FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: Finding the Right Director

A guest blog entry from Jennie Redling, writer of My Heart Is the Drum to be presented at this year’s Festival of New Musicals.  

As a librettist and playwright, I’ve always considered rehearsals to be the most exciting part of a production. It’s when the characters who have allowed me to hear and write their voices and passions and who have lived inside and beside me are suddenly before me—alive.

In terms of preparing for rehearsal, choosing a director is, for me, the most important part. This is a story about how we discovered a director who is an uncannily ideal match for our NAMT presentation of My Heart Is the Drum.

You need to know that for this show I had developed a major case of the jitters. I had become unusually attached to, and protective of, the characters I had been writing for our musical, especially the two lead girls: a tenderly naïve sixteen-year-old protagonist from Ghana and her equally innocent best friend of the same age. Could the universe deliver the special person in whose hands they would be safe and bloom?

When Branden [Huldeen, NAMT’s Festival Producing Director] presented our team with a list of possible directors to choose from, Stacey, Phillip and I set about learning as much as we could about them on the Internet. I can’t remember in what order I reviewed the various (fine and highly reputable) directors, I only know (thank you, PBS Video) that the smiling image of
Schele Williams’ ingenuous, exhilarated (and lovely) face was easily the most compelling of them all.

In the video that followed that initial image, I watched Schele work with high school students as a drama and vocal coach. The video clip was part of a documentary about kids who won local awards for their performances in high school musicals throughout the country and were now in New York City competing for a “Jimmy Award” (dedicated to James M. Nederlander) given to the most talented actor and actress among them. In this segment, Schele was working with teen-aged girl on how best to deliver her song.

Naturally, as the main characters of our show are also teen-aged girls, this grabbed my attention. And if that weren’t enough of a coincidence, I had a personal connection to the Jimmy Awards; I had attended the very first Jimmy Awards presentation because, as an acting coach, I was a frequent judge for my area’s “Metro Awards” given to high school musicals in the New York suburbs where I live. As a result, I was quite familiar with kids like these, the pressure they were under and how the power of their emotions can be helped by sensitive guidance; on how to be specific, how to release defenses and how to commit to a song.

Schele Williams

Which is exactly the sort of guidance I watched Schele impart. She gave this young lady a crucial tip as to what a certain lyric really meant to her particular character, and with this new understanding, the student really delivered the goods. Then while commenting on the experience, Schele made it obvious that she sincerely cared about the young woman, rejoicing in her final discovery and success. Here was a director with insight and warmth that young people responded to who was saying that she felt her job was to let the kids know they could be real and honest and not have to pretend to be a Broadway star. Perfect much? I was sold.

My partners agreed she was at the top of our list but felt it was fair to consider several people. And so, although my mind was made up, I agreed to a meeting. Not only was Schele as caring, unpretentious and smart in person as she appeared on film, but she seemed to truly “get” our show, with its delicate balance of joyous celebration and dangerous events. And she more than got it—she was already immersed in it. While reading Act II on the subway, she had become so engrossed that she missed her stop!

After we unanimously chose Schele and she and I had a chance to speak one on one, she shared her goals with me. They included keeping everyone committed to the story, to giving a true interpretation of the play, helping the actors recognize that these are real people they will represent and that these people confront the challenges to health today caused by those who dismiss or deny the gravity of HIV.

So the universe came through. It brought us somebody who I believe is the somebody to bring the characters I wrote to life, in the strongest way possible. I can hardly wait for rehearsals to begin.

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