What Happens “Without” // By Gregg Wiggans
Director Gregg Wiggans shares how, in the middle of teching a new musical, he learned to love a pause.
Do you know this acronym?
It’s not a text message.
During one of the first national economic crises, The Panic of 1819, Americans left their homes in droves and immigrated west to the newly open Mexican territory of Tejas. They packed their bags and tacked small bills or notes to their door with three letters written on them: G.T.T.
Gone To Texas.
Lying on my back, I try to count each dot on the ceiling. It’s a popcorn ceiling met by paisley wallpaper reminiscent of a Laura Ashley dress, or do I mean Laura Ingalls Wilder? There is wood paneling, a ceiling fan, and a millennium beanie baby. It’s my childhood house. My clothes are unpacked in the closet where my pet hamster once escaped and took up residence until she had babies. It was a peak home for the ’80s. Something that you might see in a Pizza Hut commercial. 40 years later, it now straddles between a “starter house” and Miss Havisham’s western depot. At 17, this is the Texas ranch house I couldn’t wait to escape from.
I met Jack Cummings and Transport Group my first week in New York City. I have the worst/best luck. The year was 2005 and after my college graduation, I had secured an internship with another theater company. However, when I arrived from out west, they had nothing for me, and I found myself unexpectedly free to interview to be Jack’s assistant director on an upcoming new musical. I remember going to meet Jack at a restaurant—I arrived early because I’m a professional snoop and sitting at the bar I could overhear the previous candidate’s interview. They were discussing their latest directing project and “What a joy it was. Great fun. Great music.” I knew this was not going to go well for me. When it was my turn to sit down with Jack, we chatted for a bit and finally he asked me about my last directing project. I explained, “I hated it. The story didn’t make sense. One of the characters is an awful human and the other is underwritten. People should stop doing it.” I had directed the same exact musical as the previous candidate. I got the job.
I would actually go on to co-assistant direct with the talented Christine O’Grady. Normal was a new musical with book by Yvonne Adrian, lyrics by Cheryl Stern, and music by Tom Kochan. Scott Rink would add impeccable grace and taste with movement and choreography for the production. But most importantly, to me, it starred Barbara “I’m Breaking Down” Walsh. I had/have a mild obsession with Barbara since I first discovered Bill Finn’s Falsettos in college. If you type the letter “B” into my YouTube, it auto fills Barbara Walsh. So, to be in the rehearsal room, on a new project, with an actress of her talent, curiosity, and generosity, is the stuff a young director dreams of.
I remember one particular music rehearsal. We were gathered in the studio trying to figure out Barbara’s character’s big cathartic musical moment in a song called “Second Chance.” Barbara played Gayla, a mother desperately trying to keep her family together when faced with the reality of her daughter’s eating disorder. With her daughter in the hospital and close to death, Gayla lifted her head back and sang the words, “Dear God.” It was a prayer of sorts? A cry for help. It was beautiful…but, if we were honest, it felt off. It felt easy. With our music binders open, the writers digging in, we all began dissecting the moment and questioning the possibilities. Why isn’t it landing? What if we try this? What if we try that? And then someone asked, what if we take away the music? What if, after the big “Dear God” moment, the music cuts out? What if Gayla is alone? No music. What if there is nothing and no one there to help her? How does she get out of this on her own?
Watching Barbara in those 10 seconds of musical silence was a master class in storytelling. Night after night, I watched Barbara’s character claw a way out of her collapsing world. I watched her unravel a tangled mess and connect invisible dots with no language, no music, and no support. Barbara took the pause. The music would eventually rejoin her, but in those seconds, Barbara was in control of the silence. She was in control of what would come out on the other side.
She took the pause.
This time last year, I was lying in my bed staring at the ceiling of my studio apartment in uptown Manhattan. My fever was at 103.8, temping me to call the ambulance. With no shortness of breath and only being emotionally elderly, I held off. My body ached. I threw up. I lost weight. Chills. Headache. Exhaustion.
The daze of it all. I counted ambulances. I made a sick game of it—each day counting the number that zipped past my window. Would today reach more than 7? 8? 9? 11 ambulances on my street. I stopped playing. I clapped for the hospital workers. The hospital ship. The Central Park tents. Zoom meetings that became furloughs. Posting your symptoms. Production pauses that became cancelations. Schedules erased. Posts that read “Real New Yorkers Don’t Leave.” Allegations. Protests. Alone and feeling that my craft is more like the closet hamster of my youth, eating her young rather than an actual community, I got a storage space. I got a plane ticket.
I hadn’t really spent a lot of time back in Texas over the last 15 plus years. I was always on the run, chasing jobs. Once or twice a year, I would blow through town grabbing all the hugs ‘n howdys I could along the way. So, to have this length of time…it’s…well, it’s something. If we’re going to be honest? Really, honest? I’ve been here through the pandemic, an election, Capitol riots, and a murder trial. Through all this, do you know how many people have wanted to talk with me about New York City theater? What the cast of Hamilton had for lunch? Am I more like Anne Boleyn or Anne of Cleves from Six? Nobody. I mean, NOBODY. My family cares. My friends care. But it’s only that “kinda” care. The way that someone cares because they care about you…but not the actual thing. They just want YOU to be happy.
So, here we are. No music. No lines. No support.
Take the pause.
Take the pause to claw your way out of this darkness. Take all the time you need. I may even ask for more time. Extra bars. Just keep connecting those invisible dots. Create something new. Get excited about it.
The music will rejoin you. It always does.
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