Behold and Believe: Lessons Learned from The King and I

Any person who holds the position of “dramaturg” or “dramaturge” will eventually face the question “What is it that you do exactly?” more times than they can fathom. Each dramaturg will develop a flurry of responses that are easily understood at those occasions when people talk about their work. But while these sorts of titles might be fun to throw around, they also seem deliberately vague and they don’t get anyone any closer to actually understanding the nuts-and-bolts of what a dramaturg does.

One of the more well-understood aspects of a dramaturg’s job is their role as researcher. More often than not, a dramaturg is responsible for answering all the factual questions that come up in rehearsals and so we spend hours digging up information on a wide variety of highly specific topics. This is the part of the job spent sitting in libraries. The dramaturg helps build the world through which the original story emerged and, in doing so, aids those whose job it is to interpret that story.

For The King and I, I was faced with a number of challenges when heading into my research. The show is essentially history in itself, between the subject material, the source material, and the Rodgers & Hammerstein trademark, I had a lot to think about. I found that it was more important for me to look for information that would not necessarily be accessible from a quick Google search. While I have included the basic information in this packet, I have tried my best to supply information that is not as quick to find.

However, this packet is still in a work in progress. If anyone in rehearsals would like to see something added, fix a typo, factual, or grammatical error please let me know. By the end of this process, I want this packet to become a collaborative effort. It is my hope that by the time the curtain rises, people will be as inspired and intrigued by the history of this musical as I have been fortunate enough to be.

This is the first thing I wrote in my Dramaturgy Packet for the cast of Interlochen Arts Academy’s The King and I. Not a word of it has changed since then, even though the production closed in May.

I barely knew anything about The King and I prior to doing the show. I knew the plot and music of course, but my familiarity with the show was mediocre at best.

I asked to be the dramaturg for the show out of fear. At least I think I did. It was a spur of the moment thing, and it would still allow me to audition for the other show, Amadeus. I think I just asked to because I felt if I didn’t get cast in anything, I would have something to fall back on. You see, I was in a bit of a rut. I was down on myself and on everything I was working on, and my self-esteem was kaput. So it was like opening the emergency exit door and putting one foot out.

Then, I started working on the show. In-depth, y’know? Listening to the show on repeat, writing, reading anything I could get my hands on, googling the hell out of everything, the works. I realized pretty quickly that I couldn’t half-ass this, I had to whole-ass it (shoutout to Alexandra Silber for introducing THAT concept to me.) How, though, could I secure my position in the cast for the show? I still had to audition for Amadeus according to the rules of the theatre company. So I thought to myself, “Yoni, how are you gonna be 100% no question a part of The King and I? I know, Yoni! Ask to be the Assistant Musical Director!” So I did, and I was. That was that. I was also cast as a six-foot tall Royal Child and Ribbon Dancer. Classic.

Was the show “bright and breezy”? Hardly. Some of us really went through hell and back working on it. The show holds a lot of personal significance to me, so I figured I would share some of my reflections from three months after it closed.

Here are some of the lessons I learned from this show:

  1. If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.
  2. Love every single thing you do, and the end product will mean much more.
  3. A good teacher can and WILL change your perspective on what you are working on.
  4. Sitting through 3 days of auditions is exhausting, and frankly, frustrating.
    1. Learn your song well in advance.
    2. Choose a song of the correct gender from the show, and a character that even slightly resembles someone you could play.
    3. Smile. Be happy. Don’t be embarrassed if you think you can’t sing. Everyone wants to see you succeed.
      1. There will always be one person in the room that won’t. That’s okay.
    4. Sometimes, you can just tell.
      1. Sometimes, it’s not fair. That’s okay too.
  5. Don’t gossip at the back of the rehearsal room. The whole cast and crew can see you. Shut up.
  6. Be kinder than you think you have to be.
    1. When you are behind the table, people are more quick to get frustrated with you and expect you to know everything.
      1. You don’t have to know everything. You just have to be able to find it out.
  7. Panicking is okay (in moderation).
  8. There will always be one person working on the show that makes you want to shove your head in a toaster oven.
    1. You are not the only one who feels that way.
    2. Someone probably feels the same way about you.
  9. Do not talk about the show outside of rehearsal, unless you are working on it with other people outside of rehearsal.
    1. You will inevitably talk about the show. You may need to vent. That is fine. Keep it with one person, who will keep it to themselves.
  10. Do not, by any means, ever, ever, EVER tell someone that the work they are doing is unimportant or insignificant.
  11. Trust is fickle.
  12. You will get backstabbed, most likely by the least suspecting character.
    1. You will survive this.
  13. Be good to your understudy. They can either be your biggest supporter or the person to push you down the staircase.
  14. Never bring up budgets in a production meeting.
  15. If you disagree with a director’s choice or anything of the sort, have a polite conversation with the director and let them explain their decisions. This will be 100% more effective than gossiping with everyone else, and may even make the director rethink a specific choice for the better.
  16. Erase your own f***ing orchestra scores/librettos.
  17. Take advantage of every single opportunity you get.
  18. Be grateful.
  19. Stay humble.
  20. No one, and I mean NO ONE, works harder on a show than a director and their team (the group of people in every rehearsal).
  21. Being a stage manager, musical director, dramaturg, assistant, etc. is a thankless job.
    1. That can be very difficult at times.
  22. The work you do is crucial to the production. If you work hard enough at it, the product will be sorely missed when you take it out of the equation.
  23. Do not expect everyone to care about everything you do.
  24. Rodgers & Hammerstein shows…
    1. are dated. No way around it. Don’t try to go around it. Celebrate the work for what it is.
    2. have the most beautiful orchestrations, and if you get a full orchestra you better celebrate that for all it is worth. You may never get that ever again.
    3. are layered with more and more history and meaning the deeper you dig.
    4. can make you want to pull your hair out.
    5. can make you cry.
    6. can get someone started in theatre.
      1. If you are working with children, enjoy them. They are much smarter than you. Thank them after every rehearsal.
  25. Cry when the show ends if…
    1. you hated working on the show. It’s over. You survived.
    2. you loved working on the show. It’s over. You’ll miss it.
  27. Always remember why you do this in the first place.
  28. Love yourself.
  29. Get sleep.
    1. Organization is SO important. Organize your schedule, your binder (my binder for this show kicked booty, y’all), your sleep time, your room, everything.
  30. Remember this show for the rest of your life.

So, thank you, The King and I, and its director, Robin Ellis. I will never forget this.

Pictured: Little Eva in the 1967 Interlochen Arts Academy production of The King and I. Double exposed film.

1967 Small House of Uncle Thomas 4 (Double)

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