- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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Into the fire
Performance class—the musical
On a late January afternoon, the 16 students in Advanced Musical Theater Performance (CT32501) dragged chairs and wooden cubes to form a rough circle on Robsham Theater’s main stage.Settled, they turned expectantly toward the class’s teacher Paul Daigneault ’87 and his co-instructor Steven Ladd Jones, who sat among them.
Jones is a music arranger and vocal coach on the theater faculty at Boston Conservatory. Daigneault is the creator and artistic director of Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, which he founded in 1992, and the University’s 2011–12 Monan Professor in Theater Arts. Wearing jeans and a blue checked shirt, he addressed the class with professorial precision. Musical theater, he said, requires actors to “sing, chew gum, and dance all at the same time,” and so he and Jones would provide thorough printed notes on how the students should prepare for the scenes they would be asked to perform. To begin with, work from the page, not from recordings; keep sheet music in a three-ring binder with no plastic sheet protectors, to make it easy for an accompanist to turn pages; ask the right questions.
“As actors, you’re often archaeologists,” Daigneault told the seven seniors, four juniors, four sophomores, and lone freshman. They would be working in pairs—teasing characters and a rounded scene out of scripts and scores from the 1940s to the present, assigned by Daigneault and Jones. By the end of the semester, every student will have performed three scenes—all duets—in individual coaching sessions with Daigneault and Jones, in a class workshop for peer feedback, and then for a grade.
And each will have had a go at drama, comedy, and the oeuvre of Rodgers and Hammerstein. “We hope this course will help you figure out who you are as an artist,” Daigneault said, as he looked around the circle.
The eight men and eight women had been selected for the class by the teachers on the basis of auditions. Daigneault already knew many, having directed 11 of them in the October 2011 Robsham production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. “Sometimes,” he told them, “you’ll be given something that’s in your sweet spot—you’re going to feel really strong. Then we’ll purposely give you something that’s out of your comfort zone—if you’re a belter, we’ll get you singing in head voice.” Sooner or later, he said with a smile, “everybody’s got to get up there and throw themselves into the fire.”
Two weeks later, to the accompaniment of Jones on piano, Sarah Goldstein, a junior, and Alex Olivieri, a senior, were first into the fire as they led off a workshop session on the Robsham main stage with a scene from 110 in the Shade (1963). In it the handsome, self-declared rainmaker Bill Starbuck spars with Lizzie Curry, thirtyish, single, and just stood up by another man. “You’re not fooling me,” spat Goldstein, crossing her arms scornfully. Olivieri, wearing a blue bandanna round his neck in deference to the play’s Western setting, leapt up on the table that stood in for a wagon and sang about the one time in his life when he made the rain fall (“You don’t have to believe it if you don’t want to”).
Sophomore Billy McEntee and freshman Samantha Goober followed, playing teenagers in an interpretation of “What Could Be Better?” from Baby (1983). Then juniors Christine Movius and Korey McIsaac acted middle-aged to the wistful melody “Our Children,” from Ragtime (1996).
“How did you guys feel?” Daigneault asked the performers after each scene. Most agreed with Goldstein, who admitted she was “nervous, shaking.” Daigneault turned to the onlookers, and asked: “What was working? What would you like to see more of?”
“I’d like to see more conviction in the storytelling,” said one student. Daigneault suggested ways to inject that, from making gestures more precise and intentional to “using the text as a weapon,” for example, in Starbuck’s patronizing put-down of Lizzie as “Lizzie girl.” From the piano at stage right, Jones noted that the great challenge in musicals is making what’s on the page “feel and sound organic.” He told the actors, “Think of yourself as part of the orchestra,” and he pointed out technical weaknesses—a few late entrances in the spoken passages, the odd missed rest, and some scooping up to high notes. “Work to hit the note exactly,” he said, “and if you do scoop, make it a choice.”
On the afternoon of Monday, February 27, the class warmed up as a group. All eight pairs would be presenting final treatments of their dramatic scenes, back to back, for grading. The students walked in a loose circle around the Bonn Studio Theater, a classic black box space, with Jones at the piano accompanying their lip-trills, yelps, and arpeggios. Some were already in costume or wearing clothes appropriate to their characters. (“Don’t come in to play John Adams in 1776 wearing skinny jeans,” Daigneault had warned in an earlier session.)
Observing this class was Scott Cummings, theater department chair. “We rely on Paul and the other visiting professionals to bring a professional standard to the work they’re trying to get out of the students,” he said. The fact that Daigneault is an alumnus is a bonus: “All the faculty and staff are excited to show the students what’s possible with 20 years of hard work.”
Starting with a number from Gypsy (1959) and ending with Goldstein and Olivieri’s encounter from 110 in the Shade, the students delivered engaging renditions. The later performers had to contend with the distraction of drilling in the theater’s upstairs lighting box. “I just sang louder,” said Goldstein, laughing. Daigneault was enthusiastic, applauding and congratulating the actors on “lots of improvements and adjustments.” Right from the auditions, he said later, he had been confident of the students’ “flair, focus, and style.” Now he praised “their level of preparation and their knowledge of the big picture.” He was keen to move on to the next challenge: musical comedy. “I’m having fun,” he said.
Jane Whitehead is a Boston-based writer.
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