A Life In The Theatre
Also see other installments:
Choreographer | Director of Marketing | The Sound Designer | Associate Producer & Company Manager | Scenic Designer | Director of Volunteers | Director of Education | Stage Manager | Performing Arts Fundraiser | Executive Artistic Director| Costume Designer
And see John's review of Sweeney Todd
This is the eighth in a series of interviews with theatre professionals in non-performing careers.
Theatre Arts Management is a growing concern as many theatres come and go every year. Several universities have added a Theatre Arts Management degree to their curriculum. With a huge entertainment industry that brings so much directly to us via television and the internet, it can be a challenge to motivate audiences to come to view live theatre instead. What brings professionals to find a home for their skills in the performing arts? Cheers to those people whose business is the business of theatre. 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.
Michael Leeds wrote and directed the Broadway musical Swinging On A Star, which received a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical. Off-Broadway he directed and choreographed Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah - The Songs of Allan Sherman, which received a Drama Desk Award nomination for Best Director/Best Choreographer. Other Off-Broadway credits include directing and choreographing Lypsinka - A Day In The Life, Showing Off starring Donna Murphy, The First Step (NY International Fringe Festival), Carmelina starring Marla Schaffel and Ray Wills and 70, Girls, 70 starring Jane Powell and Charlotte Rae.
Regional and International credits include directing and adapting Arthur Miller's teleplay Playing For Time (European Premiere, Edinburgh Fringe Festival First Award). He also directed and choreographed A Little Night Music for Houston Grand Opera starring Frederica Von Stade and Thomas Allen, and Marc Blitzstein's Regina for Florida Grand Opera starring Lauren Flanigan. For ten years Mr. Leeds co-directed the NY Drama League Benefit honoring people such as Liza Minnelli, Kander & Ebb, Hal Prince, Rosie O'Donnell and Chita Rivera.
For film he choreographed End of Summer starring Jacqueline Bisset and Peter Weller and co-wrote The Simian Line, starring William Hurt, Lynn Redgrave, Tyne Daly, Harry Connick Jr., Cindy Crawford, and The Last Film Festival.
He has written songs for Martin Charnin's Off-Broadway revues Upstairs At O'Neal's and the No Frills Revue, as well as CBS's The Comedy Zone. As a librettist he co-wrote Miracles with Joe Stein, with a score by Sheldon Harnick, Stephen Schwartz, David Shire and Marvin Hamlisch. He directed/wrote the Cole Porter revue Red, Hot And Blue at Goodspeed Opera/ Paper Mill Playhouse). His most recentl project was Mating Habits of the Urban Mammal, for which he was director/choreographer/co-writer at the Broward Stage Door Theatre. Next Michael is directs Deathtrap at the Boca Raton Theatre Guild. He also conducts ongoing Acting Workshops in Deerfield Beach and West Palm Beach (www.LeedsWorkshop.com).
John Lariviere: What made you go into directing?
Michael Leeds: I started out as a dancer in the chorus of Broadway shows. But I was always telling the other dancers what to do to improve their performance which, as you can imagine, made me verrrrrrrrrrry popular. So I thought it might be better to get into a position where I was supposed to tell them what to do. As I moved up out of the chorus into more featured roles, I found I loved the rehearsal process more than performing. I envied the director who got to leave after opening night. And I was always more intrigued by the bigger picture than my one role. When I finally directed my first show, it felt so natural, the place where I could incorporate everything I had learned along the way: the dancing, singing, writing, composing, acting, teaching, etc.
JL: What exactly does a director do?
ML: Basically working on a production is like a great game of volleyball with the director as captain. You help work out the rules of the game with your writer/s, plan your strategy with your designers, throw the ball around with your actors, and then hit the court to win over the opposing team - your audience. In a nutshell, a director has to make sure everyone is working toward a shared vision of the piece and help them to do their best work.
JL: What experience/training do you have that has best prepared you for this?
ML: Aside from the years of analysis? I think my also being a writer, lyricist, composer and choreographer all impact on my directing. Whether it's musicals or straight plays, that training helps me find the "music" in a piece. And it's been an enormous help in collaborating with the artists in every facet of the production. But, looking back, I think my most valuable training was starting out in the chorus of those Broadway shows. I've always said, you want to know what's wrong with your show - ask someone in the chorus. Being in the background (literally), they have a perspective no one else has - and usually know exactly what needs to be fixed. My one regret, in terms of experience, is I didn't get to assist some of those directors (Mike Nichols first and foremost) I most admire. To be up close and personal watching them work would've been invaluable.
JL: How much say does a director have in selecting the show/season, and in hiring the cast and/or staff?
ML:I've never been the Artistic Director of a theatre (it's something I look forward to doing). But over the years you do establish relationships with theatres, and often they'll ask for suggestions in planning their seasons. Regarding casts, I've never had to cast someone I didn't want to. As to staffs, if it's a regional theatre, the staff is usually working there year round, and invariably they make your life much easier since they already know the lay of the land. For Broadway and Off-Broadway you make those decisions, with the producers' approval.
JL: What is your greatest challenge and your greatest reward as a director?
ML:The greatest challenge? To never stop listening. Not only to all the talent involved, but to your inner artistic voice. Sometimes the pressures of time or budget or ego can drown out the creative process. And it helps for me to remember that it is a process. Like Gertrude Stein said, "There's no there, there." It will never be perfect. You've never finally "arrived." Whether it's the production or the career, I try not to devalue what is, in the quest for what could be. (Oh God, did I just say that?) My greatest reward? Sitting in the back of the house and the audience is reacting exactly as you hoped they would. God, that's great!!
JL: Do you have any stories of the most difficult and/or most enjoyable shows you have directed?
ML: Difficult: I was directing an opera, (I can't mention names since opera stars don't die, they merely go flat) and the star was incredibly difficult. She had been hired before I was, and because of conflicting schedules I hadn't consulted her before rehearsals on her interpretation - which turned out to be "the audience must like me at all costs." I spent all my energy unsuccessfully trying to establish a working relationship with her to get her to trust me and try to play the part the way I thought it should be played. (Not to mention the way it most certainly had been written! Still bitter?) In the end I did a great disservice to the piece, to the other actors, to myself and to her, by caving in and letting her basically steer the ship. The production crashed into the shoals. The lesson? Don't put your career, or wanting to be liked, or second-guessing the critics, or the fear of never working again, above the needs of the piece. (By the way, the theatre understandably never did ask me back).
Invariably, the most enjoyable show for me is whatever one I last directed. I've fallen in love with the cast and I'm still carrying around in my head those moments where the audience reacted exactly how I wanted.
JL: What would you look for if you were hiring a director?
ML: A sense of humor, passion, a creative vision and a feeling that I can put the "baby" safely in his/her hands.
JL: What are your professional goals/plans for the future?
ML: To keep working.
See the current theatre season schedule for southern Florida.
-- John Lariviere