Broadway's Danielle Ferland Accentuates the Positive in BCT Master Class
At the age of 38 - and seven months pregnant - Danielle Ferland still has the youthful twinkle in her eye that made her portrayal of Little Red Riding Hood in the original 1987 Broadway production of Into the Woods so iconic and memorable. Now a veteran of more than a dozen Broadway and Off-Broadway productions including A Year with Frog and Toad, Sunday in the Park with George, The Crucible, and the York Theatre concert reading and recording of Summer of '42, the savvy Ferland enjoys teaching as much as performing.
Recently the talented actress, singer and director, whose latest main stem appearance was in last season's much heralded revival of All My Sons with Katie Holmes, conducted a spirited Master Class for the Boston Children's Theatre (BCT) of Massachusetts. With major doses of wit and wisdom, Danielle shared her career history and insights with more than 100 Boston area students enrolled in BCT's advanced Summer Studio Program.
Accepted via a formal audition process, the students, ranging in age from eight to 19, receive training and pre-professional musical theater experiences from BCT's Executive Artistic Director Burgess Clark, Associate Artistic Director Toby Schine, and guest artists such as Danielle. This year BCT conducted the advanced Summer Studio Program on the campus of The Governor's Academy in Byfield. The oldest, and one of the most distinguished, boarding schools in America, the Academy is home to a professional-quality, state-of-the-art Performing Arts Center that presents year-round full-scale student productions and a major professional celebrity series.
BroadwayWorld.com sat in on Danielle's recent Master Class at the Academy and later chatted with her about the art of making art in today's economy. In an age where theater arts programs are being decimated by deeper and deeper budget cuts, and live performance time competes with the internet, cell phones, video games and mp3 players, it's exciting to see a 58-year-old not-for-profit children's theater company and a 246-year-old private high school join forces to give aspiring young artists the time and tools they need to build on their dreams for the future.
BWW: Danielle, you really are fabulous working with these kids. You know exactly what they want and need to hear, and you relate to them so well. What do you hope to give to students by doing master classes like this?
Danielle: My goal is to have them have great experiences, especially with funding being cut and schools struggling to provide programming. Math and science aren't the only things that are important. Art is so valuable in so many ways. It brings learning down to the personal and emotional level. It brings people together. It humanizes us. I hope to do more of this. A lot of programs want me to come to talk and teach.
BWW: The stories you are sharing with these students can really serve as life lessons, not just career advice. How did your personal philosophy and balanced perspective develop and evolve?
Danielle: Since I was on Broadway at the age these kids are now, I can really connect with them. I come from a very grounded, human place and can bring them a practical reality. My mother was not a stage mom. She and my family helped me keep my basic values in tact. I have been able to fashion a lifelong career by knowing who I am and not getting caught up in the fame game. I don't really love the attention, which sounds strange coming from an actor. But it's true. I don't necessarily want fame. Oh, it would be nice to work steadily and not have to audition anymore, but it's not about me being in the spotlight. It's about the challenge of the work.
BWW: Having success so young can be a problem. Some child stars are one-hit wonders who outgrow their "cuteness" while others can't handle the fame and fortune and self-destruct. Did you have to fight off "handlers" who perhaps wanted to control your image and steer you into a certain direction with your career?
Danielle: There was one agent early on who said we didn't strike while the iron was hot and that's why I'm not a huge star! She was from a big management firm and was mean to me. So that's why I left her. I wanted to graduate from high school and go to college at NYU. I wanted to study the classics and be more well rounded. Would things have been different if I'd listened to her? Would a hit TV show have changed me? I don't think so. I am who I am. And I really like my life.
BWW: In your "relationship advice portion of the program," you told the kids that it's very important not to marry someone in the business. Why is that?
Danielle: Well, this business is hard enough as it is. It's very competitive. So it's important to have a supportive environment to go home to. Even my son, Noah, who's in kindergarten, just wants to be there for me. He has no interest in getting up on stage himself. When his class did a show recently, I asked if he didn't just want to try it, and he said, 'Mom, you can't do the play without the audience.' Isn't that great?
BWW: Sounds like your family provides you with great balance.
Danielle: It's really important to have a personal life. It will get you through the down times. I didn't marry till I was 31, even though I met Michael when I was 25. I was on the road, concentrating on my career, etc., but I wasn't always successful. I got depressed at times, especially when I was alone. Now I have a family to focus on, and my next major role is to deliver! We know it's going to be a boy. And Noah has already named him - Nino. I said, 'Noah, we can't name him Nino. That would be like naming him Table.' Can you imagine? Nino Goldstein? That's my husband's last name!
The three-hour Master Class that Danielle conducts is broken into three segments: a lecture in which she discusses her career milestones; a question and answer period in which she responds to the students' expressed concerns; and a coaching session in which she works one-on-one with cast members of the Summer Studio's upcoming productions of Rent and - you guessed it - Into the Woods. A theme that keeps recurring as Danielle speaks is "keeping the energy positive" - in your character, your work, and your life.
"You are always going to learn something, whatever the circumstance," she emphasizes. "So be open, and be prepared. Keep in mind that you want to have a long career, so learn how to roll with the punches. As the song goes, move on. Stop worrying about what you're doing and keep moving on. Just keep going and growing. It's how you rebound that makes the difference. I've seen people leave the business because they let their passion be beaten down."
With so many of the students in the class preparing to perform in the show that made Danielle famous, much of the discussion centers on her experience in Into the Woods. But it was another Sondheim musical, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, that really taught Danielle some major life lessons. That was the show in which she made her Broadway debut - playing the irksome child Louise and studying at the knee of the "totally immersed" method actor Mandy Patinkin and the "very warm and giving but also very professional" Bernadette Peters.
"Tons of children auditioned for the role," Danielle remembers. "Boys and girls, because they weren't sure yet who the character would be. James Lapine (the librettist and director) had me sing 'Where Is Love?' from Oliver and then 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' a dozen different ways. He wanted to see if I could be directed. When I was offered the part I turned it down because I had also been booked to do Gypsy in a non-equity production at the Candlewood Playhouse in Connecticut. Well, James Lapine called my mother and said that he could work it out, that he didn't think we realized what we were turning down. He arranged it so that I could do both the equity and non-equity productions. I rehearsed Sunday during the day and performed Gypsy at night. I was so lucky! It was that one moment that set me on my way.
"But being 11 and a girl, I was so angry," she confides. "My mother decided without even asking me!"
After Sunday came an Off-Broadway show called Paradise, then her career-making turn in Into the Woods. Danielle says that the part of Red was written during the workshops with her specifically in mind. "They wanted to develop the character according to the personality of the one who was cast," she recalls. "But then I didn't go to The Old Globe for the three-month tryout because it would have meant moving my family to the west coast. Thankfully they came back to me when the show moved to Broadway."
The rest, as they say, is history.
So ingrained in theater culture are certain lines from Into the Woods that during the class oNe Young man pleads with Danielle to say, "You talk to birds?" Everyone laughs, knowing exactly how she said that line 22 years ago. But the fact that her delivery is so etched in our memories speaks volumes about her skills as an actress. Watching her work with the students during the coaching sessions, we begin to appreciate her skills as a director, as well.
Art Isn't Easy
"If you remember one thing from what we work on today," Danielle says, "it's to keep the action positive. Even if you are going to be mean, be positive about it. Be active. Love what you are doing. It's not about being glad that you are hurting others, but that you are relishing in the power."
Danielle illustrates this point most emphatically when working with teen Katy Geraghty, the eager - and understandably nervous - young actress who will be playing Little Red Riding Hood in the Summer Studio production of Into the Woods just one short week from the class. Helping Katy with her interpretation of Red's big Act I solo "I Know Things Now," Danielle encourages her to keep building the intensity of the patter, even as the music dips and becomes reflective.
"As you recount your tale of Granny and the Wolf, you're reliving that experience and discovering your feelings about it as you go along," Danielle explains. "So your excitement needs to grow and grow and spill over even as you sing about going back to the start. I mean, you've just been inside the belly of a wolf. Think about what that must be like!"
At the end of the Master Class, Danielle's final words are full of inspiration. "Just as the song goes in Godspell," she says, "you are the light of the world. Don't hide it under a bushel. Don't try to be something you are not. Try to be happy in your own talent. Find your own unique quality and you'll be successful."
The Boston Children's Theatre is now enrolling students for its schedule of Fall classes. Registrations submitted by August 25 receive a 15 percent discount. The Centerstage Discovery program is for children ages 4 to 6. Centerstage Youth is open to students ages 7 to 11. Mini Musicals are one-day casting, rehearsal and performance experiences for children ages 8 to 12. Music Theatre Scene Study classes are designed for students ages 9 to 13. Advanced Acting: The Actor's Process led by Burgess Clark, Acting Shakespeare taught by Toby Schine, and Music Theatre Scene to Song conducted by Penny Hansen are all available to emerging actors ages 14 to 18.
BCT's 2009-2010 performance season kicks off with two holiday productions: The Velveteen Rabbit December 4-14 and A Child's Christmas in Wales November 27 through December 30. In February families will be treated to the new musical Miss Nelson Is Missing, followed by Seussical Jr. in March. The season comes to a close in April with a new adaptation of the classic drama The Diary of Anne Frank.
Season subscriptions are now on sale. Single tickets may be purchased beginning September 15. For more detailed enrollment, audition and performance information, please visit the BCT website at www.bostonchildrenstheatre.org.
The Governor's Academy also offers a full slate of theatrical productions, concerts, exhibits and dance programs throughout the academic year. For more information on the extensive performing and visual arts courses and extracurricular opportunities available to students at the Academy, please visit www.thegovernorsacademy.org.
PHOTOS: Danielle Ferland; Danielle Ferland, Emily Higgins and Sean Crosley; Austin Davy, Alexis DiGregorio and Danielle Ferland; Presilah Nunez and Danielle Ferland; Danielle Ferland and Katy Geraghty; Danielle Ferland, Victoria Clougher and Connor Prickett