Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Summer at Signature: Stage One and Overtures

It's generally acknowledged that it's in the theatre industry's best interest to nuture the next generation of talent: The best way to ensure the quality of your future shows? Provide top-notch training. Signature is no stranger to this principle. In fact, Signature has been hosting summer musical theatre programs for young performing artists for over ten years. In both Stage One Workshops and Overtures, students are given the opportunity to further develop their performing skills in a professional and focused environment.

Overtures students rehearse for their final showcase.
Stage One Workshops: A Musical Theatre Intensive for Ages 14-17
In Stage One Workshops, high school students go through two weeks of all-day training in singing, dancing, and acting. An audition-based admission program, Stage One is competitive and those admitted have their work cut out for them. Trained by some of the best in the DC Metro area, students learn what will be expected of them as theatre professionals.

Overtures: Signature Theatre's Musical Theatre Institute 
Overtures in the next step in a musical-theatre hopeful's training. It is designed to benefit college students, recent grads, and early professionals seeking to advance their performing abilities. While two weeks in length like Stage One, Overtures requires longer hours, includes mock auditions in front of real casting directors and master classes with NY actors, provides individual as well as group coaching, and concludes with a public showcase performance. Overtures is grueling, but ultimately rewarding: "I have gotten some of the best training I have ever received here at Overtures... I really love that we are pushed out of our comfort zone... I can feel my growth as a performer" (2012 Overtures participant). Students leave Overtures with a better understanding of the business and more mature as artists.
"It's amazingly complete... I feel like I learned more that was practical for a life in the theatre than I did in four years of college." (2011 Overtures participant)
2011 Overtures Showcase. Photo: Dennis Deloria
Auditions for Overtures and Stage One typically occur in April and May, although this year we're having an additional day of auditions for Stage One on June 1 (read more here). For both programs, auditioners are asked to prepare to contrasting vocal selections and demonstrate their movement abilities in an open dance call.

The Pay-off
Do these programs really produce "good" performers? We'll let you be the judge:
  • Matthew Gardiner: Associate Artistic Director at Signature Theatre. 
  • Michael Mainwaring: DC actor currently in Thunder Knocking at the Door at Creative Cauldron, recently in Signature Theatre's Dreamgirls.
  • Florrie Bagel: NYC actor, recently in the US National Tour of Sister Act.
  • James Gardiner: DC actor currently in Company at Signature, book writer for the musical Glory Days. 
  • Hannah Willman: DC actor, recently in My Fair Lady at Arena Stage.
  • Nick Blaemire: NYC actor, recently in the Broadway revival of Godspell, lyricist and composer for the musical Glory Days.
  • Aaron Reeder: DC actor, currently in Show Boat at The Kennedy Center.
Looks like Signature should simply keep up the good work!

Friday, May 17, 2013


One Night Only!

COMPANY Student Night
Friday, May 31, 8 PM-1PM

Grab your student ID and get yourself a $25 ticket to student night!

It's a birthday-themed extravaganza, complete with a birthday party photo-op, themed non-alcohol drinks, music and dancing, and of course, complimentary birthday cake* (generously provided by Cakelove).

We'll also be having a scavenger hunt-type competition with cool prizes like an autographed poster, a COMPANY t-shirt, and two tickets to an upcoming Signature show.

Find out more about Student Night activities by checking out our Facebook event.

Tickets can be purchased online, over the phone (703 573 9771), or at our Box Office. Use the code "EDU25" and present a valid student ID** to receive our discounted student price!

Whether or not it's actually your birthday, be sure to come celebrate "Being Alive"!

*must present student ticket to receive piece of cake
**when purchasing in person or picking up will call tickets

Cookies, Entrepreneurship, and the Heart of Theatre

TEDxBroadway 2013 Series (Part II)

In this three-part opinion series, Signature Theatre staff look at their favorite talks from the TEDxBroadway 2013 conference sharing thoughts, insights, and an analysis of the issues facing the theatre industry at large and how Signature Theatre is handling them. Read Part I here.

Today’s blog author is Hunter Styles, Signature’s Public and Community Relations Manager.

How odd, when you think about it, that theatre artists gather together in a box in order to work at thinking outside the box. Sometimes it’s a blackbox theatre; sometimes it’s a more traditional auditorium space. Either way, the decree is to think differently about how to tell a story onstage, using the particular skills of the artists assembled.

But gathering in the blackbox is the easy part. It’s the individual-sized boxes we inhabit – walled in by our self-imposed comfort zones and by the assumptions others have about us – that can be hard to climb out of.

Zachary Schmahl is an actor from Nebraska who wandered into the New York theatre scene a few years ago only to end up starting a business of his own: an old-fashioned cookie shop storefront in Hell’s Kitchen. The box Schmahl identified with – the small oven in his 400-foot-square apartment – seemed at first the source of a hobby rather than a full-time job. But then he took the time to reflect on his life of constant auditioning. It had begun to feel unsustainable.

"When you’re unfulfilled," Schmahl said, "that’s life telling you that it’s time to adapt. To reimagine. To move on. To continue to dream big." His breezy, fun 10-minute TEDx talk encourages us all to think beyond the perfunctory limitations we put on how we imagine what might best come next. "Why photocopy something that someone else has already perfected?" Schmahl asked, arguing that hard work – and attention to your deep-down interests – pays off.
Zachary Schmahl presents at TEDxBroadway 2013.

Now he sells cookies to the public, and to numerous professional theatres in New York, as the owner of Schmackery’s bakery. Since opening in 2011, the shop has become home to what Schmahl calls "the unofficial cookie of Broadway."

"The more that I sold, the more I fell in love with what I was doing," said Schmahl. "And I gave myself no option but to succeed and grow my business as fast as I possibly could."

Not everyone finds a way to latch onto this killer combination of industry and imagination. It takes hard work, but it also takes some aggressive dreaming. And if a theatre can’t pull that off, the entire community misses out.

Fortunately, the box that Eric Schaeffer put himself into in the early 90s – an old garage on Four Mile Run Drive – became as much a source of inspiration as a center for hard work. "We had to go through about four inches of water just to get into the building," Schaeffer has written about his first time inside what would become Signature’s Theatre’s home until the 2007 move to Shirlington Village. "We finally got in the back door to find it was flooded inside. I looked up and saw the sky – not a roof. Rats were running in the shadows. But I also saw all these individual girders, and the strength in the building. Right away I knew this could be something."
Signature Theatre's original garage space.

Schaeffer’s wet, empty garage space – like Schmahl’s little-oven-that-could – transformed. Signature didn’t become a nationally-respected, multi-million dollar arts organization because Schaeffer saw a garage as a garage. A garage became a source of art. And a professional theatre space has to become one too, over and over and over again.

New York theatergoers don’t love Schmahl for his oven – they love him for his cookies. And theatergoers don’t love Signature for the building. They love the feeling of being dropped into the thick of the Vietnam jungle in this summer’s immersive production of Miss Saigon. They come to see a simple train platform become a portal across time and space in this fall’s world-premiere musical Crossing. They come for the raw, stripped-down pleasure of seeing two exceptional actors go head-to-head in the cold, cosmic void of next winter’s experimental drama Tender Napalm.

And with the level of trust and attention that Schaeffer puts into fostering creative relationships with his staff, artists, and community, it’s hard not to start knocking down some presumed inner walls of your own. Over time, in increasingly exciting ways, Signature has evolved from a product of inspiration to a source of it.

"Be that business that has a heart and soul alongside a quality product," Schmahl reminds us. To me, that's Signature’s ongoing summons: to be a home to theatergoers everywhere,  but also  to work relentlessly at un-boxing their assumptions about what theatre should be. It takes diligence, but a big heart can make much of what are initially small tools. Your biggest dreams float right into your hands, Schmahl suggests, when you can see more in the little things.

Check out the rest of the talks from TEDxBroadway 2013 here.

Friday, May 10, 2013

"Why do you want to be on Broadway?"

"Why do you want to be on Broadway?"
TEDxBroadway 2013 Series (Part I)

George Takei is not a name one would necessarily associate with Broadway. Neither is Randi Zuckerberg or Susan Salgado. And yet these individuals, along with 14 others, were speakers at this year's TEDxBroadway conference on Janury 28th. These highly successful and inventive individuals gathered together in front of a 450 member audience to discuss the future of Broadway. The big question posed was "What's the best that Broadway can be -- on stage, in the community, and throughout the world?"

In this three-part opinion series, Signature Theatre staff look at their favorite talks from the TEDxBroadway 2013 conference sharing thoughts, insights, and an analysis of the issues facing the theatre industry at large and how Signature Theatre is handling them. Read Part II here.

Today’s blog author is Marcella Toronto, Signature’s education intern.

I have chosen a career in theatre because I can’t picture myself doing anything else. Creating and sharing through this medium fills me with energy, purpose and a passion that I can’t explain. Many other theatre artists express similar sentiments when asked why they do what they do. So why is it that not all theatre productions reflect these feelings? As much as we may hate to admit it, many of us have either seen or been in a less-than-inspiring show. In Terry Teachout’s talk entitled, “Why Do You Want to be On Broadway?” he challenges the theatre industry to gamble on greatness.

Terry Teachout
Teachout begins his remarks with a fact:

Seventy-five percent of all Broadway shows lose money. Three shows out of four.”

To call odds like these discouraging would be an understatement. But I love how Teachout puts this statistic – and what all the play-it-safe-ers are probably thinking – on its head.

What William Goldman said about Hollywood goes double on Broadway: nobody knows anything. And that means that there's only one reason for you to be on Broadway--and that's to have fun.

So how do you do that? If you're a creative person--and everybody on Broadway is, or should be, creative in one way or another--then the best way to have fun is to try to do something good. Really good. To roll the dice on excellence.”

I love working at Signature Theatre because one of the things Signature does best is, as Teachout put it, “roll the dice on excellence.” Over the past 23 years, Signature has developed a reputation for “definitive Sondheim productions, inventive adaptations of overlooked or forgotten works, and investment in fresh new projects.” And that’s what makes Signature Theatre so great, that’s what draws the audience. You know that when you come to Signature you’re going to see something that nobody else has ever done:

Assassins with the stage as a reflection of the audience
The cast of Assassins
“How do I convey the pow! factor in Signature Theatre’s startling new staging of Assassins without spoiling it for you? Absorbingly original… boldly, stylishly theatrical… exhilarating.”
  – Peter Marks, The Washington Post

Show Boat… with no boat
“What is being fondly called “No Boat” (no two-tiered riverboat is recreated onstage) may or may not be the future of this lavish, rarely performed show.”
David Belcher, New York Times

Hello, Dolly! with no grand staircase
“Dusting off the script, Director Eric Schaeffer has created a fresh new Dolly that is personal, heartfelt, and engaging.”
– Mark Beachy, MD Theatre Guide

Les Miserables with no turntable
“The Signature experiment works on many levels. Bringing the production down to an intimate scale assuredly makes the characters more accessible, even when crooning those familiar larger-than-life numbers.”
– Paul Harris, Variety

There are shows I have forgotten or wish I could forget, but the breath-taking image of a magic ring of candles descending from the sky in Shakespeare’s R&J is a memory I will always cherish. Those are the kind of risks that make Signature great.

A magical moment in Shakespeare's R&J
I have to admit I’m going to steal Teachout’s closing. Because it’s just that good.

“If there's ever a time in life for you to shoot high, this is it. Don't start out settling for safe--gamble on great. Forget about making money. You're not going to make money. Instead, make something beautiful. Something special. Something new. Something that makes you proud. Do that and you always win...and who knows? You might even get rich.”

I only hope we can all live up to his challenge.

Read the full text of Teachout’s talk here.

Check out the rest of the talks from TEDxBroadway 2013 here.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Today in Theatre History: The Mystery of the Long-Running Show

In  the “Today in Theatre History” series, we take a specific event in theatre history and use it as a starting point for discussion about aspects of theatre – past, present, and future.
The cast of Signature's Dreamgirls.
Photo: Chris Mueller
Today in theatre history:
-         “Rise and Fall of Little Voice” closes at the Neil Simon Theatre after 9 performances (1994)
-         “Earl of Ruston” closes at Billy Rose Theater  after 5 performances (1971)
-         “Shuffle Along” opens at Broadway Theater for 4 performances (1952)
-         “Funny Thing Happened” opens at Alvin Theater for 965 performances (1962)

All shows must close. The question then is how long will the show survive?

When it comes to theatre there are two terms used to define the "run" of the show (aka how long the show plays for):

The Broadway cast of The Phantom of the Opera
In an open-ended run there is no set end date. The greater the demand for tickets, the longer the run. When there is no longer a demand for tickets or when it becomes more profitable to license the show to other producers, a closing date is picked. Shows like The Phantom of the Opera,  Cats and Wicked all had open-ended runs on Broadway. Because Signature Theatre only has two performances spaces and produces up to eight fully-mounted productions a season, open-ended runs are simply not feasable. 

Signature shows therefore have what is called a limited engagement run. This means that there is a specific end date set for the show before performances even start. If the show is selling very well towards the end of the run, sometimes a show will receive an extension, meaning that another week or two of performances are added. While this is one way for patrons to gauge whether or not a show is selling well, there are times when a show is selling well but there is no extension because the space is needed for another production.

So why do some shows get extended and others don't? Why do some open-ended runs only last for five performances and others 5,000? In looking at Signature Theatre's production history, some themes became apparent:

Star Power
Big names have a tendency to draw big crowds. A popular actor's fan base will fill a surprising number of seats. In Signature Theatre's recent production of "Dreamgirls" actress Nova Y. Payton garnered an impressive amount of attention for her phenomenal performance of Effie. By the end of the show many people were coming to see Payton perform because they had heard great things and tickets were in such high demand that the show was extended. 
Nancy Robinette and Sherri L. Edelen in Walter Cronkite is Dead. Source:
Signature's production of Walter Cronkite is Dead was extended before the show even opened because the show's two actresses, Sherri L. Edelen and Nancy Robinette, were (and still are) both DC area stars.

Known Titles
The barricade in Signature's production of Les Miserables.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard of Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera or Sweeney Todd. In today's economy the average person is less-inclined to spend money on a show they've never heard of, as unfortunate as that is. Tourists in New York are more likely to spend money on a ticket to The Phantom of the Opera than a ticket to Return to the Forbidden Planet (the irony being that Phantom started off as an unknown show - but that's a discussion for another blog post). When Signature produced Les Miserables tickets sold incredibly well and the run was extended
because of the combination of a quality product
and also a well-known show.

An Overall Good Production
Fiona Shaw in The Testament
of Mary.

Then there are the shows that don't have a star or a well-known title and still manage to be incredibly successful. Shows like Really, Really that had a young cast and a young playwright but would have been extended if not for another show needing the space.

And let us not forget the shows with great casts and great scripts which, artistically speaking, deserve a longer run; shows like The Testament of Mary that managed to nab several Tony Award nominations but will shortly be closing.

Statistics show that three out of four shows on Broadway are a financial failure. Who gets the open-ended run? Who gets the extension? Who closes after four performances? The ticket-buyers will ultimately decide.


Different Every Time: Spontaneity in Acting

"The supreme skill of the actor is to appear spontaneous while being very deliberate in everything he does."
- Dorothy Heathcote

Different Every Time
Saturdays, May 18–June 22
No Class May 26
11:00 AM to 12:30 PM
Instructor: David Zobell (Education Director)
Tuition: $200 

To register click here.

Acting, by nature, can be very repetitive: say the same lines, stand in the same places, find the same emotional notes. So what is it that makes some actors so brilliant? Why do we find their performances so engaging and moving? The secret is spontaneity - the minute improvisations that happen within each line without disturbing the framework of the play that create the "illusion of the first time."

While this seems like a simple concept, putting this theory into practice can be remarkably challenging. Here's where our class comes in.

In "Different Every Time," teen actors will learn to make each time they approach a piece as exciting as the first! Through a variety of techniques involving individual and group exercises, the class will focus on fundamentals: spontaneity, listening, verbal and non-verbal communication, relaxation, and more. This course for the growing actor will help students avoid falling into habits onstage and give them the confidence necessary to communicate honestly and create a live experience in performance every time.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Call on Dolly!

Opel and the cast of Hello, Dolly!, a co-production between Signature Theatre and Ford's Theatre.
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Opel as "Mama" in Memphis.
It's been a while since Dolly Levi has been on the scene in DC - 18 years, to be exact. It's only fitting that her return should be performed by a Broadway veteran like Nancy Opel. A Kansas native, Opel has spent most of her career in New York City on Broadway performing in shows like Evita, Sunday in the Park with George, Memphis and  Urinetown (for which she garnered a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical).

Watch the original Broadway cast of Urinetown perform at the 56th Annual Tony Awards:

Hello, Dolly! is actually Opel's first show in the DC area and she certainly arrived with a bang:

"Nancy Opel is glowing, crowing, and going strong. Taking on the titular role of Dolly, Opel brings an impish stage presnece to Ford's Theatre, and she handles her considerable duties with ease and charm. Dolly fits Opel like a well-tailored glove."
- Broadway World

"Nancy Opel, who has a touch of Debbie Reynolds' winsomeness about her, plays Dolly in a refreshing, straightforward way. She can be very funny, without underlining things, and she allows a vulnerability to peek through"
- The Baltimore Sun

Did you also enjoy Opel's performance? Tweet her a compliment @NancyOpel.
If you haven't seen the show yet, buy your tickets here. Only 22 performances left!

Hear what Dolly! director Eric Shaeffer and Opel have to say about this unique production:

Tomorrow's Brown Bag Thursday guest will be Opel's incredible co-star Edward Gero, currently playing Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly!

Be sure to join us on Thursday, May 2nd at 1pm in the Mead Lobby.
Can't make it in person? Follow @sigtheatre on twitter and use #sigbrownbag to ask Gero your questions.

For our May 6th Page to Stage, we'll be have a special movie night where we will be showing the 1969 film adaptation of Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand and directed by Gene Kelly. Please note that we will begin at 6:30pm instead of 7pm and as always it will be held at the lovely Shirlington Library.


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