July 2007

A Chorus Line

Author: Paul deVere

In the Director’s Chair with Casey Colgan and A Chorus Line

It is the first days of rehearsal. In a little over three weeks, the cast of 19 will be performing the play that became the longest running show in the history of Broadway. Though some consider the play a musical, when it opened in 1975, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Director Casey Colgan calls it a tragedy.

“The tragedy is, at the end, all of a sudden everybody is back in the chorus, including Zack. Everybody is one—the same look on their faces, the same makeup, the same costumes. The chorus never steps forward,” Colgan said.

Director Casey Colgan points to the “line” his dancers need to be on

The play is a play within a play (an old trick of Shakespeare’s). Dancers are trying out for a part in the chorus line. They want the part where no one will know them. They are desperate for the part where they are just part of the background. Throughout the play, each one of these dancers is asked by Zack, the director, to tell us, the audience, about him or herself. But chorus members are not supposed to have selves—they just dance and sing and smile as one. But they do. Some will make you laugh. Others will break your heart.

Dustin Flores as “Paul”

The play, with a cast of “triple threat” actors (you’ve got to dance really well, sing really well, and act like there is no tomorrow.) opened at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina June 19 and will run through July 29. The play is A Chorus Line. How it got here, how it all happens, and something of what it takes to make it to opening night is an extraordinary story in itself. Here are just a few of the pieces.

Casting call
It’s New York City, fall, 2006. The casting call for the Arts Center’s Fiddler on the Roof (which closed May 27) and A Chorus Line are held together. Over a five day period, 900 hopeful actor/dancer/singers try out for the two plays. (A two-day tryout on Hilton Head Island nets another 75.) “Bring in the next 40,” Colgan shouts. He has their pictures with their résumés taped on the back. Many are members of AEA, Actors Equity Association. That means they are real pros. You can’t buy your Equity Card. The others have credits showing they are almost there, in the big leagues. The scene is very much like the opening of A Chorus Line.

“I had a tough time getting my Cassie,” Colgan said. “Either they couldn’t dance or couldn’t act or couldn’t sing. But I had one in my back pocket. I had her try out last. I kept pushing her, saying, ‘Keep going, keep going.’ You could see the tears. I had her do three pirouettes in a row. She nailed them.” Jena VanElslander, who has her Equity Card, got the job.

Writer Paul deVere interviews Casey

In 1995, on the European tour of A Chorus Line. Colgan played the role of Bobby, so he knows the play. “We’re doing it as it was directed and choreographed originally on Broadway,” he said. “Since I got the opportunity to do this, I’m trying to restage is as letter-perfect as I can.” This will also be meaningful for Paul Buschman, who plays Zack. Due to other commitments he’ll arrive when the cast is two weeks into rehearsal. He’s played Zack before. “He’ll just insert himself into the blocking,” Colgan said.

The right direction
It is the third day of rehearsals, June 5, 2007, Hilton Head Island. Colgan has the actors run through the dance routines. They know them, but it has to be perfectly together. They are playing chorus members. They must “act as one.” Jennifer Brooks, who plays Val and has done the show several times, is the assistant choreographer. Amazingly, after just three attempts, eight strangers—many of the cast have never met—“act as one.” No, it isn’t perfect, but it is quite obvious that it will be. Colgan is sitting in his director’s chair (a yellow barber’s chair) having two or three conversations at once with crew members, while keeping his eyes on the routines. He jumps up, demonstrates the routine for the guys and returns to his yellow seat.

Kathi Bateson is the President and CEO of the Arts Center, which means she is the show’s official producer. She talks about choosing directors. “Your try to pick a director that’s correct for the show, and you generally pick a director you have had experience with. At the time they’re directing the show, they’re the project manager. You need the right management leader for the right project,” she said. “Casey is one of our favorites. He knows the community. He’s an open, collaborative, generous director. That will show up in the cast.”

Colgan began directing and choreographing on Hilton Head Island in 1989—first for Hilton Head Prep, next to the old Dunnagan’s Alley theater location, when the cast was mostly made up of islanders (a community theatre). He’s directed and/or choreographed over 35 shows on the island since then. He lives in New York where he teaches at his alma mater, American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). He’s been doing that for 20 years—that is, when he’s not on the road or on Hilton Head—“My second home,” he said. He played the Scarecrow in the last touring company of The Wizard of Oz—the one with Mickey Rooney.

Christmas season on Hilton Head Island, 1998, islander Sarah Creech gets a part (her first) in a Christmas Carol, which is Colgan’s debut as director at the Arts Center.

May 20, 2007, Creech graduates from the University of Virginia, with a BA in Drama. Playing Kristen in the current show, she’s grown as a performer and is good enough to share the stage with a group of Broadway and Off-Broadway professionals.

Third day of rehearsals, June 5, 2007, Hilton Head. At a break, Colgan has Erin Kukla, who plays Diana, sing What I Did for Love. There is no spotlight in the “black room.” Kukla, an Equity member, has sung this song before. It is beautiful, and it is only the third day of rehearsals! Everyone applauds. Then they continue the routines. It begins to come together. All of the above fragments, all the pieces of lives, the experiences, the relationships, the talent—it all comes together to make the play.

All the dancers, sweating, handsome/beautiful, come together as one…chorus…line.

A Chorus Line
June 19th – July 29th
The Arts Center Of Coastal Carolina
(843) 842.2787

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