In musical theatre, the movement has many functions and effects: it attracts the eye, expands on intricacies heard in the music, and shows us the inner life of the characters’ emotions and thoughts. So how do we go from the page to the stage? Following the words in the script, the choreographers are able to write in their own way — the actors on stage are the pens that compose meaning through movement. The beauty of the language of movement is that it is universal and this marks the true craft of a choreographer.
For our upcoming production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the choreography is imagined and crafted by Tanya Thompson and Tara Pitt. We jumped at the opportunity to catch up with them and hear their process & journey from concept to creation.
Curtis Theatre: Give us some info on your background — how did you get into theatre, & specifically choreography.
Tanya Thompson: I have actually been dancing since I was 5 years old. My parents recognized pretty early on that I was an entertainer and I was fortunate enough that they enrolled me in dance and in a local baton twirling organization called the Saco Jets. It was twirling that gave me my first experience with choreography when I was a coach and creating routines for competitive teams. My mentor, Linda Ladakakos, was a huge musical theater fan (hence the West Side Story reference in the organization’s name) and she was a large part of shaping and influencing my love of the art as well. Once I realized in middle school that Theater was something I could pursue as a viable career, I was pretty much inseparable from all things music, theater and dance.
Tara Pitt: I grew up performing. My dad was a singer and made sure we sang as well. My
family was always performing. I started dance lessons when I was three and loved that as well. I was mainly performing in church productions growing up. We had no drama program at my high school so I was on the dance/drill team. That helped to really shape my dance and leadership skills. After high school I began doing a lot of theater. When an actor friend of mine decided to start directing he asked if I’d be interested in choreographing for him. It sounded like a fun, new experience so I jumped on board. I’ve been choreographing ever since.
What is your inspiration/ vision for the style of movement for this particular show?
TT: Forum is an old school, classic musical in many ways. Choreographically, we don’t think of it as a huge “dance show” but it definitely has its share of larger scale dance numbers. Some numbers require more pedestrian movements, while others have more jazz and some modern influences. Jon’s ideas for some of the numbers allow Tara and I to really have some fun with scenes that aren’t typically choreographed too. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are certainly a wide variety of influences.
TP: The style of this show is a great throwback to vaudeville. We all wanted to stay true to the show’s intent so our vision is aligned to that. It’s a very fun style to work with and allows for a lot of humor within the movement.
Thompson and Pitt take us inside their creative process, showing us step-by-step how they choreograph a show.
Step 1: Read the Script
TT: I want to make sure I understand the story and nuance that the piece will require on a basic level.
TP: I make sure to get familiar with the material. I’ll read the script, listen to cast recordings, etc.
Step 2: Conversation on Vision
TT: There is always a conversation between myself and the director and other members of the creative team to understand what the director’s vision for the piece is. This allows me to really lock into where the director sees the piece going, where the characters are emotionally at the moment when the choreography is taking place, what purpose the choreography serves to move the show forward at that moment, and the style and aesthetic of the show and individual scenes.
TP: I’ll talk to the director and creative team about the vision of the show.
Step 3: Research
TT: If I’m unfamiliar with the show I’ll try to get my hands on a copy to view to see if there are any iconic moments that should/could be utilized. (I usually enjoy throwing in a movement or small combination as a nod to productions past if possible.) I also usually will research popular dance of the time periods that the show takes place, and when the show was written/first produced.
TP: Once the vision is in place, I’ll start researching dance in that style/era. This may be one of my favorite things about the prepping for a show. I love getting more familiar with different styles of dance.
Step 4: Work on Movement & Solidify
TT: It is time to really get to work. My process is strange for creating. I usually have to be in a quiet space, with no distractions (if I’m working at home and my apartment isn’t clean or my laundry isn’t done, its hard for me to focus.) I will play a recording of the music for the particular number I’m tackling on repeat and lay on the floor and close my eyes. After a few times, I begin to visualize the movement. Then I get up, and move to solidify it and clean transitions and record it on paper (and sometimes on video) so it’s ready to teach!
TP: I start putting all the elements together. I listen to the music and start brainstorming ideas using the research I’ve done to put everything together.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs March 25-April 9, 2017. Half-off Preview Friday, March 24 at 8PM; Opening with Pre-show Reception & Post-show Toast Saturday, March 25. Runs Friday & Saturday at 8PM, Sunday at 3PM. Tickets are on sale now. Visit our website or call the Box Office at 714-990-7722 Tues-Fri 12PM-3PM. Have questions? Contact us! Let us know your thoughts.