101 Dalmatians


1.  I like when yoga teachers rub me.  That sounds pervy.  What I’m actually referring to is when teachers come around with scented oils or lotions and give a gentle neck or face massage at the end of class.  I fully admit that if I had to do it to other people I would be disgusted.  I wouldn’t want to touch anyone’s sweaty, nasty hairline.  But I love love love when it’s done to me.

2.  I no longer fall asleep in savasana.  (Even when massaged.)  It could be that I’m simply getting enough sleep at night, but I like to think I know how to achieve total relaxation and total awareness.  Or maybe just total relaxation without falling asleep.  These days I finish class refreshed, not wishing for a longer nap.  I’ve also learned that visualizing a pose really does help me execute it.  I’ve improved my technique, which of course allows me to grow stronger and practice safely, but in yoga better technique leads to greater awareness.  As one of my teachers said, yoga is what takes place between the heavens and the earth.  Awareness is key.

3.  It is hard to take time for myself.  With my wacky schedule it would have been impossible to take class every day at an actual yoga studio.  Fortunately I have yoga podcasts and my own mat at home.  But even carving out 20 to 30 minutes became difficult.  I had to prioritize, committing to my practice before I would commit to anything else.  And then even if I could only carve out 20 minutes, I would feel guilty for having so little time.  Eventually I learned to let that go and be grateful for the time I was able to spend on my mat, however limited.

However, from this commitment to yoga came a commitment to myself.  I was not only carving out time for yoga, but time for inner reflection and renewal.  I found time to write and things to write about.  (Well, mostly about yoga, but oh well.)  I began to notice when I replaced yoga with a Pilates or ballet class, as I didn’t feel as calm or as centered.  (Although I did start to wonder what improvements could be made to my ballet technique if I committed to that for 30 days.)

From time to time a teacher would suggest that we dedicate that day’s class to someone so that our practice wouldn’t be “merely selfish.”  I tried this once, then let it go.  No one needed my yoga more than I did.  There is no virtue in selfishness, as in the promulgation of the ego above all else, but there is great value in loving oneself.  And that’s what May was for me:  a month-long journey, aided by each asana, until I found myself a calmer, more centered version of myself.

We are now on our second week of tour, playing in Appleton, Wisconsin.  I go on tomorrow!  (Our Cruella, Rachel York, has a concert date.)

Our first stop however was Minneapolis, MN.  I hail from Ohio, but I’ve called New York home for some years now.  I rarely miss the Midwest.  But over the past three weeks, a few experiences have helped me remember that I’m not in Kansas anymore– or rather, I am.  More or less.

1.)  Cuisine.  One thing I love about the Midwest is the food, or more particularly, Arby’s and Dairy Queen.  We don’t have them in New York, and I miss them so much.  Naturally, I went straight to the Arby’s counter at the Mall of America.  It is always as great as I remember it.  I also love Midwesterner’s undying devotion to carbs.  Every restaurant brings you a bread basket.  And if you eat all the bread in it, they re-fill it without being asked.  And while New York restaurants feature relatively exotic breads like warm pretzels, sourdough or seed-crusted flatbread, in the Midwest you get rolls.  White bread rolls.  Occassionally some whole grains will slip in, but anyone eating Bob Evan’s butter-soft dinner rolls isn’t thinking about fiber.  And even if you polish off that bread basket twice (it’s very possible), you invariably get more carbs as a side dish.  Yesterday Jeff Scott Carey got honest-to-goodness tater tots with his tuna wrap.  No New York City chef would serve those unless he was being ironic.  Note to New York chefs:  be ironic.  Tater tots rock.

2.  Gluttony.  Not only do I love white-bread culture, but I’ve forgotten how much everyone here expects you to eat.  As a die-hard fan of local programming, I watched a lengthy commercial the other day for a local diner that advertised their “heart-attack burger,” and featured shot after shot of various foodstuffs being lifted out of boiling vats of fat, then hefted onto a plate and served to an overweight consumer in a football sweatshirt.  My gracious hosts Pat and Ron Rollins are constantly exhorting me to eat.  On more than one occasion I have stumbled downstairs in full pre-coffee bitchiness to find a pot of organic steel-cut oatmeal bubbling on the stove (does oatmeal bubble?).  Pat will have boiled me an egg as well, and then she will try for the millionth time to get me to eat toast.  (See?  Devotion to carbs.)   If I rummage through the fridge post-show, she will call down to me from the comfort of her bedroom the most recent additions to the fridge, to which I am encouraged to help myself:  pork, roasted root vegetables, homemade applesauce, Hagen Daaz, fruit, cucumbers, bananas.    I compare this to days spent at my Shop Gotham boss’ Upper East Side apartment, where she would break for “lunch” at 2:00 by spritzing lite Italian on a few leaves of lettuce.  I’ve gained 1.4 pounds.  This is not a promising start to tour.

3.  Nice.  No, really.  Everyone is painstakingly, excrutiatingly nice.  Last week on my way to rehearsal, my bus sped past me, and I let out a string of curse words incongruous with the safe, residential neighborhood.  Two shocked Minnesotans walking their dogs heard me two blocks away (how could they not?) and actually stopped the bus in the middle of the street– ie, not at a bus stop.  The bus waited patiently while I sprinted to catch it, and the driver, a sweet librarian type in her 50s, apologized to me.  “I didn’t know you needed the bus.”

Not in New York, folks.  Not in New York.

Upon our arrival in Minnesota, the temperature stayed moderate for a matter of days, then plunged into full-fledged November.  (Note to reader:  we arrived September 26th.)  I was picked up at the airport by my best friend Annie, despite the fact that she initially drove to the wrong airport.  Minneapolis has two airports– who knew?  I was whisked off straight away to her parents’ house on Beard Avenue next to lovely Lake Calhoun.  She took me to a dinner of fried cheese curds and burgers at Acadia Restaurant, where they pour 28 different draft beers.  (Their slogan:  “No crap on tap.”)  We met up with her friend Alison, and then we all went to see a truly boring play at the Mixed Blood theatre.   By 11:00 I was exhausted, partly because it was 12:00 by my time, but partly because I had gotten up at 6:30 to do advanced power vinyasa flow before boarding the plane.

Rehearsal at the Orpheum Theatre started at 1:00.  I found it easily because there were two huge 101 Dalmatians trailers parked next to an enormous tent in the parking lot.  The dogs had arrived.

We are working with 15 rescued Dalmatians, all of whom have been training in Florida as long as we have been rehearsing.  They are featured at the beginning and end of the show, so as not to upstage the actors, thank you very much, but to definitely steal the show.  We watch them jumping and leaping across the stage, and it is everything we can do not to rush and cuddle them en masse.  They are just adorable.  But we receive a very strict lecture from the animal trainers, who are all about 26 and all have speaking voices that sound like they’ve spent the past hour sucking helium.  We are told that the dogs can’t be distracted when they’re on or off stage, that we’re to ignore them completely so as to not inadvertantly give positive or negative reinforcement, whether they perform well or totally biff.  We’re assured they will have adequate time to get to know the dogs as cast mates and friends, all under the careful supervision of the trainers, just in case one of the rescued dogs decides he doesn’t like you.

Even more exciting than the dogs is the uncovering of the set.  Up to this point, we’ve only seen sketches, but in its full glory, it is explosive, cartoonish and gorgeous.  Our set designer Heidi Ettinger won Tonys for Secret Garden and Big River.   The sets are slanted upwards slightly, as if we’re seeing them from a dog’s perspective.  As actors we feel like we’re children who’ve stumbled on a hidden playground.  We feel like the Pevensie kids when they first discover the wardrobe.

But with these added elements comes the responsibility of putting a show together.  Rehearsals run from 2:00 to 10:30 with a 90-minute break for dinner.  I eat with the cast usually (I feel a little left out because I’m not staying at the Doubletree with everyone else).  But for breakfast and lunch I am lucky enough to be staying with Annie’s parents, who are a particularly pleasant type of pushy:  “Don’t have drip coffee!  I’ll make you a double cappuccino!” or “Do you need a snack for the theatre?  How about some fresh-picked raspberries from our backyard?”  I’m not used to being mothered, but I’m trying to enjoy it.  Incidentally, I haven’t received a key to the Rollins’ house.  They don’t lock their doors.

We started ten-out-of-twelves Tuesday.  That’s when we work 12 hours with a two-hour break for dinner.  We are in from 10:30 to 10:30, but since the dogs and technicians need more work than we do, we’re not usually called until 2:00.  It’s really amazing to watch the show grow.  Check out our latest press, as well as some pictures from LaGuardia Airport our first official day of tour.

http://www.the101dalmatiansmusical.com/index.html

Having pieced together almost all of act one, our cast of 20-plus adults, eight kids and what seems like 300 pairs of stilts are packing up and heading to the spacious New 42nd Street studios, right in the heart of crowded, overpriced, annoying-as-hell Times Square.

But I am excited for the move, mostly because there will finally be space in the studio for me to do numbers full out instead of marking them, squished into the corner 18 inches from where the air conditioning blasts at top speed throughout the day, regardless of the actual temperature outside.  The rehearsal space is kept approximately three degrees above freezing, which is only sort of uncomfortable if you’re dancing, but if you’re sitting and watching, as I am (since I’m the swing), it is literally unbearable.  I already dress in layers for rehearsal, and a couple of cast members have wrapped themselves in Cruella’s rehearsal furs.  I think Jerry Zaks, who prefers the chill,  is part Eskimo.

But I have nothing bad to say about Jerry, or about watching the rehearsal process.  While the days do get long, the actors are hysterical and a joy to watch.  It’s a little frustrating not getting to get up and work myself, but then last week when I did step in for one of the nannies, who was delayed by evil New Jersey Transit, I was terrible.  I mean, seriously.  I know when I’m great and I know when I’m awful.  And I was not good.  It was just a read-through of the scene, but I hadn’t prepared for it.  I had been focusing on music, figuring that during staging rehearsals I would learn the scenes.  I always learn lines that way, from getting up on my feet and getting it into my body.  Rote memorization never works, at least not for me.

Anyway, in this case I was awful.  And I was really mad at myself because the few times I had had to step in during musical numbers I felt I had done really well.  As the swing, my job during this rehearsal process is to earn the trust of the creative team, who need to know that they can depend on me to know my stuff.  Now it was like, “Oh, God, she’s thoroughly unfunny.”  “I can be funny,” I wanted to shout.  “Just let me have a rehearsal!”  But understudy rehearsals don’t start, of course, until after the show has opened.  So, being the dope that I am, I went to Jerry during a break and said, “You know, Jerry I hadn’t worked on that scene yet, but it’ll get better, I promise.”

And do you know what he said?  He said, “I am so glad to have you in this show.”  I said, “Really?”  Like, I really didn’t believe him.  I was not expecting him to say that.  And he goes, “Yes.  You’re going to be terrific.  I look at you in rehearsal sometimes and you seem so worried.”

“Oh, that’s just my ‘learning it’ face,” I replied, laughing.  “I’ve been told that before.”  And I had.  My friend JV directed me in Merrily We Roll Along, and one time when he was giving me a note, he said, “Did I piss you off or something?”  And I said, “No, why?’  And he said, “Because the look on your face is like, ‘Asshole.'”  And I realized that when I’m trying to incorporate something new or different into a performance, apparently I make a face like I think everyone in the cast is a huge prick.  I don’t know I’m doing it, and I can’t control it because I’m thinking about something else.

But I digress.  Anyway, wasn’t that nice?  I mean, obviously Jerry Zaks has dealt with insecure actors before.   But it was the perfect thing to say.  If he had said, “You were great,” I wouldn’t have believed him, nor would it have been true.  But he knew I will be great as soon as I pull it together, and that’s what I needed to hear.  When you’re the understudy and you don’t get to work in rehearsal, sometimes you need that little extra vote of confidence.  That took a lot of the pressure off, and rehearsals are fun now.  These characters can only be created through play, so we laugh a lot. And everyone in the cast seems great.  There’s usually one or two crazies, but none have emerged so far.  There’s also usually one cast member who dances in the back all through rehearsal, whom Andre and I call the ‘gotta dance’ guy.  I think that’s one of our little boys, who came to us after not getting Billy Eliot, bless his heart.  He’s still workin’ his tours through. There’s also someone who likes to be naked at cast parties, but that person hasn’t emerged yet and probably won’t until shots are served.  There’s also usually a lone conservative, too, but the closest I’ve come to intellectual discussion has been proposing a cast book club to Robert, who is gay and definitely not conservative, so we’ll see about that one, too.  Touring brings out the best and the worst in all of us…

Rehearsals started exactly a week ago, and here is a list of things I can do on stilts:  time step, shimmy, chassee, grapevine, pivot step.  I have the music theatre basics DOWN.  I can also do several different types of walks: stroll through the park, jog in the park, “sneaky-sneaky,” and “dirty little gypsy.”  Most mornings at ten we have stilt class.  It lasts an hour and is conducted like a regular dance class.  We start with a warm-up created by our physical therapy team that makes sense in some places (hundreds, runner’s lunge) and not in others (push-ups, contractions).  Then Warren, the choreographer, shouts, “Suit up, people!  We’re goin’ in!”  and we all climb onto our high stools to strap ourselves into our stilts.

Warren and his assistant Parker then lead us through a series of steps.  We warm up in the center, then move across the floor, finishing with a combination, just like a jazz class would.   First we march.  When Warren shouts out, “Exit!”  And we all have to face the exit while marching.  Then he’ll go, “Dog it!”  And we all have to march to face the back wall, which is covered with pictures of various breeds of dog.  Next, “Window,” then back to the front with “Mirror.”  This goes on for about five minutes, with Warren switching up the directions in a sort of stilted Simon Says:  “Mirror!  Window!  Dog it!  Mirror!  Dog it!  Exit!”  We invariably futz up, but no one’s fallen.  Yet.

Then we walk across the floor.  “Sneaky, sneaky,” or, as it’s sometimes called, “Cheeky, cheeky,” requires one to walk on the tips of one’s stilts as if one were a cat burglar or, in this case, a dog thief.  It’s a strange feeling to get used to.  Lately, we’ve been doing cheeky, cheeky backwards, while Warren cries out encouragement, using the various nicknames he’s quick to assign to us  (I do not have one yet.)  “Good, Bob!  Steal the puppies!  Steal the puppies!”  Bob’s name is Garreth.  Dirty little gypsy requires us to lunge forward in the stilt and sort of drag the other leg behind us.  Warren has Parker demonstrate as he calls out in his London accent:  “Stroll, stroll, stroll, stroll, dirty little gypsy, dirty little gypsy, dirty little gypsy, dirty little gypsy.”  Today we had a new challenge: quick-stepping with a mannequin on wheels.

I do love Warren and Parker and their other assistant, Sarah, who is a tiny, beautiful English dancer.  I realized today I sort of wish I were her (she).  And I like myself, so that’s saying something.   As for Warren, I love his turn of phrase, plus I love that he refers to the kids in the cast as devil children.  (Even though, truth be told, they’re not.)  He gives us notes like (imagine this in an English accent), “Use your arms to help hurl your carcass off the floor,” or to the kids once, “When Park or Sarah hits you on the back of the head, get up and dance.”  The choreography is balletic (my favorite), mixed with shameless music theatreness, such as the aforementioned grapevine and jazz hands (or in this case, jazz paws).

We’ve been spending most of our time dancing or learning music.  Our composer/lyricist is a former member of the band Styx, which I’m not familiar with, although everyone assures me I am.  He attends every music rehearsal and loves to jump in and tweak things: he’ll change a lyric here, a note there, add a rest or another bar, and sometimes coach us on how to sound more “pop.”  It’s kind of neat creating a show.  He isn’t intimidating at all, despite the fact that he wears the requisite sunglasses all the time (although I think there could be a medical reason), and he’s actually quite funny in a musician sort of way.  Today he walked into rehearsal with five metrosexuals in office wear.  “These gentlemen are from the CIA,” he announced.  “They’ve received reports that we’re torturing singers.”  We all laughed, then he said, “No, seriously, they’re from the Thanksgiving parade.  They’re just here to hear some of the music.”

Now, I’m the swing.  Before my mom or anyone freaks out, I probably wouldn’t be on TV even if we were chosen for the parade, unless I were to start rolling marbles down stairs.  Incidentally, we’re scheduled to be in Texas at that point, so I don’t know how that would work out.  But still, it was very exciting.  We sang “Twilight Barking.”  Now doesn’t that sound like a lovely song?  There’s no woofing, by the way.  The dogs speak English with various British dialects throughout the play.

Speaking of dialects, and even though it’s completely off topic, don’t miss out on Spike Lee’s movie of Passing Strange.  If you missed it on Broadway, as I did, run to the IFC if you’re in New York and check it out.  If you’re not in New York, move.  Or at least visit.  It’s the final performance of Passing Strange captured on film and it was simply amazing: one of the best things, if not the best thing, I’ve seen all year.  Also really loved In the Loop, a British farcical satire about the UK/US decision to invade an unnamed Middle Eastern country.  Hilarious, but absolutely rated R.  Profanity is an art form for these people, and you will guffaw.

One final recommendation:  couldn’t put down Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger.  Andre will attest that it held me captive for the last couple of days with a Harry Potter-like tenacity.  I kept it in my purse, even though it’s a tome, and at restaurants when Andre went to the bathroom, he’d come back to find me reading just one more page… call your library.  Hook it up.

Stay tuned for more updates.

Me on Stilts Yesterday I had my first rehearsal for 101 Dalmatians.  It turns out this show isn’t the latest excretion of the Disney machine.  The producers went straight to a Miss Dodie Smith, or at least her nearest surviving relative, who penned the book 101 Dalmatians.  Who knew it was a book?  Did you?

Anyway.  Yesterday was lovely.  Not only were there bagels and coffee (no cream, though.  What is to be done with New Yorkers?)  and a few lovely speeches, but we ended 30 minutes early after a read-through of the script.  As the swing, I had no lines to read, which killed me of course, but I’ll get my chance soon enough!

If you’ve read my blog before, you may know that the human characters perform  on stilts.  The show is being told charmingly from the point of view of the dogs, and as such all the adults are taller and somewhat outsized, as they would appear to a dog.  Enter the stilts.

I was expecting pegs attached to our feet by strips of Velcro.  What I got was a highly technical prosthesis, the type of thing I might order for myself if I suddenly lose my lower leg, say, in a logging accident.  The stilts have shock-absorbing springs and very secure straps that go around our dance-sneaker-clad feet with remarkable comfort and efficiency.

Before mounting our stilts, however– and that term is accurate.  To get them on, we had to sit in high, stool-level chairs and be strapped in by a member of our physical therapy team, while being supervised by a member of Actors Equity.  I felt the way Bonnie Blue Butler must’ve felt the day Pork first set her on a pony.   But I digress…

We were led through a warm-up by Ashton.  She isn’t our main PT, but she ended up being the first one to help me walk in stilts, so I won’t have a word said against her.  Overall, the physical therapy team took their jobs about as seriously as the bag check people do at JFK.   In their noble efforts to emphasize safety above all else, they managed to kill a lot of the fun– except, of course, full-grown adults clonking around in stilts provides hours and hours of undeniable hilarity.  If said adults attempt to do a grapevine in said stilts, rehearsal becomes more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

I’m sure singing and dancing in stilts will be no sweat in a couple of weeks– days, even.  Meanwhile, after about 30 minutes of step-touching, step-clapping, and, of course, the grapevine, I could feel a burn in my ass and inner thighs.  We have to stay just slightly pitched forward with our abs engaged.  We’re going to be a smoking hot cast by the time we hit Miami.  Possibly we should put together a swimsuit calendar.  After all, there’s nothing sexier than a bikini on stilts.