The Soul of the American Actor

“The life of the arts in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.”
- President John F. Kennedy

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INTERVIEWS with ARTISTS

BEN VEREEN

JEANINE TESORI

PSALMAYENE 24

SYLVIA MCNAIR

MICHAEL McELROY

DEIDRE KINAHAN

BOB ARI

PAUL TAZEWELL

PATRICIA ROZARIO

NANCY RHODES

MAIA DANZIGER

EARL “PEANUTT” MONTGOMERY

WILLIE RUFF

DENNIS D’AMICO

GRACE CACHOCHA

KAREN SAILLANT

JENNIFER HORNE

JEANIE THOMPSON

ROBERT PERRY

WAYNE SIDES

JAMIE LEE McMAHAN

SPOTLIGHT ON ARTISTS

Zana Marjanovic

Dr. Ashley William Joseph

M. Safeer

Kevin Kimani Kahuro

Ilire Vinca

Avra Sidiropoulou

Sujatha Balakrishnan

Mihaela Dragan

Farah Deen

Katy Lipson

Juan Maldonado

Odile Gakire Katese

Hartmut von Lieres

Dragan Jovičić

Sachin Gupta

Jill Navarre

books
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Hirschfeld


Essays

LIFE AND ACTING: Techniques for the Actor

Let These New Plays Happen to You

Celebrating Uta Hagen Centennial at the HB Studio

Taking the Business of Acting Online

Mary Overlie: Original Dance Anarchist and Post-Modern Evangelist: A Tribute to Mary Overlie 1946-2020

The “Real” Illusion of Mime

Art is the Means by which We Make Ourselves Visible

Theater - A Celebration of All Life

To Think the Thought

Yat Malmgren and the Drama Centre, London

Directions for Directing: Theatre and Method

Writing for Life

Our Theatrical Mission

Strolling Player: The Life and Career of Albert Finney

A Great Reminder for Us All

by David Amram

H20 – Paintings of and About Water

A New Way of Professional Theater

“Let Thousand Flowers Blossom”

A Double Life: My Exciting Years in Theatre and Advertising

 

“To flourish, society depends on a strong cultural heritage as well as innovation. The challenge is to breathe new life into the arts. Creativity is at the heart of every successful nation. It finds expression in great visual art, wonderful music, fabulous performances, stunning writing, gritty new productions and countless other media. Giving form to our innate human creativity is what defines us to ourselves and the world.
This is what the arts have always done. The lasting value and evidence of a civilization are its artistic output and the ingenuity that comes from applying creativity to the whole range of human endeavor. What is education if it doesn't teach our children to think creatively and innovatively? What use is a robust economy unless it is within an innovative country that can attract and stimulate the world? How can good governance exist without a population that is engaged, educated and able to form its own opinions?”  Excerpt from an essay, “Reviving a creative nation,”
 – by Cate Blanchett and Julianne Schultz, April 16, 2008, For the Creative Australia Stream at the 2020 Summit

“Simply think the words.”
— Goethe

“Action is the direct agent of the heart.”
— Delsarte

“The supreme goal of the theatre is truth, the ultimate truth of the soul.”
— Max Reinhardt

“Through the unity of reason and emotion, of spirituality and affection and sensation, the actor will discover his creative genius for the stage – the art of acting.”
— Erwin Piscator

“The artist-actor unveils his inner soul.”
— Eleonora Duse

“Living is a process. Acting is the act of laying oneself bare, of fearing off the mask of daily life, of exteriorizing oneself.  It is a serious and solemn act of revelation. It is like a step towards the summit of the actor’s organism in which are united consciousness and instinct.”
— Jerzy Grotowski

“Let us find our way to the unknown, the intuitive, and perhaps beyond to man’s spirit itself.. “
— Viola Spolin

"Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
- Harriet Tubman

“It is a great piece of good fortune when an actor can instinctly grasp a play with his whole being. In such happy but rare circumstances it is better to forget all about laws and methods, and give himself up to the power of his creative nature.”
- Constantin Stanislavsky

“Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.”
- C.S. Lewis

“Be silly. Be honest. Be kind.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

They took away what should have been my eyes. But I remembered Milton’s Paradise. They took away what should have been my ears, Beethoven came and wiped away my tears. They took away what should have been my tongue, but I talked with God when I was young. He would not let them take away my soul – possessing that, I still possess the whole.”
- Helen Keller, Tuscumbia, Alabama

“The only revolution that counts is a revolution of the human spirit.”
- Henrik Ibsen

 “You are not your thoughts or behavior. You are beneath the thinker. You are the stillness beneath the mental noise. You are the love and joy beneath the pain.”
- Eckhart Tolle

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
- Robert F. Kennedy

The Journey of Creating New Opera

Sometimes the wheels of fate appear at just the right time, and it was our mutual composer friend, Richard Pearson Thomas, whose music we’ve both performed, who introduced us because he saw some musical connections between our two organizations.

Encompass Opera
"Capital Capitals"

Encompass New Opera Theatre’s mission is to create and produce new music theatre and American Opera that is inspired by ideas of science, philosophy, ecology, cosmology, mythology – just as the artists of The Music for the Spheres Society are inspired by these same themes through instrumental music. Encompass’ goals are to explore compelling stories and issues that reflect the world we live in today.

Another connection that Encompass and Music for the Spheres Society have in common – we both look to the Ancient World for inspiration. Pythagoras, the great Greek Mathematician was also a Musician, an Astronomer, a Philosopher, a Healer, who believed the universe was music, literally music.

So in thinking about creativity in bringing new opera to life, we embrace these ideas that broaden the scope of human potential and human experience. Music is a meaningful and soothing expression in our fragmented and uncertain world.

I think the great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein expressed the power of music when he said these words in 1963: “This will be our reply to violence: To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” 

Encompass Opera

"Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On"

And from one of the great philosophers of the ancient Greek world, Plato writes: “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, light to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and everything.”

I would like to pay homage to my mentor, the great American composer and music critic, Virgil Thomson, who inspired me and became the founding composer for Encompass New Opera Theatre. He composed two landmark American operas with Gertrude Stein.

His opera, “Four Saints in Three Acts in 1934,” was the first American opera to play on Broadway at the 44th Street Theatre, with an entire African-American cast, and a beautiful set made out of cellophane by the female set designer, Florine Stettheimer. “Four Saints” pre-dated the opera, “Porgy and Bess,” and certainly influenced George Gershwin.

In 1946 Virgil and Gertrude wrote “The Mother of Us All,” about the life and times of Susan B. Anthony.

I first met Mr. Thomson at his home in the Chelsea Hotel when I was preparing to direct his opera, “The Mother of Us All.” I was twenty-two and he was eighty-two, and we hit it right off. He changed the course of my life and the focus of my career from that day on. That was a pivotal day for me because I experienced two very important things:

Mr. Thomson invited me to sit on his velvet settee surrounded by paintings from Matisse and Picasso. He then jumped up and began playing through key sections of the music. He sang some of it and we freely and enthusiastically exchanged ideas. He said “Yes,” to some unusual staging ideas I had. A master saying “yes” to a young artist coming into intimate contact with his/her creative work, is an extraordinary gift, a gift that I will always cherish.

That first meeting with Virgil set the tone ever after for all my meetings with composers, seasoned or new. We would sit together at the piano and exchange ideas through the music.  I like to hear what they are thinking about, what moves them, listen to them singing and playing their music, getting a sense of the emotion around their music.

When Encompass began in 1975, it was with a new production of “The Mother of Us All,” which we performed at the Good Shepherd Faith Church, next door to Juilliard. Our production was recognized was cited as one of the best productions of 1976, and launched Encompass, establishing our ongoing mission of producing contemporary opera. 

Since then, remaining true and faithful to Virgil’s vision and dream, Encompass has gone on to premiere more than 57 new and rarely performed American and contemporary operas with orchestra, and produce over 155 staged readings of new works from jazz and cabaret to musicals and opera.

One of the other things I learned from Virgil was that it was pretty rough sailing for American composers of opera to get their works done in the United States in major opera houses because the emphasis was on performing the masterpieces of 19th Century Europe.

This was one of the reasons so many American composers went to Paris for musical opportunities – Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, George Antheil –initially to study with the great teacher and musician, Nadia Boulanger, and eventually they all gathered at Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ famous Paris Salon. It was truly fertile and fervent time until World War II broke out, and everybody came home.

Encompass Opera

Marvin Hamlisch, Nancy Rhodes,
Daniel De Siena

The composer and librettist are the architects who create the story and music from the ground up. They must draw us into their world, their way of seeing and hearing. Their creativity results from originality of thought and imagination, a lot of perseverance and some good old-fashioned perspiration.
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We have often elevated the word, “creative,” sometime imbuing it with the sense that only certain people or certain powers can create; or that perhaps artists, writers, composers, inventors are the only ones deemed creative. However, every living person is creative and every day of living is a creative opportunity and act. The difference comes in how we express our creativity.

I once jumped into a taxicab coming uptown, and as soon as I got in, I was amazed. The driver had decorated the ceiling and sides of the cab with beautiful photographs of the sea, waterfalls, three-dimensional flowers, gorgeous trees and foliage, and for the duration of the ride I was transported into a breathtakingly delightful world of nature and water. I’ve taken hundreds and hundreds of cab rides since then and I’ve never forgotten this one. He even had some soothing music playing too and he was a happy man. The driver was expressing his creativity, creating his vision by making a beautiful environment with the tools and skills that he had; and he shared his vision of the world every single day.

Do I remember that experience as much as I remember seeing Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” in an art gallery in Norway or experiencing the “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre? Yes I do.

It can be a lonely road creating an opera or any work of art, a job not always well understood in our culture, perhaps not seen always as a real job. You have to take a lot of chances that may or may not pay off in the financial department; the old adage “the starving artist” comes to mind, and sometimes the arts are seen as the icing on the cake, an extra-curricular activity; but the neuro-scientists are proving that the discipline and skills of music make for high-level skilled professionals. AND even though the famous song says: “Money makes the world go around,” I’m re-writing those lyrics to say:

Composers and Writers are compelled to express themselves in their own times. Their job is to reflect and express something about being human, about life. To explore, challenge, delve into some aspect of what is happening in the world today or in the past, and bring it into focus.

Encompass Opera

“To see the world in a grain of sand,
And to see heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hands,
And eternity in an hour.”  

- William Blake

I used these famous words of William Blake in the opera libretto I created which was inspired by a long interest and study of quantum physics and metaphysics, and a deepening exploration of indigenous cosmology. The first scene came out of a dream when I awoke at 4:30 am at the seashore, sitting up I said out loud: “Act I, Scene I,  a planetarium, and “The Theory of Everything” began.

The story is a human story of a family, the mother is a documentary filmmaker studying near-death experiences, the father a Brazilian quantum physicist who grew up in the Amazon, and their ten-year-old daughter is a budding young astronomer. Things happen, separations come, tragedy strikes, and through these events all the characters experience a journey of self-discovery; in the final scene, they come together, high up in the Andes Mountains with the Elders of the Q’ero tribe.

The Theory of Everything, and the music is by John David Earnest, and we have collaborated on creating this work over the past four years.

WHAT ARE THE STEPS IN CREATING A NEW OPERA:

  1. Have an idea
  2. Create the Libretto – the words and the story
  3. Compose the Music – create the piano/vocal score
  4. Workshop the Opera – Revisions
  5. Orchestra the Opera
  6. The World Premiere

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attraction.”
- Albert Einstein

You have to start with: What is the story? Does it Follow a quest? Does it have conflict? Are the characters interesting, unique, fully fleshed out as people? Does it sing? Will music add to it in a compelling way? Does it demand musical expression?

 “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

It has been popular over time to adapt a play, book or movie into an opera or musical. For example, “Carmen” is based on Prosper Merimee’s novel; “South Pacific” is based on a James A. Michener’s novel ;” American composer Robert Ward chose Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” for his opera, and composer Carlisle Floyd set John Steinbeck’s novel, “Of Mice and Men” and Ricky Ian Gordon set Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” to music as an opera.

Today, it is becoming more and more inviting to create an original libretto. Encompass produced the world premiere of a new opera, “Angel of the Amazon,” that was an original libretto based on a true story of Sister Dorothy Stang from Ohio who went into the Rain Forest to help gain land rights for indigenous families.

She ran into conflict with the logging industry in Brazil and when they began cutting and burning the rain forest, she spoke out about it at the Brazilian Congress.

In 2005 at the age of 73, while she was walking down a lonely road, two gunmen approached her, and killed her. Her legacy of protecting her beloved Brazilian families and the Rainforest lives on.

Encompass OperaEvan Mack, the composer of “Angel of the Amazon,” was finishing up his doctorate at Cincinnati Conservatory. When he heard the story of Sister Dorothy, in a white heat of passion, he wrote both the libretto and the music. I directed the premiere with Mara Waldman as music director at The Baryshnikov Arts Center in May, 2011, for thirteen performances. Albany Records released the CD and Opera News gave it high praise.

Many composers look for playwrights, lyricists, poets whose words are sing-able and who write text that can be sung with nice vowel sounds whenever possible. If it is too wordy, adding music to a text makes it at least three times as long.

The dramatic spine of the story, building climaxes, creating interesting, unique characters is vital. Also, thinking about creating arias, duets, trios, quartets, ensembles so the composer can musicalize the text requires that the librettist write the libretto with music in mind at all times.

Sometimes composers create their own libretto. I staged the world premiere of Kirke Mechem’s opera of “Tartuffe” by Moliere for the San Francisco Opera. He did his own libretto but he told me that he watched a theatre production of Tartuffe at least ten times before tackling the libretto. It must have worked because it is one of the most produced American chamber operas today.

Preparation often involves readings of the libretto by actors and singers to learn how the dramatic flow is working, do the scenes drive the story forward, are the characters fleshed out, does the action advance the storyline.

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”
- John Keats

When the libretto is ready, the composer can go to work to compose the music. One thing I know for certain is that it is a lonely job and takes a concentrated amount of time.
So composers often go to an Artist colony so they can write without interruption.

Music composition requires deep focus and concentration over a period of time, the same for creating the libretto. Composers live each character as they write the music, going inside the character’s emotions and thoughts, and setting each word and phrase. It is not some random thing, they actually live each word and thought and experience the emotion.

It is really important for the composer to have someone to listen to their work during the writing process:  Composers often call me on the phone. For example Ricky Ian Gordon would call and tell me that he had just written a Langston Hughes poem and did I want to hear it. He would lay down the phone on his piano and play and sing through his new composition. A joyous experience for me!

During the composing time, companies such as Encompass will provide Developmental Workshops to test and revise as the piece is being written.

Every year Encompass is part of New American Opera Previews, from page to stage hosted by Midge Woolsey at Manhattan School of Music and Opera Index. 30-minute staged excerpts of developing new opera are presented there every March.

Feedback is given from experts and the audience along the way, but primarily the creative team is working with a stage director, music director, a dramaturg who guide the piece as it progresses. This process of composing can take two to six or more years before the premiere.

The culmination of this process is a finished piano/vocal score. This is an expensive item for several reasons, not only must the librettist and composer be paid, but putting the musical notes on computer requires someone to do that and it can be an expensive endeavor and takes time to do it; and then to proofread it and make further corrections and additions.

Now comes the Work-shopping of the entire opera. In the case of “The Theory of Everything,” we performed scenes at New York City Opera’s VOX, on the Edge, New American Opera Previews, and for the Science & Arts Program at The Graduate Center, CUNY, in Elebash Hall. We received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for the development of “Theory.”

From this process, additional feedback is received and the writers will add scenes, make changes until all the creative team members feel it is now ready to be orchestrated.

The last step in the creation process is orchestrating the opera. Opera composers almost always create their own orchestrations, whereas in Broadway musical theatre, most composers engage an orchestrator to do this work. In the case of “The Theory of Everything,” John David Earnest is orchestrating it himself for twenty-three instruments.
Again, the time and expense is critical for all the music is put into the computer and a Full Conductor’s score is created.

Then each musician’s part is printed out and formatted for each of the twenty-three musicians. Everything must be proofread for mistakes. This is essential because once you are in rehearsal with an orchestra. You do not have time to make corrections in the score, only the most minimal ones because you will lose valuable rehearsal time, which is at a premium and costly.

Encompass OperaLastly, there are scores for each musician in the orchestra, so if there are fifty musicians in the orchestra, there will be fifty scores, one for each musician. These scores are printed out from the large orchestra score and have to be re-formatted and carefully proofread.

So in the end, there must be support for the production, you have to find co-producers, you need to cast the opera, contact with a theater, there’s marketing, press, rehearsals, the creating of the set, costumes, lighting, and then the show could go on tour.

Look for Encompass’s upcoming productions will include “Lord Byron” by Virgil Thomson and Jack Larson, “The Theory of Everything” by John David Earnest/Nancy Rhodes, and our Science and Arts Program’s “Paradigm Shifts: Music Bridging the Soul and Mind – “The Astronaut’s Tale” by Charles Fussell/Jack Larson, plus “Deirdre” by Sameer Ramchandran, based on a Celtic tale by William Butler Yeats, “A Musical Salute Honoring lyricist Sheldon Harnick on his 90th Year,” and Encompass’ Jazz-Cabaret Gala starring Judy Kaye. Come and join us as our creative journey continues….  •2013

 


"It is a law of life that man cannot live for himself alone. Extreme individualism is insanity. The world's problems are also our personal problems. Health is achieved through maintaining our personal truth in a balanced relation of love to the rest of the world. No expression is more emblematic of this relation than the creative act which we call art. No art by its very constitution typifies the social nature of that creative act more than the theatre. The theatre, to be fully understood and appreciated, must be seen as a manifestation of this process of interchange between society and the individual. It must be judged as a continuous development of groups of individuals within society, a development which becomes richer, acquires greater force and value as it grows with the society in which it originates. Only in this way can the theatre nourish us.  - Harold Clurman

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