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BWW Interviews: TUTS Underground Cast Members Talk Texas Premiere of HANDS ON A HARDBODY

BWW Interviews: TUTS Underground Cast Members Talk Texas Premiere of HANDS ON A HARDBODY
L to R: Donnie Hammond, Theresa Nelson,
Kevin Cooney & Julia Krohn.

TUTS Undergound, this season's exciting new venture from Theatre Under the Stars, is gearing up to bring Houston audiences the Texas Premiere of HANDS ON A HARDBODY. Based on the 1997 documentary Hands on a Hard Body, this Texas-centric Broadway musical features music by Trey Anastasio of Phish and Amanda Green, lyrics by Amanda Green, and a book by Doug Wright. Recently, at a rehearsal for the production, we sat down with Julia Krohn, Kevin Cooney, Theresa Nelson, and Donnie Hammond to discuss what Houston audiences can expect from the show.

BWW: HANDS ON A HARDBODY centers around a really diverse group of characters. Tell us a little bit about the role that you are playing.

Julia Krohn: I'm playing Heather Stovall. She is a waitress who is really down and out. She has to ride her bike to and from work every day. I think it ends up being six or eight miles one-way. She is desperate for a vehicle, and she has gotten herself into some pretty deep trouble with Mike, the guy who is running the dealership, and ends up doing some questionable things.

Kevin Cooney: I'm playing JD Drew, a man in his sixties who was working on an oil rig and had an accident. He fell, hurt his leg, was fired, and is behind on his bills. His wife is not working, although she wants to, and his pride doesn't want to allow her to do that. So, he is hoping to win the truck so that he can sell it and maybe pay his bills.

Theresa Nelson: We've [Kevin Cooney and I have] been married for almost 46 years in real life, but a little more than 30 years in this play. I play Virginia Drew, JD's wife, and I am very upset that he's decided to do this contest. His character has been in the hospital. He was there for six months. The doctor doesn't even want him climbing stairs, and here he is standing. You know, the worst thing that you can do after surgery is stand for those long times. So, I try to talk him out of it, but he is the hardest-headed person in the universe, so there's no way. This is so true in so many ways. (Laughs)

Kevin Cooney: In the show. In real life, she's worse! (Laughs)

Theresa Nelson: No, no. There's no way to stop him from being in the competition. So, if he's going to be there, I'm going to be there to try to watch him and keep him from over-doing it as much as I can. But, it is really hard because he does not want to show for one second that anything hurts, that anything is the matter, or that he's really a day over 32. (Laughs)

Kevin Cooney: Will you please stop now? (Laughs)

Donnie Hammond: I play Norma Valverde. She is the quintessential super-Christian church lady. She is a stay-at-home mom, and she always wanted to be. She started out being a nurse, got married, and had kids. Now she's sort of staying home and taking care of the husband and the kids, which she loves doing, but her husband is out of work. She's considering taking on some part-time hours, but she really wants to win the truck for the family because she feels like they would both be able to take care of the family better if they had the truck. Her husband always has to borrow a truck when he has to haul things, so she really wants to do it to help support the family.

BWW: The characters that you guys are playing are based on real people from the Hands on A Hardbody documentary. What has it been like preparing real people for this musical?

Kevin Cooney: Well, for me, I guess it's really kind of like any role. I looked at the documentary. The documentary doesn't really cover my character as much. They kind of hide him until he comes forward at the end. But, for me, it's not much different than doing any character. You try to start finding things in yourself that you might share with the character. That's kind of what I do.

Theresa Nelson: The real person in the documentary, my character, never says one word, but she is so sweet. She is always back there rubbing her husband's back, bringing him stuff, and without saying one word. I just love her. (Laughs) She's just so sweet.

Kevin Cooney: Another thing for us, is because we are married and have been for a really long time, there's certain things that we don't really have to worry about. You know, there are things that are already there in place.

Theresa Nelson: For example, sometimes when I talk he does turn up the television. (Laughs)

Julia Krohn: Yeah, I agree with Uncle Kevin. Oh, Kevin and Theresa are my godparents. They are Uncle Kevin and Aunt Theresa to me. (Laughs) I agree. I think it's pretty much the same as doing any role, but there is sort of an excitement. I don't even know how to describe it, but there is something moving about knowing that this actually happened and picturing what that really must have been like. You're not just imagining it. You know that it actually happened. You know that these people actually went through this, and it gives it a little extra weight, which is fun.

Theresa Nelson: Just to be reminded that they are such real people, and they are people in pain. This show is all about hope and yearning, and they try. They all try so hard to do something to change their lives when they are all having a hard time. There's nobody in it who is just doing it for kicks. They are all desperate, and they all see this truck. It's just a truck, but it is so much more than that for all of them.

Donnie Hammond: I think that the documentary did a good job at pointing that out. I watched it on YouTube, and the caption was that people were originally thinking that it was going to be about consumerism and such. However, it really was about hope and the willpower that humans have to survive. Even doing something as extreme and something that Norma thought was kind of silly at first, we're willing, as a human being in order to survive, to go to the farthest depths of things we don't even think that we have inside of us in order to not only survive on our own but to take care of people. In this show, almost everybody is trying to do it for a family member, or this, or that, and they are really concerned about not just themselves but other people. So, to go that far for somebody else is just something else. There are parts of the show that we might laugh at and think are silly, but these were things that they really did and really experienced. It's just amazing to know that everybody thinks poor little Norma is so ridiculous, and here she is somehow pulling it out. (Laughs)

Kevin Cooney: Also, we were talking about this: the truck, for us as actors, might be a role. "If I could just get this, it might get me going. This might be a turn in all the hard times that we have all been having."

Theresa Nelson: It's a lot like A CHORUS LINE when you think of it.

Everyone: I need this job. I hope I get it.

Theresa Nelson: It's the same thing. It's just a truck, but it's the same thing as the job in A CHORUS LINE or any brass ring that is going to change things and that is going to make it okay to get to the next step. It's a killer of a show. I love it.

Donnie Hammond: Bruce Lumpkin was talking to us about this in the beginning. As actors, of course, we could look at it that way. Every time we audition for something, it's like wanting to win the truck. And, it really is true. You're like, "Okay, this next credit on my resume is a little bit better than the last, so hopefully that will get me to the next show." That's what I thought when I did IN THE HEIGHTS. I was like, "Walnut Street is finally on my resume, that's going to get me to the next one." We can all relate to that.

BWW: You are each talking a lot about how relatable these characters and their struggles are. Do you find that you relate to the specific character that you play in any way?

Julia Krohn: Yeah. I think you hope as an actor that in any role you play you will find something. Maybe often times there is not as much and you have to dig. Yeah, I don't know if maybe part of it is being from Texas.

Kevin Cooney: Yeah that's big. And, we've all been through hard times. We've all had times where we we've thought, "My gosh, how am I going to pay the rent next month? What am I going to do?" So, I think that we can relate to those situations where you're really desperate and you know that sometimes when you get behind it's like, "Man, how am I going to catch up?" I guess that we can all relate to that certainly.

Theresa Nelson: And, like you say, the Texas thing. That tug of home is all through this because we are from here. We live in L.A. now, but we come back and forth as much as we can because one of our sons and our grandchildren live here. Coming home is this huge thing. You just go around town...(looking at Kevin Cooney) where was it we had dinner the other night, Hickory Hollow? We were saying, "Oh my gosh! Our characters, JD and Virginia are all around this restaurant." You just all sound so much like home.

Julia Krohn: There's just something really special about Texas. I think it's been written well into this. It's something that you really do only know if you live here. (Laughs)

Donnie Hammond: And I'm not from here, but it feels so good to be able to help tell the story for the people who are from here because they do relate to it so much. So, even though I am not from here, it gives me more drive to want to dig into it and see how these folks do it. It means so much to them, and you can see that in the connection and how relatable these people are for the folks that are from here. It makes me want to do more, and it feels so good to be a part of it because it means so much to them, you know.

Theresa Nelson: Donnie, you're a Texan at heart. You just didn't know it. (Laughs)

BWW: Okay, last question. We know you all have to get back to rehearsal, so as we say goodbye to you, give us a quick pitch. Why should Houston audiences be excited to see TUTS Underground's Texas Premiere of HANDS ON A HARDBODY?

Julia Krohn: I think more than anything because it's TUTS Underground, pushing that forward and how important that is for Houston, not just the Hobby Center, but Houston. They are doing these special works that so many people haven't even heard of before. They brought this cast together. Even people who we didn't necessarily know before, and we're already a family. I think that makes it an incredibly special production. It's going to be a very special thing to witness, I think.

Kevin Cooney: I think it's a wonderful show and not enough people have seen it. The music and lyrics are just wonderful. I think Houston crowds are going to love it.

Theresa Nelson: They are going to love it, and my momma is going to love it. (Laughs) She's coming over from Beaumont. She's almost ninety. She'll be ninety in the fall, and she's going to be here!

Donnie Hammond: I think they should be excited to see it because it's about their home. You know, they should come because they'll be able to relate to it because it is about who they are and where they're from.

The Texas Premiere of HANDS ON A HARDBODY, produced by TUTS Underground, runs in the Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street, Houston, 77002 from June 12 to 22, 2014. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.tutsunderground.com or call (713) 558-8887.

Photo by David Clarke.

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