Fun For All

by Stela Burdt, Commonweal Resident Ensemble Member

SB_FBThis summer I had two of the greatest honors an artist could ask for; one was portraying Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir and the other was bringing my own child to a full length theatrical performance for the first time in his life.

When we first chose Souvenir, I fell in love with the idea of an off-pitch singer who was absolutely indomitable in her desire to be a successful opera diva, but I didn’t know just how special the relationship between Cosme and Florence was until we first performed it for audiences. It wasn’t only Madame Flo’s child-like belief in herself that moved people, but also the true, loving friendship that developed between Florence and her long-time accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Despite all the off-key notes and tense moments, their friendship stood the test of time and deepened into a true partnership. If only we could all be so lucky as to have a friendship as strong as theirs, the world, I believe, would be a much better place.

While I was having fun collaborating on Souvenir, my husband, Scott Dixon, was working on The Three Musketeers. At home, our young son of five and a half years, was absolutely smitten by the idea that his dad was learning swordplay. Scott and I showed Kieran, whom we call Little Bear, a couple of movie versions of The Three Musketeers, and read him bits from an abridged version of the novel, to help prepare him for seeing the show live on stage. When it came time to bring him to the theatre, he’d already memorized the names of all three Musketeers and D’Artagnan (he even says it with a French accent!).

LB Sword ShieldAt first, I was anxious about how Little Bear would react. He’s very outgoing and I was nervous he would talk too much during the show. We came with two of his friends, and they all insisted we sit in the front row. My stomach was in knots. Little Bear, however, was completely engaged. Did he wiggle around? Yup, and he even moved seats to crawl into my lap. He whispered into my ear fairly often, sometimes to ask a question about what he was seeing, but often to report who was a bad guy and who was a good guy. The big moment came right before the end of Act One. The Musketeers say the traditional “All For One”, and Sabine responds with “And One for All!” HOWEVER, in the pause between the men speaking and her response, Little Bear enthusiastically jumped right in and yelled “AND ONE FOR ALL!” Callie, who portrays Sabine, waited a moment, then finished the act by saying her line. The entire cast was on stage, holding their expressions as best they could, though their twinkling eyes clearly showed they were about to crack up at Little Bear’s expression of love for the Musketeers.

CookieSo we’ve had a fun summer at our house. Little Bear has also seen Souvenir and on occasion he would mention “that show where you are the funny singing lady, Mommy.” When we wrapped up our production recently, I realized this was probably the show I have had the hardest time saying goodbye to in my entire acting career. I think this was the first one that spoke so deeply to me because of how deeply it impacted our audiences, even younger children. Following one performance, I was given a homemade cookie baked by a young girl in the audience. She said to me, “well, you just did something really nice for me by putting on such a great show so I thought I’d do something nice for you.” I did not want those special times to end. But as Madame Flo says “If only the music could go on forever, Cosme. But of course it can’t. Of course it has to end.” And so it did, until I realized the music would go on, just in a way I never expected it to.

Last week, as he was practicing his piano, Little Bear asked me to come stand near him. “Mommy, I’m doing Souvenir so you be the funny singing lady.” I was gob-smacked. He wanted to play Souvenir, not be a musketeer today?! I took a breath, and began to sing. Florence took the stage once more, in her very own living room, with her very own son. I sang off-key for him, and when the song was done he insisted I talk like the funny lady, and so we got ready to head off to school with me talking with my Madame Flo mid-Atlantic accent.

And so we continue to make Art. And it changes us and moves us. And it changes and moves the people—even the youngest among us—who listen to us too. 

A Life Changing Experience

by Stephen Houtz (Cosme McMoon in Souvenir)

Stephen HoutzThere are a few experiences that I have had in my life that can utterly change me; that can take me from where ever I am and put me in another world, another place, even another reality. A recent performance of the Mahler Symphony #5 by the Minnesota Orchestra was one of those moments.

The Berg Violin Concerto in the first half was devastating for me. His inscription in that piece was “To the Memory of an Angel.” He had a specific angel in mind, and ironically, he died before he heard it, adding another angel to the collective memory. For me, the angel was my mother. I didn’t know if I would make it through the second half of the concert.

But since the Mahler was really what I came to hear, of course I stayed. From the very first notes, I was no longer there in my seat in the seventh row, but in a world made up of everything I had ever experienced with this piece. I am kind of a Mahler fanatic: I know and love every note. I no longer remembered where I was, or really who was playing: I was experiencing so much of my life. And in a way that I really can’t put into words. Or don’t want to put into words.

By the time the chorale came around in the final movement, I was weeping, but not from sadness. From experience. From having gone through an amazing journey.

High School MusicalAnd the thing is, I do feel different. I know that I won’t be the person I was when I went into Orchestra Hall ever again. As I drove home, I thought about my week: a microcosm of my life, and how remarkable it is. I spent the week working on a production of High School Musical, Jr. with a group of kids. Now, even Mahler can’t make High School Musical into a transformative piece of theatre, but what it did is showed me these amazing kids that I get to work with, and share with. And that WILL transcend High School Musical. And I thought of all my students I worked with this week, and how I love working with each of them. Of how delighted I am as each one discovers something new or reaches a new artistic level. And how fortunate I am that I can be part of that. And I thought of the production of Putnam County Spelling Bee last night, and how amazed I was at the skill and joy in those kids’ performance. (And even of the surprise joy that I felt knowing that I had friends that would actually try to put me onstage.)

Stela Burdt and Stephen Houtz in SouvenirAnd I think about what I get to do this weekend: to perform in a wonderful show about a woman who so believed in the transformative power of music that she performed against all odds, and won my character over by teaching him how to experience music—and the world—the way she did. She says in the last part of the show, “If only we could live in the music forever, Cosme. If only it would go on and on.”

And for me, tonight, and for the rest of my life, the music will go on and on.

Friendship and Camaraderie through the “Act” of Violence

by Aaron Preusse (Stage Combat Choreographer for The Three Musketeers)

Aaron“All for One and One for All!” is an iconic line that brings to mind images of swashbuckling Musketeers banding together to beat impossible odds. This classic phrase and its ideal is also, I believe, the foundation for stage combat.

Keeping someone safe while trying to kill them is a bit like rubbing your stomach while patting your head—it’s easy to do only after lots of practice. It’s this paradox of partnering safely while trying to commit acts of violence that I have come to call a “Contest of Generosity.” As a character, I might be trying to stab you through the heart but as the actor, I am doing everything I can to keep you safe and have it “appear” as though I am threatening your life. It’s this working together and abiding by the safety mechanisms which allows the actors to explore their character’s intentions fully, while at the same time delving into a relationship of trust and compassion with their scene partner quickly forming a tight bond with each other.

Aaron Preusse teaching fightSome of my best friends have come from “crossing swords” with them and the relationship that is formed in that process. This connection is not unique to me, it is found any time you have two or more individuals collaborating together while giving everything they have to their partners. It is why theatre is such a wonderful art form. Theatre is the collaboration of actors, designers, directors, playwrights and the audience and the connection that ensues when telling and receiving the story. Stage combat has that same collaboration, you just happen to be doing it with weapons.

Litograph artwork for Three Musketeers

It’s an amazing thing that happens when you put a sword into someone’s hand, they instantly want to play, where they can be Zorro or Luke or…one of the Three Musketeers. There is a sense of power that comes from stage combat, not the power that you might think; instead it’s the power of connection, trust and generosity. This comes from a commitment to make your partner look good, to give them what they need and in turn receiving the same. It is through this play, commitment and camaraderie that you have a scene that is safe, believable and exciting. This reliance on each other cuts to the heart of what is needed and creates an honest visceral moment. In that connection you build trust in each other and in yourself and there forms the alliance. “All for One and One for All” becomes a contest of generosity. Not a bad way to live your life!