In sixth grade I auditioned for the school play. I remember the singing audition. All the kids were in the music classroom and the teacher, Mrs. Hauwk, asked who wanted to go first. No one volunteered and I figured, "let's get this over with" (aggressive even then). I stood up in front of all my classmates and sang "My County Tis Of Thee". When I was through I was dismissed and I promptly forgot about the show. A few days later some kids searched me out during school and dragged me down to where the cast list was posted. I had been cast as Tom Sawyer.
Well, that did it. I wanted to know as much about musical theatre as I could find out! Not very easy for a kid from a working class family. But I did as many school shows as I could in the coming years. When I was 16 I told my father that I wanted to take dance lessons. His response was "Ahhh...O.K.". (Not too bad a reaction for a NYC cop.) It wasn't until years later that I realize that he was not embarrassed about my request, he just had no idea how to get me started! And he followed my career with almost as much excitement as I did until he passed away, last year.
During my college years (as a Psych major) I did as much theatre around L.I. as I could fit into my schedule. I worked for Hempstead Rep and Studio Theatre (when it was under the artistic direction of Macey Levin). By my junior year I was teaching Jazz for Genevieve Jezick and for the Brookhaven Theatre Dance Guild. This was 1984 and I knew that once I finished college I was going to give professional theatre a try. My senior year was hell. I was taking some of the most technical courses in order to get my degree, the whole time knowing that Psychology was going on the back burner.
1985 - 86 was spent working towards the transition into NYC. And from 1987 - 91 I worked day jobs in order to study and audition. I gave myself a deadline. If nothing broke by my 27th Birthday I would call it quits. A month before the deadline I landed a theme park job but still unconvinced I made arrangements to return to my day job after the summer. Tele-charge needed me back before the end of my contract so I had to drop the day job safety net in order to fulfill my commitment to Hershey Park. I returned to NYC not knowing how I was going to pay my bills for the next month but within a week I had landed my first national tour, 42nd Street. Theatre has been paying the bills every since.
WHAT I DO
There is no short answer to this question. In order to earn a living I have had to diversify. I started as a triple threat (an actor/singer/dancer). I teach and lecture as much as I can. But all of this culminates in my career as a director/choreographer.
At present I teach jazz and theatre dance for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, tap for the Harkness Dance Center and am a teaching artist in residence for the Metropolitan Opera Guild's Creating Original Opera program.
As a director it is my job to bring a writers vision to life. I must see more than what is on paper. From experience and research I flesh out the bare bones of the text (and score if the show is a musical). This applies to the actors, of course, but includes all the technical aspects as well. I must take everyone ideas, from the talent to costumes to lighting and special effects, and form them into and integrated picture. If you work in one of my productions, it is your job to provide me with as many creative ideas in your area of expertise. It is my job to edit everyone's input into the final product.
When I choreograph I am one of the department heads I mentioned above. In this instance my job is to advance the show's story line through dance and movement. I was once told that in the structure of a musical, when you can no longer contain your emotions -- you sing. When those emotions grow too large for a song -- you dance!
I went to school for Psych, so how did I learn all this? By doing! As an performer I sought out the teachers and classes I felt would best serve my career. And I spent ten year and over 30 professional productions in the back with my eyes open and (most of the time) my mouth shut. The few times I did open my mouth I was reminded in no uncertain terms of exactly what my job was and to keep my opinions to my self, thank you very much!
I watched some spectacular directors like Thommie Walsh and Tony Stevens, who had a vision but welcomed input from all sources. Then there were others, who shall be nameless, that wanted me to stay in line and remember my place. Each one of them taught me a piece of what it takes to mount a show. And I'm still learning!
MY THEATRE EXPERIENCE
As an actor, my favorite show to work on was "Crazy For You". The sheer joy of performing this show has been unmatched by any other in my experience. At the end of "I Got Rhythm", the first act finale, I would hit my final pose on a rooftop and be able to look at the audience as the curtain closed. People would be thundering in there seats -- from the youngest to the oldest! Almost every night I had to dry the tears on my face before I climbed down to stage level. I'm sure if the cast ever found out they would tease me mercilessly! I'm also sure they would share in my joy.
It's what I do and there are really no words I can use to explain it, even to myself. It feels right, and a life without the performing arts is not life. I know this sounds high handed but I can't offer any other reason why I stay in a profession that:
offer no job security.
has terrible hours
puts amazing stress on your body
makes you miss holidays and family events.
pays poorly -- or not at all.
I don't like it because, no matter who I may think may be great for a role, someone always walks in and surprises the hell out of me!
HOWEVER, when casting for L.I. theatre I am finding it a necessary evil. Rarely do I hold an audition where I am able to find an entire cast. People just don't show up and producers are pre casting because they don't want to get caught without the talent.
My advice to the L.I. Theatre community (and I mean EVERYONE, no matter how long you have been doing this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!): Show up to auditions on a regular basis and pre casting will not be necessary.
And as I said before, I look forward to the surprise walking through the door.
Worst Theatre Experience:
A few years back I was involved in a production where a few of the actors wanted to direct them- selves. They offered their views on how musical numbers should be set and though I listened I re- jected their ideas. The actors would not be satisfied. There position was that the show ex- perience should be fun for those involved. My position was that the big picture was the ultimate goal.
Now a difference of opinion never bothers me, but these people forgot their place in the chain of command. It is unfortunate when talented people undermine their place in the theatre community. No one wants to work with individuals who get labeled as trouble makers. I guess you've got to pick your battles wisely and see what far reaching effects your actions have.
I suppose I would do well to follow my own advise. I know I can be a pain in the butt, but no one can accuse me of putting up a sub-standard show.
Best Theatre Experience:
I played Baby John in "West Side Story" a few years back. One matinee we had an audience from a juvenile correction facility for an audience. These kids, young adults really, were tough! They identified with the plight of the Sharks and us Jets were afraid they might jump into the rumble and kick our asses!
During a scene I play with Arab I was crying. In a pause in the dialogue I heard from the audience, "Aww, the little baby's crying.". I realized that they got it -- that they believed the show -- that they believed me. It was the moment I finally thought of myself as a professional.
Message to Actors:
Directors want you to do well at an audition. If you are great and fit the role you make a director's job easier. But directors look at the entire picture. Not only do they look at your talent, they also look at your history, how you treat people, and how easy you are to work with.
WILL L.I. THEATER CONTINUE TO GROW? I certainly hope so! L.I. has amazing resources as far as talent, technical AND audience. The hope in successful L.I. Theatre is unity. Deb's Web is an amazing step in that direction! Kudos to Deb Starker!
The immediate future holds the opening of my New Years Eve cabaret at Center Stage. My plate is pretty full through the summer. For BroadHollow I am remounting productions of "The All Night Strut" (1/12) and "Always ...Patsy Cline (6/28). I am also directing/choreographing productions of "Dames At Sea" (2/2), "High Society" (5/18), and "Smokey Joe's Cafe" (8/3). Keep an eye on Deb's Web -- I ALWAYS post audition notices. I begin the 2002 national dance convention season in January with Headliners and will see a different city almost every weekend through May. And my teaching schedule will remain pretty full.