Working with a cast that has two left feet
By Lisa Mulcahy
Picture this: you’ve finally chosen the perfect musical for your drama department’s spring show. You have it all figured out—you’re going to update West Side Story for the new millennium and make it a moving social commentary on inner-city violence. You hold auditions and you’re blown away by the acting and singing of your students. You assemble a fantastic cast, start rehearsal, and suddenly it hits you—almost no one in the company has ever danced onstage. West Side Story is, of course, packed with production numbers featuring lots of choreography. Does this mean you have to cancel the show? Of course not.
I’ve directed musicals (and performed in several) ranging from Off Broadway to high school. I’ve worked with many inexperienced dancers who were able to master the movement skills needed for elaborately choreographed musical theatre productions. How were they able to do it? By working hard physically, practicing and drilling repeatedly, and perhaps most importantly, by adopting an optimistic, can-do attitude. As a director-choreographer and teacher, you can help your novice dancers present a polished performance. All it takes is some encouragement, a little creativity and psychology, and some easy, solid stagecraft.
What follows is a step-by-step approach to teaching choreography to young actors. What I’m going to explain is certainly not the last word on what it takes to choreograph a musical. You’re going to have to dive in and just do it—but these fundamentals ought to get you started. What’s more, choreography is only one component of a musical; it’s just as important to consider play choice, acting, singing, character development, and the technical aspects of your production. We’re focusing on movement here, though much of what I have to say about how to handle students in rehearsal can be applied to any element of middle or secondary school musical theatre production.
Step one: Determine skill levels during auditions
If you’ve already cast your show and know for certain you’re dealing with non-dancers, your goal will be to work as best you can with the actors you’ve chosen. On the other hand, if you are in the pre-casting stage and have the time to include a choreography component in auditions, use it to determine the movement strengths and weaknesses of potential cast members.
Begin by dividing the audition into three sections: a singing demo; a reading, either of a prepared monologue or a cold reading of material from the show you’ve chosen; and finally, a group movement tryout, at which your auditioning students learn a piece of choreography together and then perform it for you in small groups simultaneously.
If you’re concerned about your own choreography skills, try not to focus on the concept of “dance.” Movement is what we’re interested in. A great thing to know about casting a musical is that most of the students trying out are probably quite comfortable and familiar with rhythm. Even if a singer doesn’t have dance experience, he likely has a strong connection to musical timing and beat. As a choreographer, that’s exactly what you’re looking for during auditions—a talent and ease in moving to music.
When you post an audition notice for your show, specifically mention the movement segment so auditioners can prepare for it. Explain that the movement tryout will be brief and simple. Make sure that you request that everyone dress comfortably in sweats or leotards and the right footwear. Have an open-door policy for your students, urging them in the notice to ask you any questions they might have before audition day. The bottom line is to make everyone as comfortable as possible so they can put forth their best effort.
Prior to auditions, isolate a brief piece of music from your show and work out a short series of movements set to it. For instance, in West Side Story I might use the chorus from “America” and improvise a simple series of movements something like this: hand movements only to accompany the first line of the chorus; footwork only for the second; combined hand and foot movements for the third line; and, for the fourth and final line, a piece of movement that simultaneously incorporates hand and foot moves with forward motion. This gradually more complex progression will demonstrate a performer’s ability to both learn and retain given movement, as well as execute it in a coordinated manner.
Create an edit of the music cut you’re going to choreograph on a cassette tape. That way you can easily replay it on a boombox during auditions. Then drill yourself on the movement you created, performing it before a full-length mirror so you can clearly see what the routine looks like. Make any adjustments needed, eliminating awkward movements or those that you decide would be too difficult to learn quickly. Be certain that your routine allows for good posture and won’t interfere with a performer’s ability to sing as well as move. Try singing while performing the choreography yourself. If you find you’re out of breath, rework the steps. Don’t start fretting because you’re concerned that the choreography is too easy. Remember, in a production highlighting movement as opposed to dance, even the simplest steps can look smooth and graceful when polished properly in rehearsal.
From the moment your students walk in the door for the choreography tryout, it’s vital to establish a warm and supportive atmosphere. Include plenty of warm-up time so everyone can stretch prior to the audition, just as they might before a workout. Set up lots of chairs around the room, allowing auditioners to relax before and after their tryout, and provide plenty of drinking water and cups.
As students arrive, pass out a short audition sheet and ask them to write down their movement training and experience. You should also have everyone include other vital information on the sheet (if you have not already done so)—name, grade, class schedule, and extracurricular activities—that will help keep track of each student and any potential scheduling conflicts once rehearsals begin.
Before you begin, gather everyone together and clearly explain how the tryout is going to work: first you’ll demonstrate several times the short routine you’ve choreographed; second, you’ll let them work on mastering it as a group; finally, the ensemble will break out into mini-groups of three and each trio will perform the routine for you.
The ideal place to hold your movement audition is a space with a full room-length mirror (a ballet studio would be ideal) so everyone can watch their own movements as they learn the routine. If you don’t have access to such a room, setting up a standing vertical mirror is better than nothing. Stand in front of the group with your back to everyone as you demonstrate movement.
At the outset of the group work, bear in mind just how daunting the process can be for some participants. In other words, try to put yourself in the shoes of your students. Learning completely foreign steps quickly, matching them to corresponding music correctly, and not feeling self-conscious about how well you’re accomplishing all of this is not easy to do. One of my first professional auditions included a group dance tryout, something I had never done. The choreographer herded us like confused cattle into the middle of a huge room with no mirror, whipped off a viciously complicated combination of steps in two seconds flat (demonstrating it only twice), then called on everyone individually so we could make complete fools of ourselves aping a routine we had barely seen. When, predictably, mistakes began to occur, our charming taskmaster commented sarcastically about how easy this routine was compared to what he was planning for the actual show. I’ve always remembered this miserable experience because it reminds me how not to treat potential cast members. In an educational environment this is even more important.
What you want to do is build self-confidence in your auditioners by demonstrating the steps over and over again until even the most tentative member has learned the routine. To do that, explain one step at a time. Give a verbal description of a movement as you execute it. Repeat the step several times before you ask the group to attempt it. Answer any and all questions and make complimentary comments about the group’s mastery of the routine. When you’re sure everyone knows the steps as well as they’re going to, divide the students into random mini-groups and scatter them around the room, away from the center.
Move around the space and ask each group to repeat the choreography as many times as you think is necessary. Don’t, however, ask your auditioners to individually demonstrate the routine. There are two good reasons for this: one, as in my audition fiasco experience, individual performances can be unbelievably embarrassing if you don’t feel like you know what you’re doing. Even if a student looks as though she has learned the routine, she may still feel nervous about it, so don’t put her on the spot. Two, if there turns out to be an extremely talented individual who’s noticeably better than everyone else, spotlighting such a person can make her feel like an unwilling show-off, or it could foster ill will among others trying out. Groups of three are spare enough so that you can evaluate each performer individually without creating any uneasiness.
During the performance of the trios, take notes on each auditioner. Pay attention to whether or not a student has good posture. Look for an ability to stay in time with the music. Note if a performer has trouble remembering steps in the heat of the moment—this could potentially happen onstage. Write down an evaluation of the good and bad movement capabilities of each candidate. Consider these your private notes; that way you needn’t worry about hurting a student’s feelings.
If you decide to run callbacks for specific roles immediately after the first tryouts, work out a brand-new choreography routine in advance. Callbacks are your opportunity to view a more detailed picture of your potential cast members, and it’s valuable to see how an auditioner might do with an entirely different set of steps to learn and demonstrate. Basically, callbacks offer a chance to glean a lot about a person’s listening and observation skills as well as movement flair.
Once the movement auditions have concluded and it’s time to match up people with roles, remember this: movement ability is only one piece of the pie. Choose your actors based on their overall essence, on the very special qualities they will bring to your show. Don’t disregard a performer just because he lacks terrific movement skills. Resolve to focus on the talents of each person you’re casting. I was the musical director for a high school production of The Wiz, and my co-directors and I cast every student who was courageous enough to audition. Sure, everyone wasn’t the greatest singer in the world, and some weren’t very good dancers either. We cast our major roles, then created a huge, enthusiastic chorus with the remaining auditioners. All of the students in the company were delighted to have a part, and their dedicated attitude was one of the major reasons why the production succeeded.
Step two: Plan your choreography for rehearsals
Before you start actual movement rehearsals, sit down with your script and do some realistic planning. If you’ve already choreographed production numbers on paper, review them and cut any steps or intricate movements that are probably not within the skill range of your cast. Be ruthless about this—no movement is always better than bad movement.
Rethink your production numbers in terms of dramatic impact. Challenge yourself creatively—in West Side Story, for instance, what is the song “America” really about? Consider how your staging will make a visual statement about the meaning of a song’s lyrics. In situations where music-oriented movement is necessary to a number, simple steps and body movements are best. Stark, dramatic movement—your cast members stamping their feet in unison on the first beat of the “America” chorus, for example, rather than spinning intricately through the whole chorus—can be extremely striking. Minimalism is memorable. Think about the legendary moment in Les Misérables when the cast steps in simple formation, center stage, waving the flag, singing full-out to the house—a beautiful visual, true to the dramatic and musical context, and extremely easy to execute.
In your planning, break down your individual cast members in terms of movement agility. Save the more complex moves you’d like to try for the actors you feel will be most comfortable and capable; plan simpler movements for less physically skilled performers. Resolve to do all you can to ensure that those performers who are not great at movement will look spectacular in the show—give them showy but stationary blocking positions. If you make everybody feel like they’re getting their fair share of attention, even if they’re not sweeping from one side of the stage to the other, they’re going to be happy and confident in their work.
Whatever dramatic statement you decide to make with the movement in your musical, make sure that it also fulfills the experience you want your students to have. In other words, give up all expectations that your school production will revolutionize dance as an art form. That’s not why you’re doing the show—work with the individual and group strengths of your company and you and each of your students will enjoy the experience. What’s more, you’ll produce a polished show that will be entertaining to your audience.
Step three: Hold a cast meeting
After you’ve finalized your movement plans for the show, it’s time to start rehearsing. Start by having a general cast meeting. This is a really key event that will set the tone and focus of rehearsals. Emphasize to your company that the show is not about dance—instead, your vision is about a strong theme, great music, riveting atmosphere, moving the audience, and showcasing the performers’ strengths. As an inspiration to your cast, cite examples of wonderful musicals that utilized those very elements to incredible effect—a show like Rent instantly comes to mind. Declaring a specific vision of the production and clarifying your perspective about the movement element of the show will not only inspire your students, it can also put them at ease knowing that you won’t be expecting them to be Chita Rivera-level hoofers. Once you do that, company members will stop worrying about looking stupid and begin working toward the practical goals that you’ve outlined.
One of the optional things you might consider at the first cast meeting is scheduling a showing of a film version of your chosen musical. Most of the classic musicals of the last fifty years have been turned into movies, with varying success. West Side Story is certainly a good example. There are various schools of thought on whether performers can benefit from watching others do the work they themselves are about to interpret. My personal feeling on this depends upon where an individual performer’s confidence lies. A performer who accepts your belief in her talent as the truth and who believes in her own abilities will probably benefit from watching a previous portrayal of her impending role. Self-confidence will allow this person to study the nuances of a filmed performance without feeling pressured to copy or live up to any aspects of this work. However, inexperienced or insecure actors (particularly impressionable teenagers) might feel intimidated by watching such a performance. What’s more, a performer who doesn’t feel good about his movement abilities probably won’t feel much better after watching spectacular dancing, such as that in the West Side Story movie.
Whichever route you choose, the final decision ought to rest with you. You can certainly survey the company as to how they feel about it. But even if the group votes to view the filmed musical (and you agree to it), bear in mind that insecurities probably still exist among your cast members, movement related or otherwise. Pay attention to who seems tentative and offer these students support and genuine praise to alleviate their doubts at every step in the rehearsal process. In general, always focus on every performers’ good points—especially movement-wise—and make frequent mention of what it is that they offer that will make your production fabulous and unique.
A great way to spot such special contributions is by holding a freestyle movement session at the cast meeting, as well as at the beginning of each choreography rehearsal. This is a good strategy that can help you informally determine exactly how your individual cast members move best in a non-pressured environment. Pitch the freestyle sessions as a party activity. Put on some fun music to warm up the group—music your students will know and like and instantly feel comfortable with, like hip-hop. Encourage everyone to move to the beat however they want, being as loose, creative, and expressive as they can. Observe your group carefully. Who hops around wildly? Who sways slowly? Who seems a little stiff and uncomfortable? Privately note the capabilities and comfort zones of each individual, and bear them in mind in all future rehearsals. Additionally, feel free to use the movement that each person is best at to tweak your choreography. If working bits of such movement into the show helps define their characters even more distinctly, you should definitely urge your performers to include their own movement into their stage work, as long as it seems to make reasonable sense within the choreography.
Step four: Put the choreography into motion
Okay, it’s time to actually put your choreography into motion. Before you get started, you need to settle on a specific approach to incorporate into your blocking. If you’ve had dancing or choreography experience, you know that dancers “count” steps on a certain number of musical beats while learning routines. Actors unfamiliar with dance will have absolutely no concept of this; those who are musical theatre veterans probably have some experience with the “beat” approach. Head off counting confusion among your novices by applying a very firm rule for every number: teach every step on a musical count of four, from the very top of the music, no exceptions. Using eight counts is common in professional theatre, but in school theatre I’d recommend using a count of four, unless your students are experienced dancers. The four count is a good choice for young actor-singers because it will remind them physically of the rhythm of learning vocal parts. What you’re after is getting performers to understand the relationship between song and movement and the need for everyone to learn and execute the choreography in the same way.
I am not suggesting that you be inflexible about how to teach movement. Sometimes an idea you’ve had might turn out to be a bit too complicated for your people to learn, or it might even be a little too plain and simple from a visual standpoint. Make it clear to your cast that you reserve the right to change your mind. Just remember that they need time and practice to absorb new steps and movement, so be patient in terms of letting them ease in and out of changes.
Here’s three other things to know and remember about choreography before you start:
- Always conduct a warm-up—stretches, jogging in place, jumping jacks, for instance—prior to starting a choreography rehearsal. At the end of the rehearsal, a warm-down, consisting primarily of stretches to relax tired muscles, will always be helpful.
- A routine made up of linked, sequential steps or movements is known as a combination. Never teach a combination step or steps all at once; break each movement up, then explain and demonstrate each part individually. Once the elements are mastered by your group, put together your combination by linking the parts in order, one at a time.
- When you’re ready to indicate to your cast members that it’s time to run through a piece of music, don’t yell “Ready, set, go!” The traditional starting count is “Five, six, seven, eight”—then your cast members may begin their steps.
Once you begin rehearsing, work on one musical number at a time. Don’t move back and forth to different sections of different numbers—start from the beginning and work through the movement for the entire song. Teach the choreography the same way you demonstrated your short routine at the audition: stand in front of your group, your back to them, do one step at a time yourself, let them try it, then repeat until everybody’s comfortable.
Here’s something that can’t be emphasized enough: drill, drill, and drill again. It’s the absolute best way to get your cast feeling confident and precise about a step or sequence of steps. Demonstrate something, then step out and look at your group trying it. When you’re satisfied they’ve got the basic hang of things, drill the step, no matter how simple, numerous times. Yes, your students will grumble and whine after the tenth time or so, but trust me, they’ll thank you later when they realize that repetition is what made the difference in their performance on opening night.
When I was directing my Off Broadway musical, I always knew that a piece of choreography was well polished when my cast complained endlessly about how bored they were doing it yet again—this meant they had it down cold. Practicing a movement sequence repeatedly allows your cast to mentally sign off on the routine, meaning they’ll know it instinctively and will do it automatically in performance.
Whatever you’re doing, be non-judgmental as you scan your actors for performance results. Absolutely never criticize a movement-challenged cast member in front of his fellow actors. If someone is making lots of conspicuous mistakes, take time out to say, “This is a really tricky sequence. I didn’t expect anybody to get it perfect right away. We could all stand to try that again.” Then take the whole group through the section again, slowly and clearly. If one student is still having a tough time, very casually and quietly ask him to stay after and go over things until the problem is solved. Be very supportive and considerate; make adjustments if the step ultimately proves too difficult for this actor.
You might be lucky enough to also have some very experienced and skilled dancers. Consider appointing one such student movement captain, and assign her the job of working with your non-movement-oriented cast members. She can hold additional sessions to drill movement for you, freeing you up to work one-on-one with other actors, or with groups. Of course, it takes more than just experience and skill to take on this responsibility. Be certain that the student who you designate as a movement captain is mature enough to work with her peers in a teaching fashion. Make it clear to the movement captain that she must explain and demonstrate movements exactly the way you do to avoid confusion. If you trust this student, she can “buddy up” with less secure peers in a non-threatening way to help those feeling awkward do a lot better.
It’s possible that your student captain has even more experience than yourself. Take advantage of that fact. Don’t hesitate to ask an especially skilled student for pointers. Putting on a show is, after all, a collaborative process, even in an educational environment. Your movement captain will likely be flattered to help you and eager to answer your questions—giving her an opportunity to teach can be as much an educational experience as being in the show.
Finally, don’t overemphasize the movement aspect of rehearsal time. As I said at the outset of this article, it’s just one component of your production. Remember, your goal, whether you’re mounting West Side Story or Grease or Sweet Charity, is to produce an entertaining show that is pleasurable for both your students and the audience. Prioritize all areas of your production—keep reminding your cast that what’s most important is that they have a good time. Without saying so, what you’re really after is process, not product. Besides, if you and the cast work hard enough, the show will please everyone anyway.
My Off Broadway musical Renegade Sluts on Bikes contained plenty of musical numbers full of choreography, but what people told me that they liked most about the show was its unbridled sense of goofy, squeaky-clean, twisted humor. I loved that, because that was exactly the point I intended to make with my show—movement definitely complimented the production but was not its focus.
You can get the same result. Just nurture the individual talents of your cast and crew, use movement to accent the main strengths of your company, and everyone will be happy—including you.
Lisa Mulcahy is a multimedia writer whose work has appeared in Glamour, Seventeen, Girl’s Life, and Stage Directions. She directed and co-wrote the Off Broadway musical Renegade Sluts on Bikes, which she has also staged in regional and educational productions.