Thursday, 15 December 2016

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Thom Allison

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Thom Allison trained in directing with Allen MacInnis at the Grand Theatre in London

(November 14, 2016) Well, Joni Mitchell: River has opened at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario. And I have to say I could not have asked for a better experience.  I got exactly what I wanted out of it. Allen MacInnis was an incredibly generous mentor. Every morning we would discuss what he hoped to accomplish that day—be it working through the text analysis of a song or finding a way to re-stage a number in a way that tells the story better.

I got to be in my first production meeting in the first week which I’ve never done. I’ve had a general sense of what happened but it was just great to actually be a part of it. I loved it. You really get to see what it means to be working with your creative team. The production manager leads the meeting and you go around the table and each department head shares where their department is—what’s done, what needs to be done, how it’s going to get done, when it should be done.  Then people ask questions they need answered from the other departments. It’s all very efficient. You really get to see how “it takes a village” . . . a high-tech, multi functioning village. By the time the meeting was over, it was clear what state the show was in from all angles and everyone knew what they needed to do in regard to their own business and what anyone/everyone else needed from them. It was great. It also allowed me to see that a director is only as good as their ideas and the team they’ve got to realize them. Whew! Note taken.

Then it was about the work in the room. What was infinitely valuable was watching Allen’s care of and way of adaptively working with everyone in the rehearsal hall. We had three very different actors who worked in three different ways and who also had three different skill sets. That was freakin’ cool. What would work for one was not going to work for another. Watching Allen with our performers was a masterclass in respect, encouragement and firmness of vision. He was never rude or mean or dismissive or impatient. If someone wasn’t getting what he wanted, he would simply find another way to express it. And the greatest lesson of all for me was Allen’s willingness to let go of how he was thinking of a song interpretation in his idea of the character’s arc, to allow the actor more room to bring whatever they were bringing to the table. And then he would still find a way to weave that interpretation into the fabric. I will not go into more detail about people’s performances in rehearsal as the rehearsal room is as sacred as a confessional.

The other thing I was really interested in was the technical aspects: how to navigate the lighting level sessions, making choices with the sound designer, continuing to create set and costumes with the designer, Dana.  By the time we started rehearsals, (as I think I said in my last blog) the set was in its final design. So now we got to see it up in the theatre and it was beautiful—so simple but so elegant. There is always that adjustment that happens when you see the set in real space and some things seem bigger or smaller or closer or further. We decided to make some adjustments (i.e. moving the whole set back, away from the audience, about a foot.)

Then we got to costumes. Because the show is happening in the “now”, it was modern dress and we wanted to dress our actors in versions of clothes they would wear. Allen was completely generous about asking my opinion about colour choices, styles for each actor and how they fit together. He also knows I have a pretty good eye so it was easy to give my opinion.

At one point, Allen asked me to choreograph a guitar change in Act 1. Because of Joni Mitchell's wildly unique guitar tunings, we had to have 18 guitars in the show (you can see all the cases lined up in the pic) but they would not all fit onstage so we created a guitar change in the middle of Act 1. So he asked me to create it. That was fun. And it stayed! Woohoo "... and I helped."

Eventually we go onstage and I was able to be a part of the discussions/notes with sound, lights, musical director, stage management and stage crew – “Can that cue take a beat longer?”, “Could that light be brighter and more red?”, “Could we put a sound effect on his voice at the end to make it slightly echo?” If there was ever a request I didn’t understand I was always welcome to ask Allen why. Although there weren’t a lot of those because we would discuss so much as we went along, I would usually know what he was going for.

As we were doing runs of the show, Allen encouraged me to take my own notes and would always check in with me and incorporate anything I found that he didn’t take note of.  I tried to anticipate the things he was looking at so I didn’t repeat anything and then find things I knew he was too busy to make note of.  It was a very symbiotic relationship.  Speaking for myself, I think it flowed really well. 

Finally, there was a point nearing opening when Allen chatted with me about the process of giving the cast the reigns in the last couple of days. It’s a delicate thing to still be encouraging people to keep growing, to maintain the right path for the show after opening while empowering them to own their own process going into the run-proper. It’s about balancing helpful direction with constructive praise.

I couldn’t have had a better, more generous mentor than Allen MacInnis. We laughed and I learned a ton. He has the qualities I want as a director: smart, loving, generous, endlessly inventive, passionate. And he freely shared all of those qualities with me. I’m so grateful to him.

And I’m so grateful to Theatre Ontario and the Professional Theatre Training Program.  This grant really did allow me to have a masterclass with one of Canada’s finest directors and he shared everything at his disposal. It was invaluable.

And two days after we opened Joni Mitchell: River I started rehearsal as the director for Seussical the musical at Young People’s Theatre. Now I will be able to put everything I’ve learned into my own process.

Infinite thanks to you, Theatre Ontario...and Allen.

Related Reading:

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2017.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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