BY CARY GINELL
This weekend we visited with Lindero Canyon Middle School drama teacher Raymond Saar, who is directing the school’s production of Bye, Bye Birdie. The show will be staged at the Agoura High School Performing Arts Center on March 13 and 14. Saar comes with an impressive history on Broadway, having performed as Lun Thau in The King and I with Yul Brynner, Marius in Les Miserables on Broadway, and Raoul in Phantom of the Opera in San Francisco, in addition to founding ETC Entertainment. We began by talking about his illustrious background.
VCOS: Tell me how you went from performing on Broadway to directing beginning musical theater students in schools such as Lindero Canyon Middle School.
RAYMOND: The very first job I had, I worked for a guy named Peter Marshall. Peter used to ask the questions on the old Hollywood Squares show. The first job I did with him was for a guy named Bob Hope, and we played before 35,000 people. The biggest theater that I had ever been in my life was 500-600 seats. Peter wanted to make sure the show went well so he had a full rehearsal, and in the green room after that rehearsal, Bob Hope walked up to me and he said, “Hey, kid. That was a really funny line you said out there. If I were you, I’d count to ten before I said my next line.” So, if Bob Hope tells you that, then you better start counting with your fingers and then your toes. I realized then that it was all about timing. And it touched me in a very profound way because I said to myself, if Bob Hope can walk up to me – an absolute nothing nobody – why can’t I, when I’m in a position, to give back whatever I can to young performers?
That’s a long story, but I don’t know how to make it any shorter. We’ve got fantastically talented kids in the shows, and yes, we’ve had kids who have never been on stage before. But that kid who has never been on stage and who may not end up being an actor needs to know how to stand, how to control his or her body and how to be confident. The next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs might be standing there in that show, and they might have to make presentations to millions of people, so I want them to be able to be comfortable in their own skin. So, it’s my way of giving back to the community that I’ve been very fortunate be a part of. And I’m still working. I’m doing a show in Ontario, The Best of Andrew Lloyd-Webber. I just finished fifteen shows of One Singular Sensation: A Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch throughout Florida. So I am still a working actor. But I just believe that it’s time to give back and that’s why I do these productions.
VCOS: And how long have you been doing shows for schools?
RAYMOND: Let’s see, I’d say ten, twelve years.
VCOS: You’ve worked on Broadway, which has million dollar budgets for their shows. How do you deal with budgetary issues on a middle school level?
RAYMOND: To be quite honest with you, I figure we can do it on a blank stage as long as we tell the story in a compassionate and compelling way. We can make the audience laugh, we can make the audience cry. If our set is not a million dollar set, then the audience needs to go to Broadway to see those million dollar sets. My focus is on the growth and the storytelling of my young performers.
VCOS: Does it help for them to be performing on such as a magnificent stage like you have now at Agoura High School?
RAYMOND: It absolutely does. They get a real sense of what it’s like to be out there in the real world. They get a sense of having to speak slower, how to speak louder, how they have to fill the space. You don’t get that at an elementary school or a little high school auditorium. Now this is not to put those down; those are important places, too, but for these kids, It gives them such a great sense of power.
VCOS: Tell me about the work you do in getting them to work as a team. How do you determine who does what, aside from the actors?
RAYMOND: The fun thing about what I’ve done here is that we’ve also created a “tech” side. So some of those kids who are uncomfortable about being on stage and still want to be involved work the tech side. So I have stage managers and they learn how to be prop masters, to set up the stage, how quick set changes are developed, and how they are just as important as anyone else. Then the chorus members have to understand that they’re not just standing in the background; that they are part of that story. So I walk around the main characters to the other kids and I say, “OK, what’s your name in this scene? Why are you here?” And if they’re standing at a news stand, I say, “What newspaper are you going to buy?” And they give me some of the sweetest answers. “Well, I just thought that the guy who owns the news stand was cute and I wanted to talk to him.” So they create these little worlds that we as an audience aren’t aware of, but it becomes life happening in front of us. That’s the way that I make sure that every kid on that stage, every performer, has a reason for being on that stage.
VCOS: Are there egos to massage?
RAYMOND: At this age? No. The kids who are are working for their talent are looking to me to make themselves better. And I really work them hard. I believe that the more you demand from them and the more you raise the water level, the more they will swim. There are no egos. It’s all about the work. Nobody’s more important than anybody else, from my leads to the smallest roles. I tell them, “Guys, when you go to the movies, how many names are on that list of credits at the end?” That’s what’s thrilling, when they start to understand that.
VCOS: Do you talk to them about your experiences on Broadway?
RAYMOND: I do use them as examples. For instance, in Les Miserables, John Caird gave us an acting exercise to get us to feel a particular moment in the show. So I say that when I was in this show, this is what the director did for me. He has five Tonys. What is wrong with me passing that on to you? So I create a small acting exercise of my own. I don’t sit there and say, oh, when I did this or when I did that, I try to use the lessons that I learned to move them forward.
VCOS: Is there one that comes to mind?
RAYMOND. One in particular. I’m doing Les Miserables with a youth musical theater group. At one point in the show, there is a runaway cart. To create that moment in the theater, you use lighting, but I also make the kids use slow motion. This gives them an altered sense of danger, and that’s exactly what John Caird did with us on Broadway. So if some kid is a baseball player and another is a golfer, I have them start their swing at regular speed, full out, and then in the middle of their swing, they have to slow down. Then they can analyze: are they looking at the ball? Are they watching it hit the bat? So that’s one that I use, and I’ve used it several times when I’ve directed that show.
VCOS: Does the talent sometimes surprise you?
RAYMOND: Sometimes it blows me away. The kid that I’m working with right now, Griffen Hamilton, came to me after doing shows in community theater, but was never taught the basics. So I grabbed on to this kid. He’s been in seven shows with me now and after seeing the growth that he has gone through in seven shows, he has a real shot of being a professional performer. There are kids that I have worked with that are doing commercials, a lot of kids have gone to NYU, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, and a lot of the premiere musical theater schools throughout the world. And that’s because I have worked with men like Hal Prince, Trevor Nunn, and John Caird, and I have taken what I learned from them, working in the professional world, and I hold no quarter. These kids listen and they hear and they really strive to attain a sense of professionalism. That’s what’s thrilling to me.
Bye, Bye Birdie plays for three performances on March 13-14 at the Agoura High School Performing Arts Center. For showtimes and ticket information, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.