Directing Observership: Learning through Observation—In the Rehearsal Room with Tony Award–winning Director Kathleen Marshall

Directing Observership: Learning through Observation—In the Rehearsal Room with Tony Award–winning Director Kathleen Marshall

Anne Healy

The creative work of artists developed in the rehearsal room is sacred—a collective theatre/music/dance hive-mind coming together to create theatre. The creative space must be carefully protected so that artists remain free to experiment, explore, fail, and triumph without fear of judgment. With these ideas in mind, I hope to share with you some of my observations from the rehearsal room of the musical My Paris that was in development by Goodspeed Musicals during the summer of 2015. 

This journey began more than five years before when I received emails and flyers from Good-speed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut, advertising an "Observership Opportunity," where an early career director could join the Goodspeed team for a show and "learn while observing." From my early days in New York City auditioning for and performing in musicals during the late 1980s through the 1990s, I knew what a transformative learning experience the rehearsal room could be, especially with a creative team and performers who were working at the highest level of the industry. But my personal experience in commercial theatre to date only afforded the opportunity given a professional actor in the rehearsal space. So, as a relatively new stage director (since 2004), I longed for the opportunity to observe and learn from an accomplished, respected, and established director. With such an experience, could I expand my directing skills? Develop my ability to express a play or musical visually, aurally, physically, and technically? Could I learn what skills and attributes an established director possessed that makes that director effective? And finally, was I modeling effectively to my students, according to current processes relevant in the commercial theatre arena? Those questions and others compelled me to apply for the Goodspeed Musicals Observership Program. Thus I found myself in mid-life, as an early to mid-career director, in the quiet village of East Haddam on a morning in late June 2015 for "Bagelrama," the opening breakfast ceremony launching development rehearsals for a new musical about Toulouse-Lautrec titled My Paris.

It Takes a Village—and a Dream Team

Assembled on that first morning were the entire Goodspeed Musicals' executive and production staff, apprentices, interns, and even some volunteer staff. Also in attendance were the creative team, production staff/apprentices/interns specifically in residence for the production. The large rehearsal room was filled to capacity. The My Paris musical theatre "dream team" boasted Tony Award–winning director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall, a libretto by Tony-, Emmy-, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Alfred Uhry, music by award-winning Armenian French singer-songwriter and author of London's West End version Lautrec Charles Aznavour, English lyrics and arrangements by Tony Award–winning composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown, and music supervision and orchestration by David Chase, who most recently music directed television's The Sound of Music Live! This impressive team was joined by a cast of fourteen high-profile Broadway performers (fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Goodspeed Musicals My Paris creative team: Alfred Uhry and Kathleen Marshall (front) with David Gardos and David Chase (back). (Photo: Diane Sobolewski.)

The prospect of an observership with Marshall was both exciting and daunting. Before my arrival I read multiple articles regarding her directing style and philosophy in an effort to educate myself on her work as a director, since my observership did not involve direct interaction with the director or production—only a seat in the room. Through my research I learned that she came to directing through the world of choreography, beginning as an assistant to her brother, Rob Marshall, in such shows as Kiss of a Spider Woman and She Loves Me, both in 1993. In several written and video interviews Marshall talked about the importance of mentoring through assistantships and observerships. In Victoria Myers's Women and Hollywood blog she asks Marshall, "what's something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?" To which her interlocutor responded, "I think that one of our responsibilities as women working in theatre is to give opportunities to other women working in theatre as an assistant or observing on a show." I was delighted to learn that not only had Marshall signed on to have an observer for My Paris, but that she was also supportive of other female directors. Thus invited into the room, my role as a directing observer simply was to observe—four weeks of watching, listening, and learning.

After brief introductions the first rehearsal began with discussions of the overall directorial concept, designer presentations, and finally a table-read and sing-through of the show. Described by the creative team as "historical fiction," My Paris tells the story of the rise and fall of Parisian painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec during the late nineteenth century. Each character in the musical is loosely based on a family member, friend, colleague, or acquaintance of Toulouse-Lautrec, which required extensive research for both the creatives and cast. In addition, Uhry's story further delves into universal questions of familial relationships, parental approval, love, companionship, fame, and ultimately art. Later, Chase spoke about the life and music of Aznavour, noting and demonstrating some of the musical intricacies of Aznavour's thoroughly French music and point of view. Through these in-depth discussions that first day, the creative team set the tone for the beginning of the rehearsal period.

What followed was a mixture of preliminary staging and choreography sessions with Marshall and her associate director/choreographer David Eggers, music rehearsals with the cast, and a series of meetings with production staff members. The staging and choreography work sessions with Marshall and Eggers began in the large rehearsal hall, while the cast learned music in the adjacent rehearsal space. Marshall and Eggers sketched out scenes and choreography by walking through the staging and experimenting with steps, movement, and the shaping of scenes. As an assistant, Eggers often provided visual feedback as soloist or dance partner for Marshall's concepts and ideas through demonstration or execution of the proposed movement or choreography. It was interesting to watch the experimentation and development of the ideas and the final formation of the staging: what might have been a very solitary endeavor became a collaborative work session in the studio. More interesting, however, was the process of teaching the staging to the cast.

The cast arrived at morning rehearsal on Day 3 with the music and lyrics learned and memorized and began to work on the staging and choreography of the opening sequence. I watched as Marshall first shared the vision of the scene and then began to lay out the specifics of steps and movement, taking into consideration lighting and special-effect cues that were being developed. The process was fluid, as she continued to create and adapt her ideas and then determined how the proposed choreography and staging "fit" each actor's body and character. For example, in the early "Vive La Vie" ensemble number, Marshall paired couples and shaped general choreography and timing. As she visited each working couple, she examined and adjusted the moves based on such things as the look of the pairing, height, ability, stage placement, and special skills, to name a few. Changes and adjustments were made as they worked and as she received feedback and suggestions from actors. Marshall's manner was conversational, clear, and uniformly upbeat, and the energy was collaborative. As the actors processed the information, I watched as some simply fulfilled the direction without question, working through the steps or movement. In this instance the actors took the staging and/or choreography, fulfilled the director's instructions, and worked to personalize or make the steps their own, which demonstrated a hierarchical relationship between director and actor. Others actors jumped right in with questions of motivation, logistics, or even alternatives, thus creating an active conversation and peer-like relationship between director and actor. Marshall was able to work simultaneously and effectively with both groups as she began to shape the scenes, fluidly moving from disseminator to collaborator. The skill level of the actors allowed her to create overall parameters for scenes without restricting actor input or creativity, which concurrently allowed them to make choices and create characters without rigid directives. I remember noting that during this period of rehearsal, Marshall was more often listening than prescribing. Because the ability to listen effectively is often associated with good leadership, this would explain the room's collaborative energy and productive atmosphere. It was evident to me that the actors felt listened to, which in turn made them true collaborators in the process.

As the larger musical scenes began to take shape, Marshall moved her attention to the smaller book and solo/duet scenes. She began with several table-read sessions with the actors, which allowed for discussion and exploration into the arc of the scenes, perceived logistical issues in staging, and transitions both in and out of the scenes, as well as potential prop or set issues. As they moved from table to stage, the actors were allowed freedom within the scenes to explore the staging organically. After working through many incarnations, retaining moments of clarity and discarding staging and movement that felt contrary to the scene, the actors were left to digest their work; Marshall allowed the scene to marinate until the next work session. She and the cast spent the next several days working through the script as described above, while also continuing separate music rehearsals with musical director David Guardos. This method of deconstruction continued until the first real run-through in the rehearsal studio.

With the first run-through the creative team (minus Aznavour and Brown) gathered to discuss music, script, and structural changes needed. Open discussion began with respect to script and story issues, placement of scenes, tone, character, and through-line and arc, as well as lyric issues. One of the most challenging aspects of the development of My Paris was the matter of lyric translation from French to English. It was necessary for Jason Robert Brown to translate effectively not only the ideas contained in the songs, but also the poetry and tone of each song, which sometimes changed significantly in translation from the original French. Another challenge was translating a libretto and score, described by Chase as "authentically French," to an English version that would still retain its "French-ness," while also meeting the expectations of American musical theatre audiences in terms of structure. With this in mind, extensive notes were taken; script changes were made while additions and adjustments were made to the score. Over the next several weeks every rehearsal began with script additions, changes, and/or modifications, delivered by the stage management team. Musical rehearsals continued next door, while the script changes were worked on in the rehearsal hall. The actors were remarkable at incorporating the many changes: some of them were extensive, some minute, but the change was constant. With each change came increased clarity in the characterizations and overall story, even though this incarnation of the show was essentially an eighty-minute one-act musical, with much expansion and development still needed. Every rehearsal ended with Marshall discussing notes with the cast. After releasing the actors, discussions began with the creative team about any changes implemented and possible future adjustments needed. I could tell that with a limited amount of development time, everyone involved felt the time evaporating, which to me read as both urgency and excitement. This type of development work continued until the move into technical rehearsals at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Connecticut, about five miles distance from the Goodspeed Opera House.

Tech and Performances

Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre is located in Chester, nestled just off its main square, which is filled with quaint restaurants and shops. Inaugurated in 1984 by Goodspeed for the development of new musicals, the Norma Terris is a 200-seat, flexible proscenium theatre housed in a donated and converted former knitting-needle factory. The space is perfect for smallscale productions of works in development and draws discerning audiences from throughout the area, some of which attend shows at the larger Opera House as well as theatre in and around New York City. Because of the developmental nature of the shows produced in the Norma Terris, critics are not routinely invited to musicals in workshop, which allows for continual change and growth through closing night.

Our first venture to the Norma Terris was for the highly anticipated sitzprobe with the orchestra. Chase created orchestrations of Brown's arrangements of Aznavour's songs utilizing piano/accordion, violin, guitar/mandolin, and string bass. Expertly evoking a French cabaret sound, the addition of Chase's orchestrations to rehearsals expanded the actors' sense of place and time, while deeply grounding the musical within its intimate context. You could feel the excitement within the cast as each number was sung, each with surprising sounds and textures from the orchestra evoking the atmosphere and feel of a small French café. This intimate environment, created through the added orchestration, was perfectly suited to the show's new home at the Norma Terris.

At this juncture in the development and rehearsal process, scenic designer Derek McLane, lighting designer Donald Holder, costume designer Paul Tazewell, and sound designer Jay Hilton were all in the house as spacing rehearsals began with the cast. Along with her associate director Eggers, Marshall alternated between pragmatic questions involving everything from props, to spacing for choreography lifts, to the correct placement of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings hung on the scaffolding structure at the back of the unit set. Because of time constraints, the first day of tech was spent adjusting light cues, sound cues, and actor placement as everyone adjusted to the new space. Costumes were simultaneously introduced into the process in order to allow actors to begin working on fast changes, of which there were many. In order to better facilitate the costume changes, Marshall problem-solved with both actors and backstage technicians and began making adjustments to actor scene-change assignments and prop placements as necessary. It is interesting to note that the process at this point was significantly aided by the actors' ability to proactively problem-solve, which comes from years of experience onstage, and made for a series of efficient solutions that were welcomed by the director.

There was a natural separation for Marshall and Eggers at this point in rehearsal. As Marshall was drawn to larger production issues with designers in the house, Eggers moved closer to the cast in order to answer specific actor questions and concerns onstage, but always conferring with Marshall when needed. I found this aspect of the director/assistant director collaboration particularly effective within this compressed technical-rehearsal context, where decisions and problem-solving need to happen simultaneously and on multiple fronts. In this case Eggers was clear in communicating and supporting Marshall's vision, and when faced with a complex situation, brought questions directly to her. During the next several days of technical rehearsals I observed many conferences between the two that provided a platform for continued updates, questions, or concerns, and that confirmed my belief that effective collaboration is about keeping the lines of communication open and active.

Just days before the opening, Aznavour arrived from Europe to watch a final dress rehearsal. The creative team anticipated some discussion with him regarding the adaptation, because in its current form My Paris was many incarnations away from the original concept developed and staged in London in 2000 as the musical Lautrec. Because this musical was so personal to Aznavour, the entire cast and creative team were anxiously anticipating his arrival and looking forward to his unique perspective on the creative work. His reaction was both passionate and specific and in the end wholly supportive, as he worked through a translator to discuss specific questions for the team involving the distinctive style requirements of his music and word-translation choices. Keep in mind that one of the most challenging aspects for the production team were the discussions regarding the literal translation of song lyrics from Lautrec versus the new poetic translation of lyrics that the team believed would be understandable and idiomatically appropriate for American audiences. Imagine Aznavour hearing and seeing his songs within a completely new context and with translations that sometimes seemed so far from his original French text. Translation is an art, made more difficult with lyrics that are in essence poetry filled with metaphors, idiomatic expressions, and nuance. Aznavour's familiarity with and passion for the original source material was evident in his reaction. Therefore immediately following this rehearsal the creative team met with him to discuss artistic and directorial choices made that were based on an understanding of the American musical theatre genre and language, and specifically the expectations of American audiences. Bridging the cultural and language gaps were challenging for everyone, but after much discussion a level of understanding was achieved with respect to translation practices and the needs of an Americanized take on the story of Toulouse-Lautrec. Again, effective communication was paramount.

While the creative team worked with Aznavour, the cast returned to the theatre with Eggers to work specific technical notes from the run, such as costume changes, spacing issues, and set-piece movement. Later in the day the cast had the unique opportunity to coach songs with Aznavour, incorporating musical phrasing particular to the French popular-song idiom. The cast was transfixed as he worked through the main numbers with each actor, explaining the intricacies of each particular song, as the musical director and orchestrator worked to incorporate practical notes and adjustments into the score. I could see the actors' excitement as they worked directly with the musical's composer, something that they do not often have the opportunity to do. With Aznavour's departure, the final dress rehearsals were filled with last-minute changes and adjustments to everything from dialogue to light cues as everyone anticipated the July 23, 2015 opening night and the first full house.

Although the show boasted sold-out crowds every night and enthusiastic standing ovations, a production meeting followed each performance. Based on audience response, adjustments and changes were made in every area of production. Further, because the technical rehearsals were so compressed, the mechanics of the run were still being worked out and adjusted. Actors received notes following each performance, and rehearsals were held periodically to make changes and additions. At one point during the first week, Brown sent new lyrics, which were integrated into the script, rehearsed, and incorporated into the evening performance. It was important that everyone involved had a clear understanding of the fluidity of the process, and the almost constant communication between all of the creative team and cast ensured a process that, despite constant change, maintained a clear focus of purpose.

Observations from the Observer

My observership ended after the first full week of performances. It was interesting to read rehearsal reports that arrived nightly via email and learn of the changes and adjustments made up until the end of the thirty-performance run of the show. I learned that songs and dialogue were added, additional rehearsals were called, and a poignant change was made to the final picture, substituting Toulouse-Lautrec's cane for a small painting showing his signature and dates of birth and death. The rehearsal reports clearly demonstrated that the development of My Paris continued to the very end of its limited run. When I left Goodspeed a week after opening night I had no idea where the show would go from there. However, I did know that with this specific creative team, cast, producer, and the Goodspeed organization, the show's development was maximized and the material at its current stage of development was fully realized. Since the Goodspeed run, the show continued its development at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven during April–May 2016, yet another step forward in its growth. According to one promotional article about the pending opening of the show, the Long Wharf production featured a few of the original Goodspeed cast and the entire creative team, in addition to an expanded set and more complex costumes. The show also included an expanded libretto (now in two acts), with further character development and some additional scenes and songs. Acknowledging that creating a commercially successful musical is an elusive endeavor, even when there is beautiful music, compelling source material, and dynamic creative artists involved, a show does not always garner rave reviews. Although Charles Isherwood's New York Times review noted many positives in the Long Wharf production—beautiful music, creative staging, and some stellar performances—he also recognized that much development and clarification were still needed. At the time of this writing I have not heard of any further plans for My Paris. I do know that during my time in the rehearsal room I grew very fond of the musical, and my sincere hope is that the show will continue to evolve beyond these two developmental workshops.

Since my time in Connecticut, I have been asked several times, "so what did you learn by observing at Goodspeed?" There is no simple answer. The experience was as expansive as it was specific. Through this unique experience I was able to confirm that the collaborative processes and mechanics of development, rehearsal, and performance that we are teaching at the university level (confirmed by the pedagogical demonstrations of theatre faculty nationwide) are in line with the professional practice of the craft. Within a larger frame I observed the Goodspeed organization successfully produce one of the three new musicals in development that summer. As a director I had the privilege of watching Marshall negotiate every aspect of the development of a new musical as she moved between her creative team and cast. I had the advantage of observing every artistic and directorial choice made by her without bearing any of the burden of those choices. Glen Berger writes that a director is "required to cultivate a well-defined, compelling aesthetic and make choice after choice based on that aesthetic. And each of those decisions shuts a few doors; ferries the work closer to finality, with only hindsight revealing which decisions were inconsequential, and which ones were a bullet dodged, or a time bomb triggered" (96). My unique vantage point as the unburdened directing observer allowed me to expand my understanding of directing and the development of new musicals, while also confirming my own artistic aesthetic and vision—all without any consequence to the production. I was humbled by the lesson found in the art of observation and honored to be invited into the sacred space called the rehearsal room. Finally, I learned that when an artist is quiet, listens, and observes, he or she becomes open to the artistic impulses of others—a place where the collaborative processes flow freely and theatre flourishes.

Author Bio

Anne Healy is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), where she teaches directing and musical theatre and is head of the BFA musical theatre program. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in musical theatre and a doctorate in aesthetic studies focusing on theatre and musical theatre. An Equity actor, she has appeared off-Broadway and at major regional theatres. Her recent directing includes the Dallas Theatre Center's A Raisin in the Sun (assistant director); and recently at UTA, The Theory of Relativity (regional premiere), Troupers: A Musical Vaudeville (world premiere), and West Side Story.

Works Cited

Berger, Glen. Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of The Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Print.

Isherwood, Charles. "Review: 'My Paris,' a Portrait of Toulouse-Lautrec in Song and Dance." New York Times. 13 May 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.

Minor, E. Kyle. "Theatrical Dream Team Produces 'My Paris' at Long Wharf Theatre." New Haven Register. 5 May 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.

Myers, Victoria. "Director/Choreographer Kathleen Marshall on Her Process, Female Mentors, and Developing New Musicals." Web blog post. Women and Hollywood. 18 Mar. 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.