April 4, 2020
D = DIRECTION
David Connolly (D) in conversation with John Stefaniuk (J) for Matinee to Z,
a series of Instagram Live Master Classes developed in response to Covid-19.
D: Hi John! Hi Everybody! John is the Worldwide Associate Director of The Lion King and has been with the show for 15 years. He is also an incredible director in his own right, directing all over the world. He just almost opened Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Brazil.
J: I've been in Brazil for the last two months, getting ready for a new production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and literally on our opening night, we had to postpone because of Corona. So now, we’re just waiting to open. So, hopefully that won’t be too much longer.
D: OK, I’m gonna get things rolling while we wait for questions to roll in. Because of his 15 year involvement with the The Lion King, John has seen thousands of auditions, right friend?
J: I would say literally thousands and thousands.
D: So, having that perspective of being in that many audition all over the globe, what would you say is one of the most common mistakes that an auditioner makes?
J: Well, I say 99% of the people in the world make the same mistake. 99%… and that 1% - they end up in the show. The biggest mistake is that most people don’t know what they’re talking about, they are busy concentrating on how to make a huge, beautiful sound, and don’t concentrate on the text. So many people, one after another, but then someone very, very smart will walk in and tell us a compelling story… and those are the ones who succeed.
D: I love that. So now that we've whittled down to, Okay, all of these people are now telling the story, and so, they're successful in that regard. What bumps them from that pool of people to the next level?
J: You're sitting there all day long and you want to see talent that brings you alive, you wanna see people who pique your interest, and once you see people connecting to the story - the ones who go to the next level are the ones who make it personal, the ones who can make you feel they're delving into themselves and they're really telling a painful piece of their past or an exciting piece of the past, or a joyous part of their past.
An audience member’s eye wants to go to the people who are able to open their chest and show you what's inside and to be able to do that with control, you don't wanna just see somebody out there crying, you wanna see somebody out there trying to not to cry.
And that only comes from truth. That only comes from people who are able to connect to something very specific, and very personal and tell that story. Sometimes they need a little push. And so I find that I'll ask them questions… When you say “When have you felt like this?… when have you felt rejected? alone? When have you felt your family is there for you?” I find that when people really create those visuals in their heads, when they’re specific… whether it’s saying goodbye to their parents or falling in love for the first time… People who are specific about moments in their life that collate with the lyrics - those are the ones that you wanna watch.
D: Find a personal intersection. I love that.
J: It doesn’t matter what the song is, it could be any song and you can still make a personal. You have felt every emotion on the world. It doesn’t matter what the lyric is talking about, there is a piece of you that has felt that way. There's a piece of you that has felt rejected, loved, surprised, bashful. Also, every story that you tell has a beginning, and a middle, and an end, and so many people want sing out and give you everything in the first five seconds. I know that they can feel that pressure, that you only have one or two moments in a room to impress people, but let us come to you, don’t come to us. Also, if you give everything 100% it can become deafening and you’ll turn off if they’re just constantly bashing you with their voice, no matter how beautiful it is.
D: Ya, people are so anxious to make an impression to prove something right out of the gate.
J: Then it becomes an argument about the difference between arrogance and confidence. If they just walk in and they’re friendly and they make you laugh and they make you smile… where other people come in and they're like soldiers and I am here to sing this.. and it feels like there’s no one else in the room.
Then, if it’s a song they’ve been singing their whole life, when I say, ”Well let's try again, with this energy” or “Let's try it again and concentrate on this." So many people aren't able to do that because they have painted themselves into a corner. So there's just this one way to tell this story and one way to sing this song. It's might feel good, but you're not letting me into that world.
D: And I find that, as you say, sometimes a director is going to redirect you and the piece not because it wasn't successful, but just to see if you have the ability to be malleable to new ideas and so often, people have drilled these moments. I look away here, and there’s my scene partner, and they shut down when you ask them to do anything else.
J: I had a lady singing Listen and she was all riffs all the time. And I said “Stop, stop, stop. Here's what you're gonna do, you're gonna start again and you're gonna make me listen to you and if you don't, I'm gonna push you out the door and I'm gonna close it and the audition’s over.” And so she started and sang “Listen..” and I started pushing her and she sang “Listen…” and I pushed her again and all of a sudden she started to think about what she was saying, and slayed her hands on the table and she was telling me how she really felt and she started expressing her need for a chance… And by the tears are coming down her face and I say, “Where did that come from?”
D: Is everybody listening? As far as audition material, can you speak to that?
J: It’s more about what not to sing really. If there's something that's very iconic to certain performer, you're never going to sing it as well. You’re not Whitney Houston, so unless you're doing a very different take on a song, it’s very difficult because the auditioner has the original in their head very clearly. What people are better to do, is to find a song that suits their specific voice. Not everybody has a huge belt, not everybody has a huge range, but if you find a song that features your talents and hides your faults - because everybody has faults. We know that.
And have correct sheet music. Go online, find a song and the piano track, download the sheet music in the right key… here's no excuse for a song not being in the perfect range. If it’s not, what you’re saying is “I’m a lazy actor… I want you to tell me what to do.”
It’s not my job as a director to tell you what to do, it's my job to edit what you do... that's my job. You give me ten options and I'm gonna say “that one!” That's my job, and lazy actor just waits and says, “mold me.” I have a beautiful voice, I'm pretty, mold me. Tell me how to say it. That's not acting, that's being a parrot. That's not what it’s about, it’s about you making choices, the person who just keeps pushing them out.
My favourite people I've ever had in the audition room, have really gone out on limb, to tell a story. There was one man singing a song, auditioning for a devious character and behind him was the fire alarm and with his finger, he just kept circling the alarm and touching it… and I thought, that guy’s gonna pull that fire alarm - he’s insane. Came to find out that it was just the character that was insane, not the man. Today the man’s on Broadway.
That's your job… to serve the writer and then to make that story human. To be you inside that character in those situations. So many people come in and they’re just loud.
D: Yeah, and it is possible don’t you think in 32 bars, to do everything you're asking? In under a minute?
J: It’s less than a minute, I’ve usually made up my mind within the first 10 seconds and the rest of the time is for you to change my mind if my first instinct isn’t in your favour.
When you come in the room, as soon as you lift your head, we can tell. And you know what the ironic thing is? It's not that I have some secret power. Anyone who was sitting by me at the table would say the same thing. If the storytelling is beautiful, and clear and clean and connected, you can feel it before you see and hear it. You just know there’s something special in front of you.
D: And that’s a result of?
J: I think it's clarity and absolute truth and specificity. When someone connects with exact feelings, not general ones… I’m generally sad, or upset or determined…. It’s specifically what is happening in this exact moment, what just happened, what does that chord say? A lot of people don't use the music in between, they don't use the music as instructions.
There's a line in the song, Endless Night that says, "How can I find my way, quarter rest, home?” And those actors usually sing straight through… ignoring the rest. So I have to ask, “Why would he take a moment before says the word home?” Because it's hard to say, that’s why. He doesn't have a home. Then we work on finding a personal connection to that feeling, to not being welcome at home, then the actor connects all those dots… that’s Gold. That’s Magic.
D: I think a lot of people underestimate the clues that you're given in the music and in the text. There are so many road maps in there to cull information but most people just kind of glance until they know the notes and chuck it, most times being too anxious to ‘make it their own’ without the help that the composers are offering.
John and I did a lot of our beginning directing a place called Stagedoor Manor which is a performing arts centre New York State, which leads me to the next question. If there are people here who are interested in making the transition from performer to director as you did, 'cause if people don't know, John was a very popular musical theatre performer and a voice-over actor, and did lots of great work before he started directing.
J: I don’t know about popular.
D: You were popular, you were on stage with Eric MacCormack, that makes you popular. So talk about your transition to becoming a director.
J: Well, I remember being in musical theatre and sitting in the hallway of people auditioning and people would come out with this air of “I was the best one here” and I just never had that confidence, I was never able to say those words. I'd be like, "Oh my God, yeah, you were the best.” And then two things happened. The first thing was that I discovered that I was much better at knowing what to do and how to fix it, then fixing it myself.
And then number two, directing opened up a much broader creativity in me than in acting. I think that an actor’s skills are very specific and being able to go out there and do that every night, to have that truth and that vulnerability and that strength and precision and discipline, I don't have that, I couldn’t maintain that eight shows a week. To be able to hit the moments clearly and honestly every show… there’s a lot of hoops you have to go through to be able to do that.
I don't have that skill but the skill I do have is to be able to say no, yes, no, yes with the intention of making something better. And I found it when I started teaching… it made me fall in love with the feeling of making somebody find something in themselves they didn't know they had. And to see them blossom in front of me and to this day as a director, I still teach, I teach every day.
And often it’s about being a psychologist. It’s not about stand here, go there… often it's about trying to spark their energy make them smile, make them laugh, make them feel happy to be in the room. When they're happy backstage, they’re happy on stage and when they're happy on stage - the story is beautiful. And that's the goal, and people think that when you work on a long-running show, it’s just about replication. So not true, replication is like a photo copier. The image loses its integrity when you keep photo copying something - you get a copy of a copy of…What was the picture? I can barely see it now. It's so blurry.
That's not what our job is. Your job is to make this group of people tell the story in this very moment, whether it be for one night or for the next 10 years. I always say it's not about replicating opening night but I want to feel the same way I did when I watched opening night. I want it to feel that it's just as personal to you, as it was to that cast. That's my ability. And I think I learned that from teaching, being able to do that for the actors, helping them, and then as a creative mind, being able to make pictures on the stage that are beautiful and help support the story… that was the skill that I honed and was able to find confidence in.
I wish I would have had the confidence even earlier to be able to say, "You know what, acting’s not for me, I want to direct.” It takes courage to be able to say what you're good at and what you're not and it’s hard to be truthful to yourself. When I was performing, I was like, "I have to be in Les Miserables, I have to…" And then the day never came. I think you can trace your life back to definitive moment when you finally listen to that voice in your head saying, "This is where you should be going, you should walk down this path.”
D: Who can forget your definitive production of Snoopy at the Oshawa Youth Theatre. Definitive. Can you explain a little more, some actual, actionable steps to branch from performer to director?
J: When I was teenager, I was in a youth theatre group and it meant a lot to me, my family and my social world was all in that theatre and I had spent many years in plays there and loved the spirit. Then, I went away to university and came back, the people there asked me to direct the show there for their youth theatre. At the timeI thought, wow, that's very nice of you, but that's for kids. I don't wanna do that but I did and in fact it was quite an amazing experience. Having to work with kids really honed my skills to be able to get them to listen and be creative. To this day, there are skills I learned on that show that I still use. Then and now, actors are either with you or they’re against you and if they felt I was judging them, they started judging right back. It was and still remains about making them feel that we’re on the same team, we’re one group.
I tell actors all the time: I’m your mirror. I’m not here to judge you, I’m here to tell you the truth. Don’t wear that hat with those shoes, that’s my job. And to captain that ship of all the departments, it's to be the one who says “We're going here and you need... No, that's not it. I need you to add more this, I need you to add more that.” Which brings us right back to that first show at my community theatre and learning to be a leader, not a dictator. The building will respect someone who knows where we're going, they respect someone who says, “Here's what we're going, and here's what I need you to do to help get us there.”
I moved to London for many years and was acting as well as teaching and I enjoyed the teaching and directing a lot more and no surprisingly, that’s what started to pay more bills.
D: I love you reminding us about being a leader not only for the people on stage, but for the entire building. Can you answer this question about schools?
J: There are incredible schools and some where I think, “you are throwing your money away.” The thing about undergrad directing courses at University is that they’re valuable but they don’t generally offer the practical knowledge that you need. If I had my early days to do over again, I would have written to every director.. and asked to intern. We do it all the time. I have interns all the time working on a Broadway show, and only because they wrote me to say they want to learn about directing. Ask someone if you can shadow them. I wish I would have had that window into that world because it's there. People don't realize it's there.
You can go to school and talk about it but, directing is something you need to see for yourself and it's interesting to see different directors have different strengths and weaknesses. Some are very good at creating a visual but not so good at dealing with actors. They think of actors like props to just move around. And some are very good with the text and aren't good with the technical aspect, it's funny, everybody has a strength and a weakness. I think it's important if you see those different strengths and weaknesses because when I took my job, the person before me did it differently. And each building does it differently. The way they do it on Phantom is different than Wicked…
For us, we’re always striving to make it beautiful and current. It’s not a museum piece, it’s live theatre. There are a lot of happy buildings on Broadway and there are a lot of buildings that aren’t so happy and it translates on stage. You can see when a show has lost its way, lost its heart and it is just a paycheque. That’s a big part of resident directing, taking the troops and letting them know what they're doing is important.
D: 100%. It’s a big theme of these chats - that live theatre is an apprenticeship and that a lot of people aren’t willing to do that apprenticing. They want to be directing a major musical, 42nd St, without any language or confidence to navigate a mistake. ’Cause really that's what it's about - seeing how you solve a problem. So when I come up to that problem, I have some experiential knowledge.
And I love John what you're saying about realizing that you have strengths and weaknesses because I think that a big myth for young people especially, is that people at the top of their game, like you, have it all and can do it all... But not everybody does it the same way and not everybody has all of the answers, right?
J: I remember working with an actor and I was talking about a song for probably an hour. I went on and on and on… And then, my assistant next to me, he says “he wants it faster" and she got it instantly. Sometimes people are able to get to a person in a different way.
The key is knowing that you can’t deal with every actor the same way or each department in every production the same way. You have to read the room. Sometimes there are prickly people in life. I used to say to my mom a lot, of the people who were there in our community theatre group… I've just met the same people over and over and over again, in my life - they’re everywhere. It's the same group of people. There’s the person who knows everything, there's the person who has a hidden talent who hasn't realized it, there’s the person who’s lazy, the one who just wants the glory and there's a person who does all the work. It's the same cast of characters backstage for the rest of your life. And the sooner you learn to deal with them all, the better.
D: Rachel wants to know what your dream show is that you haven’t directed yet.
D: Last question: Are there any staples of your process?
J: Yeah. No matter what show I've done, no matter how much time I have, I begin with the table read and we go through the show, scene by scene, moment by moment,… no scenery or movement. Just you singing or speaking to someone else with a script in your hand. I find you get the best work done there, and once that's done, you put it up on its feet, doing the blocking, it's really just left and right, up and down. And I don't even usually have to tell the actor, the actor just instinctually knows, “I need to get away.” Which way are you gonna go? This way or that way? Then all you do is move the pieces around to create balance and beauty to support those ideas.
D: We could talk for days. Any final words?
J: No, thank you. I think it’s great that you're doing something to use this time-wisely, very smart. I think it shows real ingenuity because sometimes people are waiting for their life to begin so it's nice when they actually use it every single day to get the best of themselves to move forward. Those are the pieces that when you put them together, you don't even realize it, you gain knowledge or skills that you didn't know you were missing. I think that's an amazing thing. So thank you for doing that.