Thursday, April 8, 2010

It takes a team to make a one-woman show….…

In the initial stages of my Gena Branscombe project, creative thoughts and plans seemed to come to me like never before in my life. There was finding Gena’s music, researching her life, making the recording and then, one evening I attended an off-Broadway performance of Elizabeth Perry’s one-woman show, “Sunflower.”

I sat in the theatre watching, listening, and enveloped in the life story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. A woman……wife, mother and suffragette activist bar-none and the reason women now have the right to vote. Elizabeth Perry wrote and starred in her own show. Her knowledge of Mrs. Cady Stanton was inspired, her attention to detail in portraying a woman from over 100 years ago - impeccable, and her passionate acting made one feel the very essence of this important historic woman.

Leaving the theatre knowing my future would be telling Gena Branscombe’s life story in a one-woman show, though, mine would include music, I had to figure out how this was going to evolve. I blindly forged ahead.

Dr. Laurine Marlow encouraged me to use her dissertation as an outline of important events, family happenings or quotations I could use. I began my attempt at writing something theatrical…..I had never done this in my life and for someone who finds writing a chore, the task at hand was daunting. An extensive outline emerged with an over-abundance of dry facts, an occasional full scene written though missing was continuity, humorous moments, the where and why the show takes place and most important character development and Gena’s own verbiage.

One evening in the midst of my writing phase, I had dinner with my colleague and friend Norm Carlberg, who at that time was Director of Opera at the Liederkranz Club. I began sharing details of my Gena Branscombe project and particularly the idea of a one-woman show. Without forethought I blurted out, “Will you direct me in this show?” Without hesitation Norm replied, “Yes!”

OK, now I have a director, an offer to premiere the show at the Liederkranz Club, no real polished or finished script and no idea how to get to that point. I sent Norm what I had written and he encouraged me to start cutting down on the facts and write developed scenes. What and How?

My Gena project has always taken care of itself as if Gena were guiding me, her chosen person to tell her story. The right people seemed to appear to steer me - Martin encouraged me, Gena Tenney Phenix told me I was chosen as did Dr. Marlow, Norm now my director and the next person to be added to the list was my former upstairs neighbor and friend, Evan Pappas.

It was through Evan I found my voice teacher, Stephanie Samaras and it was Stephanie who told me to call Evan for writing help. Again, another person without hesitation said,

“Yes!” A Broadway veteran actor, singer, dancer, director - there he was…now my co-author! A real gift to the Gena project.

Months, days and hours Evan and I spent writing, rewriting, creating, uproariously laughing and sweating over this one-woman show. With his intense knowledge of how theatre works, Evan gave dramatic shape to a show that would be a monologue of personal and musical accomplishments, joys and heart break through humorous buttons, an understanding of humanity, the life of an artist and the reason why this show would exist, taken directly from Laurine Marlow’s experience with Gena Branscombe…..a tea party! Gena Branscombe enters the stage ready to have tea with her interviewer of that day, ready to discuss her life and passions, disappoints and humor, and maybe even dance a little jig!

Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe” came to life with 15 songs interspersed between dialogue, songs that drew from the spoken text for added emotional impact.

Meetings with Norm, Evan and I further honed the show and in March 2004 rehearsals began. Dear me, I had sung my entire career now I would have dialogue that led into song that led into more dialogue. A new adventure for me and one I was excited to tackle. Rehearsals went on as rehearsals do with me floundering for lines, missing the entrances of songs, trying to remember where I was on stage, what my motivation was, Martin playing beautifully and reminding me of musical items and going through all the misgivings we performers have!

I learned that Norm’s way of directing was to give you an outline of staging, a few key words for character then he left you to use your imagination, emotions and intelligence. Phone calls to Norm after rehearsals were similar to the pain of pulling teeth. I would ask what suggestions/criticisms he had and his response would be….”just keep going in the direction you are.” Or maybe….”mumble to yourself a little more” or “don’t worry it’s fine.” We singers are more insecure than that and he knew it. We need to be stroked, yet I learned in his quiet way he was allowing me to grow as an artist …telling me to be stronger and more self sufficient, and watching me grow as a singing actress

Opening night of “Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe” took place at the Liederkranz Club on April 17, 2004. What a debut it was with a packed audience that included my dear friend Julie, Laurine who flew in from Texas and Gena Branscombe’s grandson Roger Phenix with his wife Joanne. What a thrill! More on Roger’s reactions in the next blog about the show.

A few days after the performance Norm called and said in his low bass voice, “It was really good!” Four simple words……discreet, understated, sincere and filled with pride of our partnership. A more kind and understanding colleague one could not find and as a friend, a blessing to my life. Rehearsals for future performances were to take place in the Fall of 2005 but unfortunately Norm died suddenly that summer. The show continues with the spirit of Norm infused in its original staging. The show must go on…………….

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