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OL 05 – Matthew Bourne, Arlene Philips & STephen Mear

Matthew Bourne, Arlene Philips & Stephen Mear at the Olivier Awards 2005

Backstage: Stephen Mear, choreographer

Published 28 June 2010

Laurence Olivier Award-winning choreographer Stephen Mear, whose work includes recent productions of Hello, Dolly! at the Open Air theatre and Sweet Charity at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, loves his job. That is just one reason why he considers himself a lucky man, he tells OLT.

I’m very lucky in the fact that I get to do shows now that I want to do! The choreography is such a main thing for me. I’m not the sort of choreographer who would only want to do two numbers in a show.

Once you get the job you listen to the music and once you know who you’ve got in the cast you can see how far you can go choreographically with the show. If you’ve got principals who are great movers you know you can make their numbers more physical than you could with just singers.

I now have a dance arranger on most of my shows to help me change the music so it fits my choreography. So if I’m doing a revival I’m not just dancing to somebody else’s arrangement, I change them slightly to fit what I’m doing. I assisted an American choreographer named Susan Stroman who has done a lot of work here and through her I actually learnt how to read music because I wanted to work on arrangements. Not many English choreographers have their own dance arrangers, it’s more of an American thing, but because I’ve been trained by, or been in shows with, Americans, I’ve gone down that path. I think it’s very important to have an arranger to change the music so… the music is doing what you are choreographing rather than dancing to a bit of music that’s set.

I do about two weeks pre-production with my assistant. Sometimes I use stage schools that know me, I use their kids to work things out. I use a school called Millennium Dance 2000; I used that for Sweet Charity and did a few workshops on them.

When you are in a room with the person you are actually working the choreography on, you do change it a bit, you don’t say ‘this is what you are doing’. If they have great extensions or can pirouette for days I will add more of those things into the numbers. It makes my stuff look better as well if there’s something they are brilliant at!

I’m very lucky with the fact I’ve always been in a very collaborative team. So the director, we will always talk through how we see the numbers between us so I know I’m not going too far away. I’m a big believer that dance should forward the story, it shouldn’t just be a dance, it should forward the plot of the show. You should never know where the director has left and the choreographer has taken over.

Triple threats

When I did Anything Goes I had a lot of actors, most of them were in Shakespeare plays. So it was trying to get them to dance and feel comfortable. So I tricked them! When we did a warm up I put some of the steps into the warm up, so when we actually started doing the steps they all go ‘oh I kind of know this’. But I have had people say ‘look I really can’t do that in that position singing this at this time.’ But it’s very rare I get that. I like to think I’ve clocked that before it happens. I don’t ever like to make people feel uncomfortable. My thing is that I will always say to them ‘I will never make you look a fool.’ I always want them to trust me. Everybody I work with seems to. I do change it if it’s affecting the singing too much. The three girls [in Sweet Charity] – Tamzin Outhwaite, Josefina Gabrielle and Tiffany Graves – they do something which is a killer: they sing, they do a whole dance and then they sing at the end, holding the long note. At first they found it really hard, but they were determined not to cut it, they were so determined to do it, it made such a difference.

I used to teach Tamzin many years ago. She’d not danced for 12 years before she did this show. So that was her most insecure part. But I knew she could, so I knew I could push her further than I think she wanted to be pushed. I pushed her further because she’s so talented and I wanted everyone to see how talented she is. I think people are always pleasantly surprised when they see her, they go ‘oh I didn’t think she could do that.’ I’m also very lucky in that cast, we’ve got what Americans call ‘triple threats’: they can all act, sing and dance. I’m absolutely over the moon with the standards we got in this show. We had the choice of the best of the West End so I was thrilled when I knew who we’d got. Especially the lady who does the Frug number, Ebony Molina, she is just sent from heaven for any choreographer.

If somebody says ‘oh I’d love to try this’, I’d never say ‘no you’ve got to do this’, I’d say ‘let’s try it and if it works we’ll do it’. You kind of know when you are happy with the number. When people come in, if their reactions are genuine you always know. Or if they don’t say anything to you, you know you’ve not quite hit the nail on the head.

Keeping up appearances

I try to pop in [to see Sweet Charity] at least once a month. I’ve got a dance captain on the show and I also have an assistant that’s not in the show who goes and checks as well. We have two swings in the show and they are not on every night so they can always go out and watch and give notes… if people are out of line or aren’t on it or are missing something. It’s great that you have those eyes in the audience for you. But with this company, once again I have to say we were absolutely blessed with the standard of this cast because they are so loyal to the piece. If they ever see somebody else gone wrong they will always question themselves as well.

Scene changes are choreographed, people don’t realise that. You know, you choreograph out of a scene and into another scene, that’s the choreographer’s job, and people just think ‘oh that’s just the director’ and it’s not, it’s choreographed within an inch of it’s life. That’s as important as a number and it makes the show slick.

Finding inspiration

Because I choose the shows I want to do I know what the music is. When I first started, you do as many shows as you can. There’s a couple of times I’ve come across music where I’ve gone, ‘oh my God what am I going to do with this?’ and then I think you have to open it out to the people you are working with, to try and work it out between all of you. But it’s very rare it happens to me, touch wood.

In Mary Poppins the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious [choreography] is because my partner is deaf, so I wanted to do some signing in the show because he’d inspired me, so I just did Mary Poppins signing and made it bigger for the theatre.

I always have lots of ideas. I knew we couldn’t bring a train on in Hello, Dolly! The funniest thing I said was, can I not just do it out of hats and canes? You saw people’s eyes roll a little bit. And I thought you know what, this could look really good. I didn’t want to use parasols for the wheels because everybody would do that normally, so I used the canes and the hats, and of course it got a round [of applause] every night. I love to see the audience smiling, or thinking ‘oh I get that’, or ‘that’s funny’. I love quirky things.

Starting out

While I was at college – stage school – I was very lucky to get into two West End shows [as a dancer]. I got into Evita in the West End and 42nd Street. When it came to assessments I used to love choreographing things, and then I did something like eight West End shows as a performer. I always watched the choreographers, I got to work with the most amazing choreographers and I got to work with a couple of dodgy choreographers that also taught you what not to do and how you treat people. If you give people respect you will be amazed what you get back.

After being in so many shows I started assisting on shows, being in the show and looking after the show at the same time. I knew that that would be the next step. I was very lucky with the fabulous choreographers I got to work with.

I’m too old now [to dance], I can hardly bend down to pick my post up! No, that’s not true. I couldn’t do it. Physically it’s very demanding. I loved it, absolutely loved it, but I also love what I do now. I wouldn’t have dreamt, two years ago, I would have two Broadway shows: Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins. If somebody had said you’d have two shows on Broadway I would have laughed.

Across the pond

There’s a lot of pressure on Broadway. There’s a real respect out there for what you do. Actually a little bit more respect, sadly, than what you have here. People love what you do here, but out there it’s such a big thing. People that came to the audition knew who I was. I actually thought they were joking at first! But they make it their business to know who they are auditioning for and what you’ve done. When you leave the stage door in America there are bollards up because you can’t get out of the stage door at any Broadway show. In London, sadly, you’re lucky if you’ve got your mum and dad waiting! I do think we enjoy it as much, but it’s such a big thing out there, everyone’s put on a pedestal in a Broadway show. Also I think they get paid three times the amount we get paid! I always believe that when we’ve got good people [in London] it’s because they are really passionate!

Set disasters

In The Little Mermaid, [the number] Under The Sea was based around these two big columns, with people flying in the air round them. The columns never used to appear, literally once or twice a week. In a way it’s quite frustrating because you base the number around the set and the set doesn’t work. You’re kind of screwed, to put it politely. It still works but you just know how brilliant it could be if the whole set is there.

We did have [a set problem] a couple of times in Step In Time [in Mary Poppins] with the chimney pots that go on tracks across the stage. Of course once it’s technically gone wrong, it’s in the hands of the Lord, bless him; he has to help us through that one, we can’t do anything about it.

Dancing destiny

I was never a bright kid at school, I was dyslexic so I wasn’t the brightest kid on the block. I used to dance and that’s how I expressed myself. So I just think I’ve got the best job in the world really. I think I’m so lucky. So many people say to me, ‘oh my God you love your work’. Even if I’m on holiday for two weeks, which is very rare, half way through the second week I’ve got itchy feet and I want to get back and start work again. And I think when that feeling stops I’ll give up. I can’t imagine it stopping for a long long time.

CB

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