We Talk Bringing Holiday Cheer to the Stage With Giovanna Sardelli, Director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”

In this pandemic age, we’re all eager to get back to the way things were. As the holiday season befalls us, we’re all doing our best to re-establish those holiday traditions we’ve held so dear with our friends and family. Picking out just the right tree at the Christmas tree farm. Lighting the menorah with those we love. Lighting Kwanzaa candles with our families. Sipping eggnog with dear friends. There’s a sense of sweet nostalgia this holiday season, perhaps, because of COVID, more than ever before.

Giovanna Sardelli, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s artistic director, has that feeling, too. So much so, she’s not only showcasing one of the greatest holiday movies of all time on stage, It’s a Wonderful Life, but doing so in an even more nostalgic fashion—as a live radio play.

It’s a Wonderful Life, for those who don’t know, tells the story of George Bailey, a man who has given up on his personal dreams to help others in his community. He tries to commit suicide one fateful Christmas Eve night that brings about his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody. Clarence shows George how his life has impacted the lives of others and how different life would be for his wife and the community of Bedford Falls had he not been born.

We sat down with Sardelli to talk about cherished memories, iconic films, and holiday wishes.

Jonathan Shipley: What are some of your favorite Christmas or holiday memories?

Giovanna Sardelli: Years ago, when my mother was still alive, several members of my Brazilian family came to stay with us for Christmas. We have a pretty small immediate family, so it was wonderful to have extended family together for the holidays. It was the first time my sister and I had seen my father and his brother together. We sat around the table telling stories in, what we call, Engliguese, since only my father and one cousin are fluent in both English and Portuguese. While I know there was one, I don’t have any memories of language being a barrier to all the family stories that we shared.

the cast of "It's a Wonderful Life" stand together in 1940s clothing
The cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at TheatreWorks. PHOTO BY PACIANO TRIUNFO

What, to you, is the definition of “the spirit of Christmas”?

Kindness and generosity. It always seems to feel like we’re trying harder at this time of year to spread joy and kindness.

What is it about It’s a Wonderful Life that makes it timeless?

In addition to being a beautifully written story, I think it’s because it’s about sacrificing for something larger than one’s self and celebrating those who often feel unseen and unvalued. It offers hope about who we can become. It reminds us of the best within ourselves—our ability to overcome adversity and our ability to support one another. It shows us that we can create a better world together.

What about your production might be surprising to Its a Wonderful Life movie fans?

How magically theatrical it is and how it transcends the radio play format. Also, how it connects to the present day.

Why do the production as a radio play at all?

Because it’s so much fun! Watching a group of five actors bring the story to life—with all the depth and heart of the original—is something to see. Then there is the added bonus of watching the cast perform all the foley. These are the sound effects that create the world of Bedford Falls. In some ways, it makes it a show within a show!

What does a radio play bring to audiences that other forms of entertainment dont?

Well, a radio play asks that you really listen to the story and that you use your imagination and join in the creation of the story with the actors. It has a good campfire feel to the storytelling. It’s a shared experience.

What is your Christmas wish this year?

From the universe, I wish for health and healing for all of us. From my Secret Santa, I wish for chocolate.

It’s a Wonderful Life plays at TheatreWorks’ Lucie Stern Theatre December 1–26, 2021. Tickets $25–60 and are available online.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Oh Reader!, among other publications.

Jonalyn Saxer Talks About Her Return to the Stage and the Enduring Nature of “Mean Girls”

Mean Girls is making its way to The Paramount Theatre in Seattle next week, November 16–21, and we have all the best gossip about the musical known for its gossipers.

Teen writer Aamina Mughal sat down with Mean Girls Broadway star Jonalyn Saxer, who plays Karen Smith, and talked about how it felt being back on stage and what has changed about Mean Girls since Tina Fey’s iconic 2004 movie was released. She highlighted the heart and love in the show and said that stories like this one evolve and change, but the core of it, the lessons it has to teach, are timeless. 

“We’re coming back into this with so much joy and gratitude,” said Saxer. “So the joy you’re seeing on stage is not just our characters’ joy.” Jonalyn Saxer is the longest-running cast member on the Mean Girls stage which opened on Broadway in 2018. The show will be in Seattle from November 16–21, 2021 at The Paramount Theatre.

headshot of Broadway actor Jonalyn Saxer

Aamina Mughal: You’ve been with the show the longest so what has that experience been like, seeing it on different stages? 

Jonalyn Saxer: It’s really crazy because so much has changed throughout the years and the versions and the companies. It’s so funny, Megan [Masako Haley]—my Gretchen–calls me the resident Mean Girls historian because we tried so many things. That’s why I think the show is so successful, there’s not a joke or a method or a plot point that we didn’t try. We tried everything. You know what I mean? We just tried everything to get to the version that we have now, and that includes doing the version that was on Broadway and then making versions on tour. 

Actually, quite a few of the changes for tour were things that were in D.C. that then got brought back in, which is really cool. If you know the music at all [from] the cast recording, our opening number is quite a bit different and that’s because it’s a combination of “It Roars” and our old opening number “Wildlife,” which is really exciting. Some parts of it have been updated even since the pandemic because, you know, time has passed and some of the jokes aren’t good anymore, funny anymore. We adjusted those kinds of things. 

Did you watch Mean Girls before you were in the show? Did you enjoy it?

Yes, absolutely, I grew up watching Mean Girls. I loved the movie, always thought it was hilarious. And I remember when the posting came out, five or six years ago now, that it was being made into a musical, I was like, I have to be in that. I have to be in it. It’s funny because …I don’t think [people in my generation] consciously realize how much [we] quote the movie…it’s just part of the vernacular of everyday life in the world now, which is really a blast.

So how does it feel to remake, or put a new spin on something that’s so iconic that it’s just part of our vernacular?

Yeah, yeah, well I think one of the best parts about the musical is there’s so much new stuff. Comedy, you have to be surprised, it always comes from an unexpected place where you’re like “oh!” You know, fear and comedy actually [both need to be] surprising. So the lines that get the biggest laughs in our show are not the ones from the movie. Because people already know those, they know the punchline already. And sometimes “She doesn’t even go here!” will get a little whoop-whoop but all the funniest lines and the ones that really surprise the show are the ones that’re new. And so it’s really exciting…for Tina [Fey] and for us to find the new parts of it. 

three teen girls sit at a cafeteria table talking with one teen girl standing near them
Pictured (L-R): Megan Masako Haley (Gretchen Wieners), Mariah Rose Faith (Regina George), Jonalyn Saxer (Karen Smith), and Danielle Wade (Cady Heron) and the National Touring Company of “Mean Girls.” PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS

And also to make our characters—you know this is not the early 2000s anymore, and to update all of those things. What I like about our creative team is they really allow us to do our own versions of the character. Not even just from the movie but from other people who’ve played them. I think it’s so successful because we really bring our own heart and our own souls into our characters and that helps us tell our story in new and more impactful ways. 

How do you think Mean Girls has evolved for a new generation? You mentioned that “it’s not the early 2000s anymore.”

Yeah, I mean just right off the bat, people don’t do group calls on landlines anymore and so we have more social media aspects in the show. It is wild to come back to this after the pandemic, after a year and a half. We’re putting on our costumes and we’re like “Wow! Would Regina even wear skinny jeans anymore?” It’s so crazy…the best thing about it, and why I think the movie is still so successful and why the musical is successful is [that] even as our show gets older and older, bullying, unfortunately, is still existing in almost exactly the same ways. You know like the vernacular of how people treat each other in high school when we’re all so insecure and looking for a laugh or looking for people to like us. That never changes, whether the costumes or the words change, or the music or the social media, those things still last throughout. 

Mean Girls plays at The Paramount Theatre November 16–21, 2021. Tickets are nearly sold out and are available online.

Aamina Mughal is a sophomore and student writer in the Greater Seattle Area. She attends Eastside Preparatory School where she competes on their debate team and her work has been published on the TeenTix blog. She’s a music enthusiast who spends her time writing about art, thinking about it, or trying to make it. She serves on the Youth Advisory Board at the Museum of Pop Culture as a self-described pop-culture nerd. 

Seattle Opera’s “Flight” is the Start of a New Era in Filmed Opera

Director Brian Staufenbiel will make his Seattle Opera debut with one-of-a-kind opera Flight, which will be available for at-home viewing from April 23–25. Based on the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in the Charles de Gaulle Airport for 18 years, Flight blends comedy with a deep and honest exploration of the human condition.

When I spoke with Brian, I was curious to learn about his approach to directing opera. Flight is unique in so many aspects: it’s a modern opera, it’s a comedy, and it was entirely filmed on-location at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Lily Williamson: Comedic modern operas seem to be few and far between. What approach did you take to directing this work?

Brian Staufenbiel: This is an unusual opera, in the sense that it’s almost a dark comedy—there’s a lot of exploration of the human condition and how we treat each other, how empathy works. There are many archetypal characters that sort of evolve throughout the piece, and at the same time, there are moments of vaudeville that make you laugh your head off.

I think that the quantity of action and the collision of characters in the context of the piece make it quite active and funny. It’s a beautiful manifestation of emotion and the piece flies by. But yes, you’re correct when you say that there are very few 21st-century comic operas. Comedy is hard, people are jaded, and you’re up against The Office and Seinfeld and what many people find funny, which is a very different medium than opera. But when you nail it, like with Flight, people laugh.

director of Flight, Brian Staufenbiel headshot
Brian Staufenbiel, director of “Flight” at Seattle Opera. COURTESY OF ARTIST

What was your favorite part of crafting this opera?

One of the most amazing things was that Seattle Opera was able to secure the location as the Museum of Flight as our main place to film. They have hundreds of beautiful vintage planes; everyone should go see this place! So we’re in this place that feels exactly like an airport, just like a high-budget film. Being in that location was extraordinary. I love the location, and that’ll make all the difference—you feel like you’re transported into the reality of the film.

I also really enjoyed figuring out how to rehearse this thing not on location. We had to lay out everything and use our imagination with COVID precautions to make this work as a film. I love the challenge of that, and it felt like I was almost dealing with a kind of psychological matrix.

Another thing was getting to know the Seattle Opera. I’ve always been told that this was a special place, so it was so great to be able to have this be my first project with them because it is such an unusual thing.

This is your first time working with Seattle Opera. What was your experience like working with the company?

Originally, we were supposed to do the staged version, but this was a wonderful pivot. I’m very impressed with Seattle Opera’s boldness in slowly building towards doing real films of operas. It’s literally like doing a musical, and the singers and everyone involved had never done this. But we all had an amazing time, and I’ve gotten more valuable and positive feedback from the cast than I ever have before. It was really an interesting and great experience. And with some of the editing done, the film is looking amazing.

I’m so glad to hear that none of the magic was lost from stage to screen. What was it like directing a filmed opera?

I definitely didn’t feel inhibited by the format, and we had a great time. In fact, I’m doing two more opera films between now and the summer, and am consulting on another one. I’m convinced that this could be a new genre of opera born out of this terrible thing called COVID-19 and the circumstances it’s put us in. We’re able to apply real film techniques and work with these amazing singers, who now are world class actors. The talent is unbelievable. On stage, the singers need to sing out into a two thousand-seat hall, which is such a different kind of acting than acting for the screen. In a film, everything needs to come down and be more focused—you need to project smaller because you’re not projecting into a giant hall. But with all of these people, it really seems like they’ve done it before. It was amazing, and we all had a wonderful time doing it.

Opera singers Karin Mushegain and Aubrey Allicock filming a scene in “Flight”.
Karin Mushegain and Aubrey Allicock filming a scene in “Flight”. PHOTO BY PHILIP NEWTON

Filmed opera is a very different type of magic. Live opera is a very different experience for both the audience and the performer because everything can go wrong. When you start a live opera, it goes until it’s done, come Hell or high water. But that’s just not how a film works, because you can stop and just film it again. I think that we’re going to see a lot more digital content that will be building a way for people to see opera all over the world.

I’m so excited to hear that you think that filmed opera will have a more permanent place in the arts world. I love going to the opera, but I know that when I try to bring a friend they’re often intimidated by opera culture—getting dressed up, clapping at the right times, all of that.

Exactly! Yes, there’s this reputation around operathat it’s snobby or elitist. And everyone who is making opera is trying so hard right now to dispel that myth because it’s really not the case. Opera, especially contemporary opera, speaks to today and today’s circumstances. Now, we’re working on expanding diversity and making it relevant.

And, as you know, there’s nothing more addictive than hearing the voice singing like that. Once you get opera under your skin, you want to hear it all the time! Opera singers are like the vocal athletes of theatre. To do what they do, they need to work so hardthey need years of training and acting, they need to be great musicians. They should be celebrated, so we’re working really hard to get young people or people who are new to opera to realize what a special art form it is. And a lot of that is making sure that we’re telling the right stories, and populating the stage and the team with diversity.

Cast and crew sitting down and taking a break from filming Flight with the airplanes in background..
Cast and crew taking a break from filming. PHOTO BY PHILIP NEWTON

I completely agree with you, opera is such an amazing art form. What’s your message to young people who are interested in experiencing opera for the first time, be it at home watching Flight or in-person when it is safe to do so?

I think that opera is an acquired taste. It’s too easy to go to an opera and say “Oh, that was weird. I’m done.” You need to think about why so many people are interested in this genreyou need to go to different kinds of opera, see some modern, some classic. And then listen to the singers, and make sure that you experience their emotions. And keep trying it a few times.

Opera doesn’t feed you like a computer screen does, you need to work at it. With performing arts you have to put the energy into the performance, but you get back ten times what you put in. After a while, you never want to give it up! Instead of opera being thought of as weird, why can’t it be the cool thing on the block?

I know that Seattle Opera has plenty of youth programs too, so it is so great to see that they’re finding ways to make opera interesting and accessible to younger folks. And Flight seems like a great way for people to get involved in the opera scene for the first time!

Exactly. If someone is introduced to opera young, they have no idea that it’s “not cool.” It becomes normal to them. I’ve done a ton of projects with young people, who are so excited about opera.

And Flight is such a great introductory opera for people, and it will be accessible to young people. There’s a deep exploration in this opera that allows us to explore the human condition, and it’s a very powerful thing. But at the same time, you’re laughing.

Seattle Opera’s Flight can be streamed online from April 23–25. Tickets are available for $35.

Lily Williamson is a second-year student at the University of Washington, where she is the managing editor of the undergraduate history journal. This is her third year as a member of TeenTix’s Teen Editorial Staff, where she writes and edits articles for the TeenTix blog. Lily is passionate about arts accessibility and art that highlights intersectionality, and she hopes to use her position as a teen editor to foster greater youth involvement in the Seattle art world.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit. 

“Arms and the Man” at A.C.T. Sings True as the World Slowly Reopens

As we collectively mark a full year in nation-wide reclusion, American Conservatory Theater launches A.C.T. Out Loud, a series of play readings challenging audiences to relate to centuries-old works. The event features George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, a witty comedy set at the end of the Serbo-Bulgarian War.

The play follows Bulgarian noble Raina, who falls in love with the enemy mercenary Bluntschli even though she is already engaged to a Bulgarian war hero. Shaw helps us confront change through Raina and her community as they return to an unfamiliar home.

On the first day of rehearsals for Arms and the Man, I talked with A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon about the theatre scene in the Bay Area, going virtual, and how this 127-year-old play is particularly relevant right now.

Esha Potharaju: A.C.T. is the biggest theatre company in the Bay Area. When you think of the Bay, the uber-rich Silicon Valley giants are the first things that come to mind. But I know the Bay is a lot more than that. It’s a culmination of culture with a history of immigration and revolution imprinted in it. As an arts company, how is A.C.T. influencing its culture scene?

Pam MacKinnon: We’re part of the largest theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area, and as such, we tend to pay artists more than any other theatre in the area. It’s very important. We’re part of an ecosystem. I don’t see us in competition with other theatres. We’re there as an employer. We’re there as a way to make sure that artists, in a very expensive region of the country, can afford to live here, that artists can afford to create, and to bring themselves to step in to doing the work that they want to do. So that’s one aspect of being big.

And also, here we are in a not just region-wide, but a universal shutdown of our art form as we know it. We’ve pivoted to the virtual realm. As a big theatre, we embraced technology really swiftly at the top of this pandemic and encouraged artists to embrace this new medium for theatre…This is an art form that’s normally all about gathering people in person to tell stories, and we just don’t have the ability to do that right now for health reasons. But it doesn’t mean we’ve shut down in any way.

Pam, you’ve said in prior interviews that you believe theatre is a core of human life. It’s how people gather, tell stories and find a sense of belonging. How is your production team planning to emulate that community-like environment virtually for this play?

Arms and the Man started rehearsals today, so that’s one moment of creating community. It’s about bringing actors around the country together with the director Colman Domingo, Christina Dare, who is helping out this amazing company of actors with some voice work, as well as a dramaturg who’s on staff, and a stage manager, and a video designer. And so that’s sort of the first slice of building a community. It’s that rehearsal room, and we’re doing it all virtually. This is a four-day exploration with the great actors of this play. Then, we’re going to edit it and create a video document of this exploration. Then we’ll put it out for ticket buyers. And we have a sliding scale for tickets, so tickets can cost as little as $5 and then sort of go on up.

We’re also making it free for educators and their students, and I see that as community building as well. I mean, I’m hopeful that educators will take us up on it, and there’s a lot of remote learning going on as well. Students of a particular class, even if they’re remote, can watch the play…and get to discuss it, and those discussions are inherently a form of community building. It’s not necessarily the same thing as a group of people gathering together as an audience in a room, but I think as long as the art…fosters conversation, that’s inherently community building. Even in a pandemic.

That’s great. I love that you’ve still managed to preserve the meaning of theatre to you, even while we’re going virtual.

Yeah, I think that’s right.

So Arms and the Man will be performed as a staged reading rather than a full production. In that limited format, what changed in the play? And how are you feeling about that?

The fun thing about Arms and the Man in particular is that it’s comedy. I’ve listened to the reading for the first time without any direction, without any work, and it is a laugh-out-loud comedy. And it just keeps on—you have these great moments. You know, it just, it gets whacky really fast. And it sort of ratchets up the tension, and you can feel that in the reading. George Bernard Shaw also wrote very specific stage directions and descriptions of what he thought the room should look like, what the costumes should [look] like. So our director Colman Domingo is going to decide which of those stage directions should be read and which are left to our imagination. So I think that will be a fun way for the audience to experience this play. You know, when you normally stage it, as you said, there’s a set that is built, normally costumes that actors wear, but this is much more basic story-telling theatre. And to have George Bernard Shaw’s elaborate descriptions read will be a different way into this play.

"Arms and the Man" Director Colman Domino.
“Arms and the Man” Director Colman Domino. COURTESY OF A.C.T.

Awesome. So having it read, rather than visually.

Right. You know, in theatre, the audience is that last element that you bring into any theatre project. Your imagination takes over, right, and I think there is something just beautiful that your imagination can fill in those gaps. And that’s what this will be.

I think it’s just so interesting how the way that people interpret art has just kind of changed during this pandemic. A lot of it is left to imagination, but we’re still doing art, and I think that’s great.

And I feel so grateful that there are actors around the country who are joining us in San Francisco virtually to work for four days together. And that just normally wouldn’t happen. We have actors from the Bay Area, actors from New York, actors from Los Angeles, all coming together for four days to tell this story.

Pam, I know you consider Edward Albee’s works as a huge shaping force in your career. He was known for writing thought-provoking and often deeply uncomfortable plays. What about his works held so much appeal to you? Are you letting that shine through your selection of Arms and the Man? I know Arms and the Man is written to be quite thought provoking as well.

I like theatre that makes you question your point of view, even question your values. And Shaw definitely does that. Shaw, like Edward Albee, has a really strong voice. You can tell a Shaw play when you hear it, if you’ve heard or seen Shaw plays, there’s usually some kind of didactic lesson. He sort of sets himself a task to point out hypocrisy or circle something political that he deems important and necessary for people to talk about. And while I think Arms and the Man has that and points out the hypocrisy of heroism or the hypocrisy of posturing that you’re in love without being in love is also just at the core, the play is just so richly drawn. The characters feel vulnerably human, as opposed to just symbols. And so I would say for that reason, yes, he and Edward Albee can be talked about in one sentence.

Late playwright Edward Albee with A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon at the opening of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in New York City in 2012.
Late playwright Edward Albee with A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon at the opening of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in New York City in 2012. PHOTO BY BRIAN HARKIN

Why did you select this play to be performed? What about it made you think, “Wow, this is really relevant right now”?

I think there are some timeless themes, [and also some that are relevant to] this moment in a global pandemic…Shaw has written a play with these soldiers returning home from war in various states of fatigue or celebration. And I feel as people start to reunite, as even classrooms and workplaces come together after being remote for so long, there’s something about this returning that feels really relevant. And also, this moment of return, when it need not be a return to what had been, should be a critique of what had been. There’s something about the return that opens up possibility to make it better or make it different. And that feels very of the now.

Wow, I love that. This honestly never even crossed my mind when I was reading up on Arms and the Man.

Yeah, it’s one thing to return from war, but I think that idea of coming back after having this harrowing and completely extraordinary experience and returning home. Well, home has changed while you were gone, and you have changed while you were away, so instead of just assuming that everything goes back to the way it was, get ready, because that’s not going to. And I feel that’s around the corner for us as a society.

As a young person, and given that I’m speaking to someone who really wants everyone to understand the importance of, and have access to theatre, I have to wonder what A.C.T. is doing to make the narrative of Arms and the Man more open to this generation?

It doesn’t need a rendition. It doesn’t need it. Colman Domingo’s first point of direction with the actors was just bring your whole selves. Certainly, the story takes place in the 1880s in Bulgaria, but he’s saying we’re American. We’re Black. We’re white. We’re Latinx. He’s saying it’s 2021. Bring yourself to the emotional and story situations. And we’ll make it sing.

Arms and the Man will be available on demand April 12–18. A watch party will kick off the play’s run on April 12 at 6 p.m. Tickets are available for purchase here.

Esha Potharaju (she/her) is an art and story lover who is passionate about enriching her community through arts involvement. In her free time, you can find Esha participating in student advocacy initiatives and overanalyzing comics and cartoons with her best friend. You can find more of her reviews and interviews on TeenTix.org.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit. 

Angel Blue From Seattle Opera’s Canceled ‘La bohème’ Will Sing Virtually Instead

Before the cancellation of La bohème at Seattle Opera, originally scheduled for May 2–19, we had the opportunity to interview soprano Angel Blue in anticipation of her performance as Mimì. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 and subsequent stay-at-home orders, Seattle audiences will not be able to see the opera singer perform in this beloved role. However, we are happy to share that Angel Blue will be performing in a special virtual event, “Songs of Summer,” hosted by Seattle Opera on May 28. More information on this event can be found at the end of the interview.  

When I asked Angel Blue what it was like to fall in love with music for the first time, she shared a memory of being four years old at a concert version of Puccini’s Turandot.

“It was just spectacular,” Blue said. “Just listening to the orchestra—it was so loud. And it moved me in some way. It made me really happy. And I just remember being so fixed on the woman who was standing in the spotlight. And I didn’t know that was Turandot. I didn’t know that what she was singing was ‘In questa reggia,’ one of the most famous soprano arias. I just knew that it moved me. And that’s when I fell in love with opera.”

In February, I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Blue while she was in New York singing the role of Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera. Between helping her stepson make Valentine’s Day cards and enjoying her night off, we spoke about her upcoming role as Mimì in La bohème, her love of Seattle Opera audiences, the importance of sharing music with young people, and so much more.

Danielle Mohlman: When did you first encounter La bohème? How did this opera first come into your life?

Angel Blue: It’s kind of funny because even though my first encounter with opera was when I was four years old, I didn’t become familiar with La bohème until I was about 22 years old. And it was because I was given an aria to learn in school—“Donde lieta usci,” which Mimì sings in Act III. And I’ll be totally honest, I just wasn’t very interested in the story. I was more interested in just that aria because I was trying to get a grade.

Two years later, I was cast as Musetta at the LA Opera and that’s when I first really started to pay attention to the story. And the opera just really drew me in. I worked really hard to learn Musetta and it was very difficult for me to learn music at the time because my father had just passed away. It was my first professional stage, but it was also right after my father passed away. It has a very special place in my heart, not so much because of the story.

But it’s a personal connection.



And La bohème has been around for over 100 years. What is it that draws 2020 audiences in?

It’s the story. I have a friend who’s an actress and she told me that by the time we’re two years old, we’ve experienced every emotion possible. As a child, you experience your parents leaving—maybe leaving you with a babysitter. So in that respect, we experience what it feels like to have a bit of loss. And then, of course, as a child you love your parents and they are your best friends. They are your world. And I think La bohème has every aspect of humanity in it. And because of that, I think people relate to the story regardless. It starts out as joy and happiness. And then as the story progresses, you find there’s jealousy and all of these different emotions. I think that as long as humankind is on Earth, we will always relate to La bohème because we’ll always know what it feels like to fall in love—hopefully, anyway. And hopefully those loves that we have aren’t lost in death. Even though that, of course, is inevitable.

But we all experience loss on some level or another.

Yeah. And there’s also a lot of pranking that goes on with the guys in this opera—that sort of youthfulness. Everybody at some point will experience that.

Oh, for sure. You’ve performed at Seattle Opera several times over the course of your career. What keeps you coming back?

Definitely the people. I don’t think the audience realizes that they have so much to do with an artist wanting to be there. When I do get to go back, I see a lot of the same faces. It’s like that show Cheers. “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.” And that’s kind of how I feel about Seattle because people do know my name. I can be in the Starbucks down the street from the rehearsal space and see somebody that saw La traviata three or four years ago and they say, “Oh, we’re happy to have you back.” It’s really nice to feel welcomed.


You’ll be performing in Seattle Opera’s first student matinee, which is really exciting. Does performing for young people have a different energy than performing for a more traditional audience?

It does. What I love about students is they’re uninhibited and much more open to the story. It’s the difference between watching college football and the NFL. Not to say that the NFL isn’t as exciting, because it absolutely is. It’s just that with college football, you can feel the players are really there because they love the game. They find so much joy in it. Whereas the guys in the NFL, they love the game, but it’s also their job.

When younger people come to watch opera, they’re not afraid to clap even if it’s a moment where you’re “not supposed to” clap. There’s no book that says “in opera you shouldn’t clap here.” But you know, opera people are very traditional and they want to have things a certain way. But I like the fact that students are very vocal about how they feel in a certain scene or about a certain character. They’re just more open to whatever the show is going to be.

This idea of “you sit like this” and “you clap here”—I feel like that can be intimidating for audiences who are new to opera.

I’ll be totally honest with you: it’s intimidating for me. I usually don’t go to the opera unless it’s something I really want to see or I have a friend who’s singing. And sometimes I won’t go because I’ll think I have to look a certain way. What I’ve recently started doing, especially now that I’m married, is my husband and I will go and it’ll be our date night.

We bought the same tickets as the person sitting next to us wearing Harry Winston jewels and I have as much a right to be here as that person does. And I’m not saying that people should be able to come to the opera in flip flops and board shorts. But there is something very appealing about come just as you are.

I love that. Before I let you go, what are you most looking forward to seeing while you’re in Seattle this time around?

I’m really interested in seeing the memorial to Chris Cornell because I’m a huge Soundgarden fan. That’s my all-time favorite band. I was hoping at one point in my life I would have the opportunity to shake his hand because he was an amazing singer. So seeing the memorial is high on my list of things to do.

Angel Blue will perform in Seattle Opera’s “Songs of Summer” recital with Seattle Opera Coach/Accompanist Jay Rozendaal. She will perform selections by Rachmaninov, Heggie, Charpentier and Verdi, as well as African American spirituals. You can view the recital on Seattle Opera’s website, from May 28 at 7 p.m. through June 11.  

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog. 

Justin Huertas Creates a Magical Musical in a Familiar Setting With ‘Lydia and the Troll’ at Seattle Rep

When I called up musical theatre writer Justin Huertas to talk about his latest musical Lydia and the Troll, which was scheduled to receive its world premiere at Seattle Rep this month, I was curious to know how he describes the show—outside the world of marketing blurbs and elevator pitches.

“I feel like I haven’t really settled on the exact thing I want to say every time,” Huertas said. “So this is a great question because it’s going to be fun and spontaneous. Let’s see!”

What he settled on is this: Lydia and the Troll is a new musical about a singer-songwriter named Lydia who lives in Fremont, Seattle. She’s in a really exciting place in her career—on the verge of becoming the successful recording artist she’s always dreamed of. But she’s blocked, both in her writing and by the toxic and codependent relationship she’s in with her boyfriend. And in the midst of all of this, she meets a kind stranger who offers her a chance to cross over—into success and away from this relationship.

And because it’s a Justin Huertas musical, there’s a signature dash of Pacific Northwest magic.

[Editor’s Note: This interview took place in February, before Lydia was canceled due to COVID-19. Justin Huertas will be hosting a virtual event on May 13 in celebration of this musical. More information can be found at the end of the interview.]

Justin Huertas in rehearsal. PHOTO BY ANGLEA NICKERSON

Danielle Mohlman: A lot of your work is grounded in Pacific Northwest legend and what it means to be from Seattle. I’d love to talk about how place inspires your work.

Justin Huertas: As a patron of the arts and consumer of all kinds of media—in the movie theatre, on TV, and on my laptop—I get to see so many different kinds of stories. But I’m always so frustrated about the fact that I never see stories that are set in Seattle. I’m from here. I grew up here, and I think this place is magical. The fact that we even have a giant statue of a troll under a bridge collecting a life-size Volkswagen Beetle—I think that’s super magical. I’m someone who grew up on superheroes and comic books and fantasy/sci-fi stories. And I just want to create those kinds of stories for Seattle because I think we deserve it. When people think of Seattle, they think of Starbucks and Amazon.

And they think of rain and, you know, the stereotypical things.

Yes, yes. Yep.

And I feel like I do see TV shows that try to set themselves in Seattle and then you see palm trees in the background and you’re like, “Oh, they didn’t even shoot it here.” It’s so frustrating.

Oh, absolutely. I was really excited about the film Chronicle with Michael B. Jordan. It was a found footage kind of superhero movie where these teenagers gained superpowers. And I was so excited about it because I saw the trailer and there was the Space Needle in the background and there’s shipping yards and I was like, “Oh, this is going to really feel like Seattle.” And then straight up the first thing in the movie is the two main characters carpooling together to go to school. And they pass a sign that says “Entering King County.” And I’m thinking, “You drive across county lines to go to high school? This is ridiculous.” And that’s the moment they lost me.

You’re like, “That’s not how the school system works here.”

Yeah. I mean, I applaud the effort. Thank you for trying things, for putting the Space Needle in your movie. But I want real Seattle. That’s why I’m so eager to put all kinds of Seattle landmarks in my shows.

Sarah Russell and Kirsten DeLohr Helland in rehearsal. PHOTO BY ANGELA NICKERSON

I know you’ve been pretty open on social media about the fact that Lydia and the Troll was supposed to be in the 2018-19 season at Seattle Rep, but was delayed to keep the team together. Can you talk more about the value of that extra time—and the value of being able to continue to work as a team with your director and co-creator Ameenah Kaplan?

Yeah, definitely. At the tail end of our first workshop, Ameenah was offered the position of resident director on The Lion King national tour. And our hands were tied, she had to take that job. But Ameenah didn’t want to leave our project behind. What we were making started off as this kind of bare bones story about transformation and this singer-songwriter who’s trying to find her inner voice. And in this particular workshop, I had cast my friend Sarah Russell, who is a Black woman. And over the course of that workshop, Ameenah, who is also a Black woman, pulled me aside and said, “You’re writing this story for anyone and you’re having this amazing actress play this character. But what happens when you write specifically for a Black actress to play this role?”

And through that encouragement and collaboration, the story took a completely different turn and became about Lydia understanding herself not only as a singer-songwriter, but as a Black American in the music industry, in this interracial relationship that she’s in. And Ameenah is credited as my co-creator as well as my director because so much of what the story became is because of her.

Kirsten deLohr Helland William A. Williams and Justin Huertas in ‘Lizard Boy.’ PHOTO BY ALAN ALABASTRO

What is the driving force behind your writing? What motivates you to work on—or daydream about—your musicals every day?

For a while, I thought I was writing for my inner child. I’m looking at my own bookshelf right now and there’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Howl’s Moving Castle, X-Men and Steven Universe, all on this shelf. And for a while, I wanted to create all the superhero stories I wish I had growing up—stories about people of color, queer people, Filipino people. The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion was a huge thing for me because I got to write a Filipino single mother. My own mother was a single mom for a little while. And that was really important to me, to normalize all the things that I never get to see in any kind of media or on stage. Hearing Tagalog on stage—hearing a Filipino mom ask, “Did you eat?”—already that’s enough for me. There are so many things about my own identity that I feel could stand to be way more normalized. Which is why I’m excited that my first couple of musicals had queer relationships in them.

I want to write stories that young people can connect with. We can all, in some way, identify with people of different cultures—or people of different sexualities and genders—and be able to find the universality in those things while still really respecting and loving the specificity. If it’s a Filipino mother constantly feeding her daughter spam and eggs, that might not be something that everyone can identify with. But I’m sure we can identify with a parent or guardian who is that enthusiastic about feeding their kids. I’m excited about putting these complex identities on stage—and putting them in hero positions for young people to see.

Join Justin Huertas here or on Seattle Rep’s YouTube channel as he shares songs, stories, and more on what would have been the opening night of Lydia and the Troll. Watch the full concert on May 13 at 5 p.m. PDT.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog. 

Awoye Timpo Challenges Standards of Beauty With ‘School Girls’

It’s hard not to think about The Plastics when you read the full title of Jocelyn Bioh’s bitingly funny School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. It sets the tone immediately, both a joke and a visceral reaction. So, when I called director Awoye Timpo, I was curious to get her take on the unusually familiar title.

“I haven’t seen that movie in a number of years,” Timpo said, “but it feels emblematic of high school in America in a really tragic and hilarious way. At the end of the day, that’s the beauty of School Girls as well. At this high school in the mountains of Ghana, these girls are finding their own place. It’s that very human desire to figure out where you fit and figure out what the hierarchy of the environment is.”

Before Timpo flew out to Berkeley to start rehearsals, we talked about pageants, standards of beauty, and why School Girls feels like an artistic family.

[Editor’s note: We are choosing to publish this Dialogue, even after the production’s run has been canceled due to COVID-19, because we would like to share the work and creativity that the artists, creative team and staff of Berkeley Repertory Theatre have put into this production. We’d also like to encourage readers to purchase a ticket to access a live performance of the show through the BroadwayHD streaming platform. Tickets must be purchased by March 20 at 5 p.m. Purchase tickets here.] 

Danielle Mohlman: How did School Girls come into your life? What drew you to the play initially?

Awoye Timpo: I’ve known Jocelyn [Bioh] for a number of years and had been following the progress of another play she’s been writing called Nollywood Dreams. And I knew of Jocelyn because we’re both first-generation artists in New York—our parents are from Ghana—so we’ve always been kind of connected. So, my first connection with School Girls was the greatness of Jocelyn. It’s so rare to see someone who’s writing comedies for the theatre, but the fact that this is a play that takes place in the country where our parents are from—it’s just so exciting. It’s been amazing to follow the progress of the play over the years.

What are you most looking forward to about bringing this play to Berkeley Rep?

Jocelyn is an artist that Johanna [Pfaelzer] has been invested in for quite a bit of time. So it was really exciting that in her first season as artistic director, she put this play in there. Because the two of them have such a beautiful history together. And I also worked at New York Stage and Film on another play when Johanna was there. This is my first time working at Berkeley Rep, so it feels very new, but it also feels very familiar because we get to do it with artistic family, which is great.

And in terms of the play itself, the play is dealing with issues of identity, it’s dealing with issues of hierarchy. It’s dealing with issues of “Who is the person that we all want to be in the world?” And I feel like that’s a very pressing question for this moment, as we’re in the midst of a robust election season and really trying to figure out what’s the way forward, beyond the moment we can see. This play is set in a cafeteria in a high school, about young women who are trying to figure out “What’s my place in the world? Where do I fit? What’s my purpose here? How do I achieve all the things that I want to achieve? And what are the things standing in the way of my achievement?” It feels like a very pressing theme for our moment and time.

Cast of Berkeley Rep’s ‘School Girls.’ PHOTO BY KEVIN BERNE

And I think the beauty of what Jocelyn has constructed is to take some quite large sociological issues and put them in a comedy. She’s also celebrating the life of these young women. She’s celebrating the joyousness and absurdities of our existence and the way we go about chasing the things that we desire. It’s so brilliantly constructed and so gorgeously takes the audience on a beautiful ride.

I’m so glad you mentioned the cafeteria because when I think about the movie Mean Girls, the first thing that comes to mind is the lunch tables. And all the categories.

Oh my gosh. Totally. It’s like a microcosm of a society, especially in a boarding school where people are with each other for really extended periods of time. There’s always gonna be the outgoing one, there’s always going to be the shy one. This play is also dealing with the standard of beauty and how young women are trying to define themselves according to what the standard is. The complexity of that is present here in America inside of our school systems, given the images that we all see on screen and what we imagine different standards of beauty to be.

This play takes place in the 1980s. If I think back to the representation, especially of Black women on screen and in magazines, it was quite limited outside of our own publications. The standard of beauty that has kind of infiltrated everybody’s mind since 1619 in America is very heavily weighted against us. And these young women on another continent, in another country have their own battles that echo that same conversation that we have here on a daily basis.

Cast of ‘School Girls.’ PHOTO BY KEVIN BERNE

There’s so much about beauty pageants in this play. Did you have any particular feelings about beauty pageants before diving into this play?

I think that there’s something interesting in learning about people and learning about the things that excite them—and then learning about how we learn and aspire to different things in the world. For me, growing up, my relationship with beauty pageants was kind of minimal. It was never something that I would aspire to, but I certainly think it’s a big image that young girls see in terms of what is the standard of beauty and what are the different ways that we are all represented by those people on that stage. My feelings haven’t changed, but I would love to revisit that question as we continue to get deeper into our rehearsal process.

Is there a particular moment or relationship you’re looking forward to exploring in rehearsal? 

You know what’s so great? Jocelyn has crafted so many different kinds of characters in this play. I’m excited about how every single one of those relationships plays up against one another. There are at least five different relationships between just the girls themselves. And then there’s the relationship between the girls and the headmaster. There’s the relationship between the headmaster and the former student who’s running the pageant search this year. It almost feels [like] lines that connect constellations. I’m really excited about his community of women and the fact that there’s both a younger generation community and an older generation community. Looking at how all of these people influence each other in different moments, and how each person gets to grow and change over the course of the play. It’s just so exciting and fascinating.

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Playwas scheduled to run March 19 to May 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before being canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions. Tickets are available online to stream a recording of the live performance. Purchase by March 20 at 5 p.m.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Keith Randolph Smith Returns to His Favorite City With ‘Jitney’

When actor Keith Randolph Smith got on the phone to talk to me about his upcoming performance in Jitney at Seattle Rep, the first thing he wanted to talk about was how much he loves Seattle.

“I’m really excited to get there,” Smith said. “It’s one of my favorite cities in this country.”

The day we spoke also happened to be the day before Smith left New York for the Jitney tour. He was gracious enough to take time out of an errand-filled afternoon to talk about his love of August Wilson, making history on Broadway, and what it means to perform Jitney at Seattle Rep twice—nearly 20 years apart.

Danielle Mohlman: August Wilson is the first playwright whose work I truly fell in love with. I remember reading Gem of the Ocean in college and that was it for me.

Keith Randolph Smith: I love that play too.

Actor Keith Randolph Smith. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Oh my god. It’s so good! Do you have a favorite August Wilson play?

Oh man, it’s so hard. Like you, I loved Gem of the Ocean. It’s such a spiritual journey—and a beautiful journey of self-realization and discovery. But I also love Jitney, which I’m working on now. I usually say whichever one I’m working on at the moment is my favorite. But they all have a special place in my heart.

Jitney deals with community. It deals with a time where I was actually alive—in 1977—versus, say, Gem of the Ocean which is set in 1904. But I was actually alive and conscious in 1977. And so, I relate to the time period. Seventies music, 70s fashion, what was going on in the world. It reminds me of people I’ve met in my journey of life along the way, whether they’re relatives or not. I’ve had so many people come up to me after Jitney and go “You remind me of my uncle!” And the people who tell me this are not African American. They relate to the characters and how they’re dealing with the situations they’re in. It’s really a beautiful experience.

It’s one of the few August Wilson plays I’ve never seen.

Man, I can’t wait for you to see it! You sit there and go, “How can he make all of these different people out of nowhere?” And we remember them and we care about them and we get mad at them. It’s like you actually get to know them by the end of the play. What a masterful job he did.

I didn’t even realize—until this week—that until the Manhattan Theatre Club production in 2017, Jitney had never been on Broadway. Did it feel like a historic moment when you were working on it?

Philosophically speaking, when history is being made, it definitely feels historic. But you also have a feeling about whether what you’re doing fulfills some sort of creative urge in you. We knew that it was the last of his 10 plays to be on Broadway, so we were very aware of that. But it wasn’t something that we discussed all the time. We just went about our work like artists practicing our craft.

Cast of 'Jitney' with Keith Randolph Smith second from right in Manhattan Theatre Club production.
Cast of ‘Jitney’ with Keith Randolph Smith second from right in Manhattan Theatre Club production. PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS

Yeah. Focusing on the present moment instead of what it means.

Yeah. And that’s only looking back at Broadway in hindsight. But that information doesn’t necessarily feed the creative process. What feeds the creative process are verbs, actions.

What were some verbs that were fueling that experience for you?

Oh, to be honest, to be open, to be authentic, to find the truth, to be present, to listen, to go after what it is your character needs as though it was life and death. What makes something imminently watchable is when we see a character going after what she wants in a very determined way. She needs something, and so we can get on board with that. And where we get bored is when a character doesn’t need anything.

Yeah, that drive—that urgency—is so important. Because it dictates why we’re here watching this story being told.

True. It engages you. It pulls you in. It welcomes you. And it can make you upset and angry and frustrated. You go through some emotions, but you’re engaged.

I feel like when I get angry in a theatre, at a character, that’s a success of the production, of the playwright, of the actor. You know, that I’m so emotionally invested that I feel anger for someone that isn’t real.

Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. How many times have I seen shows where it’s just “I don’t like you! Why are you like that? Leave her alone!” And I have to say “Keith, you know that’s a fictional character in a make-believe situation.” They pulled me into their lives and their stories and I care about them.    

Keith Randolph Smith (left) in Seattle Rep’s 2002 production of 'Jitney.'
Keith Randolph Smith (left) in Seattle Rep’s 2002 production of ‘Jitney.’ PHOTO BY CHRIS BENNION

I’d love to talk to you about your character Doub. How did you prepare for this role? What draws you to him?

At the very beginning, I listened to a lot of music: Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Marvin Gaye. This is music I grew up on; I graduated high school in 1974. I grew up on funk and Sly and the Family Stone and Chicago and The Doobie Brothers, and War and Power. And I also did three years in the Army. My character is a Korean War vet. I wasn’t old enough to be in the Korean War and I wasn’t old enough to be in the Vietnam War. But there’s that aspect of the military that affects a person and how they see the world.

I came to Seattle Rep to do Jitney in 2002. I was playing Booster, who is the son that gets out of prison. And almost 20 years later, I’m playing a different role.

What is that like to revisit the same play in a completely different character’s body?

The biggest difference that I noticed was when I was Booster, the jitney station was a place I hadn’t been to. You know the first time you go to a new school—if your family moves. That first time you walk in the building, it’s kind of like “Okay, this layout is different. They don’t have enough light in the hallways.” Or when you go to somebody’s church and you notice they’re all a little different. You feel a little outside. It’s welcoming, but you’re still a little outside. But as Doub, who works at the jitney station, I feel very at home in that space.

What does Seattle mean to you? What are you most looking forward to about this experience?

The fresh air! The air is so clean in Seattle. The fish market! The Sound! Going to the movies downtown! We’re coming in March, so football season will be over, but I would love to see the Seahawks play a game. I always try to see sports whenever I go to a new city. I have friends I’m looking forward to seeing—Cheryl West, Tim Bond, Valerie Curtis Newton. I’ve always said if I retire, I could move to Seattle. I’ve always loved that city.

August Wilson’s Jitney runs at Seattle Rep from February 28 through March 29 at the Bagley Wright Theater. Tickets are available online or at 206.443.2222.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Rachel Atkins Makes ‘The Turn of the Screw’ Her Own at Book-It

Rachel Atkins has a long and wonderful history with Book-It Repertory Theatre. She spent several years as a teaching artist in the education department before writing her first play for the company, an adaptation of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, in 2005. Fifteen years later, almost to the day, Atkins will open The Turn of the Screw, an adaptation she’s been periodically pitching Book-It for years.

The Turn of the Screw has been on my list for a long time,” Atkins said. “And I think it’s been on their list for a long time too. I’m certain I’m not the only adaptor to suggest that The Turn of the Screw would be a good Book-It style production. And things just fell into place.”

After simmering on the idea for several years, Atkins has found a way to make this Henry James novel wholly her own.

Playwright Rachel Atkins. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Danielle Mohlman: What drew you to The Turn of the Screw initially?

Rachel Atkins: There is something about this story where you read the whole thing and you never really know what’s going on. And everybody thinks something different is happening. I’ve talked to Carol Roscoe, who’s directing it, about how much her experience with this book has changed. She remembered what she thought was the truth of the story when she first read it in high school. And then reading it years later as an adult, she now thinks something completely different. And I think there’s just something really interesting about a story that leaves so much open for readers and audiences.

Even in the structure of his narrative—the frequency with which he uses pronouns but doesn’t identify who he’s talking about. What “he” does he mean in this sentence?  It could be anybody. And the challenge is: how do you take that and turn it into a play that people are still going to be able to understand and follow, but still leave some essence of that mystery?

And having to make some decisions, I’m sure, about who those pronouns belong to.

Yeah, absolutely.

We’re speaking before the start of rehearsals. Is there a moment or character relationship that you’re looking forward to exploring in rehearsals?

There is, but I sort of don’t want to tell you because it’s part of the mystery of the story.

You don’t have to tell me.

I will say that one of the things that I had a lot of fun with was bringing in some other materials into the story. I mean, it’s a novella. It’s short. This may be the shortest mainstage Book-It production ever, just because it’s really tightened up. One thing I did was pull in other materials of songs and poems and things that the children would be reading or reciting or studying. I’ve tried to use that stuff to draw out more of the mysterious, weird creepiness of the story and what might be happening with these children.

Shannon Lee Clair and Amy Driesler in ‘The Turn of the Screw.’ PHOTO BY AARON WHEETMAN

That sounds so incredible and creepy.

I hope so. That’s what I’m going for.

Because some of those nursery rhymes from back in the day…

I got some creepy stuff in there, so we’ll see.

What excites you about working with this cast of Pacific Northwest actors?

I’m really excited that we’re telling this story with an all-female cast. That’s something that Carol [and I] are both really excited about. I mean, we’re really excited about this cast. We’ve got this really strong group of actors. And the idea of this particular story—about a young woman who takes her first job as a governess and is sent way out to this isolated situation, way beyond her depth. And the idea of telling that story only through female bodies feels really right.

I love that. And I loved seeing that echoed in the reading of This is Not (Y)Our History at Seattle Public Theater, where you had an all-female and non-binary cast playing both male and female roles.

Yeah, and for a totally different reason. With that piece, which is about the suffrage movement, it just feels like a women’s story. And I felt really strongly that not only would there be no men on stage, there would be no men involved in the production.

Of course, the women’s suffrage movement is a big topic right now as we approach the centennial. And I keep hearing about other projects that people are working on across the country. And every time, it’s either that men are writing it or men are in major artistic positions and I’m like “Come on, people. Let them tell their story!”

The Turn of the Screw runs February 12 to March 8 at Book-It Repertory Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 206.216.0833.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Olaf in Broadway’s Touring ‘Frozen’ Will Melt Your Heart

Upon its debut in 2013, Disney’s Frozen almost instantly became part of the zeitgeist of the 2010s. A cultural phenomenon in its own right, it is no wonder that Frozen has transcended the realm of film and, with music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and book by Jennifer Lee, has metamorphosed into a Tony-nominated Broadway musical.

I am of the mind, however, that the name Frozen is an oxymoron; the show is filled with warmth. This oxymoron is perhaps most embodied by Olaf, a charming snowman with a distinct affinity for summer. I had the opportunity to interview F. Michael Haynie, who brings the iconic snowman to life in the Broadway touring production at The Paramount Theatre

Eleanor Cenname: When you portray Olaf, I noticed you use a puppet. Did using the puppet change the way you approached your performance?

F. Michael Haynie: Yes and no. Olaf the “character” has nothing to do with the puppet, so the approach isn’t that much different than normal character work. That being said, the performance of the character is SO much of the incredibly designed Michael Curry puppet. I had amazing teachers, including my puppet guru Lorenzo Pisoni, and amazing cast mates and a creative team that was patient with me while I learned the basics. And special shout out to my physical therapist Taylor Rossi!

Actor F. Michael Haynie. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Can you describe the audition process for Olaf?

It was great. This creative team was so generous and open to my interpretation of Olaf that it made it challenging and exciting all at the same time. Some of it was with the puppet, but mostly they were looking for an actor. I’m very honored that I was asked to be a part of this production.

What is the most challenging part of being in the production for you?

The physical demand of this show is remarkably unique. So there are some places you hurt that you didn’t know could hurt. Again, shoutout to my incredible physical therapist for helping me maintain my health while also learning to be more in control of my body. Puppeteering is such a new physical language for me and it is challenging and thrilling.

In what ways do you feel you have influenced or brought a unique portrayal of Olaf to stage?

Olaf is, at his core, two things: Jennifer Lee (director and writer of Frozen and Frozen II) and Josh Gad (the voice actor for Olaf). That’s his DNA. The stage production opened and added a new strain of DNA to that: Greg Hildreth (original Broadway cast Olaf). When I got the opportunity to originate this version of the show I’d like to think that I added to that DNA again. So, to paraphrase a line from our show, he’s a little bit of “them” and a little bit of “me.” And since I base him on Caroline Innerbichler and Caroline Bowman (our Anna and Elsa) he is about as unique as they come.

This show has been impactful for a lot of young people, how do you handle the responsibility of portraying such a beloved character?

It’s terrifying. I’m only kind of kidding. Olaf gets entrance applause because he’s an icon. I’m not. But I hope that by the end of the show audiences are happy they met my take on that little scamp.

F. Michael Haynie in Frozen North American Tour.
F. Michael Haynie in Frozen North American Tour. PHOTO BY DEEN VAN MEER

How do you think the transition from screen to stage has impacted the production?

The bones of the story that the entire Frozen film team created are still there. But there is a tone that can be achieved on stage with real-life people (and real-life puppets) that can reach audiences in a different way. As a huge fan of many animated mediums, I feel that live theatre is a very separate but equally excited storytelling realm. Even if you’ve seen Frozen before, there is nothing like seeing it live on the stage.

Do you have any advice for young people who might want to pursue musical theatre?

Consume as much art as you can. There are so many media platforms nowadays that you can watch anything all the time. See theatre in your hometown. See tours. See movies. Watch TV shows. Read books. Play video games. Listen to music. Watch the news. Study ANYTHING. The arts need rich minds who are ready to contribute to the world right now. 

Frozen is now playing at Broadway at The Paramount through March 1. Tickets are available online or at 206.682.1415.

Eleanor Cenname is a 10th grader at The Downtown School. A logophile at heart, Eleanor is also a self-proclaimed theatre nerd who merges her love of language and theatre into a passion for arts criticism and arts writing. Eleanor also enjoys writing science fiction and won MoPop’s 2019 Science Fiction Short Story Competition. In her spare time, Eleanor competes in triathlons, listens to podcasts, and drinks copious amounts of tea.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.