This story is one of my all time, top five, favorite stories from being a theater educator/choreographer, so it seems only fitting that it begins the blog.
In the summer of 2009, I was choreographing a production of Beauty and the Beast Jr. I was overly excited about this production because Beauty and the Beast is my all time favorite musical and one I knew the kids would enjoy just as much as I would. It is rare that the kids and I share a love for the same musicals. When you are working with a non-audition summer program, you really never know what you are going to get. It did not take us, myself and the director, a lot of time to realize that we had a cornucopia of talent and experience. We had a handful of strong, older kids who were all eligible for principal roles and then a much larger handful (a 6’4 man sized handful) of newer, shy, inexperienced kids who were trying theater, or at least theater of this caliber, for the first time. Also, it’s Beauty and the Beast! Kids come out of the wood work for Disney shows.
Naturally, the fight for Belle was bloody. Thankfully, we had enough strong men to fill out all the male roles in the show and obviously, those more inexperienced, yet endearing kids, ended up in the very important ensemble. Now, there are some shows were you can get away with a lack luster ensemble. Annie (except for the orphans) Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Drowsy Chaperone… Beauty and the Beast is NOT one of those shows. Ideally, we would have loved to have a sprinkle of ringers in the ensemble to help show the newbies that it is okay to sing loud, to make big mistakes, to stand out, to be in the light. Unfortunately, no such luck. The ensemble was indeed a beginner group, standing up against ALL STAR principle performers.
The first week of a two week rehearsal process, was like pulling teeth. The ensemble was shy. They didn’t want to sing loudly, (although you know that they are all going home and singing to the Disney tape in the comfort of their own bedrooms),they didn’t want to dance, they barely wanted to be seen on stage. Throwing a cloth over them would have been more exciting than what they were giving us. Again, it is NOT because they are bad or untalented, it was mainly because they were all newbies and with no one stepping up from the group to be bold, they all wanted to huddle behind each other for safety. However, the principle characters were a dream. They are making bold, loud and proud choices. They know their lines, their music, their choreography and on numerous occasions we even find them rehearsing with some of the ensemble members to help get them up to speed.
So here we are, Friday of week one. The staff is tag teaming Starbucks runs at this point. It’s 2pm, post-lunch, when we begin staging the ‘Mob Song’. For those of you who have been living under a rock and are unfamiliar with Beauty and the Beast, towards the end of the show Gaston leads the ensemble towards the Beasts castle so that they can kill him. The ensemble mostly shouts ‘Kill the Beast’ and marches. It’s a relatively easy number with a lot of power, so I am thinking that the kids will be in to this. I choreographed this cute thing where they pick up LeFou and swing him around, something I thought they would all laugh at and enjoy. You can imagine my disappointment when ‘KILL THE BEAST’ turns into ‘killhtebeesss’, the mumbled, bored version. The boy playing Gaston (one of the most talented, kindest kids to ever walk through our theaters doors) is screaming ‘KILL THE BEAST’ louder than the 15 ensemble members. The cute, little, 70 pound, firecracker playing LeFou is dropped by the 10 ensemble members holding him because they just aren’t trying. It was a disaster. We finish staging it, we run the number and Gaston is literally pushing kids to their spots, trying his best to keep going but having a hard time slugging through the mud, carrying this powerful ensemble number on his shoulders up hill… without shoes… in the snow… we weights in his pockets. I stop the number halfway through in order to give the ensemble some more detailed instructions and out of nowhere the boy playing Gaston says loudly and without any filter…
‘THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR YOUR APATHY. SING AND DANCE NOW!’
Did that just happen? A. Did a 15 year old boy just use the word Apathy in a sentence? B. Did a 15 year old boy actually just tell an ensemble to sing and dance NOW? C. Did a 15 year old boy playing Gaston in Beauty and the Beast Jr just reprimand the kids more than we, the staff did?
Out of nowhere and still in the silence, a little peanut raises her hand. I look at her, giving her permission to speak but still being speechless myself.
‘What does apathy mean?’
I then proceed to have Gaston explain the definition of apathy and while it was warranted, apologize for yelling at his fellow castmates.
The next Friday, when Beauty and the Beast Jr opened, it still opened with a beginner ensemble but they marched loudly, they sang (not always on pitch but that isn’t really the point) and most importantly they were enjoying what they were doing. Some even became ringers in the ensemble, stepping out and taking the lead when they needed to. A few of those ensemble kids are now principles in upcoming productions at the same theater.
I never like it when actors give each other notes, or yell at eachother for that matter, but I am thankful to our Gaston for finding his light and being the powerhouse he needed to be for the production, the cast and the staff. And hey, maybe he taught some kids a new S.A.T word.