A violin 'speaks,' a blow dryer 'plays' — it's all actor-musicianship

Multi-Skilled Performer John Doyle

John Doyle, a renowned theater director and a visiting lecturer with the rank of professor in theater at Princeton's Lewis Center for the Arts, is teaching "Development of the Multi-skilled Performer," in which 13 undergraduates are exploring the genre of actor-musicianship.

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

As one student pushed an upright piano into the center of the room, another plucked her flute out of its case. One cradled her violin under her chin, tuning it as she joined the group; another plugged a blow dryer into an outlet, adjusting its whooshing sound by changing the settings. Others carried everyday objects — empty glass and plastic bottles, a corkscrew, a giant metal paper clip, and a pen.

On this recent afternoon, the 13 Princeton undergraduates in the class "Development of the Multi-skilled Performer" were completing an assignment: choose a short poem and work collaboratively in small groups to adapt the poem, using elements of a genre of theater called actor-musicianship.

John Doyle, a renowned theater director and a visiting lecturer with the rank of professor in theater at Princeton's Lewis Center for the Arts, has focused his career since the early '90s on developing the actor-musicianship approach in 24 musical productions. There is no orchestra; actors play their own instruments, sing or use their voice as a musical instrument and create "found sound" with common objects. Doyle received a 2006 Tony Award for "Sweeney Todd," which was followed by a Broadway production of "Company," both directed with the actor-musicianship method.

"I'm not looking for a finished product," Doyle told the students, stepping to the back of the room. "I'll stay silent 'til you say 'help.'"

Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn, a junior who is concentrating in English and pursuing certificates in theater and gender and sexuality studies, chose the poem "Lana Turner Has Collapsed" by Frank O'Hara about a 1962 incident in which Hollywood actress Lana Turner fainted at her birthday party.

"Actor-musicianship is a good way of getting into pieces like these — which are a little ambiguous and unexplainable — because it encourages the imagination," Ellis-Einhorn said.

She was familiar with Doyle's work before taking his course "The Nature of Theatrical Reinvention" in fall 2013. She had seen the film version of his production of "Company" and had read widely about his method of directing.

She said the process of working with fellow students on her vision for the piece unfolded new meaning about the poem. "I didn't completely or logically understand what the poem meant to me, so by creating the piece collaboratively with the other actors, we were all finding its meaning together and finding how the theatrical form shaped that meaning," Ellis-Einhorn said.

Watch a video of Ellis-Einhorn and her fellow students during their classroom exercise:

In this excerpt from a classroom exercise, junior Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn (standing, second from left) collaborates with other students to experiment with a poem she has chosen —"Lana Turner Has Collapsed" by Frank O'Hara — using techniques of actor-musicianship. (Video by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

No experience welcome

The students span freshmen to seniors, all with a mix of musical/theatrical abilities and majors — from senior Caitlin Wood, a concentrator in chemical and biological engineering who is a violinist and co-concertmaster of Princeton University Orchestra, to freshman Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson, an alto in the Princeton University Glee Club who is considering majoring in Near Eastern studies.

Doyle finds it refreshing that theater is not a major at Princeton, but rather is offered as a certificate. "Because it's not their major, that means their world view is broader," he said. "When I teach in a conservatory, those kids are already hungry for a job, so they're relating to me as a potential employer. The Princeton kids are going to be the Secretary of State of America!"

The course began with an introduction to the history of actor-musicianship. "In Greek drama, they had instruments on stage. Shakespeare did it. Brecht did it," said Doyle, who served as artistic director of four theaters in the United Kingdom before launching his freelance directing career.

Classroom exercises have included "physicalizing" Greek text from "The Trojan Women" and exploring ways to perform a song from "Fiddler on the Roof" to communicate the musical aspects of Jewish culture. The class also observed a rehearsal of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Allegro," which Doyle directed this fall at Classic Stage Company in New York — where he is an associate director.

Doyle began a three-year term with the University in fall 2013. In the spring, he will co-teach a Princeton Atelier course, "The Peer Project," an examination of Henrik Ibsen's epic play "Peer Gynt" for adaptation for a modern audience, culminating in the performance of selected scenes.

He said he hopes students take away from the "Development of the Multi-skilled Performer" class "the ability to think a little out of the box in terms of how they look at a piece of theater or a piece of text, the ability to see that you don't have to follow the normal formula, that you can think abstractly, and that you can use music as a way in to something."

Doyle gets as much out of the course as the students do. "They're very smart, they're very sharing, they're very good at listening to each other," he said. "To hear the kind of questions they ask you, the kind of curiosity that they have, is extraordinary. It's really a shared experience."

"I was initially intimidated to be working with such a notable and eminent theater person," said senior Jake Robertson, a concentrator in Slavic languages and literatures, who is also pursuing certificates in theater and Russian, East European and Eurasian studies. "But from the very first day, it became clear that John was incredibly warm and welcoming."

In the director's chair

For the final project, the students conceived and directed a one- to three-minute piece from a play, musical or text. Students cast themselves and other students in the class and were given only a brief rehearsal time. They presented the scenes informally in class in early December.

Robertson chose a scene from the end of the musical "Man of La Mancha," based on Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote." Robertson, who also played the title character, said, "Cervantes is inspiring people through his art, his theater, as a poet and playwright, so I thought I might translate that into inspiring people through music."

As with the poetry exercise, the focus was on demonstrating elements of actor-musicianship, not showing a polished "final" performance. Watch an excerpt of Robertson's piece:

Watch an excerpt from the final project of senior Jake Robertson (on couch) — a reimagining of the ending of the musical "Man of La Mancha," in which musical instruments are integral to the theatrical interpretation. Also shown are sophomore Nadia Diamond and senior Greg Kraft. (Video by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

Robertson is an experienced sketch and lyric writer and comedic improviser. He said he chose to enroll in "Development of the Multi-skilled Performer" to broaden his perspective on theatrical performance.

"It was an opportunity to try something out of my comfort zone," he said. "Thanks to this course, I will never be afraid to challenge the status quo, to reimagine and reinvent, to shed inhibitions and create something new."

Jared Hopper, a freshman who is considering majoring in English and is a member of Theater Intime, the Princeton Triangle Club and the a cappella group Princeton Footnotes, chose for his final project "Show Me the Key" from the musical "The Secret Garden," in which one character is trying to teach another to "speak" Yorkshire. "I thought it would be interesting to see if we externalized that language and put it into the instruments," he said.

Watch an excerpt of Hopper's piece, featuring violinist Wood:

In this excerpt from freshman Jared Hopper's final project — the musical number "Show Me the Key" from "The Secret Garden" — Greg Kraft tries to teach senior Caitlin Wood to "speak" Yorkshire, using the "voices" of two violins. (Video by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)