A Talent for Artistry: An Interview with Judy Blazer

By: Jul. 27, 2006
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Teachers are sometimes great artists, but it's even less common for an artist to be a great teacher. Judy Blazer, whose 25-year performing career most recently led her to the Mitzi E. Newhouse stage as one of the repressed brood of Bernarda Alba, is the Artistic Director and an instructor at Artist's Crossing. The actress speaks of the program and of her students with such fierce love, commitment and wisdom that it seems inconceivable that the young artists would not be up at the first peal of their alarm clocks, racing out the door to begin the day.

Shepherded by Blazer and staffed by numerous other noted theatre professionals called "Crossing Guards," the program will be moving to New York for its third year, after two successful seasons in Dayton, Ohio. But the philosophy behind it will not change. Blazer, who co-founded Artist's Crossing with Joseph Bates and Landon Scott Heimbach, believes in fostering not just the acting, singing and dancing talents of a young performer, but in helping him or her to develop as a well-rounded artist and human being.

It was Blazer's parents who instilled this belief in her, and she credits both as being the guiding spirits behind Artist's Crossing. The daughter of an Italian mother and Polish-Jewish father, she was raised in a big Victorian home in Montclair, NJ…or rather an artist's colony. After meeting during WW2, her parents—both musicians—moved to America and turned the house into a "24/7 convention center," as Blazer describes it. "It attracted artists from around the world—there was music and art, theatre and dance." Growing up in a haven of art and music also gave Blazer a sense of happiness and security: "It was absolutely magnificent, I felt so safe and creative in that house growing up…I guess Artist's Crossing is my way of recreating that!"

She says that Artist's Crossing was a dream of her father's, and is grateful that he lived to see its first year of success. "He's still with me on my shoulder, I gotta tell you. In fact, we have a Walter Blazer Scholarship Fund that we want to get in…My dad was a humanist, and really showed me how much we can do as artists, how much we can give, how much we can learn and create and express ourselves." He also taught them the value of fundraising.

The man for whom the Blazer family raised money was none other than Albert Schweitzer, a man as renowned for his humanitarian work in Africa as for his scientific achievements…and for his talent as an organist specializing in Bach. Blazer and her brother—also a musician—would donate birthday money to Schweitzer's organizations, as well as to his famed Lambaréné hospital in Gabon. The Blazer siblings got into the habit of corresponding with the well-tempered genius, and soon her father made the serendipitous discovery that Schweitzer's goddaughter lived in Montclair. The Blazer family, along with the goddaughter, began mounting Bach/Schweitzer chamber concerts (with Judy on violin), with the proceeds sent to Lambaréné.

Blazer says of the concerts, "It just gave me this awareness of what art can do…socially, humanistically, politically, as well as creatively, and how all the art forms really merge together." Her founding of Artist's Crossing was also motivated by a formative childhood experience involving her piano teacher mother. "My mother was teaching a little girl to play some Debussy. There was a Renoir painting, and she was attempting to show the little girl what French impressionism looked like in the painting, making a comparison between the painting and how the colors were diffused, how Debussy's was a sort of misty, soft, diffused sound like the rushing of water, and then she had the little girl learn a few words in French to show her how fluid the language was." A day after the girl went home, Blazer's mother received a phone call from the girl's father, who chastised, "Mrs. Blazer, I pay you to teach my daughter the piano. Stop trying to teach her about life." The actress finds that in a commerce-driven world, art and life are excessively separated.

She elaborates: "So I began creating a place that I could leave behind, where I could die and know that I'd cultivated a center where artists can go, young and old, to regain a connection to their original purpose…to the spirtuality in creating, to an exchange in crafts and techniques and beliefs, and the older artists would regain incredible renewal from the younger artists, and the younger artists would have their thirst quenched by being so filled with information and perspective from older artists. In art, we need parents, we need mentors…and I so enjoy this position in my life as I prepare to turn 50…being able to parent young artists and guide them, even in terms of way of life."

Artist's Crossings had its origins in Dayton, Ohio, where due to the generosity of Human Race Theatre Company artistic director Kevin Moore, the program was able to work out of the company's Loft Theatre for a week during the last two summers. Blazer says that the space was "like a little home," complete with three-quarters-thrust theatre, and sitting and eating areas. Bates, who used to teach at Wright State University, would often invite Blazer to the school, where she became a friend and mentor to many of the students.

Blazer says that a move to New York is a natural progression. "Since the students were all nearby, I figured their interest was great, I already had their respect and love, so that was a great way to start the school. A lot of the kids from NYU—I used to teach there--came out, and it was easier to have the bulk of the student body nearby and the rest were housed in student apartments. Now I realize most of these Wright State kids are coming to NYC and I'm branching out in NYC as a teacher…it's where I live, it's where I perform."

This year, Artist's Crossing will take place at the Barrow Group Theatre. Seth Barrish, the Barrow Group's co-artistic director, is a close friend to Blazer, and she is grateful for his opening the theatre to the program; Blazer says that the space has an inviting blend of spaciousness and intimacy that's similar to the one back in Dayton. Barrish will also be one of this year's Crossing Guards; he joins a distinguished cast of educators that also includes director and LightBox artistic director Ellen Beckerman, conductor/musical director Laura Bergquist, actor/director/writer Landon Scott Heimbach (a co-founder of the program and its executive director), actress/director Kathryn Morath, actor/singer/pianist Christopher Stephens and actress/singer Sally Nystuen Vahle.

She's also lined up an impressive roster of talent to take part in the inaugural Broadway Panel Discussion. Mary Testa (See What I Wanna See), David Garrison (Wicked), Mary Mitchell Campbell (musical director and orchestrator for Broadway-bound production of Company), Martin Moran (Spamalot, author of The Tricky Part) and three-time Tony Award-winning set and costume designer Tony Walton (Oscar-winner for All That Jazz, Emmy-winner for Death of a Salesman) will serve as Master Tutors for the young artists this year. Blazer says that she'll be among friends; she performed in Titanic with Garrison and Moran, and went to Russia with Mitchell Campbell. She and Testa will soon be performing in a cabaret that she describes as "a musical theatre creation of our own" in September in Union Square.

Blazer also mentions that this year's Artist's Crossing will feature the addition of four new classes: "Metamorphosis of Vocal Style," "Improvisational Approach to Text and Character" "Flexibility and the Voice" and "Acting for Film & TV." "I keep designing new courses every year so that the people who come back don't have to repeat the same thing…they can approach it the same way, free-style, but keep being given information," she explains.

It's not surprising that students do return to Artist's Crossing. Blazer says that although the rate of progress varies from student to student, it's usually "tremendous…I notice it in a week. Because the experience proved itself to be so life-changing for all of us…the exchange between younger and older artists was so powerful, and I try to invite people that are very much of a grassroots way of exploring art, never coming at it from commerce. Although young people are very interested in knowing how to apply these skills."

She feels that the word "skills" should be as plural as possible, and that versatility and diversity are the goals for which young performer should aim. "For one, I think it's extremely important that they don't see themselves as a 'musical theatre performer,' but rather as artists, because the more rounded they are, the more they will be open to varying projects in the arts...look at Sweeney Todd, look at Company, look at shows that are requiring their actors to play instruments, look at these avant garde ways of working, different styles of musical theatre, from the most classical to Light in the Piazza to the most pop…," says Blazer, who incidentally, helped Adam Guettel with the Italian lyrics used in the score of Piazza.

"I believe the greatest thing for a musical theatre performer is to be able to do straight theatre, or to be able to do concerts. Certainly, to be able to do things like industrials, which bring in the money…those are all kinds of different kinds of chops, and I think that is one of the best ways for a musical theatre artist." Yet she also believes that a young performer should avoid becoming "artistically schizophrenic," and focus on "having a strong core that makes you an individual….a lot of that is spiritual or philosophical or just human."

Blazer's creative palette has certainly never been monochrome. She explains, "When I was teeny-weeny I started with the piano, and when I was eight, I started with the violin, and I said I would never be a singer…that's what my parents do, I would never do that. But it was impossible, just impossible…eventually the voice took over from the violin and I think the reason was that secretly, I longed to become an actress." The flames of her rising ambition were fanned by none other than Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich. The acting couple ran the Whole Theatre Company in Montclair, and Blazer babysat their children in her early teens. "They gave me a lot of advice and inspired me…between them and my parents, I think what I secretly wanted to do was be an actor, all my life."

Deciding to put her dreams to action, Blazer dropped out of high school in her junior year to enroll in the Manhattan School of Music, where her father was a member of the faculty. She performed in operas in Manhattan, and for a while after, lived in Italy—her mother's homeland. "I came back to New York, and I was way too young to have an opera career. I was like 20 or 21…so through friends in opera who were morphing into theatre, I started trying that." It was a smart career move, and Blazer was soon after cast as Luisa in Off-Broadway's The Fantasticks.

Blazer, who performed at Goodspeed after her foray at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, was then drafted into the world of soap opera. For three years on "As the World Turns," she played Ariel Aldrin Dixon Donovan, who she describes as a "real schemer-wheeler-dealer-bad girl." She says, "I didn't like the fact that there were characters who were so, you know, amoral…I thought she was one-dimensional. I sort of softened her by making her very comedic." Although audiences ate it up, the styles just didn't mesh. "I practically turned it into a sitcom character, which kind of ran its course, because sitcom characters don't work on daytime!" Although Blazer doesn't much care for the medium, she admires the "skill and technique" of actors who work on soaps, and thinks daytime can effectively broaden an actor's range. During her time on "As the World Turns," she found that her favorite experiences were "making a buttload of money" and playing the wife of Larry Bryggman, who she calls "one of the greatest treasures of our theatrical community."

After her soap opera stint, Blazer performed in regional shows before making her Broadway debut in 1989 in Me and My Girl. Since then, she's been consistently busy as a performer, regionally and in New York. Her last major musical in New York was Michael John LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba, a musical based on Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba which received strongly mixed reviews when it played Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre earlier this year. Blazer is decidedly on the side of those who found it a striking and powerful work of art. 

She also feels great admiration for both LaChiusa and for Graciela Daniele, who regularly collaborates with LaChiusa and who directed and choreographed Bernarda Alba. "I've known Michael John for a long time in a lot of ways, and I think he's a genius. I have so enjoyed working with him and am fortunate enough that more often than not when I've done his work, it's with Graciela Daniele. I find the two of them to be a miraculous combination, and she is absolutely one of my greatest role model…she's phenomenal, what she draws from the soul of each performer. And I believed so much in the piece." 

In the show, Blazer played Magdalena, one of five daughters stifled by sexual repression inside the austere house of the title character. Of the listless Magdalena, who channels her frustration into her housework as a seamstress, Blazer says, "She was grossly resigned to this painful existence…once in a while, she'd spew out something really mean to one of her sisters, like a boiling pot of water underneath, mostly which she masked. And as things got progressively worse in the household, she began sleeping more and more and more…which is what people do when they're depressed.  I added some things, personally, to the character, which allowed me to connect to my sisters…which was a great caring about each of them."  Blazer, who felt much empathy for Magdalena, speaks of her fellow cast members with lavish praise, as well. She quips of Bernarda Alba's cast—which also included Phylicia Rashad, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Sally Murphy--"If these girls were ruling the country, we wouldn't be at war!" 

Since Me and My Girl, Blazer has appeared on Broadway in three other shows—including the musical A Change in the Heir and Neil Simon's 45 Seconds from Broadway. She's perhaps best known, though, for her work as 2nd class passenger Caroline Neville in the 1997 Maury Yeston musical Titanic—an experience that she recalls as both emotionally stressful and thrilling. 

Blazer says, "There was a lot against the show, and unfortunately, I was the recipient of a lot of the painful abortions that took place. My character was leading lady of the show and everything that I had virtually was cut. A whole scene and song was cut and that was very hard…also because of the way it was done. That sort of thing is never easy but it evolved in a rather unpleasant circumstance, and it was very painful. But just like everything else, it was a learning experience for me to be in a piece and not be a leading lady, to be much more of an ensemble and to draw strength just from being onstage with other human beings and telling a story. And such an extraordinary story!"  

There were 43 other human beings onstage in the big budget musical about the famous doomed voyage, and Blazer remembers that a terrific rapport was formed between them—"It was some of the most gifted people in the industry, all of them—it was like a giant rep company. We even had a little rep company that did little things, projects, and we'd call ourselves the Floating City. It was a phenomenal group of people and a very bonding experience." Many of Titanic's cast—which also included such performers as Victoria Clark, Michael Cerveris and Brian D'Arcy James—went as a group to see the blockbuster movie (which was released at around the same time that Titanic opened). "It supported our work so much because of that visceral aspect, it allowed us to see pictures that we had to create with our own mind, so it enhanced our work, I think," she recalls. 

Currently, Blazer is taking part in the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah; the actress has frequently performed at Sundance, and once even played Funny Girl's Fanny Brice in a regional production there. She is playing the mother of Robert Petkoff's character in a workshop of the Steven Lutvak-Robert L. Freedman musical Kind Hearts and Coronets, which she says has "a phenomenal cast." Also in the reading are Judy Kuhn, Nancy Anderson and Raul Esparza, who like Alec Guiness in the film on which the musical is based, is juggling eight comic roles. She's also involved in a workshop of Melissa James Gilbert's play Current Nobody, which is a modern adaptation of The Odyssey that is still very much in the developmental stage.  And then in early August, she'll set off for New York to prepare for three intensive days of Artist's Crossing from August 4th through August 6th. 

Yet she plans to enjoy the serenity of Utah before returning to the exciting chaos of Manhattan. "This mountain is like home to me, it's a wonderful, wonderful place where you forget about commerce, competition--you know--the madness. You look at that mountain and you realize how unimportant you are in the scheme of things. You're just here to serve creation and that's the kind of vibe that inspired the Artist's Crossing," says Blazer, whose dedication to and delight in performing will no doubt continue to illuminate the lives of her students.

Visit www.artistscrossing.com for more information on Artist's Crossing.

The Broadway Panel Discussion--featuring Testa, Garrison, Mitchell Campbell, Moran and Walton--will take place at the Barrow Group on Sunday, August 6th from 6 to 8 PM.  A limited number of general admission seats are available for $25.  To reserve, call 212-561-0366. Payments, in cash or check, can be made at the door.

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