Every summer, teachers from across the country descend on New York City for Broadway Teaching Group's Broadway Teachers Workshops, three days worth of professional development. It pairs arts educators with Broadway professionals for workshops, networking, and, most excitingly, tickets to Broadway shows. Produced in conjunction with theatrical licensor Music Theatre International, the popular events sell out every year, offering teachers not only the chance to learn new teaching methods and skills, but also they earn professional development hours and graduate-level academic credits.
This year, Florida theatre teacher Janine Papin became our reporter on the scene. Get an inside look at this year's workshop—including sessions with Tony-winning Broadway star Beth Leavel, Some Like It Hot's Kevin Del Aguila, puppeteers from Life of Pi, and more—in this first-person journal from the experience.
My name is Janine Papin, and I am a theatre teacher and director at Trinity Prep School in Winter Park, Florida. I know that being a regular student makes me a better teacher, so I am always on the lookout for ways I can continue learning, so that my middle and high school students have a fresh and inspired teacher each year. I have been a repeat participant at the Broadway Teachers Workshops for years. This year Ellie Potts Barrett (a longtime friend, choreographer, and collaborator) joined me to experience the amazing and inspiring classes, workshops, and shows that are always a part of these summer sessions. We met up in the city the night before the workshops began and treated ourselves to a performance of Camelot at Lincoln Center. The soaring and magnificent score set the tone for what was to come!
Up and out early for a brisk walk across town from the hotel. The sessions were at A.R.T. New York Theatre on 53rd between 10th and 11th Avenues—the north end of midtown’s theatre district. Two large theatres were reserved for sessions throughout the day. Workshop co-director Pam Pariseau greeted us and told us all about their Broadway Student Summit program and the changes they have made for next year's sessions. They will be offering four choices to attend a Broadway show, a tech option, and an optional adjudication offering. I am planning to bring my students to the Summit this February, and I know that they’ll be excited about these changes.
Now, on to the workshops! The first session I chose was “Site-Specific Theatre, A Conversation between Content and Place,” taught by Rachel Alderman. Rachel’s class was thought-provoking and mind-expanding! Her background with the theatres she has worked with have led her to produce all sorts of shows in unique and original places. She was able to illustrate the presentation with photos of some of her past projects. She stressed the need to find an expansive concept that you can dig into with all involved in the project. She showed us how something with high visual impact can be just the thing you can use as a focus to create around. Practicing and perfecting the audience's journey within the immersive experience and finding partnerships that can assist you with the project were just a few of the helpful tips given. She supplied the class with a producer’s checklist so that we could make sure to cover all the details to ensure a successful site-specific theatrical production.
Session two: “Projections: Power and Possibility on a Budget” with Daniel Brodie, who summed up his session as: “What and why and also how to kind of do it cheaply.” Daniel gave us a brief overview of the history of projection, which actually is not new; it is at least 120 years old. He advised us to “lean into the magic that projections can create” and “embrace when we use projections and not try to hide the fact we are using them.” Daniel took us through three components: content, playback, and surface. He gave lots of tech advice that we could investigate, and references for further information. “Projections can make you feel something that you can’t do with lights,” he explained, adding that you can actually make the audience “feel the point of the song with projections.”
Then, a lunch break! I was able to meet up with one of my former students, Hunter Brown, now a professional actor, and enjoyed a fabulous lunch at Norma on the corner of 53rd and 9th Ave. Nothing is more exciting to me than being able to connect with the young men and women I had the pleasure of teaching and directing while they were at Trinity Prep. Hunter was appearing as Brick in Escape to Margaritaville at the Engeman Theater on Long Island. He shared with me that he has some exciting performing news on the horizon!
Session Three: "Musical Theatre" with Beth Leavel. This class demonstrated why Beth is such a celebrated comedic genius on the stage. She is truly hysterically funny in person. She had the class in stitches as she told stories about her life and experiences while fielding questions. Beth offered her advice about comedy, saying that “comedy is truthful telling of the story in the way the author intended and is always based in reality.” Before her decision to choose acting as her livelihood, she had briefly thought about being a social worker. She acknowledged the connection—a social worker listens and responds, and that is exactly what an actor does. Beth worked with three different young singers and workshopped their audition material to bring truth and a clearer intention to their performance. She helped the participants personalize their songs; she asked questions about the moment before (which is the fuel that drives the piece), used some improvisation to get into the piece, and reminded them that a good audition song has variety within it and should go from one place to another. Beth talked about nerves, offered a breathing exercise, and reassured us that nerves actually can provide the fuel for a performance.
Session Four: “Conscious Casting” with Mark Saks. For the past 30 years Mark has been a casting director in TV as well as in theatre. Mark talked about the fact that casting is a collaborative effort and how important it is to bring the creative team together so that a casting director can facilitate their vision and make sure that everyone is on the same page. He said that a casting director should be viewed as the actor's friend, not an adversary. He talked about the need for casting authentically, and then entertained us by showing us old headshots—some going back 30 years—of now famous actors and told us that “everyone looks better in success.”
Session Five: Music Theatre International. We played a game! We were given clues about shows and put our answers down on paper—trivia for us theatre folks. Then a representative for MTI took us through their new show offerings. Four singers sang a few numbers from each musical as the plot was being narrated. The following shows are scheduled to be released for licensing soon: Alice By Heart; Trevor, the Musical; and Between the Lines. We also found out about a new platform called Curate. It has all sorts of tools that will take the user from rehearsal through the performance process.
For dinner, we went to Honeybrains on 54th and 8th for a vegetarian dinner and met up with Tony Moreno, another one of my former students, who is a swing in The Book of Mormon on Broadway. He is covering seven tracks in the show and having a fabulous time. I got to see him in the show when he first started, and I could not be prouder of this talented, 2016 Jimmy Award-winning young man.
And then we took in an evening show: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I saw the original production in 1979 with the late, great Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou. This show, starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, was incredible. It was thrilling to hear the fabulous full orchestration played by a group of 26 musicians! The performances were wonderful, but what blew me away was the ensemble work. At the post-show talkback, we learned how much individualized time was spent with each cast member, allowing them to create the amazing specific physicality that we witnessed. As a modern dancer, I loved watching the leans, falls, contractions, and staccato movement. After the performance I was able to catch up with Austin Burket, yet another former student and an amazing violinist, who was part of the orchestra that evening. Following a brief visit, I met up with fellow teachers at Sardi’s. After last call, I walked back to the hotel and collapsed for the night.
A quick breakfast at the hotel and brisk walk energized us for day two. Today, Gordon Greenberg greeted us. He had just returned from directing Crime and Punishment, A Comedy at the Old Globe Theatre. I admire Gordon’s work. A couple of years ago, I got to direct a piece he and Steve Rosen had written, Dracula, a Comedy of Terrors. It is now being mounted Off-Broadway at New World Stages. I plan to come and see this hysterical play.
Session Six: “Directing Scene Study” with Kevin Del Aguila. Kevin is a genuinely funny guy. He broke down comedy into three categories: situational comedy, character comedy, and textual comedy. Working with volunteers from the class, he put a scene on its feet from his current show, Some Like it Hot. He talked about what he called the “Holy Trinity” for performers: work hard, have fun, and be nice. When asked about how he helps coach actors who are not finding the “funny,“ he said that he sometimes will give a note with a sense of what he wants from them rather than giving a line reading. He also talked about the marriage of the character and finding the truth in yourself. Kevin shared stories of working on original material where, during previews, lots can change, be totally cut, or rewritten.
Session Seven: "Creativity" with Eric Cornell. This was an amazing presentation about what is creativity and how we view it. Eric stressed the need to acknowledge that creativity exists in every sector, and that creativity CAN be taught. It is the number one skill that business leaders look for when hiring! Luckily for the teachers in the session, Eric supplied us with his entire PowerPoint presentation. He pointed out that creativity happens when there is an overlap of motivation, expertise, and creative thinking. I look forward to implementing what I have learned at my school.
Session Eight: "Dance" with Jess LeProtto. Jess is an amazingly friendly and energetic young man who is currently performing in A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical. We were treated to a fun, inspiring class. He taught us a combination from one of the songs in the show, and then he had us kick it up a notch and really perform the combo with attitude and commitment. By the end of class, everyone had a smile on their face and a little more bounce in their step!
Then we headed to an afternoon matinee of Life of Pi. The show was masterful in its use of creative storytelling and puppetry. I was amazed by the grace with which the puppeteers moved. We were at the Saturday matinee before the show's final performance on Sunday. As I sat there in awe, I kept wondering how an incredibly beautiful production like this could possibly be closing so soon. The work was truly breathtaking!
For dinner, I went back to Honeybrains for another vegetarian meal. This time, we met up with a current student who is studying in the city during the summer. After eating, we made a quick trip to Drama Book Shop! I love that place!
Our evening performance was this year's Best Musical Tony Award winner, Kimberly Akimbo. It’s hard to put into words all the reasons why this musical is such a beautiful and moving show. As Gordon Greenberg said in one of the sessions, perhaps it’s because, underlying the entire story, there is truly a sense of humanity. Humor, pain, absurdity, hope, strength, resilience—it’s all in the story. The music is terrific, and the acting on point. Victoria Clark is phenomenal to watch, and the role of Kimberly is now my dream role. After the performance, we had a short talkback with some of the performers.
Gordon held an optional session for teachers interested in bringing their students to the Broadway Student Summit. Since I’d brought my students many times, he asked if I wouldn’t mind fielding some questions about what it’s like to bring students. In short, I highly recommend it!
Session Nine: "Physical Scene Study" with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child's Chelsey Arce. Using a scene from the show, Chelsey used class members to explore how to gain the most impact approaching a scene from a physical standpoint. Her session was called “Threading the Needle” because that's what it's like to make sure that everyone in a company is on the same page and shares the same vision. Chelsea had us all do some physical work transforming ourselves from 11-year-olds to 40-year- olds. In a scene from Cursed Child, she had volunteers embody the characters with very specific descriptive traits and then dial up the physicality. She worked the scene several times, adding more specifics each time. She said “the comedy is in the truth” of the scene.
Session 10: “Fundamentals of Puppetry on Stage: Life of Pi" with puppeteer/cast member Andrew Wilson. Andrew started out talking about the importance of breath. Yes, even the puppets need breath! He told us about the sheer mastery that was required of the actor-puppeteers. Three performers work collaboratively to create the realistic movements of the large puppets, and they all help to supply the sounds the animals make. Each of the three has a specific task: the head, the heart, and the hind. All are important! Andrew demonstrated how the focus of the puppeteers affects the audience’s focus. Do we focus on the puppeteers or the puppet? In Life of Pi, we cease to see the people and notice each and every movement of the animal. Andrew’s athleticism and grace were stunning to watch. Next, a hands-on task: We divided ourselves into groups of three, and Andrew talked us through how to make a puppet out of paper. He taught us how to manipulate it to simulate realistic movement. After working with our puppets, it was clear that we all needed many more hours of practice…
Session 11: “Path to Broadway." This yearly session offering is such a treat. We get to hear stories about how performers made their way to the Broadway stage and listen to them sing. This year the guests were Matt Raffy from & Juliet, John Rapson from Sweeney Todd, and Kevin Cahoon from Shucked. The stories are always full of ups and downs, and demonstrate the fact that talent, mixed with persistence and passion, can open doors.
That evening's show was Some Like it Hot. This musical pulled out all the stops with its terrific production numbers. Such fun! There is a choreographed chase number that simply blew me away. This show surprised me because it contains some really relevant messages. After the show, many members of the production joined us for the talkback, including composer Marc Shaiman! What a funny and approachable man. He happened to be there because some understudies were on and he wanted to see them. He was very generous with his time; he stayed and answered so many questions.
And with that, the official Broadway Teachers Workshop came to a close—and what an incredible time it was. But I personally wasn’t done yet! I just had to take in one more show. So, I ran a few blocks to see Here Lies Love. It was their opening weekend, and I wanted to see and experience this immersive theatrical story. I'm so happy I did. I was wowed by the use of lights, the moving stages, the projections, and the performances. A walk back to the hotel to get some rest for one more day in the city.
This was the first year that I opted to do one of the extra full-day intensives. Broadway Teachers Workshop offered four choices: directing, music direction, choreography, and technical theatre. My friend and I both opted for the choreography intensive.
Session One: "Classic Choreography." Gabriella Sorrentino, dance captain of Hamilton, led the first class. She taught us a combination to the song “My Shot.” She broke down Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography move by move, making sure we understood the specific intention of each and every movement. In that show, Blankenbuehler makes sure that each exact and precise movement tells a story. The class was so much fun, and the two hours flew by!
Session Two: "Bit by Bit, Putting Steps Together." Alison Solomo has choreographed for theatre, television, and film. She led a discussion about her creative process and how she works as a choreographer. She stressed the importance of the choreographer being on the same page as the director, knowing the expectations for what parts of the show a choreographer is responsible for, knowing the time period, history, and vibe of the show. While remaining flexible and adaptable, it is important for a choreographer to find their unique voice and infuse it into their work. She advised that if we have the ability to work with dancers pre-production, we should. Alison suggested that in order to assist our students to remember their choreography, we teach them how to record it in their own way so that they understand it. Another tip she offered was to tell our students that they need to be in motion as their character before they enter the stage.
Session Three: "Inspiration Into Movement." Choreographer Lorna Ventura taught the last session that dealt with finding sources of inspiration. After warming up the class, she led a fabulous improvisation exercise using “authentic movement.” In groups of three, we worked together, passing off improvised movement and then building on each other's movement. Lorna then worked through how we use a source of inspiration as the foundation of choreography. Using a photo or an image, the class explored how to bring it to life through movement.
And with that I headed out, bound for Penn Station and then back to Florida. I left inspired and ready for the next school year. Thank you to all the presenters and teachers and especially to Pam and Gordon for an amazing Broadway Teachers Workshop 2023.
The 2024 Broadway Teachers Workshop will run July 12–28, 2024. Visit BroadwayTeachingGroup.com.