Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

The Spirit Is Willing

Summoned to Jon the Director’s office, I sat with an air of expectation.  We were scheduled to produce Behan’s The Hostage in conjunction with another theatre.  Rather than my usual duties, I was asked if I would be willing to manage the songs.  I hadn’t read the play yet – that was my first mistake. 

“Help with the songs?”

“Yes, there are a few songs.  And a dance.  A few songs and a dance in the play.”

I’ve been playing the piano since I could count my age in single digits.  I’d helped folks learn songs before.  Why not?

“Sure,” said I.  “Why not?”

In the event, fans of Behan’s The Hostage know there are twenty songs and three major dances.  A producer could rent a score of the songs, but what we got was in a handwritten scrawl difficult to read in those days before Finale or similar software.

I got busy copying music, arranging some of the songs, hiring musicians, arranging rehearsals, learning how to play the bag-pipes so that I could teach an actor how to play the bag-pipes, and basically serving as music director for a musical that innocently appears to be a “straight” play with a little music.

To tell the story out of order, it turned out to be a wonderful experience.  The musicians we hired to back up the songs were fantastic.  And although about the only thing I share with Paul Shaffer is male pattern baldness, I got to emulate one of my heroes.  When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be David Letterman, I wanted to be Paul Shaffer. 

There are two facets to this whole experience I wish to address.

First, the producer of the production auditioned actors in New York City and elsewhere, but without too much concern about singing ability.  Since it was considered a “play” with a “few” songs, attention paid to singing capacity was minimal.  Thus it shouldn’t have been surprising that we had an actor or two who would not have been cast in a musical. 

I worked with a very lovely woman who’d been the victim of some elementary vocal music teacher.  The teacher years earlier had told this woman, “You can’t sing.” The actress had internalized this message – the way that teachers generally hope students will learn the lessons they teach.  Sadly this lesson crippled a woman in a peculiar way.  She had gone decades without singing because she’d believed she couldn’t sing.

Now here she was, in a studio with your narrator and a piano, working on a song that she would sing solo in front of an audience of some 700 people every night for a three-week run and school matinees. Luckily, a few weeks before auditioning for our production, this good woman had started taking singing lessons because she realized that she had taken herself out of the running for several good jobs over the years because of her fear of singing.

Please understand, this woman’s problem was purely a matter of internalized belief.  There was not a problem in matching pitch or breath control or any other issue that some potential singers might have.  Her problem was the internalized message of, “You can’t sing.” Inside her heart, an 8-year-old girl lived with the fear and disappointment that comes from listening too closely to every dumb thing some adult said.

[Note: I’m a liberal and a pacifist.  But I can imagine some pretty severe punishments for a whole class of elementary vocal music teachers who told small children, “You can’t sing.”]

Our time together was as much a matter of counseling as it was teaching music.  Eventually she learned the song in which she had to sing a solo, and she was fine.  As I knew she would be.  She had been doubtful, but willing to do the hard work of overcoming her inner qualms.

The second part of the story has to do with the dancing.  Many rehearsals for the production took place in a room with concrete floors.  Most readers probably recognize that traditional Irish dancing – particularly the jig – involves hopping up and down on the floor.  Not surprisingly many of the young dancers got terrible cases of shin splints.

In breaks, I would sit with the performers. They would totter in after jigging and immediately go to ice packs they arranged for themselves as they came off-stage. Not a single actor complained about conditions.  Instead, they “got on with it.”

This goes to the general criterion that makes someone a genuine trouper – the actor who faces all hazards and carries on.

I worked with an Artistic Director of a national touring company who said that the greatest enemy of the touring actor was last year’s touring company, who (when faced with some impossible circumstance) said, “We can work with that.”  As soon as someone said, “We can work with that,” every other actor who followed that group was bound to the same impossible situation.  If a subsequent troupe said, “That’s an impossible circumstance,” the booker would claim quite truthfully, “The last group that was here didn’t have any trouble with that.”

Theatre people often have a reputation for being profligate spendthrifts.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Recently Santa Claus gave me a book filled with nothing but inexpensive work-arounds to accomplish near-impossible stage effects on the cheap.  The entries in the book represented the work of dozens of technicians and designers who looked disaster in the face and ignored it.

The worst tech rehearsal story I ever heard was about a stock production of Hello, Dolly! back in the day.  The tech lasted about 25 hours straight.  The tech was also the final dress.  And the 25th hour stretched into opening the house.   Cues for the end of the show were being written as opening night started.

I wasn’t there, but I blame bad stage management for this debacle.  Nevertheless the company did it.  And they got the story.  And the accomplishment of having done it.

This is the true mystery of show people. 

Perhaps one reason American culture embraces show business so whole-heartedly is that at bottom there is this “can-do” optimism that gets a show on the boards when any sane person would recognize the futility of the enterprise.

I’ve told my students about two different shows. One show had its opening postponed by a week.  The other show closed opening night.  My students are not at all surprised at a show closing on opening night.

But a show with a postponed opening?!?!?  Zonkers, that’s beyond imagining.

Sometimes this spirit of getting the show up with a smile and a shoe-shine is actually hurtful to the people engaged in the enterprise of getting the production on and butts in seats.  But we do it anyway.  Are we masochists?

All tour-tales are one story with differing details – “We came into an impossible situation, but we came together, and the show went off without a hitch as far as the audience was concerned.”  I could spin you a story about playing an impossible space in Brooklyn just before Christmas on a sleety night in which the tour van was impossibly stuck and actors making hair-breadth entrances. But the essential story is, “It was impossible, and we did the show anyway.”

Usually it’s not for the money.  The money, if there is money, is usually poorish.  It’s not for the glory – by the morrow the show will be naught more than a tender memory.  If you’re lucky. 

Sometimes you stay in contact with friends, but often you work as “show” friends and lose contact as the show closes.  So, it’s not for the others, per se

Then where does this come from – this desire to risk so much to tell these stories?  To sing?  To dance? To reveal things about yourself that you wouldn’t even admit to your closest friends, but are part of that character seen by hundreds every night?

It comes from the inner-pulse of the artist. There’s never an end.  Beethoven didn’t write one symphony and say, “Well, glad I got that off my chest – now I’m done.”  It’s almost circular. He kept at it because he kept at it.

There’s no end, just the striving . . . . .

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2017 Nathan Thomas
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine




January 2017

Volume 17 Issue 8

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