2015 Best Choreography Nominee: Mara Greer for North Shore Music Theatre's "Shrek: The Musical"

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:   Peter Hurley

Photo Credit: Peter Hurley

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.

Fairy Tale Creatures dance to "Freak Flag" in North Shore Music Theatre's  Shrek: The Musical  (Photo Credit:   Paul Lyden  ).

Fairy Tale Creatures dance to "Freak Flag" in North Shore Music Theatre's Shrek: The Musical (Photo Credit: Paul Lyden).

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.

2015 Best Supporting Actor in a Musical Nominee: Will Porter as Pinocchio in North Shore Music Theatre's "Shrek: The Musical"

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series. 

Photo Credit:   Ted Ely

Photo Credit: Ted Ely

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.

Will Porter dazzled and danced his way into our hearts as the wooden toy who just wanted to be a real boy, and lamented his fate as a Fairy Tale Creature as Pinocchio in North Shore Music Theatre's Shrek: The Musical.  His range, strong character choices, vibrant energy, and dancing feet earned him a Best Supporting Actor in a Musical nomination. 

Hello, Will, and thank you for interviewing with us. Can you start by telling our readers a bit more about yourself and your work?

Hi, guys!  First of all, thank you for having me!

Me:  I grew up in Acton, Massachusetts, training at the Acton School of Ballet.  I graduated from Muhlenberg College with a double major in Theatre and Dance, and now I live in New York – where there are no Red Sox.

My work:  I am an actor, singer, and dancer, often at the same time.  As a performer with Stage 4 ADHD, I feel at home in the world of musical/physical comedy. I find myself sympathizing with those odd-ball characters with a short fuze who have to break out into song or else they will explode.  Some people tell me that I remind them of Martin Short. 

How did you become involved in North Shore Music Theatres Shrek: The Musical?  Do you remember what you sang for your auditions?  Did you read for Pinocchio?

It was an exciting journey.  I had performed with Mara Newbery Greer (our choreographer) in back-to-back productions of Cats and Spamalot at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.  She encouraged me to come to the open dance call for North Shore Music Theatre’s Shrek: The Musical

From there, the team asked me to come back and read/sing for Pinocchio.  I remember being really nervous, so I would keep funny things in my backpack to make me laugh - a wig, a Barbie. 

Pinocchio (Will Porter*) laments his life in North Shore Music Theatre's  Shrek: The Musical  (Photo Credit:   Paul Lyden  ) (* Denotes a Member of Actors' Equity Association).

Pinocchio (Will Porter*) laments his life in North Shore Music Theatre's Shrek: The Musical (Photo Credit: Paul Lyden) (* Denotes a Member of Actors' Equity Association).

I sang the theme song from Pokémon at my final callback.

What makes you laugh?  Cry?

Laugh:  A good, old-fashioned stage slap.

Cry:  Thinking about the SAT, or any standardized test.

What is your favorite fairy tale?  Disney movie?  Why?

Does The Hobbit count as a fairy tale?  If not, I would seriously choose Pinocchio.  He's such a happy puppet, and makes terrible choices in adorable lederhosen. 

Hocus Pocus is the best Disney movie . . . period!  ::bangs gavel::

What is your day like during a production run (rehearsals and/or performance)?  What is it like during audition season?  How do you fill your days?

During a production, I am a big fan of ice baths, massages, vocal rest, sleep, steam, my foam roller, knitting, and gym time.

Audition season is just pure madness: dance classes, coaching audition material regularly, making sure I'm working out and eating right, and balancing all of this with my survival jobs and scheduling auditions!  Everything frequently conflicts.  You have to constantly think three steps ahead.  You have to go to bed early, and you have to wake up early.  It's also helpful to have something spiritually/mentally grounding, like yoga or a therapist.  A loving, supportive tribe of friends is essential.  Coffee is the lifeblood.

What scares you the most about performing?  What excites you?

I often question: "Have I done enough to prepare for THIS moment?"  This is what scares me the most about performing.  Have I put in enough work?  Can I sustain my performance and keep it consistent?  The truth is there's always more work to be done, and there's always something to improve – finding the confidence to say, "Yes, I am enough," is a challenge, but vitally important. 

The unknown excites me!  The indefinable moment between two people onstage where you both know the lines, and yet each moment is filled with our own individual thoughts, feelings, our lives offstage.  Layered on top of that is the experience of a live audience.  At North Shore Music Theatre, they are all around you.  We are biologically different with every breath we take, so each moment actors share onstage, while adhering to the vision of the playwright and director, is inherently different. 

Who is your favorite Disney princess?  Prince?  Why?

When I worked for Disney, one of my jobs was to host meet and greets for the Princesses - or “Princess Gatherings.” My favorite Princess to greet was Snow White.  Her energy is always at a 10, she loves baking Gooseberry Pie, and don't it twisted - she's the boss. I guess you have to be when you live with seven jewel-mining bachelors. 

As for the princes, Prince Phillip is a lyric baritone, he can slay dragons with a single sword, and wears black tights and a very handsome cape. And he can dance. 

Pinocchio (Will Porter*) and other Fairy Tale Creatures sing "I Believe" in North Shore Music Theatre's  Shrek: The Musical  (Photo Credit:   Paul Lyden  ) (* Denotes a Member of Actors' Equity Association). 

Pinocchio (Will Porter*) and other Fairy Tale Creatures sing "I Believe" in North Shore Music Theatre's Shrek: The Musical (Photo Credit: Paul Lyden) (* Denotes a Member of Actors' Equity Association). 

If you could play any role for the rest of your life, what would it be, and why?  Would you have any ideal co-stars?

Definitely Applegate in Damn Yankees.  I love the music, I love villains, and it's a Fosse show!!! As for co-stars, Leslie Margherita would play Gloria, my dear friend Tory Trowbridge would play Lola, Ellen Degeneres as Meg, Tom Hanks as Joe Boyd, and Nick Jonas will play Joe Hardy.  The Senators would either be played by Muppets, or real Senators.

Did you have a nickname growing up?  If so, what?  How did you get this nickname?

Will & Grace was a revolutionary television show in so many ways.  Thanks to Karen Walker, most of my friends started calling me "Wilma" in high school.  And they still do! 

Two truths and lie. Go!

OKAY...

- I was asked to portray a terrorist during a routine Crew Safety Drill aboard Disney Cruise Line, and four deck hands tackled me to the ground because they thought it was real!

- I almost flunked gym in seventh grade.

- I am currently playing Carole King in Beautiful: The Musical on Broadway.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

Up next, I will be performing in "Turn The Beat Around" at Feinstein's/54 Below – celebrating the disco legacy of Studio 54.  Aside from that, audition season is in full swing, and I should probably start my taxes before April 1st . . .

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

I have the Greater Boston arts community to thank for making such a wide range of theatre and dance performance available to me growing up; I still remember seeing shows at North Shore Music Theatre when I was in high school.  Having the amazing opportunity to play Pinocchio at NSMT last summer felt like giving back to the community that fostered me, and I hope we passed along the spark to the next generation. What a dream come true! Thank you, ArtsImpulse!

2015 Best Set Design Nominee: Nate Bertone for North Shore Music Theatre's "Shrek: The Musical"

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.

NOTE: If you are 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: PC Louis Stein

Photo Credit: PC Louis Stein

Few artists have inspired us in 2015 as much as Nate Bertone.  A senior at Carnegie Mellon University, Nate made history as the youngest designer ever at the North Shore Music Theatre in the summer 2015, designing sets for both Shrek: The Musical and Sister Act: The Musical. His set for Shrek: The Musical  was immersive and visually stunning, surprising the audience with creative uses of North Shore Music Theatre's theatre-in-the-round space. 

In addition to working as a Scenic Designer, Nate is also a successful playwright, earning a Broadway World nomination for his original play with music Letters From War, which premiered at Salem Theatre Company in May 2015. 

In his Interview, Nate discusses his process for designing the set for Shrek: The Musical; some of his mentors (including directors, designers, and playwrights); and his motto for life that will inspire you!

Hi, Nate, and thanks for joining us for our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.  Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi, Brian! My pleasure! Thank you for having me!

Although I am a Scenic Designer by trade, I consider myself a storyteller first and foremost.  I grew up in Massachusetts, and I attended North Shore Music Theatre from my childhood onward.  The majority of my artistic understanding of theatre began at NSMT, and designing my first show here felt like, after years and years of studying, I was taking my first exam. You could say I’m happy that it went over well!

Tell us about the process for getting selected to design the set for the North Shore Music Theatre as a college student.  What were some of the challenges?  What did you learn?

[Designing this set] never would have happened without Kevin P. Hill, Karen Nascembeni, or Bill Hanney. These three people became mentors to me, and with their faith in my work ethic and creative talents, they allowed me to design my first show at NSMT.

Any of the challenges along the way came from being abroad in London, England during the design process. Time zone differences and Skype made for some long nights of work, but each and every night left me creatively fulfilled. I had never had that experience before.  

The artistic side of the show came to us rather fluidly, as Shrek is one story that I have always loved. Working with Director Michael Heitzman, the creative team, and NSMT, to create this world was one of the most rewarding experiences. With each decision, we learned how to best tell the story of Shrek, and, in the end, I fell in love with the story all over again. 

Original Rendering by Nate Bertone

Original Rendering by Nate Bertone

What was your favorite part of the many different sets involved in the production?

Without a doubt, my favorite part of the set for Shrek: The Musical was one of the elements of surprise. Towards the end of Act I and throughout Act II, there are several moments where we are transported into the swamp at night. For this production, we were able to turn the theatre into a swamp by placing the world of the swamp above and around the audience. The vines and slime that hung above the audience were all strung with hidden incandescent strands of fairy lights, which, when used for the first time, transformed the air space of the theatre into a star-filled sky.

The moment that I walked into the theatre for the first time with these [lights] on is a moment I will never forget.

I know that you are also a playwright.  How does being involved in multiple parts of the artistic process (from playwriting to directing to designing) inform your work in the other areas?

Yes! To me, playwriting, directing, and designing all come at the same time (in my head). When working on a new play, I start with the visual world that the characters inhabit. I tend to figure out what the characters look like and how they interact with their world, even before I write the dialogue. However, often, once I have created a world, the development of the characters alters the way that I see the world. As a designer, I always start from the depth of the text, and as a writer, I always start from the depth of the world around the characters.

Who are some of your artistic mentor and idols?  Why?  What have you learned from them?

Kevin P. Hill has been a mentor of mine for the past three years. I was introduced to Kevin by my other mentor, Karen Nascembeni, and, from the beginning, both of these brilliant minds supported me 110%. Taking a chance on the youngest designer in NSMT history was one of the most telling moments of my career to date – sometimes, when someone believes in you, that’s all it takes.

Leah Miles is the person who once told me to “[R]un towards the things that scare you the most.” As a mentor and a friend, I am inspired by Leah’s passion for storytelling and ability to capture a world thru character’s voices. Leah was one of the first reasons I wanted to become a playwright and designer.

Beowulf Boritt took me under his wing when I first moved to New York City. Watching Beowulf create the worlds of Little Miss Sunshine and his Tony-winning Act One, I was inspired to push myself to create worlds as vivid as the one’s he dreamed up.

A couple of my idols include director/designer John Doyle, production/scenic designer Derek McLane, playwright/director David Mamet, and of course, Walt Disney. Each of these storytellers has taught me much of what I know, simply by observing their work from afar.

What is the biggest challenge that you have overcome?

Being in London while designing two of the largest musicals of my career (for American theaters) was one of the toughest, but most rewarding experiences. There was rarely a moment to sit and relax, and the mind was constantly churning with design ideas and the sights and sounds of England, but, in the end, this experience was the most rewarding challenge thus far. 

Photo Credit: Nate Bertone

Photo Credit: Nate Bertone

You’re taking me out on the town.  You choose the town and destination points.  What are we doing for our hot date?

London, England.

West End.

Saint James Park (in the early Spring)

A traditional British dinner…and a show!

London is my favorite place (that I have spent time in) on the Earth. I would love to hear your thoughts on the theatre and culture!

Tell us a funny story about your time in the theatre. 

When I was younger, I was auditioning with a group of performer friends (that had been in the show before), and I had the chance to learn the choreography for the audition. When I got through the vocal section of the audition and into the dance, everyone else started to dance, and I was so intimidated by how good everyone else was that I simply said “thank you” and walked out.

That was pretty much the end of my performing career.

Talk to us about your website.  Why did you decide to design it?  How did you figure out what to include?  Why is it important?

One of the many upsides of learning the programs to create your own digital portfolio is that you can constantly add and alter your portfolio as you continue to evolve as an artist. I operate my own portfolio so that I have control over what is made available to audiences; if someone needs to see something specific, I can add it at any time! It is really convenient to know the ins and outs of your digital portfolio!

What is the program like at Carnegie Mellon?  What types of students would you encourage to apply?  What is one of the most valuable lessons that you have learned?  What would you recommend for future students?

Rigorous. Exhausting. Challenging. Incredible.

Gingy_Nate

Carnegie Mellon has allowed me to explore areas of the arts that I hadn’t known to be possible. I would encourage young artists who are ready to be challenged every hour of the day to apply to CMU. Carnegie Mellon is incredible, but you truly have to work harder than you ever have before.

The greatest lesson I learned while at CMU is that theatre cannot be treated like sports – it is not a competition. Theatre should come from the head, heart, and soul. When you mix that with “who will win,” you often lose touch with the heart of the work.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I will be opening my final production at Carnegie Mellon University later this month. I am the scenic designer for Hydrogen Jukebox.

I am also working on producing readings of my play Letters From War in NYC and Pittsburgh in 2016.

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

I live and work by the motto, “Run towards the things that scare you the most.”  If you are not constantly challenged, you are not pushing your abilities. I truly believe, at least for me, that if you are not uncomfortable, you are not at your best.