Categories
Interviews

Twenty Questions with Tony Award Winner Michael Rupert

Michael Rupert won the 1986 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Oscar in the revival of Sweet Charity. He received his first Tony Award nomination in 1968 at the age of 16 for his Broadway debut in Kander and Ebb’s The Happy Time. Rupert originated the role of Marvin in the William Finn musicals March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1991), which would later be combined into the 1992 two-act Broadway musical that featured Rupert, Falsettos. His impressive resume also includes Pippin (1974), Mail (1988), City of Angels (1991), Ragtime, originating the role of Professor Callahan in Legally Blonde (2007), and Our Town (2014). 

In addition to acting, Rupert is an experienced director, writer, and composer. He directed The Lunch Anxieties Off-Broadway as well as the musical The Stars In Your Eyes. He composed the score to Strange Vacation, Mail, 3 Guys Naked from the Waist Down, and Streets of America, which he also co-wrote the lyrics and books. 

We were fortunate enough to speak with Michael and get Twenty questions with a Tony Award Winner. 

1. What were your first thoughts upon being nominated for a Tony Award?

I was thrilled. I had been nominated once before and had not gone on to win, so I thought whatever happens, at the very least, I’ll get to enjoy the next few weeks of parties and anticipation. 

2. What were your first thoughts upon winning?

I was pretty shocked. I didn’t think it was going to happen. I hadn’t even come up with any kind of “Thank You” speech, so I fumbled a few words and made my way backstage. Very surreal.

3. Do you have any fond memories from the night of the ceremony? 

The Tony ceremony that year happened in the theater where my show, Sweet Charity, was playing, so when I got backstage, I was greeted by all the crew people I was working with 8 times a week. That was quite special. I got to share the moment with my friends.

4. What was a great opportunity winning the Tony Award afforded?

Winning the Tony Award did not really change my life or my career considerably, other than whenever anyone wrote about me or mentioned me, I was referred to as “The Tony Award-winning Actor…etc.

5. Where do you keep your award now? 

I keep my Tony in a cabinet with other memorabilia.

6. Who is an artist/performer you admire?

Sam Gold.

7. What is the best advice you have received in your career?

“Just say the words. Don’t act. Trust that you’re interesting enough.”

8. What is the last book you read?

NEVER by Ken Follett.

9. What is a dream role of yours?

I have no dream role, per se. Though, Fagin in OLIVER! is cool.

10. What previous role of yours had your favorite costumes?

In LEGALLY BLONDE The Musical, I got to wear very expensive tailored suits. I enjoyed that.

Kate Shindle, Laura Bell Bundy, and Michael Rupert in Legally Blonde, photo by Joan Marcus.

11. What is a fond rehearsal memory of yours? 

I was in the very first workshop of William Finn’s A NEW BRIAN at The Public Theater. Jason Robert Brown was our musical director/vocal arranger. The first day of rehearsal I watched him attack the keyboard like no one I’d ever seen. Truly brilliant muscular musicianship. I was in awe.

12. Which of your previous roles did you feel most similar to? 

Marvin in FALSETTOS.

13. Which of your previous roles did you feel most different from? 

I once played a cranky, old elf in a workshop production of Harry Connick, Jr.’s THE HAPPY ELF directed by John Rando. I am not an elf.

14. What has been a challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Letting go and trusting myself. I’ve always been too self-critical.

15. What are you working on now?

I’m retired from acting/performing at this point. I spend my time now directing and working with students at various colleges and universities.

16. What is your favorite song?

“I’ve Never Said I Love You” from Jerry Herman’s DEAR WORLD. I can still listen to Pamela Hall’s performance of that song, and it gets to me every time. Brilliant.

17. What is a show or movie you are looking forward to seeing?

It doesn’t come out until next year, but I look forward to seeing the next part of DUNE.

18. What was your best subject in school?

English Lit.

19. What is your go to brunch order? 

The Avocado Burrito at Tajin in Lower Manhattan. Unbelievably brilliant!

20. What is your favorite part of theatre?

Sitting in the audience the moment the lights go down.

Michael Rupert and Debbie Allen in Sweet Charity.
Categories
Cover Story Interviews

Twenty Questions with Tony Winner Blair Brown

In 2000, Blair Brown won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Margrethe in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. Brown first appeared on a New York stage in the 1975 New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Comedy of Errors and boasts an impressive theatre resume including the 1989 Broadway production of Secret Rapture, the 1995 Lincoln Center Theater production of Arcadia, two runs as Frau Schneider in the 1998 and 2003 productions of Cabaret, and the 2006 production of The Clean House. She can currently be seen at Studio 54 as Ms. Innes in Tracy Letts’ The Minutes, playing through July 24th only. 

On Screen, Brown appeared in the 1973 Oscar winning film, The Paper Chase, as well as in The Choirboy, Altered States, One Trick Pony, Stealing Home, and A Flash of Green. She received a Golden Globe nomination for her leading role opposite John Belushi in Continental Divide. She received a second Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in the TV miniseries Kennedy. She had a 5-year run on the television comedy-drama, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, where she received 5 consecutive Emmy Award nominations. In 2008, Brown appeared on the Fox television series The Fringe, and was featured as Judy King in 3 seasons of the Netflix comedy-drama series, Orange is the New Black

We were fortunate enough to speak with Blair and get Twenty questions with a Tony Award Winner. 

Blair Brown at the 2000 Tony Awards.

1. What were your first thoughts upon being nominated for a Tony Award?

Why wasn’t there an ensemble award?  There still isn’t. I was in a three-character play, Copenhagen, and Michael Cumpsty and Phil Bosco and I were totally dependent on each other for our performances. 

2. What were your first thoughts upon winning?

It’s just nice to win a prize even though we know it doesn’t really matter. 

3. Do you have any fond memories from the night of the ceremony? 

My son in a tux as my date. I got a chance to thank the brilliant wig maker, Paul Huntley, whose artistry in helping actors create characters was largely unrecognized, and I got to sing and dance Irish music on that huge Radio City stage in that gargantuan house. A nice night!

4. What is the biggest change you experienced after winning?

You get better billing. That’s it really

5. Where is your award now? 

In a cabinet mixed in with small ceramics my son made as a child. 

6. Who has been a mentor in your career?

I never had a mentor but there were two actors that I wanted to be like: Marian Seldes and Roger Rees. They both brought such genuine joy and enthusiasm to this work they loved. I try to remember that. 

7. What is the best advice you have received in your career?

One day in rehearsal at the Guthrie Theater playing Portia in The Merchant of Venice I was having a crisis of confidence. Michael Langham, the director, took me aside and basically said “You expect people to pay money to watch you think and feel so get on with it”. He said it in a slightly nicer way but that’s what he meant and it’s true, we do! 

8. Do you have any preperformance rituals?

I make up different rituals for every show. 

9. What is the last book you read?

I Just finished rereading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. A wonderful look at Russian short story writing that can inform what actors do creating characters. 

10. What is a dream role of yours?

I wish I’d done more Shakespeare, more Shaw, more Restoration comedies. I was in the wrong country. 

11. What previous role of yours had your favorite costumes?

My Favorite, most favorite costume was a gown designed for Camino Real by Michael Krass that was based on a 1950’s Dior petal dress. I shed sequins and petals wherever I walked. Divine!

12. Which of your previous roles did you feel most similar to?

I always felt Gretta in James Joyce’s The Dead was someone I could have been. 

13. Which of your previous roles did you feel most different from?

When I was in drama school I was cast as a termagant in John Osbourne’s Live Like Pigs because I’d been complaining about playing ingenues. I had to look up the word and I was ridiculous as this older hardened prostitute!

14. Is there a role that you would like to revisit?

I’d like to revisit playing Prospera in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was such a rich and interesting experience to switch that protagonist’s gender, fascinating to feel the story play out differently. I’d like another shot at it with Emily Mann directing again. 

15. What has been a challenge you’ve faced in your career?

The biggest challenge for me was trying to balance raising my son with the work I loved doing but also needed to do to support us. 

16. What is a song that always makes you smile?

“Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” by Cole Porter always gets me smiling. 

17. What is your favorite cocktail?

Danny Meyer’s Tabla on Madison Square used to make a Citrus Ginger Snap cocktail. Delish!

18. What is a place you would like to visit?

I want to see more of Scotland, those wild islands.  

19. What is your favorite show tune?

No single show tune stands out. It’s a crowded field. Anything from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.  Or The Threepenny Opera.  Or The Band’s Visit

20. What is your favorite part of theatre?

My favorite part of theater is rehearsal and tech when the play emerges.  Thrilling!  My 2nd favorite is the moment after the Sunday matinee when you’ve run the 8-show gauntlet and you breathe a sigh of relief and accomplishment. 

Samira Wiley and Blair Brown in Orange is the New Black.
Categories
Interviews

Twenty Questions with Tony Winner Jessie Mueller

In 2014, Jessie Mueller won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for her portrayal of Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Along with her 2014 win, Jessie has been nominated for three additional Tony Awards for her Melinda Wells in the 2011 revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, originating the role of Jenna in the 2016 hit Waitress, and most recently, her Julie Jordan in the 2018 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel

Jessie Mueller’s distinguished career has also included appearance on shows including The Family, Blue Bloods, Madam Secretary, Evil, and Candy. She can currently be seen in Tracy Letts’ Tony Nominated Best Play, The Minutes, playing at Studio 54 until July 23rd. 

We are very grateful that Jessie took some time between shows to answer Twenty Questions with a Tony Award Winner.

Jessie Mueller in Beautiful (Joan Marcus).

1. What were your first thoughts upon being nominated for a Tony Award?

When I was nominated for Beautiful, I was thrilled. I was so proud of all the amazing work everyone had done putting that show together.

2.   What were your first thoughts upon winning?

Honestly? Walk and talk fast and don’t fall down. It had been a long night!

3.   Do you have any fond memories from the night of the ceremony?

I remember seeing Nick Cordero perform from Bullets Over Broadway, and thinking who IS this cat? He’s amazing.

4.   What is the biggest change you experienced after winning?

It opened a window to professional opportunities I’d never had before.

5.   Where is your award now?

In a box still from a recent move!

6.   Who has been a mentor in your career?

Oh gosh…I try to pick up a little from all the wonderful people I meet. Steal what I admire and learn from what I don’t. Harry Connick Jr. was certainly a mentor for my early days in NY. He took me under his wing during Clear Day. He’s someone I know I can always come to if I need advice.

7.   What is the best advice you have received in your career?

“Do your thing and don’t worry about other people.” -HCJ

Not easy, but very sound advice.

8.   Do you have any pre-performance rituals?

Lately, a little yoga beforehand helps me get my head in the game and start breathing.

9.   What is the last book you read?

I don’t remember. But the last one that really made me laugh was Phoebe Robinson’s Don’t Sit On My Bed In Your Outside Clothes.

10.  What is a dream role of yours?

Being an animated Disney character…I will be a tree stump. I’m not particular.

11.  What previous role of yours had your favorite costumes?

My costumes as Melinda Wells in Clear Day were pretty fabulous. Cathy Zuber made me feel like a million bucks. There were hats and matching shoes. It was so fun.

12.  What is the best prop you’ve used?

Ok, I have to say the first thing that popped into my head was prop baby dolls. They’re always hilarious. They’re usually very scary looking, and you spend most of the scenes when they appear trying to look lovingly into their dead eyes while hiding their face from the audience at all costs.

13.  Which of your previous roles did you feel most similar to?

Probably each one as I was playing them. I think that’s where I start. I use what I have, so each role brings something out in me that is particular to that moment in time.

14.  Which of your previous roles did you feel most different from?

Maybe Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. I loved that. It was a fun departure.

Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry (Julieta Cervantes).

15.  Is there a role that you would like to revisit?

Not a role really, but I think I’d like to do Into the Woods again at some point.

16.  What has been a challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Juggling life and work. It’s really hard. Live theatre work especially is extremely demanding. It seems like you only work a few hours a night, but it’s no joke.

17.  What is a song that always makes you smile?

Sunshine On My Shoulders by John Denver was the first thing I thought of!

18.  What is your favorite cocktail?

Oooooh. Spicy margarita or a vodka martini up with a twist, honey!

19.  What is a place you would like to visit?

Ireland.

20.  What is your favorite show tune?

I like the overtures.

Jessie Mueller and Noah Reid in The Minutes (Jeremy Daniel).
Categories
Interviews

Twenty Questions with Tony Winner Elizabeth Ashley

In 1962 at the age of 22, Elizabeth Ashley won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Mollie Michaelson in Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s Take Her, She’s Mine. Along with her 1962 win, Elizabeth has also received two other Tony Award nominations for originating the role of Corie in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and for her Margaret in the 1974 revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

She has been featured in more than 30 movies, including the 1964 film The Carpetbaggers, as well as dozens of TV series, including the currently running Netflix original series, Russian Doll

We were fortunate enough to speak with Elizabeth and get Twenty questions with a Tony Award Winner. 

Elizabeth Ashley and George Peppard

1. What were your first thoughts upon being nominated for a Tony Award? 

“To say it was a shock is to underestimate the effect it had on me. You have to remember that I was very young, and I gotten the part in this play because it was just – at the time when Art Carney had left The Honeymooners and the part was not originally that big, and George Abbot kept rewriting and rewriting to the point where my part got much bigger and showier. It became a play more centered on the relationship between Art and my character. It had never even occurred to me but being nominated was a big deal and I felt like the hottest little twinkie on Broadway… I was nominated again for Barefoot in the Park, which was surprising to me. I remember I was supposed to present but had some teenage drama, you know, so I wasn’t able to present… For Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee wanted his original version done, and that was directed by the brilliant Michael Kahn. It got a lot of national press and Roger Stevens brought it to Broadway and then the Opera House… Because it was such a huge success both critically and in every other way it could be, it was totally expected.”

2. What were your first thoughts upon winning?

“When they called my name, I mean, it was like a mental, emotional, and psychological explosion because I was so young and inexperienced. I couldn’t really grasp the meaning of it.”

3. Do you have any fond memories from that night?

“I remember Charles Nelson Reilly won also that night, and I remember he and I sort of walking out together and Charles grabbed my hand as we were trying to cross Park Avenue and he said, ‘Well look at us, we’re the newest stars around here’.”

4. What is the biggest change you experienced after winning? 

“I think I was being paid maybe $100 a week and I think I got a raise to $125. The thing I remember most clearly was being offered star billing, and my brilliant young agent, Stark Hesseltine, said ‘Absolutely not. In the Theatre, once you go above the title, you must never go below it again.’ And he was saying that to someone who was 22 years old, so of course I did what he said, and I took my $25 raise and was utterly happy with it. Because I was so young and it was considered unusual at the time for a young actress to be considered funny, so that got a lot of attention and press, and I think that opened many many doors to me. Overall, let me just say, no one that I know of was luckier than I was at the beginning of my career, and it all happened so fast. It was years before I could begin to start to look back and think what it meant…I remember it was the first time I was sent pages, and they were from Neil Simon and he wanted to write a play for me to be in, which would lead to Barefoot in the Park… I didn’t realize how unusual and remarkable it was.”

5. Who has been a Mentor in your career?

“The great Roger L Stevens, the man who built the Kennedy Center. He had the playwrights company that represented Tennessee Williams. When I was an understudy in a hit comedy called Mary, Mary, and I wasn’t even a standby, I was an understudy where I had to be there all the time and that’s where I met Roger Stevens. I suppose the next great mentor or the man who made me a ‘star’ was the great George Abbott in the play that won me the Tony, Take Her, She’s Mine.” 

6. What is the best advice you have received?

“There is a brilliant director named Michael Wilson that I owe a great deal too. Any actress goes through those times when no one wants to hire them for anything. For many years, Michael was the Artistic Director at Hartford Stage and put together an extraordinary company of actors and designers… On stage, because I was physical, I always tended to move around to much. I’ve never been known to underact. Because Michael and I clicked so well that he went right at all the bad habits I had. He went right for every psychological grab bar or comfort we had, which over all the years, has made me a better actress than I would have been.”

7. Who is one of your favorite playwrights you’ve worked with?

“Tennessee [Williams] and I had an immediate affinity. We became close. Tennessee loved actors. My God he loved actors. He was amazing and extraordinary… His plays are operatic. The soliloquies are like arias in a sense and his use of breaking the fourth wall was remarkable… If I ever became known for anything, it was Tennessee Williams plays. We became very close friends. If one wants to know about Tennessee, they should read the book by John Lahr who spent 13 years writing the biography. Tennessee has never written a play that when I read it or saw it, I didn’t immediately identify and understand the soul of it.”

8. What is a play you would like to re-read? 

“I look forward to re-reading The Visit. I haven’t read it in years and I would like to read it again to see if it still applies the way I have always thought. I’d like to re-read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. I would also like to re-read some of his [Shakespeare] comedies. I can pull out my big, fat book of Shakespeare.”

9. What is a show you look forward to seeing?

“The play I am really looking forward to seeing after my knee heals is Tracy Letts’ The Minutes. I had the privilege of being in August: Osage County.”

10. What is the last book you read?

“I tend to read an awful lot of peculiar history and detective novels. Give me a good Michael Connelly book any day and I’ll go for it.”

11. What is a dream-role you want to play?

“The one Tennessee I never played was Streetcar Named Desire because by the time I could’ve done it, it had been done brilliantly by several actors… The one part that I lusted after and longed to play and have never had the opportunity is The Visit. It needs a great translation… I knew that woman. I knew that situation. I knew that was me.” 

12. What previous role of yours had the best costumes?

“I think when I played Isadora Duncan in a play called When She Danced at Playwrights Horizons. I’ve had brilliant costume designers, but Jess Goldstein, those were the most gorgeous costumes I’ve ever had. One of the first things I did after coming out of retirement and coming back to New York, there was the designer Peter Joseph for The Enchanted by Giraudoux at the Kennedy Center. Those costumes were ones that I kept and loved forever… This sounds very diva-ish, but one of the things I won’t work without is a Paul Huntley wig.”

13. Which role of yours did you feel most similar to?

“For Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, what can I say, this will sound like arrogance, but that’s not in the least in the way I mean it, but that part [Maggie] had my name on it. I knew Maggie. There was not one thing in that play that I hadn’t lived or known or experienced in my life of in the lives around me. In part she was my mother.” 

14. Which role of yours felt the most different from you?

“Well, this Netflix series, Russian Doll. That character was, in many ways, quite distant from me. Much more contained. I had to approach it in a totally different way. Also, Isadore Duncan in When She Danced, I had to really stretch out for that.”

Elizabeth Ashley at the Russian Doll Season 2 Premiere

15. What has been a creative challenge you have faced in your career?

“Probably Ceasar and Cleopatra. I didn’t know what I was going to do with that play, because it was Shaw, but the first famous scene you are kind of on your own in a sense. I had done so much research and I knew her age and that she was exiled because they wanted her dead. She was like a feral child that had grown up in the sewers, which led me to make a more radical choice in how she looked so you would see the story of a powerful man creating a queen. Developing it, towards the end, became a challenge because I had to age her and tame and teach her. It was challenging to find the truth and comfort zone of that without ‘acting’ it.”

16. What is one of your favorite theatrical experiences to have been a part of?

“I think my best work ever and the part I identified with the most was in Sweet Bird of Youth. I think that’s my favorite role I had the privilege to play. Again, under the direction of the wonderful Michael Kahn.”

17. What is a song that always makes you smile?

“Desperado by The Eagles.”

18. What is your favorite cocktail?

“Straight gold tequila in a shot glass.” 

19. What is a place you would like to visit?

“The most joyous and happy times of my life were when I was retired and became a sailor and lived in the Caribbean on an ocean raising sailboat. When I went, the islands were a secret. There were no roads, no electricity, no phones. The one thing I have done is travel all over the world and lived all over the world… I think where I’d like to go again is the Scandinavian countries. There are islands off Norway that I’d like to see what happening there.”

20. What is your favorite part of theatre? 

 “The theatre is my home, you know. A stage, it’s instinctive. There is something in my DNA that understands it, respects it, adores it, loves it, and damn well knows what to do on it. The thing I have always loved the most is the research. Basically, I’ve always said I’m a mechanic. I like to go under the hood and take it apart and put back together and make it go like a race car. Good directors have helped me when I need to make it into an old Plymouth and not Ferrari.” 

Elizabeth Ashley in The Best Man (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Categories
Creative Interviews

Sarna Lapine On Directing “Watch On The Rhine” for Spotlight on Plays

Sarna Lapine (Sofia Colvin)

You are probably familiar with the name Sarna Lapine, you know, the director of “Sunday In The Park With George,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Little Women,” “War Horse” and “Dirty Dancing,” just to name a few. Well, Lapine has decided to turn her focus to a new production and is doing a livestream of Lillian Hellman’s, “Watch On The Rhine”, as part of the “Spotlight on Plays” series to benefit The Actors Fund, Thursday, May 13th at 8pm, livestreaming on Stellar. Yes, this Thursday, Lapine and a global cast will mount this production after only a three-day period of reflection and rehearsal and give a riveting performance of the classic antifascism, Nazi-Germany drama, set in a wealthy home in the United States.

Lapine, discussing this project, explained that “it’s the first thing I’ve done in this particular way, with the livestream.” The original Broadway production, which won a New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1941, showed audiences 80 years ago, the depth of storytelling that Hellman was capable of. Reflecting on why she chose this play Lapine shared, “I think part of the reason I’ve had a diverse career is that my first love is reading and literature. I gravitate towards writers and stories that grab me by the throat. I had never seen or read this play and I was grabbed by it. It’s chilling because of how it resonates in this moment and time. One of the little handbooks I keep in my pocket is ‘On Tyranny Twenty lessons for the Twentieth Century’ by Timothy Snyder. I’m Jewish, so I have a close relationship to the history of WWII as a Jewish person. Because of my education in that, some of the things that Donald Trump and his party have stood for have frightened me, because there are echoes of Hitler and Nazism. Timothy Snyder’s book lays out lessons from history that can alert us to the rise of tyranny now. The last lesson is to be as courageous as you can. ‘If known of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny,’ page 115. What was also a discovery in thinking about this book in relationship to this play is he echoes Hamlet, ‘the time is out of joint’. In Lillian’s play, Kurt (the main character) says, ‘the world is out of shape.’ Hellman was living this history, traveling the world, she had a front row seat to see fascism. I was struck by the fact that it opened on stage in 1941. She’s writing in the crucible of this moment and watching how it’s taking shape in the minds and hearts of ordinary citizens. It’s not a piece about heroes and villains, it’s about ordinary citizens in Europe and American and the decisions we make every single day that tip the hand of history…The piece gets to the heart of the moral, ethical and modern realities of what happens to citizens who are faced with the threat of tyranny. 80 years later it’s a continuum.”

The message of this play could not possibly resonate more than it does today. “At it’s core it’s a conversation. In this country, whether or not we stand and choice democracy, this is a conversation that I want to be in, even with people who don’t see the world the way I do.”

Staying true to the original 1940s based play, without the benefit of sets, costumes and a physical theatre, Lapine focused on the bottomline, “Plays are language based. The language of the play is routed in the period in which it was written. One esthetic choice I made was editing all the footage in Black and White, which gives a nod to the 1940s period in which the film was made. There are very few stage directions presented as title cards.

Pondering the challenges of doing a livestream, Lapine remarked, “The challenge is the lack of physical interpersonal connection. The energy that comes from being in a room with an amazing group of artists. Time is out of joint when we can’t live through that moment together and have the luxury of time to do a deep dive into the material.” Considering audiences consumption of the production, Lapine suggests watching with friends, so that you can discuss it afterwards.

Lapine will be directing an outstanding cast including Ellen Burstyn; Alan Cox; Sasha Diamond; Alfred Enoch; Carla Gugino; Luca Padovan; Mary Beth Peil; Gabriella Pizzolo; Neel Sethi and Jeremy Shamos. “This pandemic has been so devastating to our theater community. I almost have no words and still feel very much in that space. It’s a lot that has been lost and I think to make any contribution to this community is the least I can do. I want to work towards not only healing, but reimagining how we can rebuild ourselves in a healthier form, more sustainable and reflective of the world so many of us want to live in.”

Spotlight on Plays is presented by Broadway’s Best Shows. You can purchase individual tickets to Watch on the Rhine (May 13-17) at Stellar Tickets. All proceeds go to benefit The Actors Fund.


Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News, Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, A&E Editor for Harlem News Group and has written for Playbill Online, had a Theatre column “On The Aisle” for Our Time Press, Network Journal Magazine, Show Business Weekly Newspaper, Headline Magazine, Theatre Week Magazine, Black Masks Magazine, and the New York Daily News. Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library interviewed her for their “Critical Perspectives” series, and she was cited on the Jeanne Parnell Radio Show in March 2021 as a Woman Making History.

Categories
Interviews

The Thanksgiving Play

By: Larissa FastHorse

Larissa FastHorse

I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of press about The Thanksgiving Play over the past few years as it became one of the most produced plays in America. So, if you want to know the origin story of the play, please google it. There are many radio, TV and printed interviews where I have answered those questions. This production is different. 

Larissa FastHorse

I have barely done any theater since Covid shut down our field. I’m fortunate that I also have a career in film and TV that, although significantly slowed, kept me employed over the past year. As the theater field put things online, I happily gave permission for folks to do this play on zoom and other virtual venues. I showed up at a few rehearsals and the talk backs were supportive and enthusiastic. But the truth is, I didn’t watch any of those productions. Not one.  I have not admitted that before now. The truth is, I was too heartbroken to watch.  

Bobby Cannavale stars in “The Thanksgiving Play”

Although I didn’t start in theater, I did start on stage. I love performing, I love watching  performances, I love being in a room with people working to touch hearts and change minds. I am a social introvert but put me on a stage, no matter how large or small, and it immediately feels like home. When I tried to do theater work on zoom, I would leave the session more  depressed than before I started. I deiced I just wasn’t going to do it. I would do my privileged  writing work and wait out the pandemic until my field returned. 

Keanu Reeves stars in “The Thanksgiving Play”

Then I got a call from Jeffrey Richards with the opportunity to support one of my favorite organizations, The Actors Fund. I said yes, but I planned to keep my distance and protect my broken heart. However, Jeffrey isn’t a guy who lets you sit on the sidelines. He was calling me for ideas of directors, actors, collaborators. We landed on Leigh Silverman, a director I had only met briefly but admired for a long time. I then tried to pass all decisions on to her, but Leigh is exactly my kind of director, collaborative and fun. Before I knew it I was sucked further in.  

Leigh Silverman, Director

Then a Covid miracle happened, Leigh and I zoomed with the delightful Keanu Reeves and he agreed to play Caden. (My teen self was more star struck than I knew I could be, while my  professional self tried desperately to keep it together.) Keanu asked me if I’d consider re-setting the entire play on zoom. He immediately started playing zoom ideas for Caden. I burst  out laughing and suddenly I was completely on board.  

Heidi Schreck stars in “The Thanksgiving Play”

Before I knew it my assistant and I were going word by word through the script, coming up  with small but significant changes to place these four familiar characters in a whole new world, so that the audience could be immersed with them instead of having to pretend we weren’t on screen.

Alia Shawkat stars in “The Thanksgiving Play”

The rest of the dream cast fell into place quickly and once again, I was in love. In love with the process, in love with the raw bravery of actors, in love with how designers make everything from nothing, in love with directors’ ability to see everything at once, in love with the awkwardness of zoom (When Heidi lost her internet I got to rehearse a scene with Keanu and  Bobby!), in love with theater and the way it can make us laugh and cry and rage and change all  in a few moments of time.  

Larissa FastHorse

I didn’t know it could happen so fast, but this process began to heal my broken heart. Like  always, when you watch this play I hope you laugh and enjoy yourself and question everything  you thought you knew. I also know that in the past year, lives were lost and changed and we will never be the same, but now that we are on the cusp of recovery for our field, I hope that  this wild zoom play at this moment in time will help you start to heal too. I’ll see you online,  and then, soon, I’ll see you back in the theater.  

Categories
Interviews

Dessie Moynihan

By: Linda Armstrong

March is Women’s History Month and it is a time when women who paved the way are recognized for their accomplishments. Dessie Moynihan is the perfect person to recognize as she changed the face of senior management at the Shubert Organization in 2006 when she became the first woman to be named a vice president. “I’ve seen Shubert grow from a very private company that had been family run to a multifaceted corporate organization. As time went on there was another female vice president appointed–in Human Resources–and in the past 5 years a number of women have risen to the director level, which is really great. I see a change in the world and I see a change at the company. Leadership has embraced it, so it’s not as singular as it once was,” Moynihan explained. 

Reflecting on her responsibilities as Vice President of Creative Projects, Moynihan stated, “My department looks for material for Shubert to produce, invest in and book into our theatres. Part of that is putting money into plays and musicals that other people are producing. Part is thinking about what should go into our Broadway houses. Part of it—the really fun part—is being in a project from the very beginning and seeing it through to opening. Right now with Neil Meron we’re developing the new musical ‘Some Like It Hot’ by Matthew López, Amber Ruffin, Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman, directed & choregraphed by Casey Nicholaw. It’s been a delight. And I’m lucky enough to work with Bob Wankel, our Chairman and CEO, on both bookings and productions.”

Breaking down the booking process, Moynihan explained, “We keep up with what is going on in theatre in New York, across the country and around the world. We go to London to have meetings and see shows. Most of my interaction is with the producer. He or she will say, ‘I have this new musical, I’m doing a reading and I’d love for you to come see it and give us a theatre.’ There’s a long list of productions that want to play Broadway but the list of available theatres is short and has been for several years. It’s complicated by the fact that some shows have been quite successful and they take their theatre ‘off the market’ for a long time: ‘Phantom of the Opera’ has been playing for over 30 years, ‘Chicago’ over 20, and there are several other long-runners. In our smaller theatres we tend to book limited-engagement plays. If we know a show will run for 16 weeks, we can book a second show for the same season. Overall it’s a complicated puzzle with many factors, including making sure we have our houses lit, that we give new producers a chance and that we host a diverse range of material and voices.”

Dessie Moynihan

The Shubert Organization owns and operates 17 Broadway theatres, but its profits go the Shubert Foundation, a charitable organization. Since its establishment in 1977, the Foundation has awarded over $505 million to not-for-profit theatres, dance companies, educational institutions and arts-related organizations throughout the United States. Last year, $32 million was awarded to 560 performing arts organizations. “One of our priorities at the Shubert Organization is to ensure that we can contribute to the fantastic work the Foundation is doing, especially in this time when so many non-profit companies will be in such dire straits.” 

The pandemic has definitely affected Moynihan’s work. “Every company, every person in the industry has been impacted by this. Shubert’s income was drastically reduced. We own Telecharge, but for the past year very few people have been buying tickets. We had to make severe cuts. My routine is very different. Not being able to go to readings, workshops and productions has been difficult. I watch things online, but it’s just not the same experience. I check in with producers to see if their plans have changed and how their shows are progressing. With our own projects, like ‘Some Like It Hot,’ we are proceeding with the development process. 

The focus for everyone right now is the future,” Moynihan remarked. “Communication with our audience is going to be even more important. New Yorkers will be there right at the start, then domestic tourists and then international travelers. It’s impossible to predict exactly what people will want to see when this is over. But I think it will need to make a statement, to speak to the truth of being a human being or to be terrific entertainment. Hopefully there are shows that do all those things! I think that’s what people are craving–to be moved, to laugh, to be brought to tears.” 

“The thing that’s great about Broadway is that it really is a community. Even though there is competition among producers and creatives, there is a feeling, especially with the Broadway League, that we’re all in this together. I’m hoping that when we relaunch, there is going to be a burst of excitement and we can get back onto the regular Broadway season with the Tony Awards in June. Having been through this weird year, everyone is feeling, yes, there is a way forward,” Moynihan declared. 

Moynihan’s path to where she is today was an interesting one. While growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire she didn’t get bitten by the theatre bug until she was a member of the Drama Club in High School. Her theatre teacher told her if she wanted to do theatre, she needed to go to Hunter College in New York City. She only applied to Hunter, got in, headed for New York City without knowing anyone. “It was 1973. I got a room at a YWCA on the East Side,” she recalled. She left New York the next year, but came back for graduate school, receiving her M.A. in Drama and Dance and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from NYU. “They were academic degrees, as opposed to acting and directing. But they gave me a knowledge of the history of the craft. I learned how the discipline evolved. If someone said ‘I want to do a Brecht play,’ I knew who Brecht was and his theories,” Moynihan explained. “I was also an Assistant Editor at ‘The Drama Review,’ a quarterly publication, and that trained me in the ways to think about performance and write about it.”

While at NYU she worked at Circle Repertory Company in the PR/Marketing department, headed by Richard Frankel, who would go on to be a Broadway producer and general manager. “PR is a very high pressure environment and I learned an incredible amount about the process. Because of that I was then able to get a job at Ensemble Studio Theatre, again in marketing. It was a smaller organization; there weren’t walls between departments. I was able to move from Marketing to Literary, where I felt most comfortable. As Literary Manager I worked with member artists who were creating projects and assisted Artistic Director Curt Dempster with developing shows for the main stage. That was one more piece of the puzzle that was helpful when I got to Shubert,” Moynihan said.

From 1988 to 1995 Moynihan worked at The Shubert Foundation, starting as the Program Assistant processing applications and eventually moving up to Program Director, where her responsibilities included meeting with applicants, seeing productions, and preparing material for Executive Director Vicki Reiss. Being a multi-tasker, Moynihan also taught theatre history and dramaturgy for the first five years of her time with the Shubert Foundation.

The Shubert Foundation proved to be vital groundwork for Moynihan to move forward. “It was from the Foundation, getting to know all of those theatres across the country and what they were doing, that made for a natural transition to the creative side. In 1988, the landscape of the American theatre was very different from what it is today. Non-profits usually didn’t take their work to Broadway themselves. If a show was successful, a commercial producer would come by and move it. ‘A Chorus Line’ changed all that. It originated at The Public Theatre; but instead of giving it to someone else, the Public raised the money and moved it to Broadway. It was a risk but it turned out to be a giant hit. And it demonstrated a theatre could produce a show commercially, retain artistic control and have money flow back to nurture the core mission. So suddenly there was a ton of new work being generated by theatres across the country. At Shubert, there wasn’t a department dedicated to tracking that or looking for material for us to produce ourselves. I was in the right place at the right time. Because I was at the Foundation, worked in non-profit theatre and had the educational background, I was the person who was selected to start Creative Projects department in 1996,” Moynihan recalled.

Moynihan commented, “I had no idea what my future would be. I didn’t have a strategy. I am amazed that my path has been such a wonderful journey. I’m just one of the luckiest people in the world. I am incredibly grateful to the people who helped me and pushed me and gave me opportunities: Richard, Vicki, Bob, Curt, Jerry Schoenfeld, Bernie Jacobs, Phil Smith. I owe them–and many more–a great deal.”

Speaking to young women who want to be a part of the theatre industry, she said, “There are places for you. The most important thing is to seize every single opportunity. Every networking event—do it. Contact someone and say, ‘I heard you speak on a panel, can we have coffee or can I talk to you for 10 minutes?’ Find a company, a production, a play that speaks to you and try to meet the people behind it. I’ve found that people are usually very generous about sharing their advice and experience because someone helped them. Be prepared. Put your best foot forward. Connect in any way you can. Because you never know where that connection is going to lead.” 

Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News, Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, A&E Editor for Harlem News Group and has written for Playbill Online, had a Theatre column “On The Aisle” for Our Time Press, Network Journal Magazine, Show Business Weekly Newspaper, Headliner Magazine, Theatre Week Magazine, Black Masks Magazine, and The New York Daily News.

Categories
Interviews

The Clothes Are Always Talking

By Mark Blankenship

Dede Ayite

Before she became a costume designer, Dede Ayite studied behavioral neuroscience, and the two disciplines aren’t as different as they might sound. 

“Part of my training [in college] was focused on understanding psychology, and the process of research and uncovering gave me skill sets that come into costume design,” she says. “I’m trying to go past what you’re seeing on stage to add depth and layering to the character. What makes them come alive? What moves them? What breaks their heart? I love finding ways to express that, and to my mind, it all translates to costumes.”

The breadth of Ayite’s expressive power is reflected in the current race for the Tony Awards, where she has two nominations for Best Costume Design of a Play. On one end of the aesthetic spectrum, she’s been recognized for her work on Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris’ formally audacious satire about interracial couples who enact plantation fantasies to work through their sexual and personal baggage. On the other, she’s also been nominated for the revival of A Soldier’s Play, Charles Fuller’s drama about the murder of a Black soldier in he 1940s. 

Production Still from “Slave Play”

With Slave Play, she knew her clothes had to match the heightened world of the script. In the first scene, for instance, the audience doesn’t know that the characters are modern people pretending to live in the antebellum South. “I wanted to drop little hints, so that we didn’t get ahead of the satire,” Ayite says. 

Production Still from “Slave Play”

That’s why, when the character Kaneisha entered wearing a slave costume, it read as “traditional” from the neck down: a dirty blouse, a cloth skirt, and a well-worn apron. “But I also threw a head scarf on her that was a bold blue color,” Ayite notes. “During that time, a slave wouldn’t be wearing such a vibrant head wrap, so that shifted it enough to make us aware that something was a little off.” Similarly, she added lacy black gloves to another character’s plantation mistress outfit, hinting at the sexual fetishes she would reveal later. 

With a more realistic show like A Soldier’s Play or David Mamet’s American Buffalo, which Ayite will design for its upcoming Broadway revival, the costumes have to do just as much storytelling, but it has to be almost invisible. “Those are the hardest kinds of shows!” Ayite says, laughing. “A pair of jeans is never just a pair of jeans. You’re sorting through potentially 50 pairs of jeans to find the one that moves the right away and has the right tone and color.”

Production Still from “A Soldier’s Play”

In A Soldier’s Play, all the characters wore similar military uniforms, but Ayite was still able to reflect their individuality. “I personalized their uniforms through several distressing techniques:  sweat, wear and tear, the degree to which a uniform has been cared for,” she says. “Did a particular uniform have a crease because that soldier was adamant about always looking sharp? Or did it fit a tad looser based on that soldier’s relationship to their role in the military?” 

Dede Ayite

Currently her preparations for the American Buffalo revival have her thinking about how Donny, a junk shop owner in 1970s Chicago who will be played by Laurence Fishburne, might present himself. “I want to honor where he is and what survival means to him,” she says. “He might not be dressed in something from the time period of the play. He might be dressed in a garment from a slightly earlier time period — a time when he was at the height of who he thought he was. He might be dressing as the person he used to be.”

This deep thinking is crucial to Ayite’s work. She explains, “The first read of the script is the most important to me, because after I read a play for the first time, I give myself a moment to tap into my immediate emotional reactions. I make a point to hold that somewhere in my mental space. I’m always hearkening back to it to make sure I then can capture that for an audience member.”

Dede Ayite’s work in “American Son”

In some ways, that first read of the play is the closest Ayite will ever come to being an audience member for the production herself. Acknowledging her own first reactions helps ensure that her designs keep the audience in mind. “I want to remind myself about what happened to me when I read it,” she says. “If there was wonder, how do I create wonder? I want to take audiences on that type of journey through specific choices with the clothes.” 

Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the co-host of Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs

Categories
Interviews

David Cromer: The Sound Inside

By Harry Haun

Tony Award Winning Director David Cromer

‘Even though I know how to write a play, I want a novella in the theatre.’ I was excited by that. You couldn’t put the story down. It was so evocative. It was like diving into a beautiful novel.

Because director David Cromer more or less specializes in drama—much more than less but not exclusively—he was surprised to get his 2018 Tony for a musical. Granted, “The Band’s Visit” was a character-rich musical and he fortified it with three Tony-winning performances from the cast (Tony Shalhoub, Katrina Lenk and Ari’el Stachel), the turf was still unfamiliar to him. It was to be Hal Prince’s last show, and, when he couldn’t make it, its producers scouted around for a likely replacement, their sites finally settling on Cromer because of the care and craft he showed drama.

Production Still of “The Band’s Visit”

Currently, Cromer is contending for his second Tony more comfortably with something right down his alley. “The Sound Inside” is a play that theatrically pushes the envelope. 

Its author is the prolific Adam Rapp. Like Cromer, he is a Chicago native who started his invasion of New York’s theatre scene in 2000 by transplanting his Steppenwolf productions Off-Broadway. In 21 years, he has turned out 26 plays, one of which (“Red Light Winter”) was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006. “The Sound Inside” marks his first time on Broadway and his first shot at a Tony. 

Adam Rapp with David Cromer

“I’ve known Adam forever, in Chicago and here,” Cromer says. “We actually have the same agent. When this play came up, I was given it to read. Usually if I get a new play, I procrastinate, fearing the worst. This, I whip through in one sitting and said yes.”

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside”

At first glance, the director found much to admire about the piece. “It was just so rich. I love that it challenged the theatre form. Adam is a very gifted playwright who wrote a play which he was aggressively turning back into prose. He said, ‘Even though I know how to write a play, I want a novella in the theatre.’ I was excited by that. You couldn’t put the story down. It was so evocative. It was like diving into a beautiful novel.

“I was drawn to trying to explore the feeling of reading prose by yourself, reading a great novel on a cold night, with only one light on, at home—but in the communal experience.”

David Cromer in “Our Town”

 “The Sound Inside” had its shakedown-cruise premiere in June of 2018 at Mandy Greenfield’s Williamstown Theatre Festival and opened on Broadway in October of 2019 at Studio 54. Mary-Louise Parker, who’s performance is Tony-nominated, carries a star’s load of the show alone, playing a seriously ill Yale creative-writer professor who narrates the play verbally but constantly scribbles in her notebook as if she’s writing the story she’s living. A Broadway-bowing Will Hochman plays the only other character in the play, a wannabe young writer she takes under her wing to mentor, hoping he can come to her aid. 

Parker, one of our most articulate and persuasive actresses, was already attached to the project when Cromer came aboard. “I don’t know what Adam was thinking when he wrote it, but he may have done what he always does, which is to write and then he finds an actor later,” figures Cromer. “Mandy and Adam and Mary-Louise had already decided that they wanted to do that play at Williamstown, and I was the last piece of the puzzle and I think she and I were a good team. I would love to take credit for that performance, but I can’t. She’s one of the best there is.

Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside”

The amount of memory work Parker’s part requires was pretty staggering. “It was, I’m sure, very difficult for her to do. It was a problem because it also kept changing. It evolved. Mary-Louise has great instinct about the progress of a play, and Adam was doing beautiful work rewriting while we rehearsed. It was hard, and we all just kept making it harder—but to the betterment of the play.”

Mary-Louise Parker

“Mary-Louise must manifest so much of it and not have anything but her voice to do it. She was alone a lot of the time. We were happy when Will came on, but she had to spend most of it alone.”

David Cromer with Will Hochman

Hochman was a find the director is particularly proud of. “Will was the last guy who came in. He heard about the play, got to read it and really hustled. He came in and said—not literally, of course—‘No one will work harder on this than me. No one will give you everything they’ve got like me.’ So that was exciting. When he left the room, Mary-Louise said ‘Yup, that’s the one.’

“What’s interesting about Will is that he wanted to be an actor all his life, and he wouldn’t admit it. He went to college and studied finance, and finally, late in college—it was like coming out of the closet—he said, ‘Goddammit, I want to be an actor.’ And, a couple of years later, he’s starring in this play on Broadway. He had not spent his life preparing to do it, and then, through grit and determination, got it there. You hope The Guy is going to come in and appear. You hope you can solve this terrible problem, which is we don’t have anyone for the play. He came in and won it.”

Production Still from “The Band’s Visit”

The drama at hand comes at you in a kind of theatrical freefall where you’re offered a variety of interpretations, not the least of which is that the whole story might have happened in the head of Parker’s character. Cromer believes it’s a matter of sorting out what’s real and what’s not.

David Cromer acting in “The Waverly Gallery”

“Mary-Louise’s character wrote a piece about a kid who ran through a wall. She called the kid Billy Baird, and her name is Bella Baird. In the play she tells us her mother had neurofibromatosis, that terrible illness that creates tumors and becomes cancerous. Then later, when she finds out she has cancer, she doesn’t want to go through what her mother went through. She says, ‘I don’t have neurofibromatosis. I just have good old-fashioned cancer.’

“That’s what Adam’s mother died of. First of all, none of it is real. It’s all created. Bella’s a teacher at Yale, and Adam was a teacher at Yale. Every life is made up of a bunch of little details. It’s all constructed out of other things. Everything we look at is made out of other things. It’s all real, it’s all happening, and then none of it is happening. I change my mind about what is true in this play all the time. 

“Adam lived it–so it’s all real, and, simultaneously, none of it is real–which is the pure nature of art. It can be interpreted many ways. I interpret it many ways depending on the day, and actors will interpret it different ways on different days.”

David Cromer in “Our Town”

Harry Haun has covered theater and film in New York for over 40 years. His writing has appeared in outlets such as Playbill Magazine (“On the Aisle” and “Theatregoer’s Notebook”), New York Daily News (where he wrote a weekly Q&A column (“Ask Mr. Entertainment”), New York Observer, New York Sun, Broadway World and Film Journal International.

Categories
Interviews

The Sound Inside: Heather Gilbert

By: Heather Gilbert

In the before times, we used Zoom to design “The Sound Inside”. Scattered around the world, we came together on a morning in March 2018 for the first time, some in person and some virtual, for our first meeting for the show. This is always my favorite moment–to hear David Cromer’s words, to listen deeply and hear what is important, what we want to explore and where the weight is.

These are the notes I took that morning. 

So sad 

So cold

Time of year when it is dark too early

Bleak but woodsy 

Is color still a thing 

And you are 

Fast simple spare

Things appear

She stands right of center a little US and on a diagonal 

Things only appear when we need them

Trees in the common appear

Christopher invades the show

Us carving our way through the dark

My old friend, the brilliant director, is also quite the poet.

Production Still from “Our Town” with David Cromer (center).

Carving our way through the dark, things appearing when we need them.

And that is the job of the lighting designer—to combine poetry with physics and make the play shine.

Production Still from “The Sound Inside”.

The puzzle in the job is figuring out where to put each light, figure out the angle and the direction that will catch the edge of the desk just so, but not hit the huge black serge walls behind the office, that scenery so perfectly designed to hide itself until we wanted another element revealed.  What are the exact lights to shift Bella and Christopher in a mere breath to a new afternoon—and is that a fade of 6 seconds or a blink of 0?

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside”.

Does the shape of the window change as we move from afternoon to evening? Is a 15th light with shutter cuts just to the upper body of Mary-Louise Parker sitting at her desk to make her float slightly differently in the third scene in the office really necessary? (The answer is yes, it totally was) 

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside”.

Creating worlds like Bella’s kitchen and transforming it into the hotel room in Christopher’s novel was a huge part of designing the show, but I really loved the part of the design where Mary-Louise Parker would tell her story to the audience, standing in the empty void—just her and Adam’s words and my light. For me, that felt like a dance, starting from the super slow fade up at the top of the show, with Mary-Louise standing right of center, a little US and on a diagonal. Just like David said the first meeting.


Heather Gilbert
 is an award-winning lighting designer based in Chicago. Recently Heather designed Ms Blakk For President with Tina Landau and Dance Nation with Lee Sunday Evans at Steppenwolf Theatre. She was nominated for a 2020 Tony Award for her work on The Sound Inside directed by David Cromer, for which she also won the Drama Desk Award and was an honoree for the Outer Critics Circle. Other productions with David Cromer include Our Town in London, Chicago, New York, LA, Boston, and Kansas City, and BUG at Steppenwolf Theatre for which she won a Jeff Award for Best Lighting Design.