A Canadian Actor’s Year on Broadway
You are about to share an adventure. My adventure. In the summer of 2009
I started a year long contract in Billy Elliot: the Musical on Broadway. I was the First Replacement for Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s dance teacher, a part originated by Olivier and Tony Award nominee, Haydn Gwynne.It was my plan to write a series of letters home from New York to my friend Neil Munro. He had been ill for some time. I’ll never forget kissing his warm forehead as he sat in the sun on his porch the week before I left. It would turn out to be the last time I saw him. Alas.
In lieu of the letters to Neil, I decided to send these notes home to a private stash of friends and family, and to post them as a weekly blog on the Billy Elliot website. Much to my amazement that blog became extremely popular among the fans of the show, and among the many Canadians who were following my progress throughout the year.
I have expanded (and in some cases, edited) that original material to what now appears in this book. I hope you will enjoy the new bits and the old bits alike.
These little anecdotes are for Neil. He’s a grouch. But I know I’ll have made him laugh a few times as he reads these missives from his armchair in heaven. (Heaven will be the perfect misery for Neil. It will provide him lots of happy people to continually kvetch about. Bless). My only true intention in their writing was to lighten his heart. In his stead, I hope they will lighten yours. — K.H.
P.S. Mrs. Wilkinson’s Visit is the title of the scene before the Riot, at the end of Act One of Billy Elliot: The Musical.
What a Hassle
On the seven hour trip from St. Catharines to Montreal the nastiest moment comes at the tail end when navigating the parking garage at the apartment/hotel where I stay. It’s one of those underground parking garages that was designed by someone who lives in a warren, but for people who need the sun to tell direction it’s a frustrating last step on a day-long journey.
I had been particularly stressed about this transition. The life of a stage actor in Canada is rife with change: we move from pillar to post following work wherever it may lead us, but this time I just didn’t want the hassle of leaving the comfort and security of my living room chair and the simplicity of my life in the Niagara region.
When I got to the studio apartment, after retrieving the keys from the management office across the street (my lack of French in Montreal is always a tad humiliating and time consuming), then schlepping my bags, and the many cat supplies… and my cat, Northrop… up to the 14th floor, I collapsed on the couch beside the phone. I set up the voice mail system only to find that I had two messages. ALREADY! Barely in the door, no food or wine, and straight into people wanting a piece of me! Grrrr.
The first message was from the School, the schedule for my first class. Okay. I can deal with that. The second message was from Celia Chassels: my agent extraordinaire. (We have had a twenty-five year co-dependent relationship that seriously works!) For a few weeks now she had been talking about the upcoming auditions for the Broadway premiere of Billy Elliot: The Musical, and the possibility that I would be seen for the dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson.
Back beside the phone… it was nearly nine hours since I’d left St. Kits. I’d had a sandwich at Tim Horton’s on the highway, but had had nothing to eat since then. It was well into the evening, and first thing tomorrow I was joining the second year Shakespeare project, Richard III, as text and voice coach.
“Katie, we have an audition for you Monday for Billy Elliot. Call me.”
Aaargh! Celia! You’ve got to be kidding! I just got here! You can’t believe the hassle this will be. First, I have to get permission from the National Theatre School to take a day OFF… when I will only have had three days ON. Then, I have to arrange a flight back to Toronto, transportation to and from the two airports… let alone find time to look at the scenes and the songs. Sometimes I hate my job. (Of course, my frustration was fueled by more than seven hours in the car with an unhappy cat, a nasty, confused car-park, no food, and NO WINE!)
Ultimately, there was no hassle. Permission granted by the School. Easy-peasy flight with Porter to the Toronto Island, shuttle to the Royal York, a gentle walk to the Elgin-Winter Garden in excellent spring weather, and I was in the waiting room of the fourth floor studio in plenty of time. There was one young man nervously pacing, then it would be my turn.
I think I’m pretty good at auditions. I’m usually pretty relaxed. Some people my age get freaked right out, but I feel pretty confident in what I have to offer, and I figure if they don’t want me, they want someone else. It’s not personal. It helps if the people behind the table respect you, and you respect them. Then we’re all adults, and we can play well with others. Fingers crossed. Touch wood. Toi toi.
Oh, were they nice! I’ve never met Tara Rubin before. She’s been up to Toronto many times casting this and that, but I haven’t really done a lot of musical theatre and virtually no commercial musicals. Did I mention…she was so nice! She said she’d heard so much about me (from who I want to know?!) and that she was delighted to finally get the chance to see me. (Wow. Really? Kate Hennig? Are you sure you have the name right?)
Next to her was Julian Webber, the Associate Director of the London and Australian productions of Billy Elliot. Julian is a tall, crazy-looking dude from England, with one eye that goes a bit sideways.
I sang the audition version of Shine. I sang the audition version of The Letter.
Hard part done.
I started the first scene with Julian reading Billy. (Good casting, wot?!) He knows the entire script off by heart. (Pick an eye and focus on it. That was my advice to myself). We’re halfway into the scene and he stops and takes off his glasses.
He didn’t say anything else. That was it. I stood there… Awkward… What am I supposed to do now? Should I say something? Nope. A moment of silence.
“Let’s keep going,” he says, slipping the glasses back on his nose, but peering over them.
Okay. I can do that. Let me keep acting. That will be best.
In between each of the scenes he stops, and says something like,
“You’re an amazing f*%king actress, aren’t you.”
I just don’t get how he thinks I should be replying to this stuff. It’s a little hard to say… “yea, sure, that’s my job”. Come on. I’m Canadian!!
Julian got serious suddenly.
“Can you dance?”
“I mean… seriously dance. Can you tap dance?”
No, is the answer. I’m not a dancer. I don’t really dance. Oh I’ve done steps in shows before, but, trust me, I know what a dancer is and I’m not one.
“I’ll show you what I can do.”
I am a great mover: a physical actor. Two, sometimes three times a week I do a half hour contemporary dance workout to keep those movement chops happening.
I show Julian and Tara a segment of my dance workout. It feels a bit like showing someone a mole that you normally camouflage by wearing a turtle neck. It’s something that’s better kept to yourself. And I can’t tap dance. Sorry.
“Can you come to New York?”
Oh! Um. I guess. It’s a little difficult, you see, I’ve committed to teaching these students how to speak Shakespeare in Montreal… and that’s really important to me…
“I think so.”
And that was that.
On the way out Tara said she was so happy to have seen me. That I was even better than all the reports. (From who?! I want to know what interloper is giving out these reports!)
Walk back to the Royal York. Shuttle to the island. Flight back to Montreal. Train to the city. Walk to the apartment/hotel. The cat stretches and pleads for food. What else is new.
There’s a message on the machine. Celia:
“Katie. We have a call-back for you in New York between May 26th and 31st. I told them about your teaching gig. They’ll work around your schedule.”
Holy crap. Here we go.
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Extreme Sports Weekend: Day One
The one and only time I was in New York was back in the early summer of 1986. I swore I would never return. Anyone who was in Manhattan in the ‘80s will tell you… it was not a pretty city. Hell’s Kitchen was Hell’s Kitchen. The subways smelled of recycled chicken soup. Forty-second street was not yet “new”. Scary, big, dirty, smelly… and lonely. Who needs it.
So here’s me in Montreal some twenty-two years later, teaching the students about stichomythia (!), all the while looking for reasonably priced hotels that are situated within walking distance of the two studios at which I will be auditioning. (I didn’t want to deal with taxi-cabs, let alone subways. And there was no way I would risk a hotel near one of the train stations…yikes!). I managed to get it all arranged.
Early on Wednesday afternoon I went up to the National Theatre School to watch the final project of the first year class: The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. It was excellent! I was truly moved by the commitment and assurance of these young actors. I shared a meal with friends afterwards in the Plateau. Then I watched for the last time the project I had been working on with the second year students: Richard III. When you are working with these young actors day to day, you really lose your objectivity. But I was so proud of them: proud of the way they handled the text; the way they shape-shifted (only 9 actors in this class, and how many parts in the play?!); the way they had matured over the six weeks we had worked together under the dextrous direction of Diane D’Aquila. It was an emotional evening, and the culmination of some intense and grueling intellectual and physical commitment to growth.
I got back to the apartment/hotel pretty pooped at about 11pm to finish packing. I didn’t really have “audition clothes” along. I had had no expectation of needing them. All I had was my teaching clothes. And very little make-up. But I threw the best options I could put together into my little Roots suitcase.
What I knew at this point was that I would have a dialect coaching with William Conacher, the head dialect coach for the show, at 10am Thursday morning. Then I would have an audition for tout le gang at 7pm that evening. If they liked what they saw I might have call back sessions on Friday and possibly Saturday. I’d booked my flight back to Montreal for late Saturday afternoon.
I was up at 4:45 and in a taxi to the airport by 5:30am. One forgets how short the distance is from Montreal to New York. I was at La Guardia by 8:10, and in my ground transportation by 8:30. Easy! I had booked a seat on one of those ground shuttles that takes about a dozen people to their mid-town hotels. We were in bags of time I figured, even considering rush hour traffic.
The joke was on me.
An hour and a bit later, having crossed the 49th Street bridge into Manhattan, crawled though mid-town traffic to half a dozen hotels, I figured out that my hotel at 34th and Broadway would be the final destination of this vehicle. It was now ten to ten, and I was oh-too-soon-to-be-late for my first Broadway audition. When we stopped at a Times Square hotel to drop off an energetic family, I hopped out with my suitcase and my satchel, gave the guy my voucher and a tip, and began a sprinting journey on foot to the studio at 43rd between 9th and 10th.
I was sweating when I arrived at reception.
“Kate Hennig here to see William Conacher,” I said demurely.
“Say again?” said the girl behind the desk.
“Oh. Sorry.” Canadian. “Uh, Kate Hennig? For Billy Elliot?”
The girl leaned back from her desk and raised her voice to someone unseen in the adjoining office,
“Do we have Billy Elliot here this morning?”
“Not here”. This to me. “You sure you got the right studio?”
No. I’m not sure. I’m in a foreign land. This is the studio that I was told to come to. That’s all I know. I get out my cell phone to call Tara Rubin’s office. Dial the number. My cell phone doesn’t work in the States. Great. Now I’m sweating more, in spite of the air conditioning. The girl behind the desk can smell my fear. I’m over ten minutes late for my call time.
“Can I borrow your phone to make a local call?”, I ask.
“I can’t let you use the phone here. It’s a business line you know.” She sees the panic in my eyes. “But hey. You can borrow my cell phone if you like.”
A goddess!! A generous New York goddess! Bless you!
Her desk phone rings just as she’s digging in her purse for her cell. She takes the call, looking away from me. Says a few things that I don’t hear because of the voices screaming in my head:
“Great! Little Miss Organised. You come to New York for the first time to audition thinking you have everything in complete control, and the gods are laughing…”
The receptionist is still on the phone, but now she’s looking right at me,
“Yeah. She’s right here.” She holds out the phone. “You’re Kate Hennig, right? It’s for you.”
Me. Perplexed. I take the phone. Timidly.
It’s Dale from Tara’s office. He’s all apologetic. In a nutshell… they gave incorrect information to my agent, and I was at the wrong studio. I got the correct address from him.
“No hurry,” said Dale, “William will see you at eleven.”
Whew. I offered an embarrassing number of thank-yous to the goddess of the phone, and made my way… with suitcase and satchel, to Ninth Avenue to find a taxi downtown.
* * *
As soon as I met William Conacher, I knew I had an ally. We had gone through the same Masters program at the Central School of Speech and Drama in England, though a few years apart, and we had a common language. I had picked up a reasonable attempt at a Northeast accent, and he gave me some great touchstones for the sounds. But so much more important than that, he gave me confidence in the scenes. Just some hints at the things he knew they liked. They. Them. The ones that count. So an hour with William set me at ease right from the start.
I walked away from Chelsea Studios, with my suitcase and my satchel, making my way towards the Hotel at 34th and Broadway. It was just after noon. I would get to the hotel, check in early, and have a good long nap, a nice meal, and be refreshed and relaxed before the evening audition.
Ha, ha! (The gods again!)
The guy at the desk said check-in was at 3pm. No exceptions. I could leave my bags with the concierge. That was the best he could do.
The fatigue of six intense weeks of teaching Shakespeare, watching two three-hour shows the day before, and four and a half hours of sleep was really hitting me now. There was no way I could march around being a tourist for three hours and have the reserves for the audition. I grabbed some lunch and sat in the little park at the corner.
Give my regards to Broadway, remember me to Herald Square…
That Herald Square.
It was loud. And there were a million people. Maybe two million. But the sun was shining and it was a gloriously warm spring day. I sat there for two hours. My head was starting to loll. I shook it. Rattled my eyelids.
I made my way to Macy’s. I wandered aimlessly. I’m surprised I wasn’t approached by security. I looked a sale racks, but I had no money to shop. I just wanted to curl up and go to sleep in one of their change rooms.
I staggered back to the hotel. 2:45. They must have something ready by now.
“Three o’clock”, said the woman who had replaced the man.
There were no chairs in the lobby that didn’t have people sitting in them. I got my suitcase from the concierge, and with my suitcase and satchel at hand, I sat on the floor of the Radisson Martinique in midtown Manhattan. And waited.
At three-fifteen the woman took pity on me and gave me a room. It was the size a closet, but clean, and comfortable. I would have been happy with the Macy’s change room. I took off my street clothes and crawled into bed. My plan was to sleep for an hour, shower, get dressed, get something to eat, then make my way gently up to the studio.
Ha, ha! (Stop making plans, already!, said the gods).
A thunderous knock at the door shot me out of bed in a panic.
Good lord. I was in my underwear, stunned, with no housecoat.
“One second, please…”
I threw on my coat, and pulled it around me. I opened the door a crack.
A small, neatly dressed man, sized me up. He looked at my bare legs under my coat. He was judging me. I know he was.
“Just checking to see if your room is in order, Miss.”
You’re kidding me. DON’T YOU KNOW I HAVE AN AUDITION FOR A LEAD ROLE IN A BROADWAY MUSICAL TONIGHT!!!
“It’s fine.” Perhaps I was ever so slightly curt.
It was four o’clock. I had wanted to sleep until 4:30. I was just awake enough that I couldn’t get back to sleep, but too dopey to get up and do anything useful. I lay in bed until 5, then dragged my sorry body into the shower.
Hair. Make-up. Clothing. I wanted to leave by six. Forget food. I’ll eat after the audition.
* * *
It was dusk as I made my way up Broadway toward the midtown studio at which I had first arrived eight hours before. I walked slowly, peacefully, taking in the experience. I was back in New York for the first time in twenty-two years, and it felt pretty good really. It was spring. Loads of people were heading in every direction, and I just went with the flow, smiling at my own sense of calm and centeredness. Maybe my eyes were stinging with lack of sleep, but no one could tell that except me.
I was at the studio twenty minutes early. There was me and a middle aged man who was studiously working on his lines. I sat quietly in the line of chairs under a row of show posters. At 7:05pm I started to pace a bit. People spilled out from one of the studios. Important people, I imagined.
Julian was there. He came up and threw his arms around me, nearly bowling me over.
“Hey! How are you! We’re running a bit behind,” he said, “you okay to wait?”
You’re joking, right? Is there an option?
I sat down again. The important people all went back in. At ten minute intervals I paced. The middle aged man went in. A woman, younger than me, obviously a dancer, with tap shoes on, moved from one studio to another.
She’ll get the job, I’m thinking. She can tap dance.
I don’t know what time it was when I actually got called. I was on a pacing jag, and way down at the other end of the lobby.
It was Tara Rubin:
“Kate! Welcome to New York. Come in, please”.
The studio was not huge. The piano was at the end near the door, and there were two long tables set up at the far end of the room with a gap in between them. There were many important looking faces behind the tables. I was introduced to each one of them but my nerves made all their names sound like cartoon characters…
“This is Daffy Duck. Elmer Fudd. Bugs Bunny. Tweety.” … you get the picture.
“And Stephen Daldrey.”
Uh huh. I know him. He directed the movie.
I sing the audition version of Shine for the cast of Looney Tunes. David Chase, the musical director, wants to hear the ending again because I kind of kacked the last note. Nerves. Second time is better, but far from perfect.
I sing the audition version of The Letter.
Daldrey gives me some direction, and I sing The Letter again.
I start the first scene. Julian as Billy. (Maybe he’ll be playing it on the day! crosses my mind with a smile). Daldrey looks up from my resume on the table in front of him. That’s a good sign. I got his attention.
I start the second scene. Daldrey looks back at my resume. This is also a good sign. He wants to know more about me.
Score one point for my team.
I start the third scene.
“Great,” he says at the end. He gives little away, even though I know I have scored a point. “Go and dance now, and we’ll see you again in an hour or so.”
* * *
I find out that the woman in tap shoes who has been wandering about is not my competition but dance assistant, Cara Kjellman. (Unbeknownst to either of us, Cara and I will spend many fruitful hours together sometime in the distant future…) Two of the other people who were behind the table are Peter Darling, choreographer, and Kate Dunn, associate choreographer. I’m now in an adjacent studio with the three of them.
Peter wants me to show him how I like to move.
Nothing could make me happier. I ask the pianist if he can play some classical music… anything really… and I just start moving to it.
Now my favourite way to move is what one might loosely call… interpretive dance. In my mind, my heart, my soul, I am Twyla Tharpe. In reality, I more likely look like Dieter, Mike Myers character in Sprockits on Saturday Night Live. I would be one of the deluded people you see trying out for So You Think You Can Dance. Like that.
God bless Peter Darling. He may be horrified, but he’s undaunted. We begin a series of movement improvisations, that we then link together, and practice. The hour goes by in a blink. I’m pouring with sweat. So much for thinking I was in any kind of physical condition!
The “panel” now files into this studio, which I’m sure smells like a locker room. Without fear, but with some humility, I show them what we have been working on. Let’s just say they didn’t jump to their feet and congratulate me on my distinct ability. They chatted amongst themselves.
I was stupid tired.
“Can you sing something else?”
I don’t have great songs for musical theatre auditions. I pull out Joni Mitchell’s Twisted, a song I have been singing for nearly thirty years. It shows range, musicality, and character, and I love to sing it.
When I’m done… they talk amongst themselves.
“Great,” says Tara. “Just sit in the waiting room for a bit, and we’ll be right out”.
Okay. That’s it. I did what I could. I showed them who I am and what I can do. If they don’t want me, they want someone else. It’s not personal.
A few minutes later Tara comes into the waiting area. They’ll see me tomorrow. The day will start at 11am: choreography with Peter and Kate. Then a break. Then music with David Chase at 3pm. Then possibly scene work with Stephen Daldrey on Saturday, if I make it that far.
At 9:45pm I am cast out onto the streets of New York City. I still haven’t eaten dinner. I feel light headed. Excited. Well, excited and scared. I grab a slice of pizza and eat it while wandering back down Broadway to Herald Square.
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Extreme Sports Weekend: Day Two
There is virtually no daylight in interior rooms of the Radisson Martinique. My window looks out into someone else’s window about 3 feet away and is covered with years of dirt. I’m guessing there is no way for window cleaners to get to these panes. The dark makes for good sleeping.
I’m up at eight. Into the shower. I hate having to go out for breakfast. I’m a tea-and-toast-with-my-feet-up-writing-in-my-journal-all-morning kinda gal. I have poached eggs on toast in the lobby restaurant. Dreadful tea, and not enough of it.
I put on my teacher togs, and head down to the Chelsea Studios on 26th. At eleven on the dot I am in a large studio with Peter and Kate. Kate teaches me some choreography as Peter watches. I dance in my bare feet because I have no dance shoes.
It’s a bit like DSL: dance as a second language. I know I can get the moves. I have the same muscles as any other human body… but it takes a long time to wrap the old dogs around the new tricks.
In spite of everything, I always have my sense of humour. And within minutes I have both Peter and Kate laughing. I pull out a few of my 1984 jazz-dance moves. These win them over. I believe I have two points now.
After forty-five minutes my feet are sore, and I have sweated off all my make-up and my hair product. Peter has left the room while Kate painstakingly repeats the moves with me… over and over and over… and over again. After an hour my feet are bleeding. I still can’t believe the tempo they want me to achieve!
At about 12:25 Peter comes back, and we show him what I’ve got. He seems satisfied, though not pleased. This choreography will likely be shown to the rest of the panel later in the afternoon. I make him laugh again. As a parting effort I show Kate and Peter the three tap moves I know how to do. Hoping to impress them.
As I leave the studio I ask Dale from Tara Rubin’s office where the nearest drug store is. I need epsom salts and bandages.
* * *
Having had a quick, healthy lunch, a good hot soak in the tub, and a change into fresh dry clothes, I return for my David Chase music session with my feet neatly bandaged. I’m a little afraid of the music session only because the musical theatre I have done in Canada has allowed me quite a bit of interpretive freedom vocally, and I have the feeling I will not be granted that kind of freedom here.
I’m right. And I feel myself tensing up around the precision that David wants in Shine. I feel like I’m failing. Just at a critical point, William Conacher comes into the studio. My saviour. He is able to interpret David’s exacting needs into acting choices for me. That makes life so much easier – gives me some perspective – and the session proceeds smoothly from that point in.
We hit another difficulty while working musically through The Letter… and just at that moment Stephen Daldrey comes into the room with producer, Jon Finn. Without warning we are in the acting session that was not supposed to happen until Saturday! Help. I didn’t put on make-up after my bath! I can’t act without mascara!
Tough luck, girly. We are in the thick of it. The Letter: the emotional crux of Mrs. Wilkinson’s development. Stephen and I sit in chairs facing each other. He is now playing Billy. Gulp. Gee, that makes things easy, doesn’t it! We play the scene. He directs me. We play the scene. He directs me. We play the scene. He directs me. (You get the picture).
“There’s something I’m after here, Kate, that you are not giving me,” Daldrey says frankly.
I grab for an excuse. “I think that if there was a kid playing Billy, maybe I would…”
He cuts me off.
“I have to see it now.”
Gulp. (I tend to swallow air when I’m nervous) Oh-kay.
Digging out: “I want to give it to you, believe me. Let’s just keep trying.”
We do. I can’t figure out what he wants, and he can’t seem to communicate it. But whatever it is, it’s crucial that I find it. Now.
Grasping at straws, and against my better judgement, because I’m pretty sure that Mrs. Wilkinson is not supposed to wear her emotions on her sleeve, I decide to let the situation move me to tears. It’s not difficult. It’s a very moving scene.
“Yes! That’s it! Perfect. That’s it!!”
I look over at Jon Finn, and his eyes are full of water. Stephen is elated.
I’ve done it. Three points!
* * *
We’re over the hump. The rest of the panel piles back in the room. I do the two other scenes again, with direction this time. William plays Billy, and that puts me at ease. I do Shine several times with direction, and lots of playfulness. I’m making them laugh. I’m relaxed. So are they. We’re all having fun now.
After a break we assemble back in the larger studio. I show them the dance I had learned three years ago… oh no, it was just this morning. Right. I do the routine a couple of times. They all have to line up against the mirrors because that’s the direction I learned the steps, and I’m not yet capable of turning it around to face the tables! Hilarious. It goes as well as can be expected… in my Twyla Tharpe imagination.
As much as I think I have shown them everything they could possible want to see… they don’t let it go at that. We do the scenes again. Julian is Billy. Full circle. I’m making jokes now,
“I can’t juggle. But I can stand on my head and spit nickels if you want to see that.”
At long last, they decide they’ve seen all they are going to see. Stephen tells me to wait in a room down the hall, and he will be in to speak with me shortly.
I do as I’m told. Good little actor. After about 15 minutes I take out a notebook and start to write about my day. I feel so full I need to get some of it out: I’m stimulated, sore, excited, proud, ridiculous, and spent.
As promised, Stephen comes and talks to me. Just me and him. It’s nice. I feel like we have gone through a lot together today. I feel like we’re peers. I feel respected. I feel empowered. I feel loved. Professionally.
I can’t tell you what he said to me in that room. I can’t. And to be honest… it doesn’t matter. I had had the time of my life.
Stephen asked if he could walk me out of the building. At the elevator Julian joined us. They were just going down to the street for a smoke. These two men, for whom I had gained so much respect, who imbued me with so much energy and enthusiasm, who taught me to be a better actor during the few hours we shared… these two men hugged me on the street… and then I walked lightly east towards 7th Avenue, on my poor bloodied feet. Glowing.
* * *
I have two cousins who are amazing skiers. Their idea of fun is to be dropped at the top of a mountain by a helicopter and to make it to the bottom with only their skis, their wits and their skill. Just them and the mountain.
That’s what auditioning for Billy Elliot felt like. Just me and the mountain. Oh man. That’s the best.
On Saturday evening I was back in Montreal at the party for the graduating class of the English Section of the National Theatre School. Back to life. Back to reality. It was great to see the students so relieved, and so excited about the prospects of their future. What a fun party.
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Friday, August 7th, 2009
Thank God for Pam and Sam.
When you’re getting up at six o’clock in the morning to change your life, you want a good friend right there with a cup of tea. And of course, a limo driver that you know. I had both, and the day progressed with the smoothness of its beginning. When all was said and done — after the line-ups at the airport (what with the Family Day holiday), the over-weight luggage (I had to take one of my Shakespeare lexicons out of my red suitcase and squish it in my carry-on which I couldn’t get closed again… I would have to drag the heaviest books with me on the airplane!), the cat pee-ing himself, the hi-larious Rimon (my limo driver from Brooklyn), signing the lease, bathing the cat, the furniture moving in, the phone being hooked up, my first trip to the not-so-great grocery store across the street (I had a frozen pizza and a glass of beer for my dinner), looking around my very small (compared to my house) apartment– I spent my first night in the Big Apple on clean sheets in my new bed. I made it this far. This among many other godsends.
I’m adjusting slowly. I have a chaise-longue in my little alcove of windows looking out over West End Avenue, and I just know that I am going to spend a lot of time right here: writing and dreaming. It’s not my porch, but it is a great new place of inspiration.
My contract is signed, my boxes are in transit (they were held up in Buffalo because UPS lost the detailed and artful contents-lists that my sisters and I worked so hard to create!), my internet is not yet hooked up (because UPS has failed to deliver the router, not once, but three times!), so I’m stealing access from the ether… and I start rehearsals of Billy Elliot: The Musical at a studio on Broadway and 37th on Tuesday.
Oh boy. Keep breathing.
I’ve already discovered the nearest vet, cat food supplier, hardware store, health food store, cheap and cheerful wine store, subway, bookstore, and sushi delivery. I’ve already ordered from Target. And from Fresh Direct. Oh, let’s face it: I’m a Noo Yawkah!
There is plenty for me to explore in this rich jungle. I will take my
time doing that. My priority right now is to get Northrop the cat off the top of the fridge. And I hope to do that by making this little white box, tucked between the Hudson River and Lincoln Centre, into an
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I’m Gonna Live Forever
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
From the window outside Studio 16D at Ripley-Grier you can see the Empire State Building among the castle peaks of various other amazing art deco towers. The hallways are crowded with actors and singers, directors and pianists, children, parents, veterans and hopefuls. They resound with the not always dulcet tones of warming up and rehearsing and (god-forbid people should hear you so clearly!) auditioning. It’s kind of like FAME: almost mythological in its predictability.
Ripley-Grier is an entire floor (plus!) of studios on 8th Avenue between 36th and 37th. The walls are bubble-gum pink when you get off the elevator, with a sort of tropical theme. The chairs that line the halls are wicker, shaded by huge plants in each of the windows. There’s even a little snack-bar called the Oasis, which… trust me… is one.
It’s hot in New York in August. Stinking hot. And I mean stinking. The smells on the streets here are often a personal invasion: too much urine! human, canine, and even equine! But up on the 16th Floor the air-conditioning is blowing, and the real-live-world of the garment district seems miles away. We are in musical-theatre-land.
My first week of rehearsal was spent in the anarchic hands of Julian Webber, the Associate Director. It’s fun getting to know him better. Julian is wild. Really. Wild. His short cropped salt and pepper hair stands up at various angles as he brushes his hands through it searching for thoughts and words. He’s so tall he looms over the boys. And me. He tips his green glasses off his nose for emphasis. He has a potty mouth. And is adamant. Perfect. The world of this play.
We work through each scene in painstaking detail. This gives me loads of time to settle into the material, but is mostly for the children: they need such specificity. Oh! and they are brilliant. Each boy that plays Billy (and there are five that I am working with right now… four currently doing the show, and one little guy, Alex Ko, who will start on stage the same day I start… which is now October 6th) is so completely different. Each has been given his own little moments of leeway to make the part his own. Each moves differently, responds differently, and instantly there is a unique relationship between me and each one of these young treasures. We may have been wondering why the Billy Elliot folks wanted me to rehearse for eight weeks, but I think I know now: in many ways, I am rehearsing five different shows. Of course the lines are the same, and the blocking is basically the same, but I will have a different scene partner (and all my scenes in the play but one are with this young man) for each show.
So… scene work, rehearsals with musical director, David Chase, a wig-wrap (they literally wrap your head in cellophane, draw your hairline on this strange hat with a sharpie, and then cut the whole thing carefully from your head), a costume fitting, and straight into the tap/skipping stuff of Born to Boogie so I can get that under my belt… and that was the first week of work.
On the home front, my boxes came, and of the “few of my favourite things” that I sent from my home in St. Catharines, the lion’s share were broken. This is extremely upsetting and has left me with the added administration of an insurance claim to deal with. Pooh! Bah! And beautiful things lost, including a vase from Denmark and a porcelain canister from Florence, among the other shards. Irreplaceable really.
My little apartment begins to feel like a home, and I am already entertaining… a feat rarely accomplished in NYC apparently! I am making friends, and connecting with acquaintances from the production of White Christmas that I did for the last two winters, and contacting the list of Canadian ex-pats down here for one reason or another. They are no longer (as I still am) strangers in this strange land.
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On the Street Where I Live
Wednesday August 26, 2009
It is somewhat incongruous to look out the window of my apartment and see horses and carriages. You can imagine. Not exactly the vehicular traffic one would expect on West End Avenue in 2009. Delightful. The horses (I’m told) live down around 52nd and 11th, and I see them on their way to and from work in Central Park, pulling their flower clad barouches. Millions of yellow cabs, and the occasional anachronism.
I live just at the edge of many great amenities: a five minute walk from Lincoln Centre, and from Riverside Park. Central Park is a fifteen minute walk; fifteen minutes to 72nd and Broadway, or to Columbus Circle. And about a half an hour walk to the Imperial Theatre, where I will soon be working. That’s the ‘hood.
In my first week here I went to see a free concert of spoken word and world music at Lincoln Centre Out of Doors. I expected to just stop in for a listen, and ended up staying for five and a half hours! as the music and the poetry became more and more exciting and I just couldn’t tear myself away. I also went with friends to a free performance by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s company, Morphoses with special musical guest Martha Wainwright in Central Park. Magnificent! Oh how I love “the dance”. Both events were an easy walk from my little apartment. Cool.
I haven’t seen any theatre… mostly because I’m broke… but also because I’m working afternoon/evenings, and Monday, which is the dark day just about everywhere, is also my only night at home. There’s certainly theatre I’d like to see, and I’m sure I’ll find a way to do that soon.
Meantime, the second week of rehearsals went smoothly. I worked with B.T. McNichol (the Resident Director), and the charming young Alex Ko (we’re getting to be a real team). He is delightful. And shockingly gifted. He’s from Iowa City, Iowa. And the way he says “ogay” after every direction he receives, makes me weak. Gorgeous.
I also spent a lot of time with the magnificent Kate Dunn (the Resident and Associate Choreographer) getting the three “numbers” on their feet (Shine, Solidarity, and Boogie). Extremely complicated work, mostly because there are always a gaggle of people on stage doing elaborate and extraordinary things, which are only described to me by Kate since we have none of those people in rehearsal. (Oh, you see that’s something I haven’t explained… when I am called for rehearsal it is basically ‘all me all the time’. This requires a totally concentrated effort to keep absorbing information which is to this point only available in my imagination. Julian has said not to go see the show for a while. I’m happy with this directive as it means I can get my own handle on character and story. The down side though, is that I am working from the memory of having seen the show once, last November. Anyway. Not exactly a straightforward process. But nevertheless, I’m in, and playing, and having a great deal of fun!)
Also in the week: some great tap work with Cara (sorry Cara, don’t know your last name yet…). And I am happy to say that even the tap/skipping work is showing improvement.
A party Sunday night at Gregory Jbara’s (he won the Tony as the Dad) marked my first real social time with the Company. I met a few of the folks I will be working with, and spent a good part of the evening talking to Haydn Gwynne, the actor I am replacing as the dance teacher. That was so great. She’s seen a lot over the past year, and is extremely generous and willing to share with me and to help me in any way she can. That spirit, and a pretty fantastic margarita! made a great end to the week.
And that’s it, I think. Northrop the cat, is settling. He’s come off the fridge… and is even sitting on the chaise with me, beside our floor to ceiling windows, watching the horses and the yellow cabs.
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Pat Head, Rub Tummy, Avoid Cat Fight
September 2nd, 2009
It was back to class this week. Or classes. I started the week with a ballet class taught by Miranda. (Everyone has to forgive the last name thing… when there are over a hundred people involved in a show and most of them have character names as well as real names… well, the old brain has a meltdown). Fantastic class. It is such a great way to keep the joints oiled and the muscles firing, and to remember how much I love dancing.
Had a boxing class on Friday morning with Jason Lee (okay… there’s my last name theory shot to hell in an instant!). I miss Terence… my boxing coach in St. Catharines (though Jason is fantastic, and we are going to have a great time working together, especially because he was very impressed by my fitness level, by my skipping ability! and by the training that Terence had achieved. That made me feel good).
And then the same day, a two hour tap class with Sara (oh, I do hope the last name block is not a gender thing… wouldn’t that be embarrassing!). I’m happy to say that my skill level in all these areas has improved so much since May with all the great training I had before I came here. And now I just want to get even better, stronger, faster…
Julian was back this week. And left me with a compelling memory:
Okay. Most of my scenes in the show take place during or around the classes that Mrs. Wilkinson teaches in the community hall. These classes are full of girls. The Ballet Girls – as they’re referred to on the schedule. For the first time, I was putting two of my big “numbers” together with these girls, having until now done them only with empty space and Kate. Now. They are all doing hi-larious and outrageous antics throughout. So on the first rehearsal I found myself stopping and laughing every 2 bars: it was impossible to get all the way through. Then the next day, when we all met with Julian for the first time, all hell broke loose.
Julian wanted the girls to introduce their characters to me. So they each took a turn self-describing in the elaborate and honest detail only children can manage to achieve. And me, writing it all down in my script. Then he directed the girls to turn the volume up on their characters as high as they could go: in other words, if they were frightened, to be REALLY frightened… if they were talkative, to be DOUBLY talkative, if they had a feud with someone in the group… well, you can imagine. I, in the meantime, was to continue the scene as usual.
Well. Bedlam had nothing on these girls, I’m just saying. The room was shaking. My ears (and brain) were exploding. And through all this, I’m meant to concentrate and deliver my lines, and sing, and move, and do all the bits! Ngah! Talk about an exercise in concentration. And on top of that all the lines in the scene are delivered on beats of the music… and I could barely even hear the piano, let alone the sound of my own voice.
In the end we all just fell apart laughing. And when the Ballet Girls took it all back down to a normal level… well, wasn’t the number a cakewalk! Ultimately, the achievement was… I certainly knew the girls and their characters better than when I first entered the room with them. And of course, I had a new found respect for their ability, their commitment, and the detail in the work that they do everyday on that stage.
And putting all my bits together…? Well, that will come in time. And I still have a good amount of time.
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Sixteen Bars from HELL
September 9, 2009
The narrowest house in the West Village was For Sale when Jack Galligan and his mom Brenda Robins and I made our little tour, guided via an email from Bobby Wilson, the head of the nine child guardians on the Billy Elliot staff. Only nine feet wide. I was thinking about how to arrange the living room furniture… quite a conundrum. And if you buy a coach house that’s down one of the horse walks, you have to make sure your couch will fit down there (the passage is only as wide as a horses… rear part). And although the four or five row-houses in Grove Court were built as workers houses in the 1800s, apparently one of them sold last year for seven million buckeroos! I can’t imagine what the little farmhouse at the corner of Charles and Greenwich St must be worth! EEEEE! And yet, although housing may be an issue, the Village has more charm than you can imagine… and the tea and scones at Tea and Sympathy are worth the real estate woes.
Fun to have visitors to play with!
The work week was tough. I have to say I was working at my edge. We are at the point now where I am putting numbers together at tempo and the dancing is a challenge to my old bod. Particularly the tapping/skipping/lasso part where you have to sing at the same time. The thing with learning choreography that involves skipping is… you can’t slow it down! If you slow it down of course, what does the rope do? It stops going over your head and under your feet! Bummer. That means learning all the elements up to speed separately, and then just sort of… praying. The criminal part? I’m only talking about sixteen bars of music!
Sixteen #%*&@! bars. That I spent about 6 hours working on last week!
Oh my. It’s like banging your head against a wall. Thank God for Sara…Brians (Cara…Kjellman is on holidays, lucky her!) who has the patience of Job. As many times as I’d curse and want to quit she would count me in … “and five, six, seven, eight…” and I’d try again. We’d break down sections that we could, and we’d run sections again, and again, and again, the sweat poring off me, the water bottles drained, the towels getting soaked, the shins getting sore. And still only minimal improvement. It’s hard to be this frustrated, but… on I go, and hang onto the glorious gains being made in other parts of the show, and even in other parts of the number. And in the delicious relationship I am building with the 13 year old Alex Ko.
So on the day off what a relief it was to find a piece of paradise right at the end of my street. I discovered South Riverside Park: a new park that has been built around the ruins of some of the old shipping piers in the Hudson River. So peaceful. Wildflowers, rushes, grasses, a boardwalk, and a huge long pier that juts halfway out to New Jersey, just five minutes from my apartment door. I will spend many a Monday there, I just know it. To enjoy the air, the water, and little moments of bliss after a tough week on Broadway.
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September 16, 2009
Well… on Tuesday night when I actually got the singing, the feet, and the rope TOGETHER for the first time!!! there was much hooting and hollering to be heard from both Sara and me! Oh thank God! Now believe me, it’s far from perfect… and it’s one of those things that will be a crapshoot every night… but I can at least fudge my way through it now! Yee haw! The next three weeks promises drilling, oh, and the niggly bit about incorporating those sixteen bars into the rest of the number in which I’ll have already done a bunch of singing and dancing with the kid. Oh, and the high B natural I have to hit at the end of all of it… but… never mind all that! The biggest hurdle is passed. Onward.
And so the week progressed: classes, rehearsals onstage and up at the studio, running the First Act scenes a few times with BT and young Alex, just to keep us on top of things: a bit of a holding, improving, and detailing pattern. I got to do Solidarity (a twelve minute number) onstage with the ensemble for the first time. That was a treat. Having met and worked with all the young Ballet Girls, it was great to meet the men who play the miners and the policemen. And once again, when suddenly there are hulking six foot bodies bouree-ing beside you, where before there was only space… or Kate… it’s a whole new ball-game. Then there’s the part where I went completely ass-over-tea-kettle while learning the bows (no irony there) and nearly crushed one of the children! Sorr-eeeee.
There was a wonderful tourist capper to the week. On Sunday night I went on a cruise of the New York harbour in an eighty foot sailing ship called the Adirondack. Bobby and his partner Andy, who is also a child guardian, invited me, along with their friend Vanessa, her dog Tallulah, and Matt Trent (a new company member from Australia), and what a wonderful experience we all had.
The ship cast off from the Chelsea Piers at 8:30pm and we sailed down the Hudson surrounded by the city lights of both Manhattan and New Jersey, alongside Battery Park, and out into the harbour to see the Statue of Liberty. She’s pretty impressive any time, but at night she just glows against the night sky. So awesome. Andy recited her inscription as we passed: “give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses…”; a bit touching really, and a legacy worth remembering. She’s a sturdy gal, with thick arms, and small breasts, but she looks really fine from the silent stillness of a ship on a warm, clear Sunday; no sound but the flapping of the sailcloth, and the bubble of conversation from the passengers.
Then, it just so happened that as we were tacking back up the Hudson, there was a huge fireworks display up-river! It must have lasted for at least twenty minutes, and it felt like New York was lighting up just for me: here Kate: welcome: thought we’d put on a show…
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It’s a Stretch
September 23rd, 2009
For many of you who have lived in New York City this will be a familiar tale: the subway doors close and you hear a booming (almost always pain-filled) voice reaching throughout the car, “Good morning ladies and gentlemen…” and what follows is a harrowing story of financial need, and a plea for help however large or small. For all it’s glories and wonders New York is home to some of the most harrowing images of poverty, suffering, and pain of both the body and the soul.
That said, on Tuesday morning the train arrived at 66th Street, and as the doors opened I was accosted by none other than the sound of a mariachi band: two spanish guitars and an accordion with three young Mexican men looking to earn some money with their fantastic music! I was very disappointed when they got off at 59th St, I’ll tell you! But such was my luck, that at 42nd St… on got a pair of gospel singers needing some funding for college, and they too were amazing! yet, disappointed that I could not stay on board for more and find them some much deserved funding in the recesses of my wallet, I had to get off at 34th St and go to work. Drn.
Now. I must take you back a day to Monday. On Monday I met Nicky Gillibrand, our costume designer. Oh, ho, ho, I had the most magnificent costume fitting! This is what sets Billy Elliot apart from the usual Broadway musical (this and rehearsing a replacement for eight weeks!). Haydn Gwynne, who is currently playing Mrs. Wilks. is tall and long limbed and thin, and she looks magnificent in her hideous nineteen-eighties spandex, with shiny bits, and dance skirts, and leg warmers. And before I came I just thought… well, I will look different than Haydn does in those costumes.
On Monday Nicky lays before me an entirely different set of costume designs, not actually designed for me specifically (they were used in the Australian production), but absolutely suited to my body. AND, most importantly… HI-LARIOUS! Breathtakingly awful, in a way only retrospect can truly allow. And as Nicky is draping me in a combination of purple 3-way stretch fabric, with a pink, silver, and black geometric, pink and black stars and moons, tied together with a charming electric teal trim… and saying “Perfect!”, I’m (believe it!) agreeing with her! Gah! Too much fun. Oh you guys… you will be howling each time I set foot on that stage wearing another Nicky gem. That is if you even recognise me with my groovy Farrah Fawcett hairdo!
Well I can tell you that fitting put a little fire under me. And my niece Ainsleigh will be delighted to know… I am getting excited about getting onstage! It’s true. (For months Ainsleigh has been asking me if I’m excited about being on Broadway, and it’s a tough question to answer. When you’re 47 and you’ve been working in this business for almost thirty years, excitement is tempered by the experience of hard work and focus and professionalism, especially when you are coming into a completely foreign culture… And believe me, Broadway is a completely foreign culture! But now I can feel my young heart beating…) It feels like we’re heading into the home-stretch (fabric) now: two more weeks to go. This week we have the technical rehearsal of Act One on Thursday, then Act Two on Friday. And members of the creative team begin to trickle in: William Connacher comes to do final touches on dialect; and Peter Darling, the choreographer, arrives on Thursday and will watch the tech. Then the following week in come Julian Webber and Stephen Daldrey, which will bring huge amounts of information to be absorbed as they each respond to the work that I have been doing in secret for the last 6 weeks. And I must be prepared to take in all that information and turn it around in my brain and body, because I will be strutting whatever the result in front of the folks pretty pronto. It’s really a bit daunting, but on the other hand, I’m heading up the ramp. I can feel it. And I really am getting excited! And a good part of that has to do with Nicky and her wonderful imagination, and her unapologetic sense of the world of this play. Bring on the batwing denim dress with shoulder pads! I can handle it!
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Casey Katie at Bat
September 30, 2009
On deck now. And swinging the bat. (Am I to be Mr. October?!) All the coaches are gathering to signal their final instructions: brushing their chests and tweaking their noses. Kicking their feet in the sand. William Conacher starts it off with dialect corrections. I’m a little slow to respond because of weeks of patterns that are set in my brain, but apparently I have to be careful not to slip to the Hebrides, or to Wales (my two favourite alternatives to the Geordie tune) which gives away the game. After only a couple of sessions I find my sweet swing, and my average increases.
William is a brilliant dialect coach: he fuels all his choices with action and intention, and in this show he is most concerned that we all sound like we are from the same place. He has been so helpful to me personally since the very first session we had at the call-back here in New York over a year ago, and I am ever grateful for his encouragement and faith.
On Wednesday evening, as my final divertissement before the crack-down, I went to see Fall for Dance at City Centre. It was a mixed program of dance delights beginning with an homage to the Ballet Russe by way of a re-staging of Nijinski’s choreography to L’Apres-midi d’un Faune, by the Boston Ballet. Oh I loved that! It took me right back to the work I did with Veronica Tennant on The Penelopiad in all its Greek splendour! Unbelievably brave work for 1913, or thereabouts. Paul Taylor Company then did Offenbach Overtures, which, though it was a huge crowd pleaser, was not my cup of tea. My fave was the Battsheba Company from Israel (a company founded by Martha Graham) doing a brilliant piece of contemporary choreography to Ravel’s Bolero. They could have just put that in a loop and I would have been quite content to wile away a few hours transfixed by their hypnotic movement. Topping the evening off was Savion Glover, jamming with his modern jazz band and a couple of other jaw-dropping hoofers. Gob-smackingly impressive. And fascinating to see where Glover has come as an artist since he was discovered by Gregory Hines at the ripe age of 14 or something. As for the City Centre theatre itself… well, just go and see anything there! The place is a temple of the theatre. Literally.
Back at rehearsal we’re in tech. The cast and the crew are so helpful, and so supportive. They have all been rehearsing a lot of hours on top of their eight show weeks, and yet they sat in the house when they could and cried encouragement for both Alex and me. Unfortunately, none of my costumes were ready for the tech, so I had to wear a few substitute pieces, and simply talk through my costume changes with my BRILLIANT dresser, Margiann. Oh, I am in such good hands there! So although I only get one pass at the clothes next week before I go on, I feel confident that Margiann will get me where I need to go in those 30 -second changes, right down to the jewelry.
Friday I’m sitting in the house for the first part of the Act 2 rehearsal because I don’t go on for a while, and I am watching the young, completely edible Alex Ko do the dream ballet with sound and flying and Stephen Hanna, the older Billy. And I’m telling you… I couldn’t help myself… the tears were streaming down my face. And when the rehearsal stopped in order to check a few technical issues, I turned around to find Carole Shelley and many other members of the company equally verklempt. It’s a stunning moment of theatre making. Stunning.
Peter Darling was in the house, as promised, for both days of rehearsal, and on Friday night we got right down to it. He’s cracking the whip. He needs me to look more like a serious dance teacher, and that means introducing a physical shape that is far more controlled than my natural, relaxed behaviour. It feels completely right, if somewhat daunting to achieve. The writing is on the wall now: the rest of the days before I go on will be filled with dance rehearsals. I really need to wrap my head (and poor sore feet and aching shoulder) around that. I need to dig my cleats into the soil, align my hips with my shoulders, and keep my eye on the ball.
There are only moments now before the imminent arrival of the head coach and his associate. I’ve got to get my mitt, and get in the game.
P.S. Missing home a bit this week. But too focussed to worry too much about it. Love to you all above the 49th.
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The Art of the Beginner
October 6th, 2009
I spoke with my friend Medina on the weekend. She is a lawyer in Calgary. I likened my experience (oh, you know… debuting on Broadway tonight… la, la, la) to her arguing in front of the justices of the Supreme Court. How would she feel? Her family and friends would likely be pumping with excitement and encouragement, and she would be conscious of the love and all the delicious congratulatory remarks coming from the great white north… but ultimately… she would be focussed on the job at hand. She wrote me in an email this morning (I hope you don’t mind that I print this, Med!):
“if i am to liken it to arguing in the supreme court of canada – i would be feeling very nervous (but use the nerves to be thorough) and i would have to remind myself to breathe!
i would be relying on my colleagues to guide me particularly through the protocols – where to go, where to change etc. i would be rolling my arguments in my head over and over.
so… here is my advice to you: use your nerves for good and not evil; keep breathing; ask for help and use it; put whatever is useful in your head and ignore the rest.”
And that sage advice from my lawyer!
Then I was reminded of the interview I had yesterday with Kimberley Kaye at Broadway.com. She asked me if teaching has influenced my work as a performer. I told her, what teaching allows me (particularly teaching the elite students at the National Theatre School of Canada) is to witness the art of the beginner: that essence, passion, and clarity which pushes a young actor forward into the unknown, where their fear becomes dominated by their courage.
And so today, as I head to the shoe-makers, then to rehearsal, and then to my first performance of Billy Elliot in front of the paying public, I think of my family, my friends, and my students: of their support, their excitement, and their en-courage-ment. I carry those wishes with me, as both a shield and an offering of peace, into the unknown.
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October 14th, 2009
WHEW! Gulp. Gulp.
I’m just coming up for air. The water is slowly settling, and if I pace myself now I may even find I can swim.
Ah – but perhaps we should go back a few days for the readers. Picking up then from the plunge itself.
With the sustenance of family, friends, colleagues, and the tremendous and extensive world that is Billy Elliot, I got through my Broadway debut! Imagine.
I arrived at the theatre for rehearsal in the afternoon to find the marquee at the Imperial Theatre changed to include my name. I even took a picture of it… because IT WAS SPELLED WRONG! HA, HA! You see… you get all the way to Broadway… and they still spell your name wrong. Not to worry. I knew about it before I saw it. The old human error, and not a big deal at all, but funny.
Rehearsal was good, and I was let go early. I had time to come home and have a little quiet spell, and force some food into my unwilling stomach. Then back to the theatre for a thorough warm-up. By this time my dressing room was already looking like a wonderful combination of flower shop and liquor store. All the amazing gifts, cards, and well-wishes put me slightly behind the eight ball, and I really had to rush to get my kit on for the show.
I was particularly overwhelmed by a staggeringly enormous bouquet from the theatre community in Calgary. In fact, when I opened their note I fell to the ground and cried. Here is a group of people that I lived among for a short 2 1/2 year spell, ten years ago. Yes, I have returned several times to perform on their stages, and to be embraced by their generosity… but still I would never have thought that about twenty people would get together and donate money to “fill my dressing room with flowers”. I have truly never seen a bigger arrangement except perhaps in a hotel lobby. And it is still going strong, a full week later! It is moments like this that remind me that my life is so much bigger than day to day struggles, even if the day is a particularly strenuous one.
At 7pm (I had almost shown up for an eight o’clock curtain! oops!) Stephen Daldrey took the stage to a rush of applause. He graciously announced the Broadway debuts of both Alex Ko (in fact… his first play EVER! Not a bad start, I guess), and little ol’ me. Maybe my heart fluttered slightly. And after that… things were mostly a blur. Or… more like looking down a narrow, curving tunnel, and waiting to see if the light will ever reveal itself again.
There was so much help from a supportive, skillful, and humourous company. And a gentle and patient crew.
And then it was over. I had survived. I had not fallen, nor taken anyone down in the process. This I took as a remarkable accomplishment.
After the performance, we had a toast in the lobby bar. My friends Allison and Sam had come as representatives of all the people from home who were “there in spirit” (I’ll tell you, the spirit house was oversold!). Stephen Daldrey and Julian Webber offered their gratitude and enthusiasm for both Alex and I, and seemed genuinely pleased with the proceedings. Their opinion has to be the guide for my success or failure, so I was pleased, too. We drank champagne, and laughed and of course… I got notes! It was all good.
Exiting the stage door onto 46th, I looked up… the spelling of my name on the marquee had already been corrected.
Across the street from the stage door there is an excellent pizza joint called Patzeria. Sam and Al and William Conacher and I headed over there to fill the now empty space which was my stomach. A “grandma’s slice” is a must-have for anyone heading to the Imperial. And that was the end of that wacky night. Home to bed with a bouquet or two, to cut down on the space infringement of the dressing room. Into bed, but not much sleep. Perhaps I was a little pumped.
Only to rise the next morning, and begin my year on Broadway. Seven more shows in the week, some vocal strain, a little groin pull, some seemingly endless yawning, and a weekend visitor (my friend Di – first visitor from CA!). Poor Di. She had to deal with my complete exhaustion, and my need for disciplined vocal rest. But she was a good sport, and it was great to have her see the show.
So, I’ve bobbed up to the surface, and must now learn to pace myself: learn the physical, vocal, and spiritual stamina of doing eight shows a week for the foreseeable future. I’ll tell you one thing that makes it an exciting prospect: this is a beautiful play about the determination (and perhaps, pre-determination) of art in the individual. People love this play. That gives me hope. I hope it gives all artists hope.
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To the Dogs
October 22nd, 2009
When I was in Copenhagen, it was easy to spot the dog (actually dogs) of the city: the most popular breeds were the West Highland Terrier and the Wire-Haired Dachshund. Hands down. You saw them everywhere. In New York City there are many popular breeds. Certainly the Shi-Tzu, and of course “tea-cup” dogs are extremely fashionable as accessories for men and women alike. But I would have to say, the dog of choice for the New Yorker is the French Bulldog. Yup. They are cute little buggers too. They come in various shades of brindle and tan, they have pointy ears and perky little figures, and they, like their human counterparts, seem fiercely determined, yet slyly humourous.
I think there are as many dogs in Manhattan as people. Because if you don’t have a dog, believe me, there is someone next to you on the street that has two, or three… And I have seen every possible variety: right here in my ‘hood there is a St. Bernard, an enormous old brindle Bull Mastiff, a German Shepherd, several Golden Retrievers, a very thin, hearty couple, who walk a very thin elderly hound, Bernese Mountain Dogs (desperately seeking mountains), Portuguese Water Dogs (aching for the Hudson), and so on, etc, etc. The list is endless. The folks here like their dogs.
It’s been a good week. The show seems to be settling for me. I am surviving the pace now. My voice is recovering from the initial shock of singing, dancing, and SMOKING! And I am getting used to the daily aches and pains, and finding time for naps and physio. My sweet darling thirteen-year-old boyfriend, Alex Ko, hurt himself in warm-up last week, and is out of the show until he recovers. Ugh. It is completely sick-making. Poor little lamb. So, I am developing my relationships with the other Billys: Tommy Bachelor, David Alvarez, and Trent Kowalik. All sensational. All exceptional. But the first time I saw Alex come through the theatre for tutoring, his skin was grey, and his eyes showed the strain. This little play we are doing does take it’s toll.
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October 27th, 2009
There was an invasion last week. We’re lucky it’s a friendly border! It was my BIRTHDAY! And what a special day it was. Thirty-three people, family and friends of my family, came from Canada (two from Portland, Oregon) to see the show. Mom, Dad, sisters, Aunt and Uncle, Great Uncle, first cousins, second cousins, folks from my Mom and Dad’s church, and more. Two cousins came from as far away as Edmonton, Alberta. Most of them stayed for five days, and had a fantastic time being tourists, many visiting New York for the first time. They took the bus tour, and the boat tour, and went to museums, and bought out the shops. They went to FAO Schwartz and Tiffany, and had tea at the Plaza. They loved New York! Only too bad that the Yankees were playing out of town! Darn! (Of course, my father, being an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan had no trouble with that. Damn Yankees!)
On Thursday we went for a horse and buggy ride in Central Park (it was sunny and 22 degrees!). The leaves are changing now, and they have already got the skating rink installed in the Park. There were even a few skaters out there in shirtsleeves. Quite incongruous.
Then we met (27 of the 33) for dinner at Sardi’s. Everyone was dressed up, and looking particularly shiny. What a fantastic meal! and all were treated exceptionally well by the wonderful staff there.
Then to top off their quintessential Broadway experience, they took a quick walk through Shubert Alley to the Imperial Theatre on 45th to see a little show called Billy Elliot. They were tickled. After the show members of the cast came onstage to meet them… and my 96 year old great uncle was right up at the front of the stage asking David Alvarez all kinds of questions. So great. So great.
I am so honoured by my family. Imagine making the arrangements (my amazing sister Jane to thank!) for all those people to come and see me do my work. It really is a remarkable feat. And it was the best birthday present I could possibly have had. In our play, the ballet dancer at the London audition says to Billy’s Dad, “You. Get right behind your boy,” and I feel so grateful that for my career of 28 years, my family has been right behind me all the way. Just an example: my cousin Arvey and his family saw me at the Heathcote Arts Centre (a barn behind The Comfortable Pew Restaurant in Heathcote Ontario) performing for 14 people in a variety show with a pair of jugglers and a stand-up comic. And now they have seen me on Broadway. So great. So great.
My celebrations wouldn’t be complete without a birthday toast to my new family, too. One that supports me, and welcomes me, and one that I feel honoured by: a family of players, stage-hands, dressers, wiggers, child guardians, stage and company managers that with generosity and open hearts came to meet my real-live family on stage that night. Instead of getting me a cake. For which I am so hugely grateful.
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Halloween, Saturday Night, Midtown Manhattan
November 2nd, 2009
Need I say more?
It seems Halloween – like Carnivale – has become an opportunity to express one’s repressed self in a public display called costume. This reveals a tidy sum about our culture: the young women on the streets of New York clad in the most scanty, lacy, provocative attire possible… and their escorts mostly dressed as psycho-killers. Hmmm. My favourite costume was not one of these, but a woman dressed as a jellyfish! It was a simple, brilliant design whose main feature was a clear plastic umbrella with swishy tendrils hanging from inside it: an imminently practical costume considering the light rain that was falling on the city as I took the Broadway bus up Eighth, around Columbus Circle, and into the Upper West Side.
Celebrating Halloween in a company filled with children is such a refreshing change. Weeks before the day, Kyle DesChamps, one of our enormously skilled swings, had set to decorating the backstage staircase with cobwebs and pumpkins and skeletons. OOOoooooo. Last week the kids had gone to a party over with The Lion King company, and returned for the second show buzzing with excitement and sugar. And then Saturday between shows we had our own party: pizza and drinks for the kids and their families, trick or treating from one dressing room to the next, and the piece de resistance… the men’s ensemble had put together a haunted house in their dressing room on the fifth floor. The screams from the children echoed throughout the building! It was fantastic. And the children’s costumes were far less revealing of any psychological struggles than the costumes on the street. They exhibited their inner lady-bird, their Borg, their pirate, a few hippies, and… the winner in my books… the extremely clever Tessa Netting – our Susan Parkes – showed us her Swine Flu, complete with pig nose, and IV bag. I trust you can imagine.
The rest of the week has gone apace: I feel truly in the swing of things now, having plenty of voice and stamina for eight shows. We were down to two Billys this week: Trent and Tommy. What resilient and dedicated young men they are. It is awesome to work with such inspiring young artists. It sure makes my job a breeze. It is not at all difficult to look at these boys and see their outstanding capabilities. Who needs to act?
After my eighth show yesterday, I went down to Chelsea to see the SITI Company’s Antigone, under the direction of Ann Bogart. I was hoping it would be brilliant, but it was only good. However, it is satisfying to see that there is a world of theatre that exists in New York City apart from the commercial ventures of Broadway. It is food for my soul to sit in a room of like minded theatre goers and listen to the timeless fables of those crazy Greeks… cuz let’s face it… the story of Antigone and Kreon is basically the way the Greeks revealed their inner sex object and psycho-killer. Not much different than the streets of New York on a Halloween night. Does society ever really change?
P.S. Laugh out loud on the street moment: walking from Ripley-Grier up to the theatre, stopped at the light on 42nd Street beside a guy with headphones on, singing “Help Me Rhonda” at the top of his lungs. Indeed.
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LIVE from the Canadian Shield…
November 9th, 2009
You may have read in the papers this week that another Canadian is bound for Broadway and Billy Elliot. Yup. North Bay, Ontario – a mining and logging town on the north east end of Lake Nipissing, a remote and ruggedly beautiful land of water, trees, and rocks – has sent to us the delightful smile and abundant talent that is Liam Redhead.
Oh… and perhaps I have a story of my own to tell about Liam!
In the twelve weeks before I came to New York I had the great good-fortune to take community ballet classes at the National Ballet School of Canada. In addition to my training in the highly entertaining classes of Bob McCollum, I asked Mavis Staines, the School’s Director, if I could observe some classes with the young students… research for my upcoming roll as a dance teacher… yup.
In June, I watched two different classes that I thought would help me with my work: ten and eleven year old girls, and thirteen and fourteen year old boys. Watching the way these enormously skilled teachers worked with the young bodies of their students was extremely insightful. Truly. And there was this young boy… with dark curly hair, and the brightest smile (that would sneak out unbidden, even in ballet class! tsk, tsk!) who I could not take my eyes off. Oh, and his teacher, Alexandre Gorbasevich, was all over him: “Liam, your supporting leg! Liam! Your arms! Liam! Your tummy! Liam! Liam! Liam! What on earth did you have for breakfast this morning?!”. And there’s me looking at the kid going… he’s perfect, isn’t he? I mean, look at him – so light, so easy, so obviously skillful. And then coming to the realisation that it was for precisely that reason the teacher was on at him. Be better. Work harder. Don’t rely on your natural gifts. Get that technique working for you. It takes extraordinary discipline to become a truly fine classical danseur.
At the end of class that day the students were practicing a piece they would be showing their parents for the end of year recital… and there was Liam dancing – taking his space, filling the movement with joy, direct from his heart… and oh, the charm! The unmistakeable gift of this young performer.
What did I think? Immediately? Billy Elliot should see this kid.
Skip ahead now to August in New York in rehearsal. And the hallway chat at Ripley/Grier turns one day to up and coming Billys, since we’ve heard that Kiril Kulish will be leaving in September, and Tommy will be going to do the show in Chicago in December, and don’t you know!… “Oh, there’s a new boy coming from Canada… from the National Ballet School… his name is Liam…”
HAH! I can pick ‘em!
(Here is where life imitates art. I wonder… what did Liam’s hip-hop teacher at the Barbara Treleaven School of Dance in North Bay see in him? How did she help him get to classes at the American Ballet Theatre, and
become a student at the National Ballet School? Is she Liam’s Mrs. Wilkinson, and Liam her Billy Elliot? How many students like him will cross her path in the lifetime of her teaching? Hmmmm. How lucky am I to tell this story day after day.)
And now, November, and Liam is making his way to the stage. We started rehearsing with him on deck last week (did I mention… A FOURTEEN YEAR OLD BOY FROM NORTH BAY ON BROADWAY!), and those rehearsals continue now until he goes in front of an audience in a few weeks. We have a tech rehearsal of Act One this week. And bit by bit he learns to move these enormous dances from solo sessions in the rehearsal hall, to the raked stage, the company, and all lighting, sound, set and costume elements. Undaunted. With his gorgeous hair, and winning smile, and this great unconscious habit of standing on pointe in his tap shoes.
Here’s to Liam Redhead. God love ya, kid.
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What Do They Say About Dogs and…
November 16th, 2009
Billy Elliot Broadway turned one year old this week. Wild. I’ve never been in a show that has run for a whole year! Of course I’ve just finished my 6th week onstage, so I still don’t know what it’s like playing for such an extended period of time. In the world of not-for-profit theatre we would have had rehearsals and finished the run within that six week timeframe! But Broadway is a whole different kettle of fish.
Or… pan of cake! And champagne! And noisemakers and birthday hats! Oh… and we must not forget Shirley Temples for the kids. My friend Pam had just arrived from Toronto, so I told her to come and meet me for the party, which we had in the theatre bar after the show on Friday night.
The first person we met upon entering the room was Mitchell, one of the “small boy”s in the show. Mitchell is 8, I think. Mitchell had a Shirley Temple and was quick to tell us that his drink was way better than the “adult” drinks. I asked him to lead us to the bar, which he was extremely happy to do, circumnavigating the party-goers by way of empty rows of theatre seats. Mitchell knows these routes extremely well, as he and his guardian John Fahey, spend many an hour between shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays looking for coins that spill from patrons’ pockets. (If you come to a Wednesday or Saturday matinee, please leave a little coinage for Mitchell!) Mitchell has a constant companion: an extremely squishy stuffed rabbit which he carries most everywhere but on the stage. “What’s your rabbit’s name?”, asked Pam. And with a look of confusion at what should be glaringly obvious, Mitchell replied, “Bunny”. Bunny was wearing Mitchell’s birthday hat.
Stephen Daldrey made a Happy Birthday Billy toast, and photos were taken of all the Billys (those currently on the stage: Trent, David A. and Tommy; those in training: Liam and Dayton Tavares from Australia; and those rapidly recovering from injury: the inimitable Alex Ko). He also made a toast to the children and their families. Pam and I talked about this. It is the children that makes this show so different than most of the shows I have been involved with. The kids keep it all a bit more real. Even though they are also existing in this surreal environment of 8 shows a week plus rehearsals, plus tutoring or home schooling, plus dance classes, plus physio-therapy… they are still just kids, with “Bunny”s and teenage angst and growing pains in their legs and rhyming songs sung backstage while waiting for cues and pop culture and computers in their dressing rooms… and a community that they make together in the Imperial Theatre on 45th Street between Broadway and Eighth. This is their playground.
And as for their parents and siblings? Anonymous in a way. But no less dedicated to dropping them off, and picking them up, and adjusting schedules, and checking cell phones, and packing lunches, and giving so much time and effort, namelessly, and many times, face-lessly, to allow these talented children to work on Broadway, telling a story about a community. And there is no community without those children.
Happy Birthday Billy!
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Musta Been a Banana Peel
November 23rd, 2009
Knickers to the wind, nose to the floor, arse over tea-kettle in pile of glistening ruffles! That was me Saturday night in the finale. Oh yeah. In front of a sold-out Broadway audience of 1400, and with no sense of the ironic, God smote me on the lyric, “…even if you can’t dance at all, all you really have to do is shine!”. (And we think higher beings have no sense of humour!) The audience gasped (I definitely heard that) and before I even knew which direction I was facing, my nose barely visible above my voluminous, be-sparkled skirts, the ever-generous hand of Greg Jbara was there to help me to my feet, get me back in the line, and GET ON WITH THE NUMBER, with only a smattering of embarrassment and a profusion of hilarity!! On top of that, Stephen Daldrey was in the wings… (uh huh… I’ll be working again…) and as I ran into said wings before the final curtain call, he’s all, “Are you okay? Are you hurt?” and me?… I couldn’t even stop laughing to answer him. (In fact, I’m fine. A few bruises to add to the body of green and blue polka dot fabric which currently substitutes for my skin).
Sunday was Mitchell’s last show. Retiring at 8. Bunny was with him for his final curtain call. Yum. Being a neophyte here on the Great White Way, I was introduced to one of its finest traditions: when a cast-member leaves a long-running show, at the end of their final curtain call the company gathers behind the curtain to sing, “Happy Trails to you, until we meet again… “. It’s beautiful. A true moment of tenderness and community. So there’s this tiny little boy with Bunny amidst a sea of orange miners uniforms and fluffy white tutus, and he’s a bit overwhelmed by all these people singing to him, and he grabs Tommy Bachelor, who was playing Billy for that performance, and just holds on.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, the tears were streaming down my face. And I couldn’t stop. I cried as I passed John Fahey on the stairs, the man who has been Mitchell’s stage guardian for well over a year now (how must he feel to say goodbye to his little ward…). And I’m crying in the dressing room. And at home later that evening, I’m crying in the bathtub. This is when I realise it’s likely more than just Mitchell leaving that has me all misty. Perhaps tripping the light fantastic on Saturday and the waterworks on Sunday are mysteriously related. Could it be a little fatigue, perhaps?
And do I have reason to be tired? You be the judge. After my friend Pam left Tuesday I had rehearsal for the Macy’s Parade (oh yeah! you better tune in!), and then walked up to a recording studio to record the track for the lip-sync (look out Madonna!). Then a show. Wednesday – 2 shows. Thursday – physio-therapy and rehearsal onstage, and a show. Friday- a run-through of the whole show for Liam and Easton (our new Older Billy) with all the creative team in the house… and a show. Saturday – 2 shows, and a banana peel. Sunday- one show, and a meltdown. Monday (oh yes, it continues because Thursday is a holiday and therefore the day off is pushed back by four days) – pilates and a show. Tuesday – a show, and then AFTER the show a rehearsal on the parade site. Wednesday – 2 shows. Thursday (what? no day off for me or the ballet girls, or Thommie Retter, or Trent Kowalik? oh no…) up at 4:45am at the theatre by 5:30, into full drag, on the bus at 6am to go to Macys, 7:30 camera rehearsal, and live on TV in front of millions of viewers sometime between 9 and 10 am. Yee haw! Now you better watch to see if I can keep my eyes open!
Stay tuned! I will tell you my tale of that iconic American tradition: the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!
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The 83rd Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
November 30th, 2009
4:40 am After a solid four hours of sleep I was rudely awakened by the telephone: a recorded message from the car service saying they were one their way. Strangely enough this was more comforting than being roused by my extremely annoying clock radio upon which nothing sounds remotely like music. The cat was dumbfounded, but ever so pleased to get a little food in the middle of the night. I put the kettle on and hopped in the shower. Made myself a flask of tea, grabbed an orange, and fumbled my way down to the car. Woke up the doorman. Poor Ralph. At least he was making double time. What amazes me about New York City is how many people are out on the streets and looking normal and cheerful at 5:15 on Thanksgiving morning!
5:30 am Half-hour call at the Theatre. Yikes. Into full drag. Nothing like slapping the waterproof eyeliner on stinging, red, half-mast eyes. I have to leave my costume off because it’s not built for bathroom breaks.
6:00 am On the bus with the Ballet Girls and Trent as Billy, Annie their guardian, Margiann and the other dressers, Monica from hair, Terry from wardrobe, David and Reg with props, Cara, Greg, and Tom who will be spacing the number and giving us notes, Carol from company management, Charlie and Bonnie from stage management, Juliana and Frances from publicity… you get the picture. This is no small feat, and we are not out there alone in front of the camera.
6:30 am We are escorted to our trailers, where breakfast is waiting! Yea! I treat myself to a gooey sweet danish and some pineapple. A prize for my efforts. And we wait for a while.
7:15 ish We are escorted through the Macy’s store (no shopping allowed, but the store is decorated to the hilt for Christmas! It’s spectacular!) to a holding area. The cast of Hair is out on the street… as the sun begins to light the sky… singing “this is the dawning of the age of Aquarius…” Me and the girls are singing along, pumping with adrenalin. And then we are on the street to rehearse. It’s a little chilly. Three run-throughs for camera. People are very happy with how it all looks. The director is determined to get the right camera coverage, for which I have a great deal of respect. They truly want to do us justice.
7:45 am Back in the trailer. Waiting. This is the moment where the body wants to slip back into sleep. But I am surrounded by the charming, and fascinating crew from the show, and we enjoy some conversation and laughter. There is even a little time to interact with folks from other shows: the girls at one point singing “… we wish you a Merry Christmas…” with the cast of Hair! (Picture it!) And the full company of Shrek: The Musical has gathered on the street after their rehearsal (mostly because many of them can’t sit down in their costumes!). Unbelievable costumes they have! Wow! (But talk about an early make-up call! Yikes. I bet they didn’t even sleep.) I have to laugh. As I am admiring the amazing stagecraft that has gone into the Shrek costumes, I see Thommie Retter, who plays Mr. Braithwaite in BE, watching them, wearing his 1984 mining-town street clothes, complete with greasy mullet hair, and I muse… Billy Elliot is not your average glamourous Broadway musical. Hee, hee.
9:00 ish We’re called to stand-by. (I have to give enormous kudos to the organisers of this entertainment. The whole thing is run like clockwork and with a great deal of respect and kindness. I never heard a raised or impatient voice.) There are two holding stations before you hit the stage, and at each station you get to see the shows that are coming before and after you. So once again, we rubbed noses with the cast of Hair, and then with the cast of Bye Bye Birdie.
9:30 ish And then we were on. Three and a half minutes. No one fell down. There was no rain or snow. And the folks in the bleachers seemed pleased. Crazy… but that was it. Blink, and you’ll miss us!
9:40 am On the way back to the trailers we met the cast of Shrek, and then… at the first holding area… THE ROCKETTES! Wow. This left me with the most memorable image from the days events: our young Ballet Girls in their pink tutus and feather crowns, having their pictures taken with these giant showgirls in their red-velvet minis and diamond collars. Brilliant!
9:55 am We’re back on the bus. The streets are all closed off, so we are going the wrong way up Broadway, and in the distance we can see the enormous balloons of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade making their way toward their final destination. We’re held up a bit because we have to cross the balloon deflating station, which means moving a huge tarp out of the intersection. We’re lucky apparently, because the Shrek cast got caught behind it, and had to wait on their bus for nearly an hour! Yikes.
10:15 am Back at the theatre and getting out of the drag.
10:45 am I’m home.
11:15 am I’m back in bed, after having an absolute hoot being involved in this firmly established American institution.
The real gift was being able to see it through the eyes of the girls, their excitement, their flashing cameras, their desire to hold on to this event as a lasting memory in their young lives. And for me, a really great memoir to add to my Broadway adventure.
And today? A day off, after 16 shows, four rehearsals, a recording, and a parade. No one can say I’m not living! Back to top
December 13th, 2009
I’m home here on West End Avenue in Manhattan. I have a great little pad; my cat is happy; I walk to work everyday down 9th Avenue and begin to know the shops I like poking into and the restaurants that are popular for brunch on the weekends. My dear friend David came recently, and I was able to show him around a city with which I begin to have some familiarity… even, dare I say it, a haunt or two.
But there is nothing that makes you feel more impossibly far afield than when a friend and colleague dies… back in your real home. On Wednesday last week the Canadian theatre community dimmed its lights for Goldie Semple. She was nothing less than a star on our stages: a statuesque beauty with a gift for romantic comedy, an unrivaled elegance, a brilliant wit, and an exacting intellect. And in our Niagara community she was a leader among women, a friend who never separated herself from the many who admired and respected her, a fine and generous teacher, and a luminary to those fans and patrons who revered her with awe.
It’s hard not to be around. Not to sit with my friends and weep. For no one here knows what a profound impact she had on the lives of people she worked with. To be alone in that. As I was when Neil Munro died in August. And when Douglas Campbell died in October. How empty I feel not being with my community as we mourn the loss of these masters of our noble craft.
And yet, I continue to live fully in this new world. And it brings its own joy and sadness. On Friday we said goodbye to Tommy Bachelor as he heads home to Florida before going to Chicago to open as Billy Elliot there. Tommy is such a talented, disciplined, and feisty young performer. It has been such a thrill to share the stage with him (he is literally as light as air out there!), and I will miss him terribly. And since Goldie had put me in the mood to weep… I just kept the flood gates open. Good for my cold, I kept saying. So in our final scene (Tommy and me), when Billy says, “Well… bye-bye, Miss”, and the tears welled up in his young blue eyes, it was all I could do to hold it together… as Mrs. Wilkinson and Billy, yes, but mostly as Kate and Tommy. So we didn’t really. We both knew what a perfect moment of art/life that was, and I know I will cherish it. I hope he does too.
And Tommy… Good luck.
And. Bye-bye Goldie. Bye-bye Miss.
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Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful…
December 21st, 2009
There was a storm here Saturday night. Yes: a great gale blew in from the south, along the seaboard, and dumped about 15 cm of snow on the Apple. That’s true. But the storm I’m talking about blew here all the way from the land of Oz and his name is Dayton Tavares. Dayton is one of our new Billys.
Dayton’s “dancin’ boy” is truculent, kinetic, and takes no prisoners. He had me laughing and crying… and crying Uncle. The kid was moving so fast in Born to Boogie… and this being my seventh show this week with a dreadful chest-congested cold (eighth really if we count the put-in rehearsal), and him bouncing like a jumping bean… well, my friend Stephen Woodjetts’ mantra leapt to mind, “Too old. Too Tired. Too Talented!”… to keep up! Bless him. But as tough as it was rising to the energy of Dayton’s Broadway debut, this is certainly one of the perks of my job: seeing these new little creatures come into their power in front of 1400 people: the lights, the orchestra, the pressure of carrying the show… and they step up. They shine with a profound light.
The city itself is shining bright these days. The holiday season is in full throttle. The decorations on Sixth Avenue are spectacular… (I haven’t seen the tree at Rockefeller Plaza yet, but by all accounts…) and one truly gets the “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style” thing. There’s a thrill in the air which only occasionally borders on frenzy.
And in the theatre the children (and adults) are all buzzing with excitement over their “Secret Santa” gifts… and wondering who will reveal themselves as their gift-giver at the party on Monday. Our grim backstage hallways are decked with Christmas stockings, and winter parkas, and some rather ratty strands of tinsel and bows. (My personal favourite decoration is a cut-out sleigh with me as Santa, and each of the Ballet Girls as the reindeer, and from the helm I am commanding, “PISS OFF!”! This from the brilliant imagination of Ballet Girl, Tessa Netting, of the Swine Flu halloween costume fame.) And Mother Nature blanketing the streets with snow has only added to the great festiveness of a white Christmas in New York.
Now Dayton, coming from the land down under… has never seen snow! Or at least never stood out in it and had it land on his tongue….“It doesn’t taste like anything!”… so Saturday night was a double whammy for him. All in all we could say it was… a perfect storm.
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The City That Never Sleeps
December 28th, 2009
Christmas in New York. Hmmm. Never thought I’d be experiencing that, let alone going into the theatre and working on Christmas Day: ha, ha! And the theatre is certainly not the only enterprise to soldier on in this city, on this holiday. I stepped onto the crosstown bus on the way to work, only to witness the continued workings of the city and its people: of course the transit operators are working, there were restaurants and corner stores open, and as I approached 5th Avenue the city was completely a-bustle. In fact… there was a traffic jam at 5th and 57th at six o‘clock on Christmas Day! I walked south towards Rockefeller Plaza on my quest to see the famous tree, and found the streets packed with people: all the street sellers out with their handbags, and scarves, and weird tacky light sculptures, and the smell of roasted chestnuts, souvlaki, and warm pretzels filled the air. Children crying and cameras flashing. Not a lot of New Yorkers here, I expect, but certainly the city was not sleeping. Quite quickly I found myself embroiled in the mob that was heading like lemmings to the cliff, as I filed along, zigging and zagging among the throng. Then there it was: the GREAT BIG Christmas tree with thousands of lights standing up above the skating rink: a picture that has become so very familiar even to foreigners. I naively had a notion that I would be able to peacefully sit and gaze at the tree and reflect on my Christmas solitude… HAH! I took it in, slightly disappointed (last year I had a magnificent walk along the Mississippi River on Christmas Day in the frigid wilds of Minnesota) and was propelled from the Plaza, much like toothpaste from the tube, towards the bright lights of Times Square and the Imperial Theatre.
So much to be grateful for this Christmas: so many gifts: the love and support of family and friends (not to mention presents sent from a great distance at a great expense); an amazing job filled with such a friendly, joyful group of people; my health, my hope, my happiness. All this to celebrate in a time when the earth is in darkness, and we must create our own understanding of light. How fortunate I am. I’m a bit of a Hallmark card, I’m afraid. But I would still rather be sentimental than cynical, so I’m even grateful for that!
The young Liam Redhead premiered as Billy on December 23rd. Brilliant. Brilliant. What a Christmas present that was. He’s a charmer, oh boy, and I am so pleased that though his first show was postponed due to scheduling difficulties, he opened with such a triumph. Yee haw! I think he’s pretty thrilled, too.
And on we go now. A little respite from rehearsals this week, which is a welcome present. And soon we see Billy Elliot into 2010! How time flies. It feels like I just started rehearsing a couple of weeks ago! Time, it seems, is completely elastic.
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Comings and Goings
January 4th, 2010
Our last show of 2009 was a cracker, I have to say. There was a celebratory mood in the air. My brother Paul and his family were in the front row of the mezzanine, joined by my babysitter Gloria (and I mean MY babysitter) who came from England with her husband, and my friend Veronica and her daughter. So I was pumped. And maybe a little afraid: Veronica Tennant was Prima Ballerina of the National Ballet of Canada for 25 years, and is a Companion of the Order of Canada (the highest civilian honour our country bestows) and… well… I was a little timid to do my bourrees in front of her! Stephen Daldrey was also in the house, and that always elevates the show for us: we like to do a good job for the Big Daddy. And we had a great show: a wonderful way to kick 2009 in the butt and send it packing.
The day off was New Years Eve. The city was all a-bubble. This city is crazy during the holidays. Just saying. There are SOOOO many people out there – tourists and New Yorkers alike- spending their free days out and about, getting their shopping time in, seeing the lights and feeling the piqued atmosphere. All very exciting. I spent the day doing all those things with my family, coming back through the subway at Times Square at around 6:30pm and the joint was already jumping. I was quite glad to just pass through. (Every New Yorker that you talk to says to avoid Times Square at all costs on this day, and I don’t need to be told twice that once you are inside the barrier there is NOWHERE TO PEE!) We went out to dinner at Rosa Mexicano instead, and had a fabulous time, with loads of laughter, a quartet of Mexican musicians, hats, noisemakers, and champagne. So great to have family here to celebrate my New Year in New York! Hey!
We have had so many cast changes in the last month: the goings of Donna-Lynn, Rick, Greg and Daniel, mean the comings of Amber, Donny, Matt, and Rick. (Rick Hilsabeck went and came in the same week!) But once again, the indelible marks are left by the children. This week we lost Maria, who played Debbie, to go and do the show in Chicago. From the time we did the “Last Class” scene, the Ballet Girls were inconsolable. John Fahey was doing tissue runs for them. Dear sweet Maria. What a beautiful child. And when the curtain hit the ground, poor lamb, her face distorted in sobs… along with all the girls, and her dear friend Brianna embraced her instantly. Happy Trails was sung. Baaah!
Then… Sunday January 3rd was the final performance for Tony Award Winner David Alvarez in the role of Billy. Oh boy. On our post board, in the stairwell that doubles as our green room, there is a picture of Kiril Kulish and David in very early days, standing at the barre in their black tights and white tees. They are both children: little boys! But no more. They have both grown into magnificent young men in just a year (Kiril left the show the week before I came in).
I’ll never forget the first time I saw David A. I was here in New York a year ago last November rehearsing a production of White Christmas that I was going to do in St. Paul Minnesota, and I came to see Billy Elliot the night after it opened… November 13th I think it was. David was on. I remember first seeing him onstage, coming down the stairs into the kitchen in his boxer shorts, looking at his legs and thinking… “this is no ordinary little boy! I can’t wait to see him dance!”. And oh, I was not disappointed. (I was star-struck. I happened to be rehearsing at American Ballet Theatre, saw David in the stairwell one day after class, and could barely introduce myself!) What a dancer. But as his cast mates will be quick to add, what an actor. And what I will be quick to add, what a charming, funny, and gracious young man. No child any longer, he looks directly into my eyes onstage and off, and is as natural entertainer. His smile is instinctive and delightful, and the light in his eyes is… well… sometimes you need shades.
So many tears. And another tradition. When the Billys leave the show the boys are allowed to change the final two lines of the play. Normally they say: “See ya Billy.” “Yeah. See ya Michael.” But on this occasion they are allowed to use there own names. (I’m crying just writing about this! Suck!) Now, Keean Johnson and David are like a crafty tag team: inseparable teenage boys always snickering about some nasty little secret. They have developed a remarkable kinship in their time together. Well, dear Keean couldn’t even speak. He just sat on his bicycle watching David walk out through the house. And then weakly, from halfway up the aisle came, “See you Keean.”
At the end of the curtain call Greg Jbara stepped forward, and invited David’s father, David Sr., onto the stage… to give the boy back to his family. From one Dad to another.
Ah, David. See you David.
[David Alvarez anecdote: with Alex Ko’s unexpected injury, and with Tommy Bachelor leaving to do Billy in Chicago, David A. ended up staying in the show a little longer than he had expected to stay. He was fifteen, and going through all the growing pains that most young men go through. His body hurt, he wanted to sleep most of the time, he rebelled against his gruelling schedule, his voice was changing, and… he started shaving. But in spite of the teenage angst, he had such a magnificent sense of humour. One day I came up the stairs to warm-up, and he was standing at the barre with a full moustache (it was in fact not his own, but one of the facial hair pieces borrowed from the wig department). I fell over laughing. He wore it for the entire forty-five minute warm-up without giving it away, or cracking a smile… okay, maybe a twinkle in his eye… and let all the rest of the company and the crew have a laugh at his expense. Now that’s a good sport!]
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At the Risk of Being Totally Boring
January 18th, 2010
There are two basic things I love about acting.
One is: the constancy of change.
This is most notable in the development of a role. I feel like I have come so far in the development of Mrs. Wilkinson, and that though there is a consistency in the “product” that the audience views every night, there is a perpetual shifting from within. A ceaseless searching. How long will this last, I wonder? Or is it possible that it will be ongoing, even cyclical, much as is our own growth as human beings? Is theatre ever a finished product?
This week I had a rehearsal with Stephen Daldrey and Phil (oh no, here we go again, I don’t even know Phil’s last name yet!!) who is replacing Greg Jbara while he is on a leave of absence. Now Stephen has been working on this play for how long? Six years or so? And the film before that. And yet, he came into rehearsal on Thursday, fresh as a daisy, and as he said, “completely re-directed the scene” that Dad and Mrs. Wilks have in the second act. Now Phil is a very different actor than Greg, and that alone makes up a good deal of the change. But we looked at intentions and minute internal shifts that left me with a complete sense of newness, not only for that scene, but for Mrs. Wilks as a character! What a saving grace. Insightful notes. Fresh approaches. And the unique ability of this creative team to allow (and more importantly, to DESIRE) the continuing re-VISION of this piece of theatre.
The second thing is: the unknowable.
I am a creature of ritual. I come to the theatre an hour and half before curtain for every show. I do a physical warm-up with the Billys, then a vocal warm-up, then a tap warm-up. I go upstairs to my dressing room to put the kettle on, then have a chat with Carole Shelley, or with “the boys” (Greg Jbara, Will Chase, and Joel Hatch). At the half hour I make chamomile tea, then begin the process of make-up, microphones, and costumes (with my guardian angel and dresser, Margiann Flanagan). When Big Davey says “Oi, breakfast!” I make my way down to the stage, where the Ballet Girls are gathering, and we await our cue light. I throw open the doors after the girls, and… I have no idea what will happen next! It is all so determined, and yet so undetermined. And indeterminable. I cannot be what I want to be out on that stage, I must simply accept what I am on that day, and at that moment. (Very Eckhart Tolle!) It’s true. It’s LIVE! Tempos change, props fall, muscles hurt, children laugh, even time and space can seem outrageously elastic. But it is not the physical differences from show to show that make up this truly unknowable experience. It is an internal quality, an energy that is completely ineffable. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes miraculous. But always impossible to grasp. I love this thing I can never have.
Man. I love my job.
[Roomies Anecdote: the three men who shared the dressing room beside mine were AWESOME! On our dressing room doors we all have our names listed. On their dressing room the names read: Greg Jbrara-ra-ra, Will Chase-me, and Joel Hatch-already. These guys are the best. Three “straight” guys in the musical theatre ( now there’s a rarity) sharing a dressing room. I would keep my door open (and their door was always open, because you know boys… and their smells…) just so I could listen to the constant stream of hilarious conversation that would emanate from their stable. Man! But most of what I remember, and cherish, is the love these three guys share. They care so deeply and with such compassion for one another, it is really moving. And they are three big men sharing a really tiny room. It’s amazing they don’t want to kill each other. They were such a joy. I miss them terribly.]
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January 26th, 2010
This entry will not be posted on the website in case they come after me.
As I write this an accordion lift is taking two men on a platform to the top of the building kitty-corner from my apartment. This building is shrouded in secrecy: I call it… the mystery building. It is a 5-story or so cement building with no windows, covered on my side with blue subway tile, and on the front with opaque turquoise glass. Twenty-four hour security patrols both the office at the front of the building (which has an address plaque, but no name) and the rear of the building where there are giant black gates into a parking lot that always has about forty cars parked. On my side there are two sets of 2-story doors providing street access for trucks, which back up through the opened doors and disappear. (The lift is going down now with several slabs of concrete block and the two men into the area behind the 2-story doors). There is a net of some sort that can be pulled over the air-access to the space behind the doors, though I have never seen it used. This work continues 24 hours a day.
A few weeks ago there appeared a makeshift barrier of plywood, and orange snow-fence (in addition to the more permanent metal rail) on the top of the roof. It was at that time that I first witnessed the accordion lift going up, and a crew of men piling plastic bags of indeterminate content (long, narrow, soft, vaguely body-shaped bags) onto the platform, and then disappearing behind the access doors. They made many trips. (The two men are now making their way back up on the empty platform). Last night, the makeshift barrier disappeared!
On the roof I can count six satellite dishes, and also six long narrow receivers of some sort. The mystery building flies an American flag. (Lift going down now- two men, more concrete).
It comes to this. The schedule is so intense right now that every moment I have off is spent on my chaise in the window either resting or writing. No energy to get out and about. Just enough to keep the underwear washed, and the floor vacuumed, get to pilates today, and my massage on Wednesday. Then four twelve-hour days in a row as we put in a new Dad (Phil Whitchurch) and another new Billy (Mike Dameski). The whole company is pooped and pretty cranky.
It was the 500th show of Billy Elliot on Broadway on Sunday night, and the producers took us all out for a drink. Photo op of course, and Stephen Daldrey pushed Liam’s face into the cake! Followed by Alex. And then the boys pushed Stephen’s face into the cake!! Hilarious. But it meant the rest of us got no cake! Ah well. Other food and drink was provided, and though we were all bagged, we did have a nice opportunity for a little visiting outside the theatre. We’ve been rehearsing so much lately what with all the new Billys and other cast changes, that we’re all pretty pooped. Daldrey’s toast was to the “hardest working company on Broadway”, and I’m quite sure that’s accurate. (The elevator is back up. Some conversation is ensuing between the two men on the platform and the two men on the roof).
I have booked a holiday! That is something to look forward to. I’m going to Bermuda for four days, then to Toronto, and to Waterloo to see my folks. So if you’re planning a trip to NYC make sure its not while I’m enjoying my spa treatment in Southampton! (Five men now – more concrete).
I miss my quiet life in St. Catharines. I miss all my peeps. But I am doing well, and really enjoying this remarkable adventure.
(The elevator is gone now. One man on the roof…Wow! Just took a sip of tea, and there is no sign that they were ever there! The 2-story doors have opened, a white van has pulled away. A truck with black railings on the back has pulled up to the curb, and the doors have quickly closed).
If you don’t hear from me next week… please call the Consolate.
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February 2nd, 2010
What would be the current analogy for “broken record”? “Corrupted file” just doesn’t seem to do it. “Slipped disc”? “Over-byte”? In any case… I’m going to blow the horn of the young people in this show yet again.
This week we had another Broadway debut: that of Mike Dameski. Holy crap! I think there’s a Billy Tree in Australia and they are just plucking these boys off it. Mike comes to us from Sydney where he played Billy in the Aussie production, along side superstar Dayton Tavares. Oh, Mikey. What a premiere. A sweet, gentle boy (at least so far… they’re all a bit quiet at the start… though Liam and Dayton are now doing their warm-up to Lady Gaga, or rapping as they limber their adductors across the long aisle of the balcony… and Trent is constantly trying to capture a vocal riff from Christina Aguilara during ballet barre, much to the bemusement of the adults present… he is tenacious…) The thing that gets me about these boys: not only do they have uncanny skills as dancers, singers and actors, they have the aplomb to create their own unique performance of this role. Now I realise they are not out there alone: behind them are years of training, dedication on the part of families and teachers, and finally an exacting rehearsal process that they have each been through. But at the end of the day (literally, as their day starts at 9am with tutoring and goes until they are finished signing autographs at 11:15pm), it is these little men who are strutting their stuff across the Broadway stage to the adulation and excitement of so many. And Mikey had me and 1400 others weeping with delight. I say again: holy crap! (At thirteen I was… let’s see… playing Humpty-Dumpty in a skit in our church basement. Compare if you dare!)
Phil Whitchurch also made a Broadway debut this week. Phil played the role in the West End company of Billy. Originally from Liverpool, Phil lives with his family in London, so he’s another stranger in the strange land of New York City. A totally fantastic guy, a truly generous actor, and a wonderful Dad. Ch-ch-ch-changes.
Most of us get a bit of a break from rehearsal this week (thanks god!), except of course those Billys. Indefatigable.
…indefatigable… indefatigable… indefatigable… indefatigable… indefatigable…
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Over the Bridge
February 8th, 2010
FINALLY… after weeks of put-in rehearsals we had a week of just 8 shows! Whew! Makes one feel almost human. With the new winter schedule in effect (five show weekends, and Wednesday nights off) I actually had the energy to venture out into the world of the five boroughs on a field trip. Destination: Brooklyn.
It was not exactly a tour. I left the theatre after the Wednesday matinee with my heroic dresser, Margiann Flanagan. (We both remarked on the slowly waxing daylight, and what a joy it is to leave the stage door at 5:15pm and see the blue of the sky!) Margiann is a Brooklyn-ite… or a Brooklyn-ese… or a Brooklyn-er… and on the train across the Manhattan Bridge, she pointed out the Brooklyn Bridge, the Seaport Historic District, the Statue of Liberty in the distance, and the bustling residential development of DUMBO (Down-Under- the-Manhattan-Bridge-Overpass). We got out at Atlantic Avenue, a huge junction for many of the trains coming into Brooklyn from Manhattan. We walked up to the Opera House of the Brooklyn Academy of Music from the side, gazing up at the ornate and painstakingly restored Beaux Arts cornices. Stepping around to the front of the building is almost breathtaking: a majestic and imposing piece of architecture, seemingly plopped in the middle of an indeterminate urban landscape (particularly as the dark had now descended). A true anachronism.
We went for a meal directly opposite this stalwart building, at an Austrian restaurant called Thomas Beisl. I have not eaten meat in 15 years, and coming from a German background I was not terribly hopeful about the chances of a Viennese menu containing appropriate fare. I was completely delighted, not only by the warmth and simplicity of the hospitality and decor, but also by the four Teutonic vegetarian options on the menu! I opted for the Mushroom Strudel. Margiann had the Salmon. Yum.
Due to a previous commitment, Margiann would not be my date for the theatre. I was joined in the lobby of the Harvey Theatre by my young friend and steadfast theatre accomplice, Allison Plamondon. The Harvey Theatre is amazing! Originally built in 1904, it is one of the many North American circuit houses that fell into disuse in the mid-20th century. It was “restored” in the mid-80s for Peter Brook’s Mahabarata, and has been a venue for BAM since then. The restoration left the interior of the auditorium in a semi-ruined state, with bare plaster and apparently crumbling columns… sort of world weary, yet determined… a perfect home for the theatrical experience I crave.
Allison and I were there to see The Bridge Project: a three year classical theatre co-venture between the Old Vic in London and BAM in Brooklyn, featuring a cast from both countries in plays that will tour spring and summer theatre festivals around the world. Pretty exciting. As You Like It was this evening’s entertainment.
Now, I am a self-professed Shakespeare geek. So any chance to sit in a theatre and listen to three hours of the Bard is not lost on me. I have, after all, sat through hours and hours of my students’ rehearsals of the second year Shakespeare project at the National Theatre School in Montreal, with patience, a keen ear, and an immense love for the work. That said, this production directed by the theatrical genius Sam Mendes, was uneven. STUNNING to look at, particularly the set by Tom Piper, and the lighting by Paul Pyant… whew! A magnificent use of the playing space, which is a combined proscenium and thrust stage. And some truly poignant moments (at the death of Adam you could have heard a pin drop! and the transition from the court to the forest was AWESOME!). The music of Mark Bennett also deserves a nod.
My two favourite performances were those of Oliver (played by Edward Bennett, who had such a skillful command, and yet supple ease with the text it was truly inspiring) and Silvius (Aaron Krohn, who was simple, honest, and hilarious). But if I’m choosing the performances of Oliver and Silvius as my favourites in this play… well, that sort of speaks for itself. All told, a night well spent: a field trip with two friends, a good meal, and a chance to hear these wonderful words, and to delight in one of my preferred pastimes: an evening of Shakespeare on stage. I now look forward to seeing the sister production of The Tempest coming up in a few weeks, and a second trip across the Bridge to see the Bridge.
I’ll let you know…
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February 9th, 2010
[I originally sent this entry privately to my friends. I was worried that it would give the wrong impression to the fans of the blog. In hindsight, I think that it reveals some truths about my year that may be insightful to many of you, and which without doubt show my humanity. That’s why I’ve included it here.]
You all know me. And know that I choose to frame my life experience with a positive, some may say, rose-coloured, light. That’s me. That said, I am going through a bit of a trough. Not unexpected. It’s been four months on stage now, and I had a little melt-down last week, both physical and emotional.
I had been fighting a cold all week, and feeling desperately fatigued in my body. That was the week we were putting in the new Dad and yet another new Billy, so I had to do rehearsals on top of the 8 shows. I managed to beg out of one of the days, but did the full put-in rehearsal on the Friday. That meant, basically, six shows back to back, as the weekend schedule is now 2 Saturday, 2 Sunday. Well… Saturday in the middle of warm-up (actually as I was changing into my tap shoes), the muscles in the back of my right knee cramped — like a knife going in — not once, but three times in the course of a few minutes. This sent me hurtling off the stage and into an alcove where I hit the ground in tears. With the support of Tom (the assistant choreographer), Kyle (the fight captain), and Jess (the Billy dresser), I made it up to my dressing room and began to roll out the muscles with the various physio-therapy implements at my disposal.
Then Margiann and Carole Shelley got the tears. Carole came in my dressing room and tried to get down on the floor with me to provide comfort, but I disallowed her efforts, struggling to my feet so that she could let me fall apart on her shoulder. She offered to escort me to stage management to tell them I was going home… but I declined. Somehow the combination of that nasty muscle spasm and the flood of tears freed what had become trapped in me, and I was able to do four pretty good shows that weekend. Then I took the following Tuesday night as a mental health day. Needed it.
Am feeling somewhat better this past week, and the lack of rehearsals helps a great deal. This is by far the hardest work I have ever done. And the relentlessness of the schedule is daunting. One can’t look too far ahead, or the whole thing just seems impossible. But one show at a time… it is still a great play to do, and a wonderful piece of theatre that leaves people moved and inspired. And I truly love my part in it, and the band of players that tell the tale each night. (And day. And night.)
Just thought I’d share, because I know that YOU know: it’s not all a bed of roses! As ever, I remain enormously grateful for this experience, and for your love and support. K.
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February 16th, 2010
On my couch. Niagara Falls would be proud of the amount of fluid o’erflowing the escarpment of my nose. Ah yes, it’s true: even actors on Broadway are human enough to suffer the indignities of the common cold, and to be laid waste in an aching swamp of snotty tissues. I’m floating in ginger tea (made from organic ginger root and lemons from Whole Foods) and hot baths infused with eucalyptus oil (the voodoo, as my friend David calls it). And while I sip, I’m watching some highlights of the Vancouver Olympics on my computer. (I don’t have a television, I don’t watch enough, but when I have a cold I would actually tune in during the day and catch a little Olympic FEVER!).
As I was coming down the stairs in the second act last week, Tim (last name, aaargh!) the Tap Teacher said to me, “You must be homesick!”. You know… I hadn’t thought about it in those terms until just that moment. But since he mentioned it… Yes, I think I am homesick. Especially seeing the amazing footage of British Columbia in the opening ceremonies, and a sea of the Maple Leaf waving in the hands of the national and international alike. To hear “Oh Canada” sung by the unbelievably talented 16 year old Nikki Yanovsky (who knew it could be such a hip tune!), the gob-smacking talent of l’il old Red Deer Alberta native, kd lang (HOLY CRAP she is such a truly inspiring performer!), the untempered pride of the people of the First Nations (“if you wanna be a dancer, dance!”), and the tear-jerking, heart-stirring performance of slam poet Shane Koyczan, defining Canada (the zed thing… only in Canada would that cause the greatest swell of patriotic cheering from the crowd [see NOTE]). And of course the parade of the athletes. What defines a culture? Storytellers, and heroes. Well. If I wasn’t homesick walking down the stairs in the second act last week, I am certainly homesick now. Isn’t it curious how the customs and environs in which you are raised have such an emotional pull, create such a yearning in the body for that which one knows, for the comfort, the community of familiarity.
In the international cast of Billy Elliot, I am certainly not the only one who is far from the home I love. Phil is missing his family in England (who are arriving today or tomorrow I think for a New York visit); Dayton and Mikey have siblings and parents who are literally across the world from them in Australia (one of our swings, Matt Serafini is also from Oz, though he’s a young man on an adventure!); Liam’s family, other than Mom, are at home in North Bay. And it’s not just international performers: Kylend, who plays our Tall Boy, has his Mom and little brother here, but at home in North Michigan his Dad is trying desperately to lift their dog out of a depression that has descended since its playmates have been gone; and Ballet Girl Cara from Indiana no longer has the success of the Colts to keep her sporting the team colours. All these, are the ties that bind, and working so far away from home means those ties have to become pretty elastic.
So I am grateful for the generosity and kindness of my new American friends and colleagues, for the depth of talent that provides extraordinary understudies like Leah Hocking and Liz Pearce, and for the comforts of home, even if that home is temporary. At least I have a comfy couch on which to be home sick.
NOTE – The Zed Thing
Living so close to our neighbour of the zee, the ZED is something that we Canadians use as a defining characteristic. How crazy is that, when you think about it?! In cabaret performances on occasion I sing the song “Teach Me Tonight”. The lyric, by Sammy Cahn, goes like this:
Starting with the A-B-C of it, right down to the X-Y-Zee of it,
Help me solve the mystery of it… teach me tonight.
In the past, I have actually had the gall to sing (with apologies to Mr. Cahn):
Starting with the A-B-C of it, right down to the X-Y-Zed of it,
Help me solve the MR. ED of it… teach me tonight.
Yup. This is Canadian humour. But I don’t think you can count my wicked wit up there with the likes of Howie Mandel, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dan Akroyd, Mike Myers, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, or Jim Carrey. Maybe one day. I’ll likely need better material than this!
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Hi-ho the Glamourous Life
February 23rd, 2010
WARNING: If you don’t wish to destroy your visions of the allure of Broadway backstage life… notions of wood-trimmed dressing rooms, with Japanese screens, brocade curtains, and velour covered settees… READ NO FURTHER!
At any given performance of Billy Elliot there are 128 people backstage making our show work: 53 actors, 17 wardrobe folk, 3 hair people (as distinct from hairy people), 19 musicians, 7 child guardians, 20 stagehands, 4 stage managers, 1 stage doorman, 1 company manager, 1 resident director, and 1 resident choreographer. Whew! Can you believe that! And that’s the minimum. There are always drop-ins to add to the list. It truly is a teeming community, much like a rabbit warren or an ant hill. Particularly when you see how little space we have.
The Imperial Theatre opened in the 1920s and has played host to debuts from the Gershwins’ Oh Kay! to Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun; from Oliver and Fiddler to Cabaret and Les Mis; from Chapter Two to August: Osage County; and seen stars pass through its meagre hallways from Mary Martin to Ethel Merman to Hugh Jackman.
When the Imperial was built, the fashion in set design was in the air. That is, painted drops were used as scenery for the most part. So the fly gallery of the Imperial is extensive. With the advent of the “mega-musical” audiences have become used to a far more sophisticated style of scenery, and most sets are now an extremely complicated and highly technical series of lifts, drops and wagons. Billy Elliot is no exception.
When the Imperial was chosen as a venue for the show, an excavation had to occur beneath the stage in order facilitate the 2 storey elevator that houses the Elliot kitchen and Billy’s room. On top of that there are two other elevators used on the stage. Now do the math. For most of the show those elevators are down under the stage… so what happens to the space below decks? It is mostly unusable to the 128 people milling about putting on this play. But, undaunted, every square centimeter is used.
Stuffed in between the elevators is the entire wardrobe department including laundry, a costume change area for the men’s ensemble (because their dressing room is on the 5th floor and their changes can’t be made in time if they head all the way up there), the hair department (they don’t even have a room… just a sort of corridor), the props kitchen, toilets (these are the closest ones to the stage), lockers for the crew and musicians (they need somewhere to hang their coats and put their lunch pails), sound equipment, miles of cable squished into the ceiling, compressor tanks for the elevators… oh and let’s not forget the conductors room (he has a room! albeit a small room) and the orchestra pit!
There is one staircase that connects this basement hub to the stage and to the dressing rooms. This staircase is the only common space backstage, so its treads serve as greenroom couches, quick-change booths, and call-board access. Oh. And the 2009 Tony for Best Musical hangs quietly in a case on the wall.
On the second floor is the dressing room for the boys: the Billys, the Michaels, the Small and Tall Boys. This room is a going concern. Also on this floor is a dressing room which would normally accommodate one or two actors, but serves as an office for the stage managers, the company manager, the resident director and choreographer. Like sardines they are housed.
On the third floor there are two staterooms. Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am one of the three people in the building that have a room to myself! No toilet, but a room! Miss Shelley is also on this level in her own room (the aforementioned conductor making up the third). We share this floor (and the toilet) with the three leading men (Phil, Joel, and Will) who are squished into one dressing room at the end of the corridor.
The fourth floor is home to two dressing rooms for the women of the ensemble, and the ballet girls who have this sort of fabulous windowless club house room. The fifth floor is a foreign land to me (I’ve made my way up there twice in 5 months) and is where the men of the ensemble hang their hats. (The swings and stand-bys can often be found up in this den during the show playing various computer games.)
Most of the 128 people head out between shows. Little wonder.
For all that it may burst the bubble of Broadway glamour, it is an intensely shared world. The proximity makes a family out of we 128 people pretty quickly. We see each other in many lights (and quite a bit of darkness), and share far more than we want to share simply because we are all workers in the same hive..
“Cracks in the plaster, la, la, la, Mice in the hallway, la, la, la.”
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March 2nd, 2010
Sometimes things go wrong.
Very often it’s little things… like Saturday when the cookie that I’m supposed to eat in Solidarity went flying out of the box and across the stage like a tennis ball being lobbed. A few giggles from the Girls, a few improvised moments around miming cookie business, and on we went.
Or on Sunday night when Dayton went behind the piano during Born to Boogie to find MY tap shoes in place of his for the onstage quick change. By the time I realised what was wrong he was already getting into his “trainers” and doing the tap sequence in them. Fast thinking!
Sometimes bigger things go wrong. Like when the bedroom revolve didn’t come up for the final scene. Dayton again, poor thing. But he just went and sat over on the radiator stage left instead of sitting on his bed, and left his family to pace the floor. The scene has no dialogue, so nothing major had to be created, and the audience would not have known anything was wrong.
Not so on Wednesday afternoon I’m afraid. The Ballet Girls and I are onstage for the top of Solidarity, and the Policemen are all standing in their line downstage with Billy and Debbie. The cue comes, I open my mouth to begin the entire proceedings… and there is no orchestra. Well… a few bleats and fumbles. The Policemen make a bolt for the blue, as do Billy and Debbie… leaving me and the Girls to figure out what to do next.
I get to my spot on the proscenium and look toward the conductor for help: “Are we going to stop?”, I’m thinking. He’s on the phone. Not his cell phone. But the big WHITE phone that connects him with… well, I’m not sure who it connects him with but since it’s not a big RED phone it can’t be the President. In any case… no help there. So I keep going, sort of. Some of the band is playing bits and pieces now but the beginning of Solidarity all sounds the same from the pit, so it’s pretty tough to figure out where we are. The Girls keep following me, and like me are trying to figure out where we are in the music, throwing themselves into one bit of choreography only to realise that we have moved past that in the dialogue and that they need to be on the other side of the stage. At one point Billy (Liam… God bless) says “Miss, what am I supposed to do?” (Indeed!) and though he’s supposed to be standing on a chair when I say “Get down for starters,” in this case he wasn’t yet up, so instead of getting down, he jumped up. Giggle.
I have no idea how long this actually went on. Of course it felt like about three years considering the amount of mental activity that was firing in my small brain trying to rectify the situation and to save face in front of the 1400 people who are wondering what on earth is happening, and trying to figure out why they’re so confused. And then, like an oasis in the desert, like dawn over the Grand Canyon, like the lark at break of day… we hear the musical phrase that cues the next big section of the number. Before I could even turn around those brilliant Ballet Girls were all on the floor in their places, and the entire company instantly proceeded perfectly… as if nothing had ever happened. In our wake, I have no doubt there were a few audience members who adjusted their hearing aides or checked their programs for plot notes, but the incident was over… history… toast… and on we went.
Turns out there was a ghost in the sound machine, causing the recorded rhythm track to malfunction. Ah, the wonders of technology. And the blessings and curses of doing your job in front of spectators! Live from New York it’s….
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March 9th, 2010
Trent Kowalik came in on Sunday morning (I call it morning though it was 12:30… “morning” is the first call of the day, no matter the hour) for warm-up. He was on stand-by for Mikey. He said it didn’t feel real… that it didn’t seem like this could be his last day of Billy Elliot. He sang his Christina Aguilera riff for me. He’s been working on this riff for a few months now, and though at first it sounded a little like a moose call (always the reminders of the Great White North), this time I actually started to hear the music he was making! A graduation of sorts.
In the last three months Trent has become a young man. When we did the Macy’s Parade at the end of November he was still a boy: a bit skinny and gawky. Now his deep, distant, soft-brown eyes look right into mine on stage. His whole body is becoming thicker and stronger, and with that comes the accompanying pain of growing, of pushing this growing body through a gruelling daily discipline of classes and warm-ups and rehearsals and shows. And it wouldn’t be warm-up without Trent complaining about the shape of his feet, or his lack of extension: “No. Really. Look…!”
At 6:30 came the warm-up for Trent’s last show. I came upstairs for the ballet barre and David Alvarez was there doing his plies and tendus. Double take. He’d come to see his friend’s final hours upon the stage. At least this stage. He threw his arms around me. (How great it is to have a fifteen year old boy throw their arms around you when they haven’t seen you in a while!!) David has been gone from the show for just over a month, but it is so apparent in his face and his body that he is now inhabiting a different world. He has graduated.
Trent was happy. Nervous, a bit terrified… but happy. It felt like 1400 people had come to say goodbye to him. Stephen Daldrey took the stage first: Trent auditioned for Billy in 2005… since he is now 15, he has been involved with Billy Elliot for fully one third of his life! That gives you some perspective on what this graduation means. Trent holds two other distinctions: he has done the show on both the West End and on Broadway, and he is the longest running Billy in the history of the production. Okay three… lest we forget… he is the last of the three Tony Award winning Billys to leave the show.
Stephen was already crying at the end of the curtain speech.
These are sentimental occasions, there is no doubt. The audience was glued on Trent, and applauding his every move. They stopped the show four times with ovations. But I can honestly say I witnessed a momentous occasion in the theatre: at the end of the first act, within the context of the Riot, is Billy’s Angry Dance. This was Trent’s raison d’etre. I have never seen, nor can I imagine seeing, such a young person commit so deeply to expression through movement. Every tap of his toe or heal, every lateral stretch, every run, every leap was powered directly from the core of his being. IT WAS AWESOME!!! Stunning. I watched it on the monitor backstage, so I can only imagine what it was like sitting in the house! I do know that Kate Dunn, our associate choreographer, came backstage bawling. And Trent came back to towel down, change his costumes, and get on with the second act.
Each dance brought us closer to the inevitable reality of the goodbye scenes: I looked like Alice Cooper by the end of Last Class, the ache of keeping a brave face dissolving into open weeping; Trent’s bouquet delivered in the curtain call by his chum and kindred spirit, Tessa Netting; Phil Whitchurch as Dad, giving Trent back to his family and then getting trapped downstage of the curtain as it came flying in!! Happy Trails was sung into the stunned face of this young man. He had the courage and the composure (barely) to give us a little farewell speech. And after Trent had said his goodbyes to all the folks on stage (which took 20 minutes) he went out to greet the THRONG of fans that were waiting at the Stage Door to catch their final glimpse of this Tony Award-winning Broadway Star.
I met him on the stairs on my way out. Another hug. I’ll see him next week apparently. He’s going to keep tutoring here with the boys till the end of the school year. That makes this ol’ teacher very happy.
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Odin’s Day AND My Boyfriend’s Back…
March 16th, 2010
Wednesday nights are a busman’s holiday for the cast of Billy Elliot. On our current schedule we work five show weekends, and get the night off on Wednesday, so this is the evening to get out into the world and see some THEATRE!
A couple of weeks ago my friend Anne was down from Boston, and we went and saw her friend Brian D’Arcy James in Time Stands Still at the Manhattan Theatre Club. (Anne and Brian had done summer-stock together at the Fischer Opera Haus in Frankenmuth, Michigan in the 80s!). Also in the cast were Laura Linney, Eric Bogosian, and Alicia Silverstone. The acting was superb across the board. The play was compelling, and at times excellent (the story of a pair of journalists who come back to Brooklyn from Afghanistan after a traumatic experience). I was completely rapt, despite the apparent consumption ward by which we were surrounded. We met with Brian after the show. Since his days in Michigan he has gone on to become a bona fide Broadway star, but like most of us, he is just an ordinary guy: a working actor, a husband, a dad, and a charming and friendly fella. Nice.
Last week my friend Allison and I hiked out to Brooklyn to see the second installment of The Bridge Project, Sam Mendes’ production of The Tempest by that crazy old rapper, Willy the Shake. As with it’s predecessor As You Like It, the star of the show was the set design by Tom Piper, and the lights by Paul Pyant. Holy. They truly created a magical space for the playing of this great play. As for the production… well, the attempt was noble. Stephen Dillane was beautifully brooding and intellectual as Prospero, but the supporting cast was uneven but for the bright lights of Edward Bennett as Ferdinand and Anthony O’Donnell as Trinculo.
What I loved about Mendes’ take on the play was the conceit of Ariel and Caliban being aspects of Prospero: his personal spirits, if you like. This was really enlightening and exciting to consider. So at the end of the play, when Prospero heads back to his life as the Duke of Milan, not only does he arrive at the outward forgiveness of his usurping brother and the King for all their ill-treatment, he also sets free the magical and tormented aspects of himself. Pretty cool, eh? Is that something obvious in the play that I have simply never seen before? Don’t know. But I am extremely grateful to Mr. Mendes for making me think! Yippee. Love the theatre. More exciting Wednesday nights to come!
On another high note, the handsome and talented Alex Ko is back in the house on 45th Street! Yeah!! Alex rejoined us as Billy on Sunday: “better, stronger, faster” than he was before thanks to our crack team of physio-therapists and trainers, and his own dogged determination. It’s so great to have Alex back, and I look forward to the coming shows as we rebuild the old rinkle-tinkle that we had in rehearsals. A triumphant return for my special young friend!
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April 1st, 2010
After almost two weeks of horrible grey cold rain, the sun has broken through the skies above New York City. It seems when the sun comes out the population on the sidewalks doubles. If I’m walking down 8th from Columbus Circle to the Stage Door on 46th, it can take me twice as long to dodge the tourists as it did in January.
Over in Central Park the humans are swarming the mounds of rock that jut up from the burgeoning green, absorbing the heat that focuses on the reflective surface. And in a mirroring display, the heads of the daffodils on the gradient sides of the park paths are clambering to catch a taste of sun and heat. Growth. Newness. Promise.
My apartment windows are open, my cat is lying in the beams, and I will make an outing to Riverside Park South this afternoon to see how the Hudson is faring, and what spring brings to the natural parklands of my local haunt.
I had three friends from Canada here last week. So great to get a shot of home life. I continue to be humbled by the support and well wishes I receive from so far afield. My friend Medina came all the way from Calgary, and stayed on my couch for the better part of the week: the perfect house guest: she got up with the cat! She did an amazing job of touring the town, and I lived some of that through her, vicariously.
We managed a couple of outings together: one was walking up Madison Avenue from 57th to 79th. The Upper East Side is so different from the West. It’s quite fascinating to take in the uber-expensive shop fronts (we were like magpies to shiny objects) and to look down the side streets towards 5th Avenue at the elaborate old town houses still standing among their modern counterparts. Some extraordinary architecture. Just as we hit 79th we had to put our umbrellas up, and so caught a taxi across the Park to Columbus. By the time we hit the West Side a monsoon was falling, and our clothing was soaked through as we stepped into the Blossom Cafe at 81st.
The Blossom Cafe is a trendy, casual, vegan restaurant. I was in heaven. I had the soy-bacon cheese burger with sweet potato fries! Oh yeah! And Medina had a tofu-bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Absolutely delicious food. Highly recommended. The rain was still torrential when we finished dinner, so another cab home was necessary.
On Wednesday, we went down to the Village to see David Cromer’s production of Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre. Here is a play that is one of the most produced of the American Classic repertoire. Yet through the eyes of Cromer, and the sensational ensemble of actors, the play was completely and utterly new to me. You know a good production of a classic when you hear the brilliance of the writing as if you were hearing it for the first time. It was all there. With only two tables and eight chairs, they created a living breathing world that included each of us in the audience. So when the third act came I wept uncontrollably… for my own loss. A near perfect piece of theatre.
Meanwhile at the Imperial we have been attracting many school groups on their spring break. The girls go MENTAL for the Billys and the Michaels, and to hear their screaming, and watch them throng at the Stage Door for autographs, is absolutely delightful. From our dressing room windows we can hear the far more extreme madness that ensues on the street when Corbin Bleu, who is now starring in In the Heights, leaves the Stage Door of the Richard Rodgers. It is sometimes louder than the fire truck sirens! It puts me in mind of the footage of the Beatles in the ‘60s.
So we’re all enjoying a sort of spring rave. An energy, an excitement that is infectious, and progressive. A beckoning: come with me, shed your winter worry: there is much to see, to smell, to know.
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April 6th, 2010
Oh, these sunny, warm, strange summer days in April! What a beautiful Easter weekend it was. I saw three ladies in their Easter hats as I walked to work on Sunday. And other New York ladies are also strutting their finery. In Central Park the still nearly naked elm, maple, and oak trees are humbled by the elegant and opulent blooms of the cherry trees, the magnolias, and azaleas; like graceful old dancers compared to the electric green of the feisty gingkos and willows. Oh my! On The Lake the row boats are out exposing lovers and children to the early rays of spring. A delightful place to sit for half an hour on the day off, to take in some of the natural beauty of New York, glancing up every now and again at the magnificent facade of the San Remo Apartments and wondering how the other half lives looking down on all of this.
We had two young shoots join us on stage this week. The inimitable Ava DeMary, an eight year old pixie with a face like a light, playing Julie Hope. Rachel Rescheff has moved down Broadway to 42nd Street to play Juliette in Mary Poppins. (At ten years old she already has a far bigger Broadway career than I will ever have!) Working with Ava is like having a puppy onstage: you cannot take your eyes off her… skinny little legs and all. Big brown eyes and a gap-toothed smile that will drop you right out of character, and leave you turning upstage to recover!
And the eager and tenacious Jacob Clemente joined us this past Saturday night as our newest Billy. That brings us up to five! (Well, down to four, as the loveable Dayton is off right now with a bit of an injury…) This is the second part Jacob has played in BE. He debuted as the Tall Boy back in October of last year, continuing his training for Billy all the while, and now has advanced to the forefront.
I can relate to Jacob. If he’s a little nervous or uncertain instead of backing off and approaching something gingerly, he winds himself tighter and hits harder. I am just like that. When in doubt, SING OUT! So as he finished his chaine turns in Solidarity, he looked up at me with eyes wide open, and pupils darting back and forth like he was watching a train pass by outside the window. Gorgeous. I’m looking forward to playing with him as he settles into his new, and somewhat more significant role. He’s a delightful boy.
I’m off on holiday next week. Looking forward to a few much needed days with my feet in sand and water. And then a quick trip home to the North. I’ll report all when I’m back. I’m leaving Mrs. Wilks in the extremely talented hands of Leah Hocking and Liz Pearce. I hope they have a RIOT!
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Of Body, Mind, and Spirit
April 22nd, 2010
What a difference a week makes! Wow! I feel like a new human being. Of course 4 days in Bermuda doesn’t hurt! Ah, Bermuda! Have you ever been? I am not a real “hot weather” holidayer. My usual holidays – taken in the months of January or February when no one else is on holidays so I’m not entertaining them – are to historical destinations… castles, museums, ruins… that kind of thing. I’m not a big one for lying in the sun. But… ah, Bermuda. It wasn’t that warm: around 20 degrees celsius: the final days of the Bermudian winter. But coming from Canada, if that’s their winter… well… I think you can imagine my bliss: mornings on my balcony looking over the ocean eating the breakfast that had been brought to my room by Kumar from Goa, or Irshad from Sri Lanka; a spa day (hot tub, steam, mud, mineral salts, and hot massage – enough said); a day of walking miles along the white sand beaches on the South Shore of the Island, swishing my feet through the cool water, with rarely a soul in sight; a meal of local Rockfish, and wicked Sticky Toffee Pudding at the Waterlot Restaurant, housed in a 400 year old building looking over the Southampton Harbour; and trips to and from the airport with the most entertaining and knowledgeable Bermudian drivers. This was a rejuvenation of my body… of my spirit… and talking to the ocean is a great way to bring peace to the mind. Ah Bermuda!
From there I was homeward bound to Toronto. To work. Oh, I know, I know… what am I doing working on my week off?! Silly! But this was work on a play that I have written called Waterworks. It was a two day workshop on the piece, a way of connecting with my community back home, and of filling my creative well, as it were. It was stimulating and challenging to my wee brain, and in its own way, restorative. In the evenings I saw friends. Now… I am loving my adventure in New York, but there is nothing like the camaraderie of people who have known you for years and years. The ease of contact. The shared laughter. The depth of affection. Perfect.
And finally, I went to my Mom and Dad’s for two days. It was my Mom’s 75th Birthday! As she said… “It can’t be me… it must be my Grandma!” My parents, God bless them, are so young at heart, so quick and full of life. And my family gatherings are full of laughter and FOOD! I’m sure I gained five pounds in two days! My sisters did an amazing job of hosting the party, and I was able to rest there, and just be along for the ride. It was great.
At 5:30am my whole family got up to wish me farewell, including a slightly dazed Mack the dog, and my Dad took me to the train, that took me to the plane, that took me to the car, that took me back to New York City. And when I took to the boards on Tuesday night… I was a new woman. A new actor. A new Mrs. Wilkinson. What a difference a week makes!
Addendum: The Eagle Has Landed
President Obama is at my house. Well, next door anyway. I’m sitting and having my breakfast this morning, and outside I see cops gathering. I look down out of my window and there are some barricades set up at the entrance to ABC Television, which is right beside my apartment. I’m thinking… celebrity… The View… Barbara Walters… that kind of thing. Then events start to escalate… I hear sirens, and a trio of police vehicles, including a SWAT team, comes quickly up West End Avenue… Now there are secret service men bellowing at unwitting cab drivers to get the hell out of the way. Pedestrians are stopped on the street corners, south bound traffic is stopped at 66th, northbound traffic keeps coming but there are people constantly yelling at the drivers to ignore the traffic lights and keep moving. By this time I have forsaken my breakfast, moved the cat off my lap, and am on my knees on the chaise in my window trying to get a good view. Mrs. Kravitz.
I can hear the “choppers” over my head. It’s The West Wing all over! The shouting intensifies, and a cortege of motorcycles come sirening up the street. One poor civilian driver thinks he’s doing the right thing by pulling over, but the bike-cop goes ballistic on him, and after a moments hesitation where I’m sure his life is passing before his eyes (wrong place, wrong time!) he turns right onto 65th and out of the line of fire. Whew!
Then comes the real cavalcade. There are now about twenty five officers – some in uniform, some in plain clothes with the thingies in their ears – in the middle of the intersection… RIGHT OUTSIDE MY WINDOW!!! A parade of ten vehicles or so (including an ambulance!), makes its way past my vantage point and turns left into the ABC parking lot. (Damn! If I’d taken the apartment on the north side of the building I could have seen him actually get out of the car!)
And that’s it. The Eagle is consumed by the secure haven of the television station. And now the entourage goes into waiting mode. The motorcycles who have made their sweep of the area, have flocked together and followed the motorcade into the lot awaiting the exit of the King. (He’s to give a speech about cracking down on Wall Street somewhere in the city at noon today.)
Way cool for a sleepy Thursday morning! But I’ll have to forsake my birds-eye view, as I’ve got to go to rehearsal. Crazy! All this and more from my little window on West End Ave! Ha, ha!
(After having my shower, getting my lunch packed, and getting dressed I headed out onto the street just in time to see the cavalcade head back down WEA. When I got to work Carole Shelley told me, much to my disappointment, that it was only Joe Biden on The View with Barbara Walters…. darn! Ah well, my fantasy was pretty exciting while it lasted!)
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April 27th, 2010
Trevor Braun is one of the two boys who plays Michael, Billy’s best friend, in the show. He’s twelve and having already played Chip in Beauty and the Beast, and Flounder in The Little Mermaid, both on Broadway no less, he’s doing pretty well for himself! (Ya think?!) Trevor and Jacob Schwenke (the Schwenkmeister!) alternate the role of Michael, which means that every second show they are either tutoring somewhere in the bowels of the Imperial Theatre, or hanging around in the dressing room playing video games, watching movies, or… making stuff.
Trevor likes Barbara Streisand, Liza Minelli… and Shakespeare. Early in the new year he was driving everyone nuts with his obsession for Romeo and Juliet. I was feeling fairly needy myself in terms of intellectual stimulation, and suggested to Trevor that if he liked, I would be willing to give him Shakespeare lessons during the intervals of the shows he was hanging around in the dressing room. He was extremely keen on this idea.
Our little lyceum is now ongoing. We have about 1/2 an hour to spend each session, and usually have three sessions a week. When Trevor first came he had the No Fear Shakespeare version of R&J as his only text book. Now he comes up the stairs to my dressing room laden with the cargo of the ardent student of classical literature: he bought himself a First Folio online with his Hanukah gelt, has purchased the Schmidt Lexicons, Playing Shakespeare by John Barton (he’s been watching the video series this past week as well) and of course his personally decorated notebook, embossed with a picture of the Bard himself beside a picture of Trevor dressed up as the Bard.
Trevor has assimilated my course on Shakespearean text analysis faster than any theatre student or professional I have ever taught. He is already highly skilled in the intricacies of scansion (he understands the difference between an iamb, a trochee, a spondee, and an anapest… just saying!), he applies thesis and antithesis, irony, alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. He can break a soliloquy into a classical five act structure, and… okay, this is my favourite… he says, “So, Kate… for homework… should I find the ethos, pathos, and logos in this speech?”. OH YEAH!!
For we Shakespeare geeks… this is better than Maple Syrup!
The truth is… the kid moves me nearly to tears when he does Arthur’s speech to Hubert from King John, and equally he had me in stitches when he made his first pass of the Boy’s speech from Henry V the other night. It’s astonishing, and so gratifying for me as a teacher. And a friend. And did I mention… HE’S TWELVE!
So Thursday this week was Shakespeare’s Birthday. Trevor came up to my room piled high with his books, and with Bobby Wilson, the guardian, in tow. There were two boxes on the top of his precarious stack each wrapped in paper that Trevor had inscribed with sections of text about roses from R&J, from Loves Labours Lost, and from As You Like It, and inside were two cupcakes with roses on the top made out of icing. Bobby provided candles and a lighter, and Trevor and I sang “… Happy Birthday Dear Shakespeare…” before beginning our lesson. I then read the personal note of thanks that Trevor had written me in pencil on a lined piece of foolscap. Tears. It now holds a place of honour on my dressing room cork-board.
Okay. Just one more little anecdote:
We were looking at the opening speech from Richard III a few weeks ago, trying to figure out what it meant, and we got to the section where Richard says, “sent before my time, Into this breathing World, scarse halfe made up…”, and Trevor in his best Ethel Merman impersonation (GOD LOVE HIM!) says, “It’s just like in Gypsy… at the end… when Mama Rose says, ‘I was born too early, and started too late…!’”.
Let the scholars make what they will of it… it’s kinda like that!
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Saturday Night on Broadway
May 4th, 2010
The good thing was: we didn’t know it actually was a bomb until the next morning. The dressing room windows were wide open, as the spring had quickly switched into summer the day before. It was a regular “Saturday Night on Broadway” and I was getting into my tights and microphones and doing my wig prep. The first noticeable indication (after all… sirens are completely commonplace) was a distinct lack of car horns and an increase in the sounds of human traffic.
I got up and looked out the window. It was now about ten minutes to eight. There was a steady stream of people heading away from Times Square, and all cars had obviously been re-routed. Will Chase took it in hand to find out what was going on. We got the five minute call. Then we heard our Stage Manager Bonnie Becker over the Tannoy:
“There’s a bomb scare in Times Square. Forty-fifth Street has been completely closed and we are trying to give our patrons time to get into the theatre from 8th Avenue. We’ll be holding at the five-minutes.”
We waited. I started hemming some trousers. And then I thought: what am I doing hemming trousers! when I have an opportunity to be down on the street in the excitement! So down I went in full costume and make-up and stuck my head out the stage door. Several members of our cast and crew were out there; Julian Webber, our Associate Director had shown up; but… there was no excitement, other than trying to figure out whether we would actually have an audience and do our show.
At about 8:20 we got our beginners call, and by 8:25 … “Would all patrons carrying cell-phones kindly switch them off, or check again that you have already done so…”. I went back to my dressing room.
That’s when things stepped up a notch outside the window. Almost as soon as the show started, the police were announcing over bull-horns that people were to clear the street and get on the sidewalks. And only moments later, to clear the sidewalks and get into the buildings! Now it was strange. There was no one on the street outside at all, and whenever an unwitting tourist would stumble out of the Hotel Edison or any other public doorway, the almighty voice of authority would shock them back under cover. (The sirens on the police cars now are strangely reminiscent of Blade Runner…)
The show went on. As did all the shows in the surrounding neighbourhood. Some of the children were a bit frightened and needed some reassurance. Bobby and his team of guardians were in full flight, keeping heads level, while getting on the phone to all the parents. With complete justification, New Yorkers do not take this sort of thing lightly.
As the interval approached and the streets were still desolate, my dresser Margiann and my wig mistress Susan, and I formulated a plan: If we were locked in for the night we could take four hour shifts sleeping on the mattress I have in my dressing room for resting in between shows. I had a granola bar, and two loaves of Tangy Sourdough I had bought earlier in the day from Amy’s Bread. Or if we could get out of the building but they couldn’t get home to Jersey and Brooklyn, I had both a pull-out couch and an air-bed that I could offer at my apartment. The mind can quickly switch to emergency measures; to caring for those in your immediate purview.
Fortunately, none of that was necessary. Just before the interval, 46th was opened to our patrons for their break, and people who had been sequestered in other buildings could now make their way to 8th Avenue and disperse. We still had no idea what true level of threat existed. No news was yet available on-line. No official word had been issued. So we went on with our job. What was really amazing is that the house we had before the interval (about two-thirds I would say, maybe more) all came back for part two! Undaunted. Bravo for them.
Will Chase made a little speech at the end of the show, issuing the Police directive to our patrons to exit on 46th and make their way to 8th. And once out of costume and make-up we all did the same. Arrangements had been made for the children, and the guardians walked them out to their parents in groups, as people were not allowed east of the barriers on 8th Avenue. After pushing through a bit of a bottleneck of pedestrians, I hailed the oncoming Broadway bus, and made my way away from the fray.
It was only in the morning when I checked the CBC website that I found out about propane and fireworks and fertilizer and a smoking SUV. And that some of the company of The Lion King could actually see the vehicle from their dressing rooms! And that though there were delays, none of the Broadway shows — even those on 45th Street — were cancelled.
Curious. Thought-provoking. And full of wonder, this adventure in New York. Things like this just don’t happen on my little street in St. Catharines, Ontario.
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Sunday, May 16, 2010
May 2 – Phil’s last show. Sad to see him go. He has been a fellow adventurer here in New York, and it was great to share with someone a sort of touristic verve. Leah Hocking, our Dead Mum, is also gone for a few months on a leave of absence… so that means drinks at the Glass House Tavern after the show!
May 4 – Greg is back! He is such a force in our company both onstage and off. It is a testament to the strength of this play, and the vision of the creative team, that two actors as entirely different as Greg and Phil can play the Dad with such distinction and such enormous success. Glorious. Amber is back to play Lesley, as Stephanie moves into Dead Mum and the bad perm lady.
My friend Maggie, her eighty year old mother, and her brother have come from Maple Creek Saskatchewan (Google it! they also have a 5th Avenue!) to New York to see Billy Elliot! Maggie’s mom is so moved by the end of the play that she can’t even speak of her experience. She comes from a mining town in Nova Scotia. So great having them here. Dinner with them tomorrow night up at Josie’s on the UWS.
May 6 – The notes I got from Julian Webber and Peter Darling last week are beginning to settle, and I am THRILLED! I have yet another new lease on Mrs. Wilkinson. So great to feel this kind of blossoming after 7 months of eight show weeks! Blessings.
May 9 – Mothers’ Day. Ebony, one of the Ballet Girls, says to me, “Are you a mother?”. “No, I’m not”, I say. “Well, you’re the mother of all of us”.
May 10 – My friend Barbara is in town! Oh what fun! She used to live here, so we meet at Columbus Circle, she comes for tea, and we walk through her old ‘hood up to Blossom Cafe! Oh man! Nothing like sharing a GREAT vegetarian meal with a fellow veg-head. Yippee! And maybe just a couple of laughs…
May 11 – Babs sees the show. She gets Trevor Braun’s autograph on her Playbill. Through her tears, she is over the moon with excitement for my success here. It is so deeply gratifying, and humbling, to receive such adulation from people for which I have so much respect. We head over to Bar Centrale for a late night glass with Greg, who Barbara worked with some years ago up in Toronto. On the way we see Angela Lansbury getting out of her “car” and heading into Joe Allen. Then in the booth behind us in the bar are Patti Lupone and Jessica Lange. I’ve been told once the Tony nominations are out… the stars come out. I’m still getting used to the American phenomenon of celebrity. Greg and Babs and I have some great martinis and… maybe just a couple of laughs…
May 12 – My agent, Celia Chassels, is in town from Toronto. Things have been so busy at the agency that this is the first chance she has had to see me. We meet for dinner at ESCA after my matinee. For all the recommendations, I was a little disappointed in the meal. My $35 monkfish (I do eat fish on occasion) was tough. Hmmm. But Celia and I had great yacks, and loads to catch up on.
May 13 – Celia sees the show. Exciting. Mikey is on as Billy, and is completely stellar. Celia, her son Jeremy, and her friend Frank are thrilled by the show. Also in the house are my other babysitter (and I mean MY babysitter, from when I was a baby in England) Soo and her husband Richard all the way from Essex to see me onstage. And to catch a Yankees game. And a Red Sox game. And a trip to Washington. I give all these folks a quick tour of our extremely efficient backstage world – always an eye-opener to the unschooled.
May 14 – The set decides not to work. Right from the first breakfast scene, the downstage right trap is not rising and lowering properly. This proves to be a testament to the amazing team work that is live performance!!! We never stopped the show! though at one point Charlie, one of our assistant stage-managers was out in full view with his head set on, saving the unaware actors rushing onto the stage from falling into the open trap! Oh yeah! Then at the top of the Letter scene, I was to see if the trap came up, and if not get some chairs on the stage (they usually come up on the trap with the piano). No trap. The hole opens but nothing comes up. The hole closes. So Charlie and I struggle with the saloon doors at the back of the stage and get the chairs out there. Alex Ko’s eyes are open wider than ever – which is some feat – and they seem to be saying, “Do we just keep going? Are you sure? This has happened to you before, right?” Well… no.
We interrupt this diary entry for a brief acting lesson:
The later work of Stanislavsky and the major work of Grotowski was the investigation of a “physical score” for the actor. On Friday night I learned how vital this score is, and how precisely it conveys the entirety of the scene. During EVERY SECOND of the Letter scene my mind was racing: I had placed Alex’s chair too far upstage, since the piano was not in its place to give me proximity, and if the trap opened, Alex would be in danger. The chairs I had struggled to bring on were the “Dads’ chairs”, and heavier than the “Billy chairs” that are used for spinning in the ballet, and would Alex be able to spin the heavier chair? The footlights were still up from a previous number, and how would we adjust the choreography to accommodate this? Our tap shoes are usually on the piano lift along with Alex’s skipping rope… how were we going to get our tap shoes and go on with the number!? Would someone else stop the show… PLEASE… or would it have to be me? Aaaargh!!
And so on, and so on.
Meanwhile, my body and my mouth were doing the scene without a stop… without a hitch… with sniffles and coughs from the audience in the usual places. With Alex doing everything he was supposed to do, as if all was completely normal. Phenomenal. A fine piece of theatre research for the Laboratorium, I’d say.
And then, like the star he is, Thommie Retter (Mr. Braithwaite) arrived, carrying my tap shoes. I was like… Thanks Thommie… BUT WHAT ABOUT THE KID?! WHO CARES IF THE OLD LADY IS TAP DANCING! Faith kept me going. Somehow it had been communicated to Alex that his shoes were up on the bar, along with his rope… and you know what?… WE DID IT! We got through an amazingly complicated scene relying on the ingenuity of our backstage team and the… well, if not fearlessness, at least determination… of the three people on the stage. A miracle!
And on it went for the rest of the scenes that required the lift. We just kept making it up, with canny help from the crew and the stage managers, and it all worked out in the wash.
Kudos for Ko.
May 15 – A different kind of concentration is needed tonight. In Solidarity, in a quiet moment upstage, Liam is in tears. I have the chance to check in with him actor to actor: “Are you alright?” Nod. “Are you hurt?” No response. “Do you need to stop?” Head shake, with tears. “Are you sure?!” Nod, with tears. Time’s up. We keep going.
At my next quick change, I relay the red flag to Charlie (poor Charlie got it all this week!) and I know rescue efforts will be set in motion.
Actor’s Challenge Number Thirty-Seven: try acting like a “right cow” to a kid who is crying and in pain. I failed the challenge. We’re going to be onstage together for the next fifteen minutes without another break, and I’m going to be nice to the kid. Sorry. I try to relay the strength of the mighty through my eyes to his.
At the next break I’m told Mikey is standing by, ready to go on. When I come down for the Letter, I’m not sure which Billy will be sitting on the bed. It’s Liam. Trooper. He makes it through the act.
I check in with him at the interval. He had a back spasm early in the show that gave him a fright. Hence the tears. He’s actually feeling progressively better, he says. Whew.
He makes it through, though he looks a little wan when I see him on the street. And for Liam that’s telling.
May 16 – I find out Trevor, my Shakespeare buddy, will be leaving the show at the end of next week. Heartbreak. “I’m growing up,” he says with a smile that thinly veils his sadness and apprehension.
May 17 – Day off. Rest. Recuperation. The next set of challenges starts tomorrow.
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Dates and Departures
May 25th, 2010
On Wednesday evening Liam and I went to the American Ballet Theatre. We were both pretty pumped about it. La Bayadere is one of the lesser known classical ballets, and certainly more difficult to see than Swan Lake or Coppelia as it is less frequently performed in its entirety. It is a ballet that I hope Liam will dance one day, so I was excited about being the person to introduce him to it.
After a tense moment where I realised I had given Liam and his mother the wrong start time (!), we met at the fountain at Lincoln Centre at 7:15. Liam looked extremely dapper in his black suit. Neither of us had been inside the Met before, so it was pretty grand seeing the red-carpeted staircase, the Chagalls, and the Rath crystal chandeliers. We made our way through the lavishness to the Dress Circle.
In the row in front of us, a woman was looking up anxiously for her friend to arrive. She watched as Liam and I approached. “You know who you look like?” she said to Liam, “You look just like David Alvarez who played Billy Elliot on Broadway!”. I laughed. So did Liam. “As a matter of fact,” I said, “this is Liam Redhead, and he is currently playing Billy Elliot on Broadway!” Well. The woman nearly dropped her drawers. Oh she was so excited she told the complete stranger sitting next to her. And she had us sign her Playbill… for the Ballet! Funny. Who knew we were such celebrities!
Now, classical ballet… especially these hundred-year-old gems… is a THING. Like baseball, it has a code… and there are a club of people who get the code because they’ve learned from someone who had the code before they got the code. So while at some points in Act 1 I was expecting the pitcher to throw a change-up at any moment (or for the theatre police to storm the stage for over-acting violations!)… it certainly was dramatic and exciting. Nonetheless, from the moment the veiled Veronika Part walked down the entrance stairs as Nikiya, and I saw the way she pointed her feet before each step (YES! just the way she pointed her feet was thrilling!) I could not get enough of her dancing. And Marcello Gomes as Solor was in every way her equal. Oh, these two! Completely edible.
It is in Act 3 that things really take off. And I mean take off. Solor smokes some opium, and has a dream where he dances with Nikiya in the Land of the Shades. Okay. That doesn’t sound like too much of an excuse to leave the plot behind and get on with some Olympic dance moments. But who cares. To watch the corps, the soloists, and the principles get to strut their stuff for 45 minutes is worth sitting through the other three acts. There were two mind-blowing moments for Liam and I: Gomes’ tour jetes were astounding (as was the generosity of his partnering!), and Part did a series of jetes in Act 4 that were so effortless they were shocking! We did both question the pointe shoes that ABT chooses to use: there were times when the rattle of toes from the corps was drowning out the string section! Truly. A little oddly percussive, let’s say.
Every day I find myself expressing my gratitude for the relationships I have with the children in this play. Putting Liam in a taxi home at the end of our “ballet date” was a practical illustration of the responsibility I have for them, their welfare, their growth as young artists and young humans.
And oh too frequently they move on… the lure of new projects… the toll of time. My buddy Trevor left us on Sunday night. We had our last Shakespeare class in the afternoon: a review, during which he delighted me with how much he has learned in the last four months. And perhaps a friendly lecture from me about the transitions to come as he heads away from being a child actor on Broadway. Hugs. Tears for me. Smiles for him.
Before his last show he asked Cara Kjellman, one of our dance captains, if, for his final warm-up with the Ballet Girls, they could do Shine… so that he could play Mrs. Wilkinson! Oh yeah baby!!! By all accounts he was better than me. I have no doubt. He is a singular creature.
At twenty-past-ten Kylend, the Tall Boy, and I were standing in the wings at the end of the play as we always do, watching the final scene between Michael and Billy, when Kylend started sobbing at the departure of his pal. I wrapped my arms around him, and leaned my head on top of his head, as we faced the stage and our bodies shook together.
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“… and the Battery’s Down…”
Monday, May 30th, 2010
“New York, New York… it’s a Wonderful Town!…” It’s Fleet Week in New York City! It was Wednesday when I first noticed a parade of sailors, all in uniform, traipsing along 46th Street toward Times Square. And everyday since I’ve been looking for Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and… who was that third guy anyway…? (Jules Munshin. Remember him? Ah… fame is fleeting… … ha, ha!) But I’m afraid I’m a little old to be playing Miss Turnstiles.
I was kinda hoping we’d have a great hoard of sailors in the theatre one day, and raucousness would ensue, but Billy Elliot is not exactly the entertainment fare most of them are hungry for. Sailors of all descriptions all over midtown: some in beige and blue, most in white (like the crisp, polite pair from Halifax that were helping an old fella off the bus I was riding), and some in the traditional tunic, navy tie, trousers, and little round cap (the same uniform my Johnny the Sailor doll had in 1967, purchased in New York Harbour when my family and I passed through NYC on furlough). Most of them so young! Women sailors, too, though very few. And after the show at night, hearing them in the Playwrights’ Pub singing karaoke with shocking confidence, the caterwaul spilling through the open doors into the recent summer heat; or chatting with local girls on the sidewalk patio, both parties looking simultaneously exhilarated and timid. Such classic images of the Navy landing in town. Fantastic.
With the advent of Memorial Day, summer is definitely in the City. The sidewalks and shops of 8th Avenue are packed, and any number of accents can be heard seeking directions. I passed one of the tour-bus operators trying to hand a flyer to a confused woman: “Bus ride?” “No. Actually, I’m looking for the Empire State Building”… At 8th and 46th? I thought, “Honey… get on the bus! It’ll take you right past it, and that’ll be the best way to see it this weekend. Better than a three hour line-up to get inside!” After ten months here, I’m so New York savvy!
More friends came all the way from Calgary, Alberta to see me this weekend: Eleanor, a friend that I did a show with when I was fifteen! She and her family had a blast doing the New York thing! The tourists don’t mind the tourists, and they were so impressed with the patience and grace of the New Yorkers in the service industries: hotels, restaurants, tour operators: they were treated so well.
Two of our Ballet Girls left this week: Sam and Meg, both of them having been with the show since the very beginning. As Marina and Tessa were saying their “good last show” to Meg last night, I told them about my friend Eleanor being in the house… and that the relationships that we make as young women in the theatre can last through a lifetime. Nice to be able to share that experience with them. Still… great floods of tears, flowers, and “Happy Trails”.
And, oh, lest we forget… the Gangsta is back! Dayton had his first show back from injury on Sunday afternoon. What a kid. He ripped it! Sweating like a horse on a hot day at the track, he held nothing back. Such an honour to work with a kid who is not only so talented, but so generous, so stylin’, and… oh let’s face it… so 100% cush. Yippee!
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“Get Behind the Fat Lass…!”
Tuesday, June 8th, 2010
Imagine, if you will, that you are a woman of forty-seven. And a half. And that for the past 10 months you have been playing eight squash games a week with a fourteen year old boy. On a hill. In heels. Dressed for winter.
In addition to this, you walk up and down three flights of stairs to your dressing room at the very least eight times a day (on the double header days it’s pretty much twenty times). And in order to keep your body fit for this activity, you do six hours a week of warming up, an hour of pilates, and at least 20 minutes of arduous physio-therapy.
Weight loss may spring to mind. Indeed. I have lost 2 full dress sizes without trying. In fact I can eat about 500 more calories a day than I did a year ago, and still maintain my new slim figure. This means that I have had to buy a completely new wardrobe for both summer and winter. (Forced to shop for clothes in New York City! Curses…!)
Fitness is also a bonus by-product. My cardio-vascular system could not be happier. When I come off stage from Born to Boogie, I am often gasping for air. But within the 30 second quick-change that follows, my heart rate slows and my breathing quickly returns to normal. The only telltale sign of activity when I return to the stage a minute later are the buckets of sweat that are now saturating my skin and all my clothing.
On the down side… Everybody Hurts is my daily theme song. Warm-ups can become a moaning contest between me and the boys. Hamstrings are particularly effected by the raked stage, as are knees, and lower backs. Oh, and calves, lest we forget calves. So we each complain about a tight this, or a painful that. But whereas for the boys their bodies are young, and they make adjustments to their choreography and alter their work patterns in the three days between their shows (not that they don’t hurt, believe me! they hurt!), for me the true culprit is cruel recurring time.
The repetitive nature of this job has me currently suffering with tendonitis in both elbows (from an eight bar section of boxing that I do in Boogie: it seems ridiculous, but I did it wrong a couple of times when I returned from my holiday in April and with eight shows a week it has no opportunity to repair itself…). My sacro-iliac joint keeps jamming, causing tightness in my back and my left hamstring. I also have tendon issues in both knees, and my left ankle. None of this is debilitating, but its cumulative effect is that I sit on the couch a lot on my days off, rather than taking in this amazing city: the idea of walking for miles as a means of respite is not a tantalising one.
The good news is the sterno-clavicular sprain that I acquired in rehearsals last September is showing great improvement thanks mostly to my pilates instruction (I am learning how to properly use my seratus muscles! who knew!). The Osgood-Schlatters disease (a knee condition which is purportedly only found in pubescent boys, but which I seem to miraculously share with them through some kind of sympathy) has settled down since I stopped doing grande plies. This, along with the issues I was having with both big-toe joints in my feet, which are also showing marked recovery (I do daily stretches with a yoga block that feel like a rare form of torture but seem to have a positive outcome!).
At the end of the day, from beneath the ice-packs and the arnica gel, I think… well… maybe I could have a new career post-BE, touring North America with Mrs. Wilkinson’s Mid-Life Diet and Exercise Program: “Get Behind the Fat Lass… and Keep Smilin’!”.
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Eh? No… Eyyyyyy!
Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
Canadian celebrity… is a bit of an oxymoron. We don’t really have stars. And if we do – and I’m talking about real national stars not just the local cult-worshiped used car dealership commercial guy who points at you sixteen times in the course of a 30 second spot – they’re generally anarchic people like comedian Rick Mercer, or novelist Margaret Atwood, or (may the world forgive us) hockey commentator Don Cherry. For example, when our main television network ran a contest a few years back looking for the Greatest Canadian, the top ten nominees in the English speaking category included 4 politicians, 3 scientists, 2 hockey personalities, and a marathon running hero. The winner… was Tommy Douglas: the “father of Medicare”. Does that put things in perspective? Oh, we’ve got some music and sports idols that are pretty much household names, but we don’t have movie stars or TV stars, certainly not in the way they do in the U.S. of A.
So when a call goes up on the loudspeaker system backstage at the Imperial Theatre that there is a “star” waiting on deck for anyone in the company who would like to meet them… well, I always feel a bit… awkward. I think… oh, those poor people. Don’t they have enough trouble just getting groceries, or going to the movies? Do they really need people like me trying to get my photo taken with them? I get… shy.
Now, I’m not trying to take anything away from my cast-mates who dash down from the dressing rooms with unbridled enthusiasm! Really. The kids (and Thommie Retter!) always get so excited to see folks like Sarah Jessica Parker or Betsey Johnson or Cate Winslett… and who can blame them. It’s not that I’m not excited that they’re in the house, or on the stage willing to meet us… it’s that… I’m CANADIAN! And, well, it just feels… a bit… brazen. A bit… foreign.
But what I have come to realise is… THOSE CELEBRITIES WANT TO BE THERE! No one is forcing Betsey Johnson to sign the many items of clothing that the young folks bring to her. Is it generous of her? YOU BET! Does she seem to be having a blast? That, too.
Long and short. I came downstairs the other Saturday night to hand my dressing room key to Richie the Stage Door Guy… and standing there in our very humble vestibule is… Arthur Fonzarelli. Yup. The Fonz. Not just a celebrity, but let’s face it, a cultural icon. THE FONZ! I mean, I watched Happy Days religiously with my family all through the 1970s. We knew those people: Howard and Marion, Richie and Joanie, Potsie and Ralph. And now, here’s Henry Winkler with his wife Stacey, completely unassuming and unannounced, just telling our cast as they are leaving the building how much they enjoyed the show. This man is so gracious, so generous, so genuinely moved by our little play… never once drawing attention to himself… and there’s me, and all I can think is… I’m talking to Arthur Fonzarelli. THE FONZ! And he liked me in the play!!! I must be COOL!
Okay. That’s not all I thought. In fact, the whole experience… the absolute humanity of the man… of Henry Winkler… made me consider that all these stars who come to see Billy Elliot are just people who love the theatre and want to be moved and entertained just like the rest of us. And I should be just as happy to meet them after the show as I am happy to meet the kids who came a couple of weeks ago on a school trip from North Bay, or the group who came last week from a local Manhattan synagogue. People of all kinds, and from all places, need theatre.
So thanks Mr. Winkler. I will not feel so intimidated by the next celebrity who comes to see us. Thanks for the little life lesson. Whoa!
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June 22nd, 2010
Summer is here! It has been beautiful in NYC: not too hot, not too humid, but perfectly sunny and gorgeous. The farmers markets are back on the street corners, the Park is lush and green, and in the evenings after work the breeze off the Hudson greets me as I make my way from the Broadway bus home to my apartment. At the Imperial Theatre we have switched into our summer schedule. That means eight shows in five days: two Wednesday, one Thursday, one Friday, two Saturday, and two Sunday. Whew!
The bonus at the culmination of these intense weeks is two full days off. Monday remains a sacrosanct day for rest, but my bus-man’s holiday has switched from Wednesday night to Tuesday night, upon which I valiantly make my occasional trips to the theatre.
A few weeks ago you’ll remember I went to see the American Ballet Theatre with Liam. What fun we had! The following week I took Jacob, Mikey, and Alex to the New York City Ballet to see a mixed program. We saw two Ballanchine ballets, Danses Concertantes and Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, and the brand new ballet, Estancia, by Christopher Wheeldon. Wheeldon’s work blows me away. I so love the innovative ways that he moves bodies through space, and the way that he expresses the intimacies of relationship within his pas de deux. Brilliant! Every time I see his work I just want to see more, more, MORE!
The boys were so excited. Neither Mikey nor Alex had ever been to the ballet before, and Jacob had only gone in his hometown. So it was pretty grand for us to make our way to Lincoln Centre to see this internationally recognized company and the second ever public performance of a brand new work! I feel both a great sense of honour and of responsibility introducing these amazing young artists to other varieties of their art! Pretty thrilling.
Then last Tuesday I took Dayton downtown to the Public Theatre to see an irreverent musical called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard varying reports, but was encouraged by the fact that the show had been extended twice. The Public Theatre is housed in the old Astor Library, so the building itself is a New York landmark. Dayton and I wandered around a bit, as we were a little early, and learned what we could about the history of the building and its architecture. Then we were shown into a performance space that was completely decked out in elements of the set design. There were period chandeliers and gold framed portraits of nineteenth century American gentry; there were various mounted antlered heads and stuffed rodents, and piles of historical rubbish, all festooned with twinkle lights and other ambient lighting fixtures. The whole feeling was one of anachronism.
Now, Dayton is from Australia and I am from Canada, so we weren’t sure if we would need some background information about former President Jackson to understand the play. But once this wacky entertainment began we realised that we would be told all we needed to know, even if what we learned would likely not help us pass any kind of history class. To say the tone was irreverent would be an understatement. For anyone who has seen any of Michael Hollingsworth’s History of the Village of Small Huts, it was in this satiric flavour that our education was granted us. Hilarious, sometimes sophomoric, occasionally horrifying, often instructive, always with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and entirely accompanied by an awesome rock and roll score… well, didn’t we have a total blast!! The cast was exceptional! All of them great singers and sly comics! And they gave us a lot to think about in terms of this particularly troubling period in American history. Kudos are definitely due to Benjamin Walker who played Jackson, and to the composer Michael Friedman, and the band!
Possibly my favourite moment was the one they left us with. Throughout the play characters had been struck by sudden and violent death (in the spirit of Monty Python), and this was an ongoing theme of the play. As the piece de resistance, one of the actors was “killed” in the curtain call, and left dead on the stage, while the cast, the band, and the audience all filed out of the theatre. A startling image to leave us with, and a pretty cool way for the whole night to end.
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Tuesday, June 29, 2010
I want to talk about Brianna Fragomeni. Brianna is a thirteen year old girl from New Jersey (don’t quote me). She is 4’7” and weighs 80 pounds. She has won several national dance competitions, has the brightest blue eyes, a disarming brazenness, and is one of three Ballet Girl swings, along with Chelsea Galembo and Heather Tepe.
Here’s the concept of a swing: you show up to the theatre for every show, you know every track in the ensemble (that’s eleven parts for these girls!) and you never know when you’ll be going on or in which role. “JUST SHOOT ME” erupts unsurreptitiously from my lips!
In this last week Brianna has gone on as Julie Hope, Margaret Gormley, and Tracey Atkinson. And this is where she blows my mind: not only is Brianna incredibly capable of adjusting the choreography to each character’s place in the spacing– from leading in the lines of traffic, to following, from dancing in the front row stage right, to the back row third from centre… oh yeah, all those details that would be completely lost on a 47 year old– but she inhabits each of these characters fully. She knows who they are, what their attitudes are to different people on the stage, and of course she knows all the lines! and booms them forth with unmistakeable ownership! And did I mention she’s hilarious? She is a natural comedienne, and her young, sharp wit punches through any fear she may have. But I’m sure she has no fear. At least none that I’ve ever seen. Oh, and as if all that is not quite enough, she understudies the role of Debbie, too, and is brilliant at it. This chick, I’m tellin’ ya.
Now, all this lauding of Brianna is not to take away from Chelsea and Heather, who both have exactly the same job. And there are other swings in the company: David Eggers, David Koch, Robbie Roby, M.J. Slinger, Greg Graham, Cara Kjellman, and Nathalie Wisdom are the swings for the adult ensemble. And in a show that is this physical and this long-running, they are performing almost every night in one track or another. That is how the show goes on. I have SO MUCH RESPECT for these people I cannot tell you. The stress of their jobs is not to be underestimated.
Stage management coordinates all the comings and goings, making the casting decisions before each show in consultation with the resident director and choreographer, and the dance captains. Then an OUT/IN list is posted on the call-board so that as the cast enters the theatre to sign-in we can see who will be performing in the coming show. Very rapidly and efficiently inserts are printed for the front of house programs, and the ushers huddle at their stations inserting these adjustments into the Playbills. In addition, an announcement is made backstage over the tannoy at the half-hour to confirm the situation. If there are truly “last minute” changes, a public announcement is made in the house before the curtain.
The result of all this work (and of the work of the leading role understudies and covers, which is a completely different ball of wax) is that if someone in the company has shin splints, or a tooth infection, or a sick relative… not only does the show go on, but it goes on in extraordinarily skilled hands… and feet… and voices.
How constantly things change, and how truly miraculously… the show stays the same.
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Bursting in Air
July 7th, 2010
Sometimes one speaks too soon. So remember a couple of weeks ago when I said the weather was yummy and perfect and breezy and enjoyable… well, I should know better than to say nice things about the weather. Manhattan has been a frying pan for the last five days. I’m serious. I didn’t do the ‘fry the egg on the sidewalk’ test but I have no doubt that not only would I have been successful, it would have been a three minute egg! Whew! And though we could not survive without air conditioning, it does feel like you are walking out of the stove and into the fridge when you enter the shops, the museums, and gratefully, the apartment building.
This weekend I had my first Fourth of July in the U.S. of A! What a thrilling experience. We had three days off from the show, and my friend Pam came down from Toronto. We started with a trip to the Guggenheim Museum, where I had three memorable voyeuristic experiences beginning with a painting in the Thannhauser collection by one of my personal favourites, Toulouse Lautrec. I love his outrageous use of colour, and the intimacy of the world he shares… the unbridled vivacity of it. Then there was a small exhibit of works of enormous scale by an Ethiopian artist named Julie Mehretu. She works on gigantic canvases (each of the six or seven works were easily 9 by 11 feet) using impeccable architectural detail coupled with washes of muted tones, blacks and greys, and whole areas that are smudged and dreamlike. Thirdly, the hero of the day, Frank Lloyd Wright. It was my first time inside this miracle of a building, a true celebration of his vision for American architecture. Cool.
Then suddenly hot. Stepping out into the scorching heat, we made our way down Madison Avenue in search of a spot to grab something to eat and drink. Like an oasis on the shimmering sand, there was the magnificent Dean and Deluca. What a palace of riches in the fast food desert. This ain’t no cheap meat. We each grabbed some yummies, threw them in a paper bag, and headed into Central Park. Miraculously, just as we were sauntering into a canopied meadow, a picnic table was vacated by it’s tenants, and we buzzed right in to take advantage. Perfect! A picnic in the Park on Independence Day. And in the shade!
In the evening… well, let’s just say we had a very special event. Through a “connection” we managed to get to the 28th floor of a building in midtown that had a nearly unobstructed view of the Hudson. So at 9:25pm, when the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks began, Pam and I were sitting in leather chairs, looking out the window practically eye-level with the “bombs bursting in air”. A spectacular display that took place in three movements. The second movement, a sort of andante, had some unbelievable tricks. It was like they had turned the fireworks into slow motion somehow. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the bursting forth of these swatches of brilliant colour that proceeded to hang in the air and melt for what seemed like almost a minute. How do they do that?! How do they make the cubes, or the orbs with saturn-like rings, or the shimmering sequin blasts? Explosive art.
The walk home up 9th Avenue was a little frightening at times, just because of the sheer volume of people heading toward the subway from the Hudson. We’d get caught in these cross-drafts that threatened to pull us over to Broadway. But we battled through. Even got an ice-cream cone in the saturating heat. And made it up to Lincoln Centre to listen to a little bit of the public piano playing that has been going on recently in the City. Sixty pianos have been placed in public spots reading, “Play Me, I’m Yours…” … and people do. And others gather to listen. And on a hot night in the City, after a full day of Independence… there’s nothing like a little ad hoc community gathering around a piano, with a little song and a little dance. A Happy Fourth!
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Lord, the Drama
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Quite a week.
A little prologue to begin: David Bologna, who was nominated for a Tony when he originated the role of Michael in Billy Elliot on Broadway, has come back to join us for the summer. He is smashing! A great kid… an EXTRAORDINARY talent. This week he, and Tessa Netting (Susan Parkes) and Trent Kowalik (retired Billy) went off on a long planned trip to Harry Potter Land at Disney World in Florida. How I would love to be a fly on the wall!
Kylend Hetherington, who has played our Tall Boy for the last 8 months or so, and who is leaving us to go and play Billy on the Second National Tour, will be stepping up to play Michael for his final week here in NYC. This is a thrill for him! Kylend and I have developed a special bond, as we are both “K.H.”s. We have a daily chat between my last scene and the finale in which we talk about all things from him missing his dog back in Michigan, to the profound difficulty of math tests, to the intense satisfaction of expressing oneself through contemporary dance. Oh yeah. And he’s 12.
Shoot. I’m crying already.
Wednesday we have two shows. We’re all well rested and jovial from the long weekend off. Kylend steps up to do Michael and is most excellent. Undaunted, beyond energetic, and really learning to finesse this part.
Thursday we have two young girls from the Make-A-Wish Foundation join us on the Broadway stage, Allison, who comes from Ohio, and Lily, who comes from the outskirts of Buffalo. Both live with cystic fibrosis, and it has been their “wish” to be in Billy Elliot. A special rehearsal is called, and they are “put-in” to several of the group scenes. They do a warm-up with the Ballet Girls, they have a place in the dressing room complete with costumes and quick changes. At the interval they come and sit in my dressing room, and we have a little chat while I sit on the floor remarking on how much fun it will be for them to get back home and tell the kids at school. At the end of the play they wear their tutus in the curtain call and are each given bouquets by the Small Boys. When the curtain drops, the company gives them a huge round of applause, and these two little bewildered faces are too overwhelmed even to raise a smile. What a dream come true for them and their families.
In the meantime, on the stairs where I usually meet with Kylend to have our nightly news… Jake Schwenke has told me that Kylend is hurt. At first I can’t believe it, and I’m sure that our sly little Schwenkmeister is pulling my leg. But no. A freak, and oh so ironic accident has occurred. While practicing safe landings from jumps (yup) Kylend has uncannily torn off his toenail and broken his big toe. My heart cracks.
From home that night, I send him a quick email, with some bolstering words and happy thoughts, still not knowing the extent of the injury or the prognosis for recovery. I say a little prayer. How will this effect his dreams of playing Billy? Gulp.
Lord, the drama.
When I get into work on Friday, I dash to the Stage Management office. Kylend will be coming in tonight to say goodbye. Thank God. I need the closure. When I make my way up the stairs from my second act scene with Dad, greeting me on the landing is our forlorn little one on crutches, with a sassy navy-blue boot, and a tear-stained face. The news is relatively good, even though it all looks so unbearable. It will be a couple of weeks before he can dance on it again, but since he was scheduled for a full weeks holiday at home in Michigan before he begins rehearsals, his training should be only slightly delayed. Whew. His poor dog won’t get much running… but it looks like Kylend’s dream is not shattered. Prayers are answered. When the curtain drops after the finale this night we sing a special “Happy Trails” to our broken Tall Boy, with many tears and many cheers of love and encouragement for his recovery. His poor mother stands helplessly in the wings, weeping.
Now, you may think that is all you can take of this week’s episode… but the excitement does not end here. Oh no. There is an epilogue to this compelling scene.
Since Kylend’s injury, Jake Schwenke has gone on for Michael at every show. Dayton Tavares – you know him as one of our Australian Billys, but unbeknownst to many he is also a Michael understudy – has been standing-by for Jake. On Sunday afternoon, to give Dayton his due, and Jake his break, Michael comes to us from the land of Oz. Not only that, but Mike Dameski is on as Billy, so it is a Oz double-team effort! A celebratory moment to be sure. Cast and crew members even sneak into a little vestibule at the side of the stage to watch the two boys do Express through the curtain, an opportunity which in all likelihood will never be repeated. All the while, our audience hasn’t a clue about the strange and dramatic series of events that creates this precious moment of Billy Elliot history.
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Tuesday, July 27, 2010
On occasion we will have question and answer sessions after the show with specific groups of patrons. A question that is almost inevitably asked is: do you still get nervous?
As actors, the work we do for a living is entirely unnerving. In Billy Elliot we stand on stage in front of 1400 people each night; people who have saved their money to make a holiday to New York; people who have spent an average of more than a hundred dollars to see our play; people who have read the extraordinary reviews, who have heard the word-of-mouth praise, and who rightly enough have expectations of no less than excellence.
It is our job and our responsibility to come up to those expectations. Now how does that make you feel in your tummy? A little queasy, maybe? And how do we steady that queasiness in order to head out of the dark wings and onto the bright stage without barfing? Well, we each have our ways I suppose, but for me… ritual and discipline.
I am an eternal believer in personal discipline. I am at the theatre an hour and a half before every show to warm-up with the Billys. We do a limbering sequence, and a ballet barre. I then do a vocal warm-up on my own, and join the boys ten minutes later on the stage for a tap warm-up and a little skipping. Now, you may think… well, that is necessary for this very physical show. Yes and no. I could absolutely do this show without a warm-up (and did once early on in the run because I forgot that the Tuesday night curtain was at 7 o’clock and not 8! Imagine my dismay when I arrived for warm-up only to hear the announcement of the half-hour call!), but I wouldn’t dare now because it has become part of the ritual of my work, and as such it provides me a level of security and comfort in a job that is morbidly petrifying. (Apparently, an actor has enough adrenaline coursing through their veins while they are onstage to bring about a heart attack in the average human. We would fare relatively well if pursued by a bear.)
Now I won’t bore you with the list of my other rituals: little games and songs with the children, punching stagehands, stepping on toes, paging curtains, waving from the wings during the finale… suffice it to say Carole Shelley laughs at me, because what began as a little nightly visit to her dressing room to see how her day was, is now part of my routine that cannot be left out, even if time is of the essence. Silly? Sure. And I can laugh at myself, but I still feel better if I have all my little touchstones in a row. And if I feel secure and safe in these ritual elements, I can get out there on that stage night after night and give the people what they are wanting to see. That’s my job. And I love my job.
So I was delighted the other day when in warm-up Liam balked when asked to change positions at the barre: “I can’t,” he said, ” I won’t have a good show if I don’t warm-up right here!” Oh thank god I’m not the only neurotic in the group! To find that even a fifteen year old doing his first major role finds his rituals comforting is somehow… well… comforting. Bless.
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Thursday, August 5, 2010
On the one year anniversary of my arrival in New York City, in no particular order:
Five Things I Miss About Canada:
- The President. We have a brand of grocery products called “The President’s Choice” and… oh boy, there are some awesome goodies that I could love to have delivered from the great white north… from their fat-free Chocolate Gelato (my mouth is watering…), to their organic brown-rice pasta, to my personal fave… the World’s Best Meatless Chicken Breast… Don’t get me wrong, I think President Obama is fantastic in his own right, but I miss the President of Canada.
- Entertaining. New York is busy. I am busy. Everyone I know here is busy. The subway is busy. The sidewalks are busy. It is an effort to get from A to B, and certainly to get groceries, and wine, and flowers from A to B. Consequently I miss having folks over for tea, or for dinner. I miss my peeps. I miss my Mom and Dad dropping in for lunch with my sister’s dog in tow. It is grand to offer my pull-out couch to Canadian friends who are making a voyage here, but I miss the spontaneity of friends and neighbours popping round.
- Deadheading. I miss my garden and my front porch. My friend Jane was telling me that she was out in her garden deadheading her plants the other day and I found myself extremely envious. She suggested I head over to the Plaza Hotel and help out the staff there with their hanging baskets. A great idea, but I’m afraid I might get arrested.
- Recycling. New York is busy. Yes. I mentioned that. Too busy to recycle apparently. When you come from Canada, this is really hard to get used to. We just don’t throw things out anymore. And the “greening” of the planet has not quite found it’s way to the crucible which is Gotham City. Luckily my apartment building does a pretty good job of this so I end up bringing recyclables home from any outings. Oh, for a green bin!
- Laying Back. New York is busy. We’ve established that now, haven’t we. Canada…? not so busy. New York attracts the “A” type personality: a driven person who is inspired, challenged, and excited by other “A” type personalities. I think I am a “W” or so. I miss hanging out, walking in the woods, sticking my feet in the lake, sitting in my friend David’s garden and talking about matters spiritual, intellectual, and just plain goofy.
Five Things I Love About New York:
- Street Theatre. I’m walking to the subway the other day, and I see a young African-American man in baggy red basketball shorts and a white t-shirt, with an afro and a hair-band, escorting an elderly white woman with a large leather handbag in a printed summer dress, across the intersection of Broadway and Columbus. She has taken his arm, as one would take the arm of an escort, and has an impish grin on her face. He is singing Wagner’s Bridal Chorus in full voice as they make their way through the traffic. I am laughing out loud.
- My Local Haunt. It doesn’t get much better than having the Lincoln Centre in your back yard. My friend Christine was in town on Tuesday, and we decided to pop into Avery Fisher Hall and listen to some music. Gil Shaham happened to be playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5. Need I say more? And a stunning young Spanish conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado, literally dancing out his interpretation of Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony. Thirty-five bucks, and home in five minutes. Yum.
- Food. Okay. So NYC doesn’t have the President. But oh man, the restaurants! The street corner farmer’s markets. The specialty grocery stores (there’s a shop down the street from me that sells only truffle oil). The street sellers of fruit and frozen yoghurt and organic pecans (yup!). Great food, wherever you choose to stop and buy it. No wonder people here don’t entertain in their homes.
- Buildings. No matter where you go in New York, there is fascinating, and often mind-blowing architecture. On Monday I went for a walking tour of the Lower East Side with my friend Andy and his wife Marilyn. The tenement buildings in this area are stunning. Everywhere in the city really. I just tell friends who are walking around to stop at the street corners and look up. You are bound to see some miraculous fire-escape, or cornice, or brickwork, or signage… even the glass and steel can be inspiring.
- My job. It’s been a year now. Unbelievable. And yes I have had my days of difficulty… even despair… as I have acclimatised to the relentless physical demand and the mental focus required for such a long term commitment. The Company, the Crew, and the Creatives at work on Billy Elliot are an amazing variety of folks. I am proud, and grateful everyday for the opportunity that has been granted me to work with these people, for the camaraderie we share, and for the truly fine piece of theatre that we make day in and day out.
Addendum: Life savers
I want to talk about a few special people that made life at the Imperial Theatre a relatively gentle and easy place to be.
Reg Vessey – The first time I came into the Imperial for a costume fitting, way back in the rehearsal days, Terry the Wardrobe Mistress, told me that there was someone I knew on the crew. “How is that possible?”, I thought, “I’ve never worked in New York”. “Reg Vessey”, she said. I nearly fell over. Reg and I worked together at the Charlottetown Festival in 1986 and 87. We even toured Canada with Anne of Green Gables, going to Expo 86 in Vancouver, and major cities across the country. Reg has been down in New York since the early 90s. Reggie is not an easy person, just ask him. But we always got along, and it was so great to have someone backstage that I had history with. So every show Reggie and I would have a little “check-in” time just before Last Class; a chance to talk about old days, and how things change, and how they stay the same. Dear Reggie.
Paulie Dean – Paulie is the… well, I’m not sure what Paulie is. But the Imperial Theatre is his theatre. He’s like the backstage Maitre ‘D. Paulie is one of the most generous men I know. He took care of “my people” whenever I had guests in the house. “I love Canadians!” he would exclaim. He would usher them onto the stage, and chat with them about the history of the place (he even put a chair on the stage for my friend Maggie’s eighty year old mom who was overcome with emotion at the end of the play), and the excavation they had to do into Manhattan bedrock in order to complete the bedroom trap. Paulie is the salt of the earth. God love ya, Paulie.
Richie the Doorman – Richie was working days when I first started, and then shifted to evenings a couple of months into my run. Richie was the first person I saw everyday when I came to work: always happy to see me, always with a smile, or a note of concern about the weather; always gentle and gracious, and stuffed into this tiny cubbyhole just inside the door. He oversaw the boys when they were signing autographs after the show, and kept an eye on each of our comings and goings. “You’re the nicest person who ever came through that door,” he would say to me in his heavy New York accent, “I’m not kidding!” Richie is a charmer!
Team Mrs. Wilks – My “pit crew” consisted of Margiann Flanagan and Susan Corrado… and when Susan was off with an injury, Monica Costea. I owe so much to Margiann. She is a true friend. We shared so much vital information about ourselves because she was my first, and many times, only point of contact in the show. Her calm, her commitment, and her artistry… not to mention her delightful sense of humour, made every day possible, even when they sometimes felt impossible. Susan Corrado, who is the head of the hair department on the show, was another intimate contact. We would talk about men, and travel, and we shared tears and laughter many-a-time during a wig change. And Monica… well Monica is a southern belle. She has a voice like a lark, and a wickedly dry sense of humour. Monica made me laugh, and there’s little better than that. GO TEAM!
Merle Louise – The first time I saw Billy Elliot was the day after it opened. I remember looking at my program and seeing that Merle Louise was in the ensemble! I couldn’t believe it. This is a woman who has premiered roles in about half of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals over the decades (she was the original Baby June in Gypsy! Yeah!). So the fact that BE had landed her as the cover for the role of Grandma was really impressive. When we did my dress rehearsal Merle came to me at the interval: “I can’t understand why they didn’t hire an American for this job,” she said, candidly. My heart sank. I was sure this would be the feeling of many of the cast members, but here it was now, out on the table. “But you have just proved to us why you are here!” Oh, thank god. And thank Merle. She is a real “Broadway Star”.
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The Icepack Cometh
Thursday, August 12, 2010
I skyped with my friend David this morning. During our hour-long conversation I iced my shoulder (I have a sprain of the right acromium-clavicular joint), my shin (in the ballet lesson in Boogie yesterday the spinning chair spun out of Jacob’s hand, and danced with my leg, scraping off the skin and leaving me with two nasty blue goose-eggs), and the balls of my feet (I go through periods of arthritic pain, mostly in the right large toe joint). By the time I’d finished icing the feet, I went back to the shoulder to start again. But to be honest… I am doing REALLY well! (Touch wood).
I have developed a new respect for Broadway performers, and for dancers particularly, who commit to a long term of repetitive movement as a profession. It’s rough. Like professional athletes, our bodies are our tools, our hard-drives, our instruments. Throwing that arm up in the air three times during a number may seem like the easiest of tasks, but when you do it eight times a week for a year… well, your body asks you to stop. And not politely. So imagine the men in the ensemble and the work they do in Solidarity, and in the Riot! They are fighting, and falling, and twisting, and lifting… eight times a week, and some of them for two years steady now.
My colleagues work with pain in their bodies on a daily basis (C.K. is doing eight shows a week with a broken bone in his ankle!). And when one person goes down, everyone is affected. It’s not easy to watch your friends and colleagues fall to injury. Serious injury (and we have a few company members off with serious injuries right now) means visits to doctors, MRIs, physio-therapy, even surgery, but most significantly, time off work. This is a nightmare in any profession, in any town, but in New York, with the insanity of the cost of living… well the stress of the physical pain is exacerbated by the stress of the day to day. Thank God for insurance, and for an extremely helpful and supportive production team, who help arrange services and organise claims and time away. But as with any workplace injury, there is a loss of income, an incapacity to work, and the physical and emotional stress that comes with that. And those of us that are left standing, singing and dancing, can only share our support, our prayers, and our longing for the recovery and return of our dear friends.
There is a bright side. The “family” of Billy Elliot keeps deep roots, and when the need arises, the prodigal return. David Eggers was back onstage this week. Comedy. He left the show exactly one week ago to be the primary care-giver for his son, Sam… but we were short men (not due only to injury, but also to holiday time, and some of our folks leaving to rehearse for the Second National Tour of BE) so David was called back. He’s not the only one to find themselves in this situation, but one week off was the shortest turn around I’ve seen.
David Bologna left us at the end of last week, after spending his summer vacation from school back on Broadway. And to fill in for him, Gabe Rush has joined us as Michael from the Chicago company of Billy. We have some new folks, too… Jeremy Davis is a swing (he’s been on every show since his put-in), and Brad Nacht made his Broadway debut as Big Davey, and is fitting in splendidly! So along with the pain, comes the gain of bright new faces, and fresh, vital energy. And still and all… through the icepacks, through the splints, and through the physio-tape… the show must go on.
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A Tale of Two Cities
August 25th, 2010
(This one’s a bit Dickensian in length, I’m afraid.)
It was the best of times… it was the best of times.
“Vacation” is a word we don’t really use in Canada. “Holiday” is kind of an all-purpose word for both special occasions and… well… vacations. I was on holiday this past week. Yippee. The ladies in the dressing room upstairs asked me where I was going, and I said with glee, “New York City!!! Isn’t that exciting!” The truth is, I know the strip of Manhattan between my home behind Lincoln Centre and the Imperial Theatre very well. But for the most part I don’t have the energy to do a huge day of tourism before I head in to do the show. So I wanted to take advantage of some days off to hit the pavement with the rest of the wanderlings. That said, I should probably have taken a bit more of a rest. Ah well, you only live once. Or not. Depending on your thoughts on that matter… I digress.
Monday, therefore, I rested. As always. My sabbath. My dear friend Maggie arrived from Toronto that night, and the next few days we spent in serious marching mode. On Tuesday we took the subway over to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. The relentless pace and noise of Manhattan has me craving tranquility. This was a haven of natural beauty, of colour, and texture, and birdsong. We spent most of the day in this lush green paradise, finishing our tour in the stunning Japanese garden, having crept under the canopy of an ancient weeping beech, inhaled magical aromas from the fragrance and kitchen gardens, and taken a drink from our water bottles sitting on a large stone by a babbling brook.
We met Margiann, my dresser, at the end of our tour, and went to her beautiful Brooklyn home for lemonade and sorbet. I cannot speak highly enough of Margiann: she surrounds herself with objets which she has collected over the years, and combines them in a home that reflects her artistry and texture as a human being. So inspiring, gracious, and hospitable.
After our sustenance we headed for the Brooklyn Bridge, walking across into Manhattan. I’m so glad I had watched the Ken Burns documentary about the building of the Bridge. It was great background information to carry with me as Maggie and I walked with all the other tourists and commuters, trying not to be wiped out by the cyclists in the bike lane. I told Maggie that the Bridge’s construction began at the time The Battle of Little Big Horn was taking place in the West (imagine!), and during its construction Oscar Wilde was on his tour of America. I told her of the tragedy of workers being killed by “the bends” that they suffered while working on the footings for the two great towers, and of the lower grade wire that one of the contractors tried to substitute in the manufacture of the cables, that set the building of the bridge back by months. All this info and much more, thanks to Ken Burns.
After exiting the Bridge we headed uptown to the East Village for dinner at Angelica’s Kitchen, a vegetarian restaurant that has been open on 12th at 2nd since the sixties. Fantastic. A cab ride home up 3rd, through Gramercy and the across to the west side through the Park was the ending of a great day.
Wednesday was spent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even with a full day, one can only scratch the surface. I am a sucker for art glass, so we started in the American wing with decorative arts, and enjoyed the stained glass and mosaic of the Tiffany studio, and the Coonley Playhouse windows by Frank Lloyd Wright. Other highlights: an amazing collection of Joan Miro’s work; Toulouse Lautrec and a school of French post-Impressionists including stunning and mysterious works by Pierre Bonnard; and the building itself, a masterpiece of corridors and rooms that seem to lead you in circles of sensory overload. The least impressive moment of the day: lunch in the dark, miserable cafeteria. Blech.
The day was interrupted by a bit of business. I had to make my way to the front steps on Fifth Avenue to do a phone interview (no cell phones in the museum) with Richard Ouzounian from the Toronto Star. There had just been a press conference announcing my final performance on Broadway, which will be October 1st, my replacement by Emily Skinner, and my joining the Chicago Company of Billy to play in Chicago for a month over the Christmas holidays and then heading to Toronto to play for the run there beginning in the new year. Exciting! I’m going home with this show I love! And Richard wanted some quotes from me for the Toronto paper. It took only moments and I was back at the Modigliani.
We finished the day on the roof of the museum. I’ll confess we were looking for a cocktail, but we ended up just getting a view of the park and the city to the west and the south, because the museum was closing rather soon. Our sensory neurons were all bursting at the seams, so we headed out into the Upper East Side in search of some serious nutritional molecules.
We seemed to be on a vegetarian theme, so went to Candle Cafe, a vegan restaurant on 3rd at 74th… super yummy! We both ended up buying their cookbook (amazing tofu recipes!), and I even bought the t-shirt. Another day well spent.
Thursday we headed shopping. I needed a little less joint impact. We had thought about a walking tour of Harlem, but headed down to the Flatiron District, and Union Square instead. I love this area. We did a few of my favourite things: spent some time gaping at the display of fabrics at Wolf Home, the endless collections of “stuff” at ABC Carpet and Home, grabbed lunch at Whole Foods and ate it in the Square, marched over to Fifth Avenue and took in Free People, and Anthropologie, finishing with a quick jaunt through Beads of Paradise on 17th, and getting on the subway home to get Maggie packed and on her way back to T-dot. What a great holiday for both of us!!!
On Saturday I took the Amtrak train up to Boston. Never been. This summer is the thirtieth anniversary of the friendship of Anne Knapp and me. We met at The Banff School of Fine Arts in 1980. We were babies… roommates in the under-age dorm (I apparently have a desperate need to qualify my age here)… she in the ballet program and me in musical theatre. She is now the administrative director of the New England Zoo, and I am… well, I guess you know what I am.
We started our time together with a brilliant meal at The Hungry Mother in Cambridge (with excellent service by a swarm of nerdy MIT students). After dinner we drove from Harvard Square to Anne’s home in the suburbs, near Wellesley College. Even in the dark I could see what a beautiful city greater Boston is: amazing architecture lovingly maintained and restored, and tons of green space.
Sunday we spent the day mostly at the Franklin Park Zoo where Anne works. I got to go backstage!! There were three highlights: I observed the lowland gorillas, Little Joe and Okee, that I have come to know through Anne’s many anecdotes; I was present at a training session with the silverback of the group, Kit (I was standing within four feet of the trainer!); and I got to feed Bo the giraffe about 2 kilos of chopped butternut squash!! The relentless rain did nothing to put a damper on the day. At the end of the Zoo tour, we drove into Boston and did a little shopping on Newbury Street (maybe I bought ANOTHER pair of Fluevogs), had a casual meal, and headed home.
Monday we drove to the North Shore, and visited some of the most spectacular historic sites in the area: Salem and Marblehead. Salem is a bit like Niagara Falls I’m afraid… it really is a remarkable landmark whose genuine interest has been overrun by the influx of rampant commercialism. It’s too bad, for though the history and much of the architecture was fascinating, I was happy to hit the road and head towards Marblehead.
Here I found just the opposite. Marblehead is an ancient town (some houses we saw were built as early as the mid 1600s! only years after Shakespeare’s death!) that is remarkable in it’s quaint and honest love of it’s history, from the tasteful nature of the shops around the Town Square, to the narrow, winding streets that maintain the houses of cordwains and shipwrights from the earliest days of New England. Ah Marblehead! Pelting rain, with the waves crashing up against the rocky shore in the gale of a nor’easter. The perfect setting for a maritime visit. Brilliant.
We finished the day back in Cambridge. A meal at the Harvard Market, a stroll through Harvard Yard, past the statue of John Harvard (which is not really a statue of John Harvard but of the sculptor’s apprentice!), and Harvard Square, past the Hasty Pudding Club, the law office window of Dewey, Cheatham and Howe!, and American Repertory Theatre. I dreamed of applying to Harvard to write a PHD. Hmmmm.
Home on the train on Tuesday. New York seemed a bit rude and brutal after Boston and environs. But back to Billy… for only five and a half more weeks, so I better enjoy it while it lasts. How grateful I am that the travel I do with my work allows me to experience such invigorating cities, such sensuous beauty, and such historic wonder. And all in the company of extraordinary friends. I am truly blessed.
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The Beginning, and the End
August 30th, 2010
This show is hard. And it is wicked to start the week back from holidays with eight shows in five days (kicking off with a two-show day), plus a put-in rehearsal. That’s nine shows, basically. My voice kacked. And my left shoulder (that’s the good shoulder) went into complete spasm (and is now the bad shoulder). Fearing I would not make it through Sunday’s two shows, I booked out on Saturday afternoon to give my voice some rest, and my shoulder some physio-therapy. I hate to choose the importance of one show over another, but Sunday was an extremely important day to me, to the Company, and to two brave and talented young men.
The matinee saw the Broadway debut, in the role of Billy Elliot, of the young, tiny, blue-eyed wonder, Peter Mazurowski. Peter is magnificent: quiet, focussed, serious, and a little timid at first. He’s small, and thin, and his skin is whiter than white… like a good kid from the Northeast who’s never seen the sun. And when he looks at you with those baby-blues… he looks right into your soul, and what I see… is Billy.
It’s this stage of our relationship – the relationship between Peter and Kate – that is so much like the beginning of the play and the relationship between Billy and Mrs. Wilks. I don’t really know this kid yet, but I can sense his deep magic, his will, his courage… and that is what draws me in. That is why I want him to come back again and again. I want to touch that magic. To know that courage. To lock horns with that will.
Peter was shaking in his boots during warm-up. Poor creature. I cannot imagine the pressure. Even so, he got out there and was a lesson in presence. One step at a time, he nailed one moment, and then the next, and then the next! At the curtain call we were united as a Company in our ecstasy at his accomplishment. I ran into him in the staircase at the end of the show… he planned on a good sleep, and looked forward to his next kick at the can! After only one performance, those shaky boots were now still and sure-footed. Good on ya, Peter!
And that was only the matinee!
After a little sushi, and a little nap, the next event began to unfold: the final performance of Liam Redhead in the role of Billy Elliot. (Good Lord! Can the old heart stand this much emotion in one day!?) I watched Liam do his onstage warm-up and saw the young man that has emerged from the boy I watched over a year ago in a class at the National Ballet School of Canada. The growth in his confidence, his desire, his professionalism… all these adult terms that can now be applied as he climbs elegantly into his mid-teens. (How many teenagers do you know that can actually be called elegant?!)
I thought I would be a mess for this one, but the theatre gods can play some strange tricks on you, and I felt off my pins through most of the show. The line between the play and the reality was blurring in the most unpredictable ways, and I was not sure from one moment to the next how I would be affected.
So that even when I stepped on the stage for our final scene I didn’t know whether tears would come or not. Mid-scene. “Well… bye, bye miss”. Both of us. Calm. Clear. He walks to the door to leave: we are Billy and Mrs. Wilks: confused, emotionally stuck, struggling. He turns, “I’ll miss you, Miss”. It all rushes up… from the floor, through my body to my heart, my throat, my eyes. “No you won’t Billy”. And the play works itself out perfectly: we are both crying, and smiling, and loving each other… and my young friend Liam is sent off into his future.
What I see Liam take with him in his suitcase, back to the National Ballet School, is passion. He has learned (and I have had the thrill to witness this learning!) that dance… that acting, singing, performing… comes from a far deeper place than the concepts of the mind or the skills of the body. That when we connect with… whatever you want to call it… guts, soul, fire, ground, God… when we connect with that deeper place… a place outside intellect or experience… we transcend performance and touch art.
Take that art, Liam. Take it wherever your life leads you. And spend it generously.
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Friday, September 3, 2010
In the theatre we never say goodbye. Of course, we part… we move on… The English word “goodbye” (derived from the phrase, God be with you) has a finality that the French expressions of departure don’t have: au revoir, a tout a l’heure, a bientot… all of them imply that we will see each other again. In the revolution of time.
As if to remind me of this as I near my departure from this Broadway adventure I have very recently experienced a serious blast from the past. A few weeks ago David Hibbard, a stalwart of our men’s ensemble, left us to join the second national tour of BE which is now in rehearsal. As always, we hear the names of replacements long before we are actually able to put faces to them… and one day I was talking to Susan Corrado, our head of wigs, about Hibbard’s replacement, and she told me his name was Michael Arnold. A little grey cell deep in the recesses of my memory slowly rubbed the sleep from its mitochondria. Once upon a time, a long, long, time ago… I had an image of a young man in a dance rehearsal… but no, it couldn’t be. I let the little grey cell go back to sleep in the cushiony soft place that is my brain.
Skip ahead to last week. My friend Chris Hunt, and another colleague from Calgary, Karen Johnson-Diamond (and her son), were in the house on the Wednesday night. I whipped down to the stage to meet them after the show. We were sitting there, excitedly gabbing, and I was telling them how inordinately large were the numbers of people who had come all the way from Calgary to see me on the Broadway boards. At this moment, from the side of stage came a voice… “Calgary? I’m from Calgary!” Guess who. “Michael Arnold,” I said. “I remember you. I’m sure of it.” The grey cell was awake and kicking now.
In 1979 (I think it was 1979… at least I’m sure we were still driving dog-sleighs at that point up in Canada…) I was in a locally written amateur musical called Mon Ami: A Celebration. I was fifteen (please don’t do the math!). There were singing/acting roles in the play… I was the mother… and there was a dance ensemble. The rehearsals were to be conducted separately at least for the first while. But I remember walking into a church hall in the early days of rehearsal and meeting the dancers. One of them was a young (and I mean YOUNG! He was 12 or 13!) man named… wait for it… … … Michael Arnold. Yup! He was there with his sister. I remember watching a few minutes of rehearsal, and they were fabulous! And… here’s the exciting part… that was the ONLY day of rehearsal that he was ever there! At the time, Michael and his sister had also landed parts in the Young Canadians, a touring grandstand-show group, and schedule conflicts meant they had to withdraw from our little show.
Isn’t it crazy! There he was sitting beside me on the stage at the Imperial Theatre on 45th Street, and ready to join the show that Friday! Hilarious! And he hadn’t changed. My snappy little grey cell recognised that face from a twenty minute rehearsal over thirty years ago!
I am still in touch with three people from that pivotal show (and they will all read this I hope!): J.R., who now works in the film industry in Vancouver; Kim, a shiatsu therapist in Toronto; and Eleanor, who played the lead in Mon Ami, who is an accountant for an oil company in Calgary. Eleanor and her family came all the way to New York to see me in late May. Friendships made in the course of putting on a play can last a lifetime… and even acquaintances can go around and come around in the most unexpected manner. You never know when a Michael Arnold will pipe up from the stage right steps.
So when the girls are crying (or more realistically, when I am crying) because another one of our friends is moving on from Billy Elliot, I try to reassure them: it is not goodbye. It is never goodbye. Only Ciao for now.
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Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Sunday night was Mikey’s last show as Billy on Broadway. He will go on now to play Billy on the Second National Tour for a while, and then head home into the heat of the Australian summer some time in the depth of our North American winter.
As Mikey warmed up for his final performance I could see the amazing changes that are occurring in his body and his person: the muscle tone is becoming clearly apparent in his arms and his legs, his voice is deepening daily it would seem, and his conversation can be so grown up and mature you forget you’re talking to a fifteen year old. (Can be… of course put him in the proper context and he is as insane as all the rest of the kids in the hall! His penchant for donning wigs and masks, and sitting motionless on the landings of the stairway can be a little creepy!) He has always been an incredibly focussed and determined young man, but in his warm-up that night he took direction from Jeff Edwards, our resident choreographer, with utter professionalism, able to achieve minute notes and express them through the core of his physical intelligence. His discipline is exceptional. It commands respect. A bunch of the crew guys sitting along the back wall of the stage, watched for the last time the brilliance of this boy/man as he steps away from our Broadway world. They watched in awe. We all did.
Alex Dreier was standing by as the Small Boy that night. As I passed the boys’ dressing room on the way to make my first entrance, I saw Alex standing in first position plie in the doorway.
“Is that your plie?” I asked. No words came in response, only a repeat of the plie. Jacob Clemente appeared behind him. Jacob was stand-by Billy.
“Show her the rest,” said Jacob. “Second position…”, Alex responded. “Third”. Third. “Fourth… Fifth… He took his first ballet class yesterday!”, said Jacob excitedly showing Alex off like a new toy. Alex just looked at me with his big brown eyes, excited that he was standing beautifully in fifth position. He’s seven, remember. And every time he looks at me when I’m in wig and make-up, it’s as if I’ve just stepped off the stage of Cirque du Soliel and into his living room. Words fail.
At the interval I came down to the boys dressing room to hand Mikey a card: a frank farewell, telling him how delightful it has been to work with a fifteen year old actor who is never afraid to be an equal out on that stage. Alex looked up at me and did a pirouette. I was impressed. He saw that, and did it again. “Jacob taught me,” he said.
“So you’re taking dance classes now, are you?”
He corrected me:
I won’t bore you again with the puddles of tears I left on the stage as Mikey and I had our final scene. You know by now that I can’t separate myself from the reality. I am so grateful for the time I have had with Mike Dameski, and for what he leaves with us: Legacy. His talent has inspired the Crew, the Company (who crowded three and four thick into the alcove to watch his final Electricity), and Alex Dreier… the next generation.
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For the Birds
Friday, September 17, 2010
Ah the girls, the girls!
Many of you know my track (I’ve learned that on Broadway we have “tracks” not “roles”) in Billy Elliot is basically sans adults. I have two scenes with Dad, one scene with Tony and some of the men, and a little interaction with Mr Braithwaite… but other than that my show is entirely about the children. I’ve talked about our wonderful Billys a lot, so here’s a little chance to talk about the Ballet Girls and the joy they bring me.
Firstly, you need to know that these girls – aged nine to twenty – do eight shows a week. They get home at midnight and many of them are up at 7am for school! (I remember very clearly as a teenager going to bed at nine-thirty!) They all bundle into a dressing room on the fourth floor of the backstage staircase behind draperies which they have decorated in silver lettering – BGUSA. They are remarkably professional, and yet each one of them is a tender, vulnerable child, teenager, or young adult under the performance energy and the tutus.
They have only the smallest of personal space… a two foot section of mirror and dressing table with a chair that they can call their own. These are decorated to the hilt with pictures of family, friends, Justin Bieber, and the characters from Eclipse. (Of course I don’t even know what Eclipse is… but I know Justin Bieber is Canadian… from Stratford… home of the Ontario Pork Congress, the Stratford Festival, and now, apparently, Justin Bieber.)
Before beginning “Shine” each show, we gather in the stage right area where they pick up their dance bags, their fifty-pee bits… and their birds. Each girl has a little stuffed bird for a section of the number we call “birdcage”. And just like all girls who make up skipping rhymes and cats-cradle songs, the girls have made up birdie handshakes that they exchange religiously as they gather (each pairing has some ‘ography that you will simply have to imagine…):
Holly and Kendra – “Two little birdies sitting in a tree, Ched and Marley at the Marriott Marquis! Have a good show! Yay!”
Maddy and Ava – “Rosario and Sassy, Rosario and Sassy, Rosario and Sassy are weird and gassy. Sassy and Rosario, Sassy and Rosario, have a good show. OMG!!!”
Georgi and Kara – “Tweeter and Lucky, Tweeter and Lucky, have a good show, don’t make it stinky. Lucky and Tweeter, Lucky and Tweeter, have a good show! Yeah!”
Eboni and Holly – “Zack and Ched, Zack and Ched, remember all the notes that Peter said! Broadway Spirit, c’mon let’s hear it! Have a good ‘shoe’, woohoo!”
Ava and Aly – “Sassy and Carl, Sassy and Carl, Sassy and Carl are filled with harl… but that’s not a word… Carl and Sassy, Carl and Sassy, have a good show, toi, toi. He’s supposed to hit you, you’re supposed to hit him, it’s boxing! Yay!”
And my personal favourite:
Bri and Holly – “Gumpa, Gumpa, Gumpadeedoo, have a good show for me and for you. If you don’t, I will kill you 😉 Gumpa, Gumpa, Gumpadeedoo!”
I LOVE IT!
Once the greetings are exchanged, we file to our first positions behind the set, where we wait as quietly as possible for the boxing scene to end. It is then Georgi’s job (or whomever is playing Debbie) to focus our performance energy on a target. So we “do the show for” someone, be it a swing who is on, or someone who is having a birthday, or for someone’s uncle, cousin or mother who is in the house… or occasionally we’ll “do it for the people!”, the most social and generous of the dedications.
All this happens in the four to five minutes before “Shine”, and then the cue light goes backstage and they all spill out onto the boards, screaming and improvising until I cut them off.
Ah, the girls! They are quick witted, generous to a fault, they can cover for each other instantly when something goes wrong (and for everyone else! believe it!). And the backstage world is their playground: I witness the truly moving friendship between Maddy and Eboni; the cloistered teenage bond of Heather and Marina; the unbridled imagination of Ava and Tessa; the gentle maturity of Kendra and Holly; the unmitigated fashion sense of Ruby and Chelsea; the bright eyes of Georgi, open-heartedness of Aly, the cuddliness of Brianna, the gorgeous kookiness of Kara. Each one is such a unique character, and each one helps to create and enhance the experience of this play.
Kate’s Birdie Handshake: “Me and the Girls, Me and the Girls, we’re tied together like a string of pearls!
The Girls and Me, the Girls and Me, having fun on Broadway, beedledeedee! Have a good show – Go Ninjas!”
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Friday, September 24, 2010
Last night as I was performing “Shine” I suddenly realised… “Hey! I’m singing a great big number on Broadway. How extraordinary is that?! I better savour this moment!” The end truly is in sight now. My final show is a week today. Emily Skinner has come from Chicago and is now rehearsing to take over the role of Mrs. Wilkinson when I go. And suddenly there’s a boat load for me to do: lots of social activities have filled all the gaps between doctors and physio appointments (I learned this week that I have been working with not one, but TWO herniated discs in my neck since at least February! long story…)… and of course canceling utilities, changing addresses, and worst of all… packing.
For thirty years I have led a gypsy’s life: in Canada that term is even more accurate than it seems to be here. In Canada there is little hope of landing a gig on Broadway that may, if it turns out to be a huge hit, run for years in a row. Any basic gig is six to eight weeks in length, and there are regional theatres from Victoria on the west coast to Halifax on the east. That’s lot of packing; a lot of “suite hotels”, billets, or digs. So what a treat it has been (particularly for my cat, Northrop) to be ensconced in an apartment for over a year. Not moving. Not a box or a suitcase in sight.
All that changes today. I bought the packing tape at Staples last week, and I have saved my boxes from Fresh Direct in the closet. Out they come now, and the books, the kitchen utensils, the winter boots, the family photos will be split among them. The cat has had his shots for the border crossing, and I have the forms all ready for Canada Customs.
Still, though I have the pleasure of family and friends and REST to look forward to on the other side of the 49th parallel, there is a blue-ness that descends as the suitcases come out, and the furniture and walls get stripped of the bits of home that I always carry with me. The fact that it is Autumn in New York adds to the poignancy. Change is in the air. In the light. In the cards.
A patron (I’m so sorry I didn’t get his name!) came up to me as I left the building last night. He has seen me in the show more than thirty times! He wanted to tell me that he would miss me! That he would miss reading my ramblings on the blog. And he said that America was honoured to have had me here doing this show. Imagine. I told him I was grateful to America for granting me this opportunity. It was small… just two people talking. But the rhetoric was big. And it is big for me. I don’t want it to be small. This time will not easily slip from my memory.
Life at the Imperial Theatre goes on impervious to my melancholy: Kara Oates had her 12th birthday yesterday, the Billys went to the White House a couple of weeks ago and met Michele Obama, the bedroom trap door onstage has been going through some idiosyncratic behaviour, Natalie got engaged while she was in Paris on holiday, Terence Fowler (my boxing coach from St. Catharines Ontario!) came to see the show last weekend, I got a new dress for the finale to take with me to Chicago and Toronto… and so it goes on. And will go on.
As will I. Two shows left with each of my boys now. Oh my.
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Friday, October 8th, 2010
And Noah thought he survived the deluge.
I can honestly say I am not generally a huge crier… but you’d never know that if you were hanging around backstage at the Imperial Theatre last week. Or if you saw any of the final four shows I did, each one my last with one of the boys. Margiann told me to stanch the flow lest I turn into a prune before her very eyes. You’d think I was a simpering wimp.
The truth is, playing Mrs. Wilkinson on Broadway has been the most intense experience in my working life to date. Hands down. The investment I have made physically and emotionally for a full year is like nothing I have known before. That this intensity has been shared almost exclusively with children and teenagers is something I never would have expected to experience in the work place. Such unpredicted richness. And gosh-darn it… piles of fun!
Not to show any disrespect to the adults of the company- I will get to them- but the children… ah, the children. I know – as Mrs. Wilkinson knows – that we merely touch children’s lives, we don’t hold them. So the departure from the games I shared with those twenty-three young people, our rituals, our friendships, our conversation, our trust, seems so final. Add to that the fact that I am not leaving the show to take the 2 Train to Brooklyn or the R Train to Astoria, but to go home to Canada… That’s a foreign country folks. There’s a border, and all.
Hence the flood.
Dayton first. Then Peter. Alex Ko (my boyfriend since last August! aargh! the heartache!), and finally Jacob. Each show I would do pretty well until they turned towards me from the big red door and said, “I’ll miss you, Miss”. And then I had to say, knowing the painful truth of Mrs. Wilkinson’s experience, “No you won’t, Billy”. In each of the four shows a lump the size of an apple suddenly sprang to my throat, and the tears turned on like a soothing garden water feature. I savoured my final three backward steps up the stage, not wanting to take my eyes off each of these boys who I was seeing for the final time, just as Mrs. W. would, and those images are now locked in the vault of memory. As the doors swung behind me, my body convulsed and I wept my way past the gauntlet of miners who were countering my path onto the stage for their final scene, past Anthony the props man who would rub my shoulders, or hand me the tissues, or even wrap me in his arms sobbing (after Ko Ko Puffs), and into the vestibule where Liz and Natalie were waiting for me as usual to watch an enigmatic charade performed by Kara and Ruby (and normally Tessa, but she’s been off with an injury, pooh) which this week tended to be one of a variety of depictions of me leaving. (Dear Kara, who would often give us slightly too much information for charades: “I’m a robot! I’m a robot!”).
Such drama. I promise… not the norm.
What I tried to say in my little speech to the Company after the curtain fell on Friday October the 1st, 2010, after Alex Drier handed me a bouquet of flowers that was as big as him; after the Company sang Happy Trails… to ME!; what I tried to convey, particularly to the adults of the Company, is how much respect I have gained for the people who choose to live their lives as performers on Broadway. I have been working happily on the stage for nearly thirty years, but I have never worked like this. This is such intense, relentless, and challenging work… and these people are so dedicated, so supportive, such a true community, such a functioning village of just under 200 – when you include the crew, wardrobe and Front of House staff – … I really hope they are proud. They should be so proud. They are making the world safe for musical theatre!!! And that’s no joke.
Which throws me into a favourite memory: I was chatting with Grant Turner a few weeks ago… he was being very gracious to me, as I recall, and expressing his wish that I should return to Broadway some day. I hemmed and hawed and basically said, I would love to do a play on Broadway, but I’m just not sure if I have it in me to do another musical (they’re just such hard work!)… and dear Grant said, “Don’t say that! You can’t say that! A little gay boy dies every time you say that”! … Dear Grant… I laughed my face off…
Can I hold these memories? (…the flood sweeping over me even as I write…) Likely not… hence the desire to put down in words what might flutter from my mind as some current experience takes precedence in it’s grey folds and pockets. For now I am moving on. I am the one leaving. This is, after all, my choice.
To the Company, to Team Mrs. Wilks (Margiann, and Susan, also known as the Pit Crew), to the BGUSA, to the Crew, the Wardrobe, the FOH, to Richie at the Stage Door… but above all to my boys: to Kiril Kulish (who I rehearsed with over a year ago, a striking young man, now training with New York City Ballet), to Tommy Bachelor (who was backstage after my last show… Little Tommy, no longer, soon to finish his run with Billy in Chicago), to David Alvarez (training at American Ballet Theatre after dancing on scholarship in Bermuda for the summer), to Trent Kowalik (also training at ABT) to Liam Redhead (who I will see at the National Ballet School in Toronto this month), to Mike Dameski, Dayton Tavares, Peter Mazurowski, Alex Ko, and Jacob Clemente… my boys, my Billys… as it would doubtless say in the Star Trek Annual…
Live long and prosper.
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Time and Space
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Shakespeare writes a lot about time. So does Tom Waits. There’s a song he’s written called, simply, Time… and the lyric goes like this:
Oh it’s time, time, time,
Time, time time,
Time, time, time that you love,
Oh it’s time, time, time.
Whenever I hear it I wonder if he means… the time has come for you to love – or if he means… you love time itself. Complex, what? I think… time… is a theme we dwell on more and more as we enter our mid-lives. Time… is so ineffable, so relentless, and yet, so much like lightening.
I have been home nearly a month now, and the… time… I spent on Broadway in Billy Elliot – more than a year of my life! – seems to live somewhere in a vague dream of the past. How is that possible? That what was so tangible, so present, so INTENSE… has drifted into the ether. It feels like I was captured in a bubble for a year, that I floated away to some foreign land surrounded by an iridescent film that caught and reflected so many bright lights, and that now that bubble has popped – as all bubbles do – and I have landed on my feet, back in my proper life, a little richer, a little shinier, and warmed inside by… the time that I loved.
I arrived home in… time… for Canadian Thanksgiving. Oh, I was so full of thanksgiving!! An autumn drive. The sumachs were burning bright red along the side of the highway on the way to my Mom and Dad’s. And there is one particular type of maple that blazes the colour of flame – an orange so brilliant it seems to flash in the sun. I was so glad to be home, with my family, with my friends, and (please don’t take this the wrong way, my new American chums), but thankful to be Canadian… and understanding a little more about what that means, having been away from my country for some… time.
But what I find now, as things are settling, and the last of the bills are being paid in New York, and the final items have been picked up from the shipping company, and I am cozying in my new apartment in front of the fireplace with Northrop the cat… is an emptiness. A space. It’s not new, this space. I have felt it before upon the return from extraordinary adventures. It is the slight sadness of expendability. Perhaps it is unique to actors, but I doubt it. Perhaps we feel it more acutely, as our skin is thin, in order that the wind might move us.
What… time… teaches actors, should we survive in this business into mid-life, is that there is always someone to fill our shoes. Someone who looks different, who sounds different, who makes different choices, but someone who is equally skilled, equally experienced, equally excited, equally scared, equally wonderful. Haydn so graciously handed her Mrs. Wilkinson torch to me, and I, hopefully with equal grace, have handed my Mrs. Wilkinson torch on to Emily. I’m sure it will burn brightly in her hands. But I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel this inextinguishable sadness that Emily is there in my place… even if it was my choice to go. And even if I am happy in that choice. It’s hard to know that it all goes on seamlessly without you. I am so human.
With this space… this… time… that I now have to rest, to recuperate, to decompress, comes reflection, a chance to re-frame, and with that these discomfiting feelings of melancholy coupled with gratitude. I feel peaceful. Curious. I feel like I have really accomplished something, and in the aftermath of that, I feel… well, I feel that finding the… time… to do my taxes, or head out to auditions, is not quite within my realm of motivation just yet.
What I find easy is heading to my ballet classes twice a week. Going to the gym and keeping my body in shape. Because I know that the next leg of Billy Elliot is around the corner. And though I have time to write my plays now, to have lunches, and teas, and visits to Ottawa, and Stratford, and Niagara-on-the-Lake, I am still, however peripherally, in the world of a young boy who wants to dance. Soon I will be heading off to Chicago to meet my new leading men, to meet a brand new company of miners and their families, a new team entirely. It will be a little like walking into a family portrait that’s filled with people you’ve never met. Weird. But soon, they will feel like home. I will belong to them, and they to me. And I know that Toronto is going to love this show. I can’t wait to play for the home crowd!
So. Finally. Thank you all for reading my little notes. My thoughts. My feelings. My outlook on the world. Thank you for sharing this space, and this… time. I will miss it all. My bright bubble. This tectonic shift of my solid little world.
Give my regards to Broadway.
Celia Chassels, always. The original readers, wherever you may be. Jenn Elston at Situation Interactive. Julianna Hannett and Frances White at The Hartman Group. The cast, crew, creatives, stage management, guardians and the ENORMOUS team of folks who kept Billy Elliot alive and kicking. I’m ever grateful.