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Jake Epstein // Photo: courtesy of Arena Stage

Jake Epstein Talks World Premiere of Arena Stage’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise

It can be a challenge for an actor to tap into a character, especially one from a different decade. But for Jake Epstein, playing a WWII soldier holds a special family connection. The former Degrassi star is portraying Jack Ludwig in Arena Stage’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise now through December 29. The play, based on the love story of playwright Ken Ludwig’s parents, is set in the middle of the war and told through the use of letters. We talked to Epstein to learn more about the world premiere of Dear Jack, Dear Louise, long-distance relationships and the DC theatre scene.

On Tap: What’s it like portraying a real-life figure? Especially the playwright’s father?
Jake Epstein: To be honest, I try to block out that I’m portraying the playwright’s father. Only because in the sense of the play, I have to think of it as a character I’m playing. I’m trying to approach it the way I would any play, but certainly, there’s a real responsibility to tell the story right and to make sure the playwright can feel good about it.

OT: How closely did you work with the playwright, Ken Ludwig?
JE: At the beginning, very closely. He’s an amazing and hilarious writer. He was around for all of our table reads where we did a lot of work talking about the history and going on the trip together. Once we got up on our feet and started working with the director [Jackie Maxwell], Ken said “I’m going to let you guys play.” So he kinda went away and he’s been in and out of the whole process.

OT: How did you tap into playing a WWII soldier? What does that era of history mean to you?
JE: When you’re playing somebody from history you try to gather as much information as you can. I’ve done a lot of research, listened to podcasts every day and tried to read what I can so that I feel I can be as authentic as possible. On a personal note, my mother [Kathy Kacer] is a pretty well-known writer and she writes mostly stories about the holocaust for young adults. Her parents, my grandparents, were both Holocaust survivors. My grandmother, I never knew and my grandfather, I only knew a little when I was young. But one of the amazing things about being an actor is that sometimes you’ll get to do a play that’s out of your own time and place, and in this case, getting to do a play during the second world war makes me feel connected to my grandparents.

OT: What books has your mother written about the holocaust?
JE: She’s written over 20 books. My favorite is The Secrets of Gabi’s Dresser, which is a story about my grandmother hiding from the Nazis. Since then, she’s written a lot of other books, one called Clara’s War. They actually use her books in Canada, and I believe they’re starting to in the states, when they’re teaching kids about the second world war in school. That time in history definitely means a lot to me and my family.

OT: Have you visited the Holocaust Museum since you arrived in DC?
JE: I’ve been twice before. I went when I was younger with my parents, and a few years ago when I was here with the national tour of Spring Awakening. I’ve been in intense rehearsal, so I haven’t gotten the chance to do too much in DC but I’m certainly hoping to.

OT: What do you think of the DC theatre scene? How do you like Arena Stage?
JE: I’ll admit that I haven’t seen very much other DC theatre, but I know that it certainly has a great reputation with really smart, savvy audiences. Getting to perform at the Kennedy Center [with the national tour of Spring Awakening] was one of the highlights of my life. It’s such a gorgeous building and it was one of those moments like “oh my god, I’m so lucky that I get to do this.” I mean Arena Stage has this reputation of being this amazing out of town try out. A lot of shows going to New York, Broadway got to try themselves out at Arena Stage. It’s got this real spirit of creativity and support that I’ve been really impressed with. The building is beautiful and its location, with being right on the Wharf, is really cool.

OT: The story revolves around your character Jack and a character named Louise in a long-distance relationship, do you have any experience with long-distance relationships?
JE: Yeah, I do. My wife and I were long distance for about five years before we got married. So I have a lot of experience dealing with long distance and the tragedy, frustration and comedy that goes into maintaining a relationship when you’re far apart from each other.

OT: In today’s world, do you think relationships via letters is still considered romantic or is texting much more practical?
JE: In today’s world, people date through social media and through online dating and texting. It’s a specific part of how people meet and interact. This play is just like the original texting, the original online dating. The difference is just that letters took over a week to get to each other but I love how the play has a sort of wink to where we are today,  but with the story of the real history of letters.

OT: Since the play is told through letters, does that change the way you interpret the script as an actor?
JE: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the characters are not speaking aloud what they’re saying. They’re expressing the letters that have been written out loud but at the same time, because it’s a play, because it’s a piece of theatre, we really thought to theatricalize the story and theatricalize the way letters can be used on stage. Our director has really encouraged us to make the letters spoken as realistically as possible.

OT: How is being in a world premiere play like Dear Jack, Dear Louise different from being in an established play or TV show, such as Spring Awakening or Degrassi?
JE: Definitely being in a world premiere is a different beat than being in something that is set in stone. The main thing being that the playwright is there so you can talk to him about moments that maybe aren’t working as well as they could. There’s the opportunity for the line tweaks or changes or discussion with what the intention was about certain lines with the person who wrote it. Whereas with a published play, that’s it. You have to make it work. On TV it’s actually similar to a world premiere, the writers are around and there are constant changes on TV. So if anything, being in the world premiere of a play is probably closer to doing a TV show.

OT: Speaking of Degrassi, my editor [Monica Alford] told me she had a big crush on your character. Do you often get recognized for that role?
JE: Tell her thank you very much! I do sometimes and I appreciate it. It makes me laugh every time.

OT: Why do you think Dear Jack, Dear Louise is a great love story? Why will audiences resonate with it?
JE: I definitely hope so. I hope audiences can relate to it. There’s a lot of truth in their love story, it’s a difficult love story. There’s a lot of banter, the two characters couldn’t be more different from each other. Jack is a shy, self-effacing, intelligent army medic who has zero experience with the ladies because he’s been in school his whole life. Louise is this outgoing, charismatic aspiring actress. They couldn’t be more different, yet somehow find each other and start to relate on this very deep personal level through letter writing. They actually have a lot in common and they start to need each other in a way they both didn’t expect. I think there’s a lot of truth in the love story and I certainly related to a lot of it in my own life. I hope audiences feel the same.

Dear Jack, Dear Louise opened November 21 and runs through December 29. Various times. Tickets begin at $41. For more information visit here.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Nova Payton in Newsies // Photo: Margot Schulman

Nova Payton Brings Power As Heroine in Arena Stage’s Newsies

Her name is Medda Larkin, and “she is in charge,” Nova Payton exclaims excitedly as she tells the joys of playing a brassy operatic and bluesy burlesque theater owner in Arena Stage’s production of Disney’s Newsies the musical.

Set in New York City in 1899, Newsies follows the adolescent newsboys who go on strike after newspaper owners Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, also known as the most powerful men in the country, raise the price for newspapers purchased by newsboys, who resale on the streets of Lower Manhattan.

Despite already being unable to earn a living wage, the newsboys are forced to pay double for an even now hard-to-sell newspaper.

Medda, the heroine of the tale, offers her theater as a safe haven for those youth struggling in the inner city.

“She is a powerhouse, who commands the room’s attention upon each entry,” Payton explains of the elaborate petticoats and headdresses she proudly wears to embody her character.

Medda requires the vocal prowess and tenacity of an actress with grit and worldly experiences, as she is based on the late Aida Overton Walker, a renowned musical theater performer, most known for her vaudeville performances and her marriage to George Walker.

Fortunately for director Molly Smith, Payton was available.

“I was called and asked about my availability, as here in DC, we audition a year in advance for each show,” she says. “So, they said they would like if I would sing in the show, and asked me to come in and sing with the music director Laura Bergquist, and here we are.”

From studying at the The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and touring the world as a backup singer for Roberta Flack to performing in 3 Mo’ Divas, seen on PBS, Payton was primed for this role.

“I grew up around performers all my life. From Mike Malone the co-founder of Duke Ellington [School of the Performing Arts] to Roberta Flack”, Payton shares. “It was wonderful being able to sit under these geniuses and be groomed.”

When asked about the significance of this play in today’s climate, and the connection it would have to older and younger audiences, Payton had plenty to say.

“When you think about the kids who are protesting about global warming and gun violence and gun control today, it’s the same thing the newsies were doing with the newspapers. It was a matter of life or death. If you raise the rates, what am I supposed to do? After I pay you all this money, what’s left for me? How am I supposed to survive and eat?”

Payton says the younger generations are responsible for a lot of powerful movements, whether back then or in today’s political climate.

“With gun control and global warming, it’s the same. Kids are afraid to go to school, children are dying. Back then as today, kids were the movement. They took the risks, the chances and didn’t worry about what would happen next.”

Newsies has been extended and will be showing at Arena Stage through December 29. Showtimes vary. Tickets are $45-$102 and can be purchased by visiting the Arena Stage Ticket portal.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth Street SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

The Company of the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour // Photo: credit Amy Boyle 2019.

RENT Brings Memorable Music, Moments to National Theatre This Week

“How do you leave the past behind / When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart?”

This lyric from the titular song seems fitting when talking about the 20th-anniversary tour of RENT. Since its opening in 1996, RENT has found its way into people’s hearts with  themes of love and acceptance. A pioneer for contemporary musicals, the show continues to resonate with theatre audiences more than two decades later.

RENT‘s narrative follows a group of struggling artists living in New York City under the 1990s AIDS epidemic. The show deals with social issues such as addiction and homophobia. Over the course of one year the character Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, records his friends as they experience fear, loss, hope and love.

Adapted from Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, Jonathan Larson’s rock musical has undergone countless adaptions over the years. Amid the show’s 12-year Broadway run, even a feature film starring several members of the original cast was released. After closing in 2008, the show eventually returned to Broadway in 2011. Currently, RENT is enjoying another national tour including this week’s run at DC’s National Theatre from November 12-17.

One of the actors touring with the production is Samantha Mbolekwa who plays the role of Joanne Jefferson. Joanne is a high strung lawyer who struggles with the flirtatious behavior of her performance artist girlfriend, Maureen.

“What I love about Joanne is what she really wants to be able to do is show on the outside what she can’t necessarily [show] because of her job and the way she was brought up, she can through hanging out with these really great artistic people,” Mbolekwa says of her character.

Mboleskwa’s favorite song to perform is “Take Me or Leave Me.” The flippant track comes at a pivotal point in Joanne and Maureen’s relationship.

“It’s iconic,” she says. “Me and Kelsey [Sweigard], who is my Maureen, have so much fun doing it together. I think we both keep each other on our toes. Every time that song rolls around, I just really look forward to it.”

It’s difficult to take note of RENT‘s tracklist without mentioning “Seasons of Love.” The tune has gone on to create a legacy of its own outside of the musical. The song asks “How do you measure a year?” and ultimately decide that life should be measured in love. On the song’s popularity, Mboleskwa believes it’s due to the big question the song is asking.

“How do you measure a year? In the song, you’re offered so many ways. I think that’s a question that sometimes people don’t even think about and then to hear it – it kinda puts you in your spot and makes you think. It has such a positive message.”

“Seasons of Love” also serves as a tribute song to RENT’s creator Jonathan Larson, who unexpectedly passed away the morning of the show’s first preview performance. The story of his life was chronicled in a documentary entitled No Day But Today: The Story of RENT. His work lives on in The Jonathan Larson Collection at The Library of Congress.

In addition to cementing Larson’s legacy as a great playwright, RENT also started the trend of rush tickets. Still used by popular plays and musicals, such as Hamilton, fans known as Rent-heads could receive discounted tickets to see the show.

According to Mboleskwa, this is a tradition the national tour still follows today,

“There are rush tickets for RENT, a lot of people don’t know that if you show up to the theatre two hours before, you can get front row tickets for $25. It all started when it was originally created in the 90s, it was such a hot commodity that people were camping outside of the theatre.”

In RENT’s 20-plus years on the stage, much of it remains true to the show’s original vision. The costumes, set and music are all taken from the original production. Mboleskwa explains that this is because the original creative team behind the show is still working to make it as memorable as ever.

“I think RENT is still relevant 20 years later because there are still reoccurring problems that the story had back then that are still happening,” she says. “People will always want to feel accepted and loved, and the show is all about acceptance and love.”

The 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT is at the National Theatre from November 12- 17. Showtimes vary. Tickets $54-$114. For more information about the run, click here.

National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.com

Anchuli Felicia King // Photo: Benita de Wit

Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl Explores Intra-Asian Racism

2019 has been a big year for playwright Anchuli Felicia King. The 25-year-old Thai-Australian will make her professional playwrighting debut not once, not twice, but three times this year with White Pearl. The corporate satire about the beauty industry is premiering in England and Australia before making its American debut at Studio Theatre this November.

To launch a professional career nearly simultaneously on three continents would be unusual for most playwrights, but for King, who grew up between Thailand, the Philippines and Australia and now divides her time between New York, London and Sydney, globalism is the name of the game.

“I’m basically a global citizen,” King told me last week.

We chatted by Skype as King rode a train to the Sydney Theatre Company, where the Australian production of her new play was in rehearsals.

White Pearl, which launched King’s international career, is set in the cultural melting pot of Singapore and features six characters of different Asian backgrounds who work for the fictional beauty startup Clearday. When someone leaks an ad for their skin-whitening cream, the Internet pounces, pronouncing the ad racist and prompting finger pointing among the six very different – but all Asian – women who lead the company. Someone’s getting fired, but who?

King started writing the play in 2016 while she was pursuing an MFA in dramaturgy at Columbia University.

“Ads started coming up on my newsfeed for skin-whitening products that were deemed to be racially insensitive,” she said. “Products like this were ubiquitous when I was growing up in Thailand and the Philippines, so it was fascinating to me that suddenly they were being held accountable to a global discourse around race.”

King asked her friends in Columbia’s Women of Color Collective about their experiences with whitening cream and discovered that the topic hit a nerve with women from all different backgrounds.

“It doesn’t matter what country you come from. You are being sold an idea of what beauty looks like that is so entrenched in your cultural ideology.”

In crafting a dark comedy about the beauty industry, King found the perfect backdrop in corporations – particularly millennial startup culture and the disconnect between the glossy, utopian ideals and the reality of the practices and what they are selling.

“There is this disjunct between surface and substance,” she said of startup companies. “Cosmetics companies specifically prey on and monetize women’s shame and insecurity.”

White Pearl brings the issue to life through six characters: all of them Asian women, but each from very distinct backgrounds and cultures. The Clearday CEO is a British Indian woman, while the other characters have roots in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand and Singapore.

“My goal with that was to poke holes at the idea that Asia is a monoculture and to explore the specificity of different places in Asia,” King said. “But the play also explores the ongoing cultural traumas and legacies that lead to tension between different Asian cultures and the racism that still happens in Asia.”

In choosing a director for this production, Studio tapped Desdemona Chiang. Born in Taiwan and raised in L.A., Chiang known for taking on projects that illuminate marginalized populations and challenge perceptions of the status quo.

“When I first read the script, it hit me really hard – especially when it discussed the racism of East Asian people,” Chiang told me in a recent conversation. “That hit a very raw spot for me because it was something I recognize sometimes within myself and sometimes in where I come from. I found that really discomforting so I said, ‘Great, that means I have to do this play.’”

I asked Chiang how she thought White Pearl would be perceived by American audiences – Asian and non-Asian – who are geographically and often psychologically further away from Singapore than a London or Sydney audience.

“What’s interesting about this story is that it deals with the same issues we have in America but through a different lens,” she explained. “We talk about racism, classism, beauty standards and implicit bias here, but usually through a black/white lens. To tackle the same issues through a different perspective is interesting.”

King agrees: “It’s fascinating to see how this play resonates differently with different audiences and specifically, different Asian communities in different countries.”

King hopes that the exploration of intra-Asian racism will be eye-opening for non-Asian audiences in America.

“There are also things in the play that are so true of the time we are living in and so universal that will resonate with any audience. At its heart, it’s an old-school black comedy and a satire so I hope the audience laughs a lot and through that, interrogates why they are laughing.”

White Pearl runs from November 6 to December 8 at Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre. Tickets start at $20. Learn more at www.studiotheatre.org.

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

Christian Montgomery // Photo: Cameron Whitman Photography

Constellation’s Little Shop of Horrors Plays the Hits

Once again, Constellation Theatre Company has demonstrated their mastery of smash hit musicals during the opening of its 2019-20 Season, dubbed Free Your Passion, with the cult classic musical Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Nick Martin. 

Drifting very little from the Hollywood blockbuster hit, Martin’s plays the hits, making this intimate production a grand experience. 

Down on Skid Row, theatergoers will greatly appreciate the sublime performance of Christian Montgomery, as he leads the all-star cast as famed Seymour Krelborn. Keeping true with the quirky humdrum persona that is Seymour, Montgomery offers a brilliant comedic touch eliciting infectious laughter throughout the two-hour performance. 

Surpassing Montgomery’s timely quips and clumsy faux pas is his versatile vocal repertoire. His effortless delivery of numbers “Grow for Me” and “Suddenly, Seymour” will leave viewers desiring more. 

Montgomery is not a lone powerhouse vocalist in this ensemble, including the simply delightful Teresa Quigley Danskey, who dazzles as a redheaded version of Audrey, climbing to lofty vocal heights prompting chills. Though she strays from the intentionally dimwitted Audrey from the film, she delivers on the vulnerable damsel in distress quality, essential for the character.

Then there are the “doo-wop girls” Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette, played by Selena Clyne-Galindo, Chani Wereley and Alana S. Thomas. With these ladies, it’s all in the details. Their well-balanced harmonies, subtle glances and laughable appearances in the background elevate this production. In addition, their eye-catching, exquisitely executed threads fashioned by costume designer Frank Labovitz helped this trio earn applause at each score’s end. 

In the story, as in real life, the true attraction is the insidious beautifully exotic Audrey II, perfectly voiced by Marty Austin Lamar. Designed by MattaMagical, and motioned by puppeteer Rj Pavel, Audrey II draws onlookers’ attention with each scene, as it steadily grows presenting vibrant hues of green and purple, rousing echoes of awe and jaw dropping expressions. 

Even the thick New York accents are a simplistic layer enhancing this production’s virtue.  

Though rare moments occur where one can see a pair of green legs behind the dancing potted plants (which could be remedied by an added layer of leaves early on), the designs within this production do not disappoint. From the apparent grimy concrete jungle to the bare flower shop, set designer A.J. Guban and props designer Alexander Rothchild’s produce a setting that transports audiences to an authentic 1960’s Skid Row. 

I must not forget to mention the “Steve Martin-like” Orin performance by Scott Ward Abernethy. Completely derived from the film, Abernethy takes very little risks in personifying the sleazy dentist who abuses Audrey throughout the play. While you will loath him consistently with every appearance, his death by laughing gas scene will leave you ill from giggles, perfectly ending the first act with a climatic punch. 

All in all, Constellation’s Little Shop of Horrors boils over with talent and grit, capturing the uncomfortable truth of domestic violence, with a beyond enjoyable musical extravaganza. 

Little Shop of Horrors is showing at Source now through November 17. Information and tickets are $19-$55 are available here.

CulturalDC’s Source Theatre: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; 202-204-7800; www.culturaldc.org

Photo: Tony Powell

Right to Be Forgotten Sparks Healthy Debate

To err is human. To forgive? Well, that is a lot harder with the Internet around, cataloging our every misstep and reminding us years later of actions we might rather forget.

Derril Lark was 17 when he developed a crush on a girl at school. Awkward and nerdy, he followed her around for three months, causing her stress and trauma before a school official intervened and Lark stopped. That was the end of it until a blog turned Lark into a meme, exaggerating his offenses and making him the posterchild for a male predator. Lark is not free of blame, but neither is the monster that the Internet makes him out to be.

This is the premise of Sharyn Rothstein’s new play Right to be Forgotten, with a world premiere coming to Arena Stage on October 11. When Rothstein, whose previous writing credits include numerous plays and USA Network’s Suits, started researching in 2014, the European Union had just granted its citizens the right to ask tech companies to remove search results related to their name – aptly named the Right to be Forgotten.

“I was so taken by the name of the law itself,” Rothstein says. “It’s so striking and the opposite of what we usually want. I mean, who wants to be forgotten?”

The more Rothstein investigated the issue, the more its complexities surfaced. Who decides what lives online and who should have the power to remove potentially damaging content? Tech companies? The government? You?

“This is a clear case of the technology we’ve created not always working with humanity,” Rothstein continues. “Mistakes we make when we were young that we hopefully learn and grow from can now follow us for the rest of our lives and define us.”

The issue is an especially sticky one in the United States, where the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech is a foundational part of our national identity and where, to date, tech companies have faced minimal government regulations. Where does society draw the line between protecting people’s right to privacy and the right to free speech?

“A lot of discussion comes down to: could we ever have a Right to be Forgotten law in this country that wouldn’t violate the First Amendment?” Rothstein asks hypothetically.

It was these issues that attracted Seema Sueko, deputy artistic director at Arena Stage, to the play.

“As soon as I read it, I knew it was the right match for Arena,” she says. “It deals with such big, complex issues around democracy, freedom of speech and privacy.”

Sueko’s gut told her that she needed to direct the play.

“I love shows that I don’t have all the answers to at a first read.”

Rothstein channels the intricacies of the topic into the fictional story of Lark, who is not meant to be a completely sympathetic protagonist.

“He did a bad thing,” Rothstein says. “There’s no getting around that. But I hope this show highlights all the complexities of both his predicament being stuck as the monster for all time, and the girl that he followed being stuck by the Internet as a victim for all time.”

John Austin, last seen at Arena Stage in Kleptocracy, plays Lark.

“Derril has internalized a lot of guilt for his actions,” Austin says of his character. “He lives with this constant uncertainty of what’s true and what’s untrue because once something is put online, it becomes its own reality.”

Rothstein and Sueko think Right to be Forgotten will generate heated conversations as audiences leave the theater.

“My goal will be that the audience bounces back and forth in their opinion and that they can see, hear and feel the arguments on all sides,” Sueko says.

But the play studiously avoids taking a stand on whether or not the U.S. should enact Right to be Forgotten protections.

“I take every stand in the play,” Rothstein laughs, noting that her characters have strong opinions on all sides of the debate. “What I hope is that the audience comes out of this play having thought about this issue that I don’t think enough of us have thought about in this country.”

Don’t miss Right to be Forgotten at Arena Stage from October 11 to November 10. Tickets start at $40-$95. Learn more at www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC;202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Hello, Dolly!’s Analisa Leaming Provides Podcast Aimed at Motivating Artists

Broadway legend Betty Buckley is currently starring as the titular role in the national tour of Hello, Dolly!, playing at the Kennedy Center through July 7. The classic musical, with a book by Michael Stewart and songs by Jerry Herman, tells the story of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a middle-aged marriage broker in 1880s New York City, who navigates a colorful collection of characters in search of love. 

One of those characters is Irene Molloy, played by Analisa Leaming, whose Broadway resume includes stints in School of Rock, The King and I and On The 20th Century. She was also the understudy for Irene on Broadway, going on about a dozen times. 

When she got the call to do the national tour, she, her husband and dog packed up the car and began traveling from place to place. 

“I love that this show is light and fun and joyful,” Leaming says. “With everything going on in the world today, we get to be that two-and-a-half hours of joy every night.”

Being on Broadway was always something Leaming knew she wanted to do. In fact, when she was in sixth grade, her teacher inscribed in her yearbook, “I know I’ll see your name up in lights some day in Hollywood,” and she asked him to scratch the last part out and put “Broadway” instead.

Although her first Broadway show –  Rebecca – was cancelled the night before rehearsals started, and it took three years for her to get another chance, she stayed busy doing regional and Off-Broadway shows. 

In addition to her theater work on stage, Leaming is also passionate about promoting mindfulness and sustainability for artists who work in what can often be a stressful field. 

In that vein, Leaming hosts a podcast, “A Balancing Act,” which features conversations with other working artists about how to navigate the industry and create balance and happiness as a performer. 

“What happened to me with Rebecca is kind of like someone who gets drafted by the NFL, and [then] hurts their Achilles and doesn’t get to play; it’s that level of disappointment,” Leaming says. “It had been this thing I had been dreaming about my whole life. When it was taken away, I had to do some deep searching and what I found is that as artists, it’s very easy to wait for things to happen.”

She explains that includes waiting for calls about roles and always comparing yourself to others.

“I went on my search inward and I just had to share it with others so I created this podcast,” Leaming says. “What I found talking with other artists is that we all share these same fears. These are things that we don’t often talk about. It’s been very helpful.”

Among her guests have been Rebecca Luker, Gavin Creel and John Tartaglia. Tony winner Jessie Mueller will be on soon.

“Because it’s not a weekly podcast, I have plenty of time to edit and so I invite people to be as vulnerable as possible and if they want something taken out, I can totally do that, and I think that has helped create some really honest and emotional conversations,” she says. 

Now in its third season, Leaming originally did all the interviews in person, but being on tour, most of the interviews are recorded over the phone.

“I talk to these incredible people and learn from them and it helps me stay on my own path of where I want to be,” she says. “This is my way of changing my corner of the world.” 

“A Balancing Act” not only hears the stories of these artists, but gets tips on how they reduce stress and cope with the challenges that come with pursuing and maintaining a Broadway career. 

“What I’ve learned is how imperative it is for artists to have other things that we love and are actively doing, and being a more balanced person,” Leaming says.   

See Leaming in Hello, Dolly! at the Kennedy Center through July 7. Showtimes vary and tickets are $49-$159. For information about the show, visit here. Podcast episodes of “A Balancing Act” are available here

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Awa Sal Secka (Shanti), Kevin McCallister (Caesar), Chris Hoch (Blackbeard), Christopher Mueller (Jake), and Lawrence Redmond (Samuel) in Blackbeard at Signature Theatre // Photo: Christopher Mueller

Blackbeard Costume Designer Helps Pirate Live His Best Life

For Signature Theatre’s world premiere of Blackbeard, the cast and crew has to look magnificent. The famed pirate, upon learning he is wanted by the British Army embarks on a fantastical journey across the globe to raise an undead-pirate army from the depths of the sea. To fully depict this fantastical spirit, costume designer Erik Teague was able to create a variety of colorful and outer-worldly outfits for this show, and he spoke to On Tap about his experience working on the production before the show begins its run on June 18.

On Tap: What brought you into costume design?
Erik Teague: I was that weird kid who loved comic books and movies, still true today, but the oddball component is that I really enjoyed opera. I thought I wanted to be an opera singer. As I studied, my love of music never changed, and I realized the thing that was exciting about the performance was the transformation. I finally realized,  oh wait I’m just a designer, okay great!

Illustrations: courtesy of Signature Theatre

OT: Did you know the Signature team prior, if not what was the collaborative process for you in terms of creativity?
ET: This is my very first time working with the team at Signature, they are a company I have long admired because of the ambitious nature of what they do. It is always interesting to come into a different artistic family than your own, this group of people has a long history of working together. I’ve had to figure out where to fit in, but overall it has been very good, we have been able to communicate with each other well and share ideas fluidly.

OT: Why did you choose to join the team for Blackbeard?
ET: An adventure fantasy musical that centers around pirates, I thought that was super exciting, and super in my artistic wheelhouse. Meaning there would be lots of sword fights and swashbuckling and swinging on ropes, which I find very interesting. Building costumes for these types of performances has different methods than other performances where you just walk across the stage and deliver your lines. The construction methods are different, it is always exciting to find out what a performer needs to be supported to do their choreography.

OT: What is your favorite moment of the show?
ET: There are a couple of good ones, but I will say the I am pretty proud of the zombie pirate horde. We have done some highly theatrical gestures, by a couple, I mean we have created a horde of skeleton pirates who glow in the dark by using tandem puppets. Three of them can walk in a line together, I worked with Kylie Clark, a talented artist who made the puppets, and helped to get them functional.

OT: What is your favorite costume in the show, if any?
ET: Definitely Blackbeard’s two coats, they are a wonderful show in contrasts. His first coat is very distressed and lived in, and looks like it could have walked off the Pirates of the Caribbean movie set. Versus the second coat, his afterlife coat. Blackbeard is living his best life in his afterlife. He has been beheaded as per the real history. He finally becomes the myth and legend he has been trying to live up to the whole time. I gave him the opportunity to look the best, [a] red velvet coat with black beading all over it, and black Venetian lace trimming.

Blackbeard opens at Signature Theatre June 18, running through July 14. For more information and tickets visit www.sigtheatre.org.

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

Kathryn Tkel (Emmy) and Holly Twyford (Nora) in A Doll’s House, Part 2 // Photo: Lilly King

A Doll’s House Part 2 Offers Unique Characters Arcs In Round House Sequel

The radiantly captivating Kathryn Tkel lends a tearful and droll performance as Emmy in Round House Theatre’s DC premiere of A Doll’s House, Part 2, showing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre.

Written by Lucas Hnath in 2017, A Doll’s House, Part 2 resumes 15 years after protagonist Nora, played by Holly Twyford, forswears varying degrees of commitment to achieve her version of love; freedom.

Emmy is the youngest child of Nora and in the original A Doll’s House, written in 1879 by Henrik Ibsen, she is little more than a prop in the background. However, as a young adult, she provides a thoughtful voice, often challenging her mother’s perspective on life.

“You’ll learn from Emmy that everyone has their opinion of marriage and people are willing to stand up for their world view, whether or not it aligns with others,” Tkel purports. “There’s something about a younger woman speaking up that makes this conversation deeply important to witness.”

The characters in A Doll’s House, Part 2 are few in number, but prove powerful in the story. Including three self-identifying women and one man, the cast produces an emotional tale full of self-reflection and self-actualization. Tkel stands tall among giants, as she supports other characters played by DC notables like the aforementioned Twyford and Craig Wallace, as Torvald.

Before the performance, the main question for me was how does Tkel bring so much to the table while surrounded by veterans of the craft.

“I see many parallel narratives as a theater practitioner working on the play and as a character,” she says. “These actors and actresses have a longer history of working together, and I am the youngest actress and this is my first time working with these artists. Their characters were in the A Doll’s House.”

“Whereas my character, Emmy, is very much so removed. I have to think about how Emmy’s voice is different in the story and how she herself is different in the room,” she continues. “It’s freeing coming from a different place than others. You have more freedom to have a different take because you don’t know it’s different.”

The predominantly female cast brilliantly addresses issues found in the mid-19th century still felt today. The barriers circumventing women’s equality and independence underscore the humor that makes this play a quality hit.

“[There’s] room for women to have different opinions on stage and in the story, discussing their ideas about marriage and what it means to be a woman,” Tkel gleams.

It’s an eclectic collection of empowering perspectives that will cause the audience to question where their loyalties lie within the conundrum of gender identity and gender roles.

“It’s a very exciting play. [A] play everyone will have at stake in because it is about marriage, divorce, agency and independence for women and men,” Tkel explains.  

Further noting the very complicated societal dynamics layered with the necessary levels of vulnerability, Part 2 annihilates the boundaries of female and male normative behaviors. But where do the men factor in? How will they respond to the performance?

“I think men will like the play. Through Nora’s husband, Torvald, the writer has a lot to say about what society and women may want from men.”

Torvald, played by critically acclaimed actor, Craig Wallace, offers a strong masculine take on love and commitment, showcasing an uncommon vulnerable side.

“The play absolutely stands on its own and you’ll get so much from it,” Tkel encourages. “We’ve all had relationships and family. Whatever your history is, you will pick up pretty quickly that Nora is returning to territory that she used to be in, in a very different fashion.”

“Because the subject matter is so engaging, your own personal feeling about loyalty love, commitment and family will make you question your own view structure.”

A Doll’s House, Part 2 is simply relatable and as Tkel puts it: “Ripe for the picking.”

Round House Theatre’a A Doll’s House, Part 2 runs at Lansburgh Theatre through June 30. Tickets are $50-$61 and can be purchased at here.

Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.roundhousetheatre.org

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