by Lili Froehlich
“Got anything for me, coach?” is how one of my beloved kittens would address me anytime I walked on stage with information resting on the tip of my tongue. Coach? Me? Hmmm, I kind of like that. Though sports are definitely not my thing, it made for the perfect metaphor for my role as one of the assistant choreographers on the Cats tour.
At first, I had no clue what this job would entail, especially because I was only joining them for their tech process. Don’t assistants mainly help set the choreography? What will be my purpose? I boarded a plane at 6 am from Fort Lauderdale, momentarily leaving my job as a dance captain and swing on the Hamilton Philip tour, to LaGuardia, where I would hop off the plane, into a car, and haul ass to New 42 to watch the kitties do their final run through of the show in the studio before heading to tech. I was so excited to meet this new cast and to be back with a show and with creatives that I love, but how would they take to me since I had missed the first six weeks of their process? And, once again, what would my purpose be?!
As a sat there watching them dance and crawl and tumble and sing the songs that had once driven me to insanity, my eyes filled with tears and my heart with joy, and any anxiety I had been carrying with me left my body. I was so happy to be there and was ready to experience whatever was thrown my way. I was so happy to be there and to get to assist the incredible women that are Kim Craven and Chrissy Cartwright, and was ready to experience whatever was thrown my way.
We teched in Providence RI, and before the first day of tech Kim, Chrissy and I went to look at the set. We literally crawled around every crevice making sure things felt safe, telling the carps what felt unsafe and where we needed to add railings or hand grips and where to stabilize things, and I was able to use my memory from being in the production on Broadway to help communicate those things to the crew. We saw the limitations of the set and what we would have to adjust with spacing and/or where we would have to add or change choreography.
Moving from the rehearsal space to the set was far more challenging on this side than I realized. Things are not always identical to what they are in the studio. A lot of time in tech was spent problem solving how to maneuver the changes in the set. Sometimes it just involved spacing, sometimes re-blocking and changing an entrance or exit. Sometimes it involved having to rebuild a portion of the set completely or having to get a new mechanical part. Whatever the problem or solution was, it involved a lot of interdepartmental communication and patience, and I learned there was so much happening that the actors never see.
As I get older and keep having more experiences in professional/commercial theatre, I am constantly reminded and learning about how many things are happening at one time and about how you never know what another person or department is dealing with at any given time. Often as performers we can get extremely impatient and myopic, only seeing what we are dealing with and experiencing. Tech is a time that highlights stressors, and it becomes difficult to open up our perspective to what challenges others are facing.
I am learning to ALWAYS ask questions before getting angry and assuming anything. The moment something would go wrong that would annoy me, I would hear Donavan (Dolan, stage manager) give a perfectly reasonable explanation for why that thing happened, and I would instantly feel silly for ever having been angered.
Besides the technical element of the job, I found myself really honing in helping to recreate Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography from our revival. I would run up on stage whenever there was any sort of pause in the tech process and give individual stylistic notes or clean sections that needed a little bit more groove infused into them. I would try and relate what Andy had originally said about specific choreography and infuse his style, rhetoric, and thought process into the movement and express that to the dancers. This was definitely my favorite part of the process - behaving as a sort of bridge between the original cast and the touring cast, a pathway of information hopefully bringing us together as a more cohesive production. In that way, it was not unlike being a dance captain, but in this circumstance, they already knew all of the choreography, I just got to use my dance captain eye to help add another layer to their performances.
When I say that this experience was one of my favorites to date, it is not a lie. In the short two weeks of my stay with the Cats tour, a part of my spirit that had been missing for a while came back. I found myself feeling and being able to be creative, making quick yet profound friendships, and getting a glimpse into the future I hope to cultivate as a choreographer.
When I boarded the plane at the Providence airport on the morning after opening night to head back to my Hamilton family I felt a melancholy ache creep into my stomach. I always feel that after any opening night when the creatives leave, however this was the first time that I was doing the leaving. Being on this side of the table was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life, and though it was short, it sure was sweet.