BWW Interviews: MSMT Talks FOOTLOOSE and 2014 Season
In the last of its "Peek Behind the Curtain" series, Maine State Music Theatre presented a lively talkback which highlighted the company's final production of Footloose, as well as touching on the intern program, a review of the 2014 season and a preview of the coming 2015 lineup. Broadway World local editor Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold interviewed Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark, Audience Services Manager Susie Sharp, Resident Sound Designer Colin Whitely, Footloose principal David Ruprecht, and MSMT "Angels" Judie Lemons and Bill Heaphy.
Star of Broadway, television, and film, Ruprecht, who made his debut at MSMT earlier this month Rev. Shaw Moore, shared with the audience his personal attachment to his Footloose role: "I grew up as a PK - preacher's kid- so I can really relate to Ariel's rebelliousness. I was raised to act as a perfect example to the rest of the children in the congregation, and I know that's a lot to put on a kid. I get why she is rebelling and kicking at the walls of her stall. Like my father Rev. Moore goes by the book, the Bible and he is unbending at first. I also understand his wife Vi. It's a tough job to be a preacher's wife who works tirelessly behind the scenes and doesn't get any of the glory. I saw my mother running the Lutheran school and the ladies aid society and getting none of the credit. But that's what happens when you sign on as a preacher's wife. There is a very emotional scene in Footloose when this hits home for my character. I love playing the part because it resonates so much for me."
Ruprecht also remarks that despite all his work on film and television that "there is nothing like being live on stage. You get to play the role through in sequence and develop the character. You get immediate feedback from the audience that is very gratifying." He cites the moment in Footloose when he almost slaps Ariel: "There is an audible gasp from the audience. There's nothing like that immediate response!"
Sound Designer Colin Whitely describes the challenges of creating an acoustic balance for a production and the particular hurdles of the short tech time-frame. "We have literally about five hours to figure out the sound system and the mikes and to work with the orchestra and cast on stage. In Footloose, for example, there are twenty-seven miked actors on stage and eight orchestra musicians, and it's my duty to find the balance and make them all sound good." When queried about the difference soundscapes for a rock show like Buddy Holly or Footloose and a legitimate Broadway ambiance like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, he replies that the chief difference is about volume. "Footloose has a grittiness; it's like listening to a record, while Seven Brides has to have a natural, flowing sound. And Buddy Holly was the loudest show I have ever done. We treated it like a rock concert on stage."
Both Whitely and Ruprecht respond to audience questions about the impact sound technology and miking have made to musicals over the years. Whitely says: "Technology has changed so much over the years. I am twenty-seven years old, and I have trouble keeping up!"
Ruprecht recalls the days when actors were not miked and had to rely on projection alone. "I have had to learn not to project so much because it is in my DNA as an actor. Colin adjusts my mike accordingly, and when I do have a really quiet scene like the emotional one at the end of the play, I can do it softly and Colin is on his buttons and makes it happen."
Footloose, which opened August 7 and closes August 23, has been playing to virtually sold out houses, and the response has occasioned MSMT to add a Saturday matinee on August 23rd. Asked to assess the past season, Curt Dale Clark says he is most pleased about "having a season that didn't have a blockbuster show like LES MISERABLES or Mary Poppins (of the previous year) and turning it into a blockbuster season. Proving that we are capable of doing that and seeing that the audience is willing to come out and support titles that may not be blockbusters has been wonderful."
Susie Sharp continues the thought, explaining why she thinks MSMT has been so successful with its subscribers and patrons. "To me subscribers are part of the family. I find our patrons like to see the shows whether they know them or not because they know us. I have a conversation with our ticket buyers. I tell them even if they have seen it before, they haven't seen us do it, and if they seem reluctant, I suggest to them 'How do you know you won't like it if you haven't seen it?'"
Clark chuckles appreciatively, adding: "I have seen her do this. She is amazing!"
Sharp continues talking about MSMT's philosophy of audience services. "I believe it is important to staff my box office with people who love MSMT, who love theatre and this community. To get a friendly human voice on the phone - someone who will walk you through your choices and be attentive to individual patrons' needs - is extremely important to us. We need the support of these patrons who are like a family to us. We can't do it without them, and we give them four wonderful shows to look forward to each year."
Clark corroborates Sharp's statement about the patrons and subscribers, describing them as "investors" in the company whose opinions he values. He says that his goal for 2015 "is to set a subscription record, and we will do that," he promises.
The theme of family has been one which has come up over and over again in these talkbacks this summer. This conversation sheds some more light on one of the programs which admirably illustrates MSMT's nurturing commitment. Judie Lemons and Bill Heaphy, "Angel" volunteers talk about the satisfaction of working with the interns the company engages for the summer. "The greatest part is getting to know the young people," Lemons says. "They are so inspirational talent-wise and such wonderful people. We offer them the opportunity to have an "angel," someone who can take them under their wing, show them Brunswick, help when needed."
Heaphy expands on that thought by talking about the opportunity his volunteer efforts in organizing transportation for the actors and crew has been rewarding to him personally as well. He tells the anecdote of picking up last season's Eponine, Manna Nichols, and taking her to the grocery store for some supplies. When Nichols discovered that Heaphy was retired Air Force, she shared that she had been USO, and together the two proceeded to sing the Air Force song in Hannaford. "It was a very emotional moment," he recalls.
Clark praises the interns who have worked so tirelessly this and every summer. "When we do special events like, they are working round the clock, on the main stage productions and rehearsals and then on their own shows. If you saw Little Mermaid or Godspell, those were testaments to their heart, drive, and talent." Board President Ed Bradley adds that the production and administration interns deserve recognition, too, though they are not as visible to audiences.
Asked to look ahead to the coming season, Clark goes on to explain to the audience the complexities of programming a season, how the legalities of rights, options, and resident stock contracts all contribute to making the casting-programming process a puzzle like a "shell game." Asked by a spectator if there are aspects of his job about which he may be less than enthusiastic, he replies without hesitation: " Of course there are parts that are not fun, but overall, I love it so much that wild horses couldn't drag me away!"
His assertion is greeted with appreciative audience applause and prompts Ruprecht to pose his own question to the audience: "Do you realize how incredibly wonderful and special this company is? I can't see a parallel to any other company in the country where Patti [his wife, Patti Colombo] and I have worked - for their talent, production values, and for the way they treat their actors like gold. That is why you get the caliber of talent you have here," he concludes realizing he has answered his own question.
The panel's and audience's enthusiasm prompts my wrap up question: "Since the season is at an end, what special something will each panelist take away from his/her summer experience?" The heartfelt answers pour out spontaneously. Susie Sharp sets the tone by describing her first encounter with MSMT and her ensuing love affair: "I grew up near NYC in a family who loved musicals, and my parents took us to Broadway regularly. When I moved to Maine as an adult, I felt sad because I thought I would not be able to give my kids that privilege. I was afraid I would find natural beauty, but not all the cultural things your soul needs. Then I found MSMT. MSMT found its way into my heart and changed the whole face of my family's life in Maine," says Sharp who has been a longtime subscriber, Board member and past President before her current administrative position. "There is nothing that makes me happier now than seeing people bring their children to the theatre."
Colin Whitely talks about his connections to the Brunswick community, where his parents own a home: " I live in NYC, but I have been coming to Brunswick since I was thirteen, and it was MSMT which inspired me to my profession. This is a family; we come together and create something beautiful."
Bill Heaphy and Judy Lemons, who live in the community, talk of the rewards of the season and their association with MSMT. Heaphy says that by ushering he and his wife get to see a production as often as they like, and "I take home a deeper insight. Every time I see it, I find something new."
Lemons adds that in the four years she has been an "Angel" she has learned so much about theatre, and one of her cherished thrills is being able to bring her granddaughter to MSMT productions.
David Ruprecht calls his and Patti Colombio's experience at MSMT "life-changing. We have made lasting friends, and I hope to be able to come back here."
Curt Dale Clark encapsulates the sentiments with a nod to his parents, who are in the audience. "I am a farm kid from Pecatonica, Illinois, but my mom and dad saw to it that I got to go to the Broadway series in Rockford, and that led me to my profession. I am thrilled that MSMT can do this for our community. Stephanie [Dupal, Managing Director], the staff, and I are totally committed to keeping this theatre solvent and making it the best it can be for this community, and we will do that!"
"A Peek behind the Curtain" series will be reprised in summer 2015, and dates will be announced with MSMT's communications in the spring.
Photo courtesy of Missy Patterson