“Craft is the basic thing in the beginning of this work for you to understand; it is your handle. It is not your talent. But you must have it,” Stella Adler expressed in her book, …On America’s Master Playwrights. Siphoned from a similar well of knowledge comes Broadway talent Burke Moses’ inaugural book venture, Stanislavski Never Wore Tap Shoes.
Spanning 333 pages of meticulously guileless and conversational prose, Moses commands the reader—mostly musical theater professionals and the stage aficionado—to expand the dexterity of their limits while approaching discourse with a chess master’s precision. Rather than rehashing from previous sources, Moses places the reader in the plush seats of the theater as if watching a grand performance of theatrical greats, while learning from their successes and their mistakes (he points to his own as well) with playful wit, rectitude and empathy.
Moses conversed with writer Marcus Scott about writing his first book Stanislavski Never Wore Tap Shoes, his 30-plus years as a musical theater professional that surged after originating Gaston in the original production of Disney’s Beauty the Beast, his craft and gaining perspectives through career highs and lows.
Stanislavski Never Wore Tap Shoes as a title resonates!
Decades ago, I was at a party where a dramatic actor was ranting on about how musical theater people can’t act, and that Stanislavski was the next coming of the messiah, and blah, blah, blah. Finally, I had enough, and yelled out, “Stanislavski never wore tap shoes. Okay, pal?”
What inspired you to create a musical theater acting guidebook for young actors and professionals in the first place?
Directly after graduating conservatory, my career immediately took off. Within several months [of] arriving in New York, I had a three-year contract on a soap opera for ABC television, and was also cast in a supporting role in the original company of the most anticipated Broadway musical of the season. One week later, I was let go from the soap opera due to scheduling conflicts with the musical. One week after that, I was fired from the Broadway show. This is known as, “The Showbiz Combination Punch.” That’s how the showbiz cookie crumbles.
Yet had I [a] rudimentary grasp of the lessons in my book, lessons that were not the focus of my conservatory dramatic training, I firmly believe I wouldn’t have been [Rapunzel’s] Prince exiled from the original company of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Decades later, Sondheim hired me to play Herekles in The Frogs at Lincoln Center. The story ended happily.
What are the most important tools you feel every actor needs to be successful once coming out of a master class or conservatory?
After spending four years at a conservatory, musical theater students should expect to possess a rudimentary grasp of craft in their performance disciplines. If you wish to dance professionally, you must have solid technique. Although some singers excel without training (see Barbra Streisand), every vocalist must be able to sustain and hold pitch. No sane singer or dancer would attempt to interpret choreography or song without first knowing, and even mastering these skills. Many conservatories provide excellent training in dance and singing training. Thus, many graduates enter the market with a firm grasp of these techniques.
Yet most drama department graduates, and I’m talkin’ over 99 percent here, approach an acting role from an interpretational standpoint. Interpretation is guesswork. No dancer “guesses” how to do the time step. No singer “guesses” how to hit an A flat. That’s craft. Yet few singers and dancers approach speaking dialogue onstage as a craft. You need to know how to say a line, and then you can make creative guesses. Else, where is your acting foundation, in guesswork?
Got any audition horror stories?
Every audition of mine is a horror. I have an audition in three days, and I’m horrified. The older you get, the harder auditioning becomes. I hate the process, probably because I’m not very good at it.
Theater theorist Constantin Stanislavski believed in emotional and sense memory. Unlike Stanislavski, you note that it is best to say your lines “in one,” by pushing toward the main idea of the dialogue that the playwright has given the actor—Why?
The libretto, play or screenplay is like a wave; bad wave, bad ride; good wave, all kinds of possibilities! Your creative process, your “Stanislavski,” is you, the rider, and the creativity you use to ride the wave. The surfboard is your craft. If you’re forced to surf on a wooden plank, if your board is not well “crafted,” your riding talents are severely hampered, or made completely worthless. The same is true in acting.
No matter what creative choices you make or what method you use to find those choices, if you don’t follow the craft rule and push through most of your dialogue “in one,” say lines in one breath or use a series of catch-breaths to drive through many lines, scenes die. This rule has been proven effective over hundreds of years on world stages. It is also proven that if you don’t drive through the majority your libretto dialogue, or if you continually act before or between dialogue and not “on the line,” you will never give a great, good or even competent stage performance.
You also suggest knowing the power of wordplay and how passion can lift or influence the wordplay of the writer/ librettist.
I talk about how one must gain passion for words and wordplay to be a good stage actor. All skilled dancers have great passion for movement. They find fascination in the most basic of dance positions at the barre. If that dancer wishes to speak on the musical stage, he or she must also develop great passion for words. Most performers who obsess over song and dance don’t hold equal passion for dialogue. Thus, they never have chance to become compelling actors. Words and dialogue are what separate our medium from the opera or ballet. Without the desire to find passions for words, wordplay and dialogue, why not just join a dance troupe or a choral society?
How does this influence the physicality of an actor?
If not motivated by the words of the script, why would an actor move? As my newly Tony Award-honored friend Darko Tresnjak says, “It’s impossible to train an actor or director who is not a good reader. You have to pull the character or the production off the page. The most outlandish ideas will work, but only if it comes from the text.”
One of the chapters suggests that American actors emulate the Brits, especially in traditionally American art forms such as musical theater?
Steal from the best. The manner in which many British actors craft dialogue is often so delicious it puts us Americans to shame. When it comes to crafting text, Brits have much to teach us. The English stole modern American acting training from us to explore more visceral emotion in scene work. Why not steal dialogue craft from the Brits?
As a successful working actor on stage and screen, what do you feel is the most important trick of the trade that has benefited you as a performer of musical theater?
There’s an easy question to answer: Know what I call “The Primary Rules of Dialogue.” Understand that by following these rules comedic and dramatic opportunity leaps off the page.
Craft has nothing to do with talent. Craft tools and rules are like the notes of a piano. After practice, some people will only be able to play “Chopsticks.” Only a select few will go on to perfect Rachmaninoff. But you’ll never know how well you can play or what talents you might possess if you don’t first sit on the bench, place your fingers on the keys, and begin the process of learning your craft. The rest is just experience.
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and Edge Media Network.