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Directing CARRIE THE MUSICAL at New York Universtiy

I had never directed anything ever before in my entire life, but I knew that Carrie was a story that I could tell. I was first exposed to the original 1976 film by my mother when I was a pre-teen. She showed that movie to me because I was severely bullied as a child, and it helped me get through a lot of the difficulties that I faced growing up in the public school system in Chicago, Illinois. As I got older, the film stayed with me, and I had a special edition DVD version that had interviews with the actors and creatives. I remember Betty Buckley and Lawrence Cohen talking about Carrie the musical which I never knew existed. I began to do research on the original production, and fell in love with it. I thought it was so artistic, and the music was like nothing I had ever heard before. Even back then as a young teenager I began to think of how I would direct the show or movie if I ever had the opportunity. As I got older, there were remakes of the movie and sequels, all of which I've seen, and I also read the King novel several times. 

I then heard of a workshop of the revamped Carrie the musical that was going to happen in 2009, and I was so excited. That's when I was still in high school in Chicago. What a coincidence that my first year in NY as a freshman at NYU, the production would be mounted Off-Broadway. As soon as I heard the announcement, I e-mailed the Lucille Lortel begging to usher for the first preview. They granted my request, and I remember having to be there early while all the creatives were there talking to the cast, and I felt like I was a part of the conversation, even though I was in the audience preparing to usher and the company was onstage. Afterwards all the creatives said "Hi" to me too -- I can't quite describe the experience. It was a moment in which I knew that I was supposed to be exactly where I was. I got to usher and watch the show, and the whole time I couldn't believe that I was watching a production of Carrie the musical. It felt so surreal, and it's an experience that I won't soon forget. 

The production kept the material in my mind, and when I heard that the show was closing, I quickly purchased a ticket to the final performance. That was also a very visceral experience. I felt like I'd been on a journey with the show since I saw the first performance, ever, and then saw the final performance after all the changes. When the licensing for the show became available, I knew that I would do it at some point -- it was just a matter of when. I had to get my hands on the material. I noticed that every production of Carrie I saw -- whether on stage, or film -- was very unique. I, too, wanted to take the material and incorporate what I felt were the most important parts of the story using the book, the original movie, the material, and my history with it. 

I was able to direct Carrie the musical at NYU through our student directed series called StudentWorks. I wouldn't have rather had any other show for my first experience as a director, and after putting together a team of strong young artists, we submitted a proposal to the Department of Drama. StudentWorks is a new series at NYU that challenges students to put on a show with a $1,000 budget, with no outside fundraising. Our group and Carrie the musical was chosen to be the inaugural StudentWorks show at NYU. It was the perfect show to do on a smaller budget, and the fiscal challenges along with the small black box space made our team get very creative. I believe that a lot of the success of our production came from the creativity that we had to have given the circumstances. The show was wildly accepted and anticipated at NYU. Even during the proposal process, hundreds of students and teachers approached the production team members telling us how excited they were that this show might be coming to NYU. This is a show that young people want to do and are excited by. I'll never forget my experience directing Carrie the musical, and I know/ I'm positive this won't be the last time that I direct this material.  

The decision to add in ghost characters supported our vision in a few ways. Primarily, we wanted to represent all the people that had been killed on May 28th in Chamberlain, ME. We envisioned our high school class as having about 32 students, but only 6 of them are instrumental in Sue’s storytelling and memory. The ghosts represent the forgotten students who lost their lives at Prom that night, thus they were dressed in destroyed -- burnt and tattered -- prom clothing. I personally didn’t want the show's crew to be seen, and thought it would be interesting instead to have the ghost characters manipulate the set as if it was Carrie’s magic working during the whole show. From that idea, I decided to have the ghosts present in every scene in which Carrie uses her powers. For instance, we had a ghost slam a light bulb against the wall in the shower scene, two ghosts come onstage to close the windows at the end of Act 1, a ghost manipulates the chair in the telekinesis scene, and of course, the ghosts figure in the destruction -- they became our theatrical vocabulary to illustrate her powers.

We also used the ghosts to serve as Sue's interrogators. We also added them because we wanted to offer more opportunities for students, and didn’t want to increase the ensemble of 6 because the ensemble vocal line is written so beautifully. We didn’t want to disrupt what was written by adding more voices. All of the ghost’s interrogator lines were pre-recorded, and they never spoke in the show. They used their bodies to articulate all of their thoughts, and their inability to speak and stop the inevitable arc of the story to drive the motivation behind their movement. At the end of the play, the ghosts carried Margaret and Carrie’s bodies offstage to reset the space for Sue’s nightmare to repeat.

The blood: Given the small playing space and the amount of movement we wanted to have during the destruction, we thought it best not to drop blood onto Carrie as it wouldn’t be safe having liquid all over the stage. I came up with the idea of adding a cinematic quality to the blood drop. After the bucket turned, there was a blackout, and a booming sound cue that was followed by an audience blinder. There were three sets of blackouts and blinders with sound. During each blackout, Carrie would get progressively bloodier, and when the lights came up fully, we revealed a bloodied Carrie. This way, the audience got the essence of the blood drop as if it happened in slow motion during the blinders moments, and the actress playing Carrie had time to transform during the blackouts. This took all of 10 seconds. Carrie’s dress was built to transform from clean to bloody in a matter of seconds. Our costume designer, Martin Lara, built a trick skirt that was already bloodied on top of the regular skirt. That skirt was then rolled up and covered by a belt of the same color fabric that Carrie’s dress was made out of. There was also piece of bloody fabric in the bosom of the dress that the actress pulled out to cover the front of her dress. Finally, another actor handed the actress playing Carrie a blood pack, which she burst on her face and smeared the residue on her arm. And just like that, there was our completely bloodied Carrie! In between Carrie’s exit from the destruction and her arrival home, we had the actor playing Carrie bloody the crown of her head, apply more blood on her arms, and ditch the shoes.

 As for our destruction climax, we decided not to go with a general, mass destruction, but instead, to pinpoint each character's death. There was no choreographed “dancing” at all in the destruction. All the students ran to the doors, and Carrie killed them one at a time, ending (of course) with Chris, and leaving Ms. Gardner alive to see Carrie walk out of the gym, and be killed by the explosion. Taking a cue from the original film, we also decided to single out Tommy being struck and killed by the falling bucket, as opposed to his just being killed in the wash of Carrie’s destruction. He fell to his death during the blackouts that transformed Carrie from radiant to bloody. 

Photo Credits Director: Christopher D. Betts; Set Designer: Matilda Sabal; Lighting Designer: Kelley Shih; Costume Designer: Martin Lara; Photographer: Sub/Urban Photography

 

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A stripped-down revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s experimental 1947 musical Allegro is currently playing at Classic Stage Company. It marks the first time the show has been seen in New York since a 1994 Encores! production that starred Stephen Bogardus, Karen Ziemba, Christine Ebersole, and Celeste Holm. On that revival's opening night—March 2, 1994—Stephen Sondheim spoke about the show’s formal innovations and his memories of working on the original Allegro (he was a gofer). Here are his ... Read more →

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