Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Choreographers: Professionals? Or Evil Incarnate?

I just got back from two days in Long Beach.  It was a working 'mini vacation,' really.  Angie's daughter, Lauren, lives in Long Beach, so we simply comandeered her little studio apartment for a couple of days.  She stayed with her boyfriend, Nate (an incredibly nice guy).  Nate is the manager of a very festive restaraunt there called 'Panama Joe's,' so he treated us to a great dinner Monday night while Angie whooped and hollered for her beloved Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football.  The place is literally wall-to-wall flat screen TVs so everywhere you look is a sporting event.  Nice joint, really.  Very collegiate.  Personally, I felt a bit old in that environment but it's a cool place.  It's the kind of place where twenty five years ago I would have drank a lot of tequila and probably been a regular.

We were up there because I had two back-to-back auditions in Long Beach.  The first was a call-back for the new musical, Garbo Talks.  There were only three of us called back for the role.  In fact, when we all entered (the three of us were called in together, which is sort of odd) the director said, rather importantly, "We've seen over two hundred actors for this's down to you three." I felt a little like I was on American Idol.  Anyway, I don't think I landed it.  In turn we all sang the song we had been forwarded from the show, a very dramatic, overly so in fact, ballad about discovering and molding Greta Garbo.  After that we did a quick dance routine and then finally read a couple of scenes from the script.  The song went okay, I suppose, nothing dazzling on my part.  The scenes from the script went fine and I think I can say I nailed that part of the call-back, but the dance...oy, the dance.  I am not a dancer.  In fact, I'm not really much of a 'mover,' as they say in the business.  So clearly I missed the boat on that section of the audition.  The other two guys were vastly superior to me in that area.  I sang fine, choosing to try and make some dramatic sense of the song rather than just sing pretty notes.  However the other two guys were real 'singer' types, in the classical sense of, say, Les Miz or Phantom.  So if that's what they're looking for, which may very well be the case, I think it safe to say they both did a better job with it than I did.  However, and this has been the case in my career for decades, I think I can resolutely say I acted circles around the competition.  But again, is that what they're looking for?  Probably not.  I got the idea from the guys behind the table (producer, director, asst. director, musical director, choreographer, etc.) that they were looking for a real "VOICE."  I am always a bit disgruntled by that mind-set, but it's a reality in this business and there's not a lot I can do about it.  Personally, when I go to a musical and hear a bunch of VOICES on stage that can't act much, well, I'm left cold.  Nonetheless...

The following day I had the first audition for Annie.  Daddy Warbucks, of course.  While I consider myself a fairly versatile actor, the role of Annie herself would be a stretch.  Although I do have some ideas for it...

That went fine.  Unless the role is precast, I suspect I'll at least be called back. 

Right before we left Long Beach to return home, I got a call from the producer of a film that had seen me before and she asked if I could come straight to a read for it.  A quick two day shoot for two grand.  I love those kind of gigs.  So we headed back to LA to get the sides for the read.  As soon as we walked into our house she called back to say the director had hired a 'friend of his.'  And that was that. 

But back to this 'dance' versus 'move' business.  'Move' is a pleasant euphemism that choreographers love to bandy about.  Every choreoghrapher I've ever met in my life (and that would be quite a few) always use this term.  They all think they and they alone can turn a non-dancer into a dancer.  It's utter bullshit and I have found myself feuding with many a choregrapher over it.  For some reason they all think they can make someone a dancer even when the performer tells them, categorically, they do not dance.  It's sort of like a musical director taking a tone deaf guy and arrogantly stating, "I, and I alone, can make him a singer."

I have never gotten along with choreographers because of this unreasonable conceit on their part.  For some reason they think non-dancers are purposely dancing badly just to make them look bad.  They get very self-rightous about it all.  Once, years ago, a director friend of mine called me up and asked me to do the oldest brother in a musical called "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." He said, "It's primarily an acting role and I want a real actor in it.  You won't have to do any dancing, we'll have the other brothers do that."  So I said, okay, as long as you understand that I don't dance.  "Fine," he said, "Just come by the audition and sing a bit for the musical director and the choreographer will have you do a little 'movement' just to get an idea of you."

So I show up and sing a bit and then go off with a bunch of dancers to learn the 'dance routine.' Well, great googleymoogley, this broad had us all doing Twyla Tharp Martha Graham and Najinsky all rolled into one.  I tried for a bit and then sort of lost my temper (it's embarrassing for non-dancers to be put in a position like that, just as it would for non-singers if they were asked to 'just sing a few bars from Pagliacci for us.')  Finally, I just stopped and said, "Alright, listen.  Did you think I was lying?  Did you think I was really a closet dancer, a brilliant hoofer, a guy that secretly dances around his apartment like a reincarnated Fred Astaire?  Why would you think that?" She got very flustered and I, in a real tizzy by now, stormed out and walked into the other room and said to the director, "Don't you ever call me in and embarrass me like this.  That's not 'moving.' That's professional level dancing.  Thank you, but no thank you.  I don't like starting a new gig like this.  I don't trust you and I certainly don't trust her.  Good luck." And I walked out.

He called later that day and apologized profusely.  He said there had been a miscommunication with the choreographer, that I wasn't supposed to go with that bunch.  I accepted his apology and said I still wasn't interested.  A couple of years later I did another musical and this choreographer had been hired to do it, too.  She pulled me aside on the first day and said she would not make me dance. A week later she was trying to make me dance.  I don't trust choreographers.  Never will.

So that's how I feel about 'moving' as opposed to 'dancing.' Choreographers just don't get it.  After that Seven Brides debacle, I always made it very clear when I walked into the call-back, 'I DO NOT dance.  Let me say this again so everyone is clear...I DO NOT DANCE." It has saved a lot of bruised egos.  Choreographers alway hate me because of it.  And often times once the rehearals start they begin to attempt to sneak some dancing in.  I always just stand there and when they're done 'showing me the steps,' I simply say, 'No, I won't do that.' They really hate that.

Anyway, after having said all that, the Garbo Talks 'movement' routine really was just that.  It was fairly easy and the choreographer didn't try to embarrass us, like most do.  I still sucked at it, but at least it was simple.  She really did, for once, actually give us some 'movement.' I appreciated that.

I have always been very sensitive to dancers that don't act or actors that don't sing when I'm directing a piece.  Once a performer is embarrassed in rehearsal, the ball game is over.  The director has lost trust.  I have directed a few musicals over the years (it's not my forte, but I have done it) and I always keep a tight rein on the choreographer.  Give these people and inch and they'll take a mile. 

These days if I look out the kitchen window and see a stray choreographer on my lawn, I shoot them with a BB pistol. 


See you tomorrow.