2014 Best Leading Actress in a Musical or Opera: Aliana de la Guardia as The Shopper/Mother in Guerilla Opera's "Gallo"

Although we have announced our 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Winners, we continue our Nominee Interview Series.

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.

Aliana de la Guardia showcases an impressive acting and vocal range, embodying her characters with the necessary physicality and vocal dexterity to meet even the most demanding of roles.  Her operatic training combined with experience in television and film make her a truly one-of-a-kind talent in the Greater Boston theatre community and within the opera community.  In her Interview, Aliana talks about Guerilla Opera and its unique mission and works, her (not-so) hidden talent, and why Gallo was such a successful production.

Photo by Alicia Packard Photography

Photo by Alicia Packard Photography

Hi, Aliana! So wonderful for you to join us.  Can you tell us who you are and what you do?

I am a Boston based soprano vocalist specializing in extended vocal techniques, and avant-garde and experimental music.

What was Gallo?

Gallo was the brain-child of composer Ken Ueno, written for Guerilla Opera. It was routed in some basic human histories, but really was about experiencing our own human nature through the ideas of relationships, creation, consumption and re-birth.

Talk to us about Guerilla Opera.  How is it similar to other opera companies?  How is it different?  What is its mission?  What does it do for the Greater Boston theatre scene?

Guerilla Opera is Boston’s only avant-garde and experimental opera company. It’s our mission to seek out composers that write this kind of music as well as directors and designers that produce this kind of theater. Because it’s our mission to produce this kind of opera, our audience doesn’t expect any of the standard repertoire or composers, or any kind of “safe” production choices. We fell very free because of this, and we’re thankful of the trust our audience consistently puts in us.

In addition to our visual and musical aesthetic we raise the stakes for the performance of this music by removing the conductor or any formal music director. This allows us to communicate to each other directly as well as build the music ourselves as an ensemble. We also have a roster of recurring artists, much like a repertory theater, and we take them into consideration when commissioning new works. We don’t generally like to hold open auditions.

In all of my research I haven’t come across any ensemble that’s quite like us in the country and, therefore, I think we occupy a unique niche in Boston and also nationwide.

What is the rehearsal process for a Guerilla Opera production?  Was the process different for Gallo?

Our rehearsal process tends to be intense and fast. For Gallo, from the time that music rehearsals began to the dress rehearsals, we’d been at it almost every night for about a month. We work fast and we like it that way.

The process itself was not different for Gallo, but it was the most abstract opera we’d performed at the time, so we, as performers, had to change our thought process going into rehearsals. There was very, very little spoken narrative to drive the plot forward. Our through-lines were determined by sequences of actions and interactions rather than dialogue or traditional songs or arias.

What is the hardest thing about performing for you?  Have you performed in musicals or plays?  Why did you choose to focus on opera?

The hardest thing about performing to me is balancing physicality and voice. I have always been someone to give up beauty of my voice for the drama of the scene or character. I am okay with it now and I think our audience deserves someone who will take a risk and give up something for them, if it’s right to do so.

I have performed in plays and musicals – I’ve even performed on television in 2010, but I’ve never felt more challenged or extraordinary than when I perform classical music, and, specifically, the kind of music that I currently seek out. Not many can or want to do it, but I love the challenge and the abstract thought.

In high school when looking into colleges my initial thoughts were of becoming an actor, but, the more that I took voice lessons, and the more I became able to sing classical music, I just fell in love. Opera seemed the way to go if I wanted to be an actor and a classical singer.

What is one of your (not-so) hidden talents?  Have you ever used it onstage?

I have a great horror movie scream and I got to use it in a new opera called Bovinus Rex. Opera singers never scream, but it’s so fun and liberating.

What are some of your dream roles?  Would you ever perform a pants-role?

I would love to play the title role in Lulu or Marie in Wozzek. It’s my kind of musical repertoire and such complicated characters. I would love to have a crack at them!

I would perform a pants role, although I don’t quite understand them in contemporary culture.

What makes you happy?  What are some of your pet peeves?

My cat and a good meal make me happy.

Folks who make a million excuses for themselves, for why they’re inadequate or whatever, that’s a huge pet peeve.

Why was Gallo a successful production?  What were some of its major themes or ideas?

Gallo was such a strange opera. I think the immersive, participatory nature of the production was really appealing – made folks feel like the opera was happening to them rather than a distanced experience about someone or something else.

Some themes included the destruction of the old and creating of something new, represented by the Lisbon earthquake and the 18th century gentleman. This also simultaneously explores the idea of the process of creation for the artist. The Shopper/Mother, my character, represented the general consumer’s demand and need to buy. The character of the Gallo, who was ever changing in form, represented the artist or creator’s struggle to stay relevant.

If you could give 18-year-old Alaina one piece of advice, what would it be?

Learn to play the piano!

What is your favorite breakfast food?

I love everything breakfast. It’s my favorite meal of the day! Pancakes are especially my favorite!

What is one thing that you hope to accomplish in 2015?

My main goal was that I wanted to teach more – teach voice lessons, and I’m doing that now, so I feel good about it.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

Right now I’m focusing on Guerilla Opera’s 2015-2016 season, which is our 9th! We’re premiering two more new operas by incredible composers and we’re talking to some awesome directors. I can’t wait to announce what we have coming!

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

Guerilla Opera is in its closing weekend of Pedr Solis by Per Bloland with stage direction by Laine Rettmer. Tickets are still available and they can visit us online for more information at www.guerillaopera.com.

2014 Best Director of a Play: Michelle Aguillon for Hovey Players' "Rabbit Hole"

Although we have announced our 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Winners, we continue our Nominee Interview Series.

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.

Michelle Aguillon directed a strikingly moving and simple production of Rabbit Hole, a Tony Award winning play about loss, grief, family, and moving on.  The play resonated with audiences because of her careful direction, expert character work, and subtle directorial decisions in both the acting and design.  In her Interview, Michelle discusses her theatrical background, her love for food, and her favorite moments in Rabbit Hole

Michelle, wonderful to speak with you.  Can you introduce yourself to our readers?  Can you tell us a little bit about who you are, where you are from, and what brings you to Boston? 

MichelleAguillon

Hello, Brian, and thanks so much for Hovey’s nominations and recent wins for Rabbit Hole. We had such a great time at the ArtsImpulse Awards evening.  And thank you for these interviews. I have really enjoyed reading them.

I have been involved in theatre in the Boston area for 20 years.  I’m a transplant from California, where I discovered theatre in high school.  I followed some friends one day who were auditioning for the high school musical.  I dared myself to do something outrageous, having been a very shy kid, and I auditioned. I was cast in a major role, and I was hooked. After continuing theatre in community college, I was accepted into San Francisco State University’s Communications Program, but it didn’t take long to switch my major to Theatre.  After my summer studies at the National Theatre in London in 1992, my daughter’s father was accepted at the A.R.T. and so, we moved here in 1993. I discovered that the area was rich with a very enthusiastic theatre community. I had found my theatre home.

What is your performing and directing background?  What have been some of your favorite projects?

I performed for many years, never once thinking I should direct. I was an actor, focusing on gaining as much experience as I could, trying to evolve and learn as much as I could.  Being an actor of color had its advantages, but mostly disadvantages, especially in this area, but I loved that challenge.  I am so grateful to those directors that saw past my “type.” I auditioned for a variety of roles, regardless of the character’s ethnicity.  I felt fortunate to work both in town and in community theaters.  But. in time, I grew weary of myself, and I admit that I really started to get sick of myself on stage. I know that’s harsh, but it’s true. 

In 2003, a friend of mine, Leigh Berry, encouraged me to direct a Vietnam drama, G.R. Point. I had submitted it for Hovey’s season, and I found a new place for myself.  I just loved it.  The IRNE committee awarded the production for Best Supporting Actor, Best Ensemble, and Best Director. I was honored -- I was content enough with the experience and I was happy that the production was received well by our audiences, but wow! I was completely surprised our wins.  That experience has stayed with me since, and I’ve rarely been back on stage. 

As far as favorite projects, I have loved so many, each with their unique experiences. I had the good fortune of collaborating with so many different groups of actors, designers, and crew, I don’t have a favorite.  Besides Rabbit Hole and G.R. Point, I also loved working on Looking for Normal, Kimberly Akimbo, Miss Saigon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sense and Sensibility, God of Carnage, Good People, and, most recently, Of Mice and Men. I would love a do-over with Looking for Normal.  It seemed audiences at the time weren’t ready for a play about a long-time married man becoming transgendered, and how it deeply affects his wife, family, and community. 

What drew you to directing Rabbit Hole?  Had you seen the play before?  Had you watched the movie?

I was looking for a great script to submit for Hovey’s 2007-2008 season. I had already worked on David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers.  Because I loved his writing, I looked at the rest of his body of work.  Rabbit Hole had just been on Broadway, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its description seemed so different that the rest of his work.  I discovered that the play’s dialogue and characters were far more realistic than anything else I had read from Lindsay-Abaire.  I plowed through that script so quickly. I could hear it and see it. The characters and relationships were so rich. Needless to say, I submitted it.

The Board loved it too, and it was selected. But the rights were pulled because Nicole Kidman bought the rights to make the film.  I was so disappointed. I was so ready to direct it. Instead, I submitted Kimberly Akimbo, and I loved working on that.

In 2008, I moved to L.A.  I saw the film out there.  I liked a lot of it, but I missed a lot of what was cut.  I longed to direct it on stage someday. 

How do you feel that your production was different or unique?  What did you want to focus as a director?

I had never seen it on stage, so I didn’t try to be unique or different. I only knew what I envisioned. When I moved back to Boston in 2013, I submitted it again to Hovey for its next season, knowing the play had been produced many times in the area already.  I was really itching to direct it, to “get it out of my system.”  I hadn’t directed a major stage production since I left Boston, and I found that the downtime gave me time to reset as an artist.

In rehearsals, I focused on the relationships, on how they were trying to move on despite the tragedy. We worked hard to get the dialogue to sound as conversational as possible. I didn’t want to focus on the tragedy itself, instead almost ignoring it, so that when it did present itself there would be a natural and sudden shift to make it disappear again. I felt the play represented a phase of the Corbett’s daily lives, not the end of them because of the tragedy. I wanted the ending of the play to be ambiguous – leaving the audiences to feel that there was hope, but also that perhaps Becca and Howie may not make it. My biggest goal was to have the audiences relate to any of the characters at any given moment. Lindsay-Abaire’s script is brilliant that way.

Talk to us about the rehearsal process.  What were the biggest challenges?  What were some of your discoveries?

The biggest challenge was getting the set design right in Hovey’s intimate space.  It was important to me that the environment wasn’t only functional, but that it was also an extension of Becca and a reflection of her inner life. Having a limited budget and resources is always a challenge, but I’m proud with what we came up with.  The set reflected the Corbett’s daily lives, like nothing was wrong. Most of the set had colors of the desert to reflect Becca’s desolation & loneliness, splashed with bits of color from Danny’s things, his toys & books. Being so intimately involved with these people, I wanted to include subtle set dressing that wasn’t obvious to the audience, but was symbolic of Becca. I discovered that I really enjoyed being part of that side of the production. 

Because none of the actors knew each other, my first goal was to get us as comfortable with each other as quickly as possible.  We didn’t do a lot of table work. I wanted to work through their back-stories on their feet.  I wanted memorization out of the way as quickly as possible, too, in order to build the relationships and tweak them all along the way. Thank goodness, the cast was on the same page. We bonded very quickly, laughed a lot, and we have been close since.

What stories are you drawn to as a director?  As an audience member?

I like stories with characters to whom I can relate, but I also love being introduced to foreign yet relatable experiences.  I enjoy having common experiences with audiences, finding great joy laughing together, and I enjoy the opposite extreme of experiencing sadness together.  It makes me feel more alive, less alone. Theatre makes me very emotional. I cry over the smallest things.  I recently saw On the Town on Broadway; I wept over a dance number!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Spare time?  What’s that?

What is your favorite dessert?  Homemade or store-bought?

I guess this answers the previous question because I’m a huge foodie. My family loves to cook, and we will try anything. After fulfilling a lifelong dream to go to cooking school, I worked in restaurants and for large events, and I catered. I am also a private chef. 

Picking a favorite dessert is just too hard. There are so many! I go through phases.  I have always been into ice cream, and sometimes I make my own.  My favorite to make is buttered popcorn ice cream with a salted caramel sauce and chopped peanuts – a play on caramel popcorn, which I loved as a kid. I have been into gourmet donuts for a couple of years, too, and I have sometimes made my own.  I also love crème brulee and crème caramel.

What advice would you give to other directors?  What about to actors?

I feel that I still have so much that I want to learn, how can I offer advice?  I only offer advice to directors if asked; it is the same for actors. 

For actors, I would say to keep an open mind and an open heart, not only to the work, but to your director, your fellow actors, your crew - don’t shut anyone out.  It’s a collaborative art.  Always be open to learning more.  Practice your craft even in the smallest of ways.

For auditions, be as prepared as possible.  It’s competitive, right?  You want to stick out! So, be as educated as you can with the play, its characters, dialogue & relationships.  I always look for context in auditions, a through-line. Go into your audition with nothing to lose, confident in your research and in the practice of the dialogue. Serve the play, not yourself.  If you don’t get the part, come away from it being as content as possible that you did your best despite what the director and/or casting committee may be thinking.  Hopefully, you’re on the same page. An audition is an opportunity to evolve and learn, if nothing else. And if you’re cast, that’s the icing on the cake.

But hey, there are some brilliant actors out there that don’t need to do any of that!  Maybe I’m projecting, or talking to my younger self!

What was your favorite moment in Rabbit Hole?  What are some other favorite moments in other plays that you’ve directed?  

Wow, this is a tough one.  I loved so many. The one that comes to mind at the moment is Act One, Scene 3, celebrating Izzy’s birthday. The scene takes an ugly turn and somehow becomes an intervention for Becca.  For all that has happened, she has barely kept it together choosing to grieve in her own way, which the rest of the family seems to misunderstand.  Nat, Becca’s mother, tries to pry her open. Nat feels that she identifies with Becca, having lost a son herself.  At this point, Becca feels cornered, and she unleashes her anger and pain, but quickly recoils, trying to take it back.  Instead, she excuses herself from the situation and leaves.

Katie handled this beautifully; we worked together to ensure that Becca had a lot of restraint, keeping her in a place of neutrality. When this moment came, she had built up a damn of emotions. Becca is not mean, but hurt from being so misunderstood by her family. The cast was great in helping to build up the tension leading to that moment.

What is the best production that you saw in 2014?

Next to Normal directed by my friend, Donnie Baillargeon, for Vokes Theater in Wayland.

What makes you laugh? 

I laugh at a lot of things, but a dark, almost sick, sense of humor, or pure goofiness makes me laugh. When actors enjoy a great moment on stage together, that can make me laugh.  Bill Murray makes me laugh; he can just sit there, do nothing and I just laugh.  I love impersonations, too, either of famous people or people I know personally! And no, I don’t do impersonations.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

I will be directing True West by Sam Sheppard for the Umbrella in Concord this summer.  It opens in late September.  I will also direct Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn in the Spring of 2016 for Vokes Players in Wayland.

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

Thank you, Brian, for your continued support of professional and community theatre! I hope that your readership continues to grow.  It’s great to hear another perspective/voice in our community. 

I would encourage readers to continue to support theatre, and the arts in general, as it is an integral part of our society and culture.  Theatre gives us the opportunity to explore & understand different worlds, different voices, and to see how the “other half lives.”

2014 Best Student Actor: Zach Jones as Chip in The Boston Conservatory's "On the Town"

Although we have announced our 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Winners, we continue our Nominee Interview Series. 

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.

Few performers "wow'd" us in 2014 like Zach Jones.  A rising senior at The Boston Conservatory, Zach has the triple threat with a side punch of a charming smile; a kick of an abundance of energy; and the love, respect, and work ethic to tackle any project.  His Chip in The Boston Conservatory's On the Town was a standout in a production that exceeded expectations, dancing, singing, and smiling into our hearts.  In his Interview, Zach explains conservatory life, his strong relationships with his co-stars in On the Town, and some of his guilty pleasures.

Photo by Julia Gannon

Photo by Julia Gannon

Hi, Zach, can you introduce yourself to our ArtsImpulse readers?  Who are you, where are you from, what is your performing background? 

Hello!  My name is Zach Jones and I am a rising senior at The Boston Conservatory!  Huzzah!  I hail from the west suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, where I grew up with my mother, Robyn, and two brothers, Austin and Sean.  My performance career began when I was five years old shortly after my older sister, Felicia, passed away.  Felicia was an all-star big sister and all-around wonderful young person.  She took piano lessons, played softball, danced at the park district, was a total bookworm, and really took care of my brothers and me in our early years of life. 

When she was 10 years old, she passed away from an acute pancreatitis.  At the annual dance recital that year, friends and families brought flowers, expressed their sentiments to my mother, and asked if “the boys” were going to start dancing.  Before she could say, “No…”, my brothers and I jumped and screamed, “Yes!”, and from that summer on, we were hooked.  After 13 years of dance (10 years being a part of the Aspire Dance Company), 9 years of choir, 7 years of theater, and 18 years of my life, I had no idea what the future would hold.  Or what I even wanted to do for the rest of my life.  For as much time as I dedicated to the performing arts, I had never considered pursuing dance, or theater professionally.  Then again, I had yet to really think about any career.  But I remember something one of my high school teachers told me.  She said to do something that filled me with passion.  To work hard at everything I do, but build my life on something I enjoy.  When I could not picture my life without performing, I knew I had made my decision to become an artist.  But I didn’t just want to dance.  I wanted to expand my person and abilities to be able to work and express myself in all the ways I love to.  After not being able to schedule an audition because they were all full, getting an audition at the last minute because someone cancelled, having a wonderful audition experience, and, two months later, I was accepted to The Boston Conservatory!  Huzzah, once more! 

And since then I’ve been a part of numerous Mainstage productions at the conservatory (On The Town, The Pajama Game, Oklahoma!, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar); senior director projects (The Wild Party, Peter Pan, Urinetown); and outreach/fundraising performances, such as Disney’s On The Record, Post Secret Cabaret, Miscast Cabaret, and our annual drag show!  I have had nothing but wonderful experiences at BoCo.  I have learned so much already and look forward to the school year to come!

How does The Boston Conservatory prepare you to play roles in new and old musicals and plays?  What is the training program like? 

The conservatory prepares you to do practically anything.  Seriously.  Our teachers provide us with solid acting, vocal, and dance technique to safely, intellectually, and artistically explore the widest range of material.  We study the history of theater, history of musical theater, Shakespeare, and modern drama to expand our vocabulary and expose us to an unlimited number of styles.  In addition to studying IPA and dialects, we work on a bunch of texts, monologues, and speeches ranging from Greek to Shakespeare and beyond. 

The most important thing we learn is who we are as artists and people.  The conservatory helps each student to develop a personal aesthetic.  Our program is about digging deep into yourself, finding the human you are, artist you aspire to be, and cultivating that. We are not a “cookie-cutter” program. We are individuals striving for personal excellence. It is through strong technique and personal exploration that we are able to breath new life into classical characters.

Walk us through a typical day for you.  Where do you go?  What do you do in Boston? 

The typical day entails waking up, falling asleep, and a heck of a lot of in between. Some days, class starts as early as 8am and finishes around 7pm.  From 7:30pm to 11pm, I am usually in rehearsals for a show or school project.  After that, I’ll meet with scene partners, hit a practice room, or head home, Rice Bowl in hand, slap on some Netflix, and pass out.  Attending the conservatory is highly demanding, exhausting, and hard work.  But it is all worth it to do what I love, with people I love, in a city I love, every day.

Who was your character in On the Town?  What is his story?  How did you make the role your own? 

I played John Offenblock, but the fellas called me Chip!  Chip is a rather kooky guy.  A U.S. sailor from Peoria, he’s a family man through and through, with the biggest heart in the world.  He is dedicated to his family, friends, and country, but, most of all, his guidebook.  His father was in New York in 1934 and brought back a guidebook for Chip full of all the restaurants, buildings, and parks there.  Chip became fascinated and infatuated with the city, hoping one day, if only for a moment, he could see its beauty in the flesh.  So how fortunate for him when their unit docks in NYC and he has 24 hours on shore to see all the famous sights! 

Chip schedules the entire day around visiting everything in the guidebook, an ambitious, nearly impossible task.  When Gabey wants to meet the gorgeous, one and only Miss Turnstiles, Ozzie convinces Chip to put his plans on hold and go find her.  After the three split up, Chip stumbles upon, or is stumbled upon by Hildy, a wild, sexy, NYC taxi driver.  She shows him the town in ways that no guidebook ever could, and not just because the guidebook is incredibly out of date.  She teaches him to let go and realize life isn’t about the places you see, but the people you see them with.  And sex.  Lots of passionate sex. 

One of my favorite parts of discovering Chip was creating the guidebook.  I researched all of the places that he mentions in the text and filled the book with information, pictures, and quirky facts.  Using a prop I worked so hard on dropped me right into the period of the show and the organized nature of Chip. 

Another component to making Chip my own was working so closely with Michelle Chassé, my director and choreographer.  Michelle is a fantastic leader and collaborator.  In choreographing On The Town, she allowed so much room for discovery, play, and personality.  The story and relationships were constantly evolving, and having that space to work was tremendously helpful.

Tell us about your relationship with Ozzie and Gabey, and the actors playing them.  How about with Hildy, played by 2014 ArtsImpulse Award Nominee for Best Student Actor Mimi Scardulla? 

Ozzie and Gabey are Chip’s two best friends.  He looks up to the both of them a great deal.  Ozzie’s confidence is something Chip looks for in himself, and Gabey’s strength and heart remind him so much of home.  Gabey saved Ozzie and Chip’s lives and that really unites the three of them as brothers.  From that moment on they would do anything for each other.  Which is so much of what Jordan Ford (Gabey), Cameron Herbst (Ozzie), and I found working together. 

Before every show, the three of us would go into a studio in our sailor under garments, play music from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and give ourselves a little bootcamp.  Pushups, crunches, planks… the whole shebang.  Jordan and Cam are bigger guys, so I would try to keep up, much like Chip would.  The dynamic between the three of us was so much like the three of the sailors that performing with them was an absolute pleasure each and every night. 

Photo by Eric Antoniou

Photo by Eric Antoniou

The exact same with MiMi Scardulla (Hildy)!  Chip and Hildy were instantly attracted to each other.  She is dangerous, wild, and not afraid to get what she wants.  Hildy makes Chip spontaneous and impulsive, and he tames her, not a lot, but enough to really share genuine moments of care and love.  The two complement each other very well.  MiMi was such a dream to work with.  Having just come off of Cloud 9 together, MiMi and I knew each other very well and clicked instantaneously.  She is such a wonderful, loving person and generous partner that working with her was easy as pie.  MiMi is bold and unafraid to take risks, which opened me up to new choices, as well!  Hildy would write Chip cute little love letters for each show, wishing him "safe travels" and telling him how much she loved and missed him and leave them in my dressing room.  Any guy would be lucky to have MiMi Scardulla as a partner, and I hope I get to work with her again in the future!

What are some of the roles on your bucket list?  What about some roles that you’d never play, but you’d want to nonetheless? 

Jack from Into The Woods, Bobby Strong in Urinetown, Jimmy Harper in Reefer Madness, and Bobby in Company.  I would also love to be Velma Kelly.  I’ll leave that on the bucket list.

What do you consider to be your performing strength?  Performing weakness?

From the moment I step on stage, I am the happiest man alive.  There is nothing I’d rather be doing than living and breathing song and dance, and connecting with an audience.  I find my joy and love for what I do to be my biggest strength. 

My weakness would definitely be self-judgment.  I love to perform, but I too often worry what others think.  In the worst instances, my fear inhibits my work and sucks the joy out of it for me.  Learning to let go of fear is something I continue to work on.

What are some of your guilty pleasures? 

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.  Lost.  Long showers.  Dominos pizza.  Mango margaritas.  Always.

What are some of your goals for 2015?  What are some of your career goals? 

I look forward to soaking up every bit of my senior year.  I want to grow as much as I can in the final stretch before I graduate.  My ultimate goal is to provide young, aspiring artists opportunities to pursue their dreams.  My mother has worked so many jobs and sacrificed so much to provide for my brothers and me, and I hope my success will allow me to alleviate that stress for similar families.  The arts have played such an important part in my life and the lives of many, and I want to be there for the ones who need it.  I want to help people find their happiness the way that so many have helped me.

What is one movie, play, musical, or story that has left a lasting impression on you?  Why? 

My friends are totally going to make fun of me for this, but the ABC television series Lost is everything.  I’ve seen it a bunch of times.  The show is about a plane crash on a mysterious island and much more generally about journey, redemption, and letting go. It’s a universal story of personal struggle, self-discovery, and love.  The thing that resonated most on my first watch was the characters.  All people hurt.  All people are learning.  And you never know the kind of life that a person has lived.  It inspired me to strengthen the way that I treat and relate to people.  To always be kind, curious, and eager for life.  Plus, it has the best quotes!  “All we really need to survive is one person who truly loves us.”  I mean, come on!  “If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.” *cue tears running down my face.*  I highly recommend.

If I stole your iPod right now, what would be the “most listened to” song?  What would be the “last listened to” song? 

Ha!  My most listened to song would probably be Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk.”  I listen to it every time I travel.  The one time I didn’t, it started playing in the airport!  Don’t know why, it’s just one of those songs.  J 

And the last listened to song is “Belief” by Gavin DeGraw.  No fun story, I just like the song.

Photo by Eric Antoniou

Photo by Eric Antoniou

How would your best friend describe your personality?  How would your mom describe your personality? 

Oh, boy.  In three words or less:  Friendly, Goofy, and Big.  My mom would call me a Diva, and leave it at that!  But, actually, she would probably describe me as reliable, mature, and loving.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions? 

This summer I will be working in St. Louis at The Muny in Hairspray running from June 23rd-June 30th, and Beauty and the Beast playing July 27th through August 7th!  Then, I am back in Boston welcoming the incoming class of BoCo students as an Orientation Leader and preparing for senior year.  After that, we shall see!  J

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

On The Town was a dream, playing Chip an absolute joy, and both will live in my heart forever.  I thank you so much for this nomination, your time, and “We’ll catch up some other time!”

2014 Best Supporting Actor in a Musical or Opera Nominee Interview: Sam Simahk as Rapunzel's Prince in The Lyric Stage Company's "Into the Woods"

Although we have announced our 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Winners, we continue our Nominee Interview Series. 

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.

Sam Simahk brought his charming energy to a spellbinding production of Into the Woods at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston.  His Rapunzel's Prince easily lived up to his princely duties, especially his "Agony" and "Agony [Reprise]" of one-upmanship between Rapunzel's Prince and Cinderella's Prince. In his Interview, Sam dazzles us with his personality (he's also charming in real life!), including telling us about his favorite Disney prince (he wish he would quit monkeying around), dishing about his favorite karaoke songs, and reminding us why we should smile. Sam, you made us smile, onstage and offstage!

Photo by Billy Bustamante of BillyBPhotography

Photo by Billy Bustamante of BillyBPhotography

Hi, Sam, it is a pleasure to interview you for ArtsImpulse.  Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?  Who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?

Thanks so much; it's a pleasure to be interviewed!  I'm from Ashburnham, MA, a small town in northern central MA.  I'm an actor/waiter/bartender that currently lives in NYC, but, luckily, I've been doing a lot more acting work than food service as of late.

What is some of your performing background and training? 

I started acting as a kid.  I did every school show I could, and I performed at the local community theatre, Theatre at the Mount, in Gardner, MA.  After high school, I went to Emerson College in Boston and graduated with a BFA in Musical Theatre (five years ago today . . . starting to feel old).

Tell us more about Rapunzel’s Prince.  How did you choose to portray him?  What was most fun about playing him? 

I loved playing this character.  I think he's a funny guy--he's a prince, but he'll never be king; that's his brother's role.  So, he's got this Prince Harry thing going on.  But more importantly than his nobility, he's a little brother.  And, as a little brother, he's constantly trying to measure up to Cinderella's Prince.  So I tried to make that evident without hitting the audience over the head with it; most of us have siblings and can identify with the inherent rivalry that comes with growing up together.

Had you seen the Into the Woods movie?  What was different from The Lyric’s production? 

I actually have not seen the movie yet!  I'm so bad about seeing things in theaters, and usually just wait until I can watch them at home, where pants are not a necessity.

If you could be any Disney prince, who would you be and why? 

I don't know about the princes, but I always wanted to be King Louis in The Jungle Book; he gets to sit up in the treetops, eating bananas, and dancing like a goof.  That's way more fun than rescuing damsels from dragon-witches (and the stakes are a lot lower).  Plus, the princes always seem a little creepy to me--something about romantically kissing sleeping acquaintances rubs me the wrong way.

What is the best compliment that anyone has ever given you about your performing?  About you as a person?

Honestly, it's always the little things that are the most flattering.  And it's always from the scene partners.  I'd take a million bad reviews if I can have one scene partner say: "[T]hat was a great scene tonight," as we leave the stage.  

Likewise, I think the best compliments I could possibly have are personified in my friends.  I'm just lucky that such cool, fun, kind, hilarious people end up letting me hang out with them, even when I get up on a soapbox about something that doesn't matter, or choose to dwell in melancholia once in a while.

If you could turn back time, where would you go?  What would you do? 

This is always a tough question, partially because prior to the 1960s a half-Asian person would be considered an abomination by a lot of people.  If that weren't an issue, I'd probably want to go to a time when the world had yet to be discovered and I could travel around, seeing sights that nobody in recorded history had ever seen before. 

And maybe some medieval setting, where I could ride around on a horse and dispense vigilante justice.  But I think that's mainly because I'm really into Game of Thrones right now.

What are some of your favorite karaoke songs?  Where do you like to perform them? 

"I Believe I Can Fly" is usually a crowd favorite. "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," complete with lascivious double-entendre, is also a lot of fun. "Ballroom Blitz," by the Sweet, is the wild card, "I've had way too much caffeine" choice. I don't do karaoke all that often, but I definitely have my favorites picked out, and I will do them anywhere near a karaoke mic.  

MISCAST! What roles would you love to play but you, sadly, cannot for whatever reason (age, gender, race, voice type, etc.)? 

The Baker's Wife in Into the Woods is a miscast dream role.  "Moments in the Woods" is such a great song, and it'd be great to do it in the context of the show.  Jim Conley in Parade is also such a great character, or anybody in that show.  I may be a little ethnically-ambiguous to play a post-Civil War good ol' boy, though.

What makes you smile?

When something goes wrong onstage and you make eye contact with one person.  And in that instant, the two of you say (completely non-verbally), "[T]hat wasn't supposed to happen, and you know that, and maybe they don't know that, but they probably do.  Either way, this is funny, and now we've gotta figure out how to make it work."  It's all in a quick glance, and even if I'm not smiling externally, I'm beaming underneath.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions? 

I'll be returning to Boston late this summer, but I'm not sure if I'm allowed to disclose any more information than that as of yet.

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

I'd just like to thank everybody for the honor of being recognized for doing what I love.  When I was a kid, this was just something I did for fun.  As I've gotten older, it's become something that I do for a career, and, sometimes, it's a lot more work than I'd like for it to be.  But when I'm up on stage, I'm right back to being that little kid, and I'm just glad that people allow me to keep on doing it.  So, thanks for watching, reading, and enabling me to stave off adulthood, one day at a time.  Cheers!

2014 Best New Work: Argos Production's "The Haberdasher! A Tale of Derring-Do" by Walt McGough

Although we have announced our 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Winners, we continue our Nominee Interview Series. 

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.

Walt McGough is a playwright to see.  Not only does he fill his plays with the enjoyable tropes of your favorite movies, TV shows, and stories, but he includes clever subtle and overt commentary and reflections on our modern society in each of his plays.  His The Haberdasher! A Tale of Derring-Do was a feast for the mind and eyes.  In his Interview, Walt explains The Haberdasher! and the new play collaborative structure, the best praise that he ever received for his work, and some of his upcoming projects.

Photo by Jonathan L. Green

Photo by Jonathan L. Green

Walt, thank you so much for joining us.  Let’s hear more about who you are, and what brings you to Boston stages.

I’m a playwright, originally from Pittsburgh, PA. I lived in Chicago for a few years, working and starting a company, and then came to Boston to get my MFA at BU. Shortly after that, I started working on staff at SpeakEasy Stage Company, which I’m still doing, and I just kind of fell in love with the city and the theatre here, so the rest is history.

Talk to us about the inspiration for The Haberdasher!  When did you start writing the play?  How did you get the idea?  What other stories inspired you?

The Haberdasher! started off with me wanting to write a big, fun, high-romance adventure, akin to Princess Bride, Three Musketeers and other stuff in that vein. At the same time, I wanted to write a small, scrappy-feeling piece where a small group of actors played a huge cast of characters, which would really let a production team and cast have a lot of fun (the audience, as well).

How would you describe the play?  Give me a sales pitch like you’re marketing for a spot on a prime-time TV network.

It’s a swashbuckling farce about a young French girl who gets embroiled in a ridiculous plot involving a Duke, a burglar, and stolen locket. It wouldn’t make good TV because part of the fun is its theatrical structure: it’s four actors playing about 14 different characters, and features moments like the final battle, in which the characters all start to intersect and actors are having swordfights with themselves.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to writing?  To seeing?  What kinds of stories have no interest for you?

I’m drawn to stories that have familiar structures and styles, but a central viewpoint/dynamic that’s new and surprising. Often, I get there by telling genre stories with female or minority protagonists, and cast a new light on their tropes. I’m very interested in creating narratives that haven’t been told on stage before, and the sad truth is that often the simplest way to accomplish that is to put a woman at the center of the story and honor her perspective.

As an audience member, I love seeing anything that has had a lot of attention and care put into it, has something to say, and takes its audience into account as a part of the experience.

If you could follow around anyone in the world for a day, who would it be?  What would you want them to do?

Do they know that I’m following them? That seems creepy. I guess an astronaut would be pretty fun, but only if there was an extra spacesuit.

What is the best thing that anyone has ever said about your writing?  What is the worst?

Last year, I did a play called Pattern of Life with New Rep about drone warfare. This past fall, we had the chance to perform a section of it at a Boston College conference on drone warfare, and a number of the audience members were current and former drone pilots. A group of them came up to the actors and I after the performance and told us that we had honestly reflected their experiences. That felt pretty great.

I’ve also been pretty lucky in that I’ve very rarely had someone be overly negative about something I wrote, so nothing really bad or juicy springs to mind.

How did The Haberdasher! change during production?  Why?

Before rehearsals, the director, Brett Marks and I, had a lot of meetings just talking about the structure of the play and different opportunities within it. It’s a farce, so a significant amount of it just comes down to the mathematics of building the machine and letting it run. Those conversations yielded some new or rejiggered scenes, as did a pre-rehearsals workshop that we did before auditions. Once we had a cast locked in and rehearsals started, there were lots of little changes throughout, mostly focused on clarifying intentions or helping the logistics of having four actors playing so many characters at one time (costume changes, fight choreography, etc.). Fortunately, all of the actors, the designers and Brett were ridiculously game to try whatever crazy stuff that I’d written into the play. Especial shout-out to Fight Director Angie Jepson, who took a bunch of vague, absurd stage directions and crafted them into whole symphonies of physical comedy.

With what kinds of theatre companies do you choose to collaborate?  What advice would you give to companies looking to engage talented playwrights?  What advice would you give to the playwrights?

I love working with any group of artists that tries to do their best work on each new project. I’m drawn to anyone that collaborates well and brings their own ideas to the table since I’m a big talker and relish the chance to dig into things around the table.

I’d say that any company working with a playwright on a new script should be sure to be as open, honest and collaborative as possible about their intentions. Don’t commit to producing a script on the assumption that it’ll change, and make sure that you love it for the same reasons that the writer does.

For a playwright, I’d say the same thing in reverse: make sure to only work with collaborators who are genuinely excited about the script, and want to help you make it more of what it is and what you want it to be. Also, join the Dramatists Guild and know your rights as a writer.

What do you eat for breakfast?  What is your morning routine?

I’m a big proponent of cereal.  I know that’s going to be a bit controversial, but deal with it, America. My morning routine is generally focused on trying to find the perfect balance between time required to get to work and time spent sleeping in.

What is one thing that you would like to change about the Greater Boston theatre scene in the next year?  What is one thing that you would like to stay the same?

More space, more space, more space. Rehearsal rooms, black boxes, the basements of bars. We need space in order to keep developing as a community, so that young companies can establish home bases in which to grow their audiences and themselves. The thing that I never want to change is how excited, passionate and supportive this whole community is, at every level.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

My play Chalk, which was produced by Fresh Ink last January, goes up into previews in Chicago at the end of this week. It’s been amazing getting to see the same script as part of two completely different processes. After that, I’m working on a Theatre for Young Audiences play called Advice for Astronauts with the Milken School in LA, and writing a few new projects that are still looking for homes.

Do you have anything else to share with our readers?

Only an acknowledgment that nothing about The Haberdasher! would have happened without the amazing cast, crew, and staff at Argos Productions. Brendan Mulhern, Hannah Husband, Kaitee Tredway, Mark Estano and Erin Eva Butcher all poured their hearts, souls and bodies into this completely ridiculous project, and Brett marshaled a true all-star team of designers to make it happen. It was a distinct honor and privilege to have so much love put into something so wacky, and I’m super indebted to all of them.

2014 Best Set Designer Nominee Interview: Ghazal Hassani for Boston University's "columbinus"

Photo by Shaghayegh HZ

Photo by Shaghayegh HZ

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.

Ghazal Hassani boasts an incredible raw talent and hard work ethic as a scenic designer, excelling in her work as an MFA candidate at Boston University. In her first production, Ghazal reinforced the isolation and haunting reality of Columbine and its aftermath in her set design for columbinus. In her Interview, Ghazal tells about her experiences moving to the United States for graduate school, her research to prepare for columbinus, and some of her guilty pleasures.

Hi, Ghazal, thank you so much for interviewing with us.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m an international MFA candidate for Set Design at Boston University, originally from Iran, and this is my second year here in the United States. I’m actually new to theatre; columbinus was the first ever show that I designed. I have a BA in Russian Literature and a minor in Interior Design. I started a very long journey that ended up here and I couldn’t be happier; I think this is it, theatre is my new home.

What is the play columbinus?  How did you get involved in the BU CFA’s production?

Well, imagine this: You just got here to a foreign country, English is your third language, you barely know what proscenium arch is and they ask you to design a show on the Main Stage. I was so scared, I asked them “But aren’t you going to teach me how first?” They said “No! You’ll probably die doing it but you’ll learn!” And that’s how it started.

I was so lucky to be part of a very caring and passionate team, the amount of love and generosity was unbelievable. Special thanks to design and production team; they were with me every step of the way and I learned a lot from them. We were in rehearsals every night, the collaboration between design team and director and actors was one of the most special aspects of this production and I believe it shows perfectly.

columbinus is talking about a lot of issues. It brings the attention to the gaps in different social systems, and it targets all the relations, starting from the smallest groups, between high school kids, the parents, the teachers. . . . And it goes up to show the same disconnection among bigger parts of community, like the educational system, judiciary system, etc.  It’s brave in showing us all sides, not judging.

What are your memories of the Columbine shooting?  What research did you do to prepare your set design?

I was back in Iran when the Columbine shooting happened. I’ve heard it in news but I actually have more vivid memories of Virginia Tech shooting. I had to learn a lot before I start designing for this show. I researched in detail about the shooting itself and anyone involved, along with the history of mass shootings in the US, Columbine High School, gun laws, psychology, high school life in US, and anything else related to story of the play. Then I had to start research for the design aspect, buildings in Colorado, architecture, corporate and commercial buildings, educational buildings, construction and different types of concrete and many, many more. The list is endless but it was so important to know all of this. 

Talk to us about your process as a set designer.  How do you begin?  What steps are involved?  Who else is involved in this process?

I begin with research; I have to learn as much as I can about details of what makes the story, and the playwright him/herself. After I feel that I have a good grasp of what is going on in the story and why, then I can start thinking about the space. I usually find it very helpful to look for something that resembles the story for me, it could be a work of art or a photo or a piece of music. Then, I study the similarities to realize what are the features that are standing up for me. Most of the times the director is the first one with whom I talk. The first conversations with the director and design team are my favorite part of the process. It’s just so rich and helpful.

Photo by Ghazal Hassani

Photo by Ghazal Hassani

Describe your set for us.  What themes or ideas did you try to reinforce in the physical set and its presence?  How did this support other technical elements for this production?

After reading the play, I immediately knew that I was not going to design a typical high school; it needed to be more of a general yet commercial architecture since I believed the story is more than just high school, it talks about different systems in society. You could feel the coldness and the isolation, as if the building was frozen at early stages of an explosion, there were gaps in between all the walls and the ceiling. But my favorite part was the explosion vortex itself which was hidden until act III. The audience gasped every night as we started lighting it while actors were walking through the aisles to get on stage. That explosion was the open wound that’s still bleeding today. It was ugly and unsettling and the power was to sit and have it open in front of you as the story was moving on.

Have you designed other sets?  Have you designed other technical elements for other productions?

This year, I designed the set for BU production of W;t by Margaret Edson which was staged at The Roberts Studio, Boston Center for the Arts; and The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca, and a new play, The Tall Girls by Meg Miroshnik, both at the CFA of Boston University. I also designed the costumes for both last shows. I also assisted in our production of Angels in America, a collaboration between School of Theartre and The Opera Institute. I did props for The Adding Machine, another production on our Main Stage at BU.

Of what are you most proud from your stage work?  How about in your personal life?

Although I deeply love all the shows that I worked on, columbinus has a very special place in my heart.

In my personal life, the fact that I’m here, following my dream, is my biggest achievement in life. I didn’t grow up in an easy environment; life is hard in my country, especially for women. There’s nearly no room to grow, hope considers to be a dangerous illusion, freedom is a myth and dreams are luxuries that no one can afford. But I just couldn’t settle down, I had a dream and I worked my way through all the adversities to get here, with no money, no connections, and no one to show me the way. I’m not gonna hide, I’m pretty proud of it!

What do you like to do on a rainy day?

I really prefer to stay inside on a rainy day, have a nice cup of tea with sweet treats, read or watch movies. Just lying in bed would do perfectly as well, considering sleep is such a luxury in grad school.

What is your guilty pleasure?  Do you have any bad habits?

Oh, I have lots of them, and carbohydrates are the main ingredient in all of them! I don’t know if having sugar cones filled with peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, and Nutella for breakfast considers a bad habit or not! 

What is different about designing or working under a university rather than an independent theatre?  What is similar?

Well, I can’t really answer that question since I’ve only worked inside university.  I assisted some of my teachers and friends in shows last summer, but I have not design by myself. But I can say our program at BU is very vigorous and by that I mean very hard core. The goal is to make us ahead of the game and ready to work in all diverse types of theatre industry.

Do you have any idols or mentors?  Why?

Yes, there are a lot of people mostly artists, poets, writers, journalists, and social workers that are a symbol of resilience for me. Ahmad Shamloo, Samad Behrangi, Iran Darroudi, Zaha Hadid, Oriana Fallaci… are just a few to name. Looking up to them, I learned how to fight for my beliefs. But my mentor here is my professor, James Noone. He is the head of Scenic Department in our school, and it’s a privilege to have him as my advisor; he taught me how to design for theatre from scratch. 

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

It’s hard to plan for future when you are an international student on an F1 visa. I take life as it comes, which is thrilling and nerve-racking at the same time. I might have some projects for this summer, and I know I’m designing some shows in our next season of BU.   

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

Thank you for having me and many thanks to ArtsImpulse for acknowledging the university productions of different shows. 

2014 Best Music Director Nominee Interview: Matthew Stern for Wheelock Family Theatre's "Hairspray"

Photo by Fresh Focus Photography

Photo by Fresh Focus Photography

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.

Matthew Stern is known throughout the Greater Boston area for his crisp and educated music direction, coaching actors through some of the toughest musical scores.  His Hairspray cast navigated the non-stop, musically-varied score with ease, thanks to Matthew at the helm. In his Interview, Matthew tells when he first knew he wanted to be a music director, his favorite musicals to direct, and some of his professional goals. 

Hi, Matthew! Thank you for taking the time to interview with us.  Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

Hello!  I’m Matthew Stern, and I’m a Music Director in Boston, where I’ve been involved in over ninety musical theatre productions in the past decade.  I’m currently in the MFA program at Boston University for Theatre Studies, focusing on Musical Theatre, and I’ll be graduating next year.  I did my undergraduate work at Brandeis University, where I received a dual degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and Vocal Performance.

What is your music directing background?  Did you always know that you wanted to be a music director?

The first time I knew I wanted to be a music director was actually when I was a kid seeing Seussical on Broadway.  I don’t have any particular affinity or dislike of Seussical, but I remember sitting in the mezzanine with my mom looking at the conductor and thinking about how I wanted to do that one day.  I didn’t actually fulfill those dreams until college, when I began music directing some student-directed productions at Brandeis University.  I then began pursuing music directing work more seriously and professionally.  I’ve been playing piano since I was about 8 years old, and I’ve been singing seriously since I began participating in the Philadelphia Boys’ Choir as a child.  I feel really lucky to be pursuing this career path.  I love musical theater, and I love making music with wonderful people, so there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

Talk to us about the music in Hairspray.  What were some of the challenges?  What was the most exciting and enjoyable?

Hairspray is a really great show to work on as a musical director.  The score is pretty challenging for singers, particularly because of the non-stop back-up singing that goes on throughout the show.  Some musical numbers that don’t sound particularly complicated are actually very difficult for singers to learn (“It’s Hairspray,” for example).  The music is also really fun to play and conduct.  I love the band arrangements, and I was fortunate to be working with some great musicians in the pit at Wheelock.

What have been some of your favorite shows to music direct?

I will always say that my top three shows are Sweeney Todd, Parade, and Ragtime.  I’ve also had a couple of experiences doing shows at BU that I feel like I’ll never get to do again – specifically, Pacific Overtures and The Human Comedy.  It’s always nice to take on those kinds of projects that feel like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

What is one song from the musical theatre canon that you hate to play?  What is one song that you hope that you never hear in an audition room again?

I really hate playing “My Favorite Things.”  I don’t think that I mind the song itself, but I hate playing it for some reason.  The accompaniment just feels so clunky.  As for a song I hope never to hear in an audition again, I’d probably have to go with “Gimme, Gimme.” Again – great song, but I’ve just heard it too many times in audition rooms.

What are some of your guilty pleasures?

Cheesy romantic comedies.

Why do you think that audiences and reviewers reacted positively to Hairspray?

I think Hairspray is a story that really hits everyone.  It has such an overt and positive message about race relations and acceptance, but never becomes preachy.  The characters are really loveable, the music is really catchy, and the story moves.  Most of our performances ended with the audiences up on their feet dancing along to “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”  It’s a show that – if done well – is hard to leave without a smile on your face.  We were also lucky to have a really hard-working and excellent cast, and a great design and creative team.  It was really one of those rare theater experiences where everything just works well, and I think we all felt lucky to be a part of it.

What are some of your professional goals?  Personal goals?

Professionally, I’m really beginning to search for a faculty position at a musical theatre program now that I'm thinking about the completion of my graduate program.  Whenever I land a really exciting job, I always try to think about what the next exciting thing might be and start shooting for that.  This past year was a pretty big year for me professionally, so I’m having a fun time opening up my imagination to what might be next, but I’m also really enjoying all of the opportunities that I have, and I’m thankful for the projects I get to work on and the wonderful collaborators that I get to meet on each new show. 

Personally, I really would love to get to the point in my life where my schedule will allow me to have a dog.

If you were stuck on a desert island, what are three things that you would be sure to bring?

This is tough.  I’d have to bring a piano.  I don’t know how I’d go about doing that, but it would be necessary.  I’d definitely need coffee every day.  And I’d probably bring some sunscreen, because I'm sure that’d be helpful.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

I’m finishing up Shrek at Wheelock right now, and then I’ll be heading off to French Woods Festival for my sixth summer, working on lots of exciting shows.  When I get back to Boston, it’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Stoneham Theatre, an unannounced musical at BU in December, and then Violet (one of my favorites!) at Speakeasy Stage in January.

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

I’m proud to be on this list of nominees with such wonderful and talented people! 

Thanks to the Boston theatre community for being so rich and vibrant!

2014 Best Choreographer Nominee Interview: Rachel Bertone for Moonbox Productions' "Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)"

Photo by Justin Clynes

Photo by Justin Clynes

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.

Rachel Bertone has a gift for not only understanding dancers' bodies, but knowing and implementing diverse styles of dance in her choreography. Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) was a perfect show to direct and choreograph in order to highlight her love for the stage and showcase her impressive repertoire of choreography.  In her Interview, Rachel discusses how she got involved in Musical of Musicals, what every dancer or actor should know for a (dance) audition, and some of her many upcoming projects!

Rachel, it is so wonderful to interview you. Can you remind our readers a bit about yourself and what you’ve been doing this year?

Thanks, Brian! It’s really exciting to talk to you again and thank you for the nomination! Musical of Musicals was such a unique and rewarding experience for all of us! For those of your readers who don’t know me, I am a director and choreographer in the Boston theater scene. This past year, I’ve had the great pleasure to direct and choreograph Musical of Musicals, and choreograph South Pacific at Reagle Music Theatre and City of Angels at The Lyric Stage. When I’m not in the rehearsal room, I’m on faculty at The Boston Conservatory and The Jeannette Neill Dance Studio, where I teach musical theater jazz.

Tell us about your process for selecting MUSICAL OF MUSICALS (THE MUSICAL!). Why did you choose this musical? Do you need to be a musicals aficionado to enjoy the show?

That credit goes to my music director and partner-in-crime, Dan Rodriguez. You see, Musical of Musicals is both a satire of and homage to classic musical theater of the 20th century. Dan knew just how deep my love for classic musical theater goes and about all my experiences working on so many of the shows that Musical of Musicals references. So when he threw that suggestion out there, it was clear to him that I’d be a natural fit to direct and choreograph this show. And he was so right!

But, to be completely honest, I was actually pretty hesitant to take on the show at first. I thought that, as written (with only four characters dressed in black and playing all the parts), it wouldn’t be accessible to a broader audience that couldn’t catch all the lightning-fast musical references. As I started brainstorming the possibilities, however, I realized that if I created an ensemble for the show and staged it as a full musical, then we could tell a great story and give the audience something to really enjoy, even in the moments they weren’t catching the (often subtle) humor. So we did it our way—the response was incredible! But, without question, the people who enjoyed the show the most were probably the musical theater nerds who got all the little inside-jokes.

How did you prepare to direct this show? What were some of the challenges? How did your cast and production team help you?

I read A LOT of books and watched A LOT of musicals! The actors have a challenging job of needing to represent and embody 3-4 different characters in each section (for example, in the Sondheim section, the ingénue June represents various characters in his canon, including Dot from Sunday, Johanna from Sweeney, and Amy from Company). That is not an easy task as you can imagine. Luckily, many of my actors had performed some of the roles they were channeling and were able to bring that knowledge to the table. It was also important for me to help the actors find a through line for each character (even if it wasn’t written that way), both within each of the five acts, and throughout. Of course, I also had an amazing creative team who had worked on many of the originals referenced in Musical Musicals—so they were able to bring the elements of those worlds into their brilliant designs.

Do you prefer to direct or choreograph? Do you think that it is better for the same person to do both for the same production? Do you think that directing makes you a better choreographer or actress?

Without question, I prefer to direct AND choreograph because I strive to create a seamless blend between movement and storytelling. That said, with the right team, I’m perfectly happy filling just one of those roles. I’ve been a choreographer for many years now, and now that I’ve started directing too, I can see how directing has made a major impact on my choices as a choreographer.

What people might not realize though, is that it works both ways: my background as a choreographer strongly informs and strengthens my ability to direct as well.

What is your favorite musical? Musical style/period?

Easy! West Side Story. Where dance, character, and song work in perfect unison to support the story.

What is the hardest thing about choreographing? What is the easiest part?

I’ll actually answer this in the reverse order. The easiest part is choreographing when you are inspired. Often, especially when you are working with brilliant music (e.g., Bernstein, Kander and Ebb), all you need to do is listen to it once, and the whole dance just comes together in your head – like improvisation. But, it isn’t possible to be inspired all the time. Because being a choreographer is my profession, I don’t always have the luxury to wait for a magic moment of inspiration! This is the hardest part. During those times, I need to listen to the music over and over, and rely on my technique and training as a dancer, and my years of experience as a choreographer, to tie dancing, movement, and characters together through deliberate planning, and thinking, and working through each detail. But at the end of the day, all of it bleeds together, and you get a full piece of choreography!

What shows would you love to choreograph? Direct? Perform?

I would LOVE to direct and/or choreograph: Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Cabaret, Gypsy, Damn Yankees, On the Town, Seven Brides for Seven Bothers, and anything Fosse!

I grabbed the car. We’re going on a roadtrip. Where are we going and why are we going there? Who else is going with us?

WOOT! WOOT! We are going to Miami!! Because it is beautiful, sunny, and away from all my work.

If you had to eat something every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?

And still fit into my pants?? My mom’s amazing homemade peanut butter pie!!

Photo by Sharman Altshuler

Photo by Sharman Altshuler

What basic dance skills should a performer have if they want to audition for a musical? What are choreographers and directors looking for on the other side of the table during an open dance call? What about during a callback?

Ideally, actors should have a basic dance vocabulary going into a dance call. I always encourage actors to take different styles of dance classes—jazz, ballet, modern, tap—to become more comfortable with various forms of dance. This will help them pick up combos, execute steps with a sense of technique, and have the confidence and ability to dance with intention at the dance call. Without technique, you can quickly resort to your bad habits as nerves and exhaustion kick in, thereby preventing you from showing off your best self!

At a dance call, I always say I am looking for two things: specificity in movement and bold choices that show a character. I want storytellers, not technicians—although having both is, of course, ideal. As a side note, I strongly believe that dance training is essential for actors as well! The ability to morph into a new character depends largely on your ability to find new physical choices. Dance training gives you the language with which to explore your physicality.

Regarding callbacks: I am looking for similar things, although at that point, I usually give a more challenging combo and teach it more quickly. With short rehearsal processes, you really need to know how quickly someone can pick up, and if they can’t, how they deal with that. Biggest pointer: Enjoy yourself and have as much fun as you can!!

What makes you smile?

Vacationing with my boyfriend, teaching my students, watching my actors perform onstage, spending time with my family, watching Dr. Who (yup, I’m a dork), and answering this question.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

Yes, I do! I am about to choreograph Guys and Dolls at Reagle Music Theatre. The show opens in June and I’ll be reunited with the dynamite Reagle team that brought you Les Miserables and South Pacific!

Then in August I’m so excited to be directing a new work called Creative License that will be performed at the New York International Fringe Festival.

Finally, the most recent news is that I am going to direct and choreograph The Wild Party at Moonbox Productions next spring. We just had auditions and I’m very excited to take on this meaty musical!

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

Thanks for supporting theater and for reading this far down!!

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!

AngelsinAmerica

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 Choreographer Nominee Interview: Michelle Chassé for The Boston Conservatory's "On the Town"

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 Eli Akerstein

Photo by Eli Akerstein

Michelle Chassé transforms the next generation of Broadway performers each day in her classes and through her leadership at The Boston Conservatory.  Her brilliant guidance, sharp knowledge of dance and movement, and kind support was evident in her stunning choreography and direction for The Boston Conservatory's On the Town.  In her Interview, Michelle discusses her dance background and history; her love for On the Town and visual storytelling through dance; and some of her upcoming projects, including a program at The Boston Conservatory this summer!

Michelle, can you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi! My name is Michelle, and I am the Chair of Musical Theater Dance and Resident Choreographer in the Theater Division at The Boston Conservatory. I live in the South End with my husband and our puppy, Ivy. I’ve traveled all over the country and the world, and I still find Boston to be one of the most beautiful and culturally rich cities I’ve seen.

When did you start dancing? When did you know that you wanted to make theater and dance your life?

I started dancing at the age of 5, at the Gladys H. Rubin School of Dance in Maine, and, by the age of 12, I was studying ballet at the Boston Ballet and the School of American Ballet in New York City, the training program of the New York City Ballet. I earned my BFA in Dance Performance at The Boston Conservatory. I’ve always known that dance was going to be part of my life – the reason my parents took me to dance classes as a child was so that I would stop destroying furniture in the house by chainé-ing and chassé-ing into lamps and walls! I’ve always been more graceful in the studio and on the stage than walking down the street. As far as theater goes, I’ve always been very “theatrical.” As a kid, I would recall The Carol Burnett Show and recreate every scene to make my family laugh; Shakespeare started rolling my socks up and down in high school and still does today.

Why is dance important? What style(s) of dance speak strongly to you? What style(s) do you prefer to dance? To choreograph?

Dance is important because one single, simple gesture can transport an audience completely. In the context of theater, it can bear the great responsibility to advance plot wordlessly – it makes me a little crazy when people call it a “dance break,” because I see it as the “dance continuation of the story.”

Ballet has always spoken to me, as well as good old-fashioned theater dance in the style of Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Gower Champion, and so many others. Those happen to be my favorite styles to perform as well!

I enjoy the artistic challenge of choreographing within multiple styles, not just within the theater world – everything from concert dance and contemporary dance to commercial dance and theater dance.

Talk to us about On the Town. What is the musical about? How or why is dance important?

Photo by Eric Antoniou

Photo by Eric Antoniou

On the Town, beyond the story of three sailors looking for love and adventure on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City, is about people looking for themselves by experiencing the same place in very different ways. It’s about friendship and dedication, not only to each other but to service and their country. For example, the main character Gabey rescued his friends and fellow servicemen, Chip and Ozzie, from certain death by drowning (‘the drink’) at some point prior to the musical’s action, and, in a subtle but powerful way, that sense of gratitude and indebtedness informs so much of those characters’ relationships.

It’s also one punchline after another, a silly, playful romp these three young men take through one of the great cities of the world. Along the way they meet three strong, vibrant, modern women, and the various entanglements around the six of them getting to know each other form the bulk of the musical’s plot.

For one thing, there is a gigantic amount of dance in this show! So much of it, though, far from being merely decorative, stands alone without dialogue to deepen our understanding of these characters and to advance the narrative with great power and beauty. Not all musicals provide such a window into the mind of their characters through dance.

“The Times Square Ballet” at the end of Act I takes us on the sailors’ journey with them, as they explore the sights and sounds of New York City, sometimes taking a right turn into a wrong neighborhood. By contrast, the way I chose to choreograph the “Dream Coney Island Ballet” towards the end of Act II shows us Gabey’s struggle to feel at home on land, and his struggle between his sense of duty and finding love.

Have you seen the Broadway production? Will you? Why do you think the musical is being revived now?

I haven’t seen the Broadway production that opened at the same time as our On the Town at the BoCo, but I did see the Barrington Stage production in the summer of 2013 that featured much of the same cast and creative team, including BoCo alum Alysha Umphress as Hildy. As to why it’s being revived, I think that American audiences are hungry for a musical that incorporates various kinds of storytelling. And who doesn’t love Bernstein’s score?

What are some of the joys of working with student performers? What are some of the challenges? How do you think that the BoCo students are setting themselves apart?

Student performers are willing to try anything. They tend to be fearless in their creativity and they also have lots of energy! They tend also to be spread very thin on account of their class schedules, and sometimes lots of energy can make rehearsals pretty noisy. And, of course, many young people have not experienced so many of the life events that bring great depth and character to a mature artist’s performance and presentation. While every theater program aspires to train true “triple threats,” I feel that the BoCo students really reach astonishing heights of achievement in the three disciplines of singing, acting, and dancing, and their work ethic is beyond compare.

Do you ever perform? Are there any roles that you would want to perform?

Not as much as I used to, but I miss it! The Girl in the Yellow Dress from Susan Stroman’s Contact is definitely a role I would love to perform.

What is your favorite movie? Why? If you could change anything about it, what would it be? Would you want a sequel? Why or why not?

My favorite movie is Jean De Florette because it absolutely rips your heart out of your chest. I would not change a single thing about it! (OK, maybe I would add a warning to have tissues at the ready.) As it happens, there already is a sequel, Manon Des Sources.

Photo by Eric Antoniou

Photo by Eric Antoniou

What is your biggest pet peeve as a director? As a choreographer? As a person?

As a director, my biggest pet peeve is when things don’t happen on time or people are unprepared. No matter what the rehearsal process is or what it’s for, you never ever have enough rehearsal time, so to have to waste time waiting for anything – props, people not being prepared, whatever – really grinds my gears.

It’s really about the same as a choreographer! I need my dancers to show up on time (preferably early), be prepared, be respectful, and be ready for us to make the absolute most of the time we have together.

As a person, my biggest pet peeve is people that are unaware of other people. I’m peeved by people who let doors slam in front of the person behind them, or cut in front of you in line, or any other of a whole list of self-centered behaviors that unfortunately we all see every single day.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

I’m currently working on the Boston’s Gay Men Chorus production Smile, their 30th anniversary celebration performance which also coincides with their annual Pride concert. I’m providing stage direction and choreography for the performances, which will take place at historic Symphony Hall. In the fall, I will be choreographing Threepenny Opera at the BoCo.

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

I’m the director of a summer program at the BoCo called the Musical Theater Dance Intensive, a three-week immersion experience with faculty, consisting of BoCo theater alumni as well as current Theater Division faculty. Please check out www.bostonconservatory.edu/extension-programs/ for more information!

2014 Best Supporting Actor in a Play Nominee Interview: Brendan Mulhern as Actor #3 in Argos Productions' "The Haberdasher!"

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.

Brendan Mulhern impressed in his creative physicality and golden comedic timing, standing out in a talented cast in Argos Productions' new play by Walt McGough, The Haberdasher! A Tale of Derring-Do. From the law-abiding but girl-clueless Lucas to the silly thug Bruno, Brendan expanded upon Walt McGough's script with his own comedic touches. In his Interview, Brendan explains The Haberdasher, including the rehearsal process for the new play; his favorite distraction; and what he's doing now (in Chicago!). 

Photo by Jenny Moloney Photography

Photo by Jenny Moloney Photography

Brendan, can you introduce yourself to our readers? What do you do?  Where are you from?  What brings you to the stage?

Hi! I am an actor, improviser, and musician originally from Boston, now living in Chicago. I’ve always enjoyed performing and telling stories. I was a pretty hyperactive child, always coming up with new characters, telling jokes, and doing impressions. I wrote and performed some sketches in high school, and I played in various bands into my 20s. However, I didn’t get into acting until I was 26 and started doing improv. I didn’t work on my first honest play until I was 30.

What is your performing background?  Why do you enjoy acting?

My first love is music. I started playing guitar when I was 14, and I had dreams of being a huge rock star. Despite being a showoff in front of my family, I was pretty shy and insecure at school. The few times that I got on stage, mostly for jazz band in high school, I felt exhilaration, freedom, and a release from my shy, awkward self. I felt like a completely different person on stage, and I liked that. I pursued my rock dreams until I was 25, but my personality is not suited for a rock ‘n’ roll life. When I eventually got into acting, I could harness my attention to detail, my creativity for characters, and my love of performing in a way that is much more personally satisfying.

Talk to us about your characters in The Haberdasher!  How did they fit into the story?

The Haberdsaher! is presented as a story being told by a traveling band of actors. So, officially, my role was Actor #3. Each of the four actors plays multiple roles, which allows for a lot of breathing room when coming up with the physicality and voices of the different characters. I played an actor playing four different characters, so not only could I create the characters in the story, but I could also add the personality of the actor playing them.

The characters I played were: Lucas, the honorable Constable with a crush on a thief; Bruno, the dim-witted yet lovable thug; Claudia, the castle-dwelling crone with a heart of gold; and Auguste, the annoying prat of a customer in the Haberdashery.

What was it like working on a new play?  How much flexibility did you have to create these roles?  What was the most challenging part?  What was the most fun?

I very much enjoy working on new plays. I love the collaborative approach - working with the director and the playwright to dive deep into the minds and motivations of the characters, making discoveries together, and putting up a production that the entire team can be proud of. I have done big Broadway-style musicals and thrillers, and, while they’re also very fun, and challenging for different reasons, I always appreciate the opportunity to be the first to create the character(s).

Brett Marks (the director) and I had worked together a few times before and he gave me a lot of space to do my own thing. In fact, he gave me one the best compliments I could ever imagine when he said he wanted to cast me because he trusted me to take the script and run with it. Brett and I have a great acting nerd synergy. We took an hour here and an hour there to discuss and experiment with details, like Claudia’s physicality, or Bruno’s voice. One downside to living in Chicago now is I don’t get to work with him and I miss that.

The most challenging part and the most fun part were the same thing: the sword fights! I had never once had to wield a sword - in theatre or in life - and I was worried I would look terrible. But Angie Jepson, our fight choreographer, is an amazing stage fighter and excellent teacher. She asked me at our first rehearsal what my training was. I said: “Absolutely none.” She just smiled, said “OK!” and took it from there. Also, Hannah Husband, who played Actor #2, and two characters of her own, is also a very accomplished rapier fighter. Having the two of them coach me - one as choreographer and the other as a scene partner - was a great learning experience.

What was it like to play so many roles?  How did you work to differentiate them and give them each their own “character”?

This kind of thing is right in my wheelhouse and I love it. My dream is to be an excellent character actor and anything that allows me to get better at it is a welcome challenge. In improv comedy, creating big characters is an easy way to ground yourself. Using physicality, accents, and motivations helps inform you where to go even when you have no idea where you’re going. Plus, you always have to be willing to create a brand new character on the spot, and be ready to drop it and create a new one instantly.

When I get the chance to dive into a character and really live through them for a play, I relish the opportunity. The first things I try to find are the walk and the talk. How does this person move and how do they sound? When I get that down, I can live as that character and concentrate on the words they are saying. This opens me up to making new discoveries both in rehearsal and throughout the run.

Getting there, however, requires its own research: Who are they? Where do they come from? What do they believe? What do they want? How do they see themselves? And so it becomes cyclical - you have to learn the words and study the words so you can find your character so you can live the words. It’s fun.

Why do you think that The Haberdasher! was not only a good production, but also a good play?

I still talk about this play, even now over a year later and in a different city. The most important thing about this play is that it is about strong, independent women without treating them as if that is anything out of the ordinary. They just ARE strong, smart, capable, talented women with opinions and desires who don’t need men to save them, protect them, or complete them. This is a very important theme.

We need more of this in the world, quite frankly, and, unfortunately, we artists, who like to think ourselves enlightened and in touch, need to do more to not just treat women fairly, but actively respect their experiences, promote their cause, educate society of their contributions, and demand equality. Our culture and our world will be far richer for it.

If you could have any superpower, which would you have?  Why?

I would have to say teleportation. I love to travel and there are so many places I want to visit, but on a non-union actor’s budget, I don’t get very many opportunities to pick up and ship off. Being able to go somewhere instantaneously (and for free) would be great.

What is your favorite distraction?

Long walks. I love to take a walk and listen to music, usually for an hour or longer. I use it to either clear my head or let my imagination wander. Growing up in Boston, I lived near the Arnold Arboretum and would try to go there once a week during the Spring, Summer, and Fall. When I worked at the Boston Public Library, I would take my lunch breaks by the Charles or in the Public Gardens. In Chicago, I live very close to one of the beaches on Lake Michigan, so I walk around the marina and the beach with views of the city. It’s quite beautiful.

Photo by Brett Marks

Photo by Brett Marks

Which character did you relate with the most in The Haberdasher!?

Lucas the Constable. I didn’t have to go too far to figure him out - except for all the sword training. He believes in justice, the letter of the law, and doing the right thing, and he has a crisis when doing the right thing means breaking the law. He has a hard time comprehending anyone who doesn’t follow the rules so he’s at a complete loss with every other person in the play, especially Vivienne, a thief who eludes his capture and his heart. His difficulty interacting with the woman he likes is also, sadly, very familiar to me.

The audience really responded to Bruno, which made him tremendous fun to play. He’s a big dumb oaf, a hired thug who is scared of the dark. Comedic gold.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

I just wrapped my Chicago theatre debut, another new play called The Impossible Adventures of Supernova Jones. I played Supernova Jones, a ‘50s-style space explorer who, after the Earth’s destruction, has set off to find the True Center of the Universe so he can turn back time and bring it back. However, [SPOILER] he’s actually a grieving man who fell into a psychosis after a terrible trauma. It is a very touching story and our production got good reviews. I was happy for the experience.

After that, though, I don’t have anything planned yet. I began studying Shakespeare in earnest last Fall, so if I don’t book any gigs, I will probably continue with that over the Summer.

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

I want to thank ArtsImpulse for the nomination. I’m very honored to share the Best Supporting Actor category with such immense talent. And thanks to everyone who saw The Haberdasher! It was a wonderful experience that I wish I could relive.

Most importantly, though, I want to stress that this play is an ensemble piece and it cannot be done unless each actor looks out for the other. I am forever grateful to have shared this experience with Kaitee Treadway, Hannah Husband, and Mark Estano. We looked out for one another, supported one another, learned from one another, and put on a really good show together. And that spirit was present in everyone involved: Brett Marks, Walt McGough, Ariana Gett, Elizabeth Ramirez, Angie Jepson, Erica Desautels, Luke Sutherland, and Ben Lieberson all brought their great talents, vast knowledge, boundless energy, and, of course, humor to this production and that, to me, is the only way to work. I also want to acknowledge Erin Eva Butcher who was originally suppose to play the title character but got injured and had to bow out. She showed immense courage and fortitude, and I have the utmost respect for her. Thank you all so much. 

2014 Best Leading Actress in a Play Nominee Interview: Sasha Castroverde as Claudine in The Lyric Stage Company of Boston's "Rich Girl"

Photo by Elie Smolkin

Photo by Elie Smolkin

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.

Sasha Castroverde has a unique talent to portray insecure and fragile characters with agency and determination, creating a dynamic mix. Her Claudine was riddled with layers of rich complexity, as Sasha removed societal and familial expectations, revealing the strong women underneath. In her Interview, Sasha discusses her most misunderstood performance; explains Claudine in Rich Girl; and chooses between wealth, power, and fame!

Sasha, let’s start, as always, with the basics: Who are you?  What do you do?  What brings you to Boston?  What is your theatre background and experiences?

Hello! I am an actor and a fundraiser. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and I moved to Boston to attend Emerson College where I earned a degree in Theatre. I have been working in the theatre community here ever since.

Who was Claudine in Rich Girl?  What is this story?  How is it different than The Heiress or other similar stories?  Why do you think the play is relevant today?

Claudine is a young woman who is looking for her place in the world and is struggling to find her voice. Over the course of the play, we see her growing pains as she falls in love for the first time and tries to make a life for herself outside the shadow of her mother. I believe what makes this play different from The Heiress, and still relevant today, is that, as a modern woman, Claudine has the agency and the choice that Catherine (in The Heiress) did not have.

What has been one of your most misunderstood role or performance?  Why?

This honor would likely go to a late Pinter play that two friends and I did the summer after I graduated from high school. We were a good two to three decades too young for the piece; I switched roles with another actor halfway through the rehearsal process; and, the night before we opened, I went on a mad dash to locate and purchase the same costume that another actor would be wearing because that was somehow pivotal to the plot twist we’d just “uncovered.” Needless to say, I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, so I suspect the audience misunderstood this one too!

What are some of your professional goals?  Personal goals?  What do you hope to accomplish in 2015?

My immediate professional goal is to earn my graduate degree. I miss academia and I am excited to jump back in.

A personal goal is to do some redecorating, and extensive viewing of HGTV has led me to believe that this will be a piece of cake.

Where is your “safe space”?  What do you do there?

Well it wouldn’t be very safe if I put it on the Internet!

Talk to us about Claudine’s relationships in the play.  How did you understand them?  What do you hope that the audience got out of them?

I feel that Claudine’s journey in Rich Girl is shaped by her relationships with the three other characters in the play: Eve (her mother), Henry (her boyfriend), and Maggie (her confidant). Eve’s perceptions of Claudine have cemented Claudine’s sense of self and identity; Henry’s love affords Claudine the possibility of growth and change; and Maggie’s guidance empowers Claudine to determine her own fate.

What kind of theatre moves you?  What kind of theatre bores you?

I am moved by theatre that illuminates the human experience. Generally, I am bored by theatre that is over-conceptualized to no real end.

What quote inspires you?  Do you find the person who said it to be inspiring?

I collect inspiring quotes and affirmations so it is rather difficult to pick just one! This is a theatre website after all, so I’ll go with: “Rejection is God’s protection,” which a dear friend and fellow actor shared with me.

Photo by Mark S. Howard

Photo by Mark S. Howard

What has been some of your favorite roles that you have played?

In chronological order: Tracy in The Philadelphia Story, Lala in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, and Yaz in Water by the Spoonful

Wealth, fame, or power? Why?

Power. For good, of course.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

Graduate school applications!

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

Many thanks for your support of the Boston theatre community!

2014 Best Student Actress Nominee Interview: Paige Berkovitz as Mary Flynn in The Boston Conservatory's "Merrily We Roll Along"

Photo by Dennis Apergis Los Angeles Photography

Photo by Dennis Apergis Los Angeles Photography

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.

Paige Berkovitz showed the joy and humanity behind the cynical, biting Mary Flynn in The Boston Conservatory's Merrily We Roll Along, convincing us of the many layers behind these Sondheim characters. Moreover, Paige reinforced the strong character work and scene study present at The Boston Conservatory, never settling and always curious for more.  In her Interview, Paige discusses her love for Sondheim, her dreams, and her love for chocolate!

Hi, Paige!  Thank you for agreeing to participate in an Interview.  Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?  What is your performing background? 

I started performing when I was eight years old. My mom signed me up for a community theater production of Annie and I fell in love with performing. 

What is the story of Merrily We Roll Along

Tricky question. I think the story of Merrily boils down to friendship. Do not let fame or fortune get to your head. 

How did you choose to play Mary Flynn?  What was the biggest challenge?  What was your favorite moment? 

Well, you have to be careful with Miss Mary. She is easily portrayed as the snarky, cynical, witty best friend. You have to try to make her as likable as possible instead of falling in the trap of the “love sick woe is me girl.”

My favorite moment had to be the end when we all meet each other on the roof for the first time. That scene shows such a promising future for the three of them and leaves you with such hope. 

Had you performed a Sondheim musical before?  Do you have any other Sondheim roles that you would like to play?  How is a Sondheim show different or similar to other musical theatre?                                                                          

I was in Into The Woods in high school and I played Cinderella. I honestly think I would like to play every female role in a Sondheim show. I would want to be Baker’s Wife and the Witch, Petra, Dot, Beggar Woman, Martha. Name the role and I will probably say yes. 

Sondheim is in his own category. He writes in such a special way that any actor is lucky to work on his material. Each beat and breath mark in his music is written out for a specific dramatic purpose. It is gift to work on his material. 

To students looking for a strong musical theatre program, what advice would you give?  What should students ask themselves?  What questions should they ask to their potential schools or programs? 

Go with your gut and visit as may schools as possible. Shadow classes and ask everyone you see all the questions you can think of down to “How is the food in the cafeteria?” Also, research the program and really ask yourself is “This what I want to commit to for the next four years?”

What are some of your go-to audition songs?  Monologues? 

I think your song choice and material depends on the show you are going out for.

What is your favorite kind of candy?

CHOCOLATE.

If you could do anything else but act, what would it be?  Why? 

Art Curator. I have discovered some really great museums in New York and I have found a new passion for art. 

Merrily We Roll Along is partly about dreams.  What are some of your dreams? 

Oh, that could be a whole other section. One of my dreams for the theater world would be to originate a role on Broadway. A non-theater dream would be to move to a different country without knowing anyone and learn the language and customs and discover a new world. 

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions? 

Not in the immediate future but I will keep you posted!

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

Thanks for the nomination! 

2014 Best Student Actor Nominee Interview: Connor Baty as Charley Kringas in The Boston Conservatory's "Merrily We Roll Along"

Photo by Peter Hurley

Photo by Peter Hurley

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.

Connor Baty was a shining star in the outstanding production of The Boston Conservatory's Merrily We Roll Along, captivating audiences with his enthusiastic and sympathetic portrayal of the dreamer Charley Kringas. It was Connor's exceptional understanding of Sondheim's work and his ability to execute the difficult score that earned him an ArtsImpulse Theatre Award Nomination.  In his Interview, Connor talks about the positive effect of his Boston Conservatory education (especially the passionate professors), his favorite movies and books, and a little bit about a new cycling program that is quickly sweeping the nation (get on board, y'all!). 

Hiya, Connor. Can you introduce yourself?  Can you tell us a little bit about who you are, your performing background and experiences, and what you’re currently doing?

I grew up in Overland Park, Kansas.  I started seriously doing theatre when I made the jump from Catholic school to public school, and I found an amazing acting teacher who really set me on my path.  While so many high schools were doing Grease, Oklahoma, etc., we really sunk our teeth into some great material such as the original melodrama of Sweeney Todd and the heavy play Shadow Box.  Currently, I am living in Chicago.  Having spent 4 years in the east coast, it’s nice to be back in the Midwest.  Right now, I’m working at SoulCycle, an indoor cycling class, and on that working actor grind in Chi-town.

Tell us the story of Merrily We Roll Along.  What appealed to you about this musical?  About your character, Charley?

Merrily We Roll Along is the story of friendship, tried and tested.  It chronicles the journey of 3 friends (Frank, Charley, and Mary) whose working relationship eventually breaks down their personal relationships. 

What appealed to me about this show was, quite simply, the lyric genius of Sondheim.  I liken him to the musical Shakespeare, where his songs, although they seem difficult to sing, are actually quite simple.  He really lays everything out to you in the music and makes it so accessible to the actor. 

What I love about Charley is that he never truly gives up.  He is always reaching for what he knows could be there in his relationship with Frank, but he is also realistic.  He understands the limitations and understands what he wants out of life, something that I think Frank lacks.

Why do you think that this is a rarely-performed Sondheim?  Do you know what critics thought about early productions of it?  How did audiences at your production respond?

The show runs backwards in time.  I think this is initially why the show wasn’t accepted extremely well in its time.  But I also think that’s what makes this show special.  You start at such a dark place, but in the end you get to see the hope.  You get to see what could have been.  It really allows you to reflect on your own life and the choices you have made to get where you are.  I think it is especially poignant for young theatre students.  It deals with the idea that attaining your professional goals is important, but not nearly as important as maintaining the relationships with those who care about you.

Why did you choose to attend The Boston Conservatory?  What did you learn?  What was your training?  How is it helping you now?

I chose to attend The Boston Conservatory because of its faculty.  I can honestly say that I have met some of the most caring and nurturing people through BoCo.  Thank your teachers, y’all.  They work hard for you.

I emphasized in acting and directing and really discovered my passion for directing.  I think that the fast paced environment of BoCo helps you prepare for the intensity of the actor life.

How have people described your performing style?  What do you consider to be your strongest attribute?  Are you a singer, dancer, or actor?  Do you think that you have a weak point?

I think that I have been lucky to have teachers that always pushed my acting.  I always have strived to do everything in the most truthful and honest way I can. 

Definitely would not consider myself a dancer.  Just ask Sarah Crane, choreographer of Merrily, about my skills.

What do you dream about?

I dream about happiness.  I think that all those goals that we set for ourselves: fame, Broadway, television, etc., those are all nice.  But I think you first and foremost have to be happy with where you are.  And if you aren’t, then choose the path that will lead you there.

If you could live in any other time period, what would it be?  What would you do?

Maybe this is cheating the question, but I would stay where I am.  I think that there is such an excitement about the times we live in.  We still have ways to go, but we have never been closer as a nation and as world.  Complain all you want about the age of the internet, but I think it has brought us together and it has also brought to light some of the deep rooted issues in our society that we are finally talking about.

What are some of your favorite movies, TV shows, books, and theatre?  Let’s limit to Top 3 of each.

Ooh, that’s a tough one. 

Movies: I’m actually a huge fan of the original Star Wars. And just cause I’m a sucker for dumb humor I’ll say Scary Movie 3 and Bring it On All or Nothing

TV Shows: Lost, Game of Thrones, American Horror Story (honorable mention: Downton Abbey). 

Books: Harry Potter, duh. Anything by Chelsea Handler or David Sedaris. 

Theatre: Into the Woods, Macbeth, and Peter Pan (the play).

MerrilyWeRollAlong

What is the hardest thing about going from being a student to being a theatre professional?  What is one thing that you wish that someone had told you?

One of our mantras at SoulCycle is: “You are exactly where you need to be.” I think that so many young, recently graduated actors are so caught up in the idea that everything has to happen immediately.  But this is a lifelong profession, so the most important thing I have learned is to focus on the life part.  Be happy where you are, and don’t stress about the future.  Good things will come to people with open hearts.

How do you react to negative reviews or criticism?  What is the worst thing that anyone has ever said about one of your performances?

Hahaha!  Well, you’d have to get in touch with my acting teacher, Steve McConnell, on that.  I think, in general, I can sum up my junior year of acting class by me doing a Greek monologue and him throwing things at me.  But for real, he is an amazing teacher and I am so thankful to have had him in my life.

What is one quote that you try to live by?

One of our instructors at SoulCycle, Anthony McClain, always says in his class: “It’s not THAT you move, it’s HOW you move.”  Obviously that pertains to the actual work out, but I have also tried to implement that into my own life.  It’s not the product that matters, but the journey, and what you learn along the way.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

I am just now finishing up my second show in Chicago called Down the Moonlit Path.  It’s an immersive production that portrays multiple children's stories from different countries intertwined together.  My next project is the show Bent and I have a couple films I’ve been shooting here and there. 

And then, of course, there’s SoulCycle.  If you haven’t tried SoulCycle yet I highly recommend it.  It will seriously change your life.  (Also there’s one coming to the city of Boston soon!!)

2014 Best Student Actress Nominee Interview: MiMi Scardulla as Hildy Esterhazy in The Boston Conservatory's "On the Town"

Photo by Heidi Bowers Photography

Photo by Heidi Bowers Photography

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.

MiMi Scardulla is a rising senior at The Boston Conservatory, but you should say that you knew her when. With an impressive command of the stage and a thrilling mix of acting, singing, and dancing talents, MiMi was an immense pleasure to watch in the giddy production of On the Town as madcap but lonely Hildy Esterhazy.  Her talents and commitment remind us why we choose to review university students, and encourage us to continue to recommend such rising stars.  In her Interview, MiMi discusses how The Boston Conservatory is helping her achieve her goals and dreams, her favorite parts of On the Town, and some of the roles on her Miscast! list. 

Hi, MiMi. So wonderful to speak with you. Can you start by telling our readers a little bit about yourself?

Well, I am a rising senior at the Boston Conservatory. I grew up in the small town of Hammond, Louisiana. I’ve been doing theatre since I was five years old, and I knew the stage is where I was meant to be when I was cast as a butterfly in The Sleeping Beauty.

I really owe my career to my sister. So, thank you, Annie, for being an awesome big sister and dancing and doing theatre because, if I didn’t want to be just like you, I probably would’ve never entered the crazy world of show business. From that little butterfly to making my New York debut this year in an Off-Broadway Lab, I have loved every second of being an actor. 

How did you end up at The Boston Conservatory?  What made you choose Boston?  Where do you hope to go and do after graduation?

I owe ending up at The Boston Conservatory to Dave Clemmons. He was my college advisor and, at first, I did not want to audition for the Conservatory. However, Dave insisted and I, of course, listened. On a snowy day at Chicago Unified auditions, I walked into a dance call with Michelle Chassé. Two hours later, BoCo was my number one choice, and I remember telling my mom: “If I get in here, there is no question, I am definitely going!”

Michelle Chassé, my director for On The Town, was the reason that I chose The Boston Conservatory. That dance call in Chicago never felt like an audition. It felt like two hours of absolute fun. Michelle not only challenged me, but connected with my personally, which helped me perform at my best. She wasn’t only auditioning us, but already teaching. I thought to myself: “This is the kind of person who could bring my performing to the next level.” And Michelle has most definitely done that tenfold.

I hope to move to New York after graduation and pursue the dream. I want to kick-ball-change up on that stage as long as everyone will let me, but I’m also an aspiring choreographer and I would love to pursue that as a career path as well. Way down the road, I wish to move back to Louisiana and open up an arts school for children and teens.

Talk to us about your training.  What is a conservatory program like?  What classes do you take?  What is a typical day for you?

A conservatory program is very challenging. A typical day for me last from about 9am to 7pm, and, if I’m in a show, we go ‘til 11pm. As crazy as that sounds, I love it. I get to do what I love all day! The challenging schedule truly prepares you for the reality of the business. I even say I feel over prepared because, on top of my performance-based classes, I have theatre history courses and other liberal arts classes to keep up with.

A typical day for me is as follows:

9:30 Voice Lesson/ 10:30 Musical Theatre / 12:30 Voice and Speech Dialects Training/ 2:00 Music Theory/ Ballet or Jazz 4:00/ 5:30 Liberal Arts Course

Who was Hildy?  What is her story?  What does she want?

Hildy was a sassy cab driver who gets what she wants no matter what. I absolutely love her. I love how she is so impulsive; I always said: “She says and does everything I don’t have the guts to say and do.” She is a New Yorker through and through. She knows the city like the back of her hand and she loves the city as if it were part of her family. She drives her cab looking for adventure and a good time and can’t seem to stay awake on the job.

However, she sure wakes up when Chip walks by and the rest is history.  The two of them are a match made in heaven. She brings out Chip’s wild side and Chip calms her down a bit. Chip is what she wants. Not exactly him, but I think Hildy wants someone to share her life with someone to last more than one night. She wants someone who can tame her!

What was your favorite part of On the Town?  What was the most challenging?

My favorite part of On The Town was “You Got Me.” The five of us in that number (Chip, myself, Ozzie, Claire, and Gabey) became such good friends during the rehearsal process that when we got to that moment in the show it was a pure celebration of friendship. I’ll never forget the energy I felt on stage during that number every night.

The most challenging thing for me was rooting Hildy in reality. She is a crazy character, but it was important for me to not make her a caricature. So, I developed very clear intentions and wants throughout her storyline so I didn’t fall into the trap of just trying to be funny. Also, Chip (Zach Jones) and I really focused on making each time we met on stage feel like it was happening for the first time. That was not too hard considering he is one of my best friends.

Why do you think that On the Town was revived on Broadway?  Had you seen the show before?

I think On the Town was revived because a few reasons. First, it is a beautiful marriage of music, song, and dance. Second, it is a love letter to New York City, celebrating all the amazing things that the city still offers to this day. Third, it is, as they bill it on Broadway, “a helluva good time!”

I have been lucky enough to see you act in a play and in a musical.  Which do you consider to be your strongest attribute, singing, acting, or dancing? Why?  What do you think is your weakest?

I always think this is the hardest question to answer. I believe that I am pretty good at doing all three at the same time. My strength is performing and, when I’m on stage, I’m trying my hardest to create a marriage between the three.

I believe where I have room to grow is in my dramatic acting. Comedy has always come easy to be, being the big goofball that I am! Dramatic acting is a skill that The Boston Conservatory has definitely helped me hone and, moving into my senior year, I will be focusing on my attention on that in an acting emphasis.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?  Why?

To read people’s minds. I am such a snoop. My friends say that in another life I was a secret agent because I like to know what’s happening at all times. Reading minds would make that much easier and make me the coolest super spy ever!!

What is your favorite movie?  Favorite musical and/or play?

My favorite movie is Dirty Dancing! I’ve been watching it since I was a little girl and I can perform all of the choreography on command. My favorite musical is Sunday in the Park with George. To me, nothing beats that score; I think it one of Sondheim’s most beautiful scores. 

Photo by Eric Antoniou

Photo by Eric Antoniou

Miscast! What are some roles that you could never conventionally play (because of age, race, gender, or other restrictions), but you’d want to play anyway?

I LOVE THIS QUESTION. I’ll just list them! Effie White (Dreamgirls), George (Sunday in the Park with George), Carol King (Beautiful), Benny (In the Heights), Frankie Valli (Jersey Boys), Girl in the Yellow Dress (Contact), and I could keep going, but I won’t!

Do you have any goals for 2015? For after graduation?

To stay focused and stay calm as I go through the year preparing to showcase in New York and graduate.

My friends and I are also working hard to found a Non-profit theatre company with a focus on getting children involved in theatre for no cost. So, be on the lookout for that!

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

Well, I hope to be cast in the great shows that we’ll be doing next season. For sure next year at Boston Conservatory, I will Directing/Choreographing Shrek the Musical on October 23 and 24.  I'll also be in Charles Mee's Big Love in the fall. I’ll also be choreographing Aida in the spring. There are a lot of exciting things happening senior year!!

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

Just a big giant thank you for this nomination. Hildy is a role that I would love to play again someday, and the fact that y’all fell in love with her like I did means so much to me. Also, thank you for supporting The Boston Conservatory Theatre Program. We are so thankful to have such an enthusiastic community. 

2014 Best Lighting Design Nominee Interview: P.J. Strachman for Bad Habit Productions' "Translations"

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 Renee Cullivan

Photo by Renee Cullivan

P.J. Strachman created stunning pictures of light and color on the stage for Bad Habit Production's Translations. From a sunny Irish day to a chilling summer moon, the lighting told a brilliant story of untouched masterpiece to complement the play's dialogue and action. In this Interview, P.J. tells about the opportunities in Boston theatres, the beauty of Translations, and "What if you had a million dollars?"

P.J., thank you so much for joining us for an Interview.  Can you please introduce yourself to our ArtsImpulse readers?  What is your theatre background, where are you from, what do you do?

I'm a Boston-based lighting designer, with a degree from Boston University in the combined studies of lighting design, playwriting, and dramaturgy. I grew up in New Orleans, and originally got involved in theatre through acting in elementary school, switching to lighting in high school.

What motifs or images stood out to you after reading Translations?  How did you incorporate these into your lighting design? 

The sense of the alien invading the homefront, the British who couldn't speak Irish coming in to tell the Irish how to do things differently, was the dominant theme that stood out for me. There was a sense of “our world” and “the usurping foreigners” - even renaming our towns and landmarks! – that lent itself to creating a welcoming warmth into the cozy interior set, which slowly became darker and colder as the British dominance became a foregone conclusion.

What scripts, stories, or projects inspire or compel you to design?  Basically, how do you choose your projects?

Honestly, I choose my project more by how I think the company fits with my aesthetics and professional values. I'm more interested in whether each show will be something I'm proud of than liking each script on its own merits. The only through-line is that I'm looking for scripts that have meat to them, something that leaves me thinking even after I've seen an entire tech week of it.

What is the most misunderstood element of lighting design? 

Flashy and exciting is not the same as good. (More importantly, the reverse is also true.)

Have you tried other technical elements?  What inspired you to pursue lighting design?

As a co-producer for Blue Spruce Theatre, I have dabbled in other technical elements, when the need arose, but I have been a lighting designer since the age of 14. I expected it to be a high school hobby, but found that I wanted to keep doing it, and so went to BU.

What kind of music do you listen to?  Does music ever inspire you as a designer?  How?

I personally listen to every type of music – all the genres that there are stations for, and then as much world music with interesting instruments as I can find. Music unrelated to a show I'm working on does not usually inspire me, but I have found inspiration when hearing sound designers' work that they have done specifically for the show we are working on together.

What excites you most about working in the Boston theatre scene? 

I love that it is intimate enough that I know and have worked with many of the designers, directors, and actors in the city. I also love that designers here are not limited to working in either AEA or non-AEA houses, as both types of process are unique and interesting in different ways.

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

That depends – do I have to spend it just on theatre? If not, I would split it up between my favorite charities – GLAD, SPCA, etc – and my favorite theatre companies. If I have to spend it just on theatre, then I would split it among my favorite theatres, buy myself a little new equipment, and set up some sort of trust so that fringe companies can apply for grants.

What other awards or honors have you won for your lighting design? 

I won an award for Best Lighting from broadwayworld.com for Blue Spruce Theatre's Once on This Island, and a Hubby Award for Best Design for Whistler in the Dark's Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth. I have also been honored by the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival for my work with Stonehill College.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions? 

This summer I will be designing FUDGE's production of Merrily We Roll Along. In addition, I am cowriting a piece with Jesse Strachman and Dan Rodriguez of Blue Spruce Theatre.

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

Photo by David Costa

Photo by David Costa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell us a funny audition or performance story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

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

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

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

2014 Best Ensemble in a Play Nominee Interview: Boston University College of Fine Art's "columbinus"

Photo by Danny Kim

Photo by Danny Kim

Hi, Ivy, Ian, and Isabel.  Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed as part of our Nominee Interview Series.  We are delighted to hear from so many of our Nominees, especially those who make a strong ensemble in a production.  Can you start by introducing yourselves to our readers?

Photo by Tara Lynn Sen

Photo by Tara Lynn Sen

Ivy Ryan (IR): My name is Ivy Ryan I am a rising senior Acting major at BU and I’m from Mill Valley, California, just outside of San Francisco. I’m currently in the basement of a Café Nero, yelling into a phone, finishing my semester abroad in London.

Ian Geers (IG): My name is Ian Geers. I graduated from BU School of Theatre in 2014. I come from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and am currently on tour with The National Players.

Isabel Schnall (IS): And I’m Isabel Schnall, I’m from Manhattan, and I’m am also a rising senior Acting major at BU. I’ve just finished my semester studying Classical Acting at LAMDA in London!

How would you sum up columbinus in 50 words or less?  Who were your characters in columbinus?

IR: I played Faith. Faith is a stock character that stands for the naïve, goody-two-shoes, all-American girl. My favorite character to play, though, was Ruth, one of the mothers of a Columbine student, who appeared in Act Three.

columbinus as a play dissects the isolation and lack of communication felt by many high schoolers all across America. The playwrights explore how this isolation has repercussions in the community of Littleton, Colorado.

Photo by Peter Schnall

Photo by Peter Schnall

IG: I played Jock, who stands for all the sports kids at Columbine High School and then minor characters in Acts Two and Three.

[The play is] a community’s attempt to try and figure to what happened surrounding the events of April 20, 1999.

IS: I played Perfect, who stood for the “popular” girl stereotype in high school, and then in [Act Three], I played Kate Battan who was the lead detective on the Columbine case, as well as other minor characters.

colombinus is an artistic representation of real people trying to navigate life before, after, and during a traumatic event. It’s about communication, and lack thereof, and how people hate, love, fight, and deal with one another.

What was the biggest challenge about doing this play?

IR: the most difficult thing about this show was prioritizing the impact on the audience versus our own catharsis as actors.

IG: Putting your own actor ego aside and trying to do justice to these people. Because these are not just characters that you’re playing. Trying to tell all these stories accurately and honestly and not adding “actor polish” to anything.

IS: I agree. The biggest challenge was trying to really honor the words and thoughts that these people have had, in a way that doesn’t turn them into stage-characters or “types”. Also to not judge the people who I’m playing or who others are playing, and just listen to the stories being told.

What was the biggest reward?

IR: The biggest reward was the spark of interest that anyone who worked on or saw our show walked away with.

IG: The biggest reward was when audience members wanted to continue the conversation after the show, and when they were open, and willing to talk about how to prevent these things from happening and how to move on when tragedy strikes. When audiences want to have conversations like that instead of just praising the show.

IS: The biggest reward was the feeling that our show was important. Not that all theater isn’t important and without a voice, but that these stories deserved to be told and that people who came to see it really came to listen and ask questions.

What is your training at BU CFA?  How did it prepare you for these roles?  For other theatre projects or productions?

We all were (or still are) Acting Majors at BU SOT, and our major, as well as the entire school, is incredibly ensemble- and group-oriented. We learn very early that the best work is not done alone or with your own script, but on your feet and with other people.

Every class at BU talks about this, and how to come at the work in this way, and, because of that, we were all able to enter the room with the same vocabulary. We could trust the things that we had learned and really focus on each other. It was always about the other person. That’s a huge lesson that we learn in our training.

What kind of theatre do you love to perform?  To see?

IR: I like theater that makes me think or question. About the story first and foremost. And always with an element of surprise. Theater that’s not overshadowed by a concept or star-power, but about bodies in the space working together to get a message across.

IG: I like theater that has a social impulse behind it, and will hopefully charge its audience to action. And Shakespeare.

IS: I love seeing new plays and hearing brand new playwright voices. I also like theater that has a specific message in mind and really wants to speak to its audience. Theater that I’m still talking about after the train ride home.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Boston?

IR: My favorite things to do in Boston include sunbathing on the benches outside of 855 Commonwealth Ave, going to a Red Sox game, and spending the afternoon with friends in The Boston Common.

IG: Walking around the city and just taking in all the history, every neighborhood feels like you’ve entered into a different city. And Codzilla.

IS: Finding parts of the city I’ve never seen before. And being continuously on the search for a bagel that meets NY standards.

Why do you think that columbinus earned a Best Ensemble nomination?

Photo by Amanda Rowan

Photo by Amanda Rowan

IR: Never before colombinus had I truly existed in such an ensemble-based environment. Every voice was heard. Every person on that artistic team fully supported each other. We put our own goals aside for the greater goal. I miss that ensemble all the time so it doesn’t surprise me that that energy was palpable to others. It was the strongest and most generous group of actors with whom I have ever worked.

IG: I think the show is about ensemble. Our director talked very early on about how the play was not about the two boys, Dylan and Eric, but was about the community response to what happened. And so knowing the show was about the whole community, including the boys, we always went on as an ensemble. All eight of us were integral to the play, we couldn’t go on without one of us there. And that was inherent in everything about the show.

IS: Ensemble was the word on everyone’s tongue throughout the entire process. The whole message of the show is about learning to listen and communicate, and so I think we all began to practice what we preached and really listen to each other. We became like one body moving on stage, and a lot of the directing and design elements highlighted that as well. It was also always, despite the heavy nature of the play, a constant joy to be with everyone. The room was always filled with love.

If we all went on a road trip, where would we go?  What would you want to do?  What snacks are we packing?

IR: The original flavor goldfish and gummy worms. My goal before I die is to go to all 50 states and I’ve been to 25 already. Top states are Maine, Georgia, and Florida. I’ll pack the sunscreen . . . 

IG: Plantain chips and wasabi peas. I would want to go somewhere all three of us have never been. Maybe the south-west?

IS: Chocolate. And Ian will do all the driving because I’m a true New Yorker through and through and I don’t have my license. I’ll follow them around happily in the passenger seat, preferably to somewhere warm. I want to see the larger and most beautiful parts of the country, like Colorado.

What is one moment in columbinus that stood out to you?  What is one memory from the production process?

IR: The moment that pulled on my heart strings every single night was the moment when I got to reunite with my “daughter” (AKA Isabel) because I think that’s the truest moment where I’ve ever felt a sliver of what its like to love like a parent. To feel for a moment that those kids weren’t just children, that they were high schoolers and someone I could have known. Also, Ian gives great hugs too.

The first rehearsal during our read through, sitting at that table with such an incredible group of designers and collaborators. Seeing all our names labeled on our cups, and thinking, this is it. The lightness in the room despite how deeply passionate we were about such a serious and tragic story.

IG: I always loved when the audiences didn’t know what to do at the end of the second act. And then in the show, I think the entire third act was really beautiful.

The day in rehearsal when Clay asked us what we, as an ensemble, are championing as the message of our production. He talked about how the play asks several questions and gives several answers, so it was important for us as an ensemble to agree on what our cause was and what we all wanted to tackle as a production. And we agreed all together that communication was what we wanted to take on. It got everyone on the same page to tell the same story. 

IS: There was something always spellbinding about walking into the theater together from the back of the audience at the top of the third act, after a (usually) completely silent intermission, and seeing the “explosion” at the back of the set revealed. I got goose-bumps every night.

I would also say the first rehearsal we all had together. That first moment of sitting at a table with actors, designers, and collaborators whom I fiercely admired and respected and knowing that we were going to create something beautiful together. Also every rehearsal that our amazing stage-managing team brought in sweets to make hard moments a little easier.

Photo by Danny Kim

Photo by Danny Kim

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

IR: Stay tuned! I will be in four shows in the upcoming school year at BU, including my culminating senior thesis in the winter.

IG: I’ll be doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged], and Shrek: The Musical at Oklahoma Shakespearian Festival this summer.

IS: I’ll be spending the next five weeks in London and hopefully working with a theatre company there, and then a full BU season next year, including my thesis as well!

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

IR: Read the play. It’s worth your time.

IG: Thank you for recognizing the work that we did! Thank you.

IS: Thank you for seeing the same strength in our ensemble that we felt! And to surround yourself with people you love often and always. 

2014 Best Leading Actress in a Play Nominee Interview: Katie Gluck as Becca Corbett in Hovey Player's "Rabbit Hole"

Photo by Michael Rosenzweig

Photo by Michael Rosenzweig

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.

Katie Gluck tackled the challenging role that no mother would want to play -- a mother and wife who must deal with her grief and family after the loss of her young son in a terrible accident.  Katie brought empathy and layers to her Becca, showing her as fierce as a mother bear and as fragile and unique as a snowflake. Her performance continues to resonate, winning accolades across New England for her strong, collaborative work in Rabbit Hole.  In her Interview, Katie discusses her primary role as a mother and wife, her more than a year and a half journey with her incredible fellow actors in Rabbit Hole, and even a few jokes about the many laughs of doing this play.

Thank you so much for talking with us, Katie. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?  What do you do?  Where are you from?  What brought you to the stage?

Thank you for this nomination, Brian. I was thrilled and very appreciative, especially when I saw the level of talent on the rest of the list, and particularly in my category!

I was born at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. When I was very little, my parents moved our family from Somerville to Burlington, and, shortly afterwards, signed my siblings and me all up for the Children’s Theater Workshop, run by the Burlington Players and Jen Howard. Jen was my theater teacher and director for my entire childhood. After high school, I took a far-too-long 18-year break from theater, but, after the birth of my second child, I was looking for something . . . else. A creative outlet and a connection to the world around me.

I went back to what I loved as a kid—theater—and auditioned for and won the part of Patti Levaco in the Burlington Players production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s other beauty—Kimberly Akimbo. I immediately knew that I found was I was looking for. The people and the community, but best of all, the work. I’m married to my wonderful husband Bryan Gluck, and we live in Billerica with our two daughters, Sara and Natalie. By day I work in Human Resources at Minuteman Senior Services in Bedford, MA.

Why did you decide to audition for Rabbit Hole?  Had you read or seen the play?  Had you watched the movie?

Rabbit Hole came into my life through a play-reading committee. I was asked to read and perform a scene cold at a membership meeting, and it was love at first sight. So when I saw Rabbit Hole was being produced at Hovey (a fantastic place to work) and directed by Michelle Aguillon (an amazing director) auditioning was an absolute must. I’d never seen the play or the movie (in fact, I still haven’t seen the movie!) but I felt Becca’s voice from the start.   I was always wary of messing with my clarity by seeing someone else’s Becca.

[Becca] is an unusual woman, in extraordinary circumstances. Literally no one in her life understands the whole of her, and I think audiences can have trouble with her too. So much of Becca lies in her interior, yet she’s never alone onstage, no monologue or other more direct route to facilitate the audience’s understanding and empathy. I was interested in making a path from the deep recesses of Becca’s pain, through into her world and how she navigates daily life, while always, always processing and simply living with her grief, and then from there out to the audience to show her to [the audience], and ask them to recognize and understand her so that they might see a bit of themselves or someone they love in her.

In one of my favorite commentaries by David Lindsay-Abaire (DLA), he mentions his motivation to write Rabbit Hole: he wanted to write about something of which he was deeply afraid.  Of what are you deeply afraid?  What would send you down a “rabbit hole”?

I agree! The story of DLA coming to write Rabbit Hole is incredible. Would that we were all be so brave to name our fear and confront it by creating art.

When I look inside myself, I’m afraid for my people—my husband, my daughters. My kids particularly because they are so little. Lots of parents, particularly parents of young children, would say that, but what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in hard truth. After the birth of my first child, I told my mom I was so relieved that the birth went well and the baby was safely out into the world because now I could stop worrying about her. Needless to say, my mom laughed in my face.

How did you develop your strong relationships with other characters and actors in the play?

Michelle Aguillon and I knew each other a little, but everyone else was new to me at the Rabbit Hole read-through. While there’s something to be said for a pre-existing level of trust and intimacy, in our case, getting to know each other while we built the foundation for our characters and their relationships was interesting and very fruitful. The ensemble of this show was incredible—Maureen Adduci as Nat, Alex Thayer as Howie, Brooke Casanova as Izzy, and Jordan DiGloria as Jason—and everyone made such wonderful specific choices all the time that there were endless combinations to play with in each moment. We all got very comfortable with each other, and some of my favorite compliments were that we really sounded like a family.

At one rehearsal with Mark Baumhardt (our fantastic Sound Designer), he didn’t realize that Brooke and I had started; he thought we were still chatting. Lots and lots of stuff came up organically and the cast brought a million ideas. Too many, really! Michelle did an incredible job of balancing what we needed in order to feel connected to each other, while always serving the play. Michelle came to Rabbit Hole with such a clear view of it that was both macro- and microscopic. She really has an almost innate understanding of each of the relationships and what they bring to the larger story, while always leaving room for the actors to bring our view into the mix. Michelle is an extraordinary director.

We all got close and laughed way more than you’d think, given the subject of the play.

What have been some of your favorite roles?  What roles would you play again?  What would you do differently?

Well, my acting resume is quite short right now. As my kids get older, I hope to do more theater, but Rabbit Hole was my fifth show at this point in my life. Besides Rabbit Hole and Kimberly Akimbo, I’ve also played Jean in Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Chelsea in On Golden Pond, and Sheila in The Boys Next Door.

I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Patti Levaco in Kimberly Akimbo. She’s absolutely outrageous and a wild blast of a ride to play, but, for me, she is also forever my first part that opened up this wonderful world to me, and I’m grateful to her and to Russell Greene for casting me.

You spent a lot of time with this play.  What changed over time?  What stayed the same?  What did you learn about yourself and the play?

I have! It’s been a long stretch with Rabbit Hole, and it’s been wonderful. The layers of meaning in this script are seemingly endless. We were finding new moments and connections literally right up to the morning of the final performance two months ago, a year and a half after we started. From the beginning, we were all completely committed to honoring the author’s intent, all the time. Michelle reminded us regularly to “serve the play, always serve the play.” Through all this time together, that has stayed the same. We’re there to serve the play, this beautiful script.

What is the scariest thing about performing?  What is the most fun?

Performing is terrifying, but the scariest thing is also the most fun. While you can plan and practice forever, that moment comes when you let it go and leap, and ride the shared energy, the trust in yourself and everyone else’s work, the director’s vision, and the writer’s words. My worst and weakest nights are when I try to hang on to something and control something. It’s an act of faith. It’s a blast and super scary, both at once.

What do you like to order when you go out to dinner?  What do you like to cook?

I’ll eat (pretty much) anything, but I generally order what is special to the restaurant, or the area. Or I’ll order seasonally, which sounds healthy, but it’s really just usually more delicious.

Are you reading anything good right now?  Do you have anything on your “To Read” list?

Right now I’m reading All the Light We Cannot See, and it’s wonderful. Next up is Kate Atkinson’s new one, A God in Ruins. My favorite books I read last year were The Rosie Project and Station Eleven.

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

The time away from home can be hard on my family, so I try to only participate in one show a year, at least while the kids are still little. I’m looking forward to auditioning next year, and it’s exciting to see the great season selections in the area. To end this terrific season and start the next one off, I’m directing a 10-minute piece in the Hovey Summer Shorts, at the Hovey Players in Waltham. My first time directing!

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

THANK YOU for your ongoing appreciation and support of local theater! And thank you, Brian, for helping to shine a light on so much good work by so many people.

2014 Best Specialty Ensemble in a Play Nominee Interview: The Weird Sisters in imaginary beasts' "Rumpelstiltskin, Or All That Glitters"

Photo by Molly Kimmerling

Photo by Molly Kimmerling

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.

Something Weird this way comes.  In Winter 2014, Boston experienced the creepy and hilarious talents of three Weird Sisters, Lady Honor, Lady Glory and Lady Marmalade in the imaginary beasts' Winter Panto, Rumpelstiltskin, Or All That Glitters. Not only did they charm us with their one-liners, but they brought fierce diva dance moves to the stage in a show-stopping rendition of Goldfinger. In their Interview, Amy, Molly, and Mikey show us how weird these sisters three can be, including their love for hairspray and gold lame dresses, their inspiration from girl groups and the three fates, and how Boston can improve (hint: it's not through magic). 

Hi, Lady Honor, Lady Glory, and Lady Marmalade, can you introduce yourself to our ArtsImpulse readers?  Who are you, what is your performing history and experience, and what brings you to Boston and the stage?

Hi Everyone! Lady Honor, Lady Glory and Lady Marmalade here. Sorceresses by day and fringe actors by night loving our lives and feeling our fantasy. We have known each other for so many years via various avenues and alleyways (Hogwarts, caves of wonders, stirring pots, those whacky imaginary beasts, etc). But ladies never tell their age, darling. We came to Boston to cast a spell on the community and bewitch reviewers such as yourself, Mr. Balduzzi! We mean, really, who doesn’t like to see hairy Italians in dresses? So, here we flew to and here we shall stay.

Who were the Weird Sisters?  How did they fit into the 2014 Winter Panto? 

We are THE epitome of strange; a trio of benevolent agents who enlisted the audience to help fight for the good right and true! And defeat Rumpelstiltskin.

By the way, what is a panto?  How does imaginary beast do them?

A Panto, by definition, is a traditional fairy tale complete with songs, dances, jokes, exaggerated characters and lots of audience participation. However, a Panto is really the most fun any actor will have on stage. EVER!

How do we do them? With lots of patience, love, care, and laughter. Side-splitting cackling, dare we say.

What is the process for creating this particular Winter Panto?  How much creativity did you have in the process?  What were the biggest challenges?

We start with a scenario and improvise scenes with different combinations of people. Based on our improv, Matthew [Woods] writes the script and finishes by opening night or sometimes the 3rd weekend.  The ensemble has A TON of creative license in the process, and the biggest challenge is always not making it a five hour show.

What makes a Winter Panto more or less successful than others?  How have they changed over the years?

Sometimes, the cultural references that we include are really fun depending on the year. For example “What Does the Fox Say?” was a huge hit, but it definitely would not translate in next year’s Panto. They change over the years based on the audience familiarity with Panto.

What have been some of your favorite imaginary beast productions?  Favorite Boston theatre productions?

Photo by Lara Woolfson / Studio Nouveau

Photo by Lara Woolfson / Studio Nouveau

Pantos, of course. Humpty Dumpty was the first show the three of us did together and we instantly bonded over our weirdness (and love of Lady Glory’s photographic skills). We abandoned our powers for 4 weeks to play other roles. We are versatile, you know.

We're big fans of ALL Boston fringe/theater! If you are putting yourself out there to the masses, we’re a fan of yours. Truly.

What is one thing that you wish that the Boston theatre scene would change in the next year?  In the next five years?

Space, space, and more space!

What or who makes you laugh?

Each other, of course, as well as the liveliness and adventures back stage at the Panto, specifically the goody side.

What was your inspiration for the Weird Sisters?  What were some of your more iconic parts of these roles?  How much did you improvise each night?

Photo by Bruce DiLoreto

Photo by Bruce DiLoreto

Girl groups, the three fates, drunken (Bandit wine sipping) Macbeth witches, our love for gold, etc.  Goldfinger was Shirley Bassey’s iconic James Bond song, so the movements in the video were incorporated in our rousing, titillating number.

Oh Jeez! Every night was different due to the audience reactions so we just played off of them. Especially the children. They are a trip.

If you were stuck on a desert island, what are three things that you would want with you?  What is one thing that you would not with you?

Photo by Brian McConkey Photography

Photo by Brian McConkey Photography

Gold lame dresses, crystal ball, crutches and hair spray (oops, that’s four! Witches aren’t confined to mortal numbering).

And we do NOT want to bring any baddies. *snaps*

Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?

Lady Honor and Lady Glory have Menagerie with imaginary beasts, and Lady Marmalade is stage managing Dying City with Happy Medium Theatre as well as preparing for her role as Emory in Boys in the Band with Zeitgeist Stage Company.

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

STAY WEIRD!