SAM PINKLETON, Danny Mefford, and Adam Shankman all wanted to grow up to be Broadway actors. In fact, none of the three now-choreographers even had dance training when they entered high school.

“If somebody told my 16-year-old self what I’m doing now, my mind would explode,” Pinkleton said. “I didn’t know what I do as a job now was even possible.”

After all, at that time in their lives, acting in school plays and musicals was their primary exposure to theatre. Each was eager to find a creative outlet and found refuge as members of their schools’ respective International Thespian Society troupes. There, they nurtured their love of theatre and eventually found their paths to dance and choreography.

Now, Mefford, Pinkleton, and Shankman are all leaders in the dance field. Mefford made his mark choreographing shows including Fun Home and Dear Evan Hansen, while Pinkleton earned a Tony Award nomination for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Shankman is a pioneer onstage and on screen, directing and choreographing musical films such as Hairspray and Rock of Ages.

Dramatics caught up with these esteemed Thespian alumni to talk about how they discovered their knack for choreography, why actor training is essential to building cohesive and interesting stage (and screen) movement, and what advice they have for aspiring theatre choreographers today.

Danny Mefford

Danny Mefford

Danny Mefford: “Follow your artistic impulses”

Mefford was all-in on the International Thespian Society in high school — in fact, he was president of Troupe 1794 at Indiana’s Floyd Central High School, which took shows including Children of Eden (he played Adam) to the International Thespian Festival. During his freshman year, he also discovered his love of dancing — tap dancing to be specific.

After performing a tap dance at ITF, Mefford was cast in Crazy for You, and his teacher told him he had a gift for dance. (Subsequently, he practiced nonstop in his parents’ basement.)

However, despite discovering a passion for dance, he didn’t pursue it in college, instead attending the University of Evansville to study acting. He found his way back to choreography when he interned at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Director Alex Timbers was looking for someone to help him workshop a 30-second spoof demonstrating how famed modern dance choreographer Martha Graham would stage Adam and Eve.

The two developed a creatively fulfilling relationship that led to Mefford’s Broadway debut with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, directed by Timbers. From there, the choreography work kept coming.

“I didn’t view choreography work as my goal,” Mefford said. “Then when I started doing it in New York, I started finding myself turning down auditions to go choreograph.”

Ultimately, his experience as an actor was essential to his choreography style. “I was really just studying how to tell stories, and I was always doing that from a very physical place,” Mefford said. “Most choreographers come from a traditional dance background, so they think more about line and anatomy and movement than I do. I’m interested in the social event.”

That’s particularly relevant to his work on Dear Evan Hansen, which he admits is the hardest show he’s ever worked on. While most dance is considered heightened movement, for the Tony-winning musical about a high schooler struggling to connect, each movement needed to be believable for characters who don’t seem like the dancing type. Early workshops of the show included a chorus who could perform more traditional dance, but they were cut before production.

Director-choreographer Adam Shankman on the set of the film What Men Want. Photo by Jess Miglio.

“You need to deeply believe that all these people are exactly who you are being told they are,” he explained, adding that much of the show’s choreography might not look like dance on the surface though it is, in fact, created by him.

“I view dance as a behavior that humans engage in,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is interested in me choreographing a thing where the dance is supposed to be on top of it.”

The show’s pop-infused, anthemic score by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek provided another challenge to the visual storytelling. “[The songs] don’t 100% follow the thoughts and emotions of the characters — that’s one of the reasons the score is so popular, because it’s full of pop songs,” Mefford said. “I had to find a way to represent that with what I call ‘a very limited palette.’ I just felt intrinsically that we had to find a visual corollary.”

Mefford also drew on his experience from high school when he created the movement for the show. “If I’m trying to enter into the story of high schoolers in an empathetic way, then of course I’m drawing on my own feelings from that [time],” he said. “Feelings of insecurity, feelings of not knowing if I belong, feelings of not feeling seen. You start realizing those things as a teenager, but you keep feeling them throughout your life.”

Even though everyone can relate to those feelings, Mefford said it’s important to find a way to push past those emotions and know that change and evolution are good for your creativity and your career.

“You have to be honest with yourself about what you’re actually interested in,” Mefford said, giving advice to young theatremakers. “Follow your artistic impulses because that’s how you’re going to constantly continue as a person to remake yourself. Just continue to become more fully you and capable of more things, too.”

Adam Shankman

Adam Shankman

Adam Shankman: “Exercise your narrative thinking”

Theatre was Adam Shankman’s saving grace in high school. He participated in “all the Thespian things” with Troupe 2727 at Palisades Charter High School in Pacific Palisades, California, but he still felt a bit like an outsider. When he won an award for his performance in a one-act play festival, he was shocked and not sure he deserved it.

But theatre became more than a career dream; it was almost a lifeline.

“I was a bit of a juvie, and they needed to kind of get me off of the street,” Shankman said, explaining that he spent his summers at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. “I was starting to be one of those kids that acted out a little bit, so that was an amazing place for me. It was this extension of the formation of my storytelling. It’s the way in which I thought about storytelling. That obviously informs what I do today.”

During high school, Shankman was encouraged to pursue dance for the first time, even though he wasn’t technically trained. He ultimately auditioned and got into Juilliard for dance, but he found the focus on technique limiting.

“I was older for a professional dancer to start taking classes, and very quickly that environment became really challenging for me,” said Shankman, who decided to drop out of the program. “There was an expectation that you already have a lot of background and speak the language, and I didn’t.”

Even though his dream was to be in a Broadway chorus, he moved to Los Angeles, where he landed a couple of performing jobs and quickly started his choreography career.

“I had kind of given up, then once I started choreographing, I never really looked back trying to get more dance jobs because I took off,” said Shankman.

While he loves making dance and directing for all media, he’s not hindered by perfectionism when creating works for the screen. There are no editors for a stage show, but in a movie or TV series, you can only show what the camera captures. “My philosophy — I’m happy to be criticized for this — is, if the camera didn’t see it, it didn’t happen,” he said.

Even though his job is slightly less creative these days as a producer and executive, he still relies on his theatre training and high school experiences. “What is most important to me is that everybody contributes, everybody feels the value, and everybody understands that their place in the process is appreciated, valued, and necessary,” he said. “I only would have gotten that from theatre. Film work is far more isolating.

“I always go back to the lessons I learned early on,” he added. “The way in which I examine any story I’m going to tell is always from a character basis.”

He encourages young people to nurture their storytelling muscles too — no matter what path they choose to pursue in theatre. “Just sit down and make yourself write — write stories, write plays, write things,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad because what you’re actually doing is exercising the part of your brain that’s used to narrative thinking. That’s a great muscle to exercise in any of the professions because you’re all just storytellers.”

He also makes sure to practice gratitude in his life and career, knowing not to rely on “happily ever after” but instead seeking more opportunities to learn and grow.

“I’m so grateful for the time I spent being able to collaborate and enjoy my youth. That was largely without excess responsibility, and I enjoyed the freedom and support to create. I don’t take that for granted. I know there are a lot of kids that don’t have that. Holding compassion for people is really important, being grateful for my experiences in high school. My teachers, the good and bad, they all collectively got me where I am now and will always be a part of where I’m going. Respect for the blessing that we get to do this is paramount.”

Sam Pinkleton

Sam Pinkleton

Sam Pinkleton: “Have a good time, and write thank you notes”

Theatre saved Sam Pinkleton’s life in high school. An artistic kid in Petersburg, Virginia, he found a haven in a local magnet high school, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology, home of Troupe 6427.

“That school very explicitly saved my life and, I think, saved the lives of pretty much everyone I went to high school with,” Pinkleton said. “I grew up in a pretty conservative area, without a ton of access to arts, and this high school was just like, ‘Ah.’ It was like a magical high school.”

Pinkleton earned acceptance to the school by playing saxophone, but after sneaking into a Godspell rehearsal his freshman year, he was bitten by the theatre bug. That production ended up going to the Virginia Thespian Festival, and his time in the International Thespian Society was a lifeline to other high schoolers like him across the country in an age before social media.

“It was our only way to feel less alone,” he said.

While Pinkleton loved dance in high school, he was never trained. He would choreograph numbers for the school’s show choir, and he slowly discovered it was what he loved about theatre.

“We have a dance program at my high school because it’s an art school, and I was never particularly good,” he said. “I was just very enthusiastic. I was pretty fearless when it came to jumping around, but I certainly had no technique. But I really loved making choreography. I really loved leading a rehearsal process, and I loved that from the time I was 14.

“Looking back on it, even in high school, the thing I was excited about was directing and choreographing,” he added.

He decided to go to New York University to pursue acting and took out a lot of loans, noting, “It’s always an important thing for high school students to know that I truly made a choice, and even despite a fair amount of success, it is a choice that follows me around every day.”

Sam Pinkleton (right) rehearses with the cast of Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva.

Some of his teachers there weren’t as encouraging of his love for dance, and one in particular told him to stay away from the medium. He took that as inspiration.

“I love what your body does when music gets turned on, and I thought if I love dancing this much, it doesn’t line up with what technique is telling me, which is you’re bad, don’t do this,” Pinkleton said. “So, there was a little voice in my head that was like: ‘Find your own way.’”

He started his career assisting directors and creating dances for plays. In fact, it’s only recently that he’s started working on big musicals. “I’ve found terms that work for me to make [those musicals] because I didn’t suddenly learn how to point my feet,” he said, explaining that he really likes devising in the room. “I didn’t suddenly learn how to do a pirouette. I still don’t know, and I really don’t have too much of an interest in knowing. But I love choreographing big musicals, and I love choreographing dance. And I’ve learned there’s so many ways you can do it that don’t require approval by the technical dance gods.”

One of his recent projects, the new Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang musical Soft Power, was a full-circle moment. He met Tesori during an American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers workshop in high school, and he remembers going up to her and talking to her. It’s surreal now to him that they are colleagues.

“A lot of really cool things happened to me because of things I did when I was a teenager,” he said. “So, whenever I work with high school students, I’m like, ‘You guys just enjoy it, and know what you want, and have a good time, and write thank you notes, and ask people questions.’ Because 20 years later, you might be working with the people who are teaching you right now.”

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