The inaugural Seattle/Mainstreet Festival of New Musicals concluded a week ago, and I had a fantastic time meeting and working with so many local actors, artists, and composers, not to mention playing one of  my favorite Austen characters– the tenacious, music-minded Mary Bennet.  Yet, dear readers, there is unfinished business, and it has been preying on my mind ever since our concert readings of Pride and Prejudice at S/MS.

I think we’ve all been missing the real tragedy of Pride and Prejudice: that Mary’s musical career has not taken off yet. Never mind the tumultuous courtships and poor life choices of the other Bennet daughters. Let’s get down to brass tacks and figure out why Mary isn’t the musical toast of St. James’ Court:

Mary has an uncertain relationship with pitch.

Poor Mary. Her music master obviously never did ear training, because she is forever tuning her pitches with less than 100% accuracy. How to fix that? Get thee to a choir, Mary! Choral singing is an excellent way to learn how to listen and tune vocally. Yet it’s possible that Mary’s choral opportunities in Meryton are limited. My other suggestion for Mary would be to learn a stringed or other instrument that requires frequent tuning and careful listening. Alas, Mary’s circumstances limit her to a pianoforte; wealthier families like the Bingleys or Darcys may have a harp. Time to befriend Georgiana Darcy, Mary.

Mary is unable to maintain a consistent tone.

Oh, Mary, Mary. Her vocal placement is all over the map, causing her resonance to oscillate wildly between a shrill high soprano, a breathy, over-aspirated middle and a strident mix voice (the latter of which would have been an objectionable sound to the ears of Mary’s Regency listeners). Mary could use the help of a vocally savvy music master, who might be able to explain placement and resonance in terms that allow her to achieve a warmer, more expressive, and gently vibrating tone throughout.

'The Music Lesson' by George Goodwin Kilburne, date unknown
‘The Music Lesson’ by George Goodwin Kilburne, date unknown

Mary is not very comfortable with her passaggio.

Mary has found a few places in her voice where she easily has vocal power (if not skill) available to her, and when she gets to sing those, boy, do we know it. But they’re on the opposite ends of her range, and in the middle? Well, that’s where it gets dicey, and why some of her pitch jumps have a yodel-y quality, because she’s riding roughshod over her passaggio (vocal break), and it shows. If Mary and her music master spent more time introducing proper breath support to the rest of her vocal range, she’d be able to navigate a greater range of pitches with more ease and smoothness.

Mary lacks musical style.

This is a hard one, because it’s subjective, and therefore much harder to determine and teach. I am guessing that Mary’s melodramatic song stylings spring from her desperation and determination to make an impression on her audience. In Mary’s mind, more drama = a better performance. This self-conscious choice prevents Mary from paying attention to the clues that the composer gives her– in the melodic line, markings, and the piano accompaniment – to discover the styling inherent in the piece itself. What Mary really needs is a friend or sister with more developed taste, who can encourage Mary to explore those subtleties of musicianship, and convince her that focusing on the music as written, rather than her own showboating, would benefit her performance.

Of course, all of these ideas presume that Mary is open to receiving suggestion about her musical development…would Mary listen to advice? I leave it to you.

…that a literary actor in possession of a musical inclination, must be in want of an adaptation.

Fortunately, I am in want no longer, because in a few weeks I’ll be playing Mary Bennet in a new musical version of Pride and Prejudice for two concert readings as part of the Seattle / Mainstreet Festival of New Musicals. I am a devoted Austen reader, so I’m especially delighted to be taking part.

What is Mainstreet, you ask? Mainstreet Musicals is a national organization, whose mission is “to evaluate, identify and regularly introduce brand new, highly regarded musicals into communities that present them live in concert” through regional festivals, helmed by local directors (in Seattle’s case, the inimitable Billie Wildrick). The festival is also presenting two other new musicals that I’m looking forward to viewing, and that I encourage you musical fans to catch as well: Under Fire (based on the 1983 movie) and Merton of the Movies.

I love that Mainstreet is encouraging not only new musical works, but also regional theatre. Regional theatre can be a fantastic place to develop a show (as a multitude of union and fringe theatres in Seattle demonstrate regularly). It’s a win-win for many parties. Regional audiences get to be some of the first viewers of new shows before those shows progress to larger productions; the playwrights, lyricists, & composers of this year’s scripts get the chance to see many iterations of their work with a variety of casts; and regional actors and artists get the opportunity to work on fresh material (that doesn’t have to compete with current or previous Broadway productions) and to contribute to the creative development of the pieces in the long run.

I leave you with this little nugget– so integral to my character, middle sister Mary Bennet:

“Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.”

~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

The Piano Lesson by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1896

Seattle / Mainstreet Festival of New Musicals

Thursday, June 18 – Monday June 23**

West of Lenin203 N 36th St, Seattle, WA 98103

Subscriptions & info (w/ full festival schedule)

** The Fremont Solstice Festival is happening this weekend, so please plan on extra time to bus/park and reach our venue! My suggestion? Arrive early in Fremont to enjoy a nosh or swing by the Solstice Festival on your way to a show. You can bet your Regency ballgown that’s what I’ll be doing.

Back in 2009, I ran away with the circus. No, not really, although it often felt like I had. But I did spend some time with Lucia Neare’s Theatrical Wonders, doing work she describes as “ephemeral, multisensory, participatory outdoor spectaculars”. Though my schedule doesn’t permit me to participate as often anymore, I’m joining her latest creation Recipe for Love this week. This kind of performance work is a very different kettle of fish from “regular” theatre (although is there such a thing?) and I doubt if actually running away with the circus could have provided more unique training than these experiences did. So what exactly does an actor learn from epic site-specific performance work?

Almost in costume for an Ooo La La appearance at the 2009 Swedish Summerun.
Almost in costume for an Ooo La La appearance at the 2009 Swedish Summerun.

Liberation. At some point during the on-site rehearsals, you will be rehearsing in your [yoga pants & SPF 35 / five layers of thermal wear/ rain poncho & galoshes] wearing a [large character headpiece / hoop skirt ] while lugging a [large basket / giant flatware/ miniature bed trolley carrying a truculent* child actor]. It will be broad daylight. People will stare.

During my first rehearsal (for a 2009 Lullaby Moon) I was somewhat discomfited. I spent not a little time casting covert glances at the various spectators who came and went during our four-hour rehearsal. I’m generally a little ascetic in my rehearsal preferences– empty space, neutral zone, etc. The thing about site-specific and large-scale public work is– you can’t do the work without embracing those defining aspects. I still prefer a quiet and focused rehearsal situation for much of my acting work, but site-specific rehearsals and performances went a long way toward helping me learn to own bold choices under unpredictable circumstances.

Flexibility. One of the performer-bearing boats will get stuck behind a barge. It will rain– not Seattle drizzle, but an East coast-style drenching, during the narrative climax, and the performance space will transform into a miniature floodplain. Your mostly impervious horse will shy upon encountering four thousand people and loudspeakers, and you will thank your stars for childhood pony camp and muscle memory. It makes a broken prop, missing sound cue, or fluffed line in traditional theatre feel like a breeze, comparatively speaking.

Lullaby Moon XII
Photo by Jackie Kingsbury via Flickr:

Connection. The way you receive feedback during an interactive, completely public show is wildly different from traditional theatre. The feedback is instantaneous and unfiltered. If it’s a daytime performance, the audience is fully visible and you’ll know whether you’re making a connection, or telling the story in a compelling way. In these performance instances, the audience is more of an additional scene partner who is contributing their own attention (who or what are they focusing on in this moment? How does that affect our characters?) and physical choices (hello, they’re joining in this dance/activity with us! How can we incorporate that?). We have a narrative and structure to follow, but also incredible freedom to embrace the most gung-ho audience members, or to gently include the bewildered or shy in how we’re advancing that story. The story only really unfolds with the help of whoever joins us that day. Not knowing what or whom to expect in this regard makes every single audience a joyful discovery.

Forecast for this week’s rehearsals: 100% chance of sunscreen with lots of hydration. Recipe for Love performs this Saturday, May 3 at 4pm on the Great Lawn of Redmond City Hall. Recommended for lovers of cake & whimsy.

*I feel compelled to note that Mr. Truculence was the exception rather than the rule, and the vast majority of youth performers I’ve worked with have been truly delightful persons.

Lullaby Moon XI
Lullaby Moon XI.
Photo by: Riko Colin Chock via Flickr:

We are finishing the second week of rehearsals for Kiss of the Spider Woman. I think of this as the most exciting and most terrifying point of a rehearsal process. We’re all knee-deep in text, music and staging of varying degrees of newness.The learning curve is fast and sky-high. There are still a lot of questions, which is just as it should be.

One of my favorite pieces of theatre advice was given to me in college by an acting professor while I was struggling with a piece I was directing at the time.

“Why are you doing this piece?” he asked. “Why you, why right now?” And he suggested that if I were able to answer those questions, then various other elements of the creative process would become more clear.

These are questions I still try to answer each time I work on a production . Sometimes the answer is a bit workaday, and occasionally (though not too often, anymore) I really have to hunt for it. But more often than not, the answer just shows up. In the middle of a music rehearsal this week, I remembered this quote from actor-teacher Michael Chekhov:

“All true artists bear within themselves a deeply rooted and often unconscious desire for transformation.”

I happened upon that quote in one of his books years ago, and it so struck me that it lodged, verbatim, in some rehearsal room of my mind. At the time I associated the desire for transformation with the absorbing energy and delight of “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” of a character.

At the risk of sounding unbearably meta, I realized in rehearsal this week that this quote had everything to do with the story and process of this show. I do want the onstage transformations for their own sake. And moreover, I want them continue to transform perceptions, choices, and limits well after the show closes.

The transformations that occur in the realm of imagination can be powerful enough to enact literal transformations in a person’s life. To me, that is one of the most moving elements of the Kiss of the Spider Woman story. And that, my friends, is one of the main reasons I am doing this production, right now: in the name of transformation.

As our fearless director is wont to say, mid-rehearsal: “Onward!”

March 28 – April 13, 2014
Kiss of the Spider Woman
SecondStory Repertory

Tickets and info here

Want to see a few numbers from the show? A few cast members will be singing songs from KotSW and other shows at the Cabaret Night fundraiser tonight for Nathan Hale High School’s spring musical. Word on the street is that alumni and staff performances are also on the docket. I’m not a Nathan Hale alum (hello, MTHS!) but I know that it rocked my socks off when my high school faculty partook in drama productions. Good music for a great cause! You should go. Details here, tickets at the door!