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Backstage with Elaine Topodas, Choreographer

By • Feb 23rd, 2007 • Category: Interviews, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

We continue our shadowing of the Springfield Community Theatre’s production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown by talking with Elaine Topodas, the choreographer [MP3 11:02 3.2MB]. Or read the transcript of the chat.

Mike: Hi, this is Mike with ShowBizRadio and I am backstage with Elaine Topodas. She’s the choreographer for Springfield Community Theatre’s You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Thanks for talking with me, Elaine.

Elaine: Thank you for having me.

Mike: So an easy question: what does a choreographer do?

Elaine: The choreographer, in my opinion, his or her job is to what I call embody the director’s vision for the show. And literally to put what he sees in the show and give it form in terms of movement.

Mike: So is it more than just the blocking? Which is all that I’m familiar with since I’m most familiar with plays.

Elaine: What it takes in addition to things like blocking it, it takes the expansion of gestural movements which you will use in your acting. Then putting it in time with the music. Allowing actors to be able to perform and do movement and still sing. Hopefully the choreography will allow to be choreographed with the breath and the breathing so your singers look much more and feel much more natural in the movement that they’re doing.

Mike: How do you learn to choreograph? Do you have to be a dancer first? Is it broader than it is just dance? How do you learn that skill?

Elaine: Many choreographers were dancers first. I’ve danced my entire life. I started dancing when I was seven. I was one of the lucky ones however. I started with creative dance and Eurhythmics. From there my training became modern dance rather than ballet. Modern dance is a much more natural movement vocabulary. It is very much related to gravity and the use of gravity. It’s much more accessible to people who don’t have extensive dance training.

Mike: What do you mean by vocabulary? Or dance vocabulary?

Elaine: When you take a ballet class there are a whole bunch of steps that you learn and they all have french names because it comes out of the early French court dances. It’s a vocabulary just like words are that you can put together to make movement sentences. The vocabulary that you use. The kinds of words, the kinds of movements you use from modern dance are much more akin to what we use in everyday movement and then they’re stylized. So if a song asks for a soft shoe number, I may not do certain steps. What I’m trying to get the actors to do is to move in the style of a soft shoe.

Mike: Ok, that makes sense. You kind of have to figure out what the director wants and then you have to figure out what the performer knows how to do or is able to learn to do. You have to merge those together.

Elaine: That’s my work style. Not all choreographers do that, but that’s what I give to a director, I think. It’s the flexibility to get choreography that fits with what the director wants and what his actors can give him.

Mike: So did Don give really specific things like I want soft shoe and then I want tap or anything? Or did he just say, I want this.

Elaine: He did give specifics. There was a march number. That has to be marched. He wanted a soft shoe number and to the extent that the actor can deliver, we put it in. Some of it is much more open to interpretation, like Beethoven Day. That, too has a requisite style of movement, but I had more freedom there. The New Philosophy was very much a Charleston style of movement. Even if it’s not particularly a Charleston that the soloist is performing, she’s very much in that style because of the music and because of the movement.

Mike: Is it hard teaching people who don’t have dance skills how to do these basic, are these considered basic steps or are these considered advanced or what are these?

Elaine: I would say it’s more basic. I don’t do advanced choreography because most people in community theater don’t have the mastery of the basic skills of dance. Of alignment. Of knowing how to do some basic steps. So you’re working with untutored people so the easiest way to get them to look like their dancing is to take their movement and show them how to make it into a dance movement. I have sort of a reputation in community theater of being a choreographer for non dancers. I taught ages three to adult. Since I moved here to Virginia in the last ten years I stopped teaching. In my home state of Connecticut I taught creative dance for many years and modern dance. So that’s my background and the directors I’ve worked with have liked the fact that I can tune into what they want and go from wherever the actors are. Instead of trying to straight jacket them into all these dance steps that they just don’t have under their belts.

Mike: Do you have to have a trust relationship with the performer?

Elaine: Absolutely.

Mike: How do you build that? I mean I saw the first bunch of rehearsals where you just kind of sat there and absorbed, it seemed to me, from the performer?

Elaine: Very much. I prefer to see how they’re developing their character. How they create the movement of the character. Every time an actor creates a character, there’s a whole style of movement that they begin to build. I hope to take it from there. And when they do warm ups they begin to see, “Oh, gee, I can do this stuff.” When it comes to creating the choreography for their particular dances, they already know, “Gee I can already do this much. Whatever else Elaine gives me I can probably do, too.” That’s how I build. I try to listen to the actors, listen to the director. And then find my way into getting them to learn the choreography. Once I’ve taught it and you may have noticed this in rehearsals, but several of the characters have substituted movements of their own because that was easier. What they have done is taken possession of their choreography. For me that’s what I like most.

Mike: Have any of the parts been really challenging to figure out how to make a dance integrate with the music?

Elaine: Yes. The one that has been the greatest challenge for me has been Linus. The musical styles in the parts where he’s really not singing are not easy rhythmically. Stylistically they do seem to cry out for a very distinct style movement. The actor isn’t terribly comfortable with that. My job becomes finding a way of getting him to be able to move in a way that makes sense with the movement and to the extent that he’s comfortable. It’s tough. It’s one of the tougher songs in the show. You can’t count it easily: one two three four one two three four. It’s very syncopated. So I ended up counting it in the way that you hear it.

Mike: You mentioned a few minutes ago that you were going to Switzerland?

Elaine: I am. My son is the athletic director at the American school in Switzerland. He had mentioned to the drama teacher that his mother does choreography. She asked if I would be available to choreograph Oklahoma. I did that last spring. This Spring I’m choreography Kiss Me Kate.

Mike: Oh, wow. Very exciting.

Elaine: It is. It’s fun.

Mike: What age performers out there?

Elaine: These are high school students.

Mike: Ok. Is it easier to have students that are all roughly the same age versus Charlie Brown where there’s such a wide range?

Elaine: Yes. I want to say yes and no. One of the twelve year olds has a good amount of dance training. In some ways she’s just as easy to work with, if not easier to work with than the adults. My observation is that teenagers however, tend to do what they think they see instead of what you’re actually doing. Whereas an adult pays much more attention to the details and to exactly what you’re doing. I think that is the biggest difference is where they are temperamentally.

Mike: I would think if I were being asked to do some of the dance stuff, I would feel very self conscious. I don’t feel that way when I do acting. The position of my body would make me feel odd, I think. Is that a common problem?

Elaine: It is. One of the things I try to do with the actor is. I have a masters degree in Movement and Dance from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I did a lot of acting studies as well as movement studies of the techniques I’ve learned that comes home to Stanislavsky and Chakovsky and Chekov is really building character through the body. It’s a bit of a science developed by these men. I’m not doing anything, but trying to transfer to actors who aren’t comfortable, a way to be more comfortable in their bodies. And seeing that even when they don’t know they’re doing it, they really are acting with their body. You don’t convince me that you’re angry unless there’s the requisite tension in your body. I just bring it up to a much more conscious level. Then you say, “Oh, gee, I’m already doing it. Then I can do this much more.”

Mike: That’s fascinating.

Elaine: Does that make sense?

Mike: Yeah. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Elaine: It’s been a wonderful experience. I do want to say that this is my first time with Springfield Community Theatre, but I have worked with Don Neal before. He is the reason I respect the man and I have enjoyed working with him. I was delighted to be available to choreograph this show.

Mike: Well, it’s all coming together this week.

Elaine: It has to doesn’t it?

Mike: Sure does. No pressure like a deadline.

Elaine: Right.

Mike: Ok, well thanks very much for talking with me. It’s been interesting.

Elaine: Ok. Well thank you Mike and we’ll see you soon.

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started ShowBizRadio in August 2005 because they love live theater. They each have both performed in and worked behind the scenes in DC area productions, as well as earned a Career Studies Certificate in Theater from Northern Virginia Community College. Mike & Laura are each members of the American Theatre Critics Association, and Mike is a member of the Online News Association.

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