2014 Best Director of a Musical or Opera Nominee Interview: Leigh Barrett for New Repertory Theatre's "Closer Than Ever"

Photo by David Costa

Photo by David Costa

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews. 

NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.

Leigh Barrett is well known in Boston for her enormous talent as an actress and singer, re-imagining roles and astonishing audiences with her versatility. Leigh shows that she has an equal talent behind the scenes, as she directs the intimate song cycle, Closer Than Ever, with the perfect amount of grace, humility, and fun. In her Interview, Leigh discusses how she came to direct Closer Than Ever, her advice to a younger Leigh, and her exciting new summer project (here's a hint: She's back in the director's chair, and we couldn't think of a luckier cast!).   

Leigh, thank you so much for agreeing to an Interview.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?  Where are you from, what do you do, what is your training and background?

I’m originally from Wakefield Ma. I currently live in Reading Ma. I went to school for voice performance at Baldwin-Wallace University in Opera.

What are some of your notable accomplishments and experiences on stage?  In your personal life?

Hmmm, notable accomplishments? I think continuing to work in this business is an accomplishment! I’ve won 2 Elliot Nortons and 2 IRNEs; that was pretty cool. I’ve had some great experiences on stage with terrific creative teams and casts. I’ve been very lucky.

My personal life? My two sons are my most notable accomplishments, for sure.

Talk to us about Closer Than Ever.  How did you decide to direct and perform in this intimate musical?  How was New Rep the perfect choice for this musical?  Why do you think that production worked so well?  

Well, Jim Petosa and Harriet Sheets had approached me about directing another piece but the actress they wanted for it wasn’t available. I had wanted to direct [Closer Than Ever] for a while, so I saw an opportunity and ran with it. Jim and Harriet loved the idea and my vision for the piece. I assumed it would just be a black box piece in their season and they said: “[W]e see this on the Main Stage as the season opener” I was screaming with excitement in my head, but played it cool!

I will be forever grateful to them for their love and unwavering support. They were amazing.  I think the production worked so well because we all, the entire creative team, cast, and staff or New Rep worked together with one vision, a commitment to that and we were a family. We had an absolute blast putting it together and then living it.

What is Closer Than Ever?  What are some of the songs and scenes?  What was your connection to the stories and themes?  Why do you think that the audience connected with it?

Closer Than Ever is a song cycle by Richard Maltby and David Shire. (they wrote Baby). Some of the songs might not be all that familiar to people - my favorites, besides All of Them, are Life Story, Miss Byrd, Three Friends and If I Sing. I treated each song like a self-contained play or vingnette; each song is like it’s own play -- they have a beginning, a middle and an end. I tried to give each one a contextual place, to help the audience a little but not tell them expressly how to feel. I let the actors and the songs do that.

The demographic for this piece skews older -- late 30s mid 40s, a very under-represented market. I did this show when I was in my 20s and although I could connect to them as a human, my personal connection to the songs was not, then, what it is now. Singing songs like Life Story mean so much more when you have actually lived the lyrics, like “at a well toned 49” or “so now my son’s half way through college,/ I pay tuition like a fine.” I can say that now and actually MEAN it! I think that audiences related because the music told the stories of their own lives on a very, very intimate and personal level.

You are known in the Greater Boston area for performing.  Why venture into directing?  How does both directing and performing make you a better theatre professional and artist?

Well, why not? I think every actor is a “back seat” director. Like the armchair quarterback (without the deflated balls), and I have lots of ideas. As an actor, I wanted to see what it was like on the other side of the table. I understand the actors pretty well because that’s where I live. I speak “actor.”

Well, I think that doing both directing and acting at the same time was a challenge, for sure. And I could NOT have done it without the amazing Ryan Began my Assistant Director on this project. he was the other half of my brain. He was “me,” when I had to be “Leigh the Actor.” It was an amazing symbiotic relationship.

Directing certainly gives me an appreciation for what has to happen to pull off a show, for sure, and for what other directors with whom I’ve worked have to do and why some decisions get made. It’s made me both more appreciative and more understanding and generous but it’s also made me a stronger performer and has given me much more confidence in my own artistic vision.

What are some other plays and musicals that you would like to direct?

Honestly? Anything . . . I’m hungry for it, I want to do more of it. Get at me, theatre companies!!

What do you do in your spare time?  What would you do if you had more spare time?

HAHAHAHAAAA! Spare time, that’s hilarious, but, seriously, laundry, grocery shopping, TV, and Facebook. Glamorous, right?

What scares you the most about performing?  Directing?  In your personal life?

Failing . . . at all of it. Disappointing someone, mostly myself.

Tell us a funny audition or performance story.

O gosh, so many. I was auditioning for my first Equity show, at a dance call (I’m not a dancer -- does “singer who moves well” still exist?). We had been broken down into small groups and the actual dancer in the group ahead of me fell, wiped out badly, and hurt her knee. They carried her out. I was up in the next group. I fell but only because I’m an idiot -- they were like “OH NO! Lawsuit!” They told me to just sit it out, don’t worry. I got cast.

If given the opportunity, to where would you travel?  Who would you take with you?  What would you do?

I’d love to go to England and Italy with my family. The whole family actually. I’d love to rent a castle in England and a Villa in Italy and spend a month or so, just casually visiting the countryside and all of the touristy stuff-with a personal tour guide at my beck-and-call. Are you available? Or Peter Mill?

What do you see as the future of the Greater Boston theatre scene in the next year?  In the next five years?  What is changing?  What is staying the same?

I love seeing so many new companies popping up, taking chances on new plays, new works and new people, either onstage or behind the scenes. I love seeing theatre reach new audiences in exciting new ways. I think that theatre is changing in the way it is created and where and I see Boston embracing that.

What is one thing that you have to do every day?  

I have to see my children, I have to work out, I have to check Facebook (I’m ridiculous. I’ve tried to quit but I’m addicted)

What advice would you give younger performers?  If you could, what advice would you give yourself in your mid-twenties?

Omgosh, um . . . be NICE. It’s so hard to just be nice and if you are nice to hold onto that because this life will beat you down. We get so used to being treated badly. And be honest and true to who you are, also very hard.

To Leigh in her mid 20s -- Get out there! Try!! Stop being so afraid.

What song describes your life right now?  Include a lyric or two!  

A Way Back to Then: “I would know that confidence, if I knew a way back to then.”

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

I’m directing Into the Woods for a brand new summer intensive for high school students and I’ll be directing my son Matt for the first time (officially!).

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

Thank you all so much for not only supporting my work but the work of the incredible Boston Theatre community. I am truly humbled and truly, truly grateful.