Truth Through Choreography: Inside “Spamalot” with Shanna VanDerwerker

Truth Through Choreography: Inside “Spamalot” with Shanna VanDerwerker

Our “Inside” series takes you behind the scenes of productions through blog posts written by the artists in the trenches. To read past “Inside” pieces, click here

By Shanna VanDerwerker, Choreographer.

Dance is often seen as a strict art form – think ballet, forcing toes into wooden slippers, strict 8 counts, the discipline it takes to master that strict 8 counts. But with SPAMALOT, it’s more than just a fun, comedic musical – it is the opportunity for the creative artists to step out of the restraints of their typical craft, and lean into the humor, into the silliness through all the elements of the show – and none as much as the choreography. 

In my approach for SPAMALOT, it started out much like other shows I’ve worked on – I listen to the music, read the script, and try to find the style of the show as a whole. But giving myself the permission and the freedom to try the most ridiculous ideas has been a fun challenge – and that extends into researching every element of the show. For example, with the opening number, “Finland,” I watched actual Finnish folk dancing videos to get a feel for it. I believe comedy should always be rooted in truth, no matter how ridiculous. 

In the choreography, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re creating a show usually done by twice as many people and a huge set that needs to fit on the intimate Mercury Stage. And with just six people in our ensemble, we have to be cognizant of all of those things. Each number is fantastic in its own way, but to be able to put my own spin on the iconic “Knights of the Round Table” is especially fun and challenging. It’s a number created for a large set and ensemble, and we don’t have either.

So how do you make a number with 12 people and a unit set work? You have to get creative. And to pay homage in a way to Las Vegas, a place that I have a personal connection to, is particularly fun. 

Following the theme of truth through the choreography, my goal is to help the audience accept the absurdity of the storytelling and style of the comedy. By giving them permission to laugh through the movement and the music, it also reminds the actors to commit to the honesty of the comedy. I really hope the audience just laughs until their sides hurt. We live in a, to quote the play, “rude and churlish time” and to take 2.5 hours to walk away from the stress and troubles of life and just laugh is truly healing for a person. I hope they walk away with the story’s message – to find whatever you believe in and stay true to it and yourself, no matter what life
throws at you.

SHANNA VANDERWERKER (Choreographer) returns to Spamalot and the Mercury after working on Pippin in the Venus Cabaret Theater. Chicago credits include: Lysistrata Jones (Refuge Theater Project, Jeff Nomination), Porchlight Revisits Can Can (Porchlight Music Theatre), Legally Blonde (BAM) and “Leap of Faith” (Inaside Dance Company). Other Choreography credits include: AnnieMy Fair LadyNewsies, 42nd StSouth PacificBeauty and the Beast and Singin’ In The Rain all at The Fireside Theatre in Fort Atkinson, WI. Shanna has worked as Associate Choreographer to Christopher Gattelli on the Original Broadway companies of Amazing Grace and High Fidelity. Shanna was an inaugural honoree of the Rachel Rockwell Foundation’s Fierce Women Behind the Table by Porchlight Theater Company. Shanna also works as an adjunct faculty member at CCPA of Roosevelt University and Columbia College Chicago. 

About author


PerformInk is Chicago's entertainment industry trade publication.