Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Directing Titanic: like (lovingly) herding cats

In the early stages of a massive musical production like Titanic -- when the vision still exists in the director’s mind and every tiny detail must be expressed to and adapted by the actors -- it’s a bit like herding cats. 

Everything must coalesce: the accompaniment, the singers’ key, the synchronized movements of some, and the unsynchronized steps of others. Without finished sets, without final decisions made on exactly how lyrics will be sung or lines will be delivered, the director must see all – he must see all together, while at the same time seeing each person and element separately.

This is the challenge with any musical, which many theater programs avoid due to their technical difficulty. Dr. Paul J. Hustoles is facing this challenge now with a musical that is itself so huge, most programs don’t dare even think of doing it: Titanic. 

With a cast of more than 40, Dr. Hustoles sits only briefly at nightly rehearsal to take in scenes before standing to bounce around to various actors. To a group who has been awakened by Titanic crew members following the impact with the iceberg, he tells them to quietly ad lib in the background.

“You’re in the background saying, ‘Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb,’” Dr. Hustoles says, before approaching the production’s child actor, Joshua. “Do you know what rhubarb means? It’s when people are in the background of a scene and their mouths have to move, like they’re saying words, so it’s like they’re saying ‘rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.’”

At times Dr. Hustoles paints with broader strokes.

“In the actual Titanic, nobody felt anything. People thought it was inconvenient to be woken up. Nobody thought, ‘We’re going to die!’ Don’t lighten it up (the mood), but lighten it up from where you’re at. You’re a bit too dark.”

Most times he focuses on the finer points – down to a single letter.

“Drop the ‘R’ for the British accent. It’s ‘Life Preseuveus,’ not ‘Life Preservers.’”

And no matter how many times it takes to get it right, he makes sure perfection is achieved.

“Turn, then take one step. Nope. Turn and then one step. Too late. Try one more time. … There we go, good.”

While straight to the point with his directions, a smile is quick to appear across Dr. Hustoles’ face. He pats Joshua on the head, he cracks a quick joke to one group of students, and he chuckles when errors are made. “Pick a key! Pick a key!” he says with a smile. 

Hundreds of notes feverishly pour out of his mouth as he moves from student to student, but it’s his tone and demeanor that unveil the fun he has with this process – a wildly complicated, multi-faceted, technically complicated passion project. And only the first one this season.

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