First musical, first bad review

Since early June I’ve been rehearsing for Jasper Station, Norman Foster’s first musical. Now, we’ve just finished the first week of our two-week run.

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I’ve never been in a musical before. I’ve been interested in singing for the last few years. I’ve been in several choirs, and while I was in them, I made a habit of practicing everyday. I’m not entirely sure why. I guess I’ve just always enjoyed music, ever since my clarinet days in public school and high school. I really want to learn the piano one day as well, once I get over this repetitive strain injury in my forearms.

Then I went on a cruise with my parents and almost every night, the ship’s performers put on great musical theatre for us passengers. The plots were thin, and the writers basically seemed to have culled the greatest tunes from the last few decades and mashed them together, but the performers were talented and the dancing was great. It made me want to be in a musical like I’ve never wanted to be in one before. In fact, as a gay man, I wonder how I skipped my musical theatre chapter in life. I remember reading Dan Savage saying that when he was a boy, he would hide under the dining room table listening to musical theatre tapes. But it’s never interested me that much. I tried out for a few in university, and even turned down a role in the chorus of the Little Shop of Horrors.

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But I’ve adored being in Jasper Station. I’d go so far as to call it life-changing. I’m sure I will audition for many more musicals in the future. I love the combination of storytelling and music. I love the part of the story when the emotion boils over and emerges as a song. When you start to hear a few chords being played or strummed underneath the dialogue lines, and then suddenly, zoom, you’re in the middle of a piece of music.

Jasper Station is a comedy, and it’s a little silly, and it’s more of a play with songs than a true musical. There’s a lot of dialogue.

The songs are tuneful enough that I’ve grown very fond of them. The characters are well-drawn and the writing is funny.

I’ve been really lucky to get a relatively big part. There are six roles in the play, all pretty equally sized, and I’m one of them – an anxious accountant who wants to go off and become a country music songwriter but can’t decide whether he wants to or not – he dithers over whether or not to buy a ticket for most of the musical.

During the two weeks before the show opened, I was Olympics-obsessed. And I found a parallel between the athletes as they prepared to begin their races or events, and the state that I’m in before I go on stage. Both an athlete and an actor have to throw themselves out there at a precise, predetermined moment in time. They have no say on when they have to start performing. They have to be completely ready in that moment – completely focused. I was really interested to see that the world-class Jamaican sprinters – Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce — would all smile or make a goofy face right before they had to start their races. They were just so relaxed – and clearly enjoying themselves. I also noted that Fraser-Pryce (she won gold in the women’s 100 m) as well as swimmer Michael Phelps refused to directly answer interviewers to ask them whether they would win their races or not, before the fact. They both said in as many words, “we’ll see what happens on race day.” I think Phelps actually said “I let my swimming do the talking.” Even at their level of expertise, they won’t get ahead of themselves and assume a victory before it’s happened. Very wise.

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Now, I’ve been just loving rehearsing and performing the musical for the last three months, but I may have sidestepped the question or whether or not it’s very compelling as a story. When I first read the script, I found that I did have to force myself to keep reading until the end – it’s full of good laughs, witty lines – but it’s not the kind of plot that hooks you.

The premise is this: five strangers show up at Jasper train station in Alberta on their way to Vancouver, and they’re all at crisis points in their lives – a woman leaving her husband, a hockey player being called up to the NHL for the first time, a down on her luck girl who thinks she’s going off to be picked up by aliens, the accountant who wants to be a country music songwriter, and a newspaper reporter who wants to write all of their stories down. Then they all catch up five years later and find out what happened to each other.

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With our strong cast and with the fun, catchy music, I found it completely enthralling to be a part of. Maybe, though, for an audience that has to sit through it, and that doesn’t get the thrill of performing it, it’s less fun. We’ve had plenty – plenty, plenty – of laughs during our first week of the run. Audiences have been not huge, but they’ve been loud. That’s a part of the pleasure of this experience — and it’s allowed me to believe completely in the show. But the two reviews that we’ve received so far have not been favourable in the least. One of them is called “Don’t Stop at Norm’s Station This Time!“ and ends with the sentence, “No hoots on the whistle for this slow train.” The other’s first line is: “All aboard the train to nowhere.” Both reviewers complain that there isn’t enough substance to the plot – that nothing happens – and that the characters are not that compelling.

Worse yet, the first reviewer found me particularly “irritating”! This is what she says about me:

One of the most irritating characters, as drawn by Foster, is of Sterling (Will Burr) the indecisive accountant who may or may not take the train to a new life. As directed by Richard Elichuk, Burr uses his lanky frame to maximize his silliness and make Sterling a cartoon character with little credibility.

Alas. After reading this quite late one evening after a performance, I had trouble sleeping, and when I did sleep, I dreamt most of the time that I was in an endless Jasper Station rehearsal in order to correct problems with the show. I’m someone who almost never has trouble sleeping. I usually hit my pillow exhausted and nod right off.

But there’s also a certain thrill to be in a performance that someone is willing to review completely truthfully – at least we’re considered professional enough that these reviewers are giving us their honest opinions – I’ve made it that far.

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And in the end, there’s nothing more empowering than being able to take someone’s harsh words and get over them – to make up your own mind regardless of what they think. I talked about this review with my director and with the choreographer and they’ve helped me remain confident about the way I’m playing the character. Sterling is basically a farcical character. He’s a little nutty. His speeches are outrageous and full of half-sentences and exclamation points. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m not that experienced an actor. But at the end of the day I’m still pretty satisfied with the way I’m doing this part, despite the bad reviews.

I’ll admit that I have tried to humanize him a little bit, where possible, where it doesn’t affect the energy of the performance too much, after reading the reviews. And I think it has helped. So I’m glad to have gained something from the critiques.

On the plus side, the audiences have been laughing a lot in response to my lines.

As for the show itself, and the reviewers’ negative reaction to it, I guess that’s okay. I’m glad that I’m enjoying it, and that so many other audience members have — judging from the laughter every night, and from speaking to some of them (although not that anyone would ever say negative words to your face anyway!).

The characters in Jasper station are getting on the train to lead them off to a different life. The train is a metaphor, and we sing about it as such again and again throughout the show. Before opening night, our director gave us all cards with a beautiful picture of a black locomotive chugging through a densely forested mountain pass, black smoke rising into the air from its chimney. I’ve always loved trains. But I realize now that they are a great metaphor. After this show, I’ll never look at one in the same way again.

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PS: a little excerpt:

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13 thoughts on “First musical, first bad review

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience as a performer. I found it enlightening to read your perspective on the process, as it evolved from the initial reading, through rehearsals up to performance. Reviews are a tricky beast; each of us want to manage our entertainment dollars, and so we rely on the personal taste of one individual to guess whether or not we think we might enjoy a particular show. It’s completely subjective. When I did “Titanic” recently, various reviews of the same production ranged from “must-see” recommendations to “why-did-they-bother?”. If you know the reviewer’s tastes and the reviewer is consistent, all is well. Indeed, if you know you share similar tastes, you know you may heed the recommendations and comments; conversely, if you know you always disagree with the reviewer, her/his reviews are just as useful, as you can rely on the opposite perspective from that contained in the review. The problem is, reviewers come-and-go or they review material you don’t get to see, which makes it difficult to establish a “subjective baseline”. Or they devote too many words to the material and not enough to the production values. Or they review shows they haven’t seen based on what they heard, because they forgot what time the show started so they didn’t see it. In the end, I think the best reviews are feedback from family and friends, people you know well and who know your own tastes. This short essay on your experience of a new performer in itself creates interest in seeing the final product. That’s even more enticing than a review. Enjoy the rest of your run of “Jasper Station”!

  2. Will, a wonderful blog post here. It actually reminded me of the comment in the one review that says she didn’t like the character (not the actor). If she doesn’t like the character Sterling, then she won’t like anyone playing the part. I’m so glad to hear it’s been such a positive experience for you and I think it has been for the others. I think you’ve all truly become your characters on stage in a delightful way. Keep it up!

  3. hi Will, I don’t think you should take the reviewers words to heart, they were saying that about the character written not you, if the audience enjoyed it that’s all that counts and you could feel that from them. I am curious though, why you didn’t take the part of the journalist? I know I’m just kidding you. I really enjoyed the video and would have enjoyed the whole play.
    Keep up the great work, Just keep proving ‘them’ wrong.
    Janet (Anderegg) Preston

  4. Will, after 30-plus years as a choreographer and director, I’ve had my fair share of reviews – good, bad and indifferent. A key comment in your post is that both of the Jasper Station reviews were by amateur reviewers (as seems to be the case in Ottawa now) and my assessment of both reviews is that they are more about the material rather than the production. Is that really the role of the reviewer, especially for a community theatre production? I don’t think so. As a prospective audience member I want to know if the piece is well presented, if it is within the resources and abilities of the company, whether the audience enjoys it and if they are getting good value for their entertainment dollar. Honestly, I don’t care what they think about Norm Foster, arguably our most successful play-writer. Audiences are clearly enjoying it, the price is right, you are fulfilling the directors’ vision and having a great time along the way. I look forward to seeing the show again on closing night. Keep up the great work!

  5. Hey Will – I’ll only caution you not to be too disdainful of “blogs” – online reviews are all that’s left in Ottawa (and again – Iris Winston’s review appeared on the Ottawa Citizen’s website, in addition to the Capital Critics Circle page… the same critics who hand out theatre awards every year: http://capitalcriticscircle.net/capital-critics-circle-awards-for-2010-2011/). I could tell you to try not to take it to heart, but as a fellow actor I recognize how deflating that can be mid-show. For what it’s worth, I saw opening night, and I thought there were some really strong performances… but that the play itself was weak and a bit directionless – but that falls on the playwright, not you. I hope you still found it a positive experience and are up for doing more.

  6. Hi Reena, thanks for your comment. You’re right – sentence is gone.

    Thanks for the comments about the show – I think you weren’t the only one who had that reaction and I appreciate any feedback – thanks for coming out to see it!

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