A Life In The Theatre
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Those who stand in the spotlight on stage as the curtain is raised owe much to the talents and hard work of the many who make that moment possible. This interview launches a series of interviews with South Florida professionals in non-performing theatre related careers. Applause to those people such as the directors, choreographers, stage managers, and scenic, lighting, sound and costume designers whose business is the craft of theatre. Cheers to those people whose business is the business of theatre such as the artistic directors, producers, and advertising, marketing, public relations, sales and development directors. Hopefully, these interviews will serve not only to illuminate and entertain, but to inspire those with a love of theatre to explore the possibilities some of these careers might hold for them. Truly "a life in the theatre" need not be one that is lived on stage.
Choreographer Rob Dawson holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Musical Theater Performance from Kent State University, and recently earned his Masters degree in Library Science. As a performer he has danced in dozens of professional productions across the country. His critically acclaimed work as a choreographer has been seen Off-Broadway, as well as in regional, summer stock and resident theatres across the state of Florida. He has choreographed shows such as A Chorus Line, The King and I, La Cage aux Folles, Sweet Charity, Forever Plaid, The World Goes 'Round and Crazy for You. His most current project is the just-opened production of Funny Girl presented by the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and The New Vista Theatre Company.
John Lariviere: What made you become a dancer and choreographer?
Rob Dawson: I grew up in a small farming town in Ohio, and the only exposure I had to the performing arts was through film, television and the annual high school musical. It wasn't until I went to college that I made contact with people who considered theatre and dance to be realistic career choices. I believed at the time that I was going to be a doctor, but I found myself drawn to these "artistic types." Their energy and freedom of expression made them seem like fascinating creatures to me. I was quite shy and repressed at the time, and I wasn't sure I could be like those people, but I really wanted to try.
I was not accepted the first time I auditioned to be a Musical Theater major. Kent State only took ten students each year, and I'm sure my first audition was humiliating. But I kept studying and sought advice from anybody who would talk to me. I auditioned again my sophomore year and was included as one of the select ten. During my time in the program, there were certain students we thought were destined to "make it." I was not one of them.
The one area in which I found some success was dance. The dance department at Kent State focused specifically on the modern techniques of Limón and Cunningham. My teachers there ignited a little fire inside of me and then nurtured that fire. The dance studio became the only place I wanted to be. It was like the gym, the church and the therapist's office all combined as one. Through movement I began to find my sense of self and how I could use that unique "self" in performance.
Dance later became the way I could work. I knew I was not a traditional "type." I was not a sweet male ingenue, a leading man or the loveable funny man. I could, in spite of my somewhat late start, dance well enough to whirl around Dolly Levi or lift Mame over my head. Soon, I was assisting choreographers. Later, when a choreographer and producer angrily parted ways, I was deemed the most likely choice to step in and make sure the show would go on. I was - and still am - sure that someone will notice that I don't have the vaguest idea what I am doing.
JL: What exactly does a choreographer do?
RD: When it's done well, choreography is really the physical expression of the characters' emotional lives, relationships, time period and culture. It's too simple to say that a choreographer just makes up dance steps. It can be as simple as a single gesture or as complicated as a ballet, in which the plot is advanced and characters are developed without any verbal communication. Of course, on a less artistic level, choreography is about entertainment: using bodies in motion to interest and excite the audience. Audiences still love a good kick line, no matter how many times they've seen one.
In musical theatre, a choreographer analyzes a script and score to see where the musical numbers fall within the story, and what purpose they serve to that story. He or she has to determine if a particular song can advance the plot, reveal elements of character or perhaps just resuscitate the energy after a long scene. Then, the choreographer develops a physical style for the dance that's appropriate to the music, time period, and characters. The varied abilities of the performers are also a consideration. The most creative choreography is of no use if an actor can't execute it well.
JL: What experience/training do you have that has best prepared you for this?
RD: I think it's necessary to have some musical training. A choreographer doesn't have to be a musician, but I can't imagine working in this field without being able to read a musical score. Those music theory and piano classes I took in college have certainly paid off. In acting and directing classes I learned to analyze character and to use tempo to build a scene. The dance teachers I studied with and the choreographers I worked for all contributed through their guidance and example. Being exposed to so many different styles gives me more tools to work with when starting on a new production.
I also think just being a big fan of musical theatre helps. I would tell any young person who wants to choreograph to study the masters. Watch movie musicals, especially those that used the work of Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, Bob Fosse and Busby Berkeley. Go to New York and see what choreographers like Susan Stroman and Jerry Mitchell are doing. Someday you may be lucky enough to work on new material and develop your own style, but for most of your career you will probably be working on productions of classic musical theatre. Most audiences don't want to see you re-imagine West Side Story with hip hop; they want to see it for the classic that it is. The challenge for the choreographer is to meet expectations to some degree, and yet have some creative freedom. That's never an easy job, and it's clearly impossible if you don't have a working knowledge of Jerome Robbins' original work.
JL: Is there a difference between choreographing Equity vs. non-union, or professional vs. educational productions?
RD: I think the difference between Equity and non-union productions is mostly in expectations. There is usually the idea that an Equity production will be cast with endlessly talented people who can spin and leap without care, while a non-union production will be cast with less able-bodied folk. This idea can lead to peril. It's better to audition with an open mind and evaluate what is actually before your eyes. I have found diamonds in the rough of community theatre. I have also had to endlessly modify choreography for Equity productions because the cast couldn't execute my original plan. I'm an Equity member and I support my union, but I don't believe that having that card necessarily means I am more skilled than the next guy. Some people are amazingly talented and have simply chosen to not live their life in professional theatre.
The biggest difference in the work process is the reality of time. In Equity theatre, time costs a lot of money, so the work has to happen fast. Putting up Guys and Dolls in ten days is a skill in itself. In non-union theatre, you may get more time, which is great. In educational theatre you may get a lot more time, which is ideal because the goal is not only to get the show open but to also improve skills.
I should point out that not everyone is equally adept at choreographing at these three different levels of theatre. I have danced for choreographers who have no tolerance for low-skilled performers. They certainly would not be the best fit for educational theatre and should, therefore, not accept those jobs. I have a reputation for being very patient and calm; these qualities have often been the reason why I have been offered jobs. I may weep and fret at home, but in the rehearsal hall I am patient and calm.
JL: What is your greatest challenge as a choreographer?
RD: Can I express two or three greatest challenges? First is overcoming my own battle with insecurity. After accepting a job, I always think, "What made me think I could do this? The director will hate my work. The cast will laugh behind my back. The critics will humiliate me in print." I've lived to see all those things happen, and I'm still occasionally summoned from exile. My second challenge is to do the best work I can in conditions that are far from ideal. Perhaps half of the cast is comprised of non-dancers, the set that is built is not the one that was promised, and the costumes look like a goodwill bin exploded. I hope my contribution can still be respectable and enjoyable. The third challenge for me is to continually find ways to "feed the artist," as my friend Vicki would say. I have to live a life that stimulates and inspires me. Anybody who tries to have a career in theatre will take a lot of knocks and make a lot of sacrifices. You have to keep rediscovering a reason to soldier on.
JL: What is the most rewarding aspect of being a choreographer?
RD: I love being backstage when a production number ends and the ensemble comes rushing off the stage. They're all panting and sweating and excited. I'm rewarded by knowing that I was involved in creating that experience for them. I also love being in the lobby at intermission and hearing the audience members talk about how much they're enjoying the show. They don't know who I am, so I know that what they're saying isn't influenced by good manners. I'm rewarded by knowing that I was involved in creating that experience for them. I love when I run into a dancer who tells me how much they enjoyed being in a show I choreographed, or how much they learned from the experience. These things certainly don't happen every time. But, they happen often enough.
JL: Do you have a story of the most difficult or most enjoyable shows you have choreographed?
RD: Both the "most difficult" and "most enjoyable" experiences can be discussed as failures and successes in communication. An example of a difficult experience is when a particularly unpleasant director hated the choreography I created for a show. However much he complained, he somehow couldn't articulate what it was he objected to. Trying to please him, I asked him to sit next to me as the cast performed a song and tell me everything he didn't like. As the cast sang and danced, he said nothing. After I continued to question him, I found out that he had directed the show several years earlier and wanted this production to look just like the previous one. Having not seen the earlier production, I could do nothing to please him. I never worked for him again - although I was asked.
An example of an enjoyable experience would perhaps be when I worked on Love's Fire, a collection of short one acts based on Shakespeare's love sonnets. The production was created as a true collaborative experience with the director of one play showing up as an actor in a different play, etc. There was very little money or time. There were a lot of creative types involved. But, there were no tantrums or train wrecks. Why? Everyone checked their egos at the door and worked as equal members of a team. People shared ideas and compliments. Those jobs I would do for free.
JL: What personality types are best suited for this job?
RD: I think a choreographer has to have a wide range of cultural references, endless energy and the negotiation skills of a U. N. Ambassador. He or she should also have good parenting skills. Performers are childlike and need encouragement, discipline and an occasional hug. A choreographer also has to be self-motivated. No one comes to your house to make sure you're tapping around the living room. You have to get off that couch and do it all yourself.
JL: What would you look for if you were hiring a choreographer?
RD: I would look for someone who:
- Asks questions.
- Can discuss what they love and hate - and knows why.
- Really loves musicals.
- Can collaborate.
- Treats all cast members respectfully.
- Can admit to not always having an answer.
JL: To whom would you recommend this job?
RD: I occasionally see a dancer with a gleam in her eye and I think "she can do this." It's that chorus kid who asks questions and takes notes, and practices in the hallway on a break. It's the mature dancer who has seasoning and helps the new kid pick up a step. It's the dancer who would rather watch the principals rehearse a scene than smoke in the parking lot. It's not easy to be a choreographer, and there's not an easy way to learn to do it. People who are interested should latch on to a choreographer they respect and beg to be an assistant. I would love to have someone assist me, but they never ask. I have a good dance captain right now, though, and she's going to be recruited if she's not careful.
JL: What are your professional plans/goals for the future?
RD: I actually retired five years ago and started a new career. I don't have to choreograph to earn a paycheck, and that's a luxury (Rob works for the Broward County Library System). Now, my willingness to accept a job is based on who asks. If I have had a good experience with a director in the past, I will work. Ideally, I would work as a director/choreographer. I find that when I do it all myself there is a more unified approach to the show and fewer arguments. Of course, I would need a producer who believes in me, a supportive design team and an ace choreographic assistant. Also, I would need a good therapist to help me deal with the blistering reviews I might receive if the show bombs and I can't blame its failure on anyone else. Should we go back to our discussion about how insecurity is one of my greatest challenges?
See the current theatre season schedule for southern Florida.
-- John Lariviere