BWW Interviews: Lara Teeter Talks SHOW BOAT, Cap'n Andy, His Career and About Teaching
Me: Since its opening, people have taken issue with SHOW BOAT for being prejudiced or not politically correct enough. What are your feelings on the touchy subject of race in SHOW BOAT?
Lara Teeter: Okay, now you think I've talked a lot. [We both Laugh] I get very emotional when I talk about SHOW BOAT in my class because Florenz Ziegfeld decided to take this project up and produce it at his New Amsterdam Theatre in 1927. Here is a man who is all about glitz and glamour, and, as history tells us, is all about glorifying the American girl. In other words, he basically developed commercialism. Whether you like it or not, he basically said to be an acceptable woman in society you have to look a certain way; your figure has to be this and you have to have this look. He really kind of established that with his show. He was quite a ladies man. And some of the things he did might be looked at as being very chauvinistic and the like. But then he allowed Bert Williams, one of the great Black comedians of all time to share the stage with his White company. They actually threatened to quit. And his response to that was, "You go ahead and quit if you want to because I can replace all of you with the exception of the person you want me to fire." So, here, he stood up to all of these White stars of the time by saying this man is a brilliant artist, and I'm going to keep him.
When he decided to produce SHOW BOAT he-of course, it was the first time that a Black cast and a White cast was on stage together-he, well, the reason I get very emotional about this is because at all points in history it's the artists of our society that really are at the forefront of our civil rights. And it started with Florenz Ziegfeld. He was a man ahead of his time. Even today when you talk about political correctness or you talk about certain issues in our society, whether it be race or political or gay or straight, you know, entertainment has always kind of lead the way in terms of raising the social awareness. In terms of SHOW BOAT, I'm going to go back to your question. Can you ask the question again?
Me: Not a problem. Since its opening, people have taken issue with SHOW BOAT for being prejudiced or not politically correct enough. What are your feelings on the touchy subject of race in SHOW BOAT?
Lara Teeter: Well, my particular feeling in terms of race is that we are all one. I really believe that. I mean, I believe that we are all on this planet, we all have the pursuit of happiness, and where it gets really rough is on either side of the fence when a person feels their way is right and feels like they are bound and determined to prove what they think and how they fell about any particular subject is the only way and the right way to feel. That's when wars are fought. That's when people end up getting hurt. So, that's just my personal feeling.
SHOW BOAT, I think, is incredibly right on the money in terms of how Edna Feber chose to describe a family. She chose to describe a way of thinking. To think that miscegenation, there when the Show Boat docks in that particular part of the country, it's against the law to have a person a White person be married to a Black person because that is mixing blood is incredible to realize. And this is why the show is so timely. You have to understand that there are people who still feel that way-who still feel that this is wrong. And I'm going to jump to SOUTH PACIFIC for a minute. SOUTH PACIFIC won the Pulitzer Prize for, I believe it was 1949, for drama. When the show toured in, I think, 1953, it came through Atlanta, Georgia, and there were two men in the Senate that stood up on the Senate floor and tired to ban the show from being played there. They felt that it was a dishonorable to talk about a White person mixing blood with an Asian person. They stood on the Senate floor and talked about there being true blood, their blood is true, and that any other blood would be tainted-it would taint the true blue blood of a white person. And that wasn't that long ago that you realize that happened.
So, I think it is important and that it will always be important for shows like SOUTH PACIFIC and shows like SHOW BOAT to hold up a mirror to our society and say take a close look at what you're saying, what you're thinking, and what you're believing and hopefully shed some important light on the fact that a person on this planet has the right to feel, think, do, celebrate and love the way they feel; the way they are called to do. And to tell someone that they cannot love a person because of race or to tell someone that they can only be "saved" by having, by accepting, a particular religious belief is wrong. It is something to consider, I should say.
If that's how you're going to live your life, you're missing the greater opportunity of what it means to be a human being by feeling so self-centered and self-delusional. At any point, if any one feels that that we have a right to say that what we believe and that we think is the only way to be right, the only way to be a "good" human being, goes back to what I try to tell my students about breath and awareness. I mean, if you are aware that you feel a certain way or that someone else [feels a certain way]. If I state an awareness that someone feels a certain way, it's a less judgmental thing. I'm aware that they feel this way. I am aware that this person is reacting to this particular situation, and then it doesn't carry a lot of judgment to it. And I feel like there is so much judgment in our society. Of course, it's no great surprise in our political climate right now that there is a complete divide in our country or in the world, but particularly in America. Right now, there is a complete divide over things like guns, taxes, the economy, and large business versus small business. And I don't know. I wish I had the answer. I'm not someone who talks very much about this actually just because I'm not the type of person who thinks a lot or spends a lot of time worrying about it. I know what I believe, and I try to demonstrate that in my everyday life. That's the best I feel like I can do.
That's a long-winded answer, but I just think that SHOW BOAT is a very valuable piece of work in our society right now because I think that these are subject matters that still live with us today. They don't harken back to the turn of the century. It's a hundred years later and its still happening in our world today, and I think that as artists-whether directors, choreographers, performers, conductors, people who play in the orchestra, costume people, wig people, props, stage management, all of us who are involved, the small army that it takes to put on a show at Houston Grand Opera. I mean, it's a village over there. You walk into those offices and there are six people in one department who are handling one aspect of what it takes to put up one show and the audience never sees that, of course, they just see the final product-I think all of us involved in the theatre, and of course, being a person who educates and teaches in the fine arts, I tell my students on the first day of classes that we have a responsibility to our local regional, national, and world communities to really reflect and show what our society thinks and feels about all subjects. I think SHOW BOAT does that.
Me: Has preparing to play Cap'n Andy presented any unique challenges for you?
Lara Teeter: Well, every role has a lot of challenges. You know, any role that you play comes with a particular preconceived notion of what the role should or should not do. You know, any actor is presented with the challenge of taking the words that are on the page and perhaps other versions of that role that they've seen played either in a movie or on stage by a particular actor, and you have to bring yourself to those words on the page.
Every actor can tell you stories about their particular process. I approach a lot of my work very physically, so I'm someone who works from the outside in. I sort of get a sense of the character, the way they move and the way they fill a space in terms of their movement, and then I kind of go inside it.
In a show like this, there is a Southern dialect involved. And so there are certain technical aspects that you go with. And then for this particular production there is a great need for us to articulate the words, to enunciate the words a particular way, particularly the end of words because it is such a huge stage, and we have to make sure that people understand. So, you've got the dialect, you've got the enunciation, you've got the physicality, and then you have to start thinking about the arc of the character. What's the beginning, middle, and end, and how does the character fit into the show?
So, Cap'n Andy, for me, is not a lot unlike any other role I will ever play or that I have ever played. You start by reading the story and you go into rehearsals. Actually, we had a week or so of rehearsals before the Christmas holiday, and I think everybody was agreeing that first week we were kind of just throwing ourselves to the wolves. You know, just kind of, you know, [Laughs] "Here's what I got today, what do you think?" And Francesca [Zambello], the director, is there to say, "That's great, but let's change that" or "That's not working. Let's see what we can do to make this work better." So, it becomes a true collaboration between the director and the actor. That's the process that makes being an actor on stage so rewarding. It would be kind of boring wouldn't it if you just kind of walked into it. And even if you've played the role before, you're going to come in and it's a different set of circumstances because it's a different cast member you're playing opposite of. So, even that has its wonderful challenges to keep it fresh and to make changes according to the person that's now standing next to you. And we have people in this cast that, I think, have played their roles before. But then there are many people in the cast who, like me, never played the role in SHOW BOAT before. And that's always exciting when you have a whole group of actors that are new to the piece.
Cap'n Andy, you know, is a lot like me. We've made a decision that he-there's a character in the show, Frank, who is sort of second banana. He's kind of the song and dance man of the show. You know Magnolia and Ravenal are the romantic leads of the show, and then Frank and Ellie are kind of the second bananas, and the director, the choreographer, Michelle Lynch, and I all realized at a certain point in the rehearsal, maybe the second or third day, that this Cap'n Andy, in his former life, was really Frank. He was really the song and dance guy, and then he ended up taking over the show boat. But he really is an older song and dance person, which is, of course, me. So, we started layering in Cap'n Andy in some of the dances because that's kind of what I do. That's not so typical, but they're willing to make some adjustments to make this Cap'n Andy fit me and make my version of it fit the show. It's been very, very rewarding and very exciting so far to find those kinds of little nuggets of information that we can use for this particular show.
Me: Awesome. And you're Frank is, I think, one of the better performers we have in the Houston area. Tye Blue is fantastic.
Lara Teeter: TYE! Tye! What a sweetheart! And I know that about him. When I got the part, [Laughs] it all happened so fast. Finally, when the contract was done, I said, "Oh yeah, who's playing Frank?" [Laughs] And, you know, he [Tye Blue] was basically described to me as being a Houston favorite and being a great performer. He's been so, so kind and sweet, and he's going to be wonderful in the part. So, that's going to be very exciting.
Me: What is a dream role that you have yet to play?
Lara Teeter: Well, there is a role that I've always dreamed of playing which is Bert in MARY POPPINS. Elizabeth, my eleven-year-old daughter, is currently playing Jane Banks on Broadway in MARY POPPINS. We know Bert from Dick Van Dyke in the movie. And, now, on Broadway for the last eight or ten years this guy from England, Gavin Lee, has been playing the role of Bert all this time. He is incredibly...[Pauses] He is just phenomenal, and I have become a huge fan of his. And it's amazing. I've seen the show about four times, and every time I see it, I keep looking for any traces of him marking or being board. And you just don't see it. He's really an amazing performer, and Bert is a song and dance role. So, I would have to say Bert in MARY POPPINS.
I would love to do Henry Higgins again at some point; come back to that role. And is there any other role that I would like to do? I'm sure there are, but I can't think of them right now. I'm really starting to direct and choreograph more in my career, and I enjoy that quite a lot.
Me: As an artist, what inspires you?
Lara Teeter: I'm going to have to say my wife and children inspire me the most, without a doubt, and then also my students because of their willingness and courage to learn and grow. Webster Conservatory is a very intense place because we have very high standards for our students. We are very, I would say more so than not, we are very old school in our training. It's a lot like a four-year boot camp. And with the things we demand of our students it is quite inspiring to see them rise to the occasion day after day. And of course the boundless creativity of my children and all four of them are different. It's inspiring. And then my wife is at the top of the list simply because the way she parents our kids. She's our Cap'n Andy. She keeps our boat floating in the Teeter household. She is an artist and a scientist. And she's just able to be a very, very, very creative person, but at the same time she has the ability to organize and to keep us moving in a positive way. I think, in the back of my mind, every morning when I wake up, I try to think about what Kristen would do in a particular situation at some point in the day. You know, she's just my inspiration. So, that's what inspires me-my family and my students.
Me: Thinking back on the beginnings of your career, what is one piece of advice you wish you had been given as a young artist?
Lara Teeter: To...[Pauses]...I would say to take time every day to breathe and to meditate and to...[Pauses]...and to...[Pauses]...stay focused on what's really important. Yes. You know, to stay focused on what's really important, and those things that might seem important but aren't really important, to be able to develop earlier on the ability to recognize that.
Of course, you know what I'm saying right now. That hindsight is 20/20 they say. If I could go back to when I was 18 and have the wisdom and know the things that I know now, I would have invested in Microsoft. [We Both Laugh]
You know, I wouldn't trade this for anything because of all of the turns twists that occurred in my life that lead me to this thing, and that lead me to that thing, and that ultimately lead me into teaching high education. I believe a lot in the Eastern philosophies in terms of spirituality and one of the things I believe in is that, you can call it what you want, but we all come into this life with a certain set of karma. Another way to say it is that when we were born we were sort of handed all these gifts, but along with that we were handed the challenges that, in our lifetime, we were going to have to work out. Some of us have challenges physically that we to have to live with and work with. Some of us have challenges financially. Some of us we have the challenge of throughout our life dabbling in many different things and never really settling into one thing that we really want to do with our life. Some of us are challenged with being able to offer ourselves to the service of man kind to be able to serve the community. Scrooge, for instance, that's his challenge. He is very self-deluded and self-centered, and he ultimately comes around to meeting that part of his life challenge. So, I do realize that as the person I am standing here today that I was given a set of challenges, and I meet them and greet them everyday. And one of the reasons I ended up being a teacher, I realized that everyday is a chance to learn. I think that its no great surprise that if you talk to any teacher one of the reasons they are teachers is because they are a student [Laughs], and they're always trying to learn something, always trying to read something, always trying to find out more about something.
I think ultimately, as a performer, I felt like it was kind of a dead end street for me. I felt like I was doing really well and my career was really going great, but then there was just something that was missing. Then I got offered a chance to direct and choreograph a production of WEST SIDE STORY for a college, and none of the guys I was working with could dance, so I had to keep simplifying the movement and approach it from an acting standpoint. By the time the show opened those guys were flying across the stage and there was just something about that that triggered in me the need to teach, and so now I have my cake and eat it too. I'm a very lucky man because I have my stable job with benefits and all of that, and I am able to then go off and do projects like this and work with people like Francesca [Zambello], Michelle Lynch, and the artists I am sharing the stage with.
And I've already learned something just from being in rehearsal with this cast. I have already learned something about myself and about the way this director works, which is something I'm putting in my back pocket to use when I'm directing next time. So it's just a constant source of learning and inspiration. To look back at when I was 18 years old. Gosh! Boy would I do that differently now. [Laughs] But that's not the point. I wouldn't be standing here talking to you had it not been for who I was then and had to work things out. If I was this person when I was 18, then there would be a whole other set of things I would have to work out.
Photo courtesy of Insight Theatre Company's website.