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Ilana Ransom Toeplitz wins a coveted spot as a Drama League Fellow
Friday, July 1, 2016
Friday, July 1, 2016
No one would have blamed Ilana Ransom Toeplitz a few years ago for needing a moment or ten to recover from a series of misfortunes in her life — losing her job and boyfriend in short order, followed by her father’s illness and then, sadly, his passing. Toeplitz, however, turned out to be the kind of woman who read that string of events as a sign to get serious about pursuing her dreams. To wit: after several years of racking up internships, assistant directing, and directing credits, she has secured a spot as one of the 2016 Drama League Directing Fellows. Toeplitz is the Leo Shull New Musicals Fellow, the only musicals-focused director in the group, and will participate in a year-long program that includes mentoring, working with an established director in a musical theater lab, and producing her own work.
“I’ve been working toward this for 5 or 6 years, and I pinch myself every day,” Toeplitz said. She described participating in the program as akin to “a 10-year jumpstart” on a directing career, since the program’s alumni are a veritable who’s who of Broadway professionals, adding that they are “a family that will always have your back.”
“That kind of support for directors is invaluable because we don’t get that. I’m incredibly proud to be a part of (the program),” she said.
Getting to New York
When Toeplitz graduated from UMass with a BDIC in Artistic Direction and Arts Management, she had plans to head to New York City as soon as possible. Instead, the aforementioned circumstances kept her in Massachusetts, and she pursued work with local companies — she was assistant-directing and in technical rehearsal with the Huntington Theatre in Boston when she got the word her father died. After she finished dealing with everything she needed to address in the wake of his passing, she embarked on what she calls “Ilana’s Regional Tour.”
“I wanted to get to know the regional theater scene. So I packed up my dad’s Subaru Forester with different bins labelled by weather conditions, and got an internship at Signature Theatre — where I’ll be returning in August as part of my fellowship,” Toeplitz said. Over the following 18 months, she found internships in 6 different cities. “I found places to stay on an interns’ budget of $100/week by calling in favors, cat-sitting, doing whatever I had to do to be there.”
She was in assistant choreographing at the Pittsburgh CLO when she got a call to assistant-direct the Keen Company's Off-Broadway "revisal" of Marry Me A Little, a musical written by Stephen Sondheim. As amazing an opportunity as it was, assistant directing a Stephen Sondheim piece is still no guarantee you’re going to be a hop, skip, and jump away from directing on Broadway. However, Toeplitz built a friendship with the choreographer of the show, Dan Knechtges, a Broadway veteran.
“He was incredibly generous and basically wrote down a list of 20 names and said, ‘I’m going to introduce you to these people’,” she said. “Through him I met Leigh Silverman who directed Violet on Broadway, which I assistant directed.”
As she was assisting more established directors, Toeplitz was also seeking out her own opportunities, including a concert presentation of the musical version of Reefer Madness, starring Alan Cumming.
“It just started as an idea with my friends because I wanted to do a show at 54 Below, and then once we talked to the writers and brought Christian Campbell on board, it ballooned, and then Alan Cumming got on board, and then it just became something that was way bigger than anything I’d ever imagined!” Toeplitz said.
At the same time, she was working on Violet.
“My off-Broadway directing debut with Alan Cumming opened hours before my Broadway show, which is a great problem to have!” she said.
A good Fellowship
All this time, however, Toeplitz had her eye on the Drama League program.
“When I had just graduated and I was in that apartment in Boston eating black beans out of a can and watching Netflix, I googled Directing Program and I was like, ‘Oh, there’s this one with the Drama League,’ and I didn’t realize what a big deal it was. So I applied and it was like …” Toeplitz made a derisive noise as she recalled that first application.
With more experience, she realized what a big deal it was and put more effort into the next application. It was on her third try that she got in. She will spend a year in the program before, as she joked, passing on the tiara to the next Fellow.
The first part of the program is already under her belt. In May, all the Fellows participated in Professionals Week, when, as the name implies, they spent a week meeting with professionals in the field.
“Even though it’s ended I feel like it’s still going because I’ve gotten a lot of second and third meetings from it,” Toeplitz said. In fact, just before we went to publish, she emailed that one of the second/third meetings she took post-professionals week has led to a gig directing and choreographing her first national tour this fall!
During the same week, she attended the Drama League Awards, which she described as “kind of like director prom. They announce you as one of the future directors of America and everybody in this whole giant ballroom applauds you.”
Later this summer, part three of her Fellowship will be a trip to Signature Theater in Arlington, VA, to work on two new musicals with director Joe Calarco.
The formal program ends in the fall. "The Drama League is producing a night of my own direction with the intention of introducing me to the Broadway/Regional theatre community. I'll be directing an evening of musical theatre tailored to show my strengths as a director/choreographer, specifically of new musicals and musical comedy. I keep joking around saying that it's my 'Director's Debutante Ball',” Toeplitz said.
She’s not ready to say what she’ll do, although she does know that it will be new work. “I’m speed dating a lot of really, really exciting writers, and I’m beginning to get a vision of what I want to do,” she said.
When asked what she had brought with her from UMass Theater that helped her toward her current successes, Toeplitz was quick with an answer: “Teaching initiative, and wanting to be your own engine.”
“(Acclaimed musical director) Susan Stroman always says you can’t wait for the phone to ring, you have to do it yourself,” she said, “and I think UMass does a great job of setting up parameters for you, but then it’s up to you and your initiative to make things actually happen, which is a great skill to have. You’re not always going to have a prescribed course and curriculum, definitely not in this industry.”
She also credited UMass’s liberal arts approach — Toeplitz found a huge value in the set design classes she took with Professor Emeritus Miguel Romero. “I’m a huge believer that as a director that you should just know as many vocabularies as you can. It helped me become a better communicator and artist.”
(Photo of Ilana Ransom Toeplitz by Lidia Arriagada-García)
Meeting industry heavy weights: Reflections on Professionals Week
Like so many things, we learned about Toeplitz’s time in the Drama League Directing Fellows program on facebook. As part of the program, she blogged about her experience during Professionals Week, when the fellows get a chance to talk to mentors in the field, and posted it in a status update. It’s a lively and fun post, and we asked if we could excerpt it, so here’s her introduction — click over to read the rest of the post on the Drama League blog.
Professionals Week was one of the most exhilarating, edifying, rewarding, exhausting weeks of my life.
Everyday from 10:00 am to post-show drinks o’clock, we were perfectly and meticulously scheduled to meet with the theatre industry’s best and brightest. My strengths and my weaknesses were put in a pressure cooker…. only it’s a supportive, encouraging, pressure cooker that feels like a family you’re incredibly proud to be a part of.
Professionals Week week was 5 days spanning Monday, May 16 thru Saturday, May 21st (with the epic Drama League Awards sandwiched in there).
Now, if you’ve ever met me, you’ll quickly gather that I’m an energetic human being. And yet, even I was so exhausted by Wednesday night that I fell asleep, in my party dress, on top of a pile of Playbills …a devoted homage to the end of Diane Paulus’ Broadway revival of Hair.
We spend every day meeting with Tony Award-winning designers (Beowulf Boritt), directors (Diane Paulus), actors (Judith Light), producers (Jack Viertel) - and every meeting was a unique opportunity to start a dialogue and hopefully even build a relationship. ...
Read the whole blog post at: http://dramaleague.org/blogs/directors-project/professionals-week-musing