Friday, June 28, 2013

I Will Be Presenting...

Alexandra, one of our many talented Overtures students, has taken over our blog. Check back for daily updates and come to the Overtures showcase Saturday at 11 AM in Signature's MAX Theatre! 

Today was the day: auditions. Auditions are nothing new to the 17 members of the Overtures company. We auditioned to get into the program, after all! Many of us have lost track of the number of calls we have been seen at, let alone those we were not seen at, and we are sure to forget many more in our long careers. But today’s call with casting directors from Arena Stage, Olney Theatre Center, Shakespeare Theatre Company and, of course, Signature’s Matt Gardiner, certainly had our nerves on edge. Though the past two weeks have amply prepared us for today’s casting session, the inevitable jitters arose right on cue. But when the time came, we gave it our all.

There is a moment in a performance when the actor’s eyes widen slightly, their breath connects, the hair on the back of their neck rises in anticipation of that note they just recently discovered was in their range, and as the crisp clear sound of a perfect pitch meets the audience’s ears, a smile spreads across the actor’s face. There were many well-deserved smiles in today’s auditions.

We have spent the past two weeks intensely training for moments just like today – standing in front of casting directors and delivering a performance to remember in hopes of landing that gig and another chance to perform. We can second-guess material, we can over think an outfit and feel uncomfortable performing, or we can hold tight to the confidence we have gained and trust in the smart choices we have learned to make. Of course, it helps to have 16 other company members going through the exact same thing looking on with only admiration and support for all the work you have done!

As we shared dinner conversation after a long afternoon of auditions, it was so clear how much our company has grown to care for one another. Heartfelt congratulations and words of reassurance were not in short supply. Our work, all of our work, was and is something to be extremely proud of. With only one more day together and a final showcase Saturday morning, we will, no doubt, pass along many more good vibes and sentiments of affection. We have watched each other grow as students and artists, and I can only imagine how far we will all go in the very near future. Watch out!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Multi-Talented People Who Need People

For the next two weeks, Alexandra, one of our many talented Overtures students, is taking over our blog. Check back for daily updates and come to the Overtures showcase Saturday at 11 AM in Signature's MAX Theatre! 

Wednesday, June 26
We were never told that Overtures would be easy. We have come to expect the highs, the lows, the tears when our confidence waned and the moments of pure joy as we make new discoveries. Through it all, we have also come to create incredible friendships with our fellow company members.

Competition in acting is partly inevitable and can be stiff, but there are also strong bonds formed through shared trials and successes. A master class with Signature’s Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer this evening reminded us, “There is no better family than your theater family.” For the six weeks of rehearsal, the month or so of a run, or for the two weeks of a musical theater intensive, your company is family. They see you at your best and your worst. They are there to give you a word of encouragement, share song suggestions, or give an honest opinion about your audition outfit. We can learn so much from our family.

Outside of a classroom we do not often have the opportunity to see other actors work and gain insight from their processes. Overtures has given us the chance to see how someone else does it. Of course we have been sponges to every note and piece of advice our instructors have imparted to us, but we have also benefited greatly from watching our cohorts take on their own challenges. With the incredible range of experience, training, ideas and personalities among our 17 company members, there is plenty to learn from.

And so, as we anxiously prepare for tomorrow’s casting session in front of four of Washington’s biggest casting directors - worrying over 32 bars and our monologue choices, frantically printing headshots and resumes, hopefully getting at least a little sleep - we can all keep one very important thing in mind: as our adrenaline rushes and apprehension takes over, we will have a 17-person family smiling back at us because they have seen how far we have come and how much, much further we will all go. 

Overtures students chat during a break in their master class with Eric Schaeffer.

Words to Live By

For the next two weeks, Alexandra, one of our many talented Overtures students, is taking over our blog. Check back for daily updates and come to the Overtures showcase Saturday at 11 AM in Signature's MAX Theatre! 

Overtures student Ines listens to words of wisdom from Marcy and Zina.

Tuesday, June 25
We hear it every day - there are thousand of aspiring artists competing for many of the same roles. Just like us, many of them have trained to belt a high A, others have “the right look" and still others have more experience, more training and stronger credits on their resumés. However, none of us entered into this business wanting to be just like all the others. Our little kid dreams were to be stars, each entirely unique and truly captivating.

Even if we learn nothing else this week, we'll have learned to be ourselves. Every session discussing the business of show business, each master class, every time we slip into old habits of performing songs the way we think our instructors want them performed, we are encouraged to revisit the work and make it our own.

This evening’s reminder came from contemporary lyricist, Marcy Heisler, and composer, Zina Goldrich. The duo, whose “Taylor the Latte Boy” and “Alto’s Lament” are just two of the incredibly witty compositions in their songbooks, offered us each personalized advice on our song choice and interpretation. It wasn’t long before we recognized a theme to their suggestions – be yourself. There may be 20 other girls singing the same song, “but no one in the room has heard you sing it before,” said Zina.

Candid casting critiques are invaluable at this early stage of our careers. So often we are corralled through 90 second monologues or 32 bars of music in an audition room and hurried along with a “thank you” or, even worse, the dreaded “that’s all we need today”. We long for feedback. After all, we are in the business of being judged! Without feedback it is all too easy to worry ourselves for hours about what we could have done better, what notes we might have missed, what acting points we forgot to hit.

Marcy and Zina offered us their honest opinions as well as suggestions on ways to further work on our performances. But they, along with all the Overtures instructors we have had the privilege of working with this past week and a half, also gave us an important mantra to live by: “Yay me! I make art!” We can spend every audition concerned about our look, being the wrong “type”, or singing a wrong note, or we can be our most confident, art-making, high A-belting selves. “Yay me! I make art!”

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Getting Personal

For the next two weeks, Alexandra, one of our many talented Overtures students, is taking over our blog. Check back for daily updates and come to the Overtures showcase Saturday at 11 AM in Signature's MAX Theatre!
Overtures students work on blocking for "King of New York," one of the group numbers they'll perform at the showcase.

In the past week and two days, our Overtures company has worked so incredibly well together. We have made great strides as an ensemble, making beautiful music and putting together tricky choreography. But at the end of the day we all go home with our individual homework and challenges to overcome. Whether running lyrics until all hours of the night so we won’t flub a word the next day or daring to stretch our emotional range in order to perform a more truthful monologue, we all recognize the work that must be done is, ultimately, personal.

Overtures has been like a buffet table; we are given multitudes of approaches to the work, ways to find vocal placement, ways to act a monologue, ways to connect to text and lyrics. Then we must pick and choose which approaches fit best. My swimmer’s shoulders do not drop into proper posture as easily as others, a fellow company member may have old knee injuries and alignment difficulties, and still another might simply psych themselves out every time a pirouette shows up in choreography. But we all still need to land that double, so we practice in our down time and when we return home at night after our eleven-hour days. We push past our own fears and inhibitions in order to be better the following morning.

During this evening’s staging rehearsal I was reminded just how personal and individually meaningful the work is and must be. Though we all sang the same words - “I pull myself together, I’m focused on the prize” - they clearly meant something different to every one of us. Our prize could be Broadway, maybe a Resident Artist contract with a company here in DC, or perhaps just graduating high school and heading off to a stellar collegiate theater program. We gave meaning to those words with a knowing smile, a flicker of hope in our eyes, similar enough but still personal.

Performing requires ruthless bravery: the willingness to take risks, to push ourselves beyond boxes of “type”, to test our presumed limits is integral to our training and development as actors. While we can be technically proficient, there are skills beyond the physical that we will not learn from manuals or how-to videos. Instead, we exhaustively search our souls in order to better bare them under the bright lights of the stage. And thankfully, at least for another four days, we are surrounded by an encouraging and truly caring group of fellow artists all going through the same process of discovery and personal perseverance.

Monday, June 24, 2013


For the next two weeks, Alexandra, one of our many talented Overtures students, is taking over our blog. Check back for daily updates and come to the Overtures showcase Saturday at 11 AM!

The cast of Company
Sunday, June 23
Inspiration can come in all shapes and sizes, in all forms, and at anytime. It can come in a boot camp-style workout early on a Sunday morning. It can come belting through high notes you never thought possible. It can arrive when a phone rings, a door chimes, with company. Or Company.

Bright and early this morning, we returned to the ARK to begin Week 2 in earnest. And boy, did we ever! Our second master class of the program focused on body, voice, and mental fortitude. A grueling workout roused us from our post day-off blur. A group vocal coaching had us singing like aliens, sheep, mice, and squirrels, all to explore vocal placement. And team sessions once again found each individual realizing new vocal and dramatic possibilities. Stop me, if I’m sounding like a broken record!

As I sat watching and listening to fellow company members approaching this new style of coaching, I was amazed by the overwhelming discoveries taking place. I suppose I should not have been surprised by the transformations today since we have already grown so much individually in the past week. Yet the light bulb moments of clarity are constantly and consistently exciting. For example, that moment when someone’s eyes grow wide in anticipation of a challenging note only to find that it comes out crisply and effortlessly. The affirmation that the note sounded great or the story was clear comes when the audience of company members calls, “YES, gurl!” By dinner there was a smile on everyone’s face. Today was a great way to start the week.

And the day wasn’t over after class. This evening we were treated to an absolutely stellar performance of Company in the Max Theatre. Perhaps it was the realization that we were learning from these incredible performers and seeing those lessons applied, that we had a backstage pass to what it takes to put up a show like Company, or maybe it was simply our relishing in the art, but our back row in the second tier was the first to their feet for a standing ovation. There is something special about live theater that pulls at heartstrings, that sparks insightful questions about the magic of how it is done, that truly motivates each of us to continue working toward our purpose and goals of performing professionally. With our own juries and showcase just another five days away, seeing it all done so right may just have been the inspiration we all needed to start off another unbelievable week.

A Sneak Peek!

For the next two weeks, Alexandra, one of our talented Overtures students, is taking over our blog. Check back for daily updates!
Friday, June 21
Week One of Overtures at Signature Theatre came to a close this evening with our first master class. After a day of hard work and midterms, an encouraging conversation and a few pointers (and songs) from the incomparable Nova Y. Payton were just what we needed to end a fantastic week.

I have been writing a lot about the truly generous, determined, and talented artists in our 2013 company, but perhaps it’s finally time to let the cat out of the bag (or the ARK). With our showcase just around the corner this Saturday at 11am, here’s a sneak peek of some of our work so far. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch. Again!

For the next two weeks, Alexandra, one of our talented Overtures students, is taking over our blog. Check back for daily updates!

Choreographer Karma Camp works with students on their tap technique.

Thursday, June 20

Someone once told me that a dance call for a non-dancer is just a good workout. While I have six years competitive ballroom on my resume and am certainly more than just a mover, I have often felt apprehensive when called in for choreography. Not unlike fellow Overtures company members, I was wary of stepping up to a ballet bar for the first time in two years and doubly unsure of the racket I would make when I laced up my hardly-worn tap shoes. But then again, working on my dance and choreography skills was one of my reasons for applying to Overtures in the first place.

Enter Karma Camp, Signature choreographer-extraordinaire. This past Sunday, I joked about our first warm-up being enough to potentially scare away the faint of heart and Karma herself warned that we would be screaming her name when we woke up in the morning sore. But after a week together, our groans brought on by aching muscles and moments of frustration are nearly gone, replaced by points of clarity, confidence, and can-do attitudes. And that warm-up (even the ab workout that goes along with it) is fun; especially when stretching to a Norm Lewis original while Karma records an iPhone video to send to her friend, Norm Lewis!

The choreography is certainly nothing to scoff at either. Our big showcase number, “King of New York” from Newsies (including an 8x8-count dance break) is definitely testing everything we are learning. And expectations are high. While we may slow something down briefly, we are constantly asked for more. We are learning to attack choreography, rely on our “buddy system” with our fellow company members to run phrases in our downtime, and trust in what we have already learned in just a week while also pushing ourselves to be better. We are discovering the mechanics of a double pirouette, working out the sounds in a shim sham (or at least most of the sounds for the non-hoofers), and breaking down the story of the dance. We are realizing that we are perhaps dancers after all.

Martha Graham once said, “No artist is ever pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” With midterms tomorrow, followed by a well-deserved day off, I have a feeling the 2013 Overtures company will “keep marching” - running lyrics while folding the laundry, checking tap sequences in the aisles of the supermarket, and we will be ready and eager to jump right back into the work on Sunday morning.

Friday, June 21, 2013


For the next two weeks, Alexandra, one of our talented Overtures students, is taking over our blog. Check back for daily updates!
Wednesday, June 19

The dictionary defines “breakthrough” as an act of breaking through an obstacle, a sudden advance, or a person’s first notable success. As Day Four of Overtures came to a close, I could no longer count  the number of breakthrough moments our company had already had.

So much of what we do as actors, musicians and dancers is done behind the scenes in table work and rehearsal that it is easy for the audience to forget the effort that goes into a final performance. But with two weeks devoted entirely to working through our own individual preparation processes, as well as learning from others’ practice, our company is seeing so many of those vulnerable moments of frustration, so many of the incredibly satisfying moments of discovery - those breakthroughs.

It can often feel that as actors we are constantly throwing ourselves to the wolves in auditions and cattle calls. We can spend months scrambling for work. We can be proud to put something up on its feet and then be devastated by that one really horrible review. So when we do have the opportunity to revisit how we prepare, the chance to repair our creative routines, the freedom to explore once again, we may find ourselves somehow both reluctant and anxious  for the sting of honest feedback. We were warned on Sunday that we might need to invest in Kleenex after all. Acting is work. Acting is emotional.

But we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t truly love it. All of it (the joys and the tears). Over the next two days, as we wrap up Week One of Overtures 2013 with midterms (a word that, I’ll admit, brings back many an unnerving memory from my college days!) we are bound to have many more breakthroughs. Sure, those moments may follow near breakdowns, however, those critics offering brutal honesty and insight are also our closest friends (our fellow company members) and our greatest advisers (our reassuring instructors). We could not be among more encouraging people as we work through dance phrases, practice monologues on lunch breaks, or check in with each other after particularly frustrating classes or one-on-one sessions. Just like one of our final showcase songs says, “I could almost go to pieces, but I’m not quite there yet.”
Instructors Tracy Lynn Olivera and Matthew Gardiner give Sarah Anne feedback on her performance.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

We've Got Rhythm, We've Got Music

For the next two weeks, Alexandra, one of our talented Overtures students, is taking over our blog. Check back for daily updates!

Tuesday, June 18

Anyone passing by The ARK today was treated to quite the cacophony. There were, of course, the familiar sounds of songs being rehearsed, the shuffle-ball-changes of tap sequences, the occasional groan of frustration or sore muscles, the “Who are you talking to?” and “Where’s your focus?” of our first acting sessions with Andrew Long. But it was the sounds outside of dedicated class time that might have pleasantly surprised a few passersby.

After only three days together, the 2013 Overtures Company feels like a true ensemble. When we make discoveries and breakthroughs in group work there is applause and even resounding calls of “Werk girl!”. When we lose our balance in relevé or our flaps don’t sound quite right, our fellow company members are there to buddy up and go over the step one…okay, three more times.

So perhaps it was not all too strange that during much of today’s “down-time” we were found playing old-school theater games or jamming. Put 17 musical theater artists together in a circle and we will make music; improvising drum beats with hands, binders, water bottles and feet, riffing and rapping “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. On a dreary day packed with demanding (and exhausting) classes and sessions, our scheduled breaks were much-appreciated moments of collective clarity.

As we ended our busy Tuesday by running through our first two company showcase songs, there was a palpable joy bouncing around the rehearsal room. Though it’s certainly easy to smile with lyrics like “My personal puss on a wooden nickel,” a dozen and a half artists finding a rhythm and groove will more than brighten any rainy day. There is some truly beautiful theater-making happening at Overtures, and we still have another ten days together!

Don't miss the Overtures Showcase! Saturday, June 29 at 11 AM in the MAX Theatre. Admission is free and seating is on a first come, first serve basis.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What Do You Do with a BA in Theatre?

For the next two weeks, Alexandra, one of our talented Overtures students, is taking over our blog. Check back for daily updates!

Overtures students during a Tap class.
Monday, June 17
On our first morning of Overtures, group introductions included the standard answers to “who are you,” “where are you from” and “what’s your background”. A few of the college graduates in the group, sounding only slightly jaded and world-weary, claimed diplomas declaring theater or, more precisely, “glorified placemats”.  Quick to add a litany of goals and hopes for near-future successes that would change our feelings towards those fancy pieces of paper, we also recognized we had perhaps skipped a few steps along the way and still had much to learn.

Enter “The Business of Show Business," a class with Matt Gardiner, Signature's Associate Artistic Director. Following a second go at Karma’s ballet class (two and a half hours of strong technical breakthroughs, if you could make it through the warm up!), half our company pulled out headshots and resumes for an insider’s scoop. Feeling like a high school English student again, dreading the red correction pen, I readied myself for circles and x’s all over the 8”x10” page. After all, as young actors entering an often trying industry, we are all too familiar with the stories of bags of trashed headshots in the hallways of New York’s casting agencies, auditions gone horribly wrong and many young actors simply giving up to follow a “more sensible” career path.

And yet, there was no scary red pen. Sifting through copious notes this evening I find myself perusing insightful questions from a fellow company member, a funny anecdote from our Matt, a “NO” in all-caps followed by several exclamation points next to possible outfit choices for an audition (perhaps a little retail therapy is in my future). And tucked away in a margin are the words “persistence” and “respect”.
Overtures students warm up at the start of dance class.
Persistence has helped bring many of us to Overtures. Daily persistence is needed in our fledgling careers, especially when the industry is at its most unforgiving. Persistence will undoubtedly lift us over the next two weeks when we are at our most vulnerable, learning new skills and breaking down old habits in pursuit of our artistic goals. But persistence must be countered with respect. Respect for the industry and the incredible professionals we have the opportunity to learn from over these next two weeks. Respect for our fellow company members who have just as many questions as I may have . And especially respect for ourselves and those 8”x10”s that really aren’t all too horrible, those turn outs that even after only two days are already better, those discoveries we continue to make in voice sessions on songs that were intentionally picked for us to be challenges.

So, what do you do with a BA in Theater? Proudly list it right at the top of the “Training” section of your resume, just above your “Special Skills” and right below your growing list of “Theater Credits.”

Don't miss the Overtures Showcase! Saturday, June 29 at 11 AM in the MAX Theatre. Admission is free and seating is on a first come, first serve basis.

Sunday in the ARK with...

For the next two weeks, Overtures student Alexandra, a graduate of Colby College, is taking over our blog. Check back for daily updates!

Dance instructor Karma Camp gives Overtures students
feedback following their morning dance class.
Sunday, June 16

Eleven hours ago, I sat groggily at one of the tall tables in the second floor lobby of Signature Theatre, glancing at unfamiliar faces, flipping through sheet music one last time, and anxious to step into the ARK theater for the first day of unknown challenges and explorations. Behind the glazed eyes indicative of not enough coffee for a Sunday morning, I caught the glimmers of excitement. Here was a group of sixteen budding artists that shared at least one thing in common – we love musical theater. And, because of that love, we are spending two weeks of our much-coveted summers (at least for those in undergrad and high school where those still exist) back in the classroom at Overtures: Signature Theatre’s Musical Theatre Institute.

Whether we came to Overtures hoping to find more technique and training than a school program could provide, to realize true potential that lay dormant after college careers ripe with extracurricular promise, or to explore ulterior motives (gasp) and make the jump to a professional career in Washington, the Overtures class of 2013 has set our individual bars high. And so have the instructors. Diving in first thing this morning with pre-prepared songs ala an audition (albeit in front of three instructors, our Education Director, two Education Interns, and the entire Overtures class), we certainly gave it our all.

Overtures students Nina (left) and Ines (right) review their music.

For anyone who has leapt back into a classroom setting after a long time, after day jobs, and after a couple of years nurturing bad habits and trying to look like you know what you’re doing, the smacking sensation of a full day’s work in a class (and, more specifically, critique) will certainly remind you of  “the good old days”. “Make discoveries.” “Find focus.” “Be a sponge.” Ahh, the wise words of seasoned professional and teachers ready and eager to work every skill, every dance step, every high note, every riff, every conceived notion of dramatic interpretation. The dance warm-up alone might have been enough to scare away the faint of heart if not for the outgoing, sensitive, fun, and loving personalities in the program. 

Today was only a glimpse of all that Overtures undoubtedly has in store for us over the next two weeks.  Pleasantries aside, we are prepared for a difficult experience, an experience that might even make us cry (according to Tracy Lynn Olivera’s un-minced introduction), but an experience that ultimately will prove incredibly rewarding.

Don't miss the Overtures Showcase! Saturday, June 29 at 11 AM in the MAX Theatre. Admission is free and seating is on a first come, first serve basis.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Today in Theatre History: Re-Imagining the Past

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.

By Irene Casey, Education Intern 

On June 12th, 1977 the original Broadway production of Pippin closed after 1,944 performances
The cast of the 1972 Broadway production of Pippin.Source: 
Broadway today is filled with "revivals." But what do people mean when they say that something is a revival? That the show has already been produced somewhere? Or that it has already been on Broadway? How different are revivals from the original production? Typically, a revival means a new production of an old show, which brings us to what happened today in theatre history: the original Broadway production of Pippin closing in 1977.

The original Broadway production of Pippin opened on October 13, 1972 (after a try out in D.C.). Pippin's book was written by Roger O. Hirson, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and was originally directed by Bob Fosse. Fosse saw the musical, which follows a medieval prince as he becomes embroiled with a troupe of players on his quest to find his place in the word, as a surreal experience and wanted his production to disturb audiences.
Since its first production, Pippin has been performed all over the country and the world. This year, for the first time, Pippin returned to Broadway. The revival was developed at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) and directed by Diane Paulus. Just this week, it won four Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Direction of a Musical. While the A.R.T. revival differed from the original production by trimming the first musical number and using an alternate ending, the biggest change was the way that Paulus envisioned the players. Instead of a troupe of actors, they became a troupe of circus performers, filling the musical with wild, bold spectacle. 

Paulus's revival of Pippin departs from the original in several ways. Major re-imaginings of shows are not out of the ordinary today. Whenever directors approach scripts, they think about how they want the story to be told. Each production is different because each production has different directors, designers and actors developing it. It's true that some productions stick fairly closely to the interpretation of the original production, while others take the musical or play in an entirely different direction, choosing to highlight or introduce different elements in the show. More and more productions of classic musicals and plays are closer to being adaptations than simply revivals, with directors re-imagining them to bring them into the modern day. 

Signature is know for taking big musicals and performing them in our black box theatres, creating intimate original stagings of shows that were often originally seen in giant proscenium theatres.

Signature's production of Les Miserables transformed the musical. Trevor Nunn's internationally acclaimed original production, relied heavily upon a turntable in its design. But director Eric Schaeffer used a 3/4 thrust stage that pushed the action into the middle of the audience, creating a grittier production happening just feet away from the audience. Chairs hung from the ceiling and set pieces moved on and off from the stage, entering as one thing only to re-enter a scene later as something completely different.

In 2006, the Washington Post described Signature's Assassins as a "startling new staging." Director Joe Calarco (a Signature regular) went beyond merely placing the piece in a black box and onto a way that had never been seen before. The set was a literal mirror image of the audience: rows and rows of chairs on risers, all identical to what the audience was sitting in. This brought the idea that these disenfranchised assassins and would-be assassins 
are just like the rest of us home in frightening and unsettling ways.

What dramatic re-imaginings of blockbuster musicals will be seen on Signature's stages next season? First up, will be an environmental production of Miss Saigon, meaning the entire theatre will become part of the set. As soon as the audience enters the theatre, they will enter the broken world of 1970s Vietnam. Check it out here.


In With the Interns: Irene Casey

Irene in the Signature in the Schools production
of Civil Wars.
Name: Irene Casey
School: Yale University, class of 2014, where I'm a Theater Studies major and have focused on directing.
Favorite Musical: At the moment, Matilda, but for always, Assassins.

Favorite Play: Wit by Margaret Edson.
Favorite Movie: The Brothers Bloom

Internship: Education Intern.
Internship Start Date: June 10th, 2013

Internship Duties: Assisting with Overtures and Stage One. And soon, starting research for this year's Signature in the Schools production!
Favorite things about DC: Eastern Market, the bike paths and Dumbarton Oaks

If you were a type of food, what type of food would you be? Lemon Meringue Pie (possibly because that's the flavor of yogurt I just bought).

Friday, June 7, 2013

Page to Stage Recap: Sequins, the Season and the Art of Critiquing (Part II)

Our June Page to Stage had some very special guests (read about them in Part I).
What was meant to be simply a look at the past season and the upcoming season turned into a fascinating discussion of marketing, social media and the role of the theatre critic. It might have been one of the best Page to Stage events we’ve ever had (sorry if you missed it). Luckily we’ve got this two-part blog series to get you all caught up!

In our last blog post we gave an intro to our guests and a summary of their comments about Signature's 23rd Season, which is drawing to a close, and 24th Season, which will begin shortly. Today we’ll recap all of their other remarks, and we hope you’ll enjoy their interesting insights as much as we did.

As we began discussing Hunter and Maggie’s professional backgrounds, it came out that Hunter recently joined the American Theatre Critics Association. Which, of course, led to some great questions from our audience and our host (David Zobell, Education Director):

What impact do reviews have on ticket sales?
Maggie explained that reviews don’t have quite the same significance as they had in the past. One example she cited was Arena Stage’s 1999 production of Guys and Dolls. The show got great reviews. One in particular called the show “theatre nirvana.” The day that review came out Arena did $75,000 in ticket sales, which was an insane amount at that time. Reviews no longer have the same lift; a bad review can kill you, but a good review will only help you a little. It turns out that your audience is actually your most powerful marketing tool.

Hunter cited research that was done regarding what gets casual theatre attendees (aka your Average Joe) to see come see a show and apparently word of mouth is key. Case in point: Signature’s production of Dreamgirls started to steadily sell more tickets once the house had been filled once or twice (even resulting in an extension).

So why do we need theatre critics?
Not everyone has a neighbor, co-worker or friend that’s seen the latest production. That’s where the critic comes in – they take the place of (or augment) a friend/neighbor/colleague’s opinion. However, some critics today tend to write more of a “consumer report” (aka thumbs up/thumbs down, go/don’t go) rather than a piece of actual critical analysis. In Hunter’s opinion, a review should ideally be “a portal to understanding the show’s relationship to the audience.”

What constitutes a well-written review?
Both Maggie and Hunter agree that a well-written review acknowledges the artistry of a production. It is constructive and gives credit where credit is due without necessarily tearing down or building up a show. Maggie brought up Charles Isherwood’s review of last season’s rep pieces The Hollow and The Boy Detective Fails. While Isherwood didn’t necessarily love the shows, he gave Signature full credit for the difficulty of the task they were trying to achieve, showing support for the institution.

Intermixed with the above discussion on theatre critics and reviews was an equally fascinating look at the theatre’s relationship with social media.

Social media has changed theatre marketing. It augments public relations and is a great low-cost alternative to traditional marketing channels, but its use means the secrets of the rehearsal room are no longer secret and the line between being a representative of an institution and expressing personal feelings is easily blurred. Signature, like many other arts organizations, is in a “learn as you go” mode when it comes to social media. Every day is an experiment – sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t.

A particularly memorable comment of the evening was something along the lines of, "If a marketing director tells you they know how to harness social media, they're probably lying."

The trick of social media marketing is that you have to remember that everything you’re posting is an announcement. You don’t have the option of being selective in who sees what you post. Because of this, it’s easy for a theatre company to run into trouble. Maggie talked about the dilemma of not wanting artists to feel like they are beholden to some sort of party line, but at the same time recognizing that as artists they are often looked to as representatives of the theatre or the show for which they are working.

By this point we had reached the end of our hour with Maggie and Hunter (much to the audience’s dismay). David chose to end the night with the question, “What are the joys of working at Signature?”

Hunter was quick to respond with, “The staff is always singing,” which Maggie readily confirmed.

But in all seriousness, Hunter remarked that he appreciates being in a space where people are focused, but still creative and where co-workers care about one another. Maggie loves the work in general and also getting to work with Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer.

“It’s not always sunshine and roses,” she admitted, but both she and Eric care about the culture of Signature. Maggie is proud of Signature in the Schools and Overtures, as well as every Signature production: “It’s so worth it when you see a show!” She loves feeling connected to the organization and its mission.

A frequent audience member piped in, “There’s no doubt you guys care about the theatre and us.”

Amen to that.
The cast of The Boy Detective Fails.
Credit: Suchman

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Page to Stage Recap: Sequins, the Season and the Art of Critiquing (Part I)

Our June Page to Stage had some very special guests.
It might even have been one of the best Page to Stage events we’ve ever had (sorry if you missed it). Luckily we’ve got this two-part blog series to get you all caught up!

What was meant to be simply a look at the past and the upcoming seasons turned into a fascinating discussion of marketing, social media and the role of the theatre critic. For today you’ll get a quick introduction to our two guests and a summary of their remarks about the 2012-13 season, which is drawing to a close, and the 2013-14 season, which will begin in just a couple months.

Maggie Boland, Managing Director
Maggie Boland (on left), Signature Theatre's Managing Director

Maggie Boland didn’t necessarily take the standard route to becoming one of a handful of female managing directors of regional theatre companies. Hailing from Scranton, Pennsylvania, she headed to Boston for school where she majored in English. After graduation it was off to New York City where she temped at a fashion design firm and Bechtel Corporation (the company that built the Hoover Dam). Somehow she ended up working at Roundabout Theatre in New York and eventually landed at Arena Stage in DC where she worked for ten years in a wide range of areas including marketing, finance, and development before coming to Signature as Managing Director five years ago.

As Managing Director, Maggie works hand-in-hand with our Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, overseeing the business side of things to ensure that Signature continues to run smoothly (a job which she does very well). If you asked the staff of Signature what they love most about Maggie they would probably say her hearty laugh, her get-stuff-done attitude and that sometimes she brings Dunkin' Donuts to the office.

Hunter Styles, Public and Community Relations Manager

Hunter Styles, Signature's Public and
Community Relations Manager
It turns out Hunter is a bit of a jack of all trades. You may have seen him around town managing the box office at Studio Theatre, heading up Artist’s Bloc, writing or directing plays for the Capital Fringe Festival or writing features for the American Theatre Magazine. He admits that he has a tendency to say “yes” to everything, but in doing so is learning what to say “no” to.

Hunter only recently began working at Signature – he started in September of last year – but since his arrival, he has become a unique asset to the Signature staff, contributing public relations expertise, fresh ideas and a very sharp sense of humor. His position covers press relations, outreach, developing relationships with businesses, the county, etc and talking on the phone. A lot. When we asked Maggie what she loves about Hunter, she commented that she loves that he thinks like a journalist and pitches projects like a writer.

This past season was pretty stellar and it took Maggie and Hunter a moment to sift through all of the good things that happened at Signature to select these highlights:

Photo: Chris Mueller
Not only was Dreamgirls a financial and artistic success, but it also “solidified that Matthew Gardiner is a rock star.” Maggie was beaming with pride as she talked about how Dreamgirls helped to make Matthew a sought-after and accomplished DC director. Dreamgirls was also one of Signature’s biggest and most technically-complicated shows to-date (many who saw the show were dazzled by the spectacle of light, sound and sequins the show offered). Hats off to all who made Dreamgirls a show to remember.

Hello, Dolly!
As Signature continued to stabilize operations in their new Shirlington space, Hello, Dolly! (a co-production with Ford’s Theatre) provided the Signature staff with some much-needed breathing room. Not only was Signature able to reevaluate certain programs like the cabaret series, but it also put Signature’s work in front of new audiences.

Other Items of Note
Signature’s production of Shakespeare's R&J was the first show ever to be performed in-the-round in the MAX theatre (and a pat on the back to director Joe Calarco who made great use of the space).

This season was also the first year in No Rules Theatre Company’s residency at Signature Theatre. Keep an eye out for their upcoming No Rules Show which brings their 2012-13 season to a close.

Signature’s 24th Season is shaping up to be pretty exciting. In fact, when the season announcement came out we saw tweets like “the 2013/2014 season looks great. i'm excited & can't wait to see everything -- especially the world premieres. break legs!” and "13/14 season is most definitely squeeeeeeeeeeeee-worthy. Wow," not to mention a great article from Washington Post critic Peter Marks. Hopefully the insider information below will get you hyped up as well!

SPIN (July 9, 2013 - July 27, 2013)
Note: Spin is a SigLab production and therefore not really part of either season, but it hasn’t happened yet so we’re throwing it in with the rest of the upcoming shows.

It turns out that musical theatre is a big deal in South Korea, as is the producer Mr. Shin. Eric, who has earned an international renown as a director, was sought out by the producers of Spin to work on this unique project. Spin is a new musical based on a Korean filmed, Speedy Scandal, which will, following development at Signature, be translated into Korean and performed in South Korea. This summer you can check out the funny, family friendly SigLab production for only $30! Bonus? You might even see some of the cast members from Company on stage again.

MISS SAIGON (August 15, 2013 - September 22, 2013)
To open our 24th Season, Signature will be presenting an environmental production of the hit musical, Miss Saigon. What’s an “environmental production”? It basically means that the entire theatre will be integrated into the scenic design. You won’t want to miss what Maggie is calling a “thick, full, exciting, 360º” production.

PRIDE IN THE FALLS OF AUTREY MILLS (October 15, 2013 - December 8, 2013)
If you loved Paul Down Colaizzio’s Really Really, you’re going to love this new play of his! The writing is similarly gritty and revealing, but more mature and even a little stylistically absurd. Directed by Michael Kahn (Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company), this production promises to shine the light on the hidden shadows of the seemingly perfect suburban family.

CROSSING (October 29, 2013 - November 24, 2013)
In the past couple of years, Signature has produced a workshop and a concert version of this new musical by Matt Connor. While in the past it has had more of song cycle feel (think Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World), the book, written by Grace Barnes, brings the story together, connecting songs and strengthening character relationships. Keep an eye out for the cast album which will be released prior to the production.

GYPSY (December 17, 2013 - January 19, 2014)
What did Hunter and Maggie have to say about this Joe Calarco-directed classic? Children. There will be lots of children (the entire season, really, is full of children). Also, Donna Migliacci, Tracy Lynn Olivera, and Sandy Bainum as the three strippers? Enough said.

BEACHES (Feburary 18, 2014 - March 23, 2014)
That’s right, Signature is bringing that famous tear-jerker to life on stage next season in the form of a world-premiere musical. The script follows the novel closely (as opposed to following the film) and is even being penned by the original author, Iris Rainer Dart. To all you hard-core Beaches fans, Hunter reassured us that “Wind Beneath My Wings” was in the most recent draft of the script, although it’s inclusion has not yet been finalized. According to Maggie, “It’s a weepie,” so be sure to bring your Kleenex!

TENDER NAPALM (March 18, 2014 - May 11, 2014)
This two-hander show is not for the faint-of-heart theatre-goer. Coming from stellar runs in New York as well as London, this abstract piece discusses the inner workings of a marital relationship using imagery and non-linear story-telling. Matthew Gardiner will be directing and Maggie feels that he is a perfect fit for this movement-heavy piece.

THE THREEPENNY OPERA  (April 22, 2014 - June 1, 2014)
True to form, Signature is celebrating a number of “firsts” this next season, including their first piece of Brecht. Hunter and Maggie explained that this will be an “de-sanitized” production; much dirtier, grittier and, hopefully, closer to how Brecht intended the piece to be performed. If you’re looking for a standard musical theatre story, keep in mind that Brecht was always more about politics than plot.

CLOAK & DAGGER (June 12, 2014 - July 6, 2014)
It just so happens that Ed Dixon is not only an actor (you may have seen him as Max in Sunset Boulevard), but also a writer and composer! Dixon’s new musical was inspired by The 39 Steps and similarly includes a cast of few actors playing many, many, many roles (Maggie and Hunter estimate four actors and 40+ characters). Needless to say, it will be a fast-moving, riotous musical that all will enjoy.

Let us not forget Signature’s amazing cabaret series. Patrons can look forward to enjoying many evenings of show-stopping entertainment and maybe even an additional fall cabaret series…

As you can see, it's going to be a season you won't want to miss!

For synopses of next season's shows, click here. You can purchase season tickets here.

Don't forget to check out Part II of this recap on Friday!


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