Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Ask an Expert: Dance, Acting, and Musical Theatre in Writing

So you want to write about a dancer? A singer? Here are some common pitfalls to think about.
Renee Frey, CMO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Since joining Scribophile as a new writer, I’ve really found a niche sharing my experience with dance and theatre to help people with their WIPs. There are a couple of mistakes I see a LOT of people make—and with the best intentions in the world!
Before I go into this, let me give you a little bit of background on me, and what qualifies me to talk about performing arts. 
  • I've been dancing since I was three, and teaching dance since I was in my teens.
  • I studied musical theater (including acting, dancing, and singing) in NYC.
  • I've directed and choreographed full-length stage productions for children, adults, and mixed-age casts.
So here are a couple of the questions I get asked most frequently, and the errors I commonly see.

What is _____ step? What step is in this picture/video/animation?

Please consult with a dancer for the names of steps. There are some great diagrams on Pinterest, and lots of online resources...but there are also a lot of things you may not think to ask or consider.
Ballet, for example, has several different “schools” or methods:
  • Vaganova
  • French
  • Cecchetti
  • Balanchine
  • Royal Academy
  • Bournonville
They are from different regions, such as Russia (Vaganova), Great Britain (Royal Academy), and depending on your character’s location, different methods are taught. And to make it even more confusing, the position of your arms and the names of steps changes from school to school. 
So if you have a British character taking ballet classes in London, she will have slightly different positioning and terminology than an American ballerina. 
With how prolific dance schools and styles are, you often have students (in America at least) who study with multiple teachers who teach in these different methods AT THE SAME TIME. So each studio tends to get its own slang of shortening step names, marking steps, and everything else. 
So it’s usually not just as simple as looking at a picture (but I’ll do what I can). It’s also not always “right” in the dictionary since we rarely are that technical in class, especially in multi-discipline studios. 

How long does it take to learn to dance?

It depends. Learning a few steps doesn’t take long. I’ve taught people who weren’t dancers how to perform a tap dance with simple steps in a couple of months. However, to teach them to execute those same steps flawlessly could take a year or more, depending on the student. 
It also depends on the genre of dance. There are a lot of FANTASTIC self-taught hip-hop or breakdancers, Some of them have a natural talent and can learn common moves relatively quickly, dancing at a professional level in the space of a year or so. Some people take longer. With ballet, on the other hand, it is SO SPECIFIC that it can take years to learn to execute even the simplest steps well. 
What this means for your writing is that if a character is a dancer, they (more than likely) have studied for many years, beginning sometime in their youth. If they haven’t had this much study, they really won’t be proficient, and if they think they are, likely the character is wrong. You can probably see how to use this for comedic effect. If you don’t believe me, look for events where local dance schools perform, and compare the more serious schools with the recreational ones. Or peek in at a class at a camp or gym or other recreational venues, and compare that to what you’ve seen professionals do. 
Don’t believe me? Gene Kelly actually recorded himself tapping three times for Singin’ in the Rain rather than try to teach others the steps and hope they executed them well. 

Theatre is just like what I see in the movies...right?

Um, no. 
Okay, not ALWAYS.
Professional theatre is actually just that: professional. 
There is an expectation of punctuality and Cinderella stories like Sutton Foster taking over the lead of Thoroughly Modern Millie are the exception, not the norm.
If you are asked to learn a track, you are expected to know it. We all help each other out, but I went on as the understudy once without any rehearsal. Yep, you read that right. And that is NORMAL. And no, it wasn’t the panicked “Oh my God, I have to do it? I haven’t practiced!” you see in the movies. It was planned, as the show ran for a very long three months, and I just had to do my best. 
When you see a live performance, oftentimes there is that little slip of paper telling you that such and so will play this part today.
No drama expected. 
There are actually really strict rules meant to help with any cattiness or unprofessionalism, such as rules against giving corrections or notes to other actors, expectations of learning materials, and other things. It’s hard work, not something that anyone can do. 

What is auditioning like?

It is hell.
You walk into the building. Depending on the building, your waiting area may be an empty dance studio, or in the case of Actor’s Equity, a hall where the only bathroom is in the member’s lounge and no, your sorry ingenue booty is not allowed in there. You sign in and give your headshot, then find a place to wait. If it’s a dance call, you’re stretching and warming up as best you can in your tiny one foot of floor space. If it’s a singing call there’s usually chairs and you pull out some knitting so your nerves go into your hands and not your voice. 
You then sit in this room and look at all the people who are just as good if not better than you: just as talented, pretty, whatever. 
And you usually sit there judging yourself and finding yourself wanting for at least a half-hour. 
If you can make it through that, the actual audition isn’t so bad. 

But anyone can act. Why would someone take acting classes?

Sure, anyone can act. But not anyone can act well. Just like how some people can’t lie well, when you get down to it, acting is telling a very convincing lie. 
There are actors that are naturally talented and don’t take classes and are successful. And yes, there are even actors like Joey on Friends who manage to be successful without really knowing acting. 
But let’s take a closer look at that. 
Acting for film is VERY different than acting for stage. You can have someone be wildly successful at one and terrible at the other. Because they are different mediums, a very different skill set is required for each. 
With our ultra high-definition film nowadays, looking good on camera is more important than ever. You cannot hide even a single wrinkle (well you can with copious amounts of make-up and perfect lighting, but when they’re casting they’re trying to avoid dealing with that). It also means that most film actors actually under act. They hold back, because they don’t want to overact and have the scene come across as melodramatic instead of genuine. 
Stage actors, on the other hand, have to project out to large audiences. Yes, there are microphones, but as with all technology, those have issues. You can’t blindly trust them, and if your mic goes out, you can’t stop the show. You have to overact at times, especially compared to film acting, so that your emotions, tone, and body language read to every audience member. 
The best actors, the ones who could do both (Robin Williams, Jesse LL Martin, Jerry Orbach, John Lithgow) are almost always classically trained (Williams went to Juliard, Lithgow went to the London Academy of Dramatic Arts, Orbach went to the Actor’s Studio), which means they study lots of different areas of the craft, including method acting.

Singing isn’t THAT hard…

Actually, yes it is. Believe it or not, singing is mostly technique, and talent only accounts for a small portion of it. 
There’s a reason that serious singers take excellent care of their voices, from drinking tea to avoiding certain foods and on and on. 

You didn’t answer my question!

Ask it in the comments! I will drop by and make sure to answer any questions. 

Renee Frey is the pen name of Renae Donald, who appeared in professional productions in NYC, Philadelphia, Ocean City, and Wilmington. She’s been teaching dance for over 12 years, choreographing for just as long, and teaching theatre for 10 years. With her married name, she’s choreographed The Little Mermaid and Music Man for a community theatre in Philadelphia.

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