TDPS Director works as vocal coach for Center Stage’s Marley
This blog post is by Emily Schweich, junior broadcast journalism major.
Leigh Smiley, director of the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, wears many hats as a teacher, administrator and working professional. This spring, she worked as the vocal coach for Marley, a musical about the legendary musician and activist that opens May 13 at Center Stage in Baltimore.
“I feel extremely proud to work on this piece, because I think the message is right. I think the heart in the project and humility in the project is really what we need right now in this region and in the nation.”
Written and directed by Center Stage’s artistic director Kwamei Kwei-Armah, Marley tells of the musician’s self-imposed exile and his impact as an activist in Jamaica’s tense political climate.
“I work with the director to make sure that whatever his vocal vision is…is being told by the actors,” Smiley said.
While the dialect coach and most of the cast members are Jamaican, the actor playing Marley is not. Smiley has worked closely with Mitchell Brunings, a singer from the Netherlands, to teach him how to speak as Marley on the stage. Brunings had little acting experience, but his training as a singer helped him work on breathing technique and vocal relaxation, Smiley said.
“Once we hit the stage in rehearsals,” Smiley said, “what I’ve been working with him on is how his thought translates into images and words so that the audience is getting the story – the verb versus a noun, what’s important in a line, how consonants and vowels actually tell a story that’s subconscious to the audience.” She calls this concept “geography of thought.”
One challenge Smiley faced was maintaining the authenticity of the actors’ Jamaican patois and ensuring that it is understandable to the audience. Because the Jamaican dialect is so strong, Smiley sometimes had the actors pull their accents back, slow down their speech and separate words so the audience can more easily follow them.
For example, “In the Rastafarian patois, ‘I and I’ means ‘we,’” Smiley said. “If I just said, ‘I and I went to the store,’ you would probably itch your head, so getting that message across to the audience is part of what I do.”
One special highlight of working on the piece was reconnecting with a former student, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, who studied theatre at the University of Maryland before transferring to Rutgers University to study business.
“He had been my student and I had encouraged him to go and follow his dreams, so that’s always one of the most rewarding moments in a professor’s life,” Smiley said.
Smiley said she feels the play is especially relevant considering the recent uprising in Baltimore.
“Certainly, our rehearsal schedule was severely curtailed by the riots recently,” Smiley said. “The resonance of what was happening in the play between two Jamaican parties killing each other and how Marley tried to insert himself to find peace and find a way to reconcile both groups…how that speaks to audiences in Baltimore is really strong.”
Smiley said Kwei-Armah hopes to take the play to Broadway someday. She thinks Broadway audiences will love it.
“This is one of the definite highlights of my career,” Smiley said. “I feel extremely proud to work on this piece, because I think the message is right. I think the heart in the project and humility in the project is really what we need right now in this region and in the nation.”
Marley opens May 13 at Center Stage in Baltimore and runs through June 14. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.