Study of a MTW Curriculum

 

 

A Study of an Exemplary 

Musical Theater Workshop Curriculum 
(for the American Center for Musical Theater)

 

1.   INTRODUCTION


This tale of an unsung yet highly-influential musical theater training program begins twenty years into its complete history and six years into its quiet residency at the Los Angeles Music Center, with the following excerpt from a fund-raising letter which succinctly captures the raison d'être for the Musical Theater Workshop of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, its next generation, the American Center for Musical Theater, and for that matter, it may be argued, for any musical theater or opera workshop.

"The vitality of the musical theater depends upon the creation of new works and the emergence of new talents. With our highly successful Musical Theater Workshop, we have become a nation-wide leader in training fresh young talent for important careers. Over 50% of the Workshop students in our six sessions to date have since appeared with us and on Broadway, in national companies and in major theaters throughout the country."  [ 1 ]

Thus began an appeal letter to the guarantors of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association (LACLOA), a large group of corporations and private sector sponsors who covered production cost deficits. This letter, written by then President of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera (LACLO) Association, William T. Sesnon, Jr., sought funding for an ongoing scholarship program to assist in the training of "fine young talents who audition" but "must regrettably be omitted from our group because of a lack of funds."  [ 2 ]

What the LACLO Association sought was support for the professional training of talent, towards a career in musical theater, both within the LACLO company and with companies across the nation. This emergence of new talent was utmost in the minds of the founders and preservers of this Musical Theater Workshop, begun in 1962 under the auspices of the LACLOA, and in the best interests of the LACLO as a producing organization. The reason was and remains crystal clear, and that is to ensure the vitality of the art and business of musical theater by discovering and nurturing new talent. To find and train this new emerging talent, the MTW method was to hand-pick through auditions the most promising of performers, and train them through an orientation curriculum specifically for the needs of a professional musical theater company.

It was for precisely these reasons that the Musical Theater Workshop of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera was created in 1962, with the charge to audition, evaluate, select and train promising musical theater performers towards the goal of employment with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, and its sister organization, the San Francisco Civic Light Opera (SFCLO). In time, the LACLO and the SFCLO would merge, as corporations, into the California Civic Light Opera Association. From the Musical Theater Workshop's inception to its ultimate reorganization in the present day as the American Center for Musical Theater, this educational agency has been graduating trained performers for long-term careers in musical theater, and beyond.

Yet, outside the musical theater community, this agency is little known, and sometimes misunderstood. Sylvie Drake, a well known theater journalist and critic, wrote that the Musical Theater Workshop is "one of Los Angeles' better kept secrets...."  [ 3 ] 
When Ms. Drake wrote this, the Musical Theater Workshop of the LACLO stood among many other musical theater workshops in the greater Los Angeles area, and was often undifferentiated from the general perception of the goals and structures of what musical theater workshops are, or are supposed to be. At the time of Ms. Drake's article, musical theater workshops were part of the curriculum of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of Southern California (USC), and several campuses of the California State University system, not to mention many similar programs at local junior colleges. Amid all these, to include the several private workshops which would advertise in local entertainment periodicals such as Dramalogue and the Hollywood Reporter, the impact of the Musical Theater Workshop of the LACLO was central, influential and curiously unpublicized.

What was it about the Civic Light Opera's Musical Theater Workshop (MTW) that made it a seemingly well-kept secret, at the same time was so productive a training program as measured by academic and professional standards? This can be uniquely answered by an examination of its philosophy, methods and curriculum.

While the MTW's "workshop" character indicates its similarity to all the above mentioned college and university workshops, its overall goals, structure and curriculum reflect different concerns for the musical theater performer from the usual workshop program. In view of ACMT's wholly professional approach to the training of performers for a career, it can by example provide for procedures, strategies and suggestions for heightening the effectiveness of college and university musical theaters workshops, and, by extension, opera workshops, as well.

This claim of being productive is ubiquitous among all training programs, whether privately run or found in schools and universities. Pointing to and celebrating the well-known and working professionals among an organization's alumni is the usually accepted measure of such productivity, and the Musical Theater Workshop, though a "better kept secret," has had the distinction of placing an unusually high percentage of working professionals within the entertainment industry. There are exemplary reasons, based in the MTW's foundational philosophy and curriculum, which can explain this productivity.

Irrespective of the current name, the once named Musical Theater Workshop of the LACLO and now ACMT's charge, in general, is still to orient stage performers - that is, actors, singers and dancers - towards a viable stage career. Its ongoing effectiveness was at one time appraised at "70 per cent of the graduates..." earning "their living in the entertainment industry."
[ 4 ]   Whether standing at the 70 % level of 1981, or the earlier 50% claimed in Sesnon's letter quoted earlier, the effectiveness of this program stands far above the usual workshop's productivity, for a number of reasons, including its standards in selecting participants for the program, its methodology, and, to this writer, the centrality of its two-fold concentration on preparation for the professional audition and the integration of those skills into scene study.

Today, the Musical Theater Workshop of the LACLO has been renamed the American Center for Musical Theater (ACMT) and has been restructured. It is no longer operated by and administered through a weakened LACLO after seminal changes in the industry here in Los Angeles and around the world, but relies on its own non-profit, public-benefit corporation for both support and direction. Having moved from its long-term residency in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center, in downtown Los Angeles, it is now headquartered next to the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. As before its restructuring, it remains a privately run educational agency, under its own board of directors, among whom is a legend within the panoply of musical theater stars, John Raitt.


2.   DEFINING THE MUSICAL THEATER PERFORMER'S SKILLS


Musical theater, for the performer, is a cross-disciplined complex, which involves acceptable  
[ 5 ]  levels of proficiency in singing and musicianship, acting and stage awareness, movement and dance, as well as an understanding of the business aspects of the field, such as relating to agents and managers, unions, company structures and personnel relationships, and, of course, the crucial audition process by which employment is won. It is around this complex of skills that the curriculum of the Workshop was designed.

Today, it is important to note that additional study may involve languages, as the genre of American musical theater now encompasses professional opportunities with producing and performing companies throughout the world. For the classical musical theater, which runs the gamut from light opera to grand opera, the inclusion of language study becomes much more crucial. In the last decade, the Metropolitan Opera has finally produced Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," and such American musical theater pieces as "Pajama Game" and "Sweeney Todd" have been included in the season of the New York City Opera, Lincoln Center neighbor to the Met. As the distinctions between musical theater genre blur with the passage of time, what remains is the consistent need for the same "triple threat" skills as above mentioned.

Because of this blurring of distinctions between genres, under the aegis of the ACMT banner, several "opera intensives" were run over the years, but these were essentially structured and supported by the same philosophic bases and pragmatic concerns which have consistently driven the Workshop.

Central to musical theater is the craft and art of singing, which is interlocked with proficiency in acting, and its corollary, stage movement. Therefore the song in its scene, whether a simple ballad, aria or complete ensemble, is the central focus of the ACMT curriculum.

 

The song, in any and all of its incarnations, can be viewed from two interlocking perspectives: first, its appearance within the scene and show, and second, its ancillary use in the audition process. The song exists, as Richard Rodgers paraphrased Oscar Hammerstein, and "becomes a song only when someone sings it."  [ 6 ]

 

Therefore, the Workshop has placed its central emphasis on the song, and the multiple skills required for today's musical theater performer (acting, movement, and business related issues) are clustered around the study of the song. This will be taken up in more detail in a discussion of the philosophy and curriculum planning of the Workshop.

 

3.   A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WORKSHOP WITHIN THE LOS ANGELES CIVIC LIGHT OPERA


The Los Angeles Civic Light Opera began with presentations of standards operettas, and slowly evolved, in its heyday, into the west coast's leading producer of stage musicals. It was initially established by Edwin Lester, a transplanted New Yorker who had come to Los Angeles as a pianist. In the first season of the LACLO in 1938, four shows were offered during a five-week season. Prior to this, Lester had presented two smaller seasons in 1935 and 1936 of what he had called a "Light Opera Festival." 
[ 7 ]

In the LACLO's first season, Lester featured John Charles Thomas in a premiere production of Blossom Time, and, in the same season, introduced Bob Hope to Los Angeles audiences in another operetta, Roberta. These ventures attracted the notice of Homer Curran, the owner and operator of San Francisco's Curran Theater, and soon Curran was arranging with Lester for shows to be jointly presented, under the LACLO, and a sister organization, the San Francisco Civic Light Opera (SFCLO). Lester's operative motto for the LACLO was "no compromise - get the best." 
[ 8 ]

The Music Center Story, published to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the institution, lauded many decades of Lester's LACLO with the following:

In order to bring musical theater within the reach of as many as possible, CLO has remained a civic, non-profit organization, thereby enabling it to present Broadway hits and comparable productions at prices nearly one-third less than those which prevail in New York. Never subsidized, Civic Light Opera has always been self-sustaining, underwritten against loss by hundreds of public-spirited citizens and business organizations of the community. In the past twenty years these guarantors have been called on only once, a record unparalleled in theatrical circles. 
[ 9 ]

Lester's "no compromise - get the best" mentality prompted him to institute a workshop for the specific purpose of providing new yet experienced talent to the LACLO. In a 1962 brochure for the newly created Musical Theater Workshop, he wrote,

The need of such training was clear; of the thousands of singers and dancers we audition, it is amazing how few know the things they must know to achieve any kind of importance in this field. While much first rate schooling was available in the separate disciplines of acting, singing and dancing, we found no procedure that satisfied the basic purpose of the workshop - the integration of all these elements into one concentrated program. 
[ 10 ]


Lester, as General Director of the LACLO, arranged an appropriation of funds out of the LACLO and SFCLO, for the express purpose of creating the Workshop. Edward Greenberg, then resident stage director for the LACLO and SFCLO associations who has been brought from New York to Los Angeles by Lester in 1959, was assigned the task of organizing the first Workshop. Greenberg had taught acting and speech at Queens College and City College, in parallel with a professional directorial career. At the time of his appointment to head the Musical Theater Workshop, he had staged over eighty productions, and was also director of the St. Louis Municipal Opera. Greenberg was joined by choreographer Eugene Loring and musical director Harper MacKay, both highly experienced professionals in musical theater, and associated with the LACLO.

The first and second sessions, in the spring and fall of 1962, consisted of 65 hours, over a six and one-half week period. The Workshop was limited to eighteen participants, by audition only. The curriculum included 1) musical scene study, the heart of the program, in which performers were cast into standard repertoire scenes for presentation and reworking under the faculty team of stage director, choreographer and musical director; 2) speech for the stage; 3) musical preparation for scene study; 4) movement techniques; and 5) effective auditioning, to guide the selection and preparation of audition materials best suited to a specific performer's personality and casting potential.

By the third session in the spring of 1963, the course work was extended to 78 hours over an eight week period, with an enlarged enrollment of twenty-two performers. In the season brochure for 1963, Lester wrote:

"...we are proud to note that more than half of the forty members chosen for the first two Workshops have since been engaged for musical productions in New York, Las Vegas, with touring companies, and in our own Civic Light Opera presentations. In several instances, they have been awarded major roles, thereby reflecting those high professional standards by which we have always measured all Civic Light Opera activities."  [ 11 ]

In 1966, the LACLO and SFCLO management wished to reinforce the Workshop by aligning it with the newly formed School of Performing Arts, of the University of Southern California (USC). The program was billed as the "University of Southern California/School of Performing Arts, Musical Theater Workshop of the Los Angeles and San Francisco Civic Light Opera Associations. Raymond Kendall, then Dean of the School of Performing Arts, addressed the idea behind this handshake affiliation as follows:

"In many ways and in multiple directions, the American university has become both a patron and a home for the performing arts. It often fulfills the role which royalty, the church, even the state have served in other times, in other cultures."

Dean Kendall highlighted a number of university programs under the aegis of the School of Performing Arts, and then introduces the Workshop to the university's family of programs:

"To these special programs is now being added a Musical Theater Workshop sponsored jointly by the University and the Los Angeles and San Francisco Civic Light Opera Associations. This addition is in keeping with the philosophy of the School of Performing Arts: to supplement the formal University training of singers, composers, critics, instrumentalists, actors and directors with professional, non-credit workshops which will enable them to adapt their basic training to the more specific requirements of their chosen professions, where there may be jobs and stable future employment. The University should train young professionals for jobs which exist and have a future."  [ 12 ]

4.   THE BASIC PROGRAM


The curriculum for the fall of 1966 ran a "Basic Program," which included the following classes: 1) musical scene study; 2) speech for the stage; 3) musical preparation; 4) movement and mime, with the inclusion of mime a change from previous seasons; 5) a course now titled "Effective Auditioning;" and the addition of two new classes, 6) sight-singing, with "primary emphasis upon those musical numbers to be performed in scene study;"
[ 13 ]  and 7) a business orientation, called "The Performer in Professional Theater," surveying the structure of a musical production company, contractual rights and responsibilities, rehearsal behaviors, and career opportunities.

In addition to the "Basic Program," additional classes were offered. They were 1) a second and more advanced round of musical scene study which concentrated on longer and more difficult materials, and 2) an extension of sight-singing for musical theater performers. Two additional classes, which were offered both to the musical theater performer and other interested parties within the university, rounded out USC's offering: 1) a seminar on producing, directing, choreographing, designing and managing productions; 2) a course entitled "Writing and Composing for the Musical Theater," aimed at book writers, composers and lyricists. These last two courses of study were ancillary to the Musical Theater Workshop, and essentially curricula to broaden the course of study at the University of Southern California.

The Workshop staff grew from three to ten. Len Bedsow, supervisor of theater operations for the LACLO and experienced as a production and stage manager, was added as the Workshop's administrator. Now included were Richmond Sheppard, a student of Marcel Marceau, who had previously taught at Princeton and the Living Theater in New York City; Jerome Chorodov, author and playwright; Forman Brown, lyricist, author and playwright; Harvey Warren, set designer; Albert Nickel, from Western Costume Company; and Michael Zimring, from the literary department of the William Morris Agency.

The Basic Program increased from 78 to 160 hours of training over a ten week period, and the Workshop functioned as a 'non-academic' and non-credited activity within the School of Performing Arts at USC, although exceptions were made for regularly enrolled USC students. Auditions were held at the Curran Theater in San Francisco and at USC. Aside from the making available of classroom and rehearsal facilities, the responsibility for operating the Workshop remained with the LACLO and SFCLO managements. Funding came from both sources, with scholarships donated by supporters of both Civic Light Opera Associations.

During the ensuing three year residence at the campus of USC, two more faculty members who were not a part of the first season were engaged. Curt Conway, head of New Talent Development for Twentieth-Century Fox and an noted actor, added a new level of sophistication to the Workshop's integration of acting into the Workshop curriculum. Conway taught the class in advanced musical scene study, and its focus was on the development of stage characterizations with reference to established acting systems, including the Stanislavsky Method. He addressed the demand for theatrical reality required in the musical theater works being created at that time. His advanced class, separate from the Basic Program, added another 45 hours to the instructional package. Paul Gleason, an experienced performer, choreographer and assistant Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Dance Theater, took on the responsibility for movement and dance instruction. Gleason remains to this time as Director of the current ACMT Workshop sessions and its other activities.

The producing offices of the LACLO were moved to the new Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, which had been completed in 1964, and the management decided to bring its Workshop into the Music Center in the 1969 season. As a result, the association with the School of Performing Arts was abandoned, and the Workshop held its sessions in the rehearsal studios on the fourth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This provided a genuine working atmosphere for each ensuing session during its residency at the Music Center, and placed the Workshop classes, Workshop offices and LACLO offices in the same building.

In 1970, Edward Greenberg left the Workshop to return to the St. Louis Municipal Opera, and Len Bedsow was named director of the Workshop, while continuing his work as Director of Operations for the LACLO. Bedsow reaffirmed the Workshop's mission this way:

Hopefully, each of these performers will enter or re-enter the world of the musical theater better equipped to meet the realities of an industry which, while unquestionably fascinating, can be frequently confusing to the uninitiated.  [ 14 ]

Bedsow began augmenting his faculty with the inclusion of guest speakers. The Curtain Call article documents, "Seminars are conducted by experienced business managers, agents, press agents, producers and directors, to answer practical questions and illustrate some of the pitfalls which might conceivably confuse and confound the neophyte. One of the important messages emphasized by the Workshop faculty is that although the musical theater is a field with high artistic components, it is also a business faced with the daily survival crisis which plagues all industry."   [ 15 ]

During the years 1970-76, the additional activities which had become part of the Workshop during its tenure at USC were discontinued. Issues of writing for, composing for and producing musical theater were put aside, and the original concept of intensive orientation and training of performers, which was Lester's fundamental concern, was reaffirmed. With the excision of the university additions, the Basic Program and advanced musical scene study under Conway's supervision were the whole of the Workshop curriculum.

In this period, added to the Basic Program were more time for scene rehearsal, organized within a working rehearsal environment, and acting as separate from the musical scene. The faculty was also culled, reformed into a smaller permanent cadre of six instructors. They were Bedsow, Conway, Gleason, Sheppard, MacKay and a new addition, Larry Ferguson, who was concurrently teaching speech at UCLA. This smaller faculty had an interesting effect in focusing Lester's goals more closely on the issues most crucial to the individual stage performer. The Workshop was said to "act as an effective bridge between the academic environment of the developing young performer and the higher plateau of the skilled artisan who works within the professional world...." 
[ 16 ]

Clearly, this documents the Workshop's self-image, and that began as and remained the "effective bridge" between the academic and professional worlds, orienting the Workshop participant from student to "artisan."

In 1976, Paul Gleason succeeded Len Bedsow as director, while Bedsow continued on with the LACLO as general manager, into its re-incorporation with the SFCLO into the California Civic Light Opera Association. The core faculty remained together for a number of years thereafter. A press release from 1979 shows the following class list from the Basic Program: 1) musical scene study; 2) scene rehearsal; 3) speech for the stage; 4) musical preparation; 5) sight-singing; 6) movement; 7) basic acting; 8) theatrical make-up, a recent addition; 9) song interpretation; and 10) effective auditioning.

The environment, in which these classes were run, was patterned after professional production standards. "Upstairs," it was written in a press release, "in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's rehearsal rooms, directly above the stage, it is a lot less glamorous. On hard wood floors in front of unblinking mirrored walls, the Workshop meets...." 
[ 17 ]

In this period, the Workshop was meeting for 300 hours across a twelve week period. The training, which had begun in 1963 with 78 hours, was now fulfilling its billing as "intensive." The enrollment was still severely limited, at this time to twenty-two participants. Lester's focus on the individual performer's orientation and training was clearly being met by his Workshop, and those alumni were finding their way consistently into employment within the industry.

Heightening the emphasis on acting, a course in "Cold Reading" was added to train in techniques for audition situations in which a performer has not been previously given script materials, and is not acquainted with those materials, but must read them effectively in an audition.

In the continual realignment towards Lester's clear goals for Workshop alumni, among those joining the faculty were directors Gary Davis and Lew Palter, Gordon Hunt  [ 18 ] 
(who was both a director and casting director for the Mark Taper Forum in this period), musical directors David Hubler and Robb Webb, and a speech coach, Larry Moss.

Accompanying these changes and realignments in the Workshop were a number of corporate changes in the structure of the LACLO itself. Effective on February 21, 1977, the California Civic Light Opera was created by the merger of the San Francisco Civic Light Opera (termed the "disappearing" corporation) and the LACLO (termed the "surviving" corporation) for the purpose of creating "a statewide light opera association...." 
[ 19 ]

The California Civic Light Opera (CCLO) was officially "founded" by Edwin Lester, and board members from both boards of directors sat together as members of the CCLO. During these years, production expenses and changes in management within the producing side of the CCLO created lessened fiscal security for the organization, and therefore for its Musical Theater Workshop. Diminishing audiences and the importing of more and more traveling companies diminished the CCLO's impact as a producing company, and it began to move towards a management role in musical theater, booking shows from outside.

Into this sparse economic climate for the CCLO stepped the non-profit wing of an economically solvent theatrical producer, James Nederlander. This non-profit entity, the American Corporation for the Arts, proposed a joint venture bearing the name of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, but in reality a joint venture of the CCLO and the American Corporation for the Arts. Nederlander, in an announcement of the joint venture, said, "This alliance is a further step in the movement to establish Los Angeles as a prime source of Musical Theater serving not only the U.S., but also the theatrical capitals throughout the world." 
[ 20 ]

In this period, additional faculty members were engaged. Carlos Noble and Jack Elton joined as musical directors, Larry Hyman and Frank Bayer, who was casting director for the Mark Taper Forum at this time, as directors. It may be noted that from its inception, the Workshop chose faculty who were widely recognized in the field of musical theater. With the untimely death of musical director David Hubler and Gordon Hunt's increased professional responsibilities, the faculty remained at eleven, centering its curricular focus on musical scene study as the core of the program.

With the continued growth of the Workshop's expenses and the fiscal demands placed on the LACLO's production and presentation plans, a decision was reached by the board of directors to create a separate non-profit agency to shelter the Workshop. Therefore in 1984 the American Center for Musical Theater, or ACMT, was incorporated. As a separate entity, it could raise its own funds, direct its own future, and yet rely on the quasi-familial support of the LACLO, CCLO and American Corporation for the Arts. During this period, its hours and session length remained at the previous level, and enrollment remained limited to twenty-two participants.

Along with the Basic Program, several other projects were taken on. A Youth Conservatory Program for performers too young for the adult-level Basic Program was begun. An Opera Workshop was run, working concurrently with the Basic Program, and with its same goals. A New Work Program was attempted, with the purpose of stimulating new writing and staged readings of new works, and alumni of the Workshop performed as a part of the Music Center's Educational Division, in a "Music Center on Tour."

Given these circumstances of a certain degree of independence along with scheduling problems involving the use of rehearsal facilities between the L.A. Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Master Chorale and LACLO-sponsored shows all competing for funding, support and space within the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, plans were made to move the Workshop to its current home, next door to the Pantages Theater in Hollywood.

Since its inception in 1962, the Workshop, now ACMT, has continued to make a central and influential contribution to the ongoing liveliness of musical theater. Yet, its lack of public recognition stems from the fact that, in its now decades long life, it has yet to produce a single public performance, outside of the public-service performances which it does as an educational outreach, or through lecture - demonstrations presented to local schools.

Amid the many performing organizations with which it has been associated, or been a 'neighbor' during its tenure at USC, the Music Center, or in its current home, and in the midst of the many publicized performances by musical theater and opera workshops in colleges, universities and community-based theaters, the Workshop, now ACMT, stands quietly unique, continuing its charge -Edwin Lester's charge- to act as an "effective professional bridge" between study and eventual employment.

Of the Workshop, it was written, "Conducted by prominent working professionals in a professional environment, the Workshop is the only training program of its kind in the nation."
[ 21 ]  This journalist's assertion is an accurate philosophical and practical account of the Workshop's conduct and its promise to the performer that has been accepted into its curriculum. It is to an examination of the ACMT curriculum and the specific goals of that curriculum that we must look for the supportive facts.

In recent years, Edwin Lester and a number of the original faculty members of the workshop have passed away. With them, a historic era in musical theater begins to pass as well. The sponsorship of the Workshop has been diminished from the organizations connected with the Music Center, and the function of the Civic Light Opera Associations as producing entities has been diluted by shifts in the way that musical theater, as an evolving business, is created and operated. ACMT continues to run smaller versions of the workshop under reduced financial support from organizations such as the old LACLO, but retains the crucial spirit and philosophic and pragmatic foundations which were established and clarified by Edwin Lester and his generation of musical theater titans.

Irrespective of current curricula in college, university and privately run musical theater workshops which operate across the country, there are basic lessons to be learned from this era and the legacy of Edwin Lester's vision of creating and maintaining an "effective bridge" between the study of musical theater and the entry into the profession itself.


5.   "GET THE BEST"


There are a number of consistent threads woven through the history of the Workshop. The first and now frequently cited is Lester's "get the best" mentality. In his time as producer, Lester had used this as his watchword in casting, and it proved, during his tenure with the LACLO, to be a successful strategy in attracting and maintaining audiences. It is from this perspective that Lester viewed candidates for the Workshop as feeder material, with proper orientation and training, to cast his shows with the best talent available. The impetus and central focus for the Workshop was therefore to select the best candidates, and then make them better through professionally oriented training.

Therefore, in auditioning candidates for the Workshop's Basic Program, both advanced skill levels and evidence of promise were easy to understand 'sorting filters' by which to select those with the highest chance of building professional careers. One candidate might be especially accomplished as a singer, another as an actor, and another as a dancer; another candidate might be moderately skilled in all three areas. A mix of these kinds of performers was more likely to result of casting, than a concentration only on the best singers, or only on the most all around skilled. Therefore there was a usual diversity among the casting choices made for each session. Along with these obvious sorting filters was one much less obvious, and that was the looking for an indication of "directability." This is a clear facet of getting "the best," for the performer who can take direction, whether during an audition or in rehearsal, will have an advantage over the performer who is resistant to direction.

Therefore selecting Lester's "best" was a matter of taking on Workshop participants who showed themselves already rather well schooled and well skilled, or showed evidence of being able to attain that level, along with the crucial psychological component of being "directable." Being a relatively intangible commodity, directability was deemed to be 1) identifiable in a candidate during an audition and interview, and 2) a skill which can be heightened during training.

A Workshop participant was then immersed into the Basic Program, which has changed in duration and detail over the years, and yet remained remarkably attuned to its function as a professional bridge towards the ultimate goal - employment in musical theater. The environment in which the Basic Program was run was a mimic of professional employment, complete with assigned stage managers, sign-in sheets following the Equity plan, and a no-excuses mentality about attendance, tardiness or lack of preparation of assigned materials. As this was a non-graded, non-academic environment, school style organization was avoided. The following is a sampling of the structure of the Basic Program in several of its seasons:

Example 1.

 

 


The growth of the Basic Program from its beginnings in 1962 was an continuing intensification of focus on the same issues, which have been clearly summarized earlier in this article: musical scene study, and preparation for employment, via audition training and learning about the business side of musical theater. The additional classes shown above all were intended to support these central goals. 

The program was to put the performer into the material, guiding and directing the study of the scenes and supporting music, in a kind of 'on the job' training, towards the goal of a performance level proficiency. Therefore, the professional environment was mimicked, as best possible within the instructional setting. Classes were quasi-rehearsals, and not run in an academic style in the sense of lectures and periodic testing of effectiveness of learning. Even the 'lectures' were more interviews, question and answer sessions being the normative behavior of the lectures.

The goal of each scene study session was to bring up to performance level, as possible, one or more performers in a working situation, and then 'presenting' in rehearsal for the remainder of the Workshop participants the ongoing "work-in-progress," a favored expression. Therefore, performers in a scene would receive coaching and criticism from one or more directors, musical directors and other such faculty and guests as would be in attendance during a particular session. This was an ongoing practice throughout the seasons.

More than one opinion might be offered by the instructors, sometimes even conflicting opinions, in large part because the business of theater can involve conflicting views existing simultaneously within a production team. Out of this, there was adequate opportunity to discuss and demonstrate coping skills for such eventualities, by the leader of an instructional team. The continual upgrading of musical theater's basic skills of singing, acting and movement were incorporated into the casting and direction of each scene, and the work was most frequently done in front of the remainder of the workshop participants, making the subjective lesson for certain performers an objective lesson for the rest. 

As mentioned earlier, a complete and publicly presented production was never an end goal of the Workshop. This is a distinction from the college and university workshop sensibilities, wherein a production of a musical theater (or opera) work, staged and presented as a finished work, is the end goal of specific workshop sessions. Without the pressure to "fill out" a cast list, roles and scenes could be assigned to most closely fit a participant's skill level and likely casting type. This lent a freedom in the decision to include certain participants in the workshop, since balance between casting types was never sought; the only real sorting filters in auditions for the Workshop were ability, and gender, as an equal number of men and women were usually enrolled.

Along with the clear focus on musical scene study, there was an intense emphasis on auditioning, on the selection of 'sure-fire' material, and the honing of presentations skills, such that directors have from time to time been able to identify Workshop alumni by the professionalism of their auditions.
[ 22 ]  The Workshop schedule required regular auditioning by participants in front of their peers and a panel drawn from the faculty, to repetitively work audition skills and materials. This feature of the Workshop is often not a significant part of the usual workshop curriculum, as class time is often invested into the university's or organization's preparations for a performed work as its ultimate goal.

There was a final night, in which "work in progress" was showcased for an invited audience, which usually consisted of family and friends of the participants, plus faculty, sponsors and guests from the producing organizations. While emceed and run like a performance, it was a loosely organized event and not open to the general public. This final night was a continued forum to espouse the basics of the Workshop - the centeredness on musical scenes, effective auditioning and professional expectations and standards.

As an example of the general organization of the Workshop's classes, the following is an real and representative outline of a twelve week long regimen, taken from the 1978-9 season. In this particular season, eleven men and eleven women participated, each responsible for preparing three musical scenes, as well as several audition numbers, production numbers and monologues as assigned. The general schedule allowed for five hours per evening, running from 6 to 11 P.M., five days a week for twelve weeks. This immersion into a professional environment was complete with deadlines for preparation of materials, and required off-hours rehearsal preparation with assigned scene partners.

Example 2.  

 

 

Curriculum Outline, c. 1979  [ 23 ]

The weekly schedule was structured so as to allow the assignment of scenes, with several days made available to prepare the new materials, coach the music and direct the scenes in limited, private sessions prior to the rehearsal-style running of the scenes on Wednesday's Scene Study period, complete with subject/object lessons for individual performer and the assembled workshop, discussion and critique from a combined faculty panel. Musical preparation for auditioning was given on Thursday, such that a week of preparation could be done before the following Wednesday's Audition Class, also presented before a combined panel for direction, discussion and critique. The twelfth week was the culmination of scene study classes and audition classes, in which the more representative projects were combined with certain production numbers involving all the participants into a quasi-revue format for final "Workshop Night" presentation to a small, invited audience. 

The Workshop also featured, as part of its basic philosophy, instruction by professionals within the industry. From management and stage directors for the LACLO, to casting directors from the Mark Taper Forum, to choreographers and musical directors with significant professional as well as academic resumes, the Workshop, through its key associations with the musical theater industry, was able to maintain a faculty unsurpassed in the nation.

In summary, the Basic Program of the Workshop was built upon a significant concentration on musical scene study supported by acting, musical coaching and movement classes, preparation for effective auditioning, and the mentoring of a range of professionals in the field. This mix of an immersion in the professional environment, focus on the musical scene as the fundamental unit of musical theater, audition preparation and contact between and exposure to industry professionals built the "effective bridge" envisioned by Edwin Lester.


6.   IMPLICATIONS FOR MUSICAL THEATER AND OPERA WORKSHOPS


This Workshop has been a laboratory in which to test the premises which Lester was committed to during his tenure with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. The significance of this particular Workshop lies in the high number of working professionals who passed through its programs. The Workshop had many luxuries throughout it history - most significantly the access to a cadre of working professionals to direct and mentor its participants. The average university and privately run workshop must usually be staffed by fewer instructors, as the professional "bridge" of the Workshop was a costly endeavor in terms of personnel payroll, even given the fact that most of the instructors received far less in compensation than their career credits would have warranted. The workshops of the future can emulate some portion of the LACLO Workshop's good fortune by yoking as many disciplines and outside guests into its instructional package as is possible. Invitation to guests who are professionals in the industry can layer a curriculum with additional pragmatic and tested perspectives beyond the scope of an instructional staff, just a guest lecturers to the Workshop, whether alumni or specially arranged instructors outside its faculty, brought their own unique experiences within the industry into the workshop.

Aside from the finite fiscal issue of faculty payroll, the two broad study goals of the Workshop need to be consistently emphasized. It is generally asserted that the basic unit of the art form is the musical scene, and, therefore, continued stress on the study of musical scenes within a rehearsal environment places the performer into the physical, artistic and emotional act of making musical theater as a hands-on, collaborative effort. In an academic program, the centering on musical scene study would require a supporting role be played by acting classes, musical coaching and instruction in movement and dance.

Moreover, the central place of musical scene study within the curriculum might frequently frustrate the sometimes competing goal of producing a work for public performance. This is a dissonance between two often disparate end goals of a workshop - either training tailored solely to the individual participant versus the greater needs of a production's casting requirements. The resolution to this conflict becomes a testimony to the basic philosophy of any workshop. The production goal will argue for lessons learned in the compromises made to mount and present a finished product for a constituent public, while Lester's Workshop philosophy dispenses with the need for a finished product, and focuses instead on the process of building skills within the structure of individual scenes. The tension between these generally defined goals, often exclusive one of the other, can only be settled by a faculty's choice as to its direction: finished productions versus ongoing scene study.

The basic entry into musical theater employment is the audition. Therefore, an ongoing preparation of audition materials and skills prepares a performer to compete within the industry for employment. It is only over the "bridge" of the audition that the performer wins roles, and gains employment. Therefore, the Workshop curriculum forces repetitive confrontations with the audition process and environment - its material, skills and strategies. This most pragmatic concern is rarely evidenced within the academic environment. It is the recommendation of this study that it might be a welcome addition to any workshop within an academic curriculum. 

Whatever the curriculum choices, the aim can always be agreed upon, and that is that the Workshop, and any musical theater and opera workshop, must achieve a finer understanding of the structures, skills and the art of musical theater. A reassessment of this exemplary curriculum, its methods and goals, can assist in that finer understanding. To again cite Sesnon, "The vitality of the musical theater depends upon the creation of new works and the emergence of new talents." 
[ 24 ]   The new works will be written in the privacy of collaborations and artists' studios; the emergence of new talents will remain the province and charge of the musical theater and opera workshops. This cursory study of this Musical Theater Workshop, under the successive banners of the LACLO, CCLO and, now, ACMT points the way to highly effective instruction, the sensibility of shoring up and preserving that "effective bridge" from study into the profession of musical theater, and the continual and vital "emergence of new talent." This was the vision of Edwin Lester, and his clear-sighted and forward-thinking view is applicable today, and will remain a lesson for our tomorrows.

 

Copyright © 1999 by Gary Bachlund

NOTES

[ 1 ]   Letter dated February 20, 1968, from William T. Sesnon, Jr., titled "LOS ANGELES CIVIC LIGHT OPERA ASSOCIATION (LACLOA), to the 'Guarantors of the Civic Light Opera'."

 
[ 2 ]     Ibid.

 
[ 3 ]     p. 3, Calendar Section, Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1983.

 
[ 4 ]    p. 7, "The Musical Theater Workshop of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera," an unpublished report by Paul Gleason, prepared for the California Civic Light Opera Association and the American Corporation for the Arts, July 27, 1981. 

 
[ 5 ]     Read "salable," as the discipline's ultimate goal is the employment of the performer.

 
[ 6 ]     Richard Rodgers, Musical Stages, p.78. New York: Random House, 1975.

 
[ 7 ]     From a personal phone interview with Mr. Lester, April 10, 1985.


[ 8 ]
   Martin Schwartz, "A Passion for Excellence - The Los Angeles Civic Light Opera," in The Music Center Story, A Decade of Achievement, James Toland, ed., p. 101. Los Angeles: The Music Center Foundation, 1974.

 
[ 9 ]    Ibid.

 
[ 10 ]   See the season brochure for the Musical Theater Workshop of the LACLO, 1962-63 season.

 
[ 11 ]   Quoted in an unpublished "Outline for Musical Theater Workshop Application for Foundation Grant Monies," 1967, pp. 2-3.

 
[ 12 ]   Raymond Kendall, "The University and the Performing Arts," in the 1965-66 brochure for the Musical Theater Workshop, announced in conjunction with the University of Southern California.

 
[ 13 ]   Ibid.

 
[ 14 ]  By 'phillips 2/72,' the only annotation of the authorship of an unpublished draft of the article, "The Workshop - A Fact of Life," written for Curtain Call, a publication for the Music Center's theaters, p.3.


[ 15 ]   Ibid. p. 2-3.


[ 16 ]
   Ibid. p. 2-3.


[ 17 ]   Unpublished draft of a press release, author unknown, titled "Less than Glamorous," written for Playbill, April 1980. p. 3.

 
[ 18 ]  Gordon Hunt authored the highly respected How To Audition. New York: Dramatic Publishing Company, 1977. Gordon was casting director for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, is additionally a well respected television director and father to actress, Helen Hunt.

 
[ 19 ]  "Agreement of Merger," dated February 21, 1977. Robert Kingsley, president, and Ernest Martin, managing director. p. 1.

 
[ 20 ]   Performing Arts, Vol. 15, no. 7, July 1981. p. 31.

 

[ 21 ]   Libby Slate, "The Musical Theater Workshop: Grooming Tomorrow's Stars," in Performing Arts, vol. 16, no. 8, August 1982. p. 10.

 
[ 22 ]  From a personal conversation with Paul Gleason, choreographer, director, past director of the Musical Theater Workshop of the LACLO, and current director of ACMT.

 
[ 23 ]  Untitled document, no official date given. Taken from an unpublished internal report from the Musical Theater Workshop to the LACLO, CCLO and American Corporation of the Arts.


[ 24 ]   op. cit.