DONNABLOG #11: BARKING DOGS AND WHAT WE DO

Children, my feet are killing me.  Whew.  I feel like Pearl Bailey.  Only not as funny . . . well . . . not yet.  Hahaha.  Please tell me there aren’t people out there who haven’t heard of Pearl Bailey.  Well, I guess she has been gone for a while.  She was a performer/singer/actress/Unicef Ambassador who was in movies and on Broadway.  She was known for, among many things, talking about how sore her feet were and she’d just take off her shoes whenever she felt like it.  Here, I found a little early clip of her – doing just that in a skit.

She was hysterically funny and so relaxed.   She was a talk show favourite.  Here is a great clip of her on the Andy Williams show.

When Carol Channing had run Hello, Dolly in New York for a hundred years, (and perhaps after several ladies had done it after her), David Merrick, the producer, decided to turn the whole show on it’s ear and he changed it to an all-black cast starring Pearl Bailey as Dolly, with Cab Calloway as Horace.  It ran for another year.  Just cause I’m on a kick finding these great YouTube clips, here is a fun and bizarre one.  It’s the finale of a TV special starring Pearl Bailey and Carol Channing that was filmed while Pearl was doing her Dolly on Broadway.  They do a couple of numbers from the show.

Okay, enough Pearly Mae.  She’s fun, though, right?  What the hell was I talking about??  . . . . . oh right, my feet. Yikes.  In and out of those heels.   The boys and I (I call them the “boys” cause I basically have surgeries older than most of the male ensemble) were talking about how women can stand it.  Well, some can’t but also, the shoes were not built to support our point of gravity and in most cases, our weight.  Also, my shoes were $23 at Payless.  Let’s not pretend people.  It’s not like they are Cupid’s Love cured lambskin or something.  Basically, I’m walking on coke bottles and a nail for 45 minutes at a time, 3 times a day.  It is really hard on the feet though.  We’re all dying to get our real show shoes.  They are being made for us so they will be made to accommodate the shape of our feet and our weight and what we have to do in the show.  Whew!!!

But the upside is we are getting a lot done.  We’ve spent a couple of days now just fine-tooth-combing the show.  It’s been really great to gain clarity about steps and intention and the feel of scenes.   I have said it before and I’ll say it again – I love this creative team.  So generous and fun and specific and caring.  Every detail matters and they’ve been doing this show in some variation for 4 years.

Oh, that was something I wanted to talk about.  For those readers who aren’t “in” the business.  Civilians, as a friend calls you.  (Lovingly, of course.)  It was interesting in a response I got from Donna – the inspiration for the title of the DonnaBlogs.    And this is by no means a reprimand, Donna.  In the response to my blog where I spoke jokingly about losing the will to live and/or leaving the business after a trying day in the rehearsal room, she wrote, also jokingly I might add, that if I was a family, she was say “suck it up, princess”.  (I’m oversimplifying it – I want to be clear there was nothing harsh meant by Donna and I didn’t take it as such).   But it made me realize that even the impulse in that joke for her was indicative of a large sense people really do have about actors as being whiny babies.   Well, some are.  hahahahaaha  But many people in the general public are whiny babies.  That doesn’t mean their work is not hard.  So I wanted to elaborate a little on what it’s actually like to rehearse a musical.

The first couple of days is the most laid back physically but it’s rather involved emotionally. Wait, I’m not sure how to start this.  Here is the scoop.  When human beings go to work, they have all kinds of stressors being heaped onto them every day.  Deadlines, bosses, co-workers.  For most people, their job is some combination of mentally, physically, spiritually, or emotionally taxing.  Rarely is it actively all four at the same time.  What I mean by that is rarely in the civilian world are you paid to utilize all of these at once.  ie. if you work in an office, you’re sitting at a desk most of the time; you are probably not taxed physically – tired physically but you’re not paid to do physical work. And though you may feel unhappy or sad in your job, you’re not paid to be happy or sad or angry.  As such you are also not paid to be in high spirits; they don’t care if you are spiritually sound as long as your “work” gets done.  On the other hand, if you are a garbage collector, or some other manual labourer, it’s the physical along with the mental.  But how you feel about it or how happy you are is not a required or paid for issue.  Get what I’m saying.  But which a performer, specifically a musical theatre performer, we are paid to be firing on all cylinders as once.

Allow me to elaborate.  The first day, you meet everyone – director, musical director, stage managers, producers, cast; all these people you are going to spend the next 5 weeks to possibly a year or more with.  You may know some, you may not.  As soon you meet them,  you are being assessed.  You can’t let that pressure get to you. If you’re a young actor, it can be a totally terrifying day.  Then you start to learn the music.  Now it’s become clear to me that a lot of “civilians” think we just learn a melody like we’re listening to it on the radio then la la la, off we go.  In fact, what happens is this.  We sit in sections (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone) and learn different parts – some have the melody sometimes, then it may change – we have to hear our harmonies and blend with those around us.  We have to learn what the cut off  (when to stop making sound – finish a word) at the end of each musical phrase.  The musical director tells us what dynamics he wants (how loud, how soft, “get louder as you sing this line”), what emotional colour for the group numbers.  We have to go through it with a fine-tooth comb so we all have the same idea in our heads about the over all feel of the song.   (PRISCILLA has about 20+ ensemble numbers in it.  So imagine what that’s like. Just mentally.) Plus, we rehearse for 8 hours a day, taking off 1 hour for lunch and another 30 minutes or so for breaks.  So we are singing for about 6 1/2 hours a day for about 2 to 4 days.  Once we get a rough idea of where we’re going, we start to stage numbers.  So now we are dancing for that 6 1/2 hours a day, while trying to get lyrics into our heads.   All this while, the musical director of whatever the show may be is “gently” reminding you about cut-offs so you all shut up at the same time.  And let’s not forget you are still trying to get to know people, some of whom are now playing your friend or dance partner or enemy.  Add into that the fact that the choreographer and director and starting to give you acting notes, so now you’re expected to be emotionally open and available to create real relationships and take the steps and make them organic and real.

You see, we are also paid to be emotionally present and access all of that stuff that makes us scared  and joyful and human – every day – from lead to ensemble.  Plus the fact that you don’t want to feel like you’re disappointing the director or choreographer or musical director who are getting to know you and how you work.  Plus you are getting to know the cast still.  It’s like the first day of school everytime a show starts.  And the show is constantly a work in progress.  You work on choreography and forget lyrics or your cut-offs, then the director starts to talk about how you have to fill the movement with real emotion or it’s just dead and so . . . . . . .  when an actor has a day where he feels like he’s not living up to his potential in the eyes of the creative team, or worse, in his own eyes (spiritual stress) AND you’ve run a number over and over again with heavy props (physical stress), AND he screws up choreography in most, if not all numbers  AND he can’t remember some lyrics (mental stress) AND he realizes he spent a whole scene trying to remember what’s next so he didn’t have any inner emotional life as a character in a number (emotional stress) AND it’s been nine 8 hour days since he’s had a day off  AND AND AND . . . .  that will be the day he loses the will to live and wonders if he should leave the business – even if just for a second.    There is no princess in this equation for those of you who REALLY think what we do is all glamour.  (Again, this is not at all a reprimand of you, Donna – it just opened an issue I wanted to talk about anyway – merci) We don’t get to leave any part of ourselves at the door but our attitude – and sometimes even that creeps in behind us.  We are working on all cylinders, all day.  Then trying to cram the info in at night.

Now having said that, the other side is glorious.   With any show, you do hit a time when you get over the hump and the choreography is making sense in your body, they lyrics are making sense, you are able to stop worrying about steps and really start telling your part of the story.  That is thrilling.  It is also exhausting.  But you can feel like you’re moving forward.  As I say, once you get to the stage we’re at right now, it starts to get better. We keep getting more specific about what scenes are about.  What we, as an ensemble, are trying to do and that’s where individuality comes in.  The director may say, “there is sinister energy in this scene, something dangerous could happen at any time.” but then it’s up to us to interpret that and play with that and see how it manifests itself physically.  That’s the fun stuff.

Eventually we start adding more stuff.  The set, then lights, then costumes.  Believe me, it will all go to rat-shit several more times before we preview.  Then an audience.  Performer energy in front of an audience – hmm – there is nothing like it.  It burns, it’s exhilarating, it’s exhausting.  Once we’re open, people think all we do is 2 1/2 hours a day and 5 on 2 show days. But I hope by now you’re getting an idea of the high-octane energy we’re talking about.  Look at athletes who do sprinting or rowing, or running.  How long do they do it for in one stretch?  It’s a day’s worth of energy in 2 1/2 hours.  Plus we have warm up time before the show, add to the that the constant thinking about eating – what to eat, when to eat it.  Blah, blah, blah. Plus, you’ve got to keep yourself in shape so you’re hitting the gym or whatever regime keeps you in the shape you need to be in.  I want to be extraordinarily clear when I say this.  These are not complaints.  These are just facts.  This is what a musical performer’s life is like working on a show.  Does it make us better people . . . no.  Does it make us better artists . . . . it can.  It just is what we do.  We don’t get to just make a product or write a paper or balance a ledger and go home.  We ARE the product.  Our lives are about not taking personally what is intensely personal.

That’s sort of the good, the bad and the ugly, y’all.  And now I’m exhausted and my feet hurt and I’m going to bed.  (That was a complaint and I’m not sorry.)    More soon.

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Published in: on September 17, 2010 at 4:00 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Have you tried gel insoles in your shoes? I get them at Shoppers… they make a huge difference when I am doing long days on set, and if I actually have to wear heels.
    Started reading the blog this morning and it’s great! Thanks for sharing.

    • hahaha Amanda, that’s exactly what I did do. two pairs and it did help.


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