Playing the Baker

I first came across Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods when my girlfriend at that time (now my wife) was a student at the University of Bristol.  The University’s musical society was putting it on in the student union building.  The whole experience was new to me, from the venue to the musical to the composer.  This made the whole experience all the stranger but all the more appropriate because the show itself takes the audience and characters alike off the path and into the woods.

What I discovered that night was a mix of well-known fairy tales characters and plots combining with songs full of clever lyrics appropriate to those characters. Although all seemed wrapped up by the interval, the show then began to evolve into something quite different and unexpected from the usual storybook ending.  To quote the musical:

Into the woods, it’s always when You think, at last, you’re through and then, Into the woods you go again, To take another journey.

I was very excited when I heard that one of my regular groups, The Invitation Theatre Company (TITCo), was planning on producing Into the Woods and I was thrilled to be chosen to take on the role of the Baker.  It is a wonderful ensemble piece, with layers of meaning and character development that makes is quite unlike my previous projects of Bizet’s Carmen and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.

So what is needed in preparing for the role of the Baker?

The Baker and the Baker’s Wife is a fable created by James Lapine for this musical.  They are a typical suburban couple wanting to have a child of their own.  It’s through them that we meet the well-known characters of stories, such as Little Red Ridinghood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and Cinderella.  Unlike these fairy tale characters, the Baker and his wife are relatable, as are their wishes of starting a family.

Character note number 1 – Do not make the character too eccentric; there are wolves, witches and princes for that!  The Baker is the antithesis of these strange surroundings.

As a lead character, he has issues but is not so very flawed as the likes of Sweeney Todd or to a lesser extent Billy Bigelow from Carousel.  The Baker’s issues are to do with having lost his parents when he was young.  From a broken past he is trying to do the best he can. Unfortunately he has become over-protective when it comes to his wife and very afraid when his immediate world is under threat.

Character note number 2 – The Baker has a lot of pride and control issues.

Perhaps because of his fear of the unknown and things outside of his control, the idea of being a father not only excites but also terrifies him.  This is surely in part due to his fragile family upbringing. There is also a major argument where he and the other characters blame each other for an unfortunate string of events.

Character note number 3 – The Baker does not deal well with new responsibilities.

The potential difficulty with the Baker is that he is in danger of not being very likeable and risks alienating himself from the audience.  Happily he does have redeeming qualities, such as his determination to do what’s right and some very caring moments with his wife and other characters.

Character note number 4 – Don’t forget to make him amiable and to smile now and again.  He is human, after all.

So in summary, the Baker is the Everyman character in a fantasy world.  He has issues, as we all do.  He has too much pride, is overly protective and shirks responsibility. But he also has a good heart and loves his family dearly.  His journeys into the woods change him and those around him and he grows as a person because of them.

Rehearsing the scenes with the TITCo crew has been great fun and I can’t wait to go into the woods in June.

TITCo’s production of Into the Woods is on at Devizes Wharf Theatre from 5-10th June 2017.

http://www.titco.org.uk/

Playing Escamillo

A post-production review:

Photo from the dress reheasal taken by Stewart McPherson.

So it happened. The dust has settled after an incredible week performing in Bristol Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen.  So, how did it go?

Since March, the part has continued to evolve and my interpretation alter, partly organically but also thanks to input from fellow performers and friends such as Thomas Woods (playing Don Jose), Herbert DesLauriers (choreographer and dancer) Charlie Monk (Director) and John DesLauriers (friend).  Their advice was truly important, just as the time I had to myself to interpret and adapt the part was crucial.  And so let’s see what happened next…

Character Visualisation:

For me, the one word that represents Escamillo is ‘Focus’.  He has had to believe and demonstrate that he is the best bull fighter to earn his reputation.  He then wonders through the mountains alone and to the bandit camp, all to win Carmen’s heart.  This is one very driven and confident man!!

I still envisioned singled-minded modern footballers such as Ibrahimovic, but also Christiano Ronaldo, who seems to believe first and foremost that winning and personal image mattered most of all.  I would also add to that mix, the character Stacee Jaxx from the musical and movie ‘Rock of Ages’.

In this, the world-weary character has become a stereotype of a rock and roll star unable to escape what his fans expect of him.  His legend precedes him wherever he goes, so much so that he barely needs to react and those around him still respond wildly.  This last visualisation came when working with the rest of the cast and using trying to create the character’s physical attributes suggested by Herbert. For him, less movement in general added to his persona and emphasised any grand gesture he made.

Character Physical Adaptation:

John mentioned that it is easy to over-analyse this character.   In a sense, you cannot overplay him.  He is an all-testosterone alpha-male action hero.  I freely admit I could never reach those heights, and I do not have Escamillo’s confidence or drive to do so.  I used the brilliant reactions of the chorus to build on the character’s ego, but had to find another way to bring him life.  Herbert’s advice was brilliant in this way.  He talked about how to walk, with chest and libido leading the way. Standing tall and keeping gestures to a minimum.  When I continued to have problems adapting however, he saved his best advice to last –   only do one thing at a time.  This means when he walks, he walks.  When he uses a hand to gesture, he is expressing one thing, when he turns his body, he is turning.  This gave the character extra gravitas.

One final help was viewing the excellent photos taken by Stewart Mcpherson.  I looked through and in some photos I could see Escamillo whilst in others I saw a generic principle on Broadway with shining eyes and a wide grin that felt totally inappropriate!  From this I modified my on-stage actions.

Character Vocal Adaptation:

This was the area I was least worried about.  I could sing the part already and as John said, if you concentrate on the character the voice will take care of itself.  What I needed to work on was projection.  I was given some great tips by Thomas.  There are exercises I worked on to improve supporting my voice, but visually this all about focusing on getting a personal message to someone in the backrow of the theatre.

The Good:

I feel like the character evolved before and during the performance week and had a stage presence. Thanks go to my other performers for providing me with the reactions to build from. It gave me the flow I needed to enjoy the role and I came off the stage buzzing every time!   The greatest moment came after the final performance when I was asked to pose for a picture with two members of the children’s chorus. The idea that I have helped inspire them into perhaps performing again gives me great joy!

The ‘Oops’ factor:

Apart from minor moments, faults such as my large size 12G feet continuing to look a little penguin-like I have two confessions make.  Firstly, I do not condone using bathroom cleaning wipes on your face!  I have learned (did there really need to be a lesson?) that this is not healthy and have been treating my face kindly ever since whilst the burn and peeling subsides.

Secondly, on the final night after leaving the smugglers’ camp I tried to exit the stage but could not find the opening to the curtains.  After a moment’s panic I crawled underneath.  I hopefully didn’t break any audience member’s spell!