Monday, February 27, 2012

Finding the Right Voice

This is a continuation of the blogpost I wrote last week entitled “Creating Characters” which shares some of the work the actors are doing behind the scenes to prepare for their roles in The Carol Burnett Show: Your Favorite Sketches, a collection of some of the funniest sketches from the original show, performed by the Saline Area Players. 

So, what do you do when you play multiple roles within the same show and have to make them all different?  One of our cast members plays a number of very different characters.  Some of them are in parodies of movies, like Love Story and Gone with the Wind.  Watching the original movie helps an actor figure out how to parody it.  One actor says “for the humor to work, I think one has to do somewhat of an imitation.  So, I watched the film ‘Love Story’ and I’m trying to emulate Ryan O’Neil’s breathy vocal quality and to still make it youthful, since I’m portraying a college student (which is quite a stretch).  For Rat Butler, I watched the film and listened to recordings from “Gone With the Wind.”  Clark Gable had a kind of nasal and forceful style to his delivery and I am doing some of that, but I’m also adding a bit more of a southern plantation sound to it than he did.  It helps set the scene for the piece.”

Another actor talks about how he works at altering his voice for the different characters.  He changes accents – German & Brooklyn – to name a couple, and changes registers in his voice.  He notes that sometimes speaking faster or slower works for him.

Another actor who is versatile with accents and delights in trying them, says “I think the biggest challenge for me is literally finding my character's voice. The first few times I mentally read through the sketches, I listened to how each character spoke in my mind, not just the characters I would have the privilege and responsibility to bring to life but also the others that would be part of the interaction with my character.”  She asked herself a variety of questions including where is she from, in what class of society does she feel most comfortable, what’s her relationship to the others in the sketch, and what is her back story?  For one sketch she chose a NJ or Brooklyn accent for her character, but the director initially disagreed and asked her to play the character as if she came from the south with little education and lived in a trailer park.  To prepare, the actor said “I listened to several dialect examples online and settled with Loretta Lynn's southern accent with nasal-whiney overtones.  After a couple of weeks working with this character, the sketch just wasn't working. My character was complaining but not funny, which is somewhat critical in a comedic show. In the middle of a rather intense rehearsal, the director and I chatted about it briefly and she asked me to go back to the Brooklyn/NJ accent, which was now more difficult as I had memorized the sketch with the Appalachia accent and pronunciation. “ 

The next step required researching NY and NJ accents, “everyone from Snooki to Peg Bundy to the Brooklyn Beat on SNL” and to re-memorize the sketch in a new accent which turned out to be a lot funnier when tried on cast mates later in the week. 

In working on the character Mr. Tudball, the actor playing him recognizes that it is a fairly identifiable character from the Carol Burnett Show and is trying to capture that essence.  He says “I'm struggling to do that bizarre pseudo-Scandinavian accent that Tim Conway did, not that I feel an actor should necessarily imitate the original, but that character's dialect was always a part of the humor of the Tudball-Wiggins sketches.  So I want to have some of it in my portrayal.  His posture, pot-belly and uptight demeaner are also part of the physicality I'm going for.”

Check out the show and try to notice how the different actors change themselves to be different characters.  Perhaps you won’t even recognize them from one sketch to another.  The Carol Burnett Show: Your Favorite Sketches opens March 8.

Friday, February 24, 2012

It Only Takes a Moment...!

I just came back from the opening night of Saline High School’s production of “Hello, Dolly!” and want to share my favorite moments from the show.  I wouldn’t begin to suggest that this was a review, but rather, a serving of delicious morsels I saw on stage to whet your appetite.

  • Austin Terris playing Barnaby was thoroughly enjoyable.   He practically stole every scene with his playfulness and incredible physical humor, with pratfalls, and acrobatic awkwardness that were perfect for his eager young character.
  • Kaitlyn Mulder’s beautiful voice shone during her tenderly rendered ballad Ribbons Down My Back, and her years as a dancer gave her a maturity and posture befitting of her character.
  • Sophie Skochelak’s wailing was marvelous – it definitely hit the high registers and I loved when everyone in the courtroom leaned back before her final wail.  She also stamped her foot in true tantrum style. (In talking to her mother at intermission, I learned that luckily for her family, she didn’t rehearse that at home).  Her tall counterpart Ambrose Kemper (Joel Stralnic) was a doting boyfriend.
  • One of my favorite kids, Sushrut, was a standout in the male chorus, mostly because he was the shortest and clearly a good sport in being the brunt of much of the humor.
  • The male chorus blended wonderfully during It Takes a Woman.  And overall the singing throughout the show was outstanding with superb diction, which is no doubt attributable to Norma Freeman’s musical direction.
  • Favorite lines:  “I hate hats” from Mrs. Molloy.  “I’m fine” from Mrs. Rose played by Aubrey LaVasser”.  Loved the way Minne Fay (Carolyn Pedersen) said “cherries and feathers”
  • Favorite accent:  Rudolph’s German accent (played by Michael Doa) who strutted around the stage in pompous command of the waitstaff.  I liked that he joined in the dancing at the end!
  • Favorite scene was probably the Motherhood March – loved all the antics that went on behind the singing and loved Cornelius and Barnaby dressed in the ladies hats.  The set was luscious filled with colorfully decorated hats.
  • All stops were pulled for Before the Parade Passes By with a full ensemble coming on stage complete with ballerinas, suffragettes, band members, a drum major and star moments from many.  And lots of dancing moves by the full chorus!
  • Who wouldn’t love the 3 dancing chefs with their leaping dance moves, and the pirouette that went on and on and on, and the two waiters who tried to impress with their somersaults.
  • I remember the chill that went through my body when Dolly (Audra Davison) came down the grand staircase in her beautiful red gown.  And the Harmonia Gardens set was so tall and elegant with the three chandeliers. Leo Babcock’s sets were wonderful with lots of levels for the actors to use.
  • Loved the human “train” in which the colored parasols were the wheels in Put On Your Sunday Clothes.
  • Ernestina’s character (played by Maddie Montambault) was larger than life and she milked every move she made while on stage.
  • I found myself just plain smiling during Cornelius’ (Aaron Mukerjee) song It Only Takes a Moment… he, like his counter part Mrs. Molloy, had a beautiful voice and the scene was moving.
  • Horace Vandergelder ( Jackson Marchilewski) was appropriately stuffy yet comically flustered.  And I recognized what we dubbed as the “Captain Crunch” costume that he wore in the parade from the HD show I was in a few years ago (along with a number of other familiar costumes).
  • And what a poised and lovely Dolly Levi to grace the Saline High School stage.  Her graceful yet purposeful movements portrayed her self-assured character.  And her lovely voice was easy to listen to.  I especially enjoyed her playfulness during So Long, Dearie.
  • Mostly, I love that practically every person in the cast had “a moment” in which they could shine.  I wish I could put them all down, but suffice it to say, the production is worth seeing and a true Saline community theater event!  Two more shows – February 25 at 7:30 p.m. and February 26 at 2:00 p.m. at the high school.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Creating Characters

Imagine being at work and listening to your office mate lapse in and out of a German accent.  Or what about being downstairs and hearing your mother talking so loudly and lively in her bedroom that you think she has company up there.  Or observing a tall bearded man clumsily twirling around with arms in the air.  Or noticing a woman staring at every man she sees in public.  What do these things have in common you might ask?  They are just some of the things that the actors in The Carol Burnett Show: Your Favorite Sketches are doing to develop their characters for the production.

One of the challenges of acting in the show is that all of the actors play a variety of roles and characters.  So, unlike a regular play in which an actor usually plays only one role and develops the character throughout the rehearsals, in this show, each actor is playing at least 3 different characters. Along with the scripts for the sketches came a note from Carol Burnett herself on how to play them.  In it she says that in a sketch “the actor has very little time to establish his character and situation.  He must be ‘broader,’ his timing a little sharper, his pacing a little faster.  But, above, all, even in the most slapstick, farcical situation, he must be truthfully motivated.  He must maintain in his approach to the characterization basic good reasons for doing and saying what the script calls for.”  She also tells us to “extend from life.  The naturally funny physical things that people do should be exaggerated into the ridiculous.”

There are so many elements to creating an interesting character… a particular voice, an accent or dialect, a body posture, an attitude, a mannerism….  Take for example the actor playing the “Carol” role (aka Marion) in As the Stomach Turns.  The person playing this part says she is patterning the character a little after her mother who was ‘that person’ that others would go to in order to talk about their problems, as “Marion” is in the sketch.  The only variation is that, as far as she knows, her mother was not smitten with door-to-door salesmen like her character, making her, the actor, feel like she’s playing a split personality.

One of my challenges is that I play a character that changes from female to male multiple times during the sketch… speaking of multiple personalities!  I’ve got the hang of being female fairly well but acting male, which I apologize ahead of time to the opposite sex is sometimes overdone and stereotypic, creates more of a test for me.  I find myself exaggerating some of the female elements of my character… higher voice, leg crossing, primping… to provide more of a contrast to the male characterizations.  To research the part, I frequently stare at men in public places, watching the way they stand and move, not to mention having had most of the men in the cast model some male stances for me.  I’m not ready to give away my manly secrets here…. you’ll have to come to the show for that.

The actor who plays Mama says “I am trying to work on body positioning, as well as my 'hick' accent.  The accent is coming, but I find that facial gestures are more difficult to hold, so I usually use a prop as a distraction (shot glass, fly swatter or wrap).”  She tries to keep her negative attitude befitting the character portrayed through her mouth and eyes.  She says that having two daughters at home helps her understand how the battling back and forth goes, so the onstage reactions to these parts of the sketch come directly from her offstage role as a mother.  She adds, “not that my own conversations with my own two daughters resemble this sketch, but I CAN imagine how they would play out, for sure!

Stay tuned… another post coming soon with more from the actors in the show about developing their characters!

Friday, February 17, 2012

A day without laughter is a day wasted

 Laughter abounds in rehearsals for Saline Area Players’ upcoming production of The Carol Burnett Show: Your Favorite Sketches to be performed March 8-11 at Stone Arch Arts and Events.  As a child, it seemed odd to me that in the TV show the actors got close to laughing when they weren’t supposed to.  In fact, in reading Carol Burnett’s book This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, she said that their show had “been accused of showing actors cracking up at times, breaking character.” Now that I’m in rehearsals in which we’re performing these sketches, I totally understand why.  They are hilarious!  The writing is superb.  And there are so many absurdities, that you can’t help but laugh.  We are cracking each other up.  In her book, Carol said that they were “guilty as charged.” She noted “we really tried very hard not to break up, but when we did, it was honest.”  To disclose one of my lines in the show, it “makes sense to me.”

Some of the lines are funny, but only in context.  Like when the nurse asks “so which one of you has the problem?” as she is observing someone with a gun to their head.  Or when Zelda says “I don’t want to wait 2 weeks”.  To find out why that is funny, you’ll have to see the show.  Many love the line “this mesh is SUPER FINE,” referring to a fly swatter. Or, “I’m wearing a tutu just for you you.”  Any guess why the line “he doesn’t smoke” is funny?

But sometimes even funnier than the lines are the accidental things that happen during rehearsals.  Like the “doctor” whose stethoscope was evidently left in the sun and sticks straight out.  Or when I try to say the line about lacking in “female hormones” that comes out lacking in “female hormizomes”.  One actor repeatedly forgets her line after her stage kiss – whew!  I love watching that part… they get redder by the minute as they “flail” around.   I’m ready to put the lines in the coffee cup so she can remember.  One actor’s favorite moment in rehearsal was when the end of the cap accidentally fell off Starlet’s curtain rod.  Another actor says “I love that I will be giving birth to a total of three illegitimate children throughout the course of the show.”  I find it humorous that one actor is shorter than his mate and has to stand on a step for their embrace, which wasn’t scripted that way, but adds to the humor.  Another says she has trouble staying focused while watching a “sexual transformation” happen before her eyes.  One gets lifted up by her male counterpart and worries he will drop her, but says “it’s a good thing he lifts weights!”

I don’t want to give anything away here.  Suffice it to say that this show is funny and the laughter is infectious.  As Charlie Chaplin said, A day without laughter is a day wasted.  Tickets are on sale now for The Carol Burnett Show: Your Favorite Sketches. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A joyous "Hello, Dolly!" rehearsal

I had the privilege and joy of attending a rehearsal for SHS’s production of “Hello, Dolly!” directed by Rebecca Groeb-Driskill, who happens to be one of my favorite directors.  How lucky Saline is to have her.  She began in theater with the Saline Area Players and has since mentored hundreds of Saline students in drama over the years.

There are so many things I love about her directing.  She gives very specific comments to her cast members, but always in a nice way.  She was working with Joel Stralnic, who plays the young artist, Ambrose Kemper.  Within a very short time, she added on more and more things to the direction… say the lines more ‘staccato,’ accent certain words, think about a time that you were angry when you say that line…. and then she said… “I’m asking you to do many things at once… it’s hard”.  And, he did it.  He kept getting better and better with each run, even adding some hand flourishes as he said his line, “but I’m an artist, Mrs. Levi….” His girlfriend Ermengarde, played by Sophie Skochelak, hung by his side, appropriately wailing at every opportunity, as her character calls for, and even asked if she could wail more at a later time.

Then came Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker played by Aaron Mukerjee and Austin Terris, respectively.  Mrs. Groeb helped them really tune into what the characters were thinking.  Barnaby comes up with this sudden idea (don’t want to give away the plot) and she showed him how to do a “thinking cross.”  Then she helped him convey to the audience what he was thinking so that when he came out with the big idea, it seemed like he was thinking on his feet.  She helped Austin with his internal dialogue … say that line like it is Christmas!

There was a point when she needed them to sound more excited.  This happened later in the rehearsal too with Caitlyn Mulder (Irene Molloy) and Carolyn Petersen (Minnie Fay).  She had them do a speed run through the scene so they could feel the excitement and the adrenalin of what they were saying.  Of course that often ended up in lots of laughter as they tripped over lines, but the result was this incredible excitement.  Then she had them do the scene slower again, but keeping the excitement in.  It worked.  And, she frequently asked her team of assistant directors for confirmation. 

When they worked on choreography for “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” she asked for the assistance of Caitlyn, who is a dancer, to suggest a dance step for the two guys.  She came up with a cute step.  What impressed me was how collegial the whole project was.  They let Caitlyn choose a step, the two boys tried it in front of the director and a whole host of girls (assistant directors and other actors), and they all seemed to enjoy the process.  When they messed up, which was to be expected in a first run, they all laughed together, but each repetition became better and better with additional tweaks, like Mrs. G’s shouting out “remember the arms behind your back.”  I was impressed how quickly they picked it up.  Austin’s youthful exuberance as he danced was infectious.

A few times Mrs. G noted that a certain cast member had a certain personality, complimented it, and then challenged the actor to do something different.  She told Carolyn that she was a composed young lady and told her it was “awesome” but added “I want you to do something else.”   What an empowering comment!  After that Caroline turned the character Minnie Fay into a lively, animated, unsophisticated hatshop helper, much different than her own personality.   She came alive and made a nice contrast to the more mature character of her counterpart in the play, Mrs. Molloy.

She also challenged her actors to think about what they were saying.  She worked with Aaron on examining the lines in his monologue and dividing them up into thoughts.  Then she asked him to think about the words he was saying and figure out which were the most important ones that should be emphasized.  Is it “did you forget what we DID last Christmas” or “did you forget what we did LAST Christmas?”  (It was the latter one in case you’re stumped).

There were so many things that impressed me.  One is that students had their lines memorized well before the time that they were supposed to do that.  This is a luxury for a director who can then give them suggestions for movement without faces being stuck in a book.  And I was impressed how quickly they took a suggestion and incorporated it.  And I was extremely jealous at how quickly they picked up the dance.  They sailed through “Elegance” and had only learned it the night before. And they all had beautiful voices – these are talented kids!  And it wasn’t just the actors who were engaged.  Three of the four student assistant directors were there that day and they all had different tasks.  Anna Krisher is in charge of getting the rehearsal space ready.  Emily Burke helps the choreographer and runs the music.  Shelby Harris records the blocking. (CJ Slotten wasn’t there that day). They all help with attendance and making calls to kids who aren’t there.  But what was stunning was how free they felt to make comments and suggestions.  One yelled out “hands on your knee” to Barnaby who took direction well.  They were part of the team and Mrs. G welcomed their comments.

If the talent and enthusiasm that I witnessed in this one rehearsal is any indication of how the actual show will be, I predict it will be a fabulous show.  And much of this is because of the director Rebecca Groeb-Driskill who is a educator, mentor, and an inspiration to these students.  "Hello, Dolly!" will be presented at Saline High School on February 24-26!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Transforming Sets

In theater, one set piece is often turned into another, within the same show.  Here’s a simple example of some of the adaptations we're making for our upcoming Saline Area Players show.  The picture on the top shows a bookcase, which will be used for a library scene in Lovely Story.

The second picture (above) is the bookcase laid flat with an additional back added to be used for a bed.  The third picture (below) is what it will look like with the addition of blankets and a person.

Below is another transformation. First, you see the set fromThe Sound of Music which Saline Area Players performed last year.  For our current production:  The Carol Burnett Show:  Your Favorite Sketches, we've made an alteration.  In the bottom picture, we took one segment of the previous set, added some tan to match the walls of the new set, and will use it for the large picture window in the Tara plantation scene of Went With the Wind.