BWW Interviews: A Peek Behind the Curtain at MSMT
On June 13, 2014, Maine State Music Theatre inaugurated the first of a new series of talkbacks, called "A Peek Behind the Curtain," designed to share with its audiences the ingredients which go into putting together a successful theatre season. Broadway World local editor, Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, was invited to interview a panel comprised of actors, creative and administrative team members from their current show, The Buddy Holly Story, after which the floor was opened to the audience for questions. The event, held at the Curtis Memorial Library, drew a large and enthusiastic crowd, and the exchange was informative, entertaining, and in many ways, an inspiring tribute to the work the company does and to the theatrical profession these artists hold dear. The panelists were Stephanie Dupal. MSMT Managing Director, Kyle Melton, Props Master, Matthew J. Riordan, who plays Niki Sullivan and Tommy Allsup; Lore Eure who portrays Vi Petty, and Chari Burdick, Secretary of the MSMT Angels, a volunteer support group for the theatre.
Dupal talked about the practical and artistic merits of a shared production with the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA, explained the casting process which she and Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark engaged in this past March, and waxed eloquent about the company's intern program, which she called "an amazing group of young adults who hope for a career in theatre and work incredible hours doing a little bit of everything". She cited Buddy Holly cast member Sam Weber who had been an MSMT intern and returned this year to play Cricket Joe B. Maudlin, as one of many alumni who have gone on to successful Broadway and regional careers.
Burdick talked about the "vital support the volunteer "Angels" provide," enumerating their many tasks which include picking up the cast and creative team from the airport or train or bus, "wiping sleep from our eyes and taking them to their housing or the grocery store or wherever they need to go," as well as putting up posters through the Midcoast area, ushering at performances, and providing meals for the company during strike weekend and tech. "The volunteers show their love for this company by giving their time and effort without ever getting paid a dime," she emphasized.
Melton provided insight into the way he runs his five-person prop department as well as the tight, rigorous production schedule for this and every show. He defined his job as Props Master as "Jack of all trades, master of all. We have to match the amazing museum caliber of work that comes from the scenery and costume shops. The collaboration among the departments pushes us to excel." He also talked about recreating the period ambiance for Buddy Holly, disguising instruments such as a modern keyboard in a 50s console and creating the illusion of early speakers, amps, and wired microphones. He said in this show, "the instruments play roles as important as those of the actors; they become extensions of the actors themselves," such as the bass which Sam Weber stands on and dances with "like a human partner. In the cast's hands they are powerful things; they have a life of their own." He summed up his enthusiasm for the show by saying, "I love the era! I wish I could build it all. The way the actors fall in love with the music, I fall in love with the 'stuff.'"
Both Matthew J. Riordan and Lore Eure talked about their introduction to and fascination with Buddy Holly's music. Despite being from a much younger generation, Eure said "my mother was a huge Buddy and Motown fan, so I grew up harmonizing to this music, and at five years old I'd be singing That'll Be the Day and Rave On." She said that when she first played Vi Petty in 2005, she "got to fall in love with the music all over again." Moreover, the role allows her to play several of the instruments on which she is proficient: the trumpet and keyboards (disguised here as a celeste).
Riordan said he came to Buddy Holly's music when he first was cast in the show, but that "as I started playing the songs, I fell in love with the music, and four years later, I still love every second of Buddy's music." He also talked about the challenge of "recreating a legendary sound within the confines of a character and a play. I had played guitar for about ten years, but when I undertook this role, I had to go back and break down the 50s and 60s sound. I had to learn about the Crickets' style of playing because Buddy and his musicians were such great innovators. Fortunately, there is You Tube and Paul McCartney's documentary to help you do your homework." He cited as an example the fact that Buddy used his pick in "a lot of down strokes," so I had to go back and learn to do that." And both actors stressed that though they were portraying historical musical legends, they could not allow their performance to become impersonation.
Perhaps the most inspiring set of replies came to an audience question which asked the panel about the risks of a theatrical career. With parental concern, the gentleman talked about his wife's exhortation to their daughter that she needed "to minor in something which would buy groceries." The query struck a chord with all the panelists, who each replied in turn:
Riordan: Like your daughter, I went to school for musical theatre, and my family worried, too. I had a moment at school where I thought about having a backup plan, but at the same time, I realized you can't have one. You have to go all in or not. There are times when my work is not on the stage; waiters and bartenders in NYC are usually actors. We audition by day and bartend at night. We make it work. It's not an easy lifestyle, but it is an enjoyable one. I get to do what I love and get paid for it.
Eure: I got a BFA in musical theatre and a minor in dance. My parents knew I was stubborn; from the age of five, I told them I wanted to move to NYC and have this career. And it is not an easy career. The competition is intense, and you have to have a tough skin to survive, but I don't know what else I would want to do, and I hope I never have to figure that out!
Melton: The same holds true for the tech people. Everything I build or do has a real application. I began by acting, but when I took a design class as an undergrad, I suddenly said to myself, 'This is cool! I built that!' I was almost crying because I could see and touch what I had contributed. After that I stepped off the stage and decided my calling was in tech. I could make the actors and the production look better, and I had a portfolio of tangible evidence of my work. To stay in this industry we all love, you have to find your niche. Passion lives equally on both sides of the footlights, and that is why here at MSMT we have such a harmonious workplace.
Dupal: I never acted, but my parents brought me to musicals and plays when I was a child. I have a degree in math and before coming to MSMT I taught high school and college and sold cars. I came to MSMT to keep their books and now twenty-one years later, here I am. Everyone in this company comes to work because they love it. I am absolutely so happy to have this job and work with these incredibly talented people and be part of what is so special on stage. The people who work at MSMT - and in the theatre - do it because that is what is in their souls to do. They do it because they love it.
Burdick, echoing the sentiments and offering her perspective as a community member, perhaps summed up the emotions most vividly when she said, " We are the luckiest town around to have a theatre of the caliber of MSMT. I hope everyone knows how fortunate we are! "
Her remarks were greeted with fervent applause.
Additional Talkbacks in the series will be July 2 (Chamberlain), July 23 (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), August 20 (Footloose) at the Curtis Memorial Library, 23 Pleasant St., Brunswick, ME.