BWW Blog: Mark Price of Off-Broadway's A CHRISTMAS CAROL - Comfort Zones, Operas for Turtles, and Playlists
When first asked if I had any musical skills for this show, I said I could rock a mean triangle and kick it with the maracas, but after meeting with the gifted and saintly Mary-Mitchell Campbell (check out her organization asteponline.org), I found myself agreeing to learn how to play a large Irish drum called the bodhran. Steve Pacek, who originated the same role in Delaware last year, was kind enough to give me my first official lesson. We played with a children's drumstick in my living room until he sent me a tipper stick a few days later. His first tip was to not watch videos on YouTube for fear I'd become intimidated. I nodded in agreement, but ran to my computer as soon as he left to search for examples. A few minutes of watching these incredible musicians resulted in a deep shame spiral with the gnawing fear being found out as a complete fraud. Luckily, I could carry a handful of rhythms weeks later, thanks to the endless hours of banging out tribal drumbeats at home (apologies to my neighbors and to my cats) and the support of people like Campbell.
I've always marveled at how some actors can play instruments brilliantly, giving equal value to both their acting and musicianship skills, which is why I chatted this week with Jessie Shelton, who plays violin, and Franca Vercelloni who rocks the accordion in our show. Both are insane talents as well as being amazing individuals who I have the distinct honor of watching onstage nightly until our play closes on Jan. 4th. Here we talked about early musical influences and the pros and cons of possessing multiple artistic skills.
M.P. So you both come from crazy music backgrounds. What were your first influences?
J.S. My mom was a musician and teacher who practiced all the time. There was one day we had a violin ornament on the tree. I grabbed a pencil and started mimicking her with this tiny plastic violin. She thought, "Okay, let's give it a try." So at three and a half, I started on the smallest size, and grew from there. I used to practice two hours a day, then when I got into theater and dance, my playing fell to the wayside. But mom kept it going just enough, saying, "If you want to play a wedding once in a while for some extra cash, you'll have the ability to do that."
M.P. Smart Mom!
J.S. So here I am and now it's coming more and more into what I do.
F.V. My grandfather was an opera singer and an accordion player and he had his own radio show in central New York where I grew up. My whole family always had an appreciation for music and studied instruments ever since they were kids. I started studying piano when I was four, enjoyed it and had an aptitude for it. As I grew older, I began doing competitions and recitals. I excelled at classical piano but at the same time, I was also doing a lot of acting. I loved both for different reasons. As creative as I was able to be as an actor, I could express something I didn't know how to express otherwise as a pianist. As an adult, I realized that the musician's mind was very similar to an actor's mind, and that the preparation for both acting and music performance could be related.
M.P. Awesome, love the idea of approaching storytelling from different angles.
J.S. Yes, to add to that, I was in a pit for a musical in high school, and the only reason anyone ever talked to me in the musical was because I had been in other plays. I realized there was no respect for players in the pit, which is why I now have a higher appreciation for stagehands, designers, and everyone else. I have a broader view because I'm not just limited to one thing.
F. V. It gives you a greater sense of what has to happen for everything to come together
M.P. What was your earliest recollection of musical influences? For me it was an album of Bozo the Clown, I have little recollection of what those songs were like, but the first album I really remember was Rush's 2112.
F.V. Mine was a Woody Woodpecker album that my Mom and Aunt had when they were growing up. I loved the music and the comedy and the idea that there was this crazy radio show that people listened to instead of seeing live.
J.S. My parents had a VHS of Leonard Bernstein's Music for Early Audiences and I remember my brother saying, "I don't want to watch Lemonade Birdstock!" I also had a turtle sandbox growing up in our backyard, and according to our neighbors, I would compose quite the sandbox opera for them when I was as young as two years old.
M.P. Music for the turtles, I love it!
J.S. It's hard to recollect my earliest influences because my Dad played music all the time, and still does.
M.P. My household too, there was always music.
J.S. I loved Raffi as a kid, and did early music classes. My mother also played music when she was carrying me, so I think that had a lot to do with it as well.
F.V. Also, all the great MGM musicals growing up.
M.P. What are your views on scaling down orchestras so that actors can play instruments in shows today?
F.V. Hmm...this is a tricky question. And heavily influenced by what I was talking about earlier regarding the recent NY Times article about stagehand's salaries, and the piece in the Chicago Tribune about touring contracts. Anyone with exceptional music ability and great skills as an actor should be able to showcase both. There's no reason why actors shouldn't be doing some of those shows. If it serves the storytelling well, then it's a great outlet for multi-disciplined artists. But I think there should be a place for shows that were written to have specifically a large sound and orchestras. That's how they were written and meant to be performed. There shouldn't be any cutting corners.
J.S. I agree, people should be able to showcase themselves, but then again, there's no way to replace the sound of a full orchestra. Those are two different kinds of shows.
M.P. Any thoughts on performing Christmas shows after Christmas?
J.S. I was worried at first but I think personally, my shows have felt stronger since Christmas has passed.
M.P. I agree. The piece is pretty delicate with the relationships being the focal point. Christmas is probably one of the least important things in the show, even though it's written around the actual holiday itself.
J.S. It's the spirit that we're talking about more than the words or the day.
F. V. The themes are universal.
M.P. Yes, much gratitude to our adaptor and director for that. So Franca, you also play at Marie's Crisis piano bar downtown, does that inform what you do onstage as well?
F.V. Yes, one thousand percent. Each night when I'm there, it's about the crowd, the people, the music, and not about me, so it becomes this fantastic, crazy improvisational theater experiment. It's also been a huge acting lesson for me, it's a great character study, and I get to deal with my stage fright, which I still battle with in ways I didn't even realize. It's kind of like doing stand up comedy in a way. It provided material for my musical solo show in the NY International Fringe Festival, CLASSICALLY TRAINED, PRACTICALLY BROKE.
M.P. Love that! And Jessie, you also have a band don't you?
J.S. Yes, My friend Alex Weston put together a band recently. He's a fantastic composer. We just finished recording our first EP Kill The Weathermen. Very excited.
M.P. Okay, last question. Top three tunes that would be on your New Year's playlist this year.
M.P. Yes, I love it, and love you guys. So inspiring, thank you!