Christopher George Patterson stars in “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” featuring the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller and directed by Jim Giancarlo and choreographed by Giancarlo and Patterson. It’s playing at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre until Aug 31. Patterson and I chatted one afternoon over tea and lemonade at the Standing Stone Brewing Co. in Ashland. This is the first of a two-part interview.
CGP: The interesting thing about “Ain’t Misbehavin'” is that it tells the story through the tapestry of the Harlem Renaissance without digging in too deeply.
EH: What’s your process of choreographing a show?
CGP: I’ll read the script to see what’s supposed to happen. I usually listen to the music over, and over, and over again, and let it talk to me. The music tells you what to do and how to get there through telling the story through the dance. If you know what the story is, all you have to do is fill in the gaps with the steps. It’s almost like playing in an orchestra: The score is there, but you create the dynamics, and that’s what makes people want to engage in watching it.
You don’t want to make the show just stand alone on its dance. The spectacle for me is how the transitions happen, and how you are really telling the story. Choreography is like painting a picture. You have that first layer, then there are other layers that you put into it, so that no one should always be doing the exact same thing. I love to see a collage of things happening, to give you an environment. You start off and add in different elements so that it becomes a moving collage.
Then I’ll go into the studio, and play around with the steps, and find the tap vocabulary of what it is. You take it part by part. It takes a while to work on the steps, to figure out what you’re actually going to do on the steps. That’s the fun part: coming up with it.
The harder part is teaching it and getting it on the stage, because you have to know it so well, that you’re actually not thinking about it anymore. To make it not look like work, takes some work. It is all fun in itself. The ability to be creative and do creative work is always fun.
EH: In “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” you included some Bob Fosse choreography.
CGP: I love Bob Fosse. His style is so interesting, how simplistic it is. One little isolated move says so much. If you move your hand this way it says something, and another way it’s completely different. A step has so many different levels. I love that about him. He was all about telling a story through dance.
EH: Do you travel a lot? Tell me a little about your lifestyle.
CGP: I have been traveling and doing shows, and coming here and doing shows for half the year, and a lot of shows in Florida. I just like traveling and seeing the country. You get a chance to work at different places, to see how different places work, and take that with you.
I love what I do. There is no other job that allows you to meet different people, and get together with people that you would probably never meet in your life, and somehow create magic together, and make the perfect two hours.
EH: What makes a great play?
CGP: A great play changes something in your soul. It brings you into another world. You haven’t left the theater, but you feel like you went somewhere. It makes you see things from a different perspective and inspires you.
Christopher George Patterson, currently starring in “Ain’t Misbehavin'” at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, is also directing OCT’s next production, “Backwards in High Heels.”
CGP: We are in preproduction for the next show, “Backwards in High Heels.” We’ll go into rehearsal in August. It’s about Ginger Rogers, who is known for movies and Broadway. It’s going to bring people back to old Hollywood. It has a lot of Gershwin tunes in it. It has a lot of that beautiful song and dance that we don’t see any more live on stage.
The funny thing about the title is: She used to say that she could do everything that Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire could do, but she had to always do it backwards in high heels. It means so many things, as a woman in that time period, to have the opportunity to be on the big screen and be paid less than men. It’s about her life, relationships, the struggles she had in Hollywood, and how she became a star. She had a naiveté, but she was a tough cookie.
EH: What is your process? What do you do when you get a script?
CGP: I usually read it maybe four times. The first time, I just read it to see what it’s about. Then I’ll read it again. I’ll take it part-by-part: What’s the tone? What is the music saying? How are you going to make the music tell the tale? How are the transitions happening to keep it interesting? Then you start looking at the practical sense of how it’s going to happen. What do I visualize the set looking like? What are the colors of the costumes?
Dance is the vocabulary that you use. Certain shows are Broadway choreography. Some shows are what we call hoofer choreography, taken from the African-American culture. “Backwards in High Heels” bridges both the Broadway and hoofer choreography, because Ginger Rogers was a pretty fierce hoofer.
EH: How would you define a great director?
CGP: A great director has a solid vision, a clear idea of the story they’re trying to tell, and is able to communicate that to many different people. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades and yet not excellent at all of them. Sometimes, it’s not always having the best idea. You have your designers that have great ideas, but it’s being able to take the best of everybody’s world and bring it into one.
You have to leave the creative process to the people around you to build it. We artists are a very sensitive and interesting group of people. You almost have to be a good psychologist, because you’re dealing with personalities and big personalities at times.
You have to be a ring leader and say, “OK, this is what we’re going to try to do.” You have to be able to find a home ground for everyone, so that everyone feels a part of the process. As an actor, you have to be able to take chances, take risks, and make mistakes, and to be naked with your emotions. A good director lets you do that.
When I’m directing, I’m looking for people who have a spark, who can take the script to the next level and embody a character or take a dance and breathe life into it.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” plays through Aug. 31. “Backwards in High Heels” opens Sept. 10 and plays through Nov. 9 at Oregon Cabaret Theatre, First and Hargadine streets, Ashland. For tickets and information, visit www.oregoncabaret.com or call 541-488-2902.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her firstname.lastname@example.org.