BWW Interview: Becky Castells of BILLY ELLIOT at Actors' Repertory Theatre Of Simi
Anyone who has seen a musical at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center is familiar with the work of Becky Castells. For some years now, Becky has been responsible for creating the choreography for shows produced by the Actors' Repertory Theatre of Simi's musicals, but never has her work been showcased as prominently as it has in its latest production, Billy Elliot The Musical, in which dance is not only a major feature, but is also the central driving force of the story. After seeing 11-year-old Marcello Silva's magnificent performance in the title role, we sat down with Becky (who had already transitioned into her next assignment, Cabaret), to talk about Marcello and designing dance for community theater.
VCOS: Does the choreographer get involved in the casting process?
BECKY: Yes. Most of the time. I would say that there are very few shows where the choreographer doesn't have some input in the casting. The production teams that I usually work with are just that - they are teams, so they do take everyone's opinion into consideration.
VCOS: Do you work with, generally, the same group of people on every show?
BECKY: Not necessarily. I do a lot of work here at the Cultural Arts Center; I'm the resident choreographer for ARTS and am a regular choreographer here at the Center, but I also do work elsewhere: the Norris Theatre, the Ventura County Gilbert & Sullivan Repertoire Company, and different theaters throughout the city.
VCOS: What's your educational background?
BECKY: I have a degree in dance from Point Park University. I studied with some of the top people in the ballet field, in jazz, modern, tap, all styles of dance.
VCOS: When you work on a show like Billy Elliot, where the storyline itself centers around dance, that makes your job ever so more intensive for you, doesn't it?
BECKY: Yep. Billy Elliot was its own special challenge because, as you said, the storyline has to do with dance, so it's integrated into the show itself and not just numbers throughout the show. Dance weaves its way through the whole show. The other challenge is that it's about ballet, so you have to have a Billy who has ballet training and you can't really pull this show off without it.
VCOS: So it's not just about finding a good dancer to play the lead, you have to find a dancer who can do ballet and who happens to be a young boy.
BECKY: Yes. And he has to also be able to do tap very well.
VCOS: Not to mention acting and singing.
VCOS: Had you ever thought about choreographing this show? It seems a natural that this would be on any choreographer's bucket list.
BECKY: No. I never thought that we'd be able to pull this show off in this theater. It just wasn't really on my radar, actually. I was familiar with it somewhat, because of the movie, but not really so much the musical itself. It wasn't really something that I saw and said, "Oh, gosh, I've got to choreograph that." I hadn't seen it before.
VCOS: With Marcello Silva being as good as he is in this, did he come first? In other words, was his talent recognized first and then you realized you had the tools to do it, as opposed to launching the show and scouring everywhere to find him.
BECKY: It's interesting. When Jan [note: producer Jan Glasband] mentioned that she wanted to do Billy Elliot, I was like, "OK, sure. That's gonna happen." And I thought to myself, "There's no way we're going to be able to do that show. Who are we gonna get?" And then, a little while after that, Marcello signed up for my dance classes, and I thought, "Hmm. Billy Elliot, you say?" (laughs)
VCOS: So these things happened at the same time?
BECKY: Right around the same time. He started my classes in close proximity to the time Jan came up with the idea to do it. He's had quite a bit of training since I first met him, both with me and with other people.
VCOS: Had he done ballet?
BECKY: He had, and he was taking my technique class and he took my tap class, which he had already taken before. He has since gone on to study more ballet with a different ballet teacher - a male ballet teacher - so he's been continually studying since I first met him. Kind of the perfect storm, I guess.
VCOS: Does he want to do this professionally?
BECKY: He does. I don't want to speak for him because I'm not exactly sure, but I'm pretty sure musical theater is his passion.
VCOS: Does he know how good he is?
BECKY: He doesn't act like he knows how good he is. I'll say that. He's so confident up there. When he gets in front of an audience, he lives it.
VCOS: In this show, he has to show progression, from being clumsy and tentative to really showing some true talent. Is it hard teaching a dancer to dance amateurishly?
BECKY: It depends on the person. For Marcello, that was not an issue at all. He was able to do it with no problem. He completely understood what I meant when I said that you have to be kind of bad at first. The move that that happens most notably in is when they do the attitude promenade in "Solidarity." Mrs. Wilkinson asks him, "What's the time?" and he looks at his watch that is not there and she says, "Look at the wall" and then "Pick up the biscuit" and then she starts spinning his foot around and he's trying to get his balance and pick his body up. So it looks like a mess at first and he has to gradually gain control as he's doing that attitude promenade, so that by the end of it, he's in this nice, professionally-looking position and everyone in the class stops and takes notice. That's when she gives him the corrections: elbow, wrist, head, chin.
VCOS: The technicalities that are related in the dialog, does all this make sense to you and are they accurate and relate to how a teacher teaches?
BECKY: Yes. Except for the smoking in class (laughs).
VCOS: You've worked with kids in other shows before. How are they to work with in relation to adults?
BECKY: It's different, working with kids, because...I have to be encouraging regardless of who I'm working with, but you have to be a little more sensitive with kids because they're learning. And adults are also learning, but with kids, you want to encourage them a little bit more so that it's not an experience that makes them give up on performing. I feel like I have a responsibility not just as a choreographer but as an educator as well. So I have to look at it like that. Yes, I'm a professional choreographer, but these are kids who are here to learn, so I have that responsibility to teach them and to encourage them and to give them real corrections and constructive criticism in a way that is going to be best for the show and best for their development as an artist.
VCOS: Do they tend to be more sensitive than adults?
BECKY: They can be. Let's say you have to give them the same correction over and over a few times, sometimes I have to tell them to write it down and remember it when they get to that part.
VCOS: What can they do easier than adults?
BECKY: It depends on the kind of adults you're talking about. There are adults who have dance training and there are adults who don't. If you're talking about adults who don't have dance training, kids with training will be pretty much able to do everything more easily. But if you have adults who have training, kids generally have less control over their bodies. They just don't have the concept completely in hand so that they have to use their center and use all of their muscles when they're dancing, whereas the adults with the dance experience have that.
VCOS: What other challenging shows are there for a choreographer?
BECKY: West Side Story. Without a doubt! West Side Story. To do that show, you have to understand the music first. If you don't understand the music, you can't choreograph to it.
VCOS: So do you read music and study the score first?
BECKY: Yes, and I listen to it over and over again and I count it out myself. Even though I have the score, I also count it out with my ear and just make sure that the phrasing makes sense to me. Dancers and musicians count differently. I can follow along with the score and see where the notes are going and where the bars are - for example, if a song is in 4/4, you count in four, but dancers count in 8, so the phrasing sounds different to me than it does to a musician. So what I do is I write down how many counts of eight there are and then when I hear a change in the music, I start counting again, so that I know that this section of music is this many counts of eight. And I map it out for myself like that and write myself a little note next to those counts.
VCOS: It's still kind of like how a musician views a score in that both are thinking in terms of phrases, it's just that a musician's viewpoint is more rigid because he would observe bar lines and measures.
VCOS: How close do you follow original choreography for a show?
BECKY: It depends on the show. If you're talking about Fiddler, then you have to follow it fairly closely, because it's iconic and there are specific things you need to do, or else it's not Fiddler. But if it's Drowsy Chaperone, for example, I can do whatever I want with it. Sure, you have to have the roller skating number, but I can still do what I want with it. In general, I don't like to use original choreography, I like to use my own. A Chorus Line is another example of a show where I have to stick to the original choreography. You have to do the "up-up-down-down-step-passe." If you don't do that, people are going to be upset! (laughs) So I've got to put that in there.
VCOS: There's a whole language, a vernacular, that most audiences don't understand. Musicians often don't understand it either. How do you work with the language of your craft? Do you have to substitute words for amateurs to understand them, or are they learning a new language and have to understand the lexicon?
BECKY: I teach them what the right names are for the moves. I have a funny story about West Side Story. A performer who shall remain nameless was doing one of the dances and I told her to do a move called a "forced arch." What you're doing is forcing your foot into an arch with your knee bent. Well, what she heard was "four stars." And she said to me, "Becky, I have a question about the four stars part." And I said, "The what?" And she said, "The four stars. How does that part go again?" And I'm thinking, "What is this girl talking about? Four stars?" So she showed me what she was trying to do and I said, "Oh! Forced arch!" And the whole room erupted in laughter. It was hilarious. Things like that happen sometimes.
VCOS: What do you do about emergencies during a show? Things like injuries. Has that happened to you?
BECKY: Oh yes. It happens. In Peter and the Starcatcher we had an actor fall into the pit during mike check. He injured his shoulder and his clavicle and couldn't perform. So I think Sean Harrington, the director, went on for him that night and for the rest of the run. It was bad.
VCOS: In community theater, you're basically working without a net. There are no understudies or swings who can fill in in an emergency.
BECKY: I've gone on for people before. I filled in for someone in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels who went out of town. We knew about that ahead of time. I went on in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas for somebody. There may have been one or two others that I'm mentally blocking out right now.
VCOS: Have there been key actors who needed to be able dance and just couldn't?
BECKY: Yeah, that happens sometimes. Sometimes in the audition process you have to waive one of the three different areas - singing, acting, dancing - because this person might be a stronger singer and not as strong of a dancer, or won't be able to be as good of an actor as we had hoped, so there has to be some give and take there. And sometimes I get on the losing end of that conversation and end up with a performer who doesn't have as much dance training as I might have hoped. It's really a challenge when that happens, and when it does, sometimes I have to dig my heels in a little bit more at the audition and say, "Guys. Seriously. We can't use him. Can you picture this guy doing a solo? It's not gonna happen."
VCOS: So that's a casting issue.
BECKY: Yeah. Sometimes you have decide which battles you want to fight.
VCOS: This next question is a tough one because it makes you have to generalize, but which gives you the greater satisfaction: working on a complex solo number with an actor or working with a lot of actors in a big production number?
BECKY: I enjoy them both. I love the satisfaction that I get from putting together a huge ensemble number with all these different parts and formations. You get such a sense of accomplishment when it's finished, and it's challenging because you're working with such a large volume of people, and certainly when you're working on a smaller stage like the one here at Simi. It's a game of inches and everyone has to be in their spot or else everything's messed up.
VCOS: And I'm constantly floored to see how you work with big shows on a little stage.
BECKY: Thank you. It's a challenge, but you have to get creative with the formations and try to drill it into them that they have to do it.
VCOS: Have you ever done 42nd Street?
BECKY: No, not yet. But I would love to choreograph that show. It's got to be a lot of fun.
VCOS: Last question. Do you ever use 5-6-7-8 for a pin code?
BECKY: (laughs) That would be way too obvious.
Billy Elliot The Musical plays through August 27 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.