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Photo: Margot Schulman

The Many Complexities of Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel isn’t like any other show.

This is what artistic director Eric Schaeffer tells me on a phone call the morning after I catch his new production at Signature Theatre, and I can say with full certainty that he’s quite right.

He relishes the fact he selected a Tony Award-winning play that’s complex, layered and challenging – adjectives he uses to describe the frenetic musical during our conversation, all of which just so happened to pop up multiple times in my post-show notes.

And it’s no coincidence: the 1929 novel turned 1932 MGM film turned 1989 Broadway hit wasn’t easy for me to connect with night of, but I was still thinking about it for days, even weeks, later. But art is meant to push us out of our comfort zones and expose us to new ways of thinking about and experiencing life, and Schaeffer’s known for taking those risks at Signature every season.

Whether it’s debuting daring new pieces or embracing notoriously difficult classics, the director doesn’t shy away from works that might make his audience fidget or his actors balk. And now through May 19, Schaeffer encourages theatregoers to sit in the lobby of a 1928 Berlin hotel as an extremely eclectic cast of characters weaves on the periphery of one another’s lives.

“The show just keeps layering on itself, which is interesting,” he tells me. “It’s not just like, here it is and here’s the story. It’s kind of like a painting that just keeps on taking off layers and layers and layers, which is the really neat thing about the show. I love that it challenges the audience, it challenges the actors. It just becomes this experience.”

His 16-person cast – full of Signature regulars and DC up-and-comers, plus a truly dazzling performance from the magnetic Nkrumah Gatling (Broadway’s Miss Saigon) – was whittled down from the original production’s 28. The method to his madness? He wanted to give the audience a fighting chance at following all of the show’s storylines through the lens of a sticky-fingered baron, aging ballerina, dying bookkeeper and desperate typist, to name a few.

“It was a hard puzzle to figure out, but it was fun once I did,” he says of casting the play. “There’s all these snapshots that are put together, and you keep getting slices of all these different lives and how they’re interconnected – or not – they all just happen to be passing in and out of the hotel lobby.”

Schaeffer selected his talent well, whipping the audience into a sometimes delightful (in numbers like the cheeky “Maybe My Baby Loves Me”), often uncomfortable (grappling with the heaviness of mortality or a successful man’s implied power over a naïve woman) frenzy. In just under two hours with no intermission, the impressive cast sings several dozen songs and swings the mood pendulum from light to dark at only a moment’s notice. It’s hard to keep up with – visually, sonically and emotionally.

The highly stylized, momentum-driven production isn’t just a lot for the audience to handle – the director says that everyone from the ensemble to the leads had an “Oh my god, this is so challenging” reaction.

“Which is great,” he says, “because they’re not doing the same old thing. It makes them grow as artists, which I think is really important.”

His level of commitment to the production extended beyond nudging his cast gingerly out of the nest and into uncharted – or at least less traveled – territory to a set design that married opulence of a building both old and grand with an ambiance that felt modern, contemporary and relatable.

“I really wanted the audience to feel like they’re sitting in the lobby of a hotel just eavesdropping on all of these conversations that are happening.”

And he did just that by collaborating with set designer Paul Tate dePoo III to create a dynamic set that transforms from a decadent hotel room to the black void of a haunting train station within seconds.

“It was a balance,” dePoo says. “It was a constant conversation. We didn’t get too far away from the contemporary world.”

And like Schaeffer, he takes his craft incredibly seriously, aiming to capture the spirit of the chaotic play and its varied cast through the design.

“Hopefully, it tells the story in a way that we don’t feel like we’re disconnected from these people and we appreciate the era they are currently telling the story within.”

Peel back the layers of this theatrical onion through Sunday, May 19 at Signature Theatre. Tickets start at $40 and are available at www.sigtheatre.org.

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703- 820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org

Stage and Screen: The White Snake, John Cusack, God of Carnage and More

THROUGH SUNDAY, MAY 19

The Great Commedia Hotel Murder Mystery
The Great Commedia Hotel Murder Mystery promises to give you “Zanni bellhops, femme fatales, hidden clues, mustachioed detectives and more!” In the tradition of classic mysteries from Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Clue, this entertaining whodunnit ends Faction of Fools Theatre Company’s monumental 10th anniversary season. Various dates and times. Tickets $22. Faction of Fools Theatre Company: 800 Florida Ave. NE, DC; www.factionoffools.org

THROUGH SUNDAY, MAY 26

The White Snake
Inspired by an ancient Chinese fable, The White Snake tells the story of animal spirit White Snake, who transforms into a beautiful woman to experience the human world. When White Snake falls in love with a pharmacist’s assistant, their illicit romance draws the ire of a villainous monk who sets out to destroy their relationship. Various dates and times. Tickets $19-$45. Constellation Theatre Company: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; www.constellationtheatre.org

THROUGH SUNDAY, JUNE 2

The Oresteia
Adapted from the Greek tragedy trilogy, Ellen McLaughlin’s The Oresteia is coming to the Shakespeare Theatre Company. On the surface, it’s an epic story about love, betrayal, murder and revenge. But at its core, The Oresteia is a critique of human civilization. McLaughlin condenses the trilogy into one dynamic show with expert finesse. Various dates and times. Tickets $44-$118. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; www.shakespearetheatre.org

THROUGH SUNDAY, JUNE 9

Love’s Labor’s Lost
In this early Shakespeare comedy, a young king and his three companions swear off women in order to focus on their studies and fasting. However, when a princess and her female companions arrive, the young men find it increasingly difficult to deny their lustful desires. Directed by Vivienne Benesch, Love’s Labor’s Lost is a delightfully witty, amusing and timeless tale. Various dates and times. Tickets $42-$79. Folger Theatre: 201 E. Capitol St. SE, DC; www.folger.edu

WEDNESDAY, MAY 1 – SUNDAY, JUNE 2

The Children
The protagonists of The Children, a couple of retired physicists, live in a remote cottage on the British coast. They live a simple, modest life in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster, carefully conserving their resources to get by. But a surprise visit from a former colleague upends the couple’s lives, revealing old secrets with catastrophic consequences. The Children is loosely based on the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. Various dates and times. Tickets $52-$65. Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; www.studiotheatre.org

SATURDAY, MAY 4 – SATURDAY, MAY 25

God of Carnage
The 2009 Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage was originally a French tale but has been translated due to popular demand. The play centers around a feuding set of parents who meet after their children clash in a playground altercation. What begins as a civil conversation devolves into a jarring confrontation between the parents and ultimately their own partners. Various dates and times. Tickets $50. Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; www.keegantheatre.com

TUESDAY, MAY 7 – THURSDAY, MAY 9

The Chibok Girls: Our Story
Few girls have captured the world’s attention like the Chibok Girls. In 2014, 273 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from a school in the town of Chibok, stirring international outrage and widespread protests in Nigeria. In a predictable fashion, the world seemed to forget about the kidnapped girls just as quickly as they’d learned about their disappearance. Renegade Theatre’s The Chibok Girls: Our Story is a reminder in the form of testimonial theatre. The event also features Nobel Prize-winning playwright and author Wole Soyinka and is part of CrossCurrents, a “citywide biennial festival that highlights innovative artists from around the world who are harnessing the power of performance to humanize global politics.” Begins at 7:30 p.m. each night. Tickets are $20. Davis Performing Arts Center: 37th and O Streets NW, DC; www.georgetown.edu

THURSDAY, MAY 16

John Cusack, Plus a Screening of High Infidelity
John Cusack is recognizable from a ton of movie roles, but perhaps none are as iconic and memorable as Rob Gordon, a music connoisseur and record shop owner searching for love in the classic rom-com High Fidelity. Throughout the film, Gordon muses on his past relationships and the sobering realities of love and companionship. Cusack himself will discuss the film in person and take questions from the audience following the screening at the Warner Theatre. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Show at 7:30. Tickets $49-$150. Warner Theatre: 513 13th St. NW, DC;www.warnertheatredc.com

Photo: Thom Goertel

Black Pearl Sings! Touches on Harsh, Comical Realities

DC theatergoers have rare access to what playwright Frank Higgins would consider an “authentic doorway into the past.” The Alliance for New Music Theatre has brought Higgins’ Black Pearl Sings! to life at Spooky Action Theater, exploding with songs and narratives that delicately address timely social issues while exposing the harsh, yet comical, realities of the past.  

Based on the relationships between legendary folk and blues musician Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and Library of Congress folklorists John and Alan Lomax, Black Pearl Sings! begins in Texas during The Great Depression, where the protagonist Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (Roz White) has spent the previous 10 years in prison for pulling a Lorena Bobbitt on an abusive suitor.

The contemporary play opens with Pearl donning prison stripes and a metal ball at her feet. While working in a chain gang, Pearl wrestles with the idea of her daughter out on her own since her incarceration.

Playing opposite to Pearl is Susannah (Susan Galbraith), an ambitious Library of Congress musicologist on a prison tour collecting indigenous folk and African American slave music in the South. Entering stage left, Susannah hears Pearl singing an unfamiliar, spirit-stirring tune and requests the singer’s company.

“When people die, history is lost,” Susannah says, simplistically stating the significance and relevance of Black Pearl Sings!

After sharing their truths, the two join forces – one vowing to reconnect with her daughter and the other vowing to find the perfect song collection.

This upbeat show relies solely on the talents of these phenomenal women. Battling the whole way, the two passionately dance on couches while confronting issues of race, social narratives and perspective.

“We have treasures of which we aren’t even aware,” White, a trained musical theatre actress, explains.  “It’s important to know your worth, your history and what you have to contribute.”

White and Galbraith are one of the most dynamic duos to take the stage. The seemingly genuine quips and banter deployed onstage perfectly showcase their comedic talents and chemistry, promising to leave audiences laughing uncontrollably.   

Though the storyline dips into deeper pools of social consciousness, a light-hearted mood prevails throughout the play. The simple choreographies paired with jovial tunes make this thoughtful production a winner. It shocks and calms when appropriate and features an easy, crowd-pleasing sing-a-long.

The modest décor of Spooky Action Theater is impeccably on-brand. Notes of sawdust fill the theatre, reminiscent of industrial and rural settings.

Fortunately, this production is not modest at all. With support from the Library of Congress and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Thomas W. Jones II applies more than 30 years of professional experience to engage audiences, using multimedia imagery to reinforce the performance.

The journeys of Pearl and Susannah are inspirational and uplifting. If you’re searching for an evening of heart-wrenching confessions, heartwarming songs and spiritual connectedness, look no further than Black Pearl Sings!

The Alliance for New Music-Theatre production of Black Pearl Sings! is showing through May 4 at the Spooky Action Theater at the Universalist National Memorial Church. Tickets are $25-$40 and can be purchased here.

Universalist National Memorial Church: 1810 16th St. NW, DC;www.spookyaction.org

Correction: A previous version of this article did not clarify that The Alliance for New Music-Theatre produced Black Pearl Sings!

Stage and Screen: April 2019

THROUGH SUNDAY APRIL 28

Mosaic Theater Company ‘s Native Son
The infamous streets of Southside Chicago set the scene in this dramatic, gripping production of Native Son. Adapted from Richard Wright’s legendary novel, Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas. When Bigger gets a well-paying job as a wealthy businessman’s driver, a series of unfortunate episodes lead to tragic consequences. With the original version set in the 1930s, this modern adaptation incidentally reveals the deep-rooted history of poverty in Chicago. Various dates and times. Tickets $20-$35. Atlas Performing Arts Center: 1333 H St. NE, DC; www.atlasarts.org

THROUGH SATURDAY, APRIL 20

The Peculiar Patriot
Liza Jessie Peterson was a teacher at the notorious Rikers Island prisons for 18 years. Inspired by her experiences, Peterson brings her one-woman show to the stage, exploring the effects of incarceration on communities and a broken system that perpetuates inequality. Her character Betsy LaQuanda Ross, a self-proclaimed “peculiar patriot,” makes frequent trips to penitentiaries, visiting her imprisoned family and friends in this funny and fiercely provocative show. Various dates and times. Tickets $14-$29. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

SUNDAY, APRIL 7

The Sleeping Beauty
The famed Russian National Ballet is coming to the DMV, performing the timeless classic ballet The Sleeping Beauty. With choreography from ballet master Marius Petipa and compositions by the incomparable Tchaikovsky, this performance is sure to be a grand production. Founded in the late 1980s, the Russian National Ballet emerged in the Soviet transitional period of Perestroika. Ever since, the company has been dedicated to sharing its command of classic ballet with the world. Show starts at 2 p.m., tickets $34-$56. George Mason University Center for the Arts: 4373 Mason Pond Dr. Fairfax, VA; http://cfa.gmu.edu

TUESDAY, APRIL 9

Bob Saget
Few comedians have succeeded to crossover in the entertainment world as well as Bob Saget. Best known for his portrayal of Danny Tanner on ABC’s Full House, the versatile Saget has enjoyed an illustrious career. Nonetheless, he is and always was a comedian first. His stand-up is not what you would expect from America’s favorite dad – and with good reason: he’s not. Stepping out of the Full House shadow hasn’t been easy, but that’s exactly what Saget hopes to do in this not-so-family-friendly comedy performance. Show starts at 8 p.m., tickets $45. Sixth & I: 600 I St. NW, DC; www.sixthandi.org

SATURDAY, APRIL 13

Chelsea Handler
Known for her hilariously blunt delivery and bold blue humor, Chelsea Handler is switching it up for her upcoming Sit-Down Comedy Tour. Handler kicks off her tour in April with the release of her new memoir Life Will Be the Death of Me. In a rare display of vulnerability, she writes introspectively about childhood trauma, therapy, activism and more. The show will feature true stories from her book in an honest, stripped-down conversation. But don’t worry – her emotional anecdotes will only accompany the deeply inappropriate jokes audiences know and love her for. Show starts at 8 p.m., tickets $85-$145. Warner Theatre: 513 13th St. NW, DC; www.warnertheatredc.com

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 24 – MONDAY, APRIL 29

The Who’s Tommy
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Who’s legendary debut album, The Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage presents rock musical The Who’s Tommy. Starring Riverdale’s Casey Cott, Tony Award winner Christian Borle and Hamilton’s Mandy Gonzalez, the incredibly talented cast is not likely to disappoint. This semi-staged concert production boasts music and lyrics by The Who’s own Pete Townshend. Various dates and times. Tickets $69-$219. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

FRIDAY, APRIL 26 – THURSDAY, JUNE 2

Jubilee
From acclaimed playwright and director Tazewell Thompson comes an inspirational tribute performance based on the world-famous Fisk Jubilee Singers. The renowned African American acapella group broke enormous racial barriers in the late 19th century, funding the education of newly freed slaves and performing across the globe. The performance includes popular spirituals like “Wade in the Water,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Various dates and times. Tickets $76-$125. Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; www.arenastage.org

TUESDAY, APRIL 30 – WEDNESDAY, JUNE 26

Spunk
Based on three short stories by Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston and adapted by Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe, Spunk combines elements of storytelling, music and dance. This lively production promises to entertain audiences with spirited characters and tales of love, jealousy and revenge. Set in the countryside, Spunk also depicts the African American experience in the early 20th century. Various dates and times. Tickets $40-$85. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; www.sigtheatre.org

Photo: www.studiotheatre.org

Queen of Basel’s Playwright Discusses Adaptation and Influences

Any time a contemporary artist decides to tackle and untangle a literary classic, the task is often monumental. However, when said artist then decides to mix and mold the already established characters into representations of the modern world, an adaptation is in the midst.

Critically acclaimed Hilary Bettis not only took hold of the characters and story from August Strindberg’s 1889 novel Miss Julie, but completely flipped it on itself. In an effort to provoke thoughts from diverse audiences, Bettis adapted the story from the troublesome Strindberg into the play Queen of Basel.

The play charges head first, focusing on societal aspects of power, race and class. Performances of the play are now in their last week at Studio Theatre, and before the Queen’s run ends, we spoke with the passionate Bettis about adapting the story, her process and the influences she draws from.

On Tap: How did you select Miami as the backdrop for this modern take on a classic play?
Hilary Bettis: Queen of Basel was originally commissioned by Michel Hausmann at Miami New Drama, with the goal of taking a familiar classic text and reimagining it specifically for a diverse Miami audience. So the backdrop was part of the assignment. Most of America likes to brush poverty under the rug – we don’t like to look at it. We live in gated communities or “gentrifying” neighborhoods, trying to separate ourselves as much as possible, but in Miami it’s so in your face. You literally have homeless encampments across the street from million-dollar condos. After spending time in the city, Miami felt like the perfect setting to explore a modern-day take on a play about wealth, class and power in 2019 America.

OT: What was most difficult when creating Queen of Basel?
HB: [August] Strindberg. Full stop. Aside from the original Miss Julie written as a total fever dream with messy internal logic and structure, which made trying to build a plot complicated, I fundamentally disagree with Strindberg’s view of humanity. He viewed women through the Madonna-whore lens. He believed “white” male sexuality is the epitome of strength. In his author’s preface Strindberg says, “Miss Julie is a modern character. Not that the man-hating half-woman has not existed in all ages but because now that she has been discovered, she has come out in the open to make herself heard.” And, “Jean is superior to Miss Julie because he is a man. Sexually, he is an aristocrat because of his masculine strength.” And, in his reference to Kristine (who he calls the “female slave”), “if my minor characters seem abstract, it is because ordinary people are abstract in their occupations.”

I believe ordinary people are unique, complicated and deserving of dignity. I believe sexuality female or male – doesn’t define the character or value of a human being. I believe men are capable of vulnerability and gentleness. I believe women are capable of strength and intellectual ideas. I believe people are equal in their flaws, their need for intimacy and love, their desire to be seen and valued. I believe choice comes out of circumstances. If we can understand the reality of a person’s life, we can find empathy – especially in the darkness.

OT: What will audiences discover or re-contemplate about race and power through Queen of Basel?
HB: The responses to the play have been utterly fascinating. People either love it or don’t know how to process it. The play really digs into the fluidity and messiness and ambiguity of privilege. All of these characters have power in some ways and are oppressed in other ways. They’re all victims and perpetrators. The play is designed to make an audience uncomfortable. My hope is that discomfort sparks conversation.

OT: Why the Latinx influence?
HB: I’m Latinx – my mother is Chicana – so everything I write tends to be through that lens. I was commissioned to write a bilingual adaptation for a Miami audience – so embracing Cuban, Venezuelan, Haitian [and] Colombian communities felt necessary. I also think America tends to think of Latinx as a monolithic culture; that couldn’t be further from the truth. Imperialism, slavery, Jewish people fleeing Hitler, genocide against natives, dictators, death squads funded by the U.S. and the empires built on that heritage – also plagues much of Latin America. I wanted an audience to see the nuance and diversity of communities within Latinidad.

OT: How did you and José Zayas get connected and how has it been working with him on this project?
HB: José is my theater soulmate. We’ve know of each other for a few years now, always wanting to work together, but the timing was never right. We finally got to work together at the Alley Theatre’s All New Festival last January on this play. We connected and got each other right away. He understands my voice and what I’m really after in my work and he challenges me to dig deeper, he never lets me settle. He’s really an actor’s director who knows how to make everyone feel empowered.

OT: What did you learn or discover during your creative process?
HB: So, so, so much, I was literally rewriting up until opening. This play is an actor’s play – three people in a room for 75 minutes bearing their souls and flaws and vulnerabilities – I really wanted the cast to have a point of view and a voice in our entire process. We had a lot of conversations about power, gender, race [and] how we navigate that onstage. How we portray these people with empathy, while remaining honest about their flaws.

But what’s fascinating is how Julie’s wealth sort of erases everything else about her. Audience’s are much more likely to forgive John and Christine than Julie, even though Julie is in just as much pain and turmoil.

OT: How has the current immigration conflict impacted your storytelling in Queen of Basel?HB: Immigration is something I write about in almost all of my work. The history of America is the history of immigration, and each generation has its immigrant story. Because I set out to write for a Miami audience, understanding the conflict in Venezuela, Castro’s Cuba and Baby Doc’s Haiti were vital to understanding the very fabric of Miami. Michel Hausmann, who commissioned this, is a Venezuelan ex-pat who fled the country after his theater was tear-gassed by [Hugo] Chavez. His family were Jewish refugees fleeing their homeland. The cycles of oppression, how we wield it in small and large ways, is the spine of this play.

OT: Aside from Strindberg, where else did you draw inspiration for this story?
HB: Certainly my own life. I’m mixed, white and Mexican, so I often struggle with where I fit in the world. All three characters are juggling multiple identities, so that part is very visceral and personal. And I’m a woman, so misogyny is personal. All of my collaborators have inspired me.

Queen of Basel is showing at the Studio Theatre through April 7.  Tickets are $20-$97, and available here.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Photo: Francisco Campos-Lopez

A Q&A With Washington Performing Art’s Jenny Bilfield On The Portals Of Art and More

Jenny Bilfield was once told to work as a receptionist and luckily for the DC area, she ignored this request. Instead, the President and CEO of Washington Performing Arts listened to the impactful women in her life telling her to be ambitious, develop a powerful work ethic and to channel her experiences along the way.

At the helm of the local art organization, Bilfield has steered toward community and education programs, ensuring people receive the same inspiration and motivation as she did in her formative years. We talked to Bilfield about her love for all things art, her trials and tribulations in the professional world and why it’s important for young people.

On Tap: How did you get your start in the arts?
Jenny Bilfield: I started playing the piano by ear when I was three, and composing when I was 10. I was the only person in my family with artistic ability, but my mother loved the arts, especially contemporary art, music, theater and so we attended everything. I’m sure my very early exposure and encouragement conditioned me to be open to a variety of art forms, sounds [and] environments.

OT: Why is art important to you and when did you know you wanted to have a career in the field?
JB: For me, the arts provide portals to history, emotion, experience, human understanding; they enlighten, engage, inspire [and] educate. I have learned so much through the work of great artists. Artists have an arsenal of tools to synthesize and express the complexity and beauty of our world in ways that engage the heart and mind, afresh. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the arts from the time I was pretty young – I decided when I was around 17 or 18, that I preferred making music happen (promoting and programming it) more than I liked the solitary confinement of a practice room. An internship coordinating a Beethoven Festival on Long Island one summer, clinched it for me.

OT: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
JB: I started working in 1985 in New York City – 20 years old, right out of college. I encountered a number of challenges early on: the assumption, from prospective employers (male) that I was going to work only until I met a man and got married. In addition, I was told I needed to choose a path, marketing, fundraising, PR, programming, etc., and that my desire to lead or run an organization was both unrealistic and hasty; organizational leadership wasn’t a track, they insisted. It took me a few years to actually run an organization, but I did have very interesting roles before I got to that point: coordinating special projects and programs for Merkin Concert Hall, working as Philip Glass’s assistant, etc. Several organizations I worked for early on weren’t especially large or stable, but I learned by doing and took some pretty important risks in order to develop my leadership chops and operational capacity across all areas of management and programming. I also developed a strong stomach for the organizational volatility that comes with working for a small institution.

OT: What are you most proud of achieving in your career? How do you set goals, and what are some that you’re working on now?
JB: A great question and opportunity to walk down memory lane! I am proud of the expansive work I’ve done on behalf of living composers – founding the New Music Orchestral Project and bringing 40 new works to life through performances and reading sessions; my leadership role at Boosey & Hawkes during, which I developed composer-focused initiatives and catalog acquisitions, partnerships that measurably grew our composers’ profiles, work and opportunities globally (and our overall catalog) while generating new revenue for the company to currently at Washington Performing Arts, developing programs (connecting mainstage, community-engagement and educational) that have provided artists with transformative platforms for their most special projects and facilitated deeper connections with audiences. I do this alongside a great team and with strong board support, and find it incredibly powerful to curate programs in DC, drawing upon the cultural resources and partnerships in this city. Those partnerships have enabled us to shine a spotlight on key themes and moments in American history – something we are aiming to do more of.

OT: What advice would you give to women pursuing careers in the arts?
JB: Personal advice: as you consider a life partner, be sure that the person you’re with is fully invested in your career and your success [because] this field requires a high level of work, life integration and if you’re on a leadership path there will be many demands placed upon your time. Professional advice: develop quantitative skills and be comfortable with data and numbers, even if you don’t expect to be a CFO or Marketing/Development Director. If invited to join a board, join the finance or governance committee; if you have experience in this area, you will be steps ahead of your peers whether you oversee programming, education or operations.

OT: Did you get any advice from someone when you were first beginning your journey?
JB: From two men – advice to work as a receptionist at an organization for several years and then apply for another entry level job within the organization; I did not take this advice. From several women: be ambitious, prepared, develop a good work ethic and use my experience.  This advice, I did take. I had quite a number of anti-role models, and quite a number of true role models. It’s important to meet and speak with a lot of people to see, hear what resonates.

OT: How is Washington Performing Arts working to empower women in the workplace and on the stage?  
JB: Our leadership team is 50 percent women (we have many on the wider staff, in fact), with a similar proportion on our board and junior board. We have a dynamic women’s committee too – and some of the most well-established, respected women in our field got their early start on the staff of Washington Performing Arts. On stage, we seek to foreground talent across many musical genres and styles and have found ample opportunities to highlight women – as performers, curators, composers, artists in residence.

OT: Why do you think arts education is important in schools?
JB: First and foremost, because I think arts exposure and participation enables us to access what is ambiguous, personal and very human in ourselves. The reason it’s important to have arts education within the schools (versus only as an extracurricular) is that when it’s included during the school day – as part of the curriculum – it becomes an educational priority, on par with other subjects. Whether its value is measured by social and emotional development of our children or by improvement in behavior or math skills, the arts can have a powerful impact.

OT: What excites you most in the DC arts scene right now?
JB: I really like my colleagues who are leading peer institutions and have found an abundance of creative, collaborative opportunities. Many of our institutions are committed to new work, arts education, and to forging meaningful relationships with community-based artists and organizations – social responsibility alongside a commitment to artistic excellence. So, it’s an interesting time to be in Washington as both artist and audience member.

For more information about Bilfield or Washington Performing Arts, visit www.washingtonperformingarts.com.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Photo: https://keegantheatre.com

Hands On A Hardbody Depicts Struggle For Opportunity

Many catalysts that preclude the American Dream are found in education, employment or on a lottery ticket. In Keegan Theatre’s musical Hands on a Hardbody, 10 Texans vie for a cherry-red Nissan Hardbody, the physical manifestation of the dream and a chance to ascend America’s social and economic ladders.

The rural Longview, Texas provides a unique backdrop of this contemporary play as the 10 characters are forced to outlast one another by keeping a hand on the truck, with the last person standing receiving the coveted keys. Deriving from the 1998 documentary of the same name, co-directors Elena Velasco and Mark A. Rhea rise to the occasion, as their rendition of Doug Wright’s fictional story facilitates essential discourse on the American plight.

“Economical struggles don’t know race, necessarily. But they are impacted by race. It maybe doesn’t know ethnicity, but it is impacted by ethnicity. It doesn’t necessarily know gender or your relationship status, but it’s all affecting it,” Velasco suggests.

Most Americans have experienced the thrill and endorphin spikes associated with winning games or conquering competition. Perhaps you recall losing yourself in the midst of some effort to come out on top, to triumph. The phrase “every man for themselves” is a relatable American trope.

“Being able to rise and make a living wage, have a family and be valued as a citizen, all these things come out in this musical and the documentary,” she says.

As audiences explore a variety of conditions lived by those on the broad spectrum of American identity in the play, a diversity of themes are depicted. With each dance number and tune sung, a layer of understanding is creatively drawn, revealing cultural weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

“Mike is a Texan at heart, that’s where he grew up,” Velasco conveys, explaining the appeal in producing Hands on a Hardbody. “I wanted to see what Mike felt was compelling. I latched on to this notion that it was a representation of America. [At least] that’s how it was promoted by the original creative team, ‘An All American Musical.’”

In the original production by California’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2012, the cast was predominately white.

“When I looked at it and I thought about some of the character descriptions, I recognized it as an opportunity to really reach in and try to represent what America is to me,” Velasco says. “[I wanted to] try to reach out and find the diversity that we have here and how there are many voices that aren’t necessarily represented in the original casting, but could be represented in this production.”

Capturing the diversity of America was fundamental to the relevancy factor in bringing this production to the DC.

“It needed to speak to a DC audience, as well as reflect what Texan roots are,” Velasco continues.“[Fortunately], what it means to be a Texan is reinforced in the songs.”

In the ballad, “If I Had This Truck,” the truck’s significance in Texas culture is outlined, but so is the overt reference to the importance of opportunity.

“When listening to the lyrics, outsiders wouldn’t know what this means, but a truck is access to things. It’s an opportunity to get a job, start a business. Driving behind that [truck] makes you more economically successful. When you start to examine what this [truck] means to a particular community, you almost realize that this [competition] is a voyeuristic act that exploits people who are quite desperate, and down on their luck.”

Having directed more than two dozen plays and musicals over 20 years, Velasco rebukes the notion of having perfected her craft.

“I hate to think that I’ve ever conquered a challenge because it would make me think that I’m done with my work and I don’t think I’m done yet.”

Hands on a Hardbody is showing at Keegan Theatre through April 6. Tickets $52-$62. To purchase tickets visit the Keegan Theatre ticket portal.

Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; 202-265-3767; www.keegantheatre.com

Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Inside Richard the Third’s Doom Rock Inspired Soundtrack

Shakespeare and doom rock are not two things one would associate. But in the world of Shakespeare Theatre Company‘s Richard the Third the two are intrinsically linked, thanks to composer Lindsay Jones. A lifelong lover of music, Jones has been playing since he was a teen and is entirely self taught. While working as an actor in Chicago, he began scoring plays as a side gig. Combined with his passion for music, it quickly became a legitimate career that’s seen him score a host of successful productions throughout the country. Now,  25 years into his career crafting innovative compositions for theatre, Jones lent his talent – and love for doom rock, punk and metal – to the score of STC’s dark performance.

OT: How did you come to work with Shakespeare Theatre Company on this play?
Lindsay Jones: When I first sat down with [artistic director] David Muse, he told me he wanted [the score] to be punk rock. I’ll be honest, I’m a huge fan of punk rock, but I never get asked to make punk rock. There just aren’t a lot of theatres in America looking for punk rock soundtracks. As he described it to me, he said he wanted it to start out very punk and full of energy, but as the play went on, to get distorted and ugly and dirty.

OT: How did you or the others involved in the play decide to approach the score using doom rock?
LJ: I started thinking of using doom rock, which is slow, and dirge-y but still super distorted – the soundtrack of your nightmares, basically. I wanted to start with punk rock [that became] doom rock as it went along. But it occurred to me that in the structure of Richard the Third, in the beginning of the play Richard says, “I’m planning this takeover, I’m going to slowly methodically knock out all of my enemies til’ I get to be king.” There’s not a lot of fast stuff in there. Once Richard is king, everything starts falling apart and becoming more frantic and crazy. Halfway through I realized I was doing this in reverse – it should start slower and speed up as it goes, so that’s what we did.

OT: What other elements played into the score’s composition?|
LJ: As I was walking out of David’s office after our initial meeting, he told me he had this other idea for the actors to be playing body percussion along with the music. I didn’t know how that was going to play itself out. They hired an amazing movement choreographer named Stephanie Paul, who in rehearsal worked with the actors to create complex sequences where they’re playing on their bodies with knives and sticks – all sorts of things. They’re pounding out complicated rhythms while sequences are happening. So I would watch videos of the actors doing these movement sequences, figure out what the BPM was and then create music that fit.

OT: That’s an incredibly unique element – and incredibly challenging to work with, I can imagine!
LJ: Rock music doesn’t usually have a lot of space for additional percussion. The whole idea is it’s super loud and regressive. The first challenge was just fitting everything in. We ended up [putting microphones on] the stage and performers, so I could pick up [the percussion] and amplify it to the same volume level as the recorded music.

The other challenge, which probably took us the longest time to sort out, is that these actors worked for several weeks creating percussion sequences and got pretty good at it, but they weren’t initially trying to perform these sequences along to anything else [like music].  As soon as I show up with recorded music at a certain tempo every time no matter what – it was a lot of telling them to start at a certain beat, keep up with a certain rhythm, listen to parts of the score – so they could hear the rhythm they have to keep up with.

So we’re telling them “okay actors, you’re going to speak, you’re going to play rhythm on your body and you’re going to attempt to stay completely in time with this recorded piece of music that’s playing along.” I have to give the cast a tremendous amount of credit. It was tricky but they hung in there, and wanted to make it work. When you see the performance now, it all seems like second nature. But at the time of putting it together, we definitely had moments of thinking “oh my god, what have we done?”

OT: How have your audiences received the score?
LJ: People who are casual theatre fans are really excited by it. The reviews have either said “wow, this is a totally crazy interpretation of this play and I really enjoyed it” or “oh my god, what did they do, I don’t know how I feel about it!”

One of the reviews called the score “post-Wayne’s World,” so if your relationship to hard rock music is Wayne’s World, I don’t know if there’s much I can do to help you.

OT: Scoring any play, but especially a Shakespeare classic like Richard the Third, is no small task. Why do you think this job is so important, and what keeps you in this industry?
LJ: I’ve started teaching how to write theatre compositions recently and one of the things I like to tell my students is that music is really the emotional context by which you’re going to receive drama. This speech I’m giving right now about how music affects – you could imagine that while I’m giving it there’s a slow building underscore that’s really inspirational and exciting. That’s going to totally frame the context by which you’re getting this information. If I gave the same speech with dark scar music, it completely changes the context by which you see it because now you’re imagining something terrible is going to happen.

Music is incredibly powerful and influential. When you’re given the responsibility of creating music that’s going to match live drama, you really have a great responsibility to try to make the music as close to what the action is as possible, so that the audience is receiving the clearest and most expressive form of the story.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Richard the Third runs through Sunday, March 10 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall. Tickets $44-$102. For more on composer Lindsay Jones, visit www.linsdayjones.com. You can find the punk, metal and doom rock songs that inspired Jones’ compositions below.

Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Richard the Third – tracks and influences

Track: Richard III 

Influence – Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath 

Track: This Is War

Influence – Boilermaker by The Jesus Lizard

Track: To The Sanctuary 

Influence: Bliss In Concrete by Pelican 

Track: Full Speed Ahead 

Influence: Otsegolectric by Static-X 

Track: Zadok The Priest 

Influence: The Prophet’s Song by Queen 

Track: A Needless Coward 

Influence: This Isn’t The Place by Nine Inch Nails 

Photo: Gian Di Stefano

Kristin Chenoweth Brings Wicked Fun to Strathmore

They say good things come in small packages, and 4-foot-11 dynamo Kristin Chenoweth is a living example that the phrase applies to performers as well. Known for her incredible singing on Broadway, her quirky character roles in movies and on TV, and her oodles of charm in just about every performance she’s ever done, Chenoweth is beloved by people of all ages.

She won a Tony for her performance as Sally Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in 1999, though she’s best-known for her renowned run as Glinda in the Broadway smash Wicked. Other memorable runs on the Great White Way include roles in The Apple Tree, On the Twentieth Century and Promises, Promises. And there’s no role she hasn’t made a lasting impression with on-screen, from West Wing to Trial & Error to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

“I’m very proud of the work I’ve done and have been blessed with some amazing roles,” Chenoweth says. “The critics have always enjoyed these choices and that makes me understand I am on the same planet as everyone else. I know what I think is tasteful and funny and good, and that always seems to line up with them and that makes me happy.”

A veteran of the concert stage, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actress will perform at Strathmore on April 8 with a show any Broadway fan is sure to love.

“This concert is timed really well because my new album will be coming out around Mother’s Day, and I would like to start bringing some songs from that to my shows,” she says. “I don’t have a title yet, but I keep calling it For the Girls. It’s my way of giving myself permission to sing other women artists whose work has inspired me and changed my life musically.”

That means songs from performers like Dinah Washington, Judy Garland, Dolly Parton and Eva Cassidy.

“It’s really going to be a celebration of women. It’s important for me to recognize singer-songwriters like Chely Wright – who is a giant in the country music industry – and there’s an original song I wrote with her that I am excited to play for people.”

There’s a big part of Chenoweth, she says, that wants to be a mentor to younger audiences and teach them about some of these songs and singers who they may not be familiar with. It’s something she realized while doing an episode of Glee.

“Ryan Murphy had me sing ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret, and I just assumed everyone knew that song. But so many people reached out to me on social media asking where the song came from. I just died because these kids don’t know. I want to let them know who came before me and even some who may be younger than I. Just because you like one certain type of music doesn’t mean you can’t research and learn to appreciate others.”

Her concert will also include plenty of Broadway tunes, jazz standards, gospel songs and even opera, plus tunes from her previous release of American Songbook classics The Art of Elegance.

“Of course I’m going to sing ‘Popular’ and some songs that I will never not sing because it’s part of my DNA, but I want to make it a new show every time,” she says.

Another song that’s sure to be on the set list is “Taylor, the Latte Boy” written by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, which tells the humorous tale of a woman who falls for her barista at Starbucks.

“I was a young Kristin Chenoweth doing Steel Pier at the time [in 1997] and there was a performance honoring Kander and Ebb [a famous songwriting team], and someone handed me this music. Marcy and Zina told me they had been writing the song with me in mind. I was so nervous because the show was the next day and it’s not a short song. I spent the rest of the night learning it, and as I did, I realized this is totally me. I sang it that night and wow, did it go over.”

Soon after, she sang the song on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and it’s been a staple of her performances ever since.

“As artists, we have to recognize and understand that when we don’t sing songs like this, it’s a let down to the audience. I know that because I once saw Barbra Streisand live and she didn’t sing ‘People.’ I learned a lot there.”

The singer is very familiar with Strathmore, having starred in the Music Center’s groundbreaking I am Anne Hutchinson/I am Harvey Milk production in 2016. Currently, she doesn’t have any concrete plans to go back on Broadway. But last October, Chenoweth and her original Wicked costar Idina Menzel reunited for the NBC special A Very Wicked Halloween, and the duo’s magic was reignited on an astounding version of the show’s “For Good.” She has a few things in the fire for 2019 and is looking forward to touring at concert venues around the country when not filming any TV projects.

“Currently, I’m in development season and there are three ideas I have that three different writers have put a treatment to. I’ve fallen in love with all of them, so I do believe I will be doing something new on television soon. I’d rather do something that is me and my taste. I’m always going to choose and do something a little offbeat. That’s who I am.”

A lesson she says she’s been learning over and over in the past year is not being so serious and just enjoying the moment. Last fall, she traveled to Italy and sang a duet with Andrea Bocelli to a pretty famous audience and screwed up a song. She stopped and started over and then just messed up again and decided to cut to the end.

“People were loving it. It reminds you that life isn’t always perfect and in some ways that was my favorite moment of the trip. I am a perfectionist and I can get myself wound up pretty high. I had to laugh, and I did. Sometimes that happens in concerts and I may forget a word and I’ll point it out. I like using those moments to show I am not a robot. I am not autotuned. I am an artist who is real and authentic.”

She promises that people who don’t know who she is when they come in the door at Strathmore will know who she is when they leave.

“I want people to come to this show and be in the moment and enjoy themselves. It’s a treat you give yourself when you do that. We think we’re doing the right thing when we’re worrying about something, but I want people to put all that aside and just go with me on this journey. It will be an extraordinary, fun night.”

Kristin Chenoweth will perform at Strathmore on Monday, April 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $78 and are available at www.strathmore.org.

Learn more about Chenoweth at www.officialkristinchenoweth.com and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kchenoweth.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5200; www.strathmore.org

Photo: Tony Powell

Female-Empowered Vanity Fair on the Complexities of Humanity & Transcendence of Gender

With few exceptions, it’s music to a journalist’s ear when an interviewee says, “You’re asking my favorite question.” But it’s just icing on the cake when your subject is a feminist playwright whose focus is reclaiming female narratives, and you strike a chord that leads to a thoughtful reflection on gender equity in theatre, driving social change through the arts, and breaking down the walls between millennial audiences and the classics.

“I don’t believe that classics deserve to be museum pieces or laid in some beautiful, unmoving grave,” Kate Hamill tells me. “I think they should be able to run around, and we should be able to draw on those altars with crayon and see what they mean to us.”

Hamill’s interpretation of Vanity Fair, on Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Stage through the end of March, is the only female-written stage adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s epic 1600-page novel. When she started toying with the idea of reclaiming the 1840s text for a 2018 audience and was told it couldn’t be done, she accepted the challenge head on.

“I’m a bit of a brat,” she says laughing, “so the minute someone says, ‘You can’t do that,’  I’m like, ‘I’m going to do it.’”

The playwright creates a 12-year portal into the lives of friends Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, from when they graduate school at 18 to becoming grown women with children at 30. As the pair navigates their own individual paths in climbing the social ladder within a patriarchal society, Hamill tears down the archetypes of good girl versus bad girl and shows audiences that neither woman is perfect nor particularly condemnable. In fact, women are just human beings like everyone else.

“It’s imaginative and a spectacle, but rooted in truth so you’re not left with just a show,” actress Rebekah Brockman, who plays Becky, says of Hamill’s work. “There’s a pulse behind it and human beings behind it.”

Brockman says there’s a gradual grounding of reality that happens over the course of Becky and Amelia’s friendship as the two experience major milestones together, and credits Hamill with giving the characters more depth.

“You can’t be too quick to judge someone because there’s a reason people make bad decisions. There’s a reason people act the way they do.”

Brockman and Maribel Martinez, who plays Amelia, wax philosophical on the topic across the table from me, finishing each other’s sentences as eloquent phrases pour out of them.

“There’s more to be found in humanity,” Martinez says.

“More complexity,” Brockman continues.

The actresses are elated to be working together on a Hamill play, a feeling intensified by the fact that Shakespeare Theatre’s production is truly a feminist work. The director, Jessica Stone, rounds out the powerhouse female talent at the helm of Vanity Fair.

“I do think it’s really heartening that places like Shakespeare Theatre, which is dedicated largely to classical work, is producing so much work directed by women and made by women,” Hamill says.

Brockman and Martinez share the playwright’s vision for shaping their characters to be more multidimensional and creating a storyline that encourages empathy rather than judgment from the audience.

“I wanted to create a play which challenges you over and over again to challenge your own judgment, because I think when you judge these women it says more about you than it does about them,” Hamill says. “It’s really important to bring that story to DC.”

She hopes that by shifting the narrative to focus on how the women’s bond strengthens over time, audiences will see how Becky and Amelia are able to inch toward defeating the patriarchal system they live within. The playwright is also eager to do away with gender constructs onstage; many of her works promote gender fluidity.

“I’m interested in not only breaking down arbitrary gender roles, but also in creating more interesting work for female artists – I’m always happy to see a woman in a man’s role,” she says with a chuckle. “When you’re an actress, it’s nice to be asked to stretch in that way.”

Hamill played Becky in the original production in New York, giving her unique insight into how she envisions the story unfolding onstage. The current leads are in lockstep with the playwright, describing theatre as an agent for change. Martinez and Brockman say the gender switches in the production highlight the theme of fluidity in companionship, in all relationships even, that we all experience when the curtain closes and we return to reality.

The topic that seems to bond these three artists more than any other we cover in what are truly meaningful, fascinating conversations to me as a woman and lover of the arts is female empowerment in theatre; giving women a seat at the table in leadership roles is what will ultimately make change. Hamill notes that though there are statistically more women than men in theatre school, fast-forward 20 years and of those former students, significantly more men are offered lead roles and directorial opportunities.

“I’m not saying every female story filtered through a male gaze is a bad thing, but it’s a problem when that is the only kind of story we’re getting,” she says.

All three women feel the tides are changing, and they’re encouraged and excited. Though the hill is not an easy climb, the top is in sight and it’s women like them who will get us there.

“All of the different voices that the world has to give,” Martinez says with an infectious optimism in her voice, “we need them in higher positions so that it trickles down and we get all the exciting things that theatre can be.”

Catch Martinez and Brockman in Hamill’s Vanity Fair on the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre stage now through Sunday, March 31. Tickets are $49-$135 and can be purchased at www.shakespearetheatre.org. Learn more about the playwright at www.kate-hamill.com.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org