Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.
NOTE: If you were nominated for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mara Greer captivated our attention at North Shore Music Theatre's Shrek: The Musical with her active and inspired choreography, featuring tap-dancing rats, vibrant Fairy Tale Creatures, and a synchronized army of dolls in Duloc. In her Interview, Mara explains her choreographing process, her most important theatre/dance lesson, and some of her upcoming projects (she'll be all over the country so look for her coming to a city near you!).
Hi, Mara, and thank you for interviewing with ArtsImpulse. Can you start by telling our readers about yourself? Who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
I grew up just outside of Louisville, Kentucky, and I attended the Youth Performing Arts High School there. Following that, I attended the University of Michigan and I got my degree in Musical Theatre. Since graduation, I have worked as a performer on Broadway and national tours, and in regional theaters across the country. For the past few years, I have started transitioning from performing into choreographing, something for which I have always had a passion.
Talk to us about your choreography for North Shore Music Theatre’s Shrek: The Musical? What was your inspiration? What styles did you use? How did you develop your choreography and design?
One of the things I love about Shrek: The Musical is the variety of styles of dance, including tap. Tap is one of my favorite things to choreograph. My Dad is a tap dancer (and attended The Boston Conservatory), so I grew up hearing rhythm around the house. The majority of my tap training though, came from my high school dance teacher, Gail Benedict. She was in the original company of 42nd Street on Broadway and is a DIVA tapper. I also watched, and still watch, a ton of movie musicals. Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Vera Ellen, Gregory Hines, Fred Astaire, the Nicholas Brothers, and Eleanor Powell all played a huge influence on how I choreograph tap numbers.
“Duloc” is another very stylized dance number in the show. While I did my own choreography for Shrek: The Musical at North Shore Music Theatre (“NSMT”), Josh Prince, the original Broadway choreographer, definitely had a huge influence on me. It's hard to reimagine already genius work but it was a challenge I was up for. Everyone, with the exception of Lord Farquaad, in this number is a doll. So, the dance had to mimic what a doll-dancing would look like. I spent a lot of time working in front of mirrors with this number, making sure every position was specific and precise!
What has been the most challenging number or show to choreograph? What was the more rewarding? Why?
The most challenging number for me to choreograph was definitely “Forever” in Shrek: The Musical. This song was new for the National Tour and London, and was not in the original Broadway production. When the new song was conceived, they also had a massive, dragon puppet built, that required four people for operation. It had one person operating the head (including the mouth and blinking eyes), the second person operating the wings, the third had the back legs, and the fourth was in charge of the tail. The person voicing the dragon was off stage singing in a booth. There were also four old knights in stocks rolling around on the stage.
Due to space limitations and working in the round, Michael Heitzman (the Director) and I had to completely re-conceive this number. The first change we made was having the person voicing the dragon on stage. This is an incredibly difficult song to sing, and it was written for somebody to be standing still off stage. I had to carefully choreograph for the dragon so that she was still able to breathe and sing the song. However, since we were in the round, I had to move her positioning multiple times throughout the number so that everyone in the audience was able to see her at some point. On top of that, she wore an amazing head piece, similar to the puppetry used in The Lion King in addition to a massive tail, making any movement extremely difficult.
The second big change that we made was turning the Knights into dragonettes, two women who served as her back-up singers. There were multiple challenges, but, honestly, those numbers are the most fun! They give you a chance to dig in and get creative.
The most rewarding number to choreograph was “Freak Flag.” Building this number was a blast. It's a number about embracing who you are and being proud of yourself. Watching all of the fairy tales creatures dance their tails off (bears, witches, fairies, and pigs) was such a cool image. Creatures from different walks of life all dancing together and finally understanding that “What makes us special makes us strong” is such an important message in today's world.
What are some of the most important theatre or dance lessons that you’ve learned? Why?
One of the most important theatre/dance lessons I've learned can be summed up in a great quote: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” When I was a senior in high school, I played Peggy Sawyer in the fall musical 42nd Street. We were lucky enough to learn all the original Broadway choreography. One weekend, I had a scholarship to a dance convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. Because I had two shows on Saturday, I couldn't go to the first day of the convention. My parents both thought I should rest on Sunday, but I was determined not to waste my scholarship. So, at 6:30am Sunday morning, my mom and I piled into the car and drove to Cincinnati.
The day started with 8:00 am ballet, which is not my strongest style of dance. However, I have never had a ballet teacher like Judy Rice. She made it exciting and fun. During the class, Judy pointed me out saying she loved the passion that I had when I danced and started calling me Colgate girl, saying I should do Colgate commercials because I had such a great smile.
After that class, I ran into the tap instructor for the weekend. Unfortunately, I had missed my tap class because it was on Saturday, but I stopped the instructor in the hall to say hello. I had read his bio, and discovered that he had done the National Tour of 42nd Street. I told him I was currently doing the show with all of the original choreography. He gave me a strange look as if he didn't believe me, and then asked if I knew the Sailor/Niffy section in the Act 2 tap ballet. I told him I did, and he said, “Well then, let's go . . . 5, 6, 7, 8!” We proceeded to do an entire section from the show; two people that were generations apart and had only spoken to each other for about a minute. Little did I know, Judy, the ballet teacher, happened to be watching the entire interaction. Afterward, she came up to me and said, “You know, I teach at the University of Michigan, and I think that would be a great school for you.” To which I replied,
That is actually my number one school choice.”
One audition and a few weeks later, I was accepted into the University of Michigan musical theatre department, all because I chose to not take a day off, use my scholarship, plow through 8:00 am ballet, and introduce myself to a tap teacher whose class I missed.
What are some of your guilty pleasures?
I really like baking. I got a Kitchen-Aid mixer about a year ago and it has changed my life! I also love playing board games; some of my favorites being Balderdash, Taboo, Quelf, and Mystery Mansion.
If you were stranded on an island, what are three things that you would bring? Would you go alone or bring someone with you?
Three things . . . this is a hard one! I would definitely take my iPod. Music is a must! I would also take the Harry Potter book series. My third item would have to be my cat, Molly. My husband and I fostered three kittens, found homes for two of them, and Molly stayed with us. When we first got them, we were up every three hours, bottle-feeding them. It was a huge undertaking but definitely worth it. As for the part about taking someone with me, that is a 100% YES!! I would bring my husband, Michael. I couldn't imagine going anywhere without him.
What advice would you give your younger self at age 10? Age 20?
I would probably remind myself, at both 10 and 20, to never stop dreaming. I try and remind myself that every day!
If you could turn back time, when and where would you go? What would you do? More importantly, what would you wear?
If I could turn back time, I would go back to working at the Pittsburgh CLO in 2007 when I did The Full Monty and tell myself to go out with the guy wearing the leopard thong. Seven years later, I would meet that guy again doing a different show and realize he was the man of my dreams.
What is one thing that all musical theatre actors should know? What is one thing that all choreographers should know?
All musical theatre actors should know that if you don't get the job, 9 times out of 10, it's not you. There is so much that goes into casting a show that actors can't do anything about. Maybe, a girl comes in and she is a perfect Fiona. She is beautiful, sings incredibly well, and reads her scenes impeccably. However, if they have already cast a Shrek and he is only 5'10," they need a Fiona that is 5'4" or shorter to create the illusion that Shrek is large. The best thing that you can do is go in and give your best audition, and then leave the room and not worry about it. Whether you're right for the show or not, you will always remember someone who gives a great audition.
I think choreographers should not be afraid to make mistakes. In this business, we are constantly striving for perfection. What if I get a bad review? What if the performers don't like my work? What if the theatre doesn't like my work? Fear and doubt are not good motivators. Make mistakes and try something new! Allow yourself to collaborate. That's how theatre changes for the better.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
In March 2016, I am heading to the University of Michigan to choreograph their spring production of Guys & Dolls. I can't even begin to tell you how excited I am to return to my alma mater and choreograph one of their shows, especially a show as brilliant as Guys & Dolls. After that, I am going out to California to choreograph Legally Blonde at the Sacramento Music Circus!
Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?
I am so honored to be nominated for an ArtsImpulse award, and especially for working at North Shore Music Theatre. Les Miserables at NSMT was my first professional job after moving to New York and graduating college. That theatre kept me employed for several years (I also did Bye, Bye, Birdie; 42nd Street; High School Musical 2; and Hello, Dolly! with NSMT). To come back to the theatre that gave me my start as a performer, and now my start as a choreographer, it's hard to even put into words what that means to me. It is beyond special. I will never be able to thank Bill Hanney and Kevin Hill enough for that opportunity. And then, on top of it, to be recognized for my work with this nomination; I am incredibly humbled and grateful.