Wednesday, May 22, 2013
HORSE "PLAY"! An Interview With Sandra Beaulieu about the joys of Equestrian Theater!
Greetings everyone, and welcome to Theater is a Sport. My name is Bobby Keniston, and I like to talk about all things related to "play" and performing.
I would like to apologize to my regular readers for the long absence. It's a busy time of year for a youth playwright--- getting proofs back to editors, finishing up last minute submissions in hopes of making the fall catalogue... all this on top of my teaching duties and rehearsing my part in a play this summer has kept me very busy! I am happy to be back, however, especially with this special interview.
I confess, I have only ever been on a horse three times in my life. Nevertheless, I have always found them to be beautiful and naturally charismatic creatures. A few years back, while directing a production of The Importance of Being Earnest for The Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft, I had the good fortune to meet Sandra Beaulieu, who played the part of Cecily. Not only was I lucky that this lovely actress hit a homerun with her performance (and in her first play, no less!), but I was also happy to meet someone who performs theater with horses on a regular basis. I know practically nothing about what it takes to develop such a performance, so I thought interviewing her for this blog would be a perfect opportunity to learn, and share this knowledge with all of you.
In addition to her work with horses, Sandra is also an accomplished artist with her Sandra B. Designs, a model who has worked on different Hannaford ad campaigns, a dancer, and has even appeared in a Taylor Swift music video!
I appreciate Sandra taking the time to answer my questions, and certainly hope to be able to work with her again in the future, with or without horses!
BOBBY KENISTON: Hi Sandy. First off, how are you doing?
SANDRA BEAULIEU: I am doing really well, I just returned home (to Maine) from 3 months in Tallahasse, Florida with my horse. I usually go to Florida in the winter months to teach lessons and take a break from the long, cold Maine winters.
BK: Tell me a little bit about how you became interested in horses and riding. How old were you? How did it come about? At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to train horses and teach people to ride?
SB: I was 7 years old when I truly fell in love with horses. I was at a day camp that happened to take a field trip to a local stable. I vividly remember seeing a horse canter by me on the road. To me, it looked like the horse went in slow motion and was very majestic! My mother said that I was frantic when I got home, telling her that I needed to go back right away! She had no idea what I was talking about and had to call the day care to find out where we had gone! When I turned 13 I knew that I would work with horses full-time for the rest of my life. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be dedicating my life to horses.
BK: Your website describes you as a "passionate horsewoman that embodies classical principals and a deep love for horses and the art of dressage." Could you please explain for those who do not know what is meant by "classical principles" and "the art of dressage"?
SB: Dressage is the French word for "training". So basically, dressage is the training of the horse. However, dressage is more sophisticated then basic English or Western riding. The horse learns to "dance" under the rider's guidance, performing spectacular movements from subtle shifts of weight and use of the legs and hands. I practice a more artistic form of dressage known as "classical" in which the training is focused more on the individual development of the horse, lightness in the movements and harmony between horse and rider. Classical training has roots in the Baroque and Rennaissance eras when riding horses was seen as a form of living art. In contrast to "classical" there is a more "competitive" style of riding where you train solely for competitions against other horses and riders. Each horse and rider perform the same routine for a judge and receive marks for every movement.
BK: I know this is a vague question, but, if you would, could you walk people through an equestrian theatre performance, from chreography, rehearsing, and all the way to performance? What are the most important elements to create a successful performance? How do the horses themselves become storytellers? How do you use props, costumes and other theatrics to create an exciting performance?
SB: The Isaac Royal Equestrian Theater is very unique. Carolyn Rose, my instructor and owner of Isaac Royal Farm, began doing equestrian theater in Massachusetts over 25 years ago. Carolyn is a wonderful instructor because she lets the students be involved in all aspects of the show. We were just teenagers when we put together the first equestrian theater performance in Maine. We created choreography on foot while we "played horses", drawing out an arena in the sand and playing the music. Then we would try it out on the horses, see what worked and then practice it on the ground until the choreography was done. We were also in charge of editing the music. When we started in 1996 we were using cassette tapes, recording and pausing between two tape players. Today we have a computer program that works really well but it was amazing that we were able to edit an entire show from cassette tapes. The costumes are very important to the visual element of the show. Our audience sits very close to the horses so they can see everything. The costumes have to match the theme of each routine, need to fit really well and have a lot of color and drama. We also use masks but that can take away from your visual ability on the horse. I remember playing Phantom of the Opera with a half-mask and I lost all peripheral vision on that side. I really had to pay attention to my riding partner to make sure I stayed in sync with her because I couldn't see very well. We also incorporate swordplay on and off the horses as well as dancers on the ground. Lydia Rose and I have been dancing in the theater for many years, doing some jazz and bellydance to entertain the audience.
BK: As you know, my blog is called "theater is a sport", because I believe theater is a very physical medium. Obviously, working with horses for a performance must embody this philosophy. Tell me how equestrian theater combines elements of athletics as well as the performing arts?
SB: Riding a horse requires tremendous balance and body control. To ride with a prop like a sword or veil the rider must take one or both hands off the reins. This requires you to steer your horse from mainly your seat and legs, not an easy feat! All of the riders in the show have spent hundreds of hours in the saddle to perfect their balance. Many of us have been riding daily since we were very young and we enjoy the challenge of riding with no hands, no bridle, and also without a saddle. We keep raising the bar to push ourselves to improve.
BK: Does creating a performance with horses limit the possibilities of what can be done, or do you feel it actually opens the door to many more possibilities? Please explain.
SB: The horses are really the main actors on our stage. They inspire incredible emotions, exciting our audience, making them laugh and making them cry. Currently, the theater stage is an indoor riding arena with limited seating. Luckily for us every seat is a good one. You really feel like you are front and center. The horses are very close, adding an element of intimacy for our audience. There are many things that we would like to incorporate such as professional lighting, spotlights, and other special effects but those take additional funds that are currently unavailable. But whether or not we have the special effects doesn't make a huge difference when we already have beautiful horses and skilled riders.
BK: What are some of the most memorable moments you have had performing with horses? Please tell me a little bit about the arenas and locales in which you perform?
SB: When I was in seventh grade I watched Olympic rider Robert Dover perform on t.v. to the song "One Moment in Time" by Whitney Houston. He was dressed in a top hat and shadbelly coat (competition attire) and rode in the dark under a spotlight. That ride was so inspiring I watched it every day for an entire year. I set a goal to perform a graduation freestyle at my high school, Foxcroft Academy. At the time I was a lower level rider on a young horse. I couldn't do any of the fancy dressage movements that Robert Dover could do. I told Carolyn my goal and she was very encouraging, looking back I am sure she thought I was definitely over-reaching but she is a dreamer as well and inspired me to follow mine. I rode every day after school, on the weekends, and all summer long towards this goal. Five years later it was my senior year. I had to get permission from the headmaster to bring my horse to the schoolgrounds and lucky for me he was happy to accomodate. He even sent the entire student body out to the field hockey field to watch! Hundreds of high school kids, my friends, and my family gathered one afternoon. This was my first real performance "moment". It hit me all at once, I had a lump in my throat when I heard the music start and I really felt that this was what I was meant to do. I rode to the same music in a top hat and shadbelly. By that time I was able to do most of the fancy moves that Robert Dover could do, not Olympic quality but we could do them! Years later I had the chance to meet Robert Dover at a horse show and tell him how he inspired me. I can't remember what he said because I was so nervous but I am sure he liked the story! It thrills me when I have younger girls and even adult women become emotional when they tell me how I have inspired them with my horse. It always makes me think of my 13 year-old self, watching those videos day after day and dreaming of the chance to perform for hundreds of people.
BK: How much does improvisation play a part in your performances, if at all? Have you ever had a horse "go off script" so to speak, where you had to improvise?
SB: Horses certainly add an interesting element and require a lot of improvisation. You learn to "go with the flow" and "keep smiling" when things go wrong because the audience really doesn't know. Sometimes the horses will be really nervous or jump away from the audience on the first night if they are scared of the clapping. It is more common for the riders to "go off script" because they forget a move, turn the wrong way, or forget to cue the other riders. When this happens we just do our best to stay on course and catch back up. If it is a single or two-person routine the audience may never notice when you go off-course. The music is loud enough that you can talk to each other when you are riding side by side and remind each other of the next move. We have also had many costume malfunctions like hats falling off, technical difficulty with the soundsystem and one time the power went out completely in the middle of a show! That is why our equestrian theater is just like a regular theater, you never know what will happen next!
BK: In addition to your work with horses, I know you are also an artist, creating equestrian designs for clothing and jewelry, a model who has appeared in several different print ads, an actress who has worked with one one of the best directors on the planet (hee-hee), and an accomplished belly dancer. How do all of these creative endeavors feed in to one another? Is there one of these things you find to be the most creatively satisfying, or all they all equal in your heart?
SB: Performing with horses is my favorite artistic avenue. It is challenging, unique, and occupies my mind every day. I am constantly daydreaming about riding to music and coming up with new ideas. I love to paint with a lot of color and texture and create calligraphy designs that I sell on clothing and gift products. My business, SandraB. Designs, has evolved over the past four years into a wonderful part-time job where I can explore my entrepenerial side, marketing products, working with my websites and in social media. I am able to reach a larger audience of horse people through my online store www.sandrabdesigns.com that could then become riding students and vice versa. I am also attracted to anything related to performing, the modeling, commercial acting, and dancing all play into that. Branching out into different avenues has given me exposure and skills that I bring back to my work with the horses. Everything I do revolves around my love for horses.
BK: I have seen you perform as an actress in the "Importance of Being Earnest", and seen you dance at the Center Theatre. Although I've seen some of your work with horses on Youtube, I would love to see it live some time. With horses, and with dance, I was struck with how movement is used to tell a story. Dance feels to be a big part of what you do. How do you prepare to tell a story through movement, whether it be with be with an equestrian piece or a belly dance piece? Do you visualise in your mind a sort of choreography, or is it something you have to work out on your feet?
SB: With the horses I can usually see the movements in my mind while I listen to a piece of music. Sometimes it doesn't come out perfectly when you ride but then you can make adjustments. I usually start with a piece of music or an idea that inspires me. Once you have chosen the music the choreography follows easily if you are in the creative zone. If I am in the flow I can create a routine quickly and easily but sometimes I just have to work through it and do a little more every day. I also use video to record the choreography and see what looks good and where it needs improvement. The key is to avoid frustration because that blocks the creative juices. Many times we (riders in the Isaac Royal Equestrian Theater) have been inspired by a movie like Zorro, Phantom of the Opera, Moulin Rouge, and Chicago. We buy the soundtracks, listen to the music over and over again, edit the songs and then do the choreography. It is a challenging but rewarding process to come up with a routine that really flows and entertains the audience.
BK: What are your goals for the future with all of these different art forms that you pursue?
SB: For the past two years I have been traveling to larger equine trade show venues to sell my products and perform with my horse Douwe (shown in the photos). Currently, Lydia Rose and I are working on a new routine to submit to a performance called Fantasia held at the Equine Affaire in Massachusetts and Ohio. I have dreamed of performing in this venue for over 7 years and we are getting much closer! Over 100,000 people visit this large event every year and the Fantasia crowd seats over 2,000 a night. I would love to be involved in more entertainment projects with my horse such as videos and print work. I have trained him to perform many movements used in the entertainment arena such as the rear, bow, lay down and the Spanish walk where the horse appears to march. Douwe is a Friesian horse, well known for their black coat, long manes, tails and thick feathers on their legs. They are the most popular breed of horse used in the entertainment world because of their dramatic looks.
BK: Please feel free to list any upcoming projects, websites, shout-outs, what-have-you, where people can learn more about what it is that you do.
SB: I am excited to announce that we are putting together a summer performance for the Isaac Royal Equestrian Theater. It has been two years since our last show and we are looking forward to performing again. The show is about 2 hours long, jam-packed with routines featuring one to twelve horses in the ring at once. Our current dates are August 9, 11, 17, 18. You can find more information about upcoming events, watch videos, and browse through photos at my dressage website www.sandrabdressage.com. We are currently working on a new website for the farm so we will have information up soon at www.isaacroyalfarm.com. You can also find us on Facebook, just enter my name Sandra Beaulieu, Sandra B Dressage, or Isaac Royal Training Center of Classical Dressage. There are also many videos on YouTube.
BK: What would you recommend for young people who are interested in learning to perform with horses?
SB: The first step is to take riding lessons under professional instruction. Before a rider can successfully perform with their horse they should be able to ride the trot and canter independently without needing the stirrups or reins for balance. They can take lessons at Isaac Royal Farm to get started and I also travel giving lessons and clinics to those that are out of our area. Young riders usually catch on pretty quickly and enjoy riding to music and learning to ride without a saddle or bridle. Another option for riders is to submit a video to my online coaching platform at www.horseshow.com. I am a featured clinician on the website and give feedback through a voice-over program. I am easily reached through email (email@example.com) and Facebook for more information.
BK: Of course, here is the most important question: what was it like working with Bobby Keniston, your director for "The Importance of Being Earnest"? Isn't he just awesome?
SB: Being an actress in the "Importance of Being Earnest" was a wonderful experience for me. It was my first (and currently only) time acting in a play. All the performing I had done up to that point was with horses. Lucky for me, you (Bobby) were a fun director that made the experience exciting and interesting. You incorporated a lot of unique exercises to help us work together as a group and get into character. I remember doing our group warm-up exercises on stage and doing separate work with individual actors, focusing on different scenes and memorizing lines. It was wonderful to become part of a team and make new friends during the process. I would like to be in a play again sometime in the future if my schedule could permit it.
BK: Please feel free to add anything that you would like to say... I admit, I will be learning a lot from your answers... I almost don't even know what to ask! So feel free to pass along any other important information...
SB: My hope is that my work with horses and performing will inspire others to pursue their dreams. The life I have carved out for myself is uniquely mine and I continue to work hard at what I love. If you make a living doing what you love then it doesn't feel like work at all! I am sure you (Bobby) know how difficult it can be to follow your own path and create a niche for yourself. Anyone involved in horses and the theater can relate I am sure! But if you truly stick with it long enough and keep a positive attitude then things eventually will come your way. Thank you Bobby for the interview! I look forward to working again with you in the future!
Again, I would like to thank Sandra Beaulieu for taking the time to answer these questions. I learned a great deal, and would love to go see some equestrian theater right now! I hope you all learned alot, too.
If you would like to learn more about Sandra, please follow the links in the interview... they lead to a whole lot of interesting stuff. Even if you're more interested in horses than theater, you will find a great deal of awesome pictures and information!
If you would like to learn more about me, your humble host, just click here, here, here, here, or here. Thanks for stopping by Theater is a Sport. Remember--- horses make great actors, and theater is a sport.
See you next time.