A Conversation with Susan Stroman
October 6, 1999
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the October 6, 1999 Platform with Susan Stroman:
THOMAS COTT: Good evening, everybody. I'm Thomas Cott from Lincoln Center Theater. Welcome to the start of our second season of Platform events. Tonight, it's time to play "This Is Your Life, Susan Stroman!" [laughter] By the way, I was talking to some of the cast members of Contact, and when I asked for some "dirt" on you, they said, "you know, the truth is, there really is no dirt on Susan Stroman." But I did some further research, and this is what I found out....Susan, you can tell me if any of this is true or not [laughter].
For instance, I learned that, as a young child, you often sat under the family piano while your father played show tunes. And that you used to tap dance around your family's house in Wilmington, Delaware, throwing props into the air, leaving marks on the ceiling that your mother had a hard time explaining to family friends. Dance lessons began when you were 5, and you did musicals all throughout your school years. After graduating from college, you came to New York to audition for the Goodspeed Opera House's production of Hit The Deck.
Out of a crowd of 300 dancers who auditioned, of course, they picked you, which gained you an Equity card and launched you on a career in the professional theater, dancing on Broadway and in regional theater for much of the early '80s. Then you began a transition almost right away from dancer to choreographer, first staging cabaret acts, industrial shows, commercials, regional and stock productions.
Then came the chance to choreograph an off-Broadway revival of the musical Flora, the Red Menace by John Kander and Fred Ebb at the Vineyard Theatre. This production was done, for those of you who didn't see it, on a typical off-Broadway shoestring budget and on a stage the size of a postage stamp. Nonetheless, the show attracted Broadway heavyweights, among them Hal Prince and Liza Minnelli (the director and star of the original Broadway production of Flora), both of whom were impressed enough to hire you to work with them.
At the same time, the people who worked on Flora reunited soon thereafter to do a revue of Kander & Ebb songs, And The World Goes Round, which had a successful run off-Broadway. That led to many more things, not the least of which was your Broadway choreographic debut with Crazy For You, for which you received your first Tony Award. That was followed by many more shows, including Show Boat, which won you a second Tony Award, and the new musicals Big and Steel Pier.
You have worked in London as well, most recently on a wonderful revival of Oklahoma!— which I was lucky enough to see at the National. You won Olivier Awards for that show and for Crazy for You in the West End. Writing about Oklahoma!, one reviewer said, and I totally agree: "the undoubted star of the evening is Susan Stroman, who has finally cut through all those tired reruns of Agnes DeMille impersonators and given us a brilliantly vibrant new staging." And a few years ago, Dance Magazine wrote that "Susan Stroman is the choreographer most likely to follow in — though not imitate — the steps of such hallowed theater names as Fosse, Bennett and Tune."
|"Susan Stroman is the choreographer most likely to follow in — though not imitate — the steps of such hallowed theater names as Fosse, Bennett and Tune."|
I think we can now easily add the name of Susan Stroman to the pantheon of great director-choreographers. We are so thrilled to have you working here at Lincoln Center Theater. And thrilled to have you at the Platform series: tonight, the undoubted star of this evening is… Susan Stroman. Welcome! [Applause.]
[to the audience:] I'm going to start us off with some questions, but please be thinking of things that you want to ask Susan and we will take your questions in a few minutes. Let's start talking about Contact, since that's your most recent project. Can you talk a little bit about how the show came about...?
SUSAN STROMAN: Sure. I did a show on Broadway called Steel Pier that didn't last very long, but [LCT's Artistic Director] André Bishop got to see it, and he called me up after he saw it and asked me to come over. I knew André socially but never really knew him, and we had a lovely chat. And by the end of it he said to me, "if you have an idea for anything, please let me know and I will help you develop it."
So, of course, I have a lot of ideas! I went home and I called my friend John Weidman. He came over right away, and I told him this story of how—a few months before—I had been to a swing club downtown at about two in the morning. At the club, there was this girl in a yellow dress, and she would step forward when she was ready to dance with somebody, and then step back when she was finished. She was clearly just there to make contact and connect. And I watched her, I thought to myself, "this girl is going to change someone's life by the end of the night, she's going to dance with the right man."
I told that story to John Weidman and said "wouldn't that make a lovely short story to be danced through?" We worked on it and took our idea back to André, who loved it and decided to do a workshop of the piece. We did a workshop and hired some wonderful dancers—actors who dance—and Boyd Gaines, who is a very accomplished actor. After we did the workshop, André and [LCT Executive Producer] Bernard [Gersten] came down and said "we'll definitely produce this for you. But since it's only a one-act, one short story, do you have any other ideas?" [she laughs] So I said "sure!" And John and I went back to my living room floor and made up two other short stories. So in fact, Contact is an evening of three short stories. All of the short stories are about people connecting, their ability or inability to connect.
TC: Let's talk a bit about how the three stories connect...
SS: We wanted the three stories to connect somehow. The final story, "Contact"—which is the first section we created—takes place in 1999. It's all swing dancing, which is very popular now. So we did a variation on the word 'swing' to come up with the other stories.
The first story is based on a famous Fragonard painting called 'The Swing,' where there's a beautiful girl on a swing with two men nearby. We thought to ourselves, "what was the untold story of the painting, what was the story Fragonard was trying to tell with the painting?" So we came up with our version of that, which takes place in 1767.
The second short story was originally meant to be a take-off of the word 'swingers'—like the men in the Rat Pack. But as we developed that piece, it became clear that it needed to be about a woman. The piece, which is called "Did You Move?", takes place in 1954 at an Italian restaurant in Queens. That stars Karen Ziemba, who is a wonderful dancer/actress.
And then we take an intermission and do "Contact." But all three pieces—as I said—are about connecting. They also are about fantasy. The first piece is a fantasy that is fully realized and done in real-time. The second piece is a daydream fantasy. And the third piece deals with a subconscious fantasy.
TC: Do you now favor the workshop process as a way of developing shows or do you still prefer the more traditional way of...
SS: I think for something like this, because...well, this piece was not based on anything really. There is an Ambrose Bierce story called Occurence at Rock Creek Bridge. It has the same format—almost—as "Contact." But it wasn't really a story we could go back to the book for, because we wanted it to be in 1999, and we were really dealing with dance. We call it a 'dance play'...there is dialogue, but the dialogue is there to support the dance.
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: [interjecting:] "It's dialogue of the feet!"
SS: [laughing] Yes! The workshop was very helpful because a lot of what you see in Contact comes from dancers doing improvisation with me directing them towards certain moments. We were not going back to the book, we were making it up in our minds.
THOMAS COTT: Was it a big change for you to be author and director?
SS: Not really. When I do dances for the theater, I feel like I am a writer of dance and I write a story to dance. Since I'm from the theater, what I do is push the plot forward and enrich the characters through dance. It's not as abstract as it is when I'm working for a dance company.
TC: Which you've also done, by the way. How different is the experience of working with, say, Martha Graham or the New York City Ballet, both of whom you've worked with recently?
SS: Very different. With the Graham Company and City Ballet, everything is geared toward dance. Whereas in the theater, the spoken word is as important as dance. A lot of times in the dance world, things are done in a more abstract way than theater, which was very good for me.
I was asked to work for the Martha Graham Company—which has such a specific technique, I wasn't quite sure why they called me to begin with! But in fact, what they wanted me to do is to do what I do... but on those dancers. Their technique is really unmatched, it's quite extraordinary. I took a Gershwin song called "But Not For Me", and I developed it into a 30-minute ballet. It was very successful for them. They mostly re-create ballets that were first done years and years ago. So I think it was very special for them to be able to create a dance with a live choreographer.
TC: Do they rehearse about the same amount of time or is it a much shorter period?
SS: No, it was great. I had five weeks and it was all about the dancing, you know? I didn't have to worry about anything else.
TC: With Contact, you have essentially created a new art form, the "dance play"; it's not a traditional musical, it's not a straight play, it's not a ballet, it's this new thing. Did you set off thinking "I'm going to break down artistic barriers" or did it just evolve that way?
SS: I think when I had the chance...you know, something like Contact could not be developed anywhere else but Lincoln Center Theater. There is no other place in New York, it's the closest thing we have to the Royal National Theatre in London, where people take chances and experiment in this way. So when I was handed the opportunity, I surely wanted to do something that would be taking a chance. I didn't want to do something I'd done before.
TC: To me, it seems like a logical extension of what you've been doing up until now. As is the fact that you're now both the director and choreographer...actually, you're an auteur!
SS: Yes! [she laughs]
TC: You said an interesting thing in an interview awhile ago, which was that dance steps—the actual steps themselves—are almost the last thing you think of. Could you talk about the process of creating a dance?
SS: Well, in this particular show, the music is all canned music. The play takes place in a club, so it's all club music or music from a CD player. I'm used to developing the music for the dance—-writing the music with the dance, with choreography.
For example, Rodgers and Hammerstein's estate allowed me to change the music to Oklahoma! so all the dance arrangements that you hear in the production are all new because they're developed from my choreography. And the Gershwin estate allowed me to change the music for Crazy For You to develop that choreography. I was allowed to take the melody of "I Got Rhythm" and then turn it into a 12-minute dance number that matches my work. So what I do—and that comes from being under the piano at a very young age—is develop music for the dance.
In fact, Contact was a different experience for me because I was trapped in a particular tune. But it was the right way for this piece because, in fact, the music from Contact was really out of the character's head—what he thinks swing dancing might be. For example, with the song "Simply Irresistible", you would never swing dance to that song. But we do in Contact. Because that what comes out of the main character's head.
TC: Okay, let's turn things over to our audience... are there any questions out there? Yes, ma'am?
AM#2: Was the dialogue written before you got to rehearsal, or was it improvised during the workshops?
SS: John [Weidman] actually wrote out the dialogue, but we also improvised on it in rehearsal, too. We went into rehearsal with a definite script—the script was only 12 pages long, but it was definitely a script.
TC: Did the show change very much from the initial workshop?
SS: Little bits got changed. In fact, the characters of the dancers got richer and richer. Each character that dances in the club has a back story. They have a back story in the Italian restaurant. Those character journeys happened as we got on stage and the actros got in costume. A lot of it changed in terms of character development.
TC: At what point in the process do you think about design elements—sets, costumes and lighting?
SS: Almost from the very beginning. For example, it was important that Karen Ziemba would be dancing in a beautiful 1950's dress, that it would be almost a ballet skirt, when she stands. And that's part of the collaboration with [costume designer] William [Ivey Long], making sure that whatever outfit he comes up is really dance ready. There's a pregnant woman in that restaurant scene also, and when she stands up, it looks like her skirt wouldn't move; it's a very tight skirt. But in fact, when they all start to dance, the skirt opens up, like magic.
AM#3: Dance companies have a style of their own, particularly Martha Graham. Do you think you have a style of your own?
SS: (laughing) That might be a question for someone else who observes my work! I think I probably do, but to actually articulate it myself ...it's very much me when I dance, because I do dance when I teach it. I think it's a style that comes—since I am from the theater—from a strong character. They dance through the character. That's really everything in Contact. As far as Martha Graham, it's all about contractions and strength and most of the time they're dancing about agony and power! It's a style that is very noticeable.
TC: One thing you're known for is the use of props in dancing. But you've also said in interviews that props are never there extraneously... they're used as an extension of the character.
SS: There's no prop that's ever extraneous, it's always there to enrich the character. If we were doing a production number about an interviewer, he'd probably have a glass of water and a piece of paper in his hand. [audience laughs]
TC: I don't dance, don't ask me!
SS: [laughing] It's just to enrich a certain character, so it—again—has to be about the plot.
AM #4: Did the music in Contact come from your own selection, or was it what you heard on your visit to the nightclub?
SS: It was our own selection, but inspired by what went on at the actual club I went to—which was very much an underground club. It was a pool hall during the day, and they pushed the tables back at night. It opened at one o'clock in the morning. I probably couldn't even find it again. The swing dancing was erotic and sensual, it was all about contact. But they were not dancing to swing music. I found that completely interesting.
We do ultimately dance to "Sing! Sing! Sing!" and "Beyond the Sea," which are swing songs. But I think what makes it different to the eye is that they are swing dancing to "Runaround Sue" or "Simply Irresistible" or "Sweet Lorraine."
AM#5: Hi. I really loved the show, which I just saw. After the opening, the show will hopefully have a longer life beyond its engagement at Lincoln Center Theater and therefore it will need to be restaged for it to work in a proscenium theater, right?
SS: Yes, well it was clearly designed for the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, so it is choreographed for a three-quarter thrust stage. There is no bad seat to see this show. I made sure that all the choreography supported the story from all three sides. If the show does move to another theater it would be re-choreographed. It would be quite a process. It was meant for the Mitzi Newhouse.
AM#6: Will Contact go to the small stage at the National Theater in London? It would be just perfect there!
TC: They can't have it just yet! We're still using it! [audience laughter.]
AM#7: Was it difficult to find dancing actors or actors who dance?
SS: When they came to audition, I would toss them different emotions to dance to. So they would do the same combination, but they would do it as if they were flirting with someone across the room, or they would do it as if they were going the kill the guy next to them, or they would do it like they were very upset, or they would do it as if they hadn't slept for three days.
I would toss out emotions and then watch them dance the same combination with that acting beat. So it helped me find out how receptive they were to adapting different emotions that would be right for the characters in Contact.
TC: Some of the performers are from the theater world, and some of them are from the ballet world. Was that a conscious choice on your part, or did it just work out that way?
SS: The reason that Did You Move? uses ballet is because it is a rebellious reaction to someone telling you not to move. "Do not move!" And then they leave the room. What would you do? You do classical ballet! [she laughs] You do something to the extreme. So that's why we do classical ballet in that piece. So the dancers had to be trained in ballet.
But in order to do Contact, they had to have great rhythm, because they all dance on the beat in Contact to that music. Finding ballet dancers who have great rhythm...is difficult. [laughter] Because they are taught to dance through the beat. They are taught not to dance on the beat. That's what makes them so fluid and makes them look like they fly. But when you ask them to dance right on the beat, like they do in Contact, it is not natural for them.
When I did the piece at City Ballet, there was a fellow that really had great rhythm named Robert Wersinger, who is now in Contact. He is from the ballet world, as is David MacGillivray, who plays the head waiter in "Did You Move?"
AM #8: Can you talk about the process of working with Boyd Gaines, who is not a dancer, but has to dance quite a bit in the show?
SS: When we were casting, Boyd Gaines was one of the first people to come to mind. I knew him from the business and have admired his work. And Contact is really about someone taking a chance in unfamiliar territory. Boyd Gaines is taking a chance in unfamiliar territory. For him to be tossed into this group of dancers was very scary for him.
What I did for the first three days was just dance with everybody. We did partner dancing and swing dancing, and we had terminology for every step—there's terminology for every piece of movement and they all know that terminology. And Boyd would dance with each woman. I would just pass him around! [she laughs]
He's a wonderful mover, a terrific mover, but he's not a trained dancer. However, he's really game, and part of the show, since it is about that—someone taking a chance—it seems so right for it to be Boyd. But what I did do—watching during those first three days, teaching all this terminology and creating this world of dance—I watched Boyd and watched what he could do, and what he could accomplish. And from that, I created his dance at the end.
AM #9: Is that the Benny Goodman arrangement of "Sing! Sing! Sing!" which you use in the show?
SS: It is indeed. It's one of his studio pieces. I think it's an 11-minute piece. It was very 'right' for the piece. There is something very primitive about that song—the drums—it's very hot...if Satan was 'down there' playing a CD, he'd be playing "Sing! Sing! Sing!" [laughter]
You know, there's something about it that is so hot, and it needed to be the climax of Contact, where you have to make a decision: whether you're going to dance or not. It seems to be the ultimate song to make this decision. Also, the way it was structured and the way it was arranged works well for storytelling. The point at which we come back to Michael Wiley's apartment, it's done because the music dictates it.
AM#10: What kind of changes have been made in the previews and what have you learned in the process?
SS: Ultimately, the last thing you add to any process is the audience. There are a lot of times when I think something is really funny in my living room, and then I get in front of an audience and there's silence! So it's actually tweaking all of the 'bits', all of the comedic moments. A turn of the head of an actor will make an audience laugh a certain way. So it's actually finding out where to position things for the audience to see them. It was mainly about developing the comic moments. The audience tells me what's funny or not.
AM #11: Audiences in America—especially in New York—are different from the ones I've experienced in London. What they find funny and what we find funny are very different. Will you change the show when and if it goes to London?
SS: I don't think so. When I took Crazy For You to London, they loved it. And it ran a long time over there. They had no trouble with that kind of comedy. You're looking at someone who's married to a Brit, too, so I think they would respond to this. They certainly would respond to the first short story.
TC: Susan, your career did not stop even during the development of Contact. This summer while in pre-production for Contact, you were also choreographing your first movie, right?...
TC: ...which you did with the director Nicholas Hytner, who has also worked here at LCT. What was that experience like for you...and do you think you'll do more movies?
SS: It was great. It was all shot here at Lincoln Center, and it will be released in the spring. It's about three ballet dancers who come to New York and want to be in ABT or City Ballet. It's about the vibe here in New York City. One of them is a renegade choreographer, played by Ethan Stiefel, who is in real life a ballet star at ABT. His character wants to choreograph, but he wants to do pointe work to Michael Jackson and Jamiroquai and Dru Hill.
I was asked to come in and put myself in Ethan's character and choreograph what I thought he would choreograph on pointe to this contemporary music. It was wonderful because I actually got to use the dancers from City Ballet and ABT. I have three different dance sections in the movie on pointe, but they're doing pointe work to contemporary music. It will make ballet more accessible to the younger generation. Because they'll get into the music first and then they'll see the ballet. I think it's a very good idea, a very clever story.
AM #12: How many weeks of rehearsal did you have on Contact?
SS: Well, for the first workshop I had five weeks to develop that. The second workshop, also took about five weeks. And when we finally came into the regular rehearsal period, we had about 4 1/2 weeks.
AM #13: Can you explain what a workshop is?
SS: Downstairs at Lincoln Center Theater are beautiful rehearsal rooms. For a workshop, they give you the rooms and hire actors to work with. There is also a wonderful crew here who can build a fake pool table or pinball machine...whatever you need for your workshop.
So then—when you finally say to them "we're producing this and I want a real pool table and a real pinball machine"—you know what's going to work because they've helped you find what will work during this process. So you're not wasting money on the real production. Because everything in the theater today, sadly, costs thousands of dollars, so you could ask for something that you ultimately don't use. The workshop allows you to throw things out.
AM #13: Are these the actors that were used in the workshop?
SS: Yes, plus a couple of additions.
TC: A workshop is a bit different from a regular rehearsal, though...here, you were creating something out of nothing.
SS: We were creating out of thin air, so a lot of it was improv. Also, there's no pressure of a deadline—there's no opening night in a workshop. You can go with it to the bitter end, and you feel very protected. It's a wonderful artistic environment to be able to dance and do what feels right and create a story without commercial pressure above you.
AM #14: I'm curious whether you had someone special make the shoes for the women. Because I'm used to seeing ballet shoes; I'm not used to seeing heels like that. And for them to do what they were doing without slipping and sliding! I just wondered, if I bought myself a pair, could I dance like that? [laughter]
SS: Their shoes are very special. They're made specially for each dancer's feet.
TC: And it's a special floor as well.
SS: Yes, it's a 'sprung' dance floor that you see.
AM #15: In the club scenes, the dancers are all moving to different steps. How did you work that out?
SS: As an example, the second number in Contact is called "Sweet Lorraine," a beautiful melody. What I did was choreograph the dance—one dance—all the way through to "Sweet Lorraine" and they all learned it. And then what I would do is say "okay, now you start that dance on the fourth count of eight and you start the dance four counts of eight after that. So they're all doing that same dance but starting it at different times. What you think you're seeing is everybody doing different steps, but the fact is we use the same combination but at different times.
AM #15: Why do you work with counts of eight?
SS: Usually it's the way most music is written. In fact, what makes swing dancing so special, actually, is that you count in a six count instead of an eight count. So, the step of a swing step is...[she gets up to demonstrate]... So that's why I think people are so attracted to swing dancing because it's not so even. Right away, it becomes interesting to do. But the eight count is just standard musical phrasing. It's mostly done in that way. That's why we always count in eights.
TC: Your getting up from your chair just now leads me to ask: do you still dance much anymore?
SS: [laughing] Well, I dance when I choreograph. Because when I go in, I have it completely worked out in my mind and in my body. And then I feed off the dancers. Because I turn to the left naturally, that's my best turn. But most dancers turn to the right. So I'll come in with a combination that's completely done to the left and they say, "you know if you could only do that to the right it would be better for me." So then you develop it for them.
You just want it to look like they own it, so you make it better for them. It's the combination of both: doing your homework and dancing yourself. Feeding off of their talent is what will give you the best result. But as far as going out dancing, no, I don't anymore! You know actually, I work out like three times a week at 7:30 in the morning. It's for strengthening—I'm at the age where you need strengthening! [laughter] It's a different kind of workout, but I do workout.
TC: Can you tell us what you're doing next?
SS: Well, actually, I'm about to go back into my sixth year of doing A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden. We've got Tony Roberts as Scrooge. And I'll be doing a revival of The Music Man for Broadway in April.
TC: I'm sure all of us look forward to both of those projects and to everything else to come from the mind of Susan Stroman. Unfortunately, we're out of time for tonight, though. Thank you, Susan, for being here and thanks to everyone in our audience for coming, too. Good night! [applause]