2015 Best Supporting Actress in a Musical Nominee: Sarajane Morse Mullins as Blanche Barrow in The Umbrella's "Bonnie & Clyde"

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 brian@artsimpulse.com.

Photo Credit: Tara Lynn Sen Photography.

Sarajane Morse Mullins played Blanche Barrow, a woman as devoted to her Christian values as her crime-scheming husband, Buck Barrow, in The Umbrella's Bonnie & Clyde. Sarajane played this dichotomy to pitch-perfect effect, and this conflict tore into her heart and spirit, shown in her desperate actions and soulful voice. The warmth of Sarajane's Blanche was a bright light, and her support, whether through her voice or acting performance, brought the best out of her scene partners, especially in scenes with Tim McShea's Buck. In her Interview, Sarajane tells us about her role as Blanche, why the role was one of her most challenging to date, and one of her theatre rituals! 

Hi, Sarajane, and thank you for joining us for an interview at ArtsImpulse.  Can you tell our readers a bit more about yourself?  Who are you, where are you from, what do you do?

Hi, Brian!  Thanks so much for this opportunity.  I’m a Midwestern girl who fell in love with the power of theater at an early age.  I came to New England to pursue a theater arts degree at Boston University.  I spent ten seasons in the Midwest doing summer stock and regional theater. 

In 2011, I started a small teaching company called Live Arts Education that delivers affordable after-school theater programming in the Boston area. While trying to grow as an actor, a teaching artist, and a professional, I finished an MS in Mental Health Counseling at UMASS Boston and I currently practice as a mental health clinician.  When I’m not performing, I really enjoy integrating the arts into therapeutic and educational work. 

Put simply, I love people and the study of the human spirit.

Talk to us about Blanche.  Who is she?  What is her story in the musical Bonnie & Clyde?  What research did you do to prepare for this role?

My homework for Blanche was easy because she wrote a book!  The musical presents Blanche as a bible-thumping Christian woman who despises crime (and Clyde!) and fights hard to keep her husband out of trouble.  In reality, Blanche was a battered wife who was on the run from her abusive husband when she ran into Clyde’s brother, Buck.  She loved Buck furiously, and refused to leave his side no matter what trouble he got into. She collaborated with the Barrow Clan for years and served a prison sentence for her involvement.  

(From Left to right): Buck Barrow (Tim McShea), Blanche Barrow (Sarajane Morse Mullins), and Salon Women (Cathy Merlo, Tristyn Sepersky, and andrea giangreco) in The Umbrella's Bonnie & Clyde (Photo credit: Meghan Donnelly). 

(From Left to right): Buck Barrow (Tim McShea), Blanche Barrow (Sarajane Morse Mullins), and Salon Women (Cathy Merlo, Tristyn Sepersky, and andrea giangreco) in The Umbrella's Bonnie & Clyde (Photo credit: Meghan Donnelly). 

She wasn’t as Christian and “anti-Clyde” as the musical portrays her.  It’s quite obvious that the musical authors read Blanche’s book, as there are some uncanny similarities in the wording.   

What are some of your favorite love stories?  Why?

I believe love is most exciting when it challenges our beliefs, our comfort zones, our expectations, even our morals.  I’ve always doubted the notion that two people must focus on what they share in common.  The true love that I’ve found has challenged me to think outside of the box I’ve made for myself and challenge the expectation that I need to share anything more than the desire for love to triumph. I believe love is humbling, it is unexpected, and it is unpredictable.

I might go as far to say that my favorite love story is the one that isn’t finished yet because it offers us the freedom of possibility, with no promise of perfection.

If you were going to be committed for any crime, what would it be?

I’ve always desired to house unusual animals as pets.  I probably would go down for some illegal zoning of exotic species inside my residence.  My first choice would be a feral cat hybrid; I’m thinking something mountain lion-ish or cheetah . . . or maybe a monkey.

Why do you think that Bonnie & Clyde at The Umbrella was a successful production?  How did audiences react?

Bonnie & Clyde was cast well ahead of time and the rehearsal process had the time and room for significant direction from the production/creative team.  We never felt rushed, underfunded, or under-supported.  I felt the audience was engaged and impressed. 

I think the show’s primary strength was the casting and production assigning.  This show needed dynamic star vehicles, and a team of versatile musicians and special effects consults.  It also needed a director who was brave enough to face the show’s challenges, especially given the musical’s exciting, but brief and rather failing stint on Broadway.  Often, productions benefit from good casting or great producing but I think this production was layered with both.

What have been some of your most challenging roles?  Why?  Would you play any of them again?  Why?

Blanche has actually been my second-most challenging role.  Figuring out how to play a climatic scene of someone dying in your arms towards the end of a pop/country/rock (I’m still torn which genre is primary) musical was a challenge.  It ran the risk of being too self indulgent to be believable and also ran the risk of being meaningless if the character’s journey wasn’t quite right.   Balancing a woman whose religious and moral values are such a focus in the script wasn’t always easy. I didn’t want Blanche to remind the audience of the last Christian they encountered who shunned their friends and family on an imagined pedestal of moral high ground.

Buck Barrow (Tim Mcshea) and Blanche Barrow (Sarajane Morse Mullins) in The Umbrella's Bonnie & Clyde (Photo Credit: Meghan Donnelly). 

Buck Barrow (Tim Mcshea) and Blanche Barrow (Sarajane Morse Mullins) in The Umbrella's Bonnie & Clyde (Photo Credit: Meghan Donnelly). 

I wanted them to relate to her more than that. If the audience doesn’t like Blanche and Buck by the scene of his death and her incarceration, the play can really fall flat.  I made it my goal, whether it ever came across or not, to share every humbling moment possible with the audience in the hopes that they would recognize this woman as blindly guided by her religion yet hopelessly human and caring.  She chooses to stick by someone out of love, rather than punish them for not following her moral code.  She proves to be flexible and humble.  I discovered her to be admirable and once that happened, I really fell in love with her.   I’d play her over and over again. 

Some roles just sit with you the right way.  Like a dress that flatters all the right places, I found Blanche gave me so much confidence and joy.  Figuring out the level and balance of emotion to bring to the character’s trajectory took some timing and pacing.  Our musical director, Ben, really challenged me vocally and had me signing outside of my comfort zone. Nancy Curran Willis, our director, and Tim McShea, the actor playing Buck, are both people I’ve worked with before.  They allowed me the time to play with this character and figure out the pacing of scenes.  Tim never grew frustrated or tired with me, no matter how many times I wanted to run some dialogue or talk about a scene.  I credit him with making me feel comfortable and free to do the work.

Do you have any routines or rituals as an actress?

As a ritual, I never attend the sound-check in full costume.  I wear a robe, half the costume, anything besides the whole thing.  It’s been a ritual since I was seven years old, and it’s become a superstition.  Most actors like to be ready with more than enough time.  I hate to be ready too early.  It makes my nerves kick in.

What is something that most people don’t know about you?

I’m realizing that I never told anyone about my sound-check ritual before.  Most people also don’t know I’m a real estate nerd.  I’m that girl who wants a tour of your condo or wants to know how much water damage is in your basement.  I have a real estate license and I dabble from time to time.

Tell us a funny (or just embarrassing) audition story.

I once had a busy audition week and I got two audition dates and times confused.  I showed up for a contemporary rock role and sang 16 bars of an Italian aria and 16 bars of a Rogers and Hammerstein musical.  The creative and production staff were so confused or amused that they chose to say nothing, and I didn’t realize that I sang the wrong material until I stepped into the lobby and listened to the vocalist after me.  I literally sang opera at a rock audition.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I’m wrapping up one project for an industrial voice-over this month and then looking forward to some spring auditions.

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Thanks for supporting theater in the Boston area!  I believe theater is massively powerful and such an underused tool.  Support theater arts whenever you can - in your politics, in your spiritual beliefs, in your school, in your workplace!