Supporting creative work by women
Bronwen Carson‘s work is currently on stage five nights a week through June 24th at T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre in New York City. She has choreographed the new musical farce about Jack the Ripper, Jack’s Back!. Yes, that’s right farce. Her choreography is winning her many notices. Back Stage named the musical a Critic’s Pick, “delightfully choreographed by Bronwen Carson.” TheaterOnline.com raved, “There must be a special mention of the spot-on, beautiful choreography by Bronwen Carson…Carson uses the stage’s different levels with a mixture of Fosse-lite jigs, balletic leaps, and pratfalls.”
Carson chatted with Works by Women about her passion for dancing, how Edward Norton led to her working at T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre and the women artists who inspire her.
WBW: What and/or who inspired you to be a dancer/choreographer?
BC: I honestly don’t remember the moment of decision to be a dancer. There wasn’t one, I just knew what I was going to do, when I was about 6 or 7. If I could attempt to put it into words, it was because of the music. I wanted to become the music and also become the silence between the music. Dance was the only way I could do that.
Shawn Stuart and Jody White planted the seeds of choreography in me. When I was around 12, studying to be a classical dancer in the Bay Area, they would ask me to try things like “dance what your name feels like” and “what does orange look like … now show me how purple moves”. They seemed like odd but very exciting challenges. I would spend hours thinking about the questions Jody and Shawn would ask me. Both of them, without saying anything directly to me, were quietly developing my abilities to tell stories through movement.
WBW: Great work on JACK’S BACK! What was the process of working on this new musical like? Has it differed from other shows you’ve worked on?
BC: Up until Jack’s Back!, I’ve choreographed shorter pieces, commercially and theatrically…but Jack’s Back! is my first full-length musical. The first time I heard the music I was hooked, so I pestered [Artistic Director] Terry Schreiber and [Producing Director] Barb Kielhofer relentlessly to be the show’s choreographer. I could not get the songs out of my head. The entire show has a lot of cheek, which works well for me. I have a brilliant but extremely cheeky British mother, so I was very comfortable with the style and world Tom Herman so deftly created.
Staging and choreographing 18 musical numbers with predominantly actors as opposed to dancers, with only around 10 hours of rehearsal time each week was certainly a daunting challenge. Some numbers came easily to me. Others…not as much. I agonized over three of the numbers (We’re Off to America, One of Our Own and Why Not Be Rich) for weeks, trying to plan and organize to no avail. Ultimately I just let go of all the planning and just allowed the magic of the rehearsal room to inspire the work in the moment.
Trusting the process and illuminating the strengths of each performer played a huge part of creating this much staging and choreography. One thing John Rubin, the show’s director, and I were both adamant about from the start was we wanted a unique, almost timeless world in which the characters had their own movement vocabulary. All the movements stemmed from each character’s motivation or thought. Like Detective Hugo Cummings. The first rehearsal I had with Matthew Boyce, who plays Hugo, I asked him…”how does Hugo see the world? It seems to me he’s almost birdlike…possibly a sandpiper!”. He said “yes, yes!”, so we played and improvised for about a half hour and all of his movements and choreography for the entire show began there.
WBW: The choreography of “My Excellent Machine” is whimsical, hilarious, fantastic. Tell me more about developing the movement for this piece. The precision is impressive.
BC: I loved working on this number! John and I met over and over again about how we could best create the machine. Would it be props? A backdrop? In the end, we came to the belief a hybrid of actors and props would work best. Then John just let me have it creating the people-turned-machine. I think my long-time obsession with science, physics and machinations ( I’m a true TLC, SyFy, and History Channel junkie) helped me “see” the machine in my mind’s eye. The actors were so dedicated and open to trying all sorts of movements that it made the process really fun.
WBW: You started out as a student at T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre. Tell me about returning to work on its award-winning shows. What makes it a special place to create?
BC: I love how I found Terry. I did a tiny role in a film called Keeping the Faith. Edward Norton was the director. I had the chance to chat with him for a few minutes and asked him where I should study acting. Without hesitation he said, go study with Terry Schreiber. So I did. While studying with Terry, I found myself wondering how a certain scene would work in silence and about just how much we convey through body language. I decided to take everything Terry had taught me about truth, nuance, intention, conflict, and tactical changes applying them directly to choreography.
<span style="color:#333333;"Terry has worked tirelessly to create an environment of learning a craft…becoming a craftsperson in the art of storytelling. It is truly that rare studio where your artistry and technique are both strengthened and challenged. That fact that the studio’s shows garner so much attention and critical acclaim never surprises me. It’s the environment of excellence he enables and demands. I have a very special place in my heart for Terry. He has believed in my through some really tough times and given me the opportunity to be a part of creating work I believe in. His kindness and unflinching standards bring out the best in my work.
WBW: What’s next for you?
BC: I’ve got a couple of exciting projects in the works. In June, I’ll begin working with John Rubin on The Private Theatre‘s production of Playing With Fire opening at The Box in August. I love working with John. In the short time we’ve been creating Jack’s Back! together we’ve found a shorthand and ease in our way of collaborating. Playing With Fire will be almost the antithesis of the cheeky, whimsical world of Jack’s Back!. I’m always looking for a different kinds of work that push me into new expression of movement and new ways of building bridges between the ephemeral world of dance and the construct of the spoken word.
I’m also in the midst of creating a full-length dance play based loosely upon the first decade I lived in New York. A very thrilling, dark, challenging, hilarious time in my life. I’ve workshopped the play twice and am now head-hunting producers for a final Equity workshop before a planned premiere in late Spring 2013.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater? What gives you hope for women in American theater?
BC: I think the challenges women artists and creators face are the ones that have been there for ages: for a myriad of reasons, men have dominated much of theatre, art, music and film for a very long time. I see it as sadly still a challenge especially when it comes to female playwrights, directors and choreographers…specifically when there is a big budget involved. That said, I genuinely believe that old way is slowly leaving the building. Too many extraordinary artistic leaders and theatre visionaries are women…from Zelda Fichandler to Aszure Barton to Graciela Daniele, Kathleen Marshall, Julie Taymor and Diane Paulus.
Whether we are starting to become less concerned with the social pressures that a lady is never outwardly assertive about the pursuit of her goals or if the fact that the commercial and artistic success of women in the theatre is now undeniable, the future of women within the American Theatre landscape is expanding. We are nothing if not a force of nature, of business, of vision, and absolutely … of theatre.
Jack’s Back! continues through June 24th, Wednesday through Friday at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm, at T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre (151 West 26th Street, 7th Floor — between 6th & 7th Ave.).