Category Archives: Interviews
When playwright Rosary O’Neill was living in New York City, she was inspired to write Plane Love based on her own love relationship and the love relationship between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. She mounted a number of successful readings of Plane Love at the National Arts Club, The Player’s Club, The Actor’s Studio and a few other venues. I attended a few of these readings and reviewed Plane Love which is an intriguing and beautifully written love story,
I had the opportunity to see Th McGowan Trilogy and review it on Blogcritics as an offering of The Origin Company’s 1st Irish Theater Festival 2014. Since then I have been in touch with Seamus Scanlon on social media and have kept up with his activities from time to time during posts. Finally, I caught up with him during the COVID-19 pandemic when we both had the time for me to interview him online via email.
Seamus, give the readers a bit of backstory about yourself.
My background is in science so I am a late convert to the arts. I am a first generation college goer in my family so gainful employment was the priority not frivolity (i.e. the creative arts). Science did appeal to me because it was definitive; equations and formulae were a great attraction for me. Also, my hand writing is appalling. I can’t even read it myself. I knew I would never be able to write papers or complete an analysis in college that a teacher could decipher.
Despite this, I recall playing a recording of Dylan Thomas reading Do Not Go Gentle Into That Night and I was immediately affected by it although I did not let on because our school was an artistic black hole. (In 2018, the Japanese production of The McGowan Trilogy played this recording during the performance which was an amazing surprise for me. I felt I had come full circle!) In English class we also read the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh – a self taught genius raised in poverty in rural County Monaghan. This poetry stirred me and remained with me despite my selection of science to pursue for a career
My hometown of Galway is an artistic epicenter with the Tony Award winning Druid Theater Company; the Galway International Arts Festival and The Cúirt International Festival of Literature. Nora Barnacle (James Joyce’s wife) was born there and Lady Gregory (Yeats’ mentor and co-founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin) lived about 15 miles from Galway, Ireland. Galway county was the backdrop for Synge and Martin McDonagh. So there was no excuse for me not to be enamored of literature, but I just ignored it all. I was too timid to explore it.
How long did you work on the McGowan Trilogy?
Not very long. It was kick started by Nancy Manocherian’s Cell Theater Company Ltd (artistic director Kira Simring) who read a short play of mine Dancing at Lunacy and then staged it as part of the The Irish Cell event in March 2012. They then asked for a full play so I developed two other inter related one acts – The Long Wet Grass and Boys Swam Before Me. They were great to work with – two Jewish women interested in all things Irish. This was staged in Oct 2014 as part of the 1st Irish Theater Festival and was well received. The play was also published by Arlen House. Get a free digital copy here.
What experiences helped you frame the story?
I lived in Belfast for five years so I was exposed to the daily life of Army patrols, constantly hovering Army helicopters, riots, shootings, July 12th marches where the deep seated tribal differences are in full flow. Before living in Belfast I had been affected greatly by the Hunger Strike in Belfast where 7 IRA and 3 INLA political prisoners died. Hunger strikes in Ireland have a long tradition. They are doubly significant and symbolic in Ireland because of the Great Famine (1847) which killed 1.5 million and caused forced emigration of 1.5 million to the US. A therapist in Belfast treating ex gunmen (late teens and early twenties) who had killed for the ‘cause’ and were suffering major trauma after killing someone.
Where has it been produced since it premiered in the US?
After The Cell production in 2014, they brought it to Hastings (UK) to the Kino-Teatr owned by a devoted Russian Hibernophile, Olga Manonova. The same Summer it was staged in two venues in Galway, and in Westport’s Townhall.
The major surprise for me came in 2018. The McGowan Trilogy (in Japanese) play was staged in Japan (in Japanese) to full houses (the lead was a rising movie star so that helped!). I traveled to Tokyo to see it and it was an amazing experience. They were selling merchandise in the foyer so I felt like a rock star! Japan has an amazing richness of theater and other art forms.
In Ireland three amateur drama groups have staged parts of the Trilogy and the feed back is usually positive. Amateur drama in Ireland is a long standing cultural phenomenon.
In April 2020 a theater student, Molly Flanagan at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) was to direct The Long Wet Grass. I was very excited to see this but it had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 situation. Our mixed genre presentation Galway: The Good, the Bad, The Ugly at the New York Irish Center for April 23 had to be cancelled as well as an April performance at Lehman College.
In addition to The McGowan Trilogy, what are some of your successes over the years of which you are most proud?
Since 2016 I have self produced The Long Wet Grass at a number of locations such as Lehman College, City College Downtown, Art House, An Beal Bocht, Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and The New York Irish Center.
In February 2020 I collaborated on the immersive theater event Echoes of Calling with the Japanese dancer and choreographer Akiko Kitamura. If the COVID-19 restrictions lift in time this may be staged again in the Fall.
I worked on two film projects The Long Wet Grass (Ireland/USA, 2017) and The Butterfly Love Song (Ireland/USA, 2019) which was a new medium for me and challenging. I learned a lot – mainly that I should stick to play writing!
My first art form was fiction so I managed to have seven pieces published in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder slot.
What projects do you have in the works?
My next full length play The Blood Flow Game is a sequel to The McGowan Trilogy and is due for publication shortly. The end game for all plays is to have them produced so that is my goal. I have had four table readings of it as part of that process. I thought after The McGowan Trilogy success in Japan I would be a hot prospect but that is not the case!!
The radio play script of The Butterfly Love Song was short listed in Ireland in 2020 and that was a great thrill for me. It was the first radio play I had written. The Cell Theater, where I started off with Dancing at Lunacy, is going to develop it in Fall 2020 as a radio play/podcast.
I have few short films in the works including Three-Nil, Move Baby, Recycle This and The Resurrection Love Song.
Have you been able to get around Covid 19 virtually as other playwrights and artists have done?
The Butterfly Love Song which premiered in NYC in October 2019 and was screened in Dublin in early March 2020 is now being screened offline by various film festivals so that is encouraging. Film lends itself to this more than any other artistic format. Watch the trailer and the full film free at Irish Film London.
What is the first thing you will do, once the medical profession and the government has a handle on Covid 19 and has decided that businesses can reopen along with bars and restaurants?
I am looking forward to getting back to job as a librarian at City College Downtown. It was set up by the Labor Unions in 1981. Many students are first time college goers (like myself), many are from blue collar backgrounds (like myself) so I have a natural affinity with these students. We offer BA, BS and MA programs. Classes run weekday evenings and Saturdays. We specialize in one-on-one advising from day one. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
I am pretty deaf so I can’t really hear anyone in a noisy café or bar. I write in cafés. My office in Galway – when I am home – is The Secret Garden where I accomplish a lot. I hope it is open by July or I will be in trouble.
I have no writing schedule or format or craft advice or a writing desk or writing techniques. I am probably the worst person to look at for guidance since I do not really know how I write etc. I did an MFA in City College in New York and that was very useful because I had writing deadlines so I had to produce.
You can update Seamus’ activities on his website at www.seamusscanlon.com
‘Garden District’ A TV Pilot About New Orleans, Starring Bryan Batt, Interviews with Oley Sassone, Rosary O’Neill
Garden District, directed by Oley Sassone, is a featured Pilot of a TV Series about wealth and desperation in the Garden District of New Orleans, Louisiana. The series is a veritable two-headed Janus of dramatic diabolism and sparkling entertainment. In a novel twist the series is set and shot in New Orleans with a New Orleanean cast and creatives. Garden District is about how a New Orleans patriarch tries to control his beautiful and flawed heirs from the grave.
The series written by New Orleans native Rosary O’Neill, revolves around the world of the wealthy and eccentric Dubonnet family. Of her series, O’Neill writes, “High society and old money camouflage greed, lust and years of backstabbing. Secrets and deceit are gracefully hidden behind the lavish mansion walls of the Garden District.” The series presents an intriguing world veiled by illusion where masks of every kind are worn not only by carnival Kings and Queens but by family scions in conflict.
The series tantalizes with reminders of New Orleans atmosphere and flavors, i.e. cuisine, like Crawfish Étouffée, Red Beans and Rice and Jambalaya and specialty drinks like Sazerac and Vieux Carré cocktails. While you’re celebrating the show’s New Orleans’ scenes of familial undercurrents, mix yourself a Café Brûlot Diabolique and listen to some hot jazz. There’s only one New Orleans; on with your seduction! Let the series begin!
When I first heard about the pilot from writer Rosary O’Neill, I became interested in learning more. I had the opportunity to pose interview questions via email to Rory O’Neill Schmitt, financial producer, lead organizer and visual artist from Arizona. Rory O’Neill Schmitt (http://www.roryoneillschmitt.com/bio.html) was the perfect liaison. She related the interview questions to the creative team. The following interviews are with director Oley Sassone and Rosary O’Neill.
For director Oley Sassone (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0766020/) I asked, how he became involved with the project
I have known Rosary O’Neill for a number of years and was a big fan of her writing, particularly the unique voices she gives to her characters. Rosary knew I had a career in Hollywood and directed a number of episodic TV shows and feature films.
Over coffee one day in the French Quarter, she started talking about the idea of a series about an Uptown, dysfunctional family living in a historical mansion in the Garden District. It sounded like a perfect idea for an ensemble type series. Rosary already had the pilot script written. After reading it, I was hooked.
What is it in the Garden District TV series that viewers might be most interested in?
Garden District is a character-driven family drama. This is a genre that has proven to be successful, regardless of whether the viewers come from wealthy families or not. The family conflicts in this series involve lies, greed, lust, and backstabbing in a world of mansions, expensive cars, fine food and high society.
The character motivations come from the patriarch changing his will on his death bed. This immediately throws the family into total chaos. It sets up the question: Who is going to get the inheritance? A state of wrangling for the estate erupts, beginning in the first scene of the pilot and ensues to the end of the first season.
The characters experience intrigue, distrust, false hopes and deception. These are traits and issues that persuade the audience to get emotionally involved in each character, keeping them on the edge of their seats until the final resolution.
Where do you plan to take the pilot from here?
We’ll shop it to a number of streaming networks, most likely through producers who have deals with them. I believe Garden District will find a home due to the opportunities of so many networks looking for content that has broad appeal.
My questions for the author Rosary O’Neill http://www.rosaryoneill.com/rosary_resume-novel_07_2016.pdf involved her source material and previous works with which I am familiar.
Rosary, you’ve written a few plays about New Orleans. Is Garden District an adaptation of an earlier work? If so, what? How?
Garden District is an evolution of my Card Series about a Garden District family: Wishing Aces, Solitaire, Blackjack, and Hearts. My first play, Wishing Aces, won me my first Fulbright. Solitaire was written in Paris in a little magical basement bedroom, where I was trying to set a play that somehow staged Louisiana for Parisians.
Everyone in Paris was totally curious about the Garden District, and the slippery slope of inheritance among the banana-treed, black-laced balconied south. That being said, the family is, of course, based on mine (cleverly disguised and exaggerated, I hope).
Garden District isn’t an adaptation but an evolution of the family, as seen from my wiser (if still questioning and confused) self.
What is Garden District the TV series about?
Garden District is about the search for love, as validated by money. Who is the most loved and most cherished child? Which child deserves money and which child is the most desperate?
Living at home again in New Orleans, I see people closer up. I love them and despise them, just as I love and hate myself. It’s weird. It’s New Orleans. It’s the brandied, beautiful people of the Garden District that most of us rarely see.
What particularly intrigues you about using New Orleans as a backdrop for a family, who on the surface appears to have everything, but scratching deeper is in trouble emotionally and soulfully?
New Orleans is unique with its fun-loving people who celebrate life, death, and decadence. Tonight, my neighbors went to a funeral party. Last week, the Southern Decadence festival took place in the French Quarter. In October, people are talking about Halloween and Voodoo Fest.
Tomorrow, I hope to go to St. Louis Cathedral for 5pm Mass. People love to party, preach, and pray.
Where was the teaser pilot filmed?
The pilot was filmed in a gorgeous mansion on Felicity Street and Coliseum in the Garden District. This part of the Garden District is called Coliseum Square, and used to be a grand place where people, strolled and preened and showed off themselves and their children.
The house is lush and lazy with 2 swimming pools, a jacuzzi, majestic portraits, blue parlor walls and massive pictures of Marilyn Monroe. A back hallway, lined with bunny rabbit wallpaper, leads you to a glass-filled 20-foot ceiling high side porch, where we filmed an art studio scene with Bryan Batt (as Rooster Dubonnet) and Janet Shea (as Irene Dubonnet).
What have you enjoyed particularly in working on this project?
The people! We have a fantastic team of producers: Jennifer Zoe Taylor, producer and set master director who first agreed to produce; Rory O’Neill Schmitt, financial producer, lead organizer and visual artist from Arizona; Kelly Lind, super actress who handled casting from New Orleans; brilliant Allison Musso, who was my student at Loyola University and took the theatre company I founded (Southern Rep) to Tbilisi, Georgia; Michelle Dumont, who led the exquisite wardrobe design, and who bought an antique dresser that we used in the shoot because she had to get it just right, and would later generously gift it to her daughter; Rachelle O’Brien, musician and marketing expert doing our Facebook. Next is the fantastic, exprienced director, Oley Sassone, who is expertly guiding us.
Most importantly there are the wonderful, superb actors who are infusing Garden District with the brilliant flavors of their craft. These include Bryan Batt, Barret O’Brien, Janet Shea, Kelly Lind, Sherri Eakin, Carl Palmer, Dari Lynn Griffin– just the best of the best. It’s fantastical to see the chemistry.
Finally, there are the top-notch technicians that Oley has brought to the scene, including John Pope.
Seeing all of these scintillating film talents working so hard in that marvelous house lifted me into heaven. This is the closest thing an artist could want, absolute pure joy. It is just amazing to see my work translated and celebrated in a magnificent house in this marvelous town where I was born and grew up. What more could I want? What is even more celestial is that three of the people who are deeply involved in the team are my children. Now, you can guess which ones. And, see why the TV series sizzle shoot was a thrill for me.
Rosary O’Neill and Rory O’Neill Schmitt will keep me apprised of the continued adventures of Garden District the TV series. I’ll pass all that they share with me on to you, their latest photos and updates. You can also check the Garden District Facebook page.
‘Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer’ (a LPTW, NYPL for the Performing Arts Oral History Event)
Monday evening, 6 May the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the League of Professional Theatre Women presented Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer. The event produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser with Sophia Romma was held at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center.
Linda Winer was chief theater critic and arts columnist of Newsday (1987-2017). She has taught critical writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts since 1992 and hosted the “Women in Theatre” series on CUNY-TV from 2002-2007. Recently (2018) she was given a special award from the League of Professional Theatre Women for her contributions to women and theater.
Tovah Feldshuh’s illustrious career spans decades. She is a six-time Emmy and Tony nominee. She has been awarded three honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters. Her prodigious career in theater has garnered her four Drama Desks, four Outer Critics Circle awards, three Dramalogues, the Obie, the Theatre World and the Helen Hayes and Lucille Lortel Awards for Best Actress. Noted Broadway performances include Yentl, Cyrano, Rodgers & Hart, Dreyfus in Rehearsal, Saraval, Lend Me a Tenor, Golda’s Balcony, Irena’s Vow and Pippin (the show stopping trapeze artist, Berthe).
Here are a few excerpts from the conversation Linda Winer held with Tovah Feldshuh who entertained the audience throughout the conversation by performing the role of her grandmother and her mother and others with heavy Bronx or European accents, while discussing her life and career. The piece has been generally edited to remove infelicities in grammar.
Linda Winer: So you’re a serious actress, with a life-time career, a cabaret star, wife, mother of two. You climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, you hung from a trapeze without a net in Pippin. You appeared in a lot of my favorite Law and Order Episodes. You’ve appeared in Walking Dead and in lots of TV and movies. You’ve said your career reflects your personality. Which one? (audience laughter)
The greatest advantage about growing older is the wisdom and perspective it gives you about life. And it’s taken me into my 60s to recognize and deal with the general existential fear of death…or dwelling on the idea that one day I won’t be here. The most important word in a successful career is the word “yes.” So when people ask me if I can do it? If it interests me, I say, “yes.”
I’m much pickier than I used to be because time has shortened. My mother lived until over 103. I’m in the last third of my life. But nonetheless, I’m clearer about what I want to do. I see it and I grab it when it comes my way. And if it doesn’t come my way, I’ve learned from my betters to create it. Dustin Hoffman didn’t just get Tootsie, he produced Tootsie. Jane Fonda didn’t just do her workouts she couldn’t get hired because she was considered a traitor by the U.S. congress and she created the workout program because she was physically fit. I did the pregnancy workout and was most grateful that I worked out up to the day that I delivered.
That is the explanation for a lot of the work you do?
I write and collaborate with various individuals. (An example of this would be her one-woman show Tovah is LEONA!) I went into one-woman show business for a reason, not only to fulfill my dreams. One of my children didn’t learn to read and I was so involved with my career, I didn’t catch it. My beloved sister-in-law said, “This child is not reading.” My sister-in-law is a reading therapist. I said, “What are you talking about, of course this child is reading.” “No!
she said. “This child is memorizing the sounds. He’s not coding right.”
Don’t worry. The child went to Harvard. So when I didn’t catch it, I stopped doing Broadway for 13 years. When one child went to Switzerland, and the other was accepted to the college of his choice, then I went back. There’s no free lunch here. People came up to me and would say, “How are you? Where’ve you been?” There’s no understudy for a parent. Here we’re supposed to be talking about theater. But when you bring human life onto the planet, it’s your responsibility to nurture those lives.
You like great titles. I have these scribbled down and they all have your name. You were smart about branding before it became the thing.
Well people had to know what they were coming to see.
A Touch of Tovah, Tovah Out of her Mind. Tovah Crossovah! Aging is Optional.
The roles I choose, particularly the one-woman shows I construct, I love playing multiple characters. And even when I don’t write the piece, for example, William Gibson wrote Golda’s Balcony, there was still the decision to work on it. The playwright gave us permission to put in all the verbs in the present tense, so we could retain the reportage which it was and turn it into an experience which it is. And that’s why the piece has persevered. The version of the piece that we do is not published.
I’m doing The Prompter now by Wade Dooley directed by Scott Schwartz (May 28–June 16 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor). When I was in my 50s I was cast as Golda who was 80. I’m in my 60s now, I am playing Irene Young in The Prompter who is 90. So if I keep going when I’m 80 or 85 I’ll probably play Methuselah.
How about your grandmother? Was she in shows.
Grandma Ada. She’s the jewel in my crown. Ada is actually a compendium of my family. It was my father who said, “Reach for the stars, you may land onto the roof. If you reach for the roof, you’ll never get off the ground.” My grandmother wanted to be an actress and she had this career in the Music Hall in London. So when she tried out, they said “Ada, show us your ankles.” She showed them her ankles. They asked, “Ada show us your knees.” She said, “Nobody sees my knees except Grandpa, and then not so often. (Tovah Feldshuh lays on a thick accent as she says these lines.)
So it’s a compilation of all my beloved forebears. They came across the waters from England in 1902. They came from England, Russia Germany Austria. I’m a real American mutt. Relating to Austria and Germany, if you say Feldshuh, it’s as familiar as Smith. When you were in Napoleonic times before we had last names, you were “Samuel, son of David.” But they needed last names for taxes. If you paid, you were Montifiore, “Mountain of Roses.” If you didn’t pay, you were named Feldshuh, “field boots.” That’s my proud name.
You were Terri Sue.
So I fell in love with a boy who was not of my tribe, not of my religion. He encouraged me to change my name. And he said what kind of a name is “Terri Sue?” You’re from the North. What else were you called? I said I was called Tovah in “Sunday School.” Actually, it was Hebrew School. I used to say “Sunday School” to fit in. I was embarrassed to say Hebrew School. By the way in Hebrew School, they give you a prayer book, it’s exhaustive, like Suzuki Judaism. In this prayer book, you can pray wherever you are in the world.
I was called Tovah in “Sunday School.” This was the 1950s. Jews were assimilating. There were no Mercedes in Scarsdale. To assimilate Jewish men men were going to Brooks Brothers to get their blazers and beige pants. These were the boys that made it, the GIs that came home from the war. They were Jewish. To get back to how I changed the assimilation name to Tovah, it was because of Michael Fairchild. May he go down for the ages. He became a photographer for National Geographic. On his encouragement, I changed my name from Terri Sue to Tovah. And I didn’t know the entire state of Israel would fall on my head. I had no sense of what would happen.
So what was the consequence?
It changed the whole landscape of my life. Juliet says what’s in a name. A rose by any other name is as sweet. Not necessarily so. A name characterizes. “Tovah” characterized me. Bobby De Niro is immediately characterized as Italian. Dustin Hoffman is something else. So a Tovah Feldshuh is a Danish name. So in Minneapolis when I worked at the Guthrie, they thought I was Danish (she imitates a Danish/Swedish accent). That was the one place in Europe that saved the Jewish community. So when I got to New York, my name, Austrian Jew, from Vienna? They said to me, “It’s a ridiculous name! You must change your name! (heavy accent). And 18 months later my name Tovah Feldshuh was on the marquee (applause).
Your parents in Scarsdale sent you to Sarah Lawrence. You were a philosophy major. You studied languages…and were/are a pianist. Did your parents think that changing your name to Tovah and becoming an actress was a mistake?
They thought being an actress was a mistake. When I told my mother I wanted to go to Julliard, my mother said, “You’re not going to a trade school.” (laughter) My older brother who is an MD, Ph.D. Dr. Dr. David Feldshuh, my mother called him Doc. My older brother went into the theater first. He went to Dartmouth and was a Reynolds scholar and was a McKnight Fellow at the Guthrie. He was the one who said, “Don’t go to law school. Why don’t you apply for a McKnight Fellowship in Acting?”
So I applied to law school, got on the wait list, got the McKnight Fellowship and went to study at Guthrie. And again, this changed my life. Sarah Lawrence was fabulous. My mother came to see Renard the Fox by Stravinsky. I think I had green hair and purple feet. She took one look at me and said, “Why didn’t you go to Vassar?” (Tovah Feldshuh imitates her mother with an accent) I applied and got in to Vassar but was encouraged to go to Sarah Lawrence by my mother. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Taconic Parkway had the highest mortality rate for car accidents. The road to Poughkeepsie was a long, dangerous road and she was preserving and protecting her young. I guess she wanted me near home. Then they sent me abroad. When I went abroad, I finally did my own laundry, otherwise I brought my laundry home to Scarsdale.
I was sent to Paris. At 13, I was sent to the Cote d’Azur. My father’s client was in Lyon. All their children spoke French and they had a summer home in the South of France. My brother and I were sent to the South of France for the summer. My mother said, “She’s not going.” My father said, “She’s getting on the plane, Lillian.” I had one parent who spoke like he was always in a courtroom. He dressed with the winged tipped shoes and the whole nine yards with the Paul Stewart suit. So I would ask, “Dad, was this the way you spoke when you were a baby?” (laughter) On the other hand, my mother was born in the Bronx on the dining room table, 1534 Charlotte Street (Tovah Feldshuh imitates where and how her mother was born). She had elocution lessons. The immigrants gave their children elocution lessons.
I had elocution lessons and it didn’t do me a bit of good. How is it that, not to use a cliche, how is it you have it all? I was at a women’s journalism luncheon. Barbara Walters said, “Women, you can’t have it all. You can have two of the three.” It’s very unusual to have three. You can have children or a husband or a career, but you can’t have all three. The thought she conveyed was if you try to “do it all,”you will suffer.
That must have been her experience. And I’m sorry it was. I never think of having it all. There are people in this audience who know darn well there are two sides to every coin. I have a great mate. Andrew Harris Levy who did originate Tovah Out of Her Mind. He’s very clever and he’s clean and I don’t just mean in the shower. I got the right mate. His mother was a concert level pianist who gave up her ultimate dream to marry Arnold Levy. She became a piano teacher. I was a classical pianist because my mother was shy and quiet and a classical pianist. And I wanted to be near my mommy. So I took piano; interesting we never did a four-handed piece. That was a bit of a heartbreak for me.
You were going to be a concert pianist.
I couldn’t do the concertos. I could only get to the Finals. I even played for Van Cliburn. It was very hard for me. “Mozart in D Minor,” “Rhapsody in Blue.” And I thought to myself, “You’re going to be an also ran. You better try out for something else.” So I did plays with music and I was immediately cast as Cousin Hebe in H.M.S Pinafore. I thought then…there are three girls singing in this operetta, and I am one of them. So that gave me hope. The next year I got Little Mary Sunshine in Little Mary Sunshine. And I thought to myself, hey maybe this might be something that I can do really well.
But the man I married and I were brought up on the exact same music, the same love of opera. (Tovah imitates her mother.) “If you’re gonna marry someone, marry someone of your race, your religion and your social class. You wanna fight? Fight at the opera.” The woman’s speech patterns that were fancy, devolved as she got older.
I have a certain sized bosom. You really can’t see it because there isn’t a breast pad left in Manhattan that isn’t in this bra. Anyway, I have a very small chest. My mother and my beloved daughter have a very ample chest. My mother looks at my daughter and looks at me and she says, “Well, I guess it skips a generation.” (laughter)
So why do I have it all? I had great parents, but I had the great luck of choosing a man who didn’t begrudge me my work. And his love for me had to do with him not stopping me. We’ve been married 40 years and it’s taken me decades to realize that. There’s times he comes in and he’s working on his law. He’s a fantastic lawyer, the head of a department of huge law firm and now he’s an accountant for the biggest law firm in the world. I will not let him retire. I do not believe in retiring, so I can go to Florida and do my nightclub act. Tovah Feldshuh segues to a joke. So I’m down there and I tell them. I’ll change the opening. I’ll change the closing. And they say to me, “Ms. Feldshuh, you don’t have to change anything. They’re all dead.” About retirement? No. In my experience you have to live for a purpose that is beyond yourself. Children are usually the easiest solution to that.
So I had these good parents. I loved my father deeply. He was a Harvard lawyer. I married a Harvard lawyer. My father-in-law was a Harvard Lawyer. My mother-in-law was a classical pianist. My mother was a classical pianist. I was a classical pianist. So we had enough synchronistic coincidences, that had nothing to do with each other until will met each other. That made vast areas of the marriage easy. And that’s why it was possible in my life, to “have it all.”
Tovah Feldshuh in Conversation With Linda Winer was a delightful presentation. Though I didn’t include all of the lengthy conversation here, you may find it is at the NYPL for the Performing Arts. Tovah Feldshuh, did mention that she wanted to get this “on the record.” She has not had any plastic surgery!
I would credit her youthful appearance to her peace inside, her brilliance, cleverness and her luck in choosing the right partner, and of course, her obvious joie de vivre!
You can see Tovah Feldshuh in The Prompter May 28–June 16 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tovah is LEONA! is on its way to San Francisco’s Feinstein’s at the Nikko from September 20-21. You can find her on https://www.tovahfeldshuh.com/
On Monday, 12 February the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center presented Baayork Lee in conversation with Robert Viagas. The show was produced in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Betty Corwin, with Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma. It was part of the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Oral History Program.
Baayork Lee is most noted for working with Michael Bennett as his assistant choreographer on A Chorus Line where she created the role of Connie. Throughout her career, she directed and choreographed The King and I, Bombay Dreams, Barnum, Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess and Jesus Christ Superstar and other shows for many national and international companies. The exhaustive list reveals her impressive energy and exceptional talent.
And that is not all. She is a generous soul. Her intention to give back to the community, her verve and vibrant enthusiasm moved her to create a nonprofit organization, National Asian Artists Project. Through her prodigious efforts the N.A.A.P. has established programs educating, cultivating and stimulating audiences and artists of Asian descent. They have produced classical musical theatre ranging from Oklahoma! to OLIVER! with all Asian-American casts. Baayork Lee, the recipient of the 2017 Isabelle Stevenson Award was honored for her commitment to future generations of artists through her work with the N.A.A.P. and theater education programs around the world.
Interviewed by Robert Viagas, journalist and author with thirty-five years’ experience on Playbill Inc., the Tony Awards and author/editor of 19 books on the performing arts, Robert Viagas has proved his mettle. For The Alchemy of Theatre (Applause Books) he worked with Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, Hal Prince, Chita Rivera and others. His 2009 book, I’m the Greatest Star! (Applause) includes biographies of his A-list genius artists, forty musical stars from George M. Cohan and Fanny Brice to Nathan Lane and Sutton Foster.
Here are excerpts of the enjoyable and lively conversation between Baayork Lee and Robert Viagas
When you were five-years-old you were hired for the original Rogers and Hammerstein’s King and I. Tell us how that happened.
Well, agents came down to Chinatown where I grew up. They went to a school there and my father’s restaurant. And they were looking for kids. We all went uptown and I got the job. (applause)
What was it like working on that show with Yul Brenner and Rogers and Hammerstein?
I learned to sing and dance on the job. I always tell the story of going uptown and getting on the stage at the St. James Theatre. And seeing the chandelier and the red velvet seats. And being on stage for the first time? I just knew that this was where I wanted to be. And I saw the girls warming up backstage. What are they doing? I want to do that. So I knew everybody’s lines and all the songs. I knew the songs for the King and the other parts. I wanted to be in the business.
Even though you were five and even though you didn’t have years of training, you had lines in the show. You were one of the little princesses Ying Yawolak, and they wrote you a speech. Can you tell the story of the speech?
Mrs. Anna is going away and I have a letter I read to her. But I couldn’t read at the time, so my mother helped me and I memorized the lines. “Dear teacher. My goodness gracious. Do not go away…” (audience laughs)
You must have done a great job with that because you were hired for a subsequent musical Flower Drum Song. Tell us the part you played. I’m particularly interested in hearing the story of how you went on in the lead role and you were twelve-years-old.
Well, I was fired at eight-years-old from The King and I because I outgrew my costume. And Rogers and Hammerstein gave us something as a consolation. There were three of us. One girl wanted acting lessons. Another girl wanted piano lessons. And I wanted dance lessons. I got to go to The School of American Ballet and Jerome Robbins helped me get in. I started studying dancing and wanted to be a ballerina. And here comes along Flower Drum Song and Mr. Rogers remembered me and by then a double pirouette was nothing for me now. I was singing and dancing. I got into the show. I was one of the kids in the show. I sang “The Other Generation.” And I don’t know how I got the part. But Anita Ellis was the Fan Tan Fannie girl. She was understudied. And her understudy went on to somebody else and her understudy went on to somebody else. And all of a sudden there wasn’t anyone else but me. And I got to sing F”an Tan Fannie.”
And how did that feel?
At twelve you have no fear, Robert. You have no fear at twelve. You can sing all the songs, do all the lines. You can do everything.
And thanks to N.A.A.P. you’re trying to expand opportunities for Asian-American actors. There was nothing like that in the 1950s, 1960s. Yet you were able to maintain a career through those years. You worked pretty steadily. You got to know certain people and they obviously respected your talent. How were you able to survive and work and succeed as an Asian-American woman in the early 1960s?
First of all I was a kid. So every show is was in I worked as a kid. From Flower Drum Song I went to the Performing Arts High School. And I graduated and I got a phone call from Carol Haney who was a choreographer of Flower Drum Song. She remembered me and said, “I am going to do a show and it’s called Bravo Giovanni.” And we’re going to Broadway. I said I’m going to Julliard. I’m going to become a dancer. And she said “Why don’t you just come and do the show for the summer and then decide.” So that’s what happened. It was a flop. Bravo Giovanni starred Cesare Siepi and it was Michelle Lee’s first show.
But it did win the Tony for Best Score over a Funny Thing Happened…
Oh. You know all the facts, don’t you. So I was sitting on the firescape of the Broadhurst Theatre and I looked and they were putting up a sign for the next musical, Mr. President. So I said, “Hum that looks interesting.” So I auditioned and I got the show. And I played with Nanette Fabray, as Deborah Chakronin and I was a kid in the show. And then there was a knock on my dressing room door. They said, “There’s a man upstairs who wants to see you.” I went upstairs and he gave me his card. He said, “I’m doing a new show. It’s called Here’s Love. I really think you’d be good in the show. Please come and audition.” I said, “Yes, Yes, Yes.” I went downstairs and said this man upstairs? It was Norman Jewison. And so I went over and I auditioned. And I was one of the kids in the show.
That’s a musical based on The Miracle on 34th Street, music with a score by Music Man’s Meredith Wilson. Not as successful.
And so I was a kid. And Michael Bennett was in the show.
You knew him before. What was he like as a kid?
I don’t know. All I can tell you is when I got Flower Drum Song, Michael told me I was so jealous that day at dancing school that you got Flower Drum Song, your second Broadway show and I hadn’t even had one. (audience laughs). But what was he like? I don’t know. Except at that time he said, “I don’t want to dance any more. I want to be a choreographer.” And we all said, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Sure, sure.” But he was very, very serious. I got the call. The musical director was Elliot Lawrence. And he said I’m doing a new show Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr. And there’s a part for a shoe shine boy. Would you come and audition? And so I did. And I danced with Sammy Davis.
Michael did manage to choreograph a couple of shows and he did not forget his classmate.
No. So I danced with Sammy in Golden Boy. And Sammy took us to London. My first trip to London. And I got a call from Michael saying he was doing another show. It was A Joyful Noise. And Tommy Tune was in it and Donna McKechnie. And so I came back and I did that show. We came to Broadway. And I got a call for another show when I was in London for Promises Promises and I had to get out of my contract for that. And he helped me get out of my contract and he brought me to do Promises, Promises.
And you were the featured dancer in” Turkey Lurky Time.” I saw you in that show, one of the first shows I saw early on. That is an incredible number. Did you have to wear a neck brace?
We were at the chiropractor at least once a week. All of us. I’d seen the show for three years. I loved being in the chorus. I loved being in the back. I was having a great time. I loved signing in and getting into the theater early. And Michael said you are going to be my dance captain. I said, “Oh, oh.” There were rehearsals and all that, I thought. But he treated me well, so I became his dance captain in Promises Promises.
If you go online and see clips of these songs, you see they are time capsules. You see Joyful Noise, you see Promises, Promises. When you look at all of them you see one Asian-American. What was that like?
I was very lucky. Very happy. My cousin Chester said, “B? You better represent! All Chinatown looking at you!”
Was that a challenge for you? What was it like? Being the One! The One Singular Sensation?
Special. I felt very, very special. I always appreciated being there and representing. Absolutely.
Another special show you did was Seesaw. You were in the chorus of Seesaw, but you did have a featured number in that show. And when they feature that show, they always use the same picture. Tommy Tune who is 6’6’ and they chose you to do a duet with him. And you were attired in masses of balloons and were on point the entire time. I saw you and thought. “Who is this girl?”
I think “Turkey Lurky” may have been bigger. By the time I was in this show I was known and to dance with Tommy Tune was really quite an honor.
I don’t know. With “Turkey Lurky” you were one of three with Donna. But with this number you were next to Tune.
Ah, OK. Michae Bennett was very ahead of his time. We were not the standard kind of, the blonde, 5’5’ you know. But you have Tommy Tune, Baayork Lee and those in the show were all shapes, sizes and colors. And he was very ahead of his time.
Do you remember the conversation or phone call where he mentioned this show he was doing about chorus dancers? Do you remember him discussing the show that became A Chorus Line?
No. But I do remember all through my time working with Michael, he always said, “I want to do a show about dancers.” He’d been saying he wanted to do a show about dancers. Because dancers unlike actors never asked him why. They just did what he told them. (laughter)
He wanted you to be the dance captain on that.
First, he wanted me to be his assistant. At that time in the olden days, you had to have a choreographer or a director or you didn’t work. Jerome Robbins had his dancers. Bob Fosse had his dancers.
Special people that he worked with all the time.
Yes. Because they developed their own style. And they invested in their dancers and their actors. And so Michael Bennett had to get his klan together. And this was very important for me that I finally found a home. Because I danced with Michael Kidd and Peter Gennaro, I had gone from show to show, but I didn’t have an anchor where I would do every commercial, every Broadway show. Anything that that choreographer did, I was part of the plan.
Industrial. Millken Show.
They used to do commercials. Well, Milliken was a fabric manufacturer and the commercials were like shows, lavishly staged.
Yes. They brought in all the choreographers. And you had to be in a Broadway Show. And we got the clothes and at the end of a Broadway run we got a bonus. And when they gave us the checks they used to say, “And here’s one for little Baayork Lee, and one for so and so”…and it was ohhh. money, money, money!
You are not the height of a typical Broadway dancer. That is even written into a Pulitzer Prize winning show. Your height. How did you manage that height issue? Was that a struggle?
Absolutely. I wanted to be Maria Tallchief (renowned ballerina). I wanted to be in the New York City Ballet. I had to throw away my point shoes when I found out I couldn’t be in the company. I was too short. I was competing with Tanaquil Le Clerq (renowned ballerina) and all of his (Balanchine’s) X- wives. (explosive laughter)
On A Chorus Line, initially, I was the assistant. And I would handle the tapes. And then we would go into the workshop with Joseph Papp and I was the assistant. And I would say, “He wants you to line up.” And everybody would line up. And I would say, “He wants you to put your resumes…” Then Michael realized that this wouldn’t work. So he became “The Voice.” So that was the first workshop. And then the second workshop, Michael called me and said, “I would like you to put your life in the show.” And I said “Who wants to know about a short, Asian girl who wanted to be a ballerina?” (someone from the audience answers) That’s exactly what Michael said. And from then on, I was no longer his assistant. I had a role in the show.
Didn’t you have a song that was cut from the show?
Yes. It was called “Confidence.” Back in the old days, Equity wanted to have at least one ethnic person in the show, maybe the orchestra also. So my competition in A Chorus Line was Richie because they could take one ethnic person. And he was African American. So Marvin Hamlisch wrote us a song called “Confidence.” I talked about Flower Drum Song and King and I and he talked about being in Hello Dolly with Pearl Bailey and we had to have confidence because we might not get the part. Only one ethnic person could. And then the song was cut. The show was 5 hours long. And we said, “Michael, we can’t cut the song because people need to know about these issues.” He said “I have bigger fish to fry. I need to put a Paul monologue in the show.”
Robert takes out one of the hats from the finale of A Chorus Line. And the original shoes.
It’s Thommie Walsh’s hat.
Baayork, I and Tommie wrote a book about A Chorus Line called On the Line, about the making of A Chorus Line. It’s on Amazon. When they first brought out that hat what did you think?
Well, we had our dance clothes on. And so that wasn’t special. And they said you’re going to wear the same thing, but in blue. And we were very uncomfortable. And the finale was going to be us working on the show, just us, then blackout working together. That’s the ending that Joseph Papp wanted. Michael Bennett had very different ideas. He wanted pizzazz, he wanted costumes, he wanted everything.
That’s the one moment you see the number of the show they’ve been auditioning for.
So when we saw the costumes we thought wow. I was in high heels, fishnets and the outfit was cut up to there.
Very sadly we lost Michael. And the person who’s been in charge and who’s carried the torch has been Baayork Lee who has directed the production in his place all these years. Is there a difference between Baayork Lee’s Chorus Line and Michael Bennett’s?
It’s always Michael Bennett’s Chorus Line. Opening Night downtown he came backstage and said, “It’s your show. You’re going to direct and choreograph this all over the world. But we were Off Broadway. And we didn’t know what this was. And he’s telling me all these things. Like you’re going around the world and you’ll do this and that. And we’re going, “Oh, yes, Michael. Oh yes.” And now forty-three years later I’m saying, Oh, yes, Michael. (applause) It’s Michael Bennett’s show. But A Chorus Line is about the people in the show. And every actor brings himself into the show. And that’s why we’ve evolved the show over the years because obviously we’ve gone to Chile and to Stockholm and Japan and Korea and the actors bring themselves to the rolls. And that’s what’s exciting about it.
Is it hard to direct the role of Connie Wong?
I just tell them me to watch me for five weeks. (laughter) She has to be feisty and high spirited and all those things.
I wanted to ask you about the Tony Award you won.
The National Asian Artist’s Project. I was thinking about forming a company for Asian artists for years and years. I was talking about it. Every time I did a show, we were doing King and I. And I asked Nina Zoie Lam, “Where are all these talented people going to go?” She said, They take their odds and ends jobs and wait for the next King and I or Miss Saigon.” And we did King and I again. Again, the questions came up. Where will all these people go? Steven, God Bless him he’s teaching tonight and couldn’t be here, said, “Let’s do it.” So finally Steven Eng, and Nina Zoie Lam and I founded the N.A.A.P. to give the talented Asian artists and Asians a platform to show their talents. And also to educate the young kids back in Chinatown where I grew up to go to their schools and give them the opportunity and give them a choice. They don’t have to go to Harvard. They can go to Broadway. (laughter, applause)
I’ve seen some of the shows. They don’t try to do Asian themed shows. They did Hello Dolly. They did Oklahoma. They did Carousel. And the amazing thing about it is that the nearly all Asian actors in it? Well, you’re not seeing Asian actors. You’re seeing Hello Dolly and Carousel.
They are talented, talented actors. And that’s the most important thing. (applause)
Of all the work Baayork has done, that is what she won her Tony for.
The evening closed with audience questions and photographs that Baayork took with friends. Indeed, no one was leaving the Bruno Walter Auditorium before they snatched the opportunity to congratulate and thank Baayork for her entertaining responses, love, enthusiasm and grace. It was a most memorable, uplifting evening. Below is a clip that Robert Viagas referred to as being a time capsule. It’s the rollicking number from Promises, Promises, “Turkey Lurky Time.”
Frances McDormand is a terrific actress. Her body of work encompasses both comedy and drama, both stage and film. Recently, she has been garnering awards for her work in Martin McDonagh’s searing film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Her “in-your-face” portrayal of a mother who stirs the fire under the police department of Ebbing, Missouri to get them to investigate her daughter’s brutal murder is both memorable and humorous. Indeed, in a matrix of powerful characters, who seek redemption and justice, the film is a tour de force between Mildred Hayes (McDormand), Sheriff Willoboughy (Woody Harrelson) and Jason Dixon (played by the brilliant Sam Rockwell. As Willogoughy and Dixon fight for the police department’s integrity and Mildred Hayes’ struggles to bring them to task for not effectively investigating her daughter’s rape and murder, the action deepens into a profound personal drama about redemption, love and solace of shared humanity and grace.
On Monday, April 23, 2012, The League of Professional Theatre Woman hosted an evening with Frances McDormand. Produced by Cheryl D. Raymond and funded by a grant from the Edith Meiser Foundation, the evening was presented in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women as part of their Oral History Series with the Public Library for the Performing Arts. Kudos went to Betty Corwin for producing the program. Mari Lyn Henry, a member of the League who was present at the time transcribed the interview that appears below between Frances McDormand and interviewer Sarah Ruhl. The interview took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium to an enthusiastic audience. Salient excerpts appear below and give one an understanding of how the amazing McDormand evolved along her journey. We see the tip of the iceberg into how she was able to mine her empathy and emotions to evoke the self-torment and desperate love that Mildred Hayes has for her daughter in her award-winning, intensely human portrayal in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Sarah Ruhl: Tell us about playing Lady Macbeth in high school.
I was 14, not a particularly good student. But I had a really good English teacher in Monessen, Pennsylvania. She said it was time for us to read Shakespeare and she had us read Macbeth out loud. And then we did a scene after school for family and friends. And so I found myself alone on stage doing the sleepwalking scene. And I think it was the power of the words, the power of being 14, alone on stage, and looking out and seeing a lot of adults quiet and attentive.
Today would you ever want to play Lady Macbeth?
I have not done her. I don’t think it’s ever too late. Right now I am concerned about doing it because I don’t want to do a bad production of Macbeth. Maybe because it is a supporting role. I feel like I have been trained for that. I have been playing wives, girlfriends, mothers for years now. So I don’t want to be in a bad production of Macbeth. I (would) want a good director.
What is a good director?
How do you find one Sarah? It is really difficult. By going to see what is out there. I am looking for a director who can serve the work. It is different in the theater than it is in film. Actors are in a better position in film because eventually we get a lot of power. In the theater you are in charge of it once the production is open. That being said my last work was with Daniel Sullivan. I worked with him years ago in Sisters Rosensweig at Lincoln Center and we had a horrible time together and I didn’t want to work with him again and then we did a reading of a play by David Lindsay Abaire. David and Dan had worked together before. We got into the room and it was magic and I adored working with him and I think perhaps because it was a different play, a different time. I was concerned about working at MTC. I haven’t always worked on Broadway and am not really attracted to working on Broadway. Probably more interesting audiences I have worked for have been Off Broadway. My favorite place to work is at St. Ann’s Warehouse (Brooklyn). They have performance art and a lot of different disciplines have been held in that arena. The audiences don’t have expectations. They could be going to the theater or to the circus. I have been so impressed with them.
Explain the value of the ensemble.
That was what I was led to believe I was going to do. That is what I was trained to do, a reason to go into the theater. I went to four years of college. I went to drama school for three years at Yale and I was trained as a classical theater actress.The only choice was to come to New York and start working in the theater. My goal and assumption was to become a member of a theater company. We were on the dying end of a program that had started in our country where drama schools were made to train actors to go into regional theater companies. When I got out of school you could still be a member of the Guthrie Theatre which I eventually worked at. But people went straight from drama school and that’s why drama schools were invented and were funded like in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theatre. It became like Pillsbury out there. All those companies and sponsors were bringing executives from the west coast and they had to offer them something cultural. So these companies like Seattle Rep, Trinity Playhouse, the theaters in Chicago, all those great repertory theaters had to have cheap labor coming out as trained labor and that is what I chose to do.
I have to say my first job was in Trinidad in a play directed by Liviu Ciulei. Liviu was with the Wooster Group, a theater company which I have been involved in for the past thirty years. We have used the same actors over and over and they also write for us. The Wooster Group has taken me in like a stray little lamb and I now feel like I have a home with them. What is really great about that for me is that Kate Valk, who is the queen of the Wooster Group and premier actress of that company has been honing her craft and working with them for thirty years. We got to work together on To the Birdie, an adaptation of Racine’s Phedre (2002). That was ‘magic’ and what an ensemble should be about.
There is a tremendous humility when you talk about your work and working with other actors and I find that very rare. I have seen your work and it wasn’t the role that attracted me but your interpretation and what you brought to it. Tell us about your process and how you create a character.
When I came to New York, I was fortunate, coming out of a major drama school. I remember a casting agency experience. An older woman said to me, ‘Frances you would be a perfect pioneer woman. Unfortunately they are not making one. Okay, okay, okay,okay! Finding my type I realized at first, I was not very castable. But I had to pay my rent and didn’t want to do anything else. I had jobs like cashier or at restaurants, but I was really bad at all of them. I had to figure out how to make money. So there was a Pabst Blue Ribbon commercial, regional theater jobs and so on, all the things that young actors have to do, but then I started thinking about this.
I was always getting feedback like ‘You’re too this, you’re not enough that. You’re not enough his. You’re not pretty enough, tall enough, young enough, old enough. I started putting all of this together and decided I am going to be the one that is not pretty enough and I worked hard at that. In most storytelling, not as much in the theater, but in film, the theater is the only place for women of all ages and types. But to support myself outside the theater I took on some supporting roles in films and realized that all genres of films are male protagonist-based. Put a woman or women in these roles but (like Thelma and Louise) they die in the end. That film is ground breaking with two women. But all those male protagonist driven stories need women in supporting roles so I found I was good at that. I did girlfriends to some of the best leading male stars out there. Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Gene Hackman. I’ve kissed them all but more importantly I made their characters more interesting. I was the off center, not very pretty, a little touchy—you know, mousy-brown-hair-uh-girlfriend. From a business angle, that is what I became.
In the theater I was very fortunate. My husband, Joel Coen, could afford to support me and believed in the theater. I could do theater whenever I could make that choice and not worry about the mortgage payment. It is not about the part, it is about the play.
What about achieving a balance between personal and professional lives? Can one lead a normal life?
One of my accomplishments was adopting a son and introducing my son to his father and my husband to his son. Your universe goes from being self-centered and self-absorbed. We wanted to rear a child our way. That meant living together and working together, avoiding publicity and keeping our private life private. No scandal.That is my life. I learned this from my mother.
Any roles you regret not playing?
Well if I didn’t do them, I didn’t do them. But there are a couple of roles. Orlando is one, Doubt is another. Well I have plenty of time to do Doubt but Cherry Jones was the actress for that role. So I didn’t give up anything.
You have played all the female characters in both Streetcar named Desire and Three Sisters. How did that come about?
With Three Sisters I wanted to be in a play by Chekhov. First time I played Olga when I was the youngest. My fourth job was playing Irina at the Guthrie directed by Liviu Ciulei. I was more suited to playing Irina at that time of my life and I was working with a wonderful cast. I played Masha at the McCarter for Emily Mann. It was an interesting treatment. I was Masha, Linda Hunt was Olga and Mary Stuart Masterson was Irina. And now I want to play Anfisa someday while I direct the play. Anfisa and the servants get what they want in that play. They know what they want, the sisters don’t.
I’m a transformative actor. I want to go inside a character and come out on the other side. Some actors are better at interpreting certain plays. I believe that I am a good interpreter (maybe not of Chekhov) but definitely of Tennessee Williams. I need a play that has a woman of my age and the parts that are my age are the parts that every actress is supposed to do. I never planned to do Blanche. I felt very successful as Stella, one of the best things I was able to work on as a young actor. I was given the opportunity by Michael Colgan who runs the Gate Theater to do Blanche in Dublin to an audience of extraordinary performers (you know every Irish man or woman can tell a great story) so when they come to the theater they are tough (Fran makes a face like them) and to feel the temperature of that audience every second is exciting. I had the opportunity to play Blanche which I am not suited for but the director wanted to do it against the traditional type. She was delicate but she was also a caretaker for the death of the plantation and the family who she had watched die in the family home. It was an interesting production. Everyone gets a role like this but you shouldn’t do more than one. That’s my opinion.
Sarah What do you think about plastic surgery?
What society has pressured men and women to do to capture eternal youth! I read an article about so many of these things that are being used—botox, ingesting into the system without any question. It hasn’t been long enough to know what effects it will have and what the emotional repercussions will be. When you are talking to someone who is stressed you feel their stress. If their brow furrows, your brow furrows because your empathetic nature is reaching out to what they need. If you can’t do that you can’t do that. Your neurological response sends a trigger to your brain to care about that other person, to care what they are going through to sit there long enough to read their expression and to find out what else is going on. If you can’t do that, you are not getting that signal. THAT IS PRETTY SCARY.
Literally I will walk down the street sometimes because we are walking around in a society that is absorbing without question people’s fear. One of the reasons that I haven’t done press or publicity for about ten years now in relationship to my work is the unspoken rule that we don’t talk about that. For me it is not the same thing as not talking about someone’s private life. If I have information about someone I have worked with who has a certain amount of celebrity, I would not share that with you. It is none of your business. I started feeling like I need to make a list and I need to start walking around with a sandwich board with a list of all the people I know who have somehow altered themselves for the service of something that they were perpetuating—I think we have to be careful.
Plastic surgery is the Greek mask of our generation.
I think that when someone ages beautifully, it is partly because of an internal condition and it can relate to what they have done from suffering or comes about as a result of suffering and I think that plastic surgery is an erasure of suffering.
What was your road trip like?
We took a road trip last summer and we hadn’t done that in a while. I love road trips and everything that goes along with them. One problem was that we didn’t get our AAA map guide. We could unfold it and figure out what road we wanted to take. Oh let’s go on that road instead. I had my iPAD with the little blue dot. I spent the entire time doing this (shows iPAD to face) watching the blue dot. ‘Oh my god where are we?’ We had to stop and get a map because we were not enjoying the trip. This is my map and I can pick where I want to go, what direction I want to take and it all started when I met my son 17 years ago.
QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE
Could you speak about Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day?
We made the movie in 2006 which is not as witty or naughty as the book. I wanted to see a project from beginning to end and I really loved the story. In the book, it is about a day in the life of Miss Pettigrew and the friendship she makes with a whore, a woman who is living with three men. But that doesn’t come out like that in the movie. She is simply being kept. The other character is the fashion designer. In the book these three characters form a friendship. We had a lovely director. It was his first feature. He was a lovely man but not a visionary. We connected but he didn’t feel as passionate as I did about this film. As the producer I knew it would be a challenge to sell the film with a middle-aged female. But we were fortunate to have this really wonderful actress (Amy Adams) and she looks great in lingerie. It turned out okay, but it wasn’t great.
Could you tell us about working with Lili Taylor in a play with students
We are both members of a company called the 52nd Street Project. It started 30 years ago near the PALeague across from the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Kids in the neighborhood go take boxing lessons at the PAL after school. Curt Dempster, the late artistic director of EST, sent Willie Reale, a young actor/playwright, to teach the kids playwriting. It helped give the kids an honest creative outlet. He founded this program which eventually became a non-profit organization. We have two boards in a newly developed building on the corner of 53rd and Tenth Ave. Kids have to take the playwrights course or write a play they can stage and perform in. They go away for a weekend and have a monitor help them write their plays. When they return, they cast from a group of adult professional actors with a dramaturg and a young director and they get to see their plays performed.
Do you ever get star treatment?
I am getting it right now. I don’t want to be a star or known as a star. That being said if I want to get a table at Cafe Luxembourg, Joel will have me call. I will use shamelessly whatever advantage my name gets for a restaurant reservation.
Could you talk about how we get more roles for women.
I think the most important thing is female writers. I spent years beating my head against the wall and I would say to my husband, “Joel why can’t you write better roles for women?” Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Nicole Holofcener write great films with behavior and character and have a lot of trouble getting their films made. Here is what is going to be good. When the actor who is also on the board of the 52nd St. Project has a company who is going to liaison with the money market world for the goal of making money and to get them to invest in their film and money into female-centric films whether written by women, directed by women with a good business plan—a terrific spreadsheet with what has been made, what needs to be done, how it can be done, take a chance on us. That will help. It is a business. Theater is not it. I can stand up to do a sleepwalking scene right now and that is theater or on a sidewalk, but unfortunately it won’t raise money. I am trying to raise four million dollars for a film which I think is a lot of money. but in terms of films, the last epic film cost producers 300 million dollars so 4 million is nothing. But they won’t give it to you for a nice family-oriented film.
After attending the last performance of the superb Temple of the Souls at the New York Musical Festival, I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with its director/producer/writer Lorca Peress who discussed how she and her team evolved the Broadway quality, award-winning production which was honored in its competitive acceptance at the New York Music Festival. (see my review of the production by clicking here)
I am most curious to know how this wonderful production evolved. I know that is answering so many questions with one. This would cover.
How did you, Anita and Anika work the collaboration for the book?
Anita Velez-Mitchell was born in Vieques, Puerto Rico in 1916. Anita is Anika’s and my grandmother. Anita and I began working on the opera libretto of Temple of the Souls in 2009 through my theatre company MultiStages’ Script Development Series. We presented a reading of the script (no music existed) and received a standing ovation from the audience of over 100 people. In the audience, were 25 members of one of the Taino tribes in New York City. Anita had been working with the Taino Cacique chief on cultural authenticity, and he and his tribe members jumped to their feet at the end of the reading. During the Q & A that I moderated with guests Anita and the Cacique, one of the audience members said, “We are all descendants of Guario and Amada.” They applauded and I knew then that we had something special, novel, and important.
Anita asked a composer to write music to the opera libretto of Temple of the Souls (it took him one year to write 2 arias), and he said it was too big a task for him to complete given her advanced age. In 2010 Anita suggested we contact Anika and Dean to be the composers. Anika had written music for several MultiStages productions, but Dean had never been involved in or composed for musical theatre. I flew out to meet with them in Los Angeles, and pitched/performed the script, discussing what type of song might exist here, who sings it, etc. They wrote the Temple finale first. They sent it to Anita and me by email. We listened to the song and burst into tears. We knew this was it!
We decided a musical would be better than an opera, and Anika began working with Anita on the lyrics (much done via phone as Anika and Dean live in LA). Anika eventually joined on the development of the book, and she and Dean wrote several of the songs/lyrics independently as well.
Who had the original idea for the story and how was it developed?
On Anita’s last trip home to the Island, she visited the caves and El Yunque Rain Forest. She told me she felt the cries of the Taino souls and heard their tears dripping from the stalactites. She felt their spirits surrounding her and wrote a poem called “Totem Taino,” which she then turned into an opera libretto (described above). Anita had always been fascinated by the history of the Taino people, but for me, a Puerto Rican born in NYC, I was not as aware of the culture as I wish I had been.
Once I read Anita’s story, I went on a research mission. After reading books and finding information online, I flew to Puerto Rico to meet with Anita’s friend, Dr. Ricardo Alegria in San Juan. Dr. Alegria is an anthropologist and archaeologist, Wikipedia calls him the “father of modern Puerto Rican archaeology.” I was honored to interview/question him in his home surrounded by relics, art, and the history of our people. I was also given a private tour of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture which he founded, and learned even more. My trip to the El Yunque Rain Forest was eye-opening. I saw where the Tainos had taken refuge in the mountains, and where thousands took their lives by jumping off the mountain cliffs. Back in New York, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian which also has a good Taino collection (though not as extensive as the one at the Institute in Puerto Rico) and Museo deo Barrio, which I had been to numerous times.
One of the most fascinating things I have learned about the culture is the great debate over how many Tainos existed, and how many were killed, died of disease, or took their lives. We have seen records as large as hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands killed. The Sixteenth Century census was limited because so many people hid in El Yunque and were never counted. Suffice it to say, the Spaniards decimated the majority of Tainos. Those who live as Tainos today are mostly genetically mixed. But, how one personally identifies and lives is what keeps traditions and culture alive. And today there are thousands of Puerto Rican and Dominican natives in NYC and on the islands who live their lives as Taino.
As multicultural director, it is important that we understand the responsibility of stepping into another culture and world. I feel blessed and honored to bring elements of the Taino history to life in our musical, which has received great support and praise from the Taino community in NYC. Anita and I each received a Taino Award, and were honored at a Taino Areyto at the Museo del Barrio.
Some background on development:
TWO SHOWCASES AND AWARDS – 2011-14
AEA Showcase in December 2011 at the West End Theater, NYC, produced by MultiStages, directed by Lorca Peress. Talk backs with: Taíno tribe member Jorge Estaban, lecturer and co-curatory of The Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution; and Cacike Cibanakan (NY Taíno Tribal chief) and members perform a music/dance demonstration. We were honored at an Areyto (a Taíno ceremony) at the Museo del Barrio.
- MultiStages receives Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant from LMCC/DCA.
- 4 HOLA Awards (Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors): 2012 Gilberto Zaldivar Outstanding Production Award, Outstanding Choreography and Lighting, Special Recognition for Music for the production.
- Anita Velez-Mitchell and choreographer Milteri Tucker receive the Taíno Areyto Drama Award.
AEA Showcase in September 2014 at Theatre for the New City, NYC, produced by MultiStages, directed by Lorca Peress. Talk Back and Taíno musical demonstration with Roman Guaraguaorix (Redhawk) Perez, Cacique Chief of the Maisiti Yukayeke Taíno, a tribe of the Taíno Nation in the Bronx, NY.
- MultiStages receives Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant from LMCC/DCA.
- Six Innovative Theatre Award Nominations: Outstanding Production (MultiStages and Co.), Outstanding Original Music (Dean Landon and Anika Paris), Outstanding Original Script (Anita Velez-Mitchell, Lorca Peress, Anika Paris), Outstanding Innovative Design (masks, Marla Speer), Outstanding Costume Design (Marla Speer), Best Lead Actress (Debra Cardona).
- Lorca Peress receives a Taíno Areyto Drama Award at the NYC Bronx Museum of Art in recognition of her work in support of the Taíno culture and its legacy.
- Anita Velez-Mitchell receives the proclamation from the Governor of Puerto Rico at the memorial concert in her honor, with songs from Temple of the Souls.
2016 – DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS CONCERT
We are invited to perform selections from Temple of the Souls with narration, at the Diversity in the Arts event at Hunter, NYC.
2017 – NEXT LINK PROJECT OF NYMF 2017
We are chosen as a Next Link Project for NYMF (New York Musical Festival). Only 10 Next Link Project musicals were chosen from over 200 submissions. An interesting marketing phenomenon to note, 80% of the ticketing audience for Temple of the Souls is of Latino heritage. We are highlighted on several Taino Facebook pages, and have a broad audience of followers over the years.
When the songs were created, were they added after the book was first created? Or was it a holistic process?
The majority of song lyrics came from the book. We continued updating the script, and new songs and lyrics were added.
How many years were you working on this together? separately?
Anita died in 2015. Lorca and Anika began reworking the book in 2016. Anika and Dean joined the project in 2010, Lorca and Anita began collaborating in 2009, Anita completed the first draft of the libretto in 2007.
Had you always planned to bring it to NYMF?
After the two showcases I produced and directed in 2011 and 2014 through MultiStages, we wanted another opportunity to present the piece and introduce it to theatre producers. I applied to NYMF and we were accepted as a Next Link Project (only 10 were chosen as Next Link Projects from over 200 submissions, which included a dramaturg and a $5000 grant toward the NYMF production).
What was the casting process like?
We attended a NYMF open casting in May, and cast one ensemble actor. We hired Michael Cassara, who had cast the 2014 production. We kept the two leads Noellia Hernandez as Amada and Andres Quintero as Guario, and two ensemble members, Theresa Burns and Miguel A. Sierra from the 2014 production. Lorraine Velez (Nana) was introduced to me through a mutual colleague and we were thrilled when she accepted the role of Nana. We opened the auditions for the remaining roles, and built a terrific cast.
Did you have to cut songs or other scenes to bring it in under the NYMF time limit?
We cut some songs, added in a few, created a stronger underscore and incidental music, and made it one act. We had the orchestrations that Dean created transformed into musical parts for a four-piece live orchestra.
Did Dean Landon and Anika Paris come onto the project early on? How are you familiar with their work? (I thought the music was smashing).
Discussed above. They are brilliant platinum and gold song writers and we are thrilled with their music.
What is the most rewarding part of the process? The final product or the journey?
For me personally the greatest reward has been to collaborate with my family. We have all had professional careers independent of each other, so collaborating on this piece has been so personal to us. Losing Anita has been very difficult. We love her dearly, but feel she is with us as we continue sharing her story and making music and art to share with all. At the sitz probe session (first opportunity for the cast to sing with the band), I pulled up Anita’s photo on my I-pad, and had her on the table during the session. In the play, we talk about souls and ancestors, and thoroughly believe she is still a part of this musical and our world.
Where do you plan to go from here?
We are setting up meetings with producers and experts who have gone through the process of moving a musical forward to brainstorm and find the next best direction for the show. There are many possibilities for this musical and we look forward to continuing its development. We are interested in international tours and want to translate the musical into Spanish.
How did you fund the production?
We raised funds through private donations from over 100 generous people and received grant support. We held a fundraising event in May where cast members sang a medley of songs, and we presented an example of the dancing Enrique was choreographing. The guests wrote checks and gave us their blessing. This NYMF production has been the most expensive I have undertaken as a producer to date. There is much more to raise going forward and we’re building a team.
To learn more about Lorca Peress, click HERE.
How does one remain timeless as a musical performer? If you look at the greats, there are two qualities that come to mind. One element is the repertoire they sing; it speaks to everyone’s heart and resonates with passion. The second element that is required is a stellar, singular voice. In both instances Patrizio Buanne, who is an international entertainer with a heart toward eternal song classics that are loved globally, manifests both.
Patrizio’s multicultural heritage hails from Naples and Austria. When he moved back to Rome, he studied languages: he fluently speaks six. Patrizio, who sang and entertained family and friends as a young child, moved to turn professional in his teens after winning vocal competitions and after a music manager selected him to sing for the “Papal visit” (John Paul II) in Wroclaw, Poland. The song he sang which was half in Italian, half in Polish, had been written for the opening mass. With 85.000 people in attendance, Patrizio’s sudden popularity with the Polish public led to his first local record deal. Success followed success in Italy with a production company that produced shows for RAI and Mediaset. But Patrizio’s goals were expansive. The teenager wanted to be an international recording artist. And now he is.
He is globally known as an entertainer who sings stylistically as a crooner, but also sings pop, jazz, rock and popular international songs. He has a huge global fan base which has been exponentially growing since the first release of Patrizio (2009-Warner music), in Australia, New Zealand, Asia and South Africa. The album went platinum and resulted in a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Asia in May 2010.
On Patrizio’s birthday 2011 Patrizio (Concord records), was released in the US, and hit number 5 on the US Jazz Billboard charts. As most musicians, bands and artists must now do on the release of a recording, the album was followed by concert tours in Australia, New Zealand, Asia, South Africa and the USA.
My video interview with Patrizio at the Friars Club in NYC on Wednesday, 19 October.
Also in 2011 for his South African fan base, he released an album of South African hits interpreted by Patrizio’s incredible voice singing in Italian, English and also Afrikaans language. The album featured duets with South Africa’s most popular singers, “Dankie Sued Afrika” (Universal music).
While this album was going platinum, Patrizio prepared a German-focused album in 2012 Wunderbar (Warner music GSA), where he adds Italian songs and original compositions with the German and Italian language. Just so you realize, the extent of his talents, Patrizio gift for languages is prompting him to move into the South American markets in the next year.
Every time Patrizio releases an album he goes on a global tour, as he did with his fourth worldwide release Viva la Dolce Vita (2015 Universal Music), an album in which he is an “Ambassador for Italian song with unique and singular song interpretations. The album includes new material with an international flavor written especially for him. His CD Bravo Patrizio includes the release of his most popular songs for his first 10 years which he is following through with tours (2016, 2017), in the US, Australia, South Africa, Europe, Latin America and Asia confirmed by advanced sales.
In concert and as I found out in person as you will see in the video interview, Patrizio’s charm, unforgettable persona and anointed voice allow him to revel in interpreting pop songs and Italian and international standards which have brought in millions of album sales globally. Currently wrapping up his US tour he will be in Richfield, Connecticut at the Ridgefield Playhouse (October 21st), NYC at the Highline Ballroom (October 22nd) and New Jersey at NJPAC (October 28t). CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS
The wisdom that Themistocles the Greek general expressed, “Big things have little beginnings,” surely applies to Hillsong Church and Hillsong United band, both of which started in a small country church in Australia with about 60 people over twenty-five years ago. Hillsong church has now grown into a global phenomena with satellite churches dotting all of Australia (there are campuses in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Newcastle, Gold Coast and Noosa, etc.), and in cities like NYC, LA, Paris, London, Kiev, Moscow, Pretoria, Copenhagen, Marseilles, Barcelona, to name a few.
A reported 30,000 members attend services weekly. The Hillsong United band with its worship and praise music are the underlying thread that uplifts the worldwide membership with tours and Hillsong conferences that are nothing short of mind blowing, depression shattering, addiction obliterating. Hillsong music uplifts folks who attend their concerts/conferences because it captures their hearts with God’s love and grace reaching out to everyone, regardless of how small and repulsive, regardless of how rotten.
The band, like the church, are NO JOKE. Check out these stats:
- Hillsong UNITED’s single “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” topped Billboard’s Christian music charts for 45 straight weeks, with 59 non-consecutive weeks at No.1.
- “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” has sold more than 1.4 million copies resting in the Top 5, for more than 111 weeks.
- Hillsong music has sold more than 16 million albums, kind of like Beyonce (16 million).
- The group’s 2013 album “Zion” debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ overall album chart and cracked the Billboard Top 5 in the U.S.
The filmmaker Michael John Warren (director “Jay-Z: Fade to Black”), got struck by a bolt of lightening when a friend brought the non-religious director to a Hillsong concert/conference in LA. Captivated, he felt the urgency to tell the band’s story and film the theatrical-musical concert experiences of the band and audiences in his film https://streamingmoviesright.com/us/movie/hillsong-let-hope-rise/ Ahead of the film opening in August, I had the opportunity to speak to band members Jad Gillies, Dylan Thomas, Taya Smith, and JD (Jonathon Douglass) with colleagues at a press conference at Langham Place in NYC. The interview has been tweaked grammatically.
J.D. We put all the songs in a hat. (We laugh.)
I knew he was a trouble maker. He didn’t get his hair cut. (laughter)
J.D. That’s right.
Is it that who writes the songs sings them?
J.D. Well, when we write the songs, then it’s obvious. But we’ve been doing this for a while together and the beauty of what we do is that we’re really good friends which I think is really the strength of the band outside of the obvious things (their faith in God). And when we write a song, it happens really quickly. And we’re like ah…we can just hear Jad singing that or Taya. And often we’ll get a few of us to try it when we’re in the studio. And often a song will have two names on it. Like the first song we ever got Taya to do a project on was a couple of albums ago. We brought Taya in and said, hey, can you do the backup vocals for this. But it was the melody. We didn’t want to break her heart. It was a trial to do the lead vocals and it ended up that her backing vocals part was the lead on the album. We thought, we’ll have a go and if it sounds crappy, we won’t put you on. (laughter) It’s a pretty organic process.
So it’s really like a constantly evolving process which is phenomenal.
J.D. and Jad: Yeah.
You’re crediting it to a combination of factors. How did you get here, besides the fact that God ordained this before the foundation of the world (Biblical reference)? (laughter)
J.D. Love it. I was going to say an airplane. (laughter) I’m going to stop talking so someone gets the real answer. (laughter)
We saw the film. Is there anything in the film you could add to in terms of how the film evolved about how you evolved to this place and this time?
Dylan What’s crazy with the film is that we didn’t set about to make it. It was an idea from someone had who came to an event that we did in Los Angeles and he brought a friend of his who was a movie producer, a non-Christian guy. And he had an experience that he couldn’t explain and he wanted to portray that and put that experience into film. For us the whole experience is like, “I can’t believe this is happening.” And Tara and I were joking about that earlier. We were in the studio starting to record Empires and all of a sudden a bunch of cameras showed up and we were like, “Ahhh!!! They’re actually making a film. OK this is happening. Let’s do this.” And one thing happened after another and we went to the film screening for the first time and it was like, “This is the real thing.” And we never planned it. It wasn’t, “Hey let’s make a movie.” It just happened. And we’re here now and pitching it.
So how did each of you get involved with the group? We were hearing in the movie about the evolution of Hillsong, but how did each of you become involved? Talk about that process and how each person came to it.
J.D. In a nutshell, I grew up in a Christian home and my family started attending Hill Country Church when I was four years old. And I went to Sunday school in the church and grew up in the youth ministry and was always encouraged to use whatever gifting or talent that I had to exalt the name of the Lord and encourage people in their relationship with Him. So, for me, that was singing the music. So I started singing in their youth ministry as a thirteen-year-old young boy having no idea really. I didn’t really enjoy it because I was so nervous to sing in front of twenty or thirty people. It was like I was almost ready to throw up.
And that’s kind of part of the journey. Being faithful and trusting in God in that journey, we started writing songs. We’re like 15 years into the journey and Hillsong United church is thirty years into the journey, so it’s been a really authentic process. But I think just through that our story has been about bringing out who we are, with all the insecurities and all the rest of it. We’ve kind of felt we don’t have all that much to give and we’re just holding on during the ride and watching God do His thing.
Dylan I started going to church when I was 10. I was taken to church. And bit by bit I got involved and I started playing music. I started playing in the kid’s church and that evolved and I grew out of playing in kid’s church and I started playing in youth ministry. And I think that Jad was the first to ask me to play on the first United album which is in 2005. And you couldn’t script it out and say I planned to do this. I just enjoyed playing music and wanted to play in the youth band. And the way it’s been, God’s just taken us on this journey. I would never sit here and say I planned this. Because I don’t think anyone of us would imagine doing any of this kind of stuff. Yeah, I just got involved. In my first tour I was the guitar player which was not very glamorous. I didn’t even know what to do. I was clueless. I didn’t even know how to set up a drum kit. And then I wasn’t the guitar player anymore. I was just trying to figure out what to do and things evolved.
Jad I grew up in New Zealand. And when I was twenty-one I moved to Australia to the Bible School in Hillsong which is called Hillsong International Regional College. Immediately, I got involved with the youth ministry and I basically was running a small group…a group of young kids. One day the guitar player couldn’t make it and asked if I could play. I said, “Yeah, whatever.” And then that kept happening. And then a few months later, I was asked, “Hey can you roster the band.” I was like, “Yeah, whatever.” And then I was asked to sing a song and I sang a song and then they needed somebody to do something else, I did it. That’s pretty much how my involvement started. And here we are today. That’s not glamorous, is it…? (laughter)
Save the best for last, Taya.
Taya Yeah, it’s a similar story how this happened, not planned at all. I grew up in a Christian home, small country town. Moved to the city about 6 years ago, thinking I was going to do secular music. Though I was a Christian, I always wanted not only to attend church, but serve in the church. I made Hillsong Church my home and became planted in church and got involved also with the youth ministry and became a youth leader and was discipling six young girls. It was
crazy and amazing and I learned how to pastor people. And it was like the best experience ever. From there I got involved with the worship community’s youth ministry and then church. And then I was asked to come along and do backing vocals for one of the United projects. It was the craziest thing and that’s when we recorded Oceans. And if I’m honest, I probably told two people that I had something to do with that project because I didn’t even think the songs would actually make it onto the album. I didn’t want to be like, “I’m on the album…” and then it’s not there.
So then, yeah, a month later I had the best lunch of my life with our global creative pastor, Cass Langton. She said, “Hey. Would you quit your job?” I was doing retail at the time. I was like, “Yeah.” She was like, “Would you quit it today?” I was, “Yes.” She said, “We want you to come on staff at City Campus, and look after the vocals. You need to quit today because you’re going to be in South Africa next week with the United boys going on tour. I was like…balling my eyes out. Best day ever. It’s been the God journey the whole time. It’s been crazy that we’re here and there’s a film made about our church Hillsong United and we’re as astounded as anyone else. So yeah, it’s pretty cool.
For each of you, if there were a bio-pic on your band, which actors do you imagine portraying you? (laughter)
Russell Brand? Katherine McKinnen (from Ghostbusters)
Taya: I’ve heard that.
Brad Pitt (laughter)
Christopher Walken (laughter)
For Jad, a younger Stephen Bauer?
I went last night and it’s amazing how you hold the audience. Were the lyrics always shown from the beginning? Because that really cements people’s involvement.
Jad, JD, Dylan, Taya Yeah.
And was Hillsong as a group defined by the fact that the church had a tremendous audience and then you were able to pull the larger audience beyond the church? Or do you think the interaction beyond the band and the church grew both?
Jad We’ve always put the lyrics up. It’s intended to be inclusive. It’s intended to be interactive. We want people to sing. The songs were written for people to sing. And we like to think that we’re not performers. We want to lead people to a place where they can express themselves, where they can use the songs that were written to draw closer to God, or to gain encouragement or inspiration or whatever. So we’ll always put the lyrics up and it also helps people understand what they’re singing, what we’re singing, to process it. It helps people to express what they believe. With regards to Hillsong, thirty years ago, Hillsong was 65 people in a school hall. A week later, it was 50 or so people and a week later it was 48. And Pastor Brian figured out in the next six weeks there would be no people there. All that’s to say that it was small beginnings. What’s happened over thirty years is just a story of perhaps God doing amazing things with some pretty ordinary people. I mean if you were to ask about the global reach that Hillsong has now… thirty years ago, we would all be thinking you had rocks in your head…especially Pastor Brian and Bobby (his wife). They were just trying to do something significant and plan a church and do something with what they had. Years later with the opportunity that we see now, it’s all because of the fact that it came out of a local church. And that’s the truth of it.
Someone asked about the title of the church. It reminds me of a scripture that says something to the effect that Christ and Christians, should be like a city on a hill, shining their light. I have to say that’s what you do with songs. You allow the Lord to come through you, shining His light. (Matthew 5: 14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 5:16, Let your light so shine before men so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven).
JD Well it definitely works for that…like in Matthew 5; it talks about put your light on a hill so that it will shine. The truth is the church was called Hills Christian Life Center when it started, there in the hills area in the suburb of Baulkham Hills, New South Wales. It was Hills Christian Life Center. When we started to do music really early on, it started to be Hillsong music. And the truth is that music traveled, though on the cassettes it still said Hills Christian Life Center. Then people just started identifying us as “that church from Australia, that Hillsong church.” It was over twenty-five years ago, that people identified us with Hillsong Church. And we said, they’re calling us Hillsong Church anyway so the title came about. But you know the way that God works is through paradox in so many different ways. That’s kind of how it happened.
We know what goes into the process of your creating music. What goes into your process of writing the lyrics? What is that experience like?
Dylan It’s different every time. I wish there were a set way to make music and create the songs. We work really hard on making sure that our lyrics obviously line up with scripture. And we have a couple of people in Sydney who make sure that theologically it’s true and that kind of stuff. We work really hard in making sure that we’re progressing both lyrically and musically so that we’re always listening to so much music. But we all get in a room and jam out a song. If it feels right we keep working on it and if it kind of flops we’re on to the next one. No one’s too precious about anything. It’s a pretty fun experience. And we’re such good enough friends now, that there’s not really any egos in the room. We shut each other down and encourage each other and we’re all friends at the end of the day.
Could you talk about the different kinds of songs each of you sing? You have a song that you know how to bounce to. You have a different tone that you’re singing and you have a power poppish song that seems to get the crowds going. Seeing you live was impressive.
Taya The strength of our team Hillsong United is actually the strength of each different person. I feel like we each bring different elements. In places where I would be weaker, people step in. That’s the best thing about our team. It would be weird if we were all exactly the same, doing the same things. I think we read things differently, also.
Jad A lot of people’s personalities go to create and embody the songs as well. So you know J.D. has a lot of energy and whatever he kind of flies that to, that becomes the song and the personality of the song. Same with Taya; she has enormous passion and range and so when she applies that, that becomes the song, just as much as the lyric and the music. That’s the cool thing. When you really invest yourself into a song, it takes on more of a life of its own.
The film Hillsong: LET HOPE RISE opens on September 16th in theaters near you.
UPDATE IN THIS TIME OF COVID 19: See the film at this LINK STREAMING MOVIES