To round out our Season 167 blog posts, today we read about what it's like to choreograph a Mask & Bauble musical. Ashanee Kottage (SFS '22), the choreographer and intimacy director for our musical "Hello Again" by Michael John LaChiusa, shares what her experiences with choreography and intimacy directing were like and what the jobs entail, something she hopes will inspire others to apply to choreograph musicals in the future.
After working on Nomadic shows as a freshman in the Fall and Winter, Mask & Bauble was a club I wanted to get involved with but didn’t know how. I couldn’t sing (this is not humility, I am genuinely so bad) and as an English Literature student in school I was exhausted with classics. However, I loved to dance and my entryway was evident when there was a vacancy to choreograph the musical Hello Again. This is often a position that is elusive, mysterious, and intimidating to most so I’m going to take this opportunity to br-br-break it down.
Due to the nature of the show my position entailed dance and intimacy choreography (‘directing’ staged foreplay, sex, etc.). I was privileged to work with a D-Staff (Gabe (director), Harry (producer), and Claire (stage manager), Nicole and Sasha (music directors), Bryce (technical director)) and mentor (JT) and assistant (Cristin) that helped and guided me through the whole process (yes that’s a lot of people and they were all crucial).
I would start by listening to the song/read through with the script beside me and annotating what each character in the scene would be feeling, what the context of the scene was, etc. I would also attend character work rehearsals to help with this contextualization. Then, I would watch YouTube videos of similar styles and performances and note down routines and steps I would try emulate or add to and create a rough sketch of the choreography in my head or beside the lines on the script (i.e at 2:34 of Zei Gezent, Fiona twirls twice, Colum slides, copy YoutTube video 1 from 2:45-2:50 at “I got a little time..”). I would then go into Poulton (oh the hours I’ve spent in here) play the song and attempt my sketch. JT and Cristin would often be around to help with feedback, ideas, and filling in the blanks my experience was too saturated to extract from.
I would take a video of me performing the choreography, send it to the D-Staff group chat and get Gabe’s approval. Our discussions typically entailed conversations such as ‘I think she would be less loose with her hips at this point because she’s not as enthusiastic yet, what do you think?’ ‘Do you think they should be dancing fast or slow here, what’s the mood you want?’ This discourse was vital to reconciling my choreography with the artistic vision for the show.
Collaboration is what makes the process so fun and the actors play a vital role here. Depending on the comfort level, flexibility, and innovative contributions of the performers, the choreography always evolves so at the end it’s a product of the ideas of everyone in the room.
The development doesn’t end here.
At production staff meetings music directors may comment that they don’t think the speed of the movement is compatible with the pitch the actors have to reach at this point, the TD or set designer may advice that the space is too limited to do a flip the so we may want to avoid it, and the costume designer may express concerns about flexibility in the costume piece in a certain scene.
Intimacy choreography was a similar process with the exception of what happens before and during the first rehearsal. With the guidance of JT I learned: how to translate real life intimacy to symbolic gestures on stage, how to sensitively engage in conversation with each performer about their level of comfort with their body and other’s bodies, and how to check-in with actors after the choreography is taught. We practiced exercises and warm-ups to help actors feel comfortable both with their own bodies and scene partners before we directed these scenes and made sure the minimal number of people were in the room during the first direction.
This was the most challenging part of the process for me. With a cast of 10 unique people with varying comfort levels and experiences in performance I attempted to standardize my process and I’m yet to evaluate whether this approach was helpful. I also struggled to distinguish different degrees and types of comfort that performers would have on stage, and found it difficult to reconcile performer autonomy in these scenes with mine and Gabe’s vision. However, it was a fantastic experience to learn how to go about such a unique form of direction given that it is vital to many to have the personal conversations and clarity of direction beforehand to prevent emotional and physical triggers and discomfort on stage and off stage in relation to intimacy. I hope to learn from my shortcomings and the feedback of actors and the D-Staff to grow in this position in the future.
Choreography is physically and emotionally taxing but exceedingly rewarding. It is fun, keeps you fit (at least before tech week when you’re just sitting and telling Fiona to squat lower as you eat your cheeseburger), and a brilliant way to get involved if you don’t feel comfortable performing in a musical, so if you love to dance, SIGN UP TO DO IT!