What would a show be without a team to make it all happen? Helping to lead the VOS White Christmas team are Co-Producer Florence Fletcher and Director Steve Russell, whom we interviewed a few weeks ago to find out more about who they are and what this show has mean to them.
VOS: Steve, you’ve done Spamalot (King Arthur) and Shrek the Musical (Shrek) with VOS THEATRE as a cast member. You’ve got an incredible amount of experience as a director. Talk to us!
Steve: I find directing to be a whole different game. I loved being in Spamalot and Shrek. I had two great roles and was working with amazing talent all around me. Bea is a great director and the live orchestra is a great thrill for a performer. As director, I have to concern myself with a thousand decisions that I don’t have to think about as an actor. What colour should this dress be? What do you have in mind for this prop? When should the lights begin to dim? As director I’m concerned with all aspects of the production from an artistic point of view. How do I take all these departments, for lack of a better word, and get them to combine in the most powerful way to tell our story? That’s my question.
Along with that, there is the inter-personal role of the director. I want to motivate, encourage and support actors to go as far as they can and achieve a personal best in the show. The actors, dancers and singers come with a wide range of background, experience and personality. Giving constructive criticism is a delicate process because all actors are insecure. I know this intimately from playing roles in Shrek and Spamalot. I needed feedback and guidance and it was very helpful for me to have input along the way.
Directing is a balancing act. Sometimes the artistic push has to give way because of inter-personal issues – or rather, because someone has already given all they have to give. My wanting more, or yet another change, can push people over the line into shut down.
The great thing about working in a community theatre setting like this is that everyone is here because they want to be. We’re all giving this show everything we’ve got because it’s FUN to create something wonderful and be part of it. In a school setting, I had to also deal with students and their parents’ concern about marks. I had to end every rehearsal when the bell went and I couldn’t end them any sooner. Those concerns are no longer constraints on the creative process. The concerns here are more direct – when are we too exhausted to continue? Who needs a break? Who needs to do a song or dance just one more time? When do I stop pushing?
There I go getting into the thousand concerns again. This is a complex co-ordinating role – and I’m loving it!
VOS: Florence – You’ve produced a bazillion shows and you co-produced White Christmas the last time. Why did you agree to tackle this monster musical again?
Florence Fletcher: This is such a great show with amazing music and I was excited to work with Steve Russell as Director on the first show Steve will be directing for the VOS. I knew that the team I would be working with would be focussed and committed to putting together the best possible performance of White Christmas. We had done the show before but this is not just a rehash of the same stuff over again. we do have some cast members returning but we have a whole bunch of new faces on stage this time which is always re-energising. I love working with Liz Clark, we just click. The number of times when I pick up the phone to dial Liz and it rings – and there she is! We both have strengths that compliment each other and we support each other when we hit the inevitable hurdles that need to be cleared.
VOS: Was the movie a part of your family Christmas tradition?
SR: White Christmas was not a part of our family tradition. I only saw it once when i was a kid. I had to start watching it again in research for this production. Our family traditions didn’t involve any films or theatre outings. We played some games together and ate too much.
FF: Actually no. We did not have a family tradition of watching any particular Christmas show, perhaps that’s a British thing.
VOS: Steve – favourite character in the show. Not your favourite actor – we know you love them all.
SR: I love something about every character in this show. I like the little characters like Ezekial and Mike, and Rita and Rhoda. Those are such fun parts to play and they add so much to the show. I love characters that make me laugh.
VOS: Steve/Florence – what’s the biggest challenge you have faced bringing this big song and dance extravaganza to the stage?
FF: I think one of the biggest challenges has been to keep the new vision of the show up front of my mind and not think “we didn’t do it that way last time”. We were a little late getting started on this show as we planned to do a different production that didn’t work out for us, so there have been times when I have felt that we are still a little behind in production details. It is a BIG show, lots of costumes, lots of choreography, lots of music to be learned but the team is working really well together and we are well up to speed at this point.
SR: There are many challenges bringing a big show like this to the stage. One of the hardest things has been scheduling rehearsals to try not to waste people’s time. As an actor, it’s very frustrating to be sitting around all night just to do a two minute scene. I always hate that and I try to avoid making actors experience that frustration. We have a lot of talent in the chorus for this show and I want them to have a good experience so they come back and share their talent with us again and again. Many in the chorus could have leading roles in future shows where the parts are just right for them. I don’t want them to be so fed up with sitting around doing nothing, that they stay away next time. But there’s the challenge – more than twenty people and seventeen scenes to schedule to run as efficiently as possible while still making sure that the right amount of time is spent on each scene. Oh, and then there’s people missing rehearsals – always with good reason, but leaving us needing to catch them up next time.
Really that’s been the hardest part. Working with this team is great. We usually exchange about a dozen emails a day, so we really keep on the same page with production elements. It’s the schedule that’s tough.
VOS: Steve – moving into a busier time and a tougher rehearsal schedule, what’s your strategy for getting a cast to the level they want to be at for Opening Night?
SR: Much of the work needs to be done by the actors at home. I know that may seem like a cop out, but it’s true. I see rehearsals as a time when you bring what you’ve been working on at home in to present it for shaping by your fellow players and the director. If you’ve done your homework, you’ve got it “in the zone” and you’re able to deal with the nuances that make a performance stand out. You’re also able to connect with your stage partners in a scene and be responsive to what they give you on stage. That makes everything work. I will keep driving the actors to connect with the material and with each other. It’s repetition and lots of notes!
VOS: Florence – What’s your favourite moment in the show?
FF: There are quite a few great moments, but I’m a sucker for a sweet moment, and I love the “porch scene” with Bob, Susan, General Waverly and Betty when Bob sings “Count Your Blessings”.
VOS: Steve – It’s been great fun to watch you work with your daughter Mackenzie Russell (choreographer and Judy). You are such incredibly talented people. Has there been a highlight so far you would like to share.
SR: There have been many great moments working with Mackenzie. She always surprises and delights me – even when she tells me to take a hike. Her choreography is very, very good. Mostly because she is a natural teacher and very sensitive to the group she’s working with. I’m always so proud to see her working with a group, pushing them hard and yet filling the room with smiles. Too many great moments to recall. Mackenzie is really brave, taking on this role and the choreography. I’m proud of her for pushing herself to do it. She’s going to be great!
VOS: So when you sit up in the Risers on Opening Night and watch what you have had such a huge hand in creating what do you hope to see?
SR: I have to tell you I hate sitting in the audience on opening night. It is the most nerve-wracking experience! I’m nervous as an actor before a show but once I go on I’m focused and absorbed. As a director, I feel nervous about every line, every lighting cue, every step, every note – and it doesn’t stop until the curtain goes down. By opening night, I’m powerless as I’ve made my contribution and just handed it off to the rest of the team to run it. I hope to see it all fit together. This show can make the audience laugh, and cry and feel really good. Getting them to feel those things is a combination of many creative efforts. This show is the result of thousands of creative decisions. Everyone’s, not just mine. I hope to see all the parts fit together so that the audience is transported without distraction into a wonderful nostalgic world. Some people call it magic, but it only happens when a lot of people have worked really hard. It doesn’t happen all the time. I hope to see some very happy people in the audience, on stage and back stage. I’m pretty sure I will.
FF: I always love to see those magic moments that come in every show, when it all comes together and I am transported into the moment and swept along by the story I forget that I am watching a play and just enjoy the whole experience. I expect to have tears in my eyes at the end of the night and a heart bursting with pride.
White Christmas runs through November 15th, at the Concert Hall at Victoria Hall in Cobourg.