said Charnin. "David Merrick, much of a tyrant as he was, knew how to produce a show."

Recalling earlier days more amenable to creativity, Sacharow said, "I still remember Graciela's 'Pirates of Penzance' a long time ago (1982). At that time, it was a huge proliferation of experimental theatre downtown. Each thing feeds the other when you have a vital climate for existing theatre."

Yet, they acknowledged, the current system does offer advantages. Though out-of-town tryouts have generally faded from existence, there are newer, better ways to fine-tune a show. Workshops, readings (with audiences), and productions at regional theatres offer alternatives.

The panelists agreed that while the director has the final word in a production, it is a collaborative effort with everyone involved. "What I try to find, as a playwright and director, is that beautiful middle ground," said McClinton, who has collaborated on many shows with playwright August Wilson. "We can argue, but in the final decision we must agree. I need to have everybody on the same page."

Summarizing the way a company comes together, Daniele said, "Finally, it is like a family—with a sense of nurturing and protection—that is what the director tries to create."

—Irene Backalenick

"Tenacity," "a deep-seated belief in a show," and "passion" were repeatedly mentioned as the most important traits needed to be a good producer by a panel of top theatrical producers assembled by the American Theatre Wing. These traits determine the success of the entire venture of bringing a show to life.

The producers in question were all women. The initial thrust of the discussion was the special problems "women producers" face. But, in the end, this aspect of their professional lives took up far less of the focus than originally intended. It was noted that three current Broadway hits involve women producers—"Hairspray" (Margo Lion), "Mamma Mia" (Judy Craymer), and "Movin' Out" (Twyla Tharp).

Isabelle Stevenson told the panelists, "You're not 'women producers,' you're producers." All have a long string of successes to their credit: Elizabeth Ireland McCann's recent projects include "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" and "Copenhagen"; Tisa Chang is the founder and artistic producing-director of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre; Daryl Roth's current shows include "De La Guarda," and "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?"; Amy Nederlander produced the revival of "The Diary of Anne Frank"; Fran Weissler's hits include "Falsettos" and the recent revivals of "Chicago" and "Annie Get Your Gun"; and Elizabeth Williams is represented on Broadway by "Flower Drum Song" and "Cabaret." Moderator Dasha Epstein's credits include Off-Broadway's "4 Guys Named José and Una Mujer Named Maria."

Asked whether it was more difficult for women producers to raise money, responses varied. Tisa Chang said the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre "has a unique vision" and the clarity of that vision makes it easier. She found producing "a natural outgrowth of my work as an actor and as a director. I wanted to take even more responsibility for productions. In the end, producers have total responsibility for the show."

Daryl Roth said that when she first began to produce, she was treated "less than professionally," but that changed as her "tenacity" took hold.

Epstein noted that in today's theatre, there are often many producers whose names are in the credits solely because of their investments. She urged panelists to describe what a creative producer does over and above raising or giving money.

"Everything," Amy Nederlander responded—from choosing the material to "seeing that the dressing rooms are swept." The producer coordinates it all.

All of the panelists agreed that choosing the material is the most basic step, because that is what the "passion" is centered on. The search for playwrights and for new work is ongoing. Weissler said she employs readers and attends Off-Broadway shows.

Panelists recalled "falling in love" and how their own determination swept aside skepticism. Weissler "fell in love" with "Falsettos," a show many did not see as commercial. McCann described seeing "Falsettos" in Hartford, "where the audience was WASP-y. Here was this play about a Jewish homosexual man" and the audience loved it. "You never know."

Roth pointed to "Wit" as a similar example. A play about a woman dying of ovarian cancer might not be viewed as a big draw, yet not only did it succeed, "it changed things the medical profession teaches medical and nursing students."

Creative producers "have a vision," Williams commented, and must "hang onto that vision," at times navigating unworkable suggestions from investors and other factors that might interfere with the vision.

Once the material is chosen, raising the money to bring the show to life gets underway. "It's the same whether it's a young actor getting together $10,000 from family" or established professionals raising large sums from heavy hitters, McCann said. Nederlander said, "You can't be afraid to knock on doors." And at some point, each commented, "You can't be afraid to fail."

Roth described the joys of creative involvement, recalling putting together the initial reading that resulted in "Three Tall Women." Weissler said picking a director is the key step. Roth agreed, insisting, "A show should speak with one voice." The producers' notes offering creative input generally go to the director.

Other key responsibilities are securing a space and strategizing the show's marketing. Weissler recalled "Chicago" initially having problems finding a home. As to marketing, Nederlander noted that out-of-town reviews can be used to generate buzz when a show comes to New York. All recalled instances of a show getting tepid reviews and going on to solid runs. Word of mouth rules in the end.

These complex tasks involve dealing with many people and unpredictable factors. "It's like a Ferris wheel," said McCann. But all of the panelists indicated at some point that this unpredictability makes for the excitement that inspires them to seek new shows and go through the entire risky process again.

—Esther Tolkoff

The performance seminar included a diverse group of players, ranging from veteran John Cullum (who is currently in "Urinetown," but whose Broadway career stretches back to "Camelot" in the early 1960s) to newcomer Marissa Jaret Winokur (now in her first Broadway hit, "Hairspray"). Also on hand from Broadway were Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci ("Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune") and Lea Salonga ("Flower Drum Song"). From Off-Broadway came mono-dramatist Charlayne Woodard ("In Real Life").

Early in the discussion, moderator Pia Lindstrom, along with the Theatre Wing's own Isabelle Stevenson, queried the panelists about their experience with auditions. Most admitted that they are at a point in their careers where they're apt to be asked to take a role without auditioning. They claimed, unsurprisingly, that making those audition rounds is something they don't much miss.

Winokur spoke about her long-term campaign to land the role of Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray." She said that she is generally adept at dealing with the personal-relations side of the audition process: She likes to chat with the producers and/or director—getting to know them and letting them know who she is. The actual process of reading sides she finds less comfortable.

Falco said that she hates auditions and was never very good at them. "Having to prove yourself goes against everything we do as actors," she noted. "I'm not a good salesperson." Cullum claimed that he gets angry when he auditions—and that he realizes the anger is a sort of shield. "You're better off when you're free and relaxed," he added. "But how do you get free and relaxed when people are judging you?"

The actors spoke about choosing roles that are right for them. Woodard told of being sent Suzan-Lori Parks' play, "In the Blood," by the Public Theater's George C. Wolfe. She read it leisurely, on the beach. But later, when she was in her car, brooding about the play, she had a sort of panic attack and had to pull off the road. She interpreted the attack as an epiphany: She knew at that moment that she would have to say yes to the project.

The discussion turned to performance schedules—and the question of whether eight shows a week is too demanding for actors. Cullum felt that—especially for long runs—such a routine is generally too much to ask: "If you ask a pitcher in baseball to pitch every day or an opera singer to sing every day, they can't do it." Woodard noted that the modern trend of having five performances per weekend was the real killer for actors, allowing them only one day—Monday—to rest and recuperate.

In the second part of the program, participants addressed questions from student actors and directors. Panelists were asked how they keep a play fresh during a run. Tucci stressed the importance of really listening both to your fellow players and the audience—and then modulating your performance accordingly. Falco noted that sometimes she actually likes it when the "Frankie and Johnny" audience is unresponsive because the play seems to belong once more just to the actors.

Asked about their feelings on voice amplification in the theatre, Tucci pointed out that plays and acting styles are very different from what they were in 1907, the year the Belasco Theatre (where "Frankie and Johnny" plays) was built. He said he believes that for very intimate moments delivered in a large house, "A little help that isn't noticed is okay."

Salonga said that while some actors and singers disdain amplification, she has her own personal equation on the subject: "Winter equals flu season; microphone equals best friend." But she added, "I hate it when actors are over-amplified. You might as well put a CD on and have them lip synch."

When asked about choosing audition material, the panelists concurred that rarely have they been asked to deliver prepared monologues. They are almost always asked to read from scripts. Falco recommended that actors who choose monologues pick something that is very close to their own personality and temperament.

Cullum said that when he started out, actors tended not to audition for plays, only for musicals. As far as selecting audition songs goes, the man who introduced the song "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" to the world noted that when he was first making the rounds early in his career, "I only knew the last 16 bars of 'On the Street Where You Live.' And I screwed it up every time."

—Mark Dundas Wood

When the seminar series turned to design, that keystone element of theatrical endeavor—collaboration—was a dominant theme. Panelists zeroed in on what collaboration means, the problems involved, and the overriding command of the director in the process.

The session included five prominent figures: costume designers Martin Pakledinaz and Jane Greenwood; scenery designers John Arnone and Scott Pask; and lighting designer Richard Pilbrow. Critic Jeffrey Eric Jenkins moderated. When Jenkins initiated the discussion with a question to the costume designers as to how they begin work on a new project, collaboration immediately came to the fore.

"I like to get with the director and choreographer as soon as possible," said Pakledinaz, who won a Tony Award this year for "Thoroughly Modern Millie." This, he said, keeps him from developing "too many ideas of his own," which then might have to be discarded.

Arnone echoed this, noting his mode of operation is "to listen to the director listen to the play." He moves into this collaborative mode before any idea becomes concrete in his own mind and destroying it "would ruin my life."

"The director is going to be our fearless leader," he said. Pilbrow concurred: "The director is absolutely in charge."

Greenwood said she likes to start out by talking to the playwright, director, and choreographer to make sure "we're working on the same idea." Then she turns to the set designer "to tell us where we are—whether it's imaginary or real" and follows with her own research. Arnone noted he worked closely with Greenwood on the recent production of "Fortune's Fool," conferring on lunch breaks to choose fabric swatches and make color choices.

Pilbrow said that in beginning a production he likes to read the script "terribly quickly" and then begin talking with collaborators. Lighting, he said, is "low on the totem pole" and the work doesn't really begin in earnest until the production moves onto the stage from the rehearsal room. He said lots of little sketches can be made in advance, but then reworked once the show moves into the theatre.

However, he noted, he worked for months in advance with Hal Prince and others involved in the Prince-directed revival of "Show Boat," because the production was so complicated.

When asked about working with Edward Albee, Arnone, who did sets for the playwright's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" and "The Play About the Baby," was articulate and admiring.

"Edward is quite a character," Arnone said. He related that Albee involves himself in the production in the very first meeting. And because he has been a director as well as a playwright, Albee can be very precise about what he wants. According to Arnone, "Edward is the seat of authority, so you listen to him very carefully."

He pointed out, however, that Albee can be amenable to differing ideas from the members of the production team, noting that in "The Goat," Albee first talked about an abstract set, but became enthusiastic about a representational set once he saw ideas for the design.

However, Arnone said, since Albee "doesn't suffer fools gladly, you have to get over the hump of being intimidated by Edward. Once you see the twinkle in his eye, you know you're halfway there."

Arnone added that working with both Albee and David Esbjornson, his director on both of the plays, was a "very rarefied experience." Both work on a sophisticated level dedicated to getting the ideas of a play across to the audience.

Pask, whose recent work includes "Take Me Out" and "Amour," gave a nod to the directors on those productions—Joe Mantello and James Lapine, respectively—calling them "visually brilliant." He also pointed to research as a key tool, noting he went through "stacks and stacks" of period photographs to capture the post-World War II look of "Amour."

The discussion touched on dealing with the actor; Greenwood was asked what she does when an actor doesn't want to wear a particular costume. "You have to be able to convince the actor that the gown is the right one for the scene—and it looks 'stunning on you,' " Greenwood said. "You have to have the actors trust you."

"Collaboration is the holy grail," Greenwood further observed, but added that "if someone really wants something," collaboration can fall to the wayside.

Pilbrow reminded her, though, "Political skills are a necessary part of the work in the theatre."

—Ron Cohen

On the panel to speak about the creation of Broadway's hit musical version of "Hairspray," the 1988 New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters, were Jack O'Brien, director; Margo Lion, producer; Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, book writers; Marc Shaiman, composer and co-lyricist; Scott Wittman, co-lyricist; Richard Frankel, general manager and producer; and Jerry Mitchell, choreographer.

The $10.5 million endeavor is part of a growing trend of turning movies into Broadway productions. The musical is a re-imagining of the story of overweight teen Tracy Turnblad as she finds love, acceptance, and brings an end to segregation on a TV show—all on the dance floor.

"It had all the ingredients that one wants for a show. There's a larger-than-life character who wanted something, and obstacles to overcome," said Lion, who started the project in the fall of 1998 with a promise to honor the film director's voice and material. Waters, who declined the offer to adapt the movie into a musical, joined the team as an advisor.

"John was very clear he did not want [dance] steps after 1963," noted Mitchell of the 1960s-based musical. "There was an innocence lost after Kennedy was assassinated…so I went back to 1959." So in went the nostalgic moves of the Mashed Potato and the Madison, a simple line dance. Also kept for the role of Tracy was that she had to be "fat" to remain true to the big and beautiful character created by Waters.

But whereas the film shows the explosive nature of segregation in the '60s, the reworked storyline has additional scenes and songs and modified characters to aim for a musical romp with just the right balance between kitschy fun and the theme of civil rights. With dancing set against the neon-colored designs by David Rockwell—some inspired by Lite-Brite®, the electronic peg light-up game—it makes for a feel-good musical. Changes in dialogue nevertheless remained "John Waters-y" and, according to O'Donnell, "tasteless but not disturbing."

Reaching the African-American audience continues to be a goal. The uplifting yet somber song, "I Know Where I've Been," was written to give expression to the African-American experience without being heavy-handed.

"The African-American kids in the show were missing resonance. They didn't feel they were voicing why they were there in the show, a very valid point," remarked O'Brien.

"It's not easy," said Lion about the show's promotional campaign that includes reaching out to African-American group leaders. "[The African-American community] doesn't know what the theme of the show is about and that is what we have got to get out."

And then there are things that will always remain the same.

"It had to be a man," stipulated Shaiman of the role of Tracy's mother, Edna Turnblad (played by Harvey Fierstein in the musical and Divine in the film). "It helps it be subversive. It gives a whole other level of being an outsider." Added O'Brien about the bizarre character of the mother, "If a woman did it, it might mock the woman. But the fact that the man has to work so hard for the integrity of that performance is what I think grounds it."

—Grace Yen