By Mary Callahan of Dance Informa.
I met Cassie Nordgren about a year ago in Al Blackstone’s Advanced Theatre class at Broadway Dance Center. Cassie stuck to the back of the studio, but with her striking Peter Pan-pixie look and clear mastery of Blackstone’s natural, joyous style, I knew she had the “it” factor. Last fall I ran into Cassie during intermission for a preview performance of Broadway’s On the Town. She was sitting next to choreographer, Josh Bergasse, in the back row of the orchestra with a notepad in her hand. “I’m part of the Observer program through the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (SDCF),” she explained. “What’s that?” I asked. I then discovered that the SDC Observership is probably the greatest opportunity for aspiring directors and choreographers. But surprisingly, very few dancers and actors are familiar with the program. Cassie—eager to share her own experience—agreed to sit down to an interview with Dance Informa about being a SDC observer for Josh Bergasse on On the Town.
What was your dance training/experience like growing up?
“My mom owns a dance studio in Castro Valley, CA so I was inevitably a “studio rat.” I studied tap, jazz, ballet, hip-hop and lyrical there. I actually don’t think I really enjoyed dancing until age 12. Up until that point, it was either dance, or sit at the studio and watch others dance, so I really only chose to do it by default. Everything changed when, to my mother’s dismay, I was chosen to play Clara in our studio’s Nutcracker. That is when I realized that I loved telling a story through my dancing. I also realized through six months of Clara rehearsals that I never wanted to put my feet in a pair of pointe shoes again! My parents decided to let me give musical theater a shot and the very next summer, I did a production of The Music Man at our local community theater. I loved every moment of that experience and definitely caught the musical theater bug. I came to New York for the first time soon after and knew from that point on that I would end up here someday.”
How did you find out about the SDC Observer program?
“I was actually out with friends one night in 2013 and we were talking about how few training programs there are for young choreographers. There are definitely showcases, but very few training programs. One of my friends mentioned that his friend just completed a “mentoring/assisting” (as he called it) program through SDCF that I should look into. I remembered him saying, “You would be a perfect candidate!” Excited to hear of any such program and hoping I would qualify, I went home and looked it up that night only to find out I missed the deadline by two weeks that year. I had to wait almost a full year to apply to the SDCF Observership, but it was definitely worth the wait.”
What was the application process like?
“I experienced it as a three step process: first there’s the initial application to get into the Observership program, then I applied specifically to be Josh Bergasse’s observer for On The Town, then once I was a finalist for OTT, I had to interview with Josh before being officially selected as his observer. Sounds like a lot, but it happened rather quickly for me. I was one of the first few selected for the year.
I was working in California teaching at an musical theater intensive when I found out I had been selected as a finalist for OTT. I was really bummed I couldn’t interview with Josh in person, but Josh thankfully agreed to do the interview over Skype. I usually don’t get nervous for interviews, but something about interviewing over a computer was making me very uneasy. Of course, about three minutes into the interview my computer froze, which left me talking to a frozen image of Josh. I remember feeling like a bobble head, trying to stay animated, while talking to an unresponsive computer screen. Luckily Josh is a great guy, and pretty straight to the point so it wasn’t too painful. The interview lasted only fifteen minutes and just five days later I found out he had selected me to join him on the project. About three weeks after that, I was at the first rehearsal. It was a whirlwind!
One of the craziest things about the whole experience is that when I got my contract from SDCF, I realized that I would be working on my first Broadway show, rehearsals and all, directly across the street from the restaurant I had been working at for the last three years. To think that SDC offers these observership opportunities on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and at major regional theaters all over the country, and I just happened to get the one on 43rd Street with the stage door across the street from Haru Sushi, where I bartended long before On The Town, was even on the books to come back to Broadway, is just unreal. Everyday as I walked to work, I took a moment to remember the four years it took me to ‘cross the street’. I think it kept me grounded.”
What was your role during rehearsals, pre-production, and once the show was up-and-running?
“One of the things that Josh and his associate, Greg Graham, decided on the first day of rehearsal is that they wanted me to be there to write down and organize all of their notes as they began to run numbers and do run throughs. This was my primary function during the process. As their eyes were watching the numbers, I would write down what they would say, and then I would organize them in a way that they could give their notes quickly and accurately. This gave me some valuable insight into what each of them value as artists. Sometimes they would both lean in and say the same note to me, and then other times their notes would be about completely different things. Also, seeing how they give the notes to the actors is really an art in itself.
I also kept all of the notes up to date to present at the production meetings and attended each one. Those were incredibly informative and educational for me as well.
One of my own personal goals within the project was learning how to use StageWrite—an iPad application designed specifically to chart Broadway scale shows. Chip Abbott, the dance captain, sat down with me during the first week rehearsals and taught me to use the program. Through his guidance, I got pretty fast at “charting” and could chart the numbers as they were being set and adjusted in front of me. My charts were often referred to by Josh, the dance captains, and sometimes even the sound technicians, which was great because I was able to put what I was learning with the program to the test. Since the show, I have used StageWrite on a few different projects.
Observers are only contracted through opening night. Since then, I have been back once or twice to visit. I had asked during our tech rehearsals if I could shadow the stage manager at some point to learn more about the many things she is doing during the show, and to see how some of the transitions actually work. We were all so busy during previews that it was suggested I come back after the show was open and running. So a month or so ago, I got to come back and watch her call a show, which was incredible. There are 12,000 light cues alone in the show! I always think learning more about other jobs in theater will make me a more rounded choreographer and director.”
What was it like working with Josh Bergasse on his first Broadway show?
“Josh is very collaborative. He likes the dancers to feel a sense of ownership over the work and is very generous in this way. He works with them to develop the piece by telling them what he is looking for, then letting them experiment. Then he takes what they are doing and molds it into exactly what he wants. Josh also has an incredible eye for pictures. He would look at the stage and say, ‘I need something higher right there,’ and then point to a spot in the broad picture of the stage and go to the dancers and work with them until they found something to fill the space. The next time we watched the number, the picture was complete. The movement in the ballets creates the most beautiful shapes without sacrificing the emotional tissue of the storyline—which is really hard to do. Instead, he did the opposite and created some of the most emotionally stimulating moments in dance that I have ever seen in live theater.
One of my favorite moments in the whole process was right before the first preview was about to start. The house was practically sold out and Josh and I were standing in the back of the house, my notebook out ready to take down his notes. I could tell he was a little anxious—although it wasn’t officially opening night, it was the first time an audience was going to see his choreography on a Broadway stage. I said to him, ‘Are you ready?’ and he looked over at me and said, ‘I don’t know.’ And then he smiled. And then the music started.”
What made you want to begin directing and choreographing? How do you feel like this program affected your career journey?
“For as long as I can remember, choreography projects have always just fallen into my lap. I think I have known since my early teens that being a choreographer is what I was destined to do. I had it in my head for a while that I had to have all of these great performing credits to be a good choreographer because that is the path that many choreographers have taken, even Josh. But I performed for about five years and it never made me happy. I was insecure, always stressed, depressed, worried about my next gig, and really not working on any craft. I finally realized that perhaps the reason I wasn’t really working on my craft was because I wasn’t really in love with performing. I met Al Blackstone, a choreographer and teacher in the city and fell in love with his work and his classes. He really became my mentor and brought me into many of his rehearsal sessions. He really made me feel okay ditching my audition book and excited about really diving into a buried passion of mine: choreography. Rekindling this passion of mine has been one of the best decisions I have ever made, and this decision was quickly affirmed. Within the year, I was hired to co-choreograph a feature film called, “Waiting in the Wings: The Musical,” and another year after that, I found myself working on On The Town.
I also find myself directing quite a bit, and have been told many times that I am making the natural progression into a director/choreographer. I am really excited about this, and know I will continue to explore this new level of creativity in the future.
It’s been four months since On The Town opened and I can see so much growth in myself since that process. I am a more confident artist and I am still learning to trust myself more and more everyday. Creativity is a practice. It takes practice to not doubt yourself, and practice to not compare yourself to others. Working on On The Town boosted my career and has given me enough projects that I am now able to practice these things everyday—which I am grateful for. I am also now an Associate Member of SDCF, which is one of the many perks of that program.”
To whom would you recommend the SDC Observer program?
“I would recommend it to anyone who has choreographed or directed a few shows of their own and has a good grasp on their own approach to their work or voice as an artist, and would like to see how a master director or choreographer approaches a large project such as this. The right candidate should be open to anything. I saw first-hand, how a big budget Broadway show is made, including all of the outside pressures that go along with that. At a regional theater or Off-Broadway theater, an Observer may have a completely different, and yet equally educational and rewarding experience, such as putting up a brand new show and have having the composer write a new song every day of previews. I can’t speak more highly of this experience, the people I got to work with, or SDCF for making it possible for people like me to be afforded such an opportunity. It is invaluable to anyone who wants to have a successful career as a director or choreographer in the theater industry and I know the lessons I learned will stay with me forever.”
To learn more about the SDC Observership, visit www.sdcfoundation.org.
Photo (top): Cassie Nordgren’s headshot. Photo courtesy of Cassie Nordgren.