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.

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!

quickiespostcardI like to talk about my work, and write about it. Rehearsal Notes, beginning with today’s inaugural post, will consist of brief dispatches from current and future production processes. While on the whole I am rather a fan of the man-behind-the-curtain approach, I also enjoy a backstage tour as much as anyone else. With respect and affection for the work, the process, and my fellow actors and collaborators, I hope to present more of these in the future. Enjoy!


Tech week is pretty standard fare for most theatre productions: combine your production elements in a pressure-cooker of a week or so, and bring to a rolling boil until a nice consistency is achieved, one hopes, in time for opening night. A Quickies production (LiveGirls’ annual production of short works by women) is a cat of another color, and as such requires unique handling, and a very special element: transitions.

And not just any standard scene transitions, mind you. “Transitions” in a Quickies production (the bits bridging the short pieces) to the uninitiated like myself, were described by Quickies veterans in terms approaching the mythic: outrageous, at least as entertaining as the plays themselves, and certainly not for the faint of heart. Sunday’s rehearsal was devoted solely to the implementation and ornamentation of these diverting interludes that help both actors and audience travel between the worlds of seven separate and diverse plays. There were no tears, but plenty of sweat, sawdust, and a brief but desperate scuffling for snacks in the eleventh (actually, fourth) hour. At its conclusion, the night’s achievements included:

The creation of some distinctive characters/beings (these lines were blurred) that exist solely within these transition scenes;

General agreement among the Planet X cast that Trader Joe’s Sesame Honey Cashews are the rehearsal snack of choice;

The best dance solo I’ve had in years, consisting of four counts of bourree, three cabriole steps, two pique turns, and one penchée;

And yes, a full production consisting of seven short plays (by women! Did I mention that?), five lively transition scenes, and one space whale. Much like the mythical transitions of a Quickies, the space whale must be seen to be believed.