2015 Best Director of a Play Nominee: Michelle Aguillon for The Umbrella's "True West"

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

Michelle_Aguillon

Michelle Aguillon, a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Nominee for Best Director, brought her own warmth and humanity to Sam Shepard's True West, at The Umbrella in Concord. Rippling with familial strife and love, the play resonated from the solid directing and character work in making these characters become fully-developed and empathetic human beings.  In her Interview, Michelle describes the challenges in True West, her 2016 goals, and how the Greater Boston theatre community can grow!

Hi, Michelle, and welcome back to ArtsImpulse. Can you start by reminding our readers who you are, and what you’ve done this year? 

Besides directing True West at The Umbrella last Fall [2015], I am currently directing Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo for the Vokes Players in Wayland.

Talk to us about drew you to True West.  Had you seen productions of the play before?  Have you directed it or other Sam Shepard plays?  

Brian Boruta, Director of the Performing Arts at the Concord Umbrella, contacted me about directing True West.  At first I was honored but trepidatious because two of my friends, Nancy Curran Willis and David Sheppard, had directed very notable and award-winning productions of the play. I had never directed a Sam Shepard play before. These productions were so clear in my mind and I thought, “What can I do differently?”

I asked Brian to forward the script to me. I realized that I had to start from scratch, and not think about Nancy’s or David’s productions. After reading the play, what ultimately drew me into the play were the family relationships in the play. The family’s struggles were so relatable and recognizable.  Dare I say, they are just like us!  Ok, they are a little more nuts, but they are basically like us.

What is challenging about Sam Shepard’s work?  True West, in particular?

What isn’t challenging? His work is many things: abstract dialogue and off-kilter pace, and it comes with "Shepard-esque" expectations.  I found the biggest challenge was finding relatable people on-stage to keep our audiences with us. There are so much non-verbal, familial moments not in that script. We had so much fun discovering, building and calibrating those.

Another challenge, True West has had many productions on Broadway and in this Greater Boston theatre community, so we had a standard to uphold.  Shepard’s work is admired by some, hated by others–either way, his work is well-known and has a level of expectations.  We had to meet that, as well as find our own journey with Shepard’s words leading the way.

Can you tell us more about your own family?

No.

Just kidding.

I surprisingly found a lot to draw on from my family. Surprisingly, because the characters in True West are known to be beyond us; their situations and conversations are somewhat abstract and very dark.  I found that they are not. The characters just speak in a slightly different dialogue is all; I was so relieved to realize that. It became the foundation of how to build the play.

But my family: they are as normal and as dysfunctional as any other.  I come from a family of very strong, opinionated and confident women with strong convictions.  We were ruled by our very Catholic, very ambitious, and very strict mother. 

We didn’t always get along, but we love each other deeply.  It took us years to get here, when for so many years we had to grow and evolve separately in order for us to grow together.

Lee (Gordon Ellis) talks with Saul (Alex Thayer) as Austin (Michael Carr) observes in The Umbrella's  True West  (Photo Credit: Meghan Donnelly) 

Lee (Gordon Ellis) talks with Saul (Alex Thayer) as Austin (Michael Carr) observes in The Umbrella's True West (Photo Credit: Meghan Donnelly) 

What did you learn about yourself through the plays that you directed this year?

I learned that I am still learning, still evolving.  Since every show is different, there cannot be a formula as to how to approach each one.  I’m stating the obvious, aren’t I?  That shows you that I’m still learning.  I learned to be even more flexible and more open than I thought I already was. Having worked with so many different actors and designers, being open makes the collaborative process so much better for the production.

Do you have any 2016 resolutions? Goals?

I would like to work on being a better collaborator on the production’s technical aspects since I am the most intimate with the play besides the actors. I want to be better relied upon by the designers to really speak for the production once we get to tech week.  I just want to be more well-rounded, I guess. I caught myself several times not only with True West, but on other productions, where I was not very clear on what I was envisioning or needing.  Luckily, Brian Boruta, our very intuitive True West producer, was able to stay cognizant of all production aspects and keep me on track.

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?  Who would you bring with you?

Well, that changes.  Right this minute?  I’d say, I would love to go back to Palawan, a remote resort island in the Philippines. It is more underdeveloped than most resorts.  Having seen other local resorts become overrun by commercialism and pollution, the locals are trying to be environmentally conscious and controlling tourism.

I was there in 2012, having traveled alone.  I would like to share that experience again next time with my daughter or one of my close friends.  That place was just paradise.

I would also like to travel throughout Europe, just backpack it for as long as I could, but alone. I think.

Ask me tomorrow, and I may say Bali and Southeast Asia.

How do you think that Greater Boston community theatre can improve?  Greater Boston theatre, in general?

Oh, we need to find more affordable theater spaces!  Also, although there has been some great effort, we need more diversity.  And I’m not only referring to plays with characters of color, I am also referring to seeing more theater companies cast more diversely regardless of an actor’s color, and have their casting based on talent, not type. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I was so shy; I had no ambition to be where I am now.  I never dreamed I could do it; wait, I didn’t even dream about it.  But it is where I belong.  The one thing I did dream about was being a stay-at-home mom and raising a big family. That was it; it was what I thought I wanted until I discovered theatre in high school.  It’s still funny to me when I think about how and where I ended up, but I’m really happy. It was hard getting here, but I’m happy.

Mom (Nancy Curran Willis) looks at her dying plant as Austin (Michael Carr) and Lee (Gordon Ellis) fight in the background in  The Umbrella 's  True West  (Photo Credit: Meghan Donnelly).

Mom (Nancy Curran Willis) looks at her dying plant as Austin (Michael Carr) and Lee (Gordon Ellis) fight in the background in The Umbrella's True West (Photo Credit: Meghan Donnelly).

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I can’t really say yet, but yes, there is one I’m very excited about.  It should be announced by the time this comes out.  There are a couple of potential projects that may be on the horizon.  I hope they are a good fit for me and for the company; if not, I am always confident that that means I’m destined for something else even if that means doing nothing for a while.

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

Basically what I said last year (I think): Support Art - in all forms. Children should especially be exposed to any form of art!  

2015 Best Specialty Ensemble in a Musical: La Cagelles in The Umbrella's "La Cage Aux Folles"

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

In our largest Interview to date, the Cagelles in The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles all dished and gabbed about the process of performing as the dancers and performers in this special musical.  The Cagelles were stand-out energy and force within this stunning musical about acceptance, family, and joy. The performers brought his or her own flair to each of these roles, showing us their dance moves while showing us their stories behind the scenes. In their Interview, each of these performers (Brian Liebson, Cristanto Guadiz, Lara Finn, Thom Hardy, Kai Chao, Andrew Swansburg, and Allie Córdova) talk to us about their drag song, the most challenging parts of this musical, and their Miscast roles!

Hi, all, and thank you for joining us for our biggest Interview to date!  Can you start by introducing yourselves and telling us a bit more about you?

Photo Credit:   Al Ragone  .

Photo Credit: Al Ragone.

Brian Liebson (“Brian”):  My name is Brian Liebson, and I am a senior at Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts, studying robotic engineering. I’m originally from Los Angeles, where I was born and raised, playing volleyball and dancing.

Luciana Fonda (“Luciana”): My name is Luciana Fionda and I work as a choreographer and dance teacher in the Boston area. I love traveling to new destinations, but I’ll always fly to Italy to see my family. When not in the theater or the dance studio, you’ll find me at yoga or playing basketball.

Crisanto Guadiz (“Crisanto”): My name is Crisanto Guadiz.  I was born in the Philippines, lived on the island of Guam for a few years, and have lived in Massachusetts ever since.  My career is in biotech, and I’ve been performing in community theater as a hobby for the past 20+ years.  I’m also a Zumba instructor and I like to dabble in photography.

Lara Finn (“Lara”): My name is Lara and I am from the North Shore of Massachusetts. I have my B.A. in Dance/Movement Studies from Emory University and my M.A. in Mental Health Counseling from Lesley University, specializing in Dance/Movement Therapy. For the past 20 years, I have choreographed musicals for Boston area high schools, colleges, and community theatres, and La Cage Aux Folles was my first time performing in a musical in over 10 years. In addition to choreographing and performing, I work as a supervisor at a therapeutic school for students with special needs.

Photo Credit: Thom Hardy.

Photo Credit: Thom Hardy.

Thom Hardy (“Thom”): I'm Thom, and I currently live in Leominster, Massachusetts. I work at a small community bank in the mortgage department. Clearly: boring day job. So to get my creative juices flowing, I love to do theatre in my spare time. Lately, I've been trying to do as much theatre as possible because I turned 30 and realized there are a lot of shows that I'm probably getting too old to do. La Cage is one of those shows, especially as a Cagelle; that doesn't come around often so you have to seize the opportunity when it happens.

Kai Chao (“Kai”): I’m from Fullerton, California . . . well, now living in East Boston. I am currently the Senior Sales Manager at the Mandarin Oriental, Boston, and I try to balance work, theater, and life regularly.  Theater has always been an integral part of my life, since Junior High (middle school for those of you born and raised on the East Coast), and it will continue to be for as long as I can manage.  Some of my favorite moments in life have been performing with Disney Entertainment, sharing the stage with Broadway talent, forming friendships that have moved from “on” to “off” stage, and meeting Al on one fateful night.

Andrew Swansburg (“Andrew”): Hey, I’m Andrew - I grew up in Nahant, Massachusetts, and I have been active in theaters around the Boston area for many years.  I work in sales for an A/V integration company - HB Communications.  I tell people: Some guys golf, others play sports - theater has always been my passion, so it’s what I do when I can slip away for awhile.

Allie Córdova (“Allie”): Thanks for the opportunity to reconnect with my fellow Cagelles virtually!  I am from the Boston area and recently moved to central New Jersey. I grew up dancing and I was obsessed with ballet. More recently, I started performing with a Boston area modern dance company called Forty Steps Dance Company. A few years ago, I decided to try my hand (and feet) at musical theater and I fell in love with both the art form and with the people I met in Boston’s theater community. By day, I am a newly-minted lawyer.

Talk to us about your characters in La Cage Aux Folles.  Who were you, how did you get this character (how much was cast by the director versus determined individually or as a group), and what did you bring to this character?

Brian: I was cast as Chantal; the director picked each of us specifically for a character, so I got to create my “version” of Chantal, but she was chosen for me. I was Mary Sunshine in a production of Chicago at Babson College, so I used my Chantal opportunity to play the snarkier, sassier version of Mary.

Luciana: I originally auditioned for Anne, but, being tall as I am, I was asked to come in for the dance callback for the Cagelles. My character, Odette, really transformed from the first rehearsal to opening night. We created this 60s Twiggy-esque character with a sassy, aloof nature.

Crisanto: I played the role of Mercedes. Being the oldest of those playing Cagelles, I tried to bring to my character a flavor “jaded maturity.”

Lara: I played Angelique, a flirty Cagelle and one of the 3 actual females. Peyton, our director, did great character work and prep with us from the beginning of the rehearsal process, so even though Angelique had just one or two spoken lines, I was able to bring her character to life through the ensemble dance numbers with a clear vision.

Thom: I played Hanna from Hamburg . . . Aka: the bitch with the whip. I'm not sure how Peyton, our fearless and phenomenal director, knew how to cast each of us because, looking back, I cannot imagine it any other way. We all had our special moments and made our roles more than just “back up drag queens.” The Cagelles don't have a lot of dialogue, so we got to make the characters our own with Peyton and our amazing choreographer Hannah’s guidance. We each brought our own talents and strengths to the roles and balanced each other out and found moments where we could just have fun.

It really became a crazy family with the 8 of us. From day one, we started bonding, and I think we all just sort of created this bizarre group of misfits that fit together… Somehow. I think we found most of our “characterization” while backstage rehearsing and getting ready for the shows. Some of us would get there HOURS before the performances to do our makeup together. We'd all sit in a row and just be stupid and silly and bitchy and sarcastic and honest with one another. Some of my favorite moments were at our makeup table. I won't lie… I'd spend 3 to 4 hours on my face only to sweat it all off. Thank God for Aqua Net; I sprayed layers upon layers of hairspray on my face each night… Perhaps it was the fumes that made this show so good…

Photo Credit:  Al Ragone .

Photo Credit: Al Ragone.

Kai: Peyton really wanted each of the Cagelles to have a history that brought us to La Cage aux Folles . . . and Phaedra had definitely worked there for a while.  We worked together, and learned that Phaedra always wanted to be a dancer, almost made it . . . came close to doing some touring productions, but in the end . . . didn’t quite make it.  At that point, she had moved past her bitter point, and just settled on being a bit jaded. 

Everyone came up with some “tricks” and, well Phaedra was always liked to lash out with her tongue.  Of course, there’s always a bit of jealousy, and dishy drama… and I think there was definitely a bit of a jealous rivalry with Chantal . . . the ingénue of the group.  As we put the make-up on each night, it was really interesting how the process developed our characters.  We literally put layers of our character on with our make-up . . . with our foundation we would mask off the drama of our work day, and then we would shape and contour our faces to become Phaedra, or Derma, or Hanna, with higher cheekbones, arched eyebrows. By the time we put our lashes and lips on, they became accents of how sharp or melodramatic our emotions were that day.

Andrew: I played Dermah, who, for me, became this drag queen who had been around the block for awhile and was a bit more of an older, more subdued diva.  Peyton really allowed us the freedom to figure out the character transformation and gave us the time to look for the nuances within the script.

Photo Credit:   Avenna Studios

Photo Credit: Avenna Studios

Allie: I played Nikki, the “black swan” of the Cagelles. Like me, she did not find much success in the ballet world. However, she turned to Zaza and La Cage Aux Folles to try and satisfy her need for sophistication, glamour, and attention. Peyton really pushed and supported each of us to develop a unique, authentic character. It was an incredible experience to work with Peyton, the Cagelles, Maureen (costumes), Michael (make-up), and Jake (wigs) to discover who that character was. One of my favorite Nikki elements was her bourrée-ing onto stage in pointe shoes. Not only was it fun for me to pull out my dusty pointe shoes, but it was also such a wonderful comedic moment and completely consistent with the persona that we had developed for Nikki.

If you could have any drag song, what would it be, and why?

Brian: Does “Let’s Have a Kiki” count?

Luciana: Definitely “Your Makeup Looks Terrible.” It was on constant replay in our dressing room.

Crisanto: My drag song would be “A Little Party never Killed Nobody” from The Great Gatsby soundtrack.

Lara: “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred.

Thom: I would want Katy Perry’s “Peacock” as my theme song.

Kai: Damnit, Chantal took it again . . . I suppose“You Better Work” by Ru Paul would be too cliché… and “I Love the Nightlife” by Alicia Bridges would just date me…  maybe “Wrecking Ball” by Miley, or “Firework” by Katy, or “Chasing Pavements” by Adele. I suppose it depends on the mood; some days, it would be “Winter” by Vivaldi.

Allie: Am I allowed to say “Cover Girl”? This is the music we used for curtain call, and the energy was unbeatable.

What were some of the challenges in La Cage Aux Folles?  What were some of the most exciting moments?

Brian: Makeup. We had a big day where we all learned how to do our makeup by the amazingly talented and awesome Michael Geary. That was probably the most challenging process but also the most exciting because it’s when the whole look finally came together, and I really felt like a different person.

Photo Credit: Ryan Tucker.

Photo Credit: Ryan Tucker.

Luciana: The wigs. Jake Egan designed these stunning pieces that really embodied each of our characters. It was through him I really found Odette. I wore this four piece wig, constructed into this huge beehive with curls. The weight of it was a big adjustment, especially when you’re performing such high-energy choreography. I cannot begin to count how many bobby pins lost their lives keeping that wig on my head every night.

Crisanto: The biggest challenge for me was definitely the dancing in heels!

Lara: For me, the most challenging dance number was “La Cage Aux Folles;” it was a non-stop workout that inspired me to work hard to get into the best shape I could to be able to execute everything the way I wanted to be able to. Because I hadn’t performed in a while, the general preparation it took to get back onto stage was a fun and rewarding challenge.

The most exciting moment was the first time we got to perform for a full audience, the energy in the theater was amazing.

Thom: I agree with Lara that the title number was a challenge. Not only did we have to do 6,453 kicks, in dresses, and wigs, for 10 minutes, but we had to sing and entertain and be ridiculous. I remember one rehearsal where we finished the number and we literally were laying on the floor minutes away from death. Our brilliant choreographer (Hannah Shihdanian) said to us, in her loving energetic Zumba instructor way: “You guys need to start running!” But by the time we opened, we could do it without fainting. There were moments where we still had to cheat a bit and tell each other, “You hold me up, smile, and make noise when you're facing front and I'll do the same for you!” (Thanks, Allie!)

The most exciting moment was opening night when we stepped on stage for the first time. The audience didn't know what to expect, neither did we… And we did it!! I wish I could relive that moment every day.

Kai: All those kicks!  But, every time John/Georges introduced Les Cagelle, and the lights switched to silhouette us, was the most exhilarating moment; you could feel the audience trying to see who/what was behind the curtains.  Then there was a collective gasp every night when the curtains opened and the lights went up to full and the audience burst into applause; we knew then that the illusion was there.

Andrew:  I think the challenge for me was allowing myself to become something I wasn’t or at least to explore the world of drag.  It’s an interesting emotional transformation to look in the mirror for the first time and see what you’ve become/created, which is a very different feeling when the character takes on a physical transformation. 

Allie: One of the most challenging aspects for me was pushing myself to “go big or go home!” The Cagelles are super high-energy and high-drama, a state of being that does not match my off-stage personality. Pushing those boundaries was tough, but also incredibly fun.

There were so many highs in this show - in particular, I loved the pre-performance ritual of the Cagelles arriving early at the theater to put on our faces and our characters together, and I loved the curtain call, getting the entire audience on their feet dancing and celebrating this beautiful story.

If you could turn back time, when and where would you go?  Why?  What would you do?  What would you bring back with you?

Brian: I’d go to the San Francisco Pride in June 2015, days after the SCOTUS voted in favor of common sense.

Luciana: The Roaring ‘20s. I was brought up on jazz music, so I’d love to go back to its origin days.

Photo Credit: Crisanto Guadiz.

Photo Credit: Crisanto Guadiz.

Crisanto: I would go back to my freshman year in college, and I would take more advantage of the great theater department we had at my university.

Lara: The 1950s; I love the music from this time period and it just looks like it was a fun, simple time that I would have enjoyed

Thom: Luciana and I would have a fabulous time together in the Gay ‘20s. I'm sure you'd find us in some seedy little speakeasy, making complete fools of ourselves and trying to “out bitch” each other.

I'd like to bring back a young Carol Channing, so she can be around for another 95 years or more.

Kai: Such a Catch-22; I would have probably called in sick one more day to attend the final call-back to a national tour for which I was auditioning, but, then, if I landed that job, where would I be now?  I’d like to think that I would still have made it to Boston, and met Al, so that we could be where we are now, with different experiences, but life is an enigma that way, and, I find that we create our moments, and in those moments we find happiness.

Andrew: Well, if we’re talking a time period, it would be the ‘50s - I’m just enamored with that time period. 

If we’re talking in my life, probably back to my early 20s so I could take advantage of opportunities that I didn’t jump on. 

Of course, I have to agree with Thom, having a young Carol Channing around would be kind of fun!

Allie: I’ll head back to the ‘20s so I can Charleston with Luciana and Thom (and wear a gorgeous dress while at it).

Why do you think La Cage Aux Folles resonated with reviewers and audience members?

Brian: It’s one of the first shows to portray a gay couple as its leading characters, and not making a joke out of it. It shows normal people in a normal relationship to which anyone can relate. I think people may come to be entertained by the crazy, zany drag queens, but fall in love with the honest and real story.

Luciana: One of the largest themes of this show is acceptance. You see every one of these characters deal with both personal and social acceptance in some way. I think that desire to be included and validated runs deep within human nature. That’s why this show is such a quintessential piece of musical theater.

Crisanto: I think the show resonated with a lot of people because pretty much everyone has that certain something that they’re insecure about or fear judgement for, and La Cage puts forth a message to just let down your guard and live life as you are.

Lara: Audiences loved the glitter and high-energy songs and dances, but the simplicity of the heart of the story is what I think really resonated with everyone that saw the show, and what I took away from it as well. It’s about loving yourself and others for who they are and doing so fiercely, even when it takes extra courage.

Thom: La Cage is a story about family. I like to think that you are born with relatives, but you can choose your family. We, the cast and especially the Cagelles, became a family and I think that showed on stage. Some things you just cannot fake, and our trust in each other and love for our family, however dysfunctional that we may have been, was what made this show so special to me. I hope that showed to the audiences. I loved every minute of this production and would do it again and again.

Kai: As Cagelles, we always want it to be about us. We’re the reason why the audience comes, but, really, the reason why we were there in the first place is love and family.  It’s alot of glitz and glamour, but without love it is all just sparkle dust and maribou.  Everyone can have a little fun with the numbers, but then it’s really about love winning in the end.  It’s also about changing our cultural norms.  Bad decisions are made right, love conquers all, and it’s all that we want for the world. 

Photo Credit: Bill Letourneau.

Photo Credit: Bill Letourneau.

Andrew: La Cage is really just a show about love and acceptance and family - what more can you ask for.  It really is a beautiful family show.

Allie: To echo Brian, the pageantry draws you in, but the story beneath is incredibly honest and real, and the show draws on themes about love, family, dignity and acceptance that can resonate with anyone. I think it is also important to recognize this story as a specific celebration of a gay couple maintaining a supportive relationship and loving family (biological and chosen) while consistently confronted by hostility toward those very relationships and even their own identities.

What are some plays or musicals that you would love to see performed in our Greater Boston community?  Why?  Would you act, direct, choreograph, or just see and enjoy them?

Brian: I’d kill to be in a production like In the Heights. I think diverse representation is very not present in Boston area theater, resulting in a preventative atmosphere to put on more racially invested shows. I’d love to see more people on stage of all shapes and sizes and more productions being put on taking risks in casting choices and inventive staging.

Luciana: Brian and I have In the Heights in common. I would also love to be a part of a show like The Producers. There’s so much you can do with Mel Brooks style of comedy that it would be a real challenge for me as an actress. Plus, the choreography is spectacular.

Some of the ensemble of  the Umbrella 's   La Cage Aux Folles   (Photo Credit: Al Ragone). 

Some of the ensemble of the Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone). 

Crisanto: I’d love to be in another production of Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Thom: Kiss of the Spider Woman is another seldom produced show that I'd love to be involved in. But I wouldn't be opposed to a La Cage revival! I'd do this show again any day… As long as we can rehearse the numbers a couple hundred times so I can fit back into those dresses...

Kai: Mary Poppins with an Asian Bert . . . oh, wait . . .

I’m pretty open to many things, and have grown more interested in opportunities to present diversity in theater, and engaging audiences to see things with a different perspective.  Multi-diversity casting is on everyone’s agenda, but, I still feel there is an appropriate place/time/work for it to be impactful.  There are some roles I would love to challenge myself with, and productions I would love to direct, and/or choreograph.  And when the time is right, they will happen.

Andrew: I was thrilled Pippin got remade a few years back - it’s one of my favorite shows and so very rarely done.  I wish more companies would take on challenging shows like that.  I like “feel good” shows that let you escape for a while and walk out humming a tune and wanting to watch more. 

I would always prefer to be on stage - the challenge of telling the story, performing some challenging choreography or just venturing into something that pushes you mentally, physically and emotionally.

Allie: Sadly, I’m no longer in Boston and cannot participate in new productions other than by seeing and enjoying them (which I look forward to doing). I’d love to see my region of New Jersey emulate the dynamic theater community of Boston!

What is one thing that you enjoy doing on the weekends?  What is one thing that you do not enjoy doing on weekends?

Brian: I’m in the Donkey Show in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I really enjoy that.

I really don’t enjoy waking up early… before noon.

Luciana: I’ll either be seeing a show or spending quality time with friends and family.

Laundry is the worst weekend chore, especially when most of your wardrobe revolves around dance attire.

Crisanto: I love going to my place in Wells, Maine, every weekend for 6 months of the year.

I hate going to bed on Sunday nights because it means the weekend is over, so I usually delay that as much as possible.

Photo Credit: Lara Finn

Photo Credit: Lara Finn

Lara: I typically have very busy weeks, so on the weekends, I try to take every opportunity to enjoy downtime and relax in my neighborhood and catch up with friends.

I do not enjoy shopping, so that is something I typically avoid doing on the weekends if I can help it.

Thom: I like Italian food, scary movies, and long walks on the beach… I'm single, so get me a date: that's what I'd like to do on my weekends!

Kai: Al recently re-introduced photography to me.  I had always enjoyed it, from taking amateur shots, and taking some shots while I was writing and editing our high school newspaper, but it is something that I never pursued.  It’s still just a hobby, but photography gives Al and me the opportunity to share an interest, take photo-walks, and pause and take in what is around us.

The one thing (or multiple things) I hate doing on the weekend are chores (housecleaning, laundry, etc.).  I say, “Do it during the week, and leave the weekends for fun!”

Andrew: Weekends for me are pretty busy with the kids, ballet studios, catching up from the week.  If I can, I like to find some time to catch a show, support a local theater or spend a little time in the city.

Allie: Now that I’m living closer to New York City, I love going in to visit friends, eat good food, and take a class at Broadway Dance Center.

I have to go with Luciana - laundry is one of the worst weekend activities, but I can never find any other time to do it.

Miscast!  If you could play one role that for some reason (gender, age, ethnicity, etc.) that would not normally play, what would it be?  Why?

Brian: Janet from The Drowsy Chaperone. No question.

Luciana: Aaron Burr from Hamilton. His songs are stellar, plus I secretly like to rap.

Crisanto: Cassie from A Chorus Line because I’d love to learn the Cassie dance.

Lara: I’d love to play Pippin’s grandmother (too young) in Pippin or Matilda (too old) in Matilda.

Thom: So, I have decided that before I die, I need to play the following roles: Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! and Mama Rose in Gypsy… I'm apparently going to live forever.

Kai: Belle in Beauty and the Beast - I kind of love Disney, and this was one of the first animated-films-turned-stage-productions that was written in a musical production format.  Belle is a strong character with heart and conviction.  And, maybe Velma in Chicago . . . ‘cause, Fosse, nothing else needed.

Andrew: Wait - there’s a role I’m not right for?  Ummm . . . Eva in Evita would be a fun role to try. There are really so many, it’s hard to choose!

Allie: Eva in Evita (sorry, Andy, we’ll have to fight it out). I will never have the voice for that role, but the music is incredible, and the character is so complex and interesting.

Some of the Cagelles in The Umbrella's  La Cage Aux Folles  (Photo Credit:   Al Ragone  ). 

Some of the Cagelles in The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone). 

Of what are you most proud?

Brian: During the summer of 2015, I started getting paid to perform. It was an incredible feeling of validation, and got me on track to start earning EMC points, moving my theater hobby into a profession.

Luciana: I recently booked a commercial for Regina Pizzeria. Although I consider the theater to be my home, it opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for me as an actress.

Crisanto: I’m most proud of the life that I’ve built with my husband.  We’ve been together for 22 years and got legally married as soon as it became an option 12 years ago.  Our relationship has been the biggest source of personal growth for me.

Lara: I’m proud of the way I’ve been able to keep musical theatre and choreography in my life, despite choosing a different career path. It’s something that was important to me and that I have kept a priority, despite the fact that it would have been easier to give it up at times.

Thom: I'm proud of the work that I've done. From this chubby little boy from small town central Massachusetts who couldn't play t-ball to being able to perform alongside these super talented people . . . It's sort of nuts! I'd never have thought that life would have led me to being nominated with these crazy ladies and lady-boys for singing and dancing in glitter and wigs and heels and feathers and “sparkle dust, bugle beads, ankle straps, maribu . . . ”

Kai: Keeping theater as a passion, balanced (although sometimes teetering) with our home, and work.  Sometimes, one definitely outweighs some others, and, at different times, but for the most part, with the help of Al, and my friends and colleagues, I’m able to still enjoy theater.  Oh, and that I can still kick shoulder height.

Andrew: Probably my kids - I have three girls that just amaze me all the time.  They’re all dancers - trained in classical ballet but have picked up all the disciplines and they are so much better than I ever was or will be!

Allie: I had hip surgery about 5 years ago and I set a goal for myself that I would recover better than ever and get paid to perform. I am proud that I was able to accomplish those goals, and sooner than I ever expected.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

Brian: I’m actually in Mary Poppins at Wheelock Family Theater with several other ArtsImpulse Nominees.

Luciana: I just finished my first solo choreography production of Mary Poppins, and I am currently working on Jekyll and Hyde at Pentucket Players.

Crisanto: I have a callback this week for a production of Spamalot.  If that doesn’t work out, I’ll just continue to teach Zumba, do the occasional photo project, and travel.

Lara: I am happy to have a busy Spring! I just finished working on movement for Merrimack College’s production of Big Love, which opens mid-February 2016, and I am choreographing Hair at The Umbrella, Cabaret at Marblehead Little Theatre, Once on This Island at Peabody High School, and Shrek at Saugus High School, all of which open between April and May 2016. My goal is to perform in another show after taking a break this summer.

Thom: I'm currently rehearsing for two shows...5 nights a week, so I'm pretty busy. I'll playing the Emcee in Theatre at the Mount’s Cabaret opening at the end of February 2016, and also I get to perform as Peter Allen in Arlington Friends of the Drama’s The Boy from Oz, which runs the first three weekends in April 2016.

Kai: I have the pleasure of working with Lara on Cabaret, as her assistant, at Marblehead Little Theater, and as Nate in a new play, The Maid, in the Common Room, with the Fiance at Flyleaf Theatre Company.  And, hopefully, I’ll have a couple more projects in the early summer and fall 2016 . . . but, those are not confirmed yet.  It seems, this year, I’ll be working on more creative teams behind the scenes than on stage treading the boards!

Some of the Cagelles in The Umbrella's  La Cage Aux Folles  (Photo Credit:   Al Ragone  ).

Some of the Cagelles in The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone).

Andrew: I have a couple of small gigs this spring.  I float in an out of a group called Voices of Hope who raise funds for cancer research.  So, I’m slated to dance a number in Fiddler on the Roof with them in May 2016 at the North Shore Music Theater.  But otherwise, I’ve tried to keep myself pretty open.

Allie: I am six months pregnant, so my current projects are gestating this little being, and taking dance classes with what feels like a bowling ball strapped to my stomach.

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

Brian: So honored to have this show nominated. Maureen Festa’s amazing costumes, Elissa Jordan’s excellent stage management, and my fellow Cagelles’ amazing talent and energy. What a great experience.

Luciana: This show was truly a once in a lifetime experience. I am truly humbled to have been a part of such a wonderful production with such an exuberantly talented cast. Thank you, ArtsImpulse, for this nomination!

Crisanto: La Cage is one of those shows that isn’t often produced, so I’m thrilled to have had the chance to do it, and with such an amazing company, production team, and cast too!  It will always be a special one for me.  I’m truly grateful that there’s such a great theater community here in New England and that there are so many people who support community theater especially.

Lara: Thank you for this nomination; this show was a special one to be a part of and it is so exciting to have others recognize how special it was as well!

Thom: This nomination needs to be shared with so many more people: From our director, choreographer, music director to our costumer (Maureen who is also nominated) to our Wig Designer (Jake Egan) and our Make-Up Designer/Drag-Mama (Michael Geary) and to the rest of the production team, cast and crew.  We could not have done this without all of them!!! I'm honored to have been involved with this show, and it is one that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Kai: Everyone put so much heart, sweat, sore arches, pins and needles, hairspray, glitter, and time into this production. I am so happy that our production was recognized, from creative and performance perspectives.  The Greater Boston Theater community is one of the most unique in the nation, where we collaborate so much with each other, and across theaters, that I find myself very proud to just be able to be a part of it.

Andrew: I’ve had the opportunity to audition for La Cage several times and have always passed on it for one reason or another.  I’m thrilled and very grateful to Peyton and The Umbrella that I got to finally do it!  My gratification came with seeing the character I created come to life for an audience - this nomination is just a little icing on the cake.  I’m really glad that our audiences enjoyed it night after night.  It was a wonderful cast and now a wonderful new group of friends. 

Allie: Thank you for this nomination! I am so proud and so grateful to have been part of this production. It really was an amazing collaboration with every single person involved being a critical part. Like Kai said, the Greater Boston Theater community is very special, and I can’t believe I got to be a part of it for a time.

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!

2015 Best Costume Design Nominee: Maureen Festa for The Umbrella's "La Cage Aux Folles"

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.

Maureen Festa dazzles with her period-accurate costumes in The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles, continuing her reputation as a costume designer with a keen eye for detail and a flair for character.  Her Cagelles sparkled with personality as each fit into the local ensemble while showcasing each performer.  Maureen decorates and delights with each production, working intently under pressure; she designed and built La Cage Aux Folles in approximately a month!  

In her Interview, Maureen describes her work in La Cage Aux Folles as an extension of Director Peyton Pugmire's vision and concept; some of her more challenging projects, including The Rocky Horror Show and And Then There Were None, both at The Footlight Club in Jamaica Plain; and something we don't know about her! 

Maureen, it is such a pleasure to talk with you.  Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Photo Credit: Liz Bean

Photo Credit: Liz Bean

Hi, thank you for the nomination and the chance to speak with you!  I came to the world of theatre very circuitously. I've only been involved for less than a decade, and I had no prior experience actually.  My professional career has been as a librarian and researcher (I have been a researcher for fundraisers for the last 5 years); it was my neighbor, Jim Ansart who got me involved when he was producing The Wizard of Oz at The Footlight Club. We were walking our dogs together, and he mentioned that the theatre was looking for a costumer. Of course I turned him down, having no idea what that entailed, but, since I can sew, I joined the team as a seamstress.  Very quickly I became a costumer, and, with lots of mentoring from some fantastic people I've met in the theatre community, I became not just a costumer, but a designer.  My two grandmothers were both seamstresses (one worked as a master seamstress in a suit factory in Lawrence for nearly 50 years, and the other made all her own clothes), and they were pleased I'd learned to sew early on!

What were your initial thoughts when you joined The Umbrella’s production of La Cage Aux Folles?  What was your concept for your costume designs?

My initial thoughts were, “WHAT HAVE I DONE?” I was brought in after they'd unexpectedly lost two costumers, and I had a month to get this massive, elaborate show off the ground.  My immediate predecessor had done some "administrative" work, like creating a costume plot, which was helpful, but I had to work with the director, Peyton Pugmire, to create my own concept, because of time constraints and my own vision. 

The Cagelles dance at the club in The Umbrella's  La Cage Aux Folles  (Photo Credit: Al Ragone).

The Cagelles dance at the club in The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone).

The key thing that Peyton wanted to come through was the era (1980s) and that the club, La Cage Aux Folles, was not a high-class, big-budget place.  It was a slightly dingy, a bit tacky, shoe-string sort of place. I never like to recreate designs directly from the original version, either stage or film.  So, I spent some time looking at images of gay clubs, drag shows, and the Riviera in the '80s.  One key thing in the concept was Zaza wasn't to be completely over the top.  Beautifully, elaborately, sparklingly costumed, yes, but not trashy.  More Mae West, than 1980s Cher.  She is the grande dame.  Beyond that, the Cagelles needed to be uniform, but also have their own characteristics.  So, while they're dressed in the same costumes throughout the show, their hair, makeup, accessories, and attitudes are all their own.

Personally, I think the most fun I had was with Georges' costumes.  He's the man of the relationship, and he's masculine compared to Albin, but he is subtly flamboyant at all times.  He's a showman, and even his street clothes had to reflex that.  It was the small details that made costuming him fun.  Plus, I got to buy him this fabulous shiny blue suit that looked smashing on him.

Why do you think La Cage Aux Folles resonates with audiences?  What draws you to the story and characters?

La Cage was written as a play 40+ years ago, and the musical 30+ years ago, and, while times have changed…have they really?  This conservative thinking, about what makes a family, hasn't gone away. If we look at this [musical] as a period piece, it's heartening to know that today, gay marriage is legal and that Georges and Albin's longtime, loving relationship lasted more than 2 decades and they raised a wonderful son, despite the societal norms at the time.  I think that may be what sticks with audiences: that love, in every form, between spouses, between father and son, step-"mother" and son, parents and daughter, and even townspeople and their neighbors, makes this world bearable, even when things aren't going the way we want them to. I think despite some of the dated themes in La Cage, it's still a story about acceptance, not just of each other, but of ourselves.

Do you have a favorite TV designer show?  Why (or why not)?

I really don't. I can't stand how shows are edited to highlight fake drama and I think it perpetuates this voyeuristic society we've become. Having said that, I do watch a lot of home improvement shows! My favorite is probably Rehab Addict with Nicole Curtis.  I like her show because she takes derelict properties and restores them using what she finds in them or in thrift shops, or repurposed items, with the goal to give old homes new lives.  I like that.  I think it's something I do, as a costume designer, taking old items and giving them new life.  Whether it's due to budget or time constraints, or thinking more broadly, having a new approach to an old show. 

What have been some of your most challenging projects?  Why?  Which of your projects are you most proud?

Zaza, also known as Albin (Todd Yard) welcomes us to The Umbrella's  La Cage Aux Folles  (Photo Credit: Al Ragone).

Zaza, also known as Albin (Todd Yard) welcomes us to The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone).

Clearly, La Cage was one of my most challenging shows.  It has a big cast, lots of costumes, it's a period piece, there's a ton of men who need to wear women's formal clothing, I was working for the first time at The Umbrella so I had to learn their culture and their space, and I had only one month.  Plus it has to look "right", not cliché and not as if we pulled every sparkly dress we could find and just threw them on the cast.  It all had to be cohesive.  I am very proud of how well this show came together.

I've worked with Peyton a number of times before and we have an excellent working relationship, and each of those shows are among my favorites, especially Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None at The Footlight Club (“FLC”). While it's a pretty straight-forward period piece set in the 1940s, Peyton cast an ensemble to play each of the 10 guests' victims, as gray-scale ghosts.  Wearing the clothes they wore when they suffered their untimely deaths, I had to costume a WWI soldier, a wrongly accused prisoner, children who died in a car accident, etc.  Everything had to be shades of gray, and period, and the actors had to be able to move in their costumes as they were part of these choreographed movement pieces.  It was beautifully done, and people still mention this show as one of the best in recent years at FLC.

My most recent show was hugely fun and very challenging. We did The Rocky Horror Show, but our director Mark Sickler wanted to create a different atmosphere for the show.  Ours was set, very specifically, in the world of a 1950s Sci-Fi B-movie.  The greatest challenge was getting the fans to accept the cast in something other than the fantastic, but usual, movie version of the costumes.  Mark and I discussed how far we could push our concept, and how much of the ‘50s could we bring to our show.  I think the concept that was the most far reaching was our cast of Phantoms was dressed as ghoulish movie ushers and usherettes . . . an ode to the Usherette who opens and show.  This was very different than most shows, where the Phantoms explicitly sexy. Conceptually, we allowed the phantoms to "direct" the show, acting as the set movers, as well as set pieces themselves, literally becoming part of the set.  They both moved the actors and watched the action unfolding, as if it were a movie itself. 

Our Frank wore a ‘50s style one piece, bullet bra-ed body suit.  Rocky and Brad had pasties, like throwback burlesque performers use, for the Floor Show.  Columbia wore a very Ruby Keeler, tap-pants sailor suit. I know it was a risk, but I think we pulled it off and allowed the cast to really bring something different to their characters, again, instead of recreating what was done before.

Tell us something that we don’t know about you.  Tell us something that you think that we might have in common.

The funny thing about me is I'm not really a huge theater geek. I like to go, especially to straight plays, and I do love the old classic musicals. But I haven't seen a whole lot of big new shows, I've rarely gone to New York specifically to take in a show, and I don't know who is starring on Broadway. I often feel badly when someone tries to tell me about a show they've seen and I don't know the actors or directors.  But in some ways I think it sometimes helps my costume work, where I don't have a set idea of what a show looked like before.

I am MUCH more of a live music person.  I've sung back up for a local musician in the past, and will travel out of state to see my favorite bands play or to go to music festivals.  I remember lyrics to a ridiculous extent and my boyfriend Adam, who is a musician, is often surprised when I compare one song to another and how good I am hearing the same chord progressions and musical phrasing in different songs.

I also have this innate ability to match colors.  It's a weird skill but very useful in costuming!

Totally random something about me: I collect Santas, especially vintage ones. I recently paired down my collection but I do display about 20 of them around Christmas.

What could we find you doing on a typical Saturday, and with whom?

During a non-show weekend, I'm usually relaxing at home with Adam and our cats. I like to make breakfast or bake something on weekends and that's usually what I'll do when I get up.  We often listen to music on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Saturday evenings we go out to see bands, or maybe just have dinner or drinks with friends. 

If I'm in the midst of prepping for a show, though, I'll spend my Saturday shopping for and working on costumes.  The closer to the show opening, the more hours I'll put in.   I spend a lot of time looking for vintage clothing when I'm working on a period show, and often spend hours going from one thrift shop to the next.

What are some of your favorite stories?  Photos or other art work?

Anne (Elise Wulff) and Jean-Michel (Joe Mullin) share a tender embrace while Jacob (Scot Colford) observes in The Umbrella's  La Cage Aux Folles  (Photo Credit: Al Ragone)

Anne (Elise Wulff) and Jean-Michel (Joe Mullin) share a tender embrace while Jacob (Scot Colford) observes in The Umbrella's La Cage Aux Folles (Photo Credit: Al Ragone)

My very favorite childhood book is Harriet the Spy.  I was sort of a shy kid, and was always looking up things that interested me, so I think how Harriet observed her world and her interaction with it really struck me.  Even now, I think it's a wonderful story.

My mother used to recite bits of Robert Frost to us when we were kids.  I think his roots in Lawrence, where my family is from, made her feel a connection to him.  Plus, we're stoic, seemingly cold New Englanders and Frost informs that perspective.  “The Death of the Hired Man” is a personal favorite.  In it, Frost wrote: “‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in.’”  Whatever has come before, whatever troubles you've had or caused, you have a home somewhere, that place where they have to take you in.  I like that.  

What are some productions for which you would love to design the costumes?

I would love to design some straight comedic plays like Neil Simon's period pieces: Laughter on the 23rd Floor, or Brighton Beach Memoirs, for instance.  I know it seems weird to pick pretty low key comedies, but again, I love to do period work, and to make those shows really FEEL like the period.  I think the work involved in a straight play can be overlooked . . . again, it's all the details that transport the audience to the time period. 

I went to see a professional show recently, set in the first decade of 1900s . . . and one of the leads was wearing a wrist watch.  Wrist watches didn't become popular until after WWI.  I'm sure it was likely the actor forgot to take his own off, but that detail caught my attention, and I was no longer in the era.  Same thing holds true with shoes! 

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I'll be costuming The Umbrella's productions of Oleanna and then their musical Hair in the next few months.  And I'll be collaborating on an original work commemorating an historic anniversary at The Loring Greenough House in Jamaica Plain sometime later this year.

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

It is a privilege to be part of the vibrant theater community in Boston and I am honored that the reviewers and theater goers support our efforts.  Go see more live works, whether theater, music, performance arts, dance! 

2014 Best Director of a Play Nominee Interview: Nancy Curran Willis for The Umbrella's "Angels in America, Part I and II - Millennium Approaches and Perestroika"

NancyCurranWillis

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.

Nancy Curran Willis boasts many years at directing theatre at all levels across the Eastern Massachusetts region.  Her ability to create epic plays and musicals, while sustaining the humanity and rich storytelling, make her a cut above the rest.  In her Interview, Nancy describes he work on Angels in America through motifs and directing moment to moment; her theatre adjudicating experience; and her busy  2015-2016 season!

Nancy, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?  Who are you, what do you do, what are some of your theatre experiences and background?

Theater is something that’s been in my blood since early childhood. I grew up in Wakefield, MA with actor parents who met working at a professional theater in Lowell (well before MRT), my father’s hometown.  My Dad was an actor/singer who specialized in comedy, and Mom was a brilliant dramatic actress and a real “actor’s director.” That ended when they got engaged and my Grandfather took my Dad aside and suggested that he “find real work” to be able to support his family.  But the love of performing was never really left behind. My mother had lied about her age in high school and was cast in a show for The Quannapowitt Players (“QP”), a community theater formed by the two contiguous towns of Wakefield and Reading. She returned there as an actress/director as soon as I was old enough to play in the parking lot with the other theater brats, while they rehearsed. It wasn’t surprising that 20 years later when I had a family of my own, I followed in Mom’s footsteps and dragged my kids to QP to play while I worked on sets, sold tickets, ushered and served as President and member of the board for twenty years. It was there that I learned everything I know about producing, directing, stage managing and running a theater company. A theater brat with larger-than-life crazy actors for ‘rents, meant that my life was full of comedy and tragedy. A burnt roast became fodder for my Dad’s imitation of Julia Childs while Mom fumed, tossed the roast on the floor and stormed out the door and my brothers and I laughed hysterically. So, I guess my ability to work with actors was learned at an early age!  

The first play I directed was The Boys Next Door for QP, 25 years ago. We took a cutting to the New England Theater Conference drama festival held back then at Brandeis University, and won Best Production. It had been 38 years since QP had won the festival and that show had been directed by my Mom. Things do come full circle!  I had many years and much success in community theater while building a career in “Corporate America” and raising my three children as a single mom.

Anxious to see how professional theater worked, I had the pleasure of being the Assistant Director for Rick Lombardo at New Rep on a play called Beast on the Moon, my first professional experience. Not long after, I left Corporate America (and the salary) behind, and I began my journey into Boston area professional theater as the Managing Director of Gloucester Stage, which led to my joining with Jason Southerland in a collaboration of many years with Boston Theatre Works, the highlight of which was winning an Elliot Norton Award for Direction in 2008 for BTW’s Angels in America. Since then, I have directed for many professional, community and high school theaters with almost 10 years as guest director at Newton South High. I have been an adjudicator for Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theatre, Irene Ryan, and area high school festivals, as well as directing 3 to 5 shows a year, which retirement has allowed and my husband graciously puts up with.

What is your history with Angels in America?  How did you decide to direct these plays?

As mentioned above, my history with Angels started with my collaboration on BTW’s production. While that shared experience was highly successful professionally and personally, I never quite got over thinking on a purely personal level, there were some things left on the table that I wanted to explore further given the opportunity. I also felt that performing this important piece of theatrical history in the midst of Boston’s theater community in the South End was a little like preaching to the choir. I wished for the opportunity to bring this epic, important play to the suburbs but knew it had to be for a company that could provide the technical support and resources that I wanted to explore further in a production of my own. And then it happened. Brian Boruta, Artistic Director for The Umbrella in Concord, put out a call for directors for their 2014 season and Angels was on the list.

Talk to us about the story.  It’s epic. How did you make it manageable for yourself, your actors, your production team, and, more of all, the audience?

I actually had a very simple theory on that and not a very original one: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.  I found that if you approached this material from the outside edge and got caught up in the magnitude of its themes and issues, it was easy to get lost in the hugeness of it. Instead we focused on managing that by working in small beats, each with its own journey and objective; stringing them together beat by beat, and hoping that three hours later, you’ve told the whole story and done justice to Kushner’s words and world.

On the technical side, keeping the world of the play in one location supported simple scene changes indicated merely by furniture placement and lighting. This allowed the theater magic called for in Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia” to be captured through creative/inventive costuming, lighting, sound and specific special effects.

For the audience, I felt it was important to bring out the humor of the two plays, especially the absurdity of Perestroika, which is a crazy mess structurally in comparison to Millennium. I felt strongly we needed actors who could personalize this journey for our suburban audience. Not from the perspective of an AIDS play but from the perspective of the relationships: of caring for a loved one with a terrible disease; of marriages that fall apart; of trying to fit in where you don’t belong; and of coping when your religious beliefs are in conflict with who you are. I directed a play about the hope for “more life” and wanted to use the power of drama and comedy to reinforce that theme.

How were these productions different than your other directing projects?  How were they similar?

Angels in America is rather typical of the type of theater that I like directing the most. I tend to gravitate towards epic storylines, dramatic through lines and big ideas. I also tend to like dark comedy that comes out of tragic storytelling. Some of my work along those lines are: Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, The Laramie Project, Cabaret, A Piece of My Heart, Jekyll and Hyde, to name a few. I also love material based on real people and true stories such as Diary of Anne Frank, The Miracle Worker, Grey Gardens, and Breaking the Code. And, anything by Sam Shepard or David Mamet!

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What were some recurring ideas, images, or motifs in the plays for you?  How did you reinforce these in your directing?

Probably the most recurring image for me in thinking about Angels was the importance of the Angel of the Waters atop the Bethesda Fountain in NYC’s Central Park. The statue references the Gospel of John, which describes an angel blessing the Pool of Bethesda and giving it healing powers. Kushner places several scenes at the fountain throughout Angels Part I and Part II. In fact he ends the play at the fountain with Prior Walter wishing for “more life.” That image drove the set design and the importance of the Angel to our production.  I wanted to make the Angel of the Water a metaphor for “more life” at the end of Perestroika, thereby giving hope to anyone needing to wash themselves clean. As a living metaphor, it would be enacted by the actress playing our Angel, Sharon Mason, who was swathed in a concrete dress, atop an 8 foot platform, covered in grey make up to replicate the statue. At the end of the play, with a nod of her head and a slight smile, she motions to Prior and as the fountain came to life with water flowing. We owe a huge thank you to set designer Brian Boruta and costumer Elisabetta Polito for pulling that one off.

What are you reading right now?  What is on your “To Read” list? Do novels or non-fiction ever inform your directing decisions?  

I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t do much reading for “fun” these days. Most of my reading is based on research for upcoming or proposed directing projects. Presently I’m reading two books on Bonnie and Clyde, my next directing project: Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, and My Life with Bonnie and Clyde, a biography of Blanche Barrow, married to Clyde’s brother Buck who became one of the gang and the only survivor who wrote her memoir from prison. I have a vast library of play scripts and librettos and one day hope to actually read all of them!

Take us through a typical Saturday for you.  What are you doing?  Who are you with?  What do you have planned?

Well this particular Saturday, I am in my office, in front of my computer answering your questions. Other than that I would either be at a theater working on tech or spending time with my kids and grandkids. Most Saturday evenings, find me either attending a performance of my own show or supporting friends by attending their productions.

Tell us about your adjudicating background.  What is that like?  How does it help you as theatre artist?  What are some of the challenges?

I’ve been a consultant for Eastern Mass Association of Community Theaters (EMACT) for 20 years and have adjudicated Irene Ryan and several high school level festivals. It means that I see a lot of theater, which drives a curiosity and interest in the growth of our theater community and the nurturing of the next generation of theater artists. Key to being a good adjudicator is in being able to mix criticism with praise. At all levels of adjudication, you want to encourage good work while pointing out areas for improvement.  Finding that balance is a huge challenge of the job.

Another challenge is being in the position of adjudicating the work of your friends and peers making sure you are always evaluating without prejudice one way or the other.  My own directing work has benefitted greatly from being an adjudicator. Having to think about why a production or performance resonates or why it does not is something I use to inform my own projects. It continues to draw you into the role of observer (audience) and always reminds me that is the most important role of all.

How do you think the Greater Boston community theatre scene has changed?  How about the Boston fringe and professional scene?  What has stayed the same?  What do you hope will change in the next year?  Five years?

Frankly, I’m envious of the strength of the fringe theaters in Boston now since I was a part of the fringe companies that didn’t make it back in the day. It feels like Boston is more accepting of the companies that do new work and more opportunities for new directors and actors who want to get a start in the business.  And even more importantly, the number of amazingly talented actors and actresses, (several of whom are fellow nominees here) who have chosen to make Boston their theatrical home.

I also believe that the quality of theater at all levels is consistently reaching new heights. High schools are tackling material like Laramie Project and Spring Awakening. Community theaters are producing New England Premieres like Bonnie & Clyde, the Musical at The Umbrella (shameless self-promotion) and newer works by contemporary playwrights like Mamet, Shepard, Rebeck, Lindsay-Abaire, Dietz, and LaBute to name but a few. I believe the quality of community theater in our area has grown tremendously in the last decade with groups taking amazing risks doing edgy, new and challenging material. As the quality and body of work our audiences are exposed to at all levels continues to rise, I’m convinced the numbers of butts in seats will follow which is the ultimate goal for keeping theater alive.

If your best friend spoke at an award ceremony for you, what is one word that you hope that he or she uses to describes you?  

I think you’d get many answers depending on which friend you asked!

There is really no way to answer this without sounding like an egotistical idiot so I will leave it as a simple: NCW, my friend.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions? Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

My personal projects for next season include: Bonnie & Clyde at The Umbrella in the fall; Proof for Concord Players in the winter; and Israel Horovitz’ My Old Lady for Quannapowitt Players in Reading in the spring.

I’d like to thank you and ArtsImpulse for the attention being given to theater at all levels in our community leading to their success and growth. I also would like to thank The Umbrella for being a huge part of that growth and mostly I want to thank the actors and designers who spent well over a year with us on Angels in America, Parts I and II. A director is only as good as the talent on the team. With special shout outs to: Peyton Pugmire, David Berti, Kendall Hodder, Damon Singletary, Kevin Brown, Jennifer Shea, Liz Robbins, Sharon Mason, Jim Barton, Cathie Regan, Brian Boruta and our amazing tech team who gave Angels in America the wings that allowed Kushner’s words to soar!

2014 Best Set Design Nominee Interview: Brian Boruta for The Umbrella's "Angels In America: Part II - Perestroika"

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.

Photo by John Burke

Photo by John Burke

Brian Boruta, Director of Performing Arts for The Umbrella in Concord, Massachusetts, took on the behemoth task of designing the sets for both Angels in America: Parts 1 and 2 in 2014.  Not only did he survive the process, he thrived, creating a larger than life, spectacle-heavy set worthy of a 2014 ArtsImpulse Best Set Design nomination.  In his Interview, Brian discusses his creative process as a designer (he has also done lighting and sound design for other shows), the unique collaboration at The Umbrella, and his guilty pleasures (we promise that we won't judge, Brian). 

Brian, introduce yourself to our readers.  What is your role at The Umbrella and how did you get this position?

Well, I’m a Gemini with a double Capricorn moon and I have a . . . Oh. That wasn’t what you meant? Sorry . . .

Currently, I serve as the Director of Performing Arts for The Umbrella, a multidisciplinary arts center in the quaint ‘burb of Concord, MA. I came to the building six years ago as a performer, and, after doing several shows here, took over the program in 2012.

I guess I was just lucky. For many years, the program struggled to get going, and, in 2011, the Board voted to support an expansion of programming with some generous sponsorship. I threw my hat into the ring when they were looking for their first full-time Director. Right place at the right time, as they say.

I oversee all theater programming, as well as collaborating with some wonderful local artists on film and concert series.

What were some of the challenges of designing a set for Angels in America?  What was harder, Part I or Part II?

Well, simply put, Tony Kushner is an asshole. Not literally, of course. I don’t know him personally, but his script is incredibly demanding of designers, asking them to create this world in which anything is possible. Between the two parts of the show, there are almost 50 set changes including a trip to Hell, Heaven and everywhere in between. How do you fit all that on stage? How do you make a flaming book erupt from the ground? How do you fly an Angel in a theater with no fly space?

Kushner is kind enough to give the designers license to “let the wires show,” as he says, but, still, the level of production that he asks for is daunting and certainly added some new tricks to my bag.

If I had to choose one, I would say that Part 2 was harder. For one, it’s longer, and the evolution of scenes is less structured. The world has literally fallen apart around these characters, and you, as the designer, have to create that with them.

I also owe a whole lot of thanks to Sharon Mason, who played our Angel, for all her bravery. Nancy and I wanted this moment for the end of Part 2 when Prior is urging the audience to celebrate “more life” as he stands in front of the Bethesda Fountain. We thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if the Angel on top of the fountain was actually Sharon, in full costume and makeup as a living statue, and she reached out to him in the final light cue and the water started to run over her feet.” Poor Sharon was 13 feet in the air with a mammoth of a dress, standing on an 18 inch square platform and standing still for ten minutes. It must have been hell for her, but, for me as a designer, when that water started flowing, it was perhaps one of my proudest moments.

Have you previously designed sets?  What has been your favorite?  Did any prior set designs help or inspire you for your set design for Part 2?

I have! Prior to working for The Umbrella, I was the Technical Director and Events Manager at Wellesley Public Schools. I got to work with students to design scenery, lighting, and sound, and I also freelanced my time out to other groups as a lighting and scenic designer. All told, I’ve probably designed almost 3 dozen shows at this point.

If I had to pick one, I think I would say that Red was my favorite. It was a real ‘environment’ piece. We stripped the space of its soft goods, and installed seating risers on stage supported by some 400 paint cans and did our best not to hide anything in the theater, but to reclaim it, as Rothko would have done in his studio at The Bowery in the ‘50s.  The whole space just became this incredibly rich tapestry, almost a palette itself, which continued to evolve throughout the performance run since the actors were using it and painting live on stage.

I can’t say that any one set inspired me for Angels, but I think that I learned a little something from each one along the way and Angels pushed me to use just about every trick that I had in order to pull it off.

Talk us through the process from when a show is selected until when a set is built and complete.  How do you prepare?  Who else helps you?  What steps do you take?

I’m not very good at designing literal shows. I’m not shy about saying that, either. I think, as designers, we all have a specific approach and skill set which either helps us or hurts us when working on certain projects.

For me, I like to take the source material and find the strongest visual metaphor or symbol. For Side Show, we had these fabric panels draped from a center point on the stage out towards the wings which served as a sort of deconstructed cyc throughout the show, adding color and texture to the action. When you stood back and looked at them all fully lit, they resembled a tent under which the "Side Show" took place and, no matter where the Hilton twins went, they were always underneath that tent.

For Angels, it was Bethesda, the final scene of the show. Prior says that “this was [his] favorite place in the world.” And so it felt appropriate that this place should be carried with him on his journey to his ultimate destination, through destruction, despair, in the face of death . . . whatever.

Photo by Meghan Donnelly

Photo by Meghan Donnelly

I couldn’t very well just place a giant fountain on stage the whole time, though, so we decided to work with the archways and terrace behind fountain as the dominant imagery. Archways, for me, symbolize passages to new places, thresholds (of revelation), entry and exit.  It felt powerful and somehow correct. As the play progressed from Part 1 to Part 2, the structure actually disintegrated and fell apart, which was cool, and it allowed Nancy [the director, a 2014 ArtsImpulse Best Director of a Play Nominee for The Umbrella's Angels in America, Part 1 and Part 2] a lot of freedom in terms of movement on the stage while still maintaining this almost monolithic structure lurking in the background.

I really have a fantastic team. My Technical Director Al is a wonderful problem solver and The Umbrella’s own Executive Director, Jerry Wedge, is an architect by training who made a move into nonprofit arts management, so he and I have a fun time just wandering the stage sometimes discussing possibilities and hashing out ideas.

Are there any shows for which you would want to design the set?

After Angels, I almost never want to design a set again. No, no, I’m joking.

It’s hard to put my finger on any one piece that draws me in as a designer, but right now I’m really drawn to environment pieces, like Red, which allow you to create a space in which both the actors and the audience can co-habitate and create a really ephemeral experience together. Every performance ends up being different that way. I just think it’s such a cool paradigm to explore because you aren’t creating a picture as much as you are an experience. 

What other technical positions have you held?  Which do you find the most rewarding?  The most challenging?

As a freelancer, I’ve been a lighting, sound, and scenic designer. I’ve dabbled in props. Really, the only thing you’re not likely to ever see my name next to is costume design. I tried to sew a seam on a table cloth once and stabbed myself with the needles so I just stapled the damn thing together.

I think they all present unique challenges. The most exciting challenge of all is finding a way for them all to play together in a harmonious design. For the last 2 seasons at The Umbrella, the sound, lighting and scenic design teams have remained almost entirely the same which has been really fun for us. Seif, our lighting designer, and I have built a really great relationship working together. When I design, I have his aesthetics in mind too, and like to provide him with fun opportunities to integrate lights and scenery and every time I hand him a design. I like when he bounces ideas back at me for how we can up the ante a bit even more. 

What is the best play or movie that you’ve seen recently?  Do you have a top 5 of favorite plays?  Do you have a favorite production that you saw in 2014.

Tough call!

I really liked The Theory of Everything. Eddie Redmayne was amazing. Though, I may be biased. #swoon.

My top 5 is always evolving. Right now, I can’t seem to get enough Sam Shepard (The Umbrella will be doing True West this fall!) and The Color Purple is on loop in my CD player. Side Show will forever hold a place in my heart even though I thought the recent revival was a bit too cheap for my taste.

One of the absolute best things I saw in 2014 was Company One’s production of AstroBoy and the God of Comics. It was definitely not for everyone, but I like really weird shit, and it was maybe one of the most brilliant ensemble pieces I’ve seen in a long time. 

What is your guilty pleasure?

Real Housewives. I figure I get enough culture in my daily work that I’m allowed to go home, pour a glass of wine, and watch trashy reality television. #bloop

How do you see the Greater Boston theatre scene changing?  How is The Umbrella responding to these changes?  What is The Umbrella’s mission and how does it address the needs of the Greater Boston theatre community?

Big question! I could go on for hours about this, but the Greater Boston theatre is in a sort of renaissance right now thanks to the huge success and national recognition of our large professional houses, like A.R.T. and Huntington.

But the growth isn’t limited to the professional houses. There is so much support for our fringe scene, and even theaters in the burbs are drawing audiences out of the city.

I think if you look at the rhythm of theatre programming as a whole, not just now, but throughout the ages, it tends to ebb and flow based on the needs of its audience.

Today’s audience demands art as activism, leveraging artistic voices to create global discussions around relevant issues. Audiences aren’t afraid to engage with this kind of work which is really exciting. 

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Here at The Umbrella, we pride ourselves on producing bold, daring, and innovative work. Informally, I like to say that we produce “shit that matters.” We like to push boundaries and really encourage those discussions to happen.

I think the only reason we can get away with doing this kind of work is BECAUSE of that renaissance. Audiences are trusting Boston theaters to produce strong, solid work that fulfills these needs and because of this, they’re buying tickets and we are developing artists who are capable of meeting and exceeding those challenges. It’s a really rich scene and it’s fun to be a part of.

The Umbrella was nominated for a number of ArtsImpulse and DASH Awards.  Why do you think that reviewers and audience connect with The Umbrella’s work?  What are some of its strengths?  How has the Umbrella grown in the past few years?

You know, we’re just not like anything else around here. There are many other local presenters in the area, but so many of them are producing time-honored standards and family-friendly shows. Mind you, I fully support them, but I felt that in order to really make a good go at it here in Concord, we had to take a different approach. It’s a fresh new voice, which I think audiences out here really like.

I think we really excel at being willing to take risks and having the technical team to meet those challenges. As I said, I’ve had the same design team for the last couple seasons now, and they have really gotten comfortable with what this tiny little theater can and cannot handle. You can’t put a price tag on that kind of knowledge OR the relationship that they have all built with each other.

I think it’s because of them and because of the incredible talent that has taken notice and started auditioning for our shows and joining our teams that we have been able to expand our programming so quickly. Back when I first got here, we were doing one or two shows a season and scrambling for audience members. Now we are producing four or five shows per season. Our current production of Tartuffe has sold over 90% of its total capacity. It’s all about building trust with your audience and trust with your team. If you build it . . .

What’s next for you?  For The Umbrella?

A vacation?

After Tartuffe closes (we have two shows left!), we move on to La Cage Aux Folles, which I am also designing and which has been just an absolute joy. We have a fantastic director (Peyton Pugmire, a 2014 ArtsImpulse Best Leading Actor in a Play Nominee for The Umbrella's Angels in America, Part 1), and the show promises to be all kinds of tawdry, glitzy entertainment.

I’m also really lucky to be working with a group of students at Merrimack College on a production of Next to Normal. Having done the show before, it’s been really great delving into the material in an academic setting.

After that, I honestly hope to be able to perform more. It’s been a while since I’ve laced up my tap shoes, so who knows.

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

Remember, only you can help prevent forest fires.

2014 Best Actor in a Play Nominee Interview: David Berti as Roy Cohn in The Umbrella's "Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches"

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.

Photo by Kippy Goldfarb

Photo by Kippy Goldfarb

David Berti packed a heavy punch as the spit-fire, unsympathetic Roy Cohn in both Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika.  However, he impressed because of his sensitivity and vulernability in Cohn's journey as a person and character.  David is nominated for 2014 Best Actor in a Play for Part I: Millennium Approaches, and we couldn't be happier to interview him.  In his Nominee Interview, David describes his rehearsal process and approach to Roy Cohn, his understanding and appreciation for the Greater Boston community theatre, and even in what period of history that he would choose to live!

David, please introduce yourself to our readers.

I was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts at St. Lukes Hospital 61 (yikes!) years ago.  I came to Boston in 1971 to attend Boston University School for the Arts.  I fell in love with this area and I never left.  I’m married to a wonderful and talented director, Donnie Baillargeon.  We live in Waltham.  My day job is as the Registrar at New England Law Boston.

What do you believe that Angels in America is about? How does Roy Cohn fit into this epic story?

Someone once told me that there are two motivators in life – love and fear.  Angels is about both.  I’m of an age to remember vividly what it was like in the early 1980s, when AIDS first reared its ugly head.  I remember the fear we all felt, that we’d be the next ones to catch it and die.  But that was nothing compared to the fear that the country felt – gay men became pariahs.  One of my friends was hospitalized with AIDS very early in the crisis, and he told me that the kitchen staff at the hospital refused to enter his room at meal time, even wearing a mask.  He said that they would put his tray on the floor and slide it over to him.  “Angels” captures that fear  -- in Louis’ inability to stay with Prior once Prior’s AIDS is full-blown; in Roy’s utter denial that he has AIDS.  But there is also great love – Belize’s love for his friend, Prior, for example.  That’s the way it was back then.  We took care of each other because we knew that no one else would.  My friends and I drew closer as the crisis worsened.

As for Roy, he’s the perfect example of some of the men that I knew back then – they were motivated by both love and fear.  In Roy’s case, there was his love of power and his fear that his homosexuality would be made public.  For all his bravado, Roy was just a scared little boy at his core.

What drew you to audition and perform in Angels in America?

I like playing complex characters that have serious flaws – and Roy Cohn was always the #1 role on my bucket list.  He was full of unbridled ego and yet terrible self-loathing.  He was a Jew who had no respect for Jews; a man who slept with men but refused to identify as a gay man, especially after he was diagnosed with AIDS.  He went to his grave swearing that he had liver cancer.  I think he even believed that lie himself.  The challenge of making him a real human being really appealed to me.  I knew that I had to play what was in the script, but I also wanted to give him some humanity.  I didn’t want him to be a caricature.

Two other things drew me to this production: the director, Nancy Curran-Willis, for one.  We had done two previous shows together, and I knew if anyone could do justice to this show, it was her.  Nancy has a strong vision when she directs, but she also collaborates with her actors and expands that vision as rehearsals continue.  An actor can’t ask for more than that from a director. 

And then there were the remarkably talented people I saw at the callback auditions.  I just knew this was going to be something special.

What were some of the challenges of performing in a two-part play with rehearsals over many months?

Living with Roy Cohn for almost a year wasn’t easy.  When I would get home from rehearsals some nights, I behaved like I was shot from a cannon because I was so pumped from Roy’s energy.  Also, at my age, learning Roy’s “boatload” of lines was a true challenge.  One of the many joys of being in the production was working with some of the best actors, tech, and artistic people I have ever known -- and there was not a diva in the bunch (not counting me, of course).  We were together for almost a year and there was never a cross word. We liked and respected each other and we enjoyed being together, offstage as well as onstage. 

When we came back to do Part Two, it was like a reunion of old friends, and we couldn’t wait to get started telling the second half of this important story.  It was a very special experience and one that I doubt will come my way again. 

How do you prepare for a given role during the rehearsal process? Did you do anything differently when preparing to play Roy Cohn?

Playing a real-life character is always somewhat easier because you can find background information on the person in books and all over the internet.  In this case, I read Roy Cohn’s autobiography, which was fascinating.  Learning how the man viewed himself was very helpful to the creation of the role.  He didn’t see himself as a monster, of course; he thought he was a crusader with a mission in life – to identify and destroy the people that he felt were ruining the country.  Communists and homosexuals were at the top of his list.  He was once approached by a group of gay teachers who were suing a school system for dismissing another gay teacher.  Roy listened intently and told them that they had an excellent case.  They asked him to take on the case and he replied that he would be on the other side, fighting to keep the teacher out of a job.  When they asked him why, he said: “Because you people have no business teaching young people.”

What role(s) have you related to the most? Why?

I really had to think about this one – I think that I’ve related to just about every role that I’ve ever played, in some fashion.  It’s so clichéd, but actors use parts of themselves to create every character.  When I played Guido in Nine, it was my Italian heritage;  I was raised with men who behaved as he did.  When I did Man In Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone, it was my love of old movies and theater that surfaced.  As far as Roy goes, I could even relate to him on some level.  As a gay man who was closeted for too many years, I know that kind of fear of being found out.

How do you see community theatre changing?  How is Boston responding to these changes?  What do you think that community theatres can do differently?

The talent in community theater is extraordinary.  The fine productions I have seen in community theater are every bit as professional and polished as many of the Equity productions I have seen.  I do think that community theaters need to get their message out better, but that often costs money, and you also need a PR person willing to take on the task.  It requires a lot of time, and since most people in community theater have day jobs, it can be daunting to take on that role. The one thing we don’t always have is the financial resources of the Boston-based theaters.  We have our “angels” (no pun intended) who support us, but many community theaters rely on ticket sales to finance their next productions.  If we had a few more donations, our productions would benefit greatly.

Tell us a funny audition or performance story.

My first role in community theater was in Company at Vokes Players in Wayland.  I hadn’t done a musical before and on opening night, I was beyond nervous; I was panicked.  In one of the songs, “It’s the Little Things You Do Together”, I had one solo line.  I forget the exact line, but I do remember that when it came my turn to sing, what came out of me sounded something like: “Bff vzz da vcxd hgy tonethr!”  Some sort of gibberish that would have sent Sondheim through the roof.  I was mortified, and when I exited from the scene, I left feeling that I couldn’t go out there again.  But then the absurdity of what I had just done onstage hit me and I started to laugh.  I had to cover my mouth so the audience wouldn’t hear me shrieking with laughter like a crazy person.  

I had my back turned and I suddenly felt the hand of my director on my back, and he said “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.”  He thought I was crying.  When I turned around, I did have tears streaming down my face, and when the director saw that I was hysterical with laughter, he stared at me like I’d lost my mind, and finally said: “You need to pull yourself together before your next entrance.”

What are you currently reading?

An excellent biography of Walt Disney, another complex. difficult man.  There’s no doubt that he was an innovative genius, but he also had a mercurial personality.  He could be magnanimous, petty, supportive and something of a dictator.  Interestingly, like Roy Cohn, he was intensely anti-communist, and in 1947, he went before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named three former animators as communists.  He also accused the Screen Animators Guild of being a communist front.  One doesn’t think of Mickey Mouse’s creator as being a “Red baiter.”

If you could live in one time period, when would it be?  What would you do?

Another great question.  Some friends and I were talking about this the other night, while discussing – what else? – Downton Abbey.   I do love the late 19th century/ early 20th century with the beautiful clothes and manners.  And it was an exciting time for inventions that began to sweep the world – the electric light bulb and telephone, etc.  Still, I do love my modern conveniences (like air conditioning) and when I see old photos of men in Boston in the early 1900s walking around in the heat of August with suits and starched collars, it gives me pause.  If I did live back then, I’d like to think I would be a working actor, though the truth is I’d probably be a law school Registrar!

What is one thing that you would like to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Simply this – there is no question that the theater in Boston is richer and more diverse than ever before.  But the same thing is true of the community theaters in the suburbs.  There are good theaters everywhere that are just a short drive for most people living in the towns and cities outside Boston.  There have been so many outstanding community theater productions, just in the last year.  I urge your Boston readers to find these theaters; I think that they will be pleasantly surprised.

2014 Best Actor Nominee Interview: Peyton Pugmire as Prior Walter in The Umbrella's "Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches"

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.

Photo by Matt McKee

Photo by Matt McKee

Peyton Pugmire joins us with his Southern charm and impressive theatre knowledge for an Interview to discuss his latest role as Prior Walter in both Parts I & II of Angels in America at The Umbrella in Concord, Massachusetts. Not everyone has the opportunity to tackle these roles in quick succession, but Peyton brings his keen script analysis and acting talents to bring empathy and understanding to the complex role.  In this Interview, Peyton discusses his rich and diverse history onstage, his preparation for the role, and some of his dream roles.  Look for his directing work on The Umbrella's stage this Spring in La Cage Aux Folles.

Peyton, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview.  Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Thanks, Brian!  I feel so honored to be nominated and be in such great company.  I’m from Georgia, so I’m a southerner at heart (after a cocktail or two you might hear the accent).  I moved to Boston in 2002 for graduate school at Emerson College where I received my masters in Theater Ed.  I taught public school drama for a few years, started my own small fringe company, served as Producing Artistic Director of the award-winning Watertown Children’s Theatre, and then landed my current job at The Boston Conservatory (“TBC”) where I am the Associate Director of Theater.  I’m lucky to be so inspired by TBC’s remarkably talented students and faculty on a daily basis.  I act when I can, I really love directing, and I still teach and I coach acting privately.  I love the ocean, Stevie Nicks, my car, my friends, tarot cards, and cooking, and I have three guardian angels around me at all times.   

I believe that Angels in America defies description, but why don’t you try?  How would you describe the plays?

“Gay Fantasia” comes to mind, which is the first play’s subtitle.  The phrase justifies the play’s stylistic topography – dreamlike, poetic, hilarious, serious-as-hell, scary, wacky, historical, etc.  It’s like a musical fantasy.  Very rhythmic, too, with each word and pause carefully placed with tweezers.  It’s mysterious, open to many levels of interpretation.  We joked a lot in rehearsals, wondering what the hell [playwright] Mr. Kushner was thinking as he purged his brilliance onto the page.

What do you think that Mr. Kushner was trying to say with these plays?  How does your character, Prior Walter, fit into these themes and ideas?

To me the story is about surviving adversity.  And refusing to remain stagnant and succumb to sexual, medical, political, social, and religious garbage.  It’s also a period piece, spotlighting the conservative early ‘80s.  Prior is a victim of AIDS, a metaphor for the stigma of homosexuality.  And he’s abandoned by his boyfriend.  Poor guy, and all in Part I!   In Part II, we learn that the Angel actually is trying to recruit Prior to bring humankind to a screeching halt.  Heaven can’t handle the earthly chaos, and thankfully Prior says “hell no” and that he’d rather be sick and feel pain than to stop living.  “More life,” he says.  Hindsight’s definitely 20/20.  I sure as hell wasn’t that clear while rehearsing (laughter)!

What was your favorite moment or scene in the plays?  What was your least favorite?

In Part I, I loved the “KS baby” scene with Louis, although that one really stumped me at first.  It’s a beautifully written scene that lasts all of two minutes but really packs a wallop.  My heart broke each night (backstage lying in the hospital bed) when Joe came out to his mom over the payphone.  And Roy Cohn’s chilling monologue to the doctor in which he demands that he has cancer (and not AIDS).  And a touching, hilarious scene at the end of Act 2 between Ella Chapter and Mother Pitt when Mother Pitt is planning to move to NYC.  And Louis’s and Belize’s café scene in Act 3 with Louis’s monologue-from-hell.  Actors Kendall Hodder and Damon Singletary nailed that comedic timing.  I was never really comfortable during the-man-in-park scene in which Prior (doubling as a hustler) has sex with Louis.   Especially when mom and dad were in the audience.  We didn’t talk about that scene afterwards over dessert. 

Part II was one big blur.  Hahaha.  That script is just crazy.   Overall, I have to hand it to our fearless director Nancy Curran Willis.  She handled the entire piece with such care, patience, and intelligence. 

Did you do any special preparation for the role?

I read Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, which reads like a suspense thriller.  Reading it helped me to grasp somewhat the outbreak’s painful mystery for everyone involved, primarily the virus’s earliest victims.  I read some essays by Kushner.  But mostly I was religious about reading the script and defining Prior’s actions.  Line by line, word by word. 

I wanted to avoid the trap of playing only emotion, which would be so easy to do with this intense play, so I pulled out my thesaurus and pencil, and I’d saddle up at a neighborhood bar, people watch, and mark up my script.  Writing an action word for every line.  I was kind of obsessive about it.  Lol.  But it helped me stay physically in each moment.  And not get lost.  But a lot of trial and error.  My erasers got a work out!   

I know that you are also a director.  How do you choose your projects, whether it be acting or directing?

I recently made a list of genres and themes from the movies in my Netflix queue.  They include classics, period pieces, supernatural, drag, gay, journey, overcoming hardships, relationships, comedy, family dynamics, culinary, fantasy, youth, adventure, romance, and theatre.  I particularly like to direct plays and musicals that embody those themes. 

And, if the piece is a play, I like to add choreography or movement and some awesome music.  I like high concept.  I’m not really a political activist so I leave those themes for people who do it much better than me.

What have been some of your favorite roles?  What roles would you love to play?

Some favorite roles:  Prior (obvi), Sister Amnesia (Nunsense A-men), Miss Lynch (Grease), Brick (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Frankie (Forever Plaid) . . . and Peter Pan.

Some roles I’d love to do:  Tom (Glass Menagerie), Kipps (The Woman in Black), Father Flynn (Doubt), Jeffrey (Jeffrey), Brad (Rocky Horror), Atticus (To Kill a Mockingbird), either dude in Greater Tuna.

What performing or directing advice would you give young theatre professionals?

Study, read, and just do it as much as possible.  Create your own opportunities.  And, never ignore those instincts.

If I gave you $1 million (I’m not), what would you do with it?

Buy a deluxe, lake house ‘escape’ somewhere in New Hampshire.  

What inspires you?  What disappoints you?

Inspires:  Music videos, music (particularly disco), running, movies, a really good show, nature, the angels.

Disappoints:  fear of failure.

Do you have any upcoming theatrical projects or productions?

I’m directing La Cage Aux Folles at The Umbrella in Concord!  We open April 17.  Next fall, I’ll be directing once again at The [Boston] Conservatory.  Acting wise, I’m still in recovery from “Angels”.  Ha!

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

Thank you for your readership and support of Boston’s diverse theatre scene!  From community all the way up to regional theatre, this city has a lot to offer its artists and audiences.  And since moving to Boston, I always have found the theatre scene very welcoming, with exciting opportunities just around the corner.  We’re lucky for such abundance. 

I hear the ‘higher ups’ in city hall are currently re-assessing the climate and health of our arts scene, and that is wonderful to hear.  I look forward to innovation and continued growth and being a part of it.