Thinking In Three Dimensions: The Director/Choreographer

In this series of posts, I’ve been having conversations with people who are involved in all different facets of the development of new musicals.

Joe Barros is the Artistic Director of New York Theatre Barn, which has been producing new work since its founding in 2007. He works widely as a director and choreographer: recently he choreographed Larry Kirwan’s Hard Times, which ran at The Cell. I talked to Joe while he was in rehearsals for a workshop of a new musical adaptation of the classic Wilkie Collins gothic novel, The Haunted Hotel, at the Signature Theatre in Virginia.

Rob Hartmann: Let’s talk about readings, since readings are often what people think to do when they’re developing new musicals. As a director/choreographer, when you’re doing something like a reading or workshop — something less than a full production —how do you think about the way movement connects to the story?

Joe Barros: I think — what are the essential things that I need? What will make an impact and enhance a number — what will give the illusion that it’s a full-out number that’s happening? But lately I’ve had an epiphany about development. I don’t think readings are our friend.

RH: I agree.

JB: I’m eager to get everyone out of the way of music stands. Coming in the first day of Haunted Hotel, I said, I’m not here to create a nice reading. I’m here to work on this show. I said, I’m going to stage everything — we’re going to do this like it’s a full production. And if it becomes too overwhelming, we’ll pick and choose the moments we put on their feet. So everyone dove in. And we transformed the script from all the work we have been doing on our feet.

RH: Doing a lot of readings makes you good at writing shows that are good for readings. I have a suspicion that it actually contributes to there being fewer dance musicals in the pipeline. Writers, at least in New York, think, oh I can get a reading, but since dance doesn’t come across in a reading, you end up not thinking about how something can be conveyed through bodies.

JB: And therefore, not only are we fixing shows to be done well for the rhythm of a reading, but we’re also neglecting a major artistic element — dance. Why would you develop a show only focusing on two of its elements when you could develop three?

Some shows look great in a reading. Then you have a show like The Boy Who Danced On Air that we’re going to produce at New York Theatre Barn. It’s controversial. It is smart. It is about movement, it’s about dance, and it’s about its environment —we’re going to do it in the round. And it doesn’t come across in a reading because a reading doesn’t allow the audience to really go on the journey.

Watch this video on YouTube.

A clip from The Boy Who Danced On Air

RH: Let’s talk about NYTB In The D-Lounge, the concert series that New York Theatre Barn produces at the Daryl Roth Theatre. When you’re looking to bring new writers into that series, what are you looking for?

JB: For me it’s usually what they’re writing and how they’re writing — or I hear a song and get excited by it. We always program two totally different writers together, so we have different sets of audiences seeing different work. We have writers who then are exposed to one another so they can create an alliance, and work together and support each other.

We keep a detailed spreadsheet of all the writers we have had in the D-Lounge. It’s really important to us that we include women writers, and that we include a diversity within our writers as far as ages and races go — and different levels of training and experience.

The D-Lounge is the beginning of our developmental process – it’s like our first date with a writer. We get to work with them for the first time, see their work presented, and see how people react to them. That’s the beginning of the relationship, and we continue to support them and nurture them.

RH: Do you have any advice for new musical theater writers?

JB: It’s always about the story. They used to say, “Write what you know” — but I think you should write about the things that inspire you and excite you. You should write about what’s important. Write from your heart. Write a show because you believe that it has a message that’s going to make a difference, that you would fight for ten years to get produced. Because that’s the reality.

You have to believe that much in what you’re doing, because all it takes is for one person to believe that your show is good. It just takes one.

And not every show is for every producer. People are always so disappointed when I say I don’t want to do a particular show. It’s not because I think it’s bad, I just don’t resonate with it. But someone else will.

Part of what New York Theatre Barn does with the D-Lounge is about connecting the right person to writers we believe in. I might not think a show is a good fit for me or New York Theatre Barn — but I invite people who I think can help move a show along, or who can connect these writers to the right person.

Another thing we’re doing at New York Theatre Barn — we created a lab for choreographers. Not only so they can explore their choreographic and storytelling skills, but also so we can integrate choreographers into new work development.

We’re exploring. We’re not trying to replicate Bob Fosse or Michael Bennett, or Jerome Robbins – those were people who were very outside the box with movement. They created musicals where movement expanded our perception of what a story could be, and how we could be affected by it. It was brilliant.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Hansel Tan and Jennifer Blood perform A Relative Relationship by Timothy Huang at NYTB

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