BWW Interview: Taylor Hicks, Rachel Potter, and Brian Clowdus Talk Creating a Home Run with SHENANDOAH
"This is a role that I connect with, and this is a role that makes sense. And if it makes sense, then you create that home run. I hope that's what we're able to do here with SHENANDOAH." -American Idol winner Taylor Hicks
Serenbe Playhouse has become known in Metro Atlanta for its immersive outdoor productions, and for their latest endeavor, director Brian Clowdus has recruited musical star power.
Country singers Taylor Hicks and Rachel Potter have come down South to star in Serenbe's SHENANDOAH, a musical version of the Jimmy Stewart film. American Idol fans remember Hicks as the Season 5 winner, and Broadway fans would know Potter for her roles in THE ADDAMS FAMILY and EVITA, in addition to her time as a finalist on The X Factor Season 3. This month, they are both taking the stage in rural Georgia, Hicks in his first ever leading role.
Below, check out BroadwayWorld's in-depth conversation with Hicks, Potter, and Clowdus as the stars reveal what compelled them to make their Serenbe debuts and how Clowdus uses a real Civil War reenactment to breathe new life into this "homespun" musical.
What can you tell me about the SHENANDOAH process?
Brian Clowdus: It's been going really well! This is a story about a family in the middle of this war that's trying to desperately not be a part of it, and seeing this war has just ripped them to shreds. I've been really pushing Taylor, and he's been a trooper. I told him from day one, I said, "I'm gonna treat you the same way I treat any actor in my rehearsal room, and I hope that you don't mind being pushed a little bit." I push everyone hard, because these are really hard circumstances. It's been wonderful, but it's also emotionally exhausting. That's what it takes to create art, and I firmly believe that.
Rachel Potter: I love getting to know this show! I didn't know SHENANDOAH at all prior to coming on board with Brian and the Serenbe crew. It's a really beautiful story. It's pretty emotional to relive and experience and think about what these people went through during the Civil War and what life was like back then. It's extremely timely for what's happening in the world right now today to remember the things that we have eradicated in our world and how horrific they were at one time.
It sounds like it's been an emotional process from day one, even before you got to the set outside.
RP: Right! I got really choked up when we had a dramaturg come in during rehearsals and speak to us about being historically accurate. It just broke my heart hearing what life was like for African Americans back then and also thinking about the people of color sitting in that room understanding what people that looked like them would have had to endure. It's just horrific to think that humans could ever treat each other that way, and I'm glad that we have learned from our mistakes and hopefully continue to.
So specifically for your characters, what can you tell us about how you play into the story?
RP: Anne is married to one of the brothers of the Anderson family, and she's pregnant, which is fun for me to get to play with considering I have a two-year-old and have been pregnant, so I know what that's like. Anne is basically the mother figure of the family because their mother had passed away about twelve years ago, and it's special for me to get to use my new-found mom skills on the stage, bossing people around, trying to get them to act right. She's feisty, she's forward-thinking- It's just really fun to get to play someone who I think I would have actually been like if I had lived in that time.
Taylor Hicks: As for my character, I feel like I'm becoming Charlie Anderson as each day goes by. And this is what I am really learning about in this role is to take some of the character, some of yourself, and try to meld them to create this really great lead and a really important father figure in this story. Charlie has to really be the stoic figure. He has that, kind of, "never let them see you sweat" mentality. Whatever happens, he has to keep his family together in this horrible war that his family is going through.
I come from a really strong family, and I had a father figure that kept his family together as well through some hard times, so I can empathize and sympathize with this character. But at the same time, Charlie's got a really funny, quirky, soft side to him, and I think of the character personalities that are similar to me, that's one of the big things.
It sounds like you have great connections there to the characters and the story. Brian, the press release says you're "breathing new life" into SHENANDOAH. How do you feel like you're doing that?
BC: There's a couple of ways. I think a lot of my work is really trying to put audiences as close as we can into what the environment really felt like for a story to be told. So our audience will literally walk through a Union encampment, and there will be tension between Confederate soldiers surrounding the encampment, and an actual war will break out which will ignite the musical. It's gonna give that raw terror of what it felt like to be in that time period where the threat of losing your life and your family was legitimately all around you.
And then also, we're bringing some star power to this production. With a show like SHENANDOAH that most people are not familiar with, we have to give them a reason to get in the door, so it was really important to me to have a couple of stars in the show. I was over the moon to get Rachel and Taylor involved. They're really known for being singers, so much of this story is told through song, and I didn't want it to feel like a musical in general musical terms. You're gonna see Taylor play the harmonica and Rachel play the guitar, and you're gonna see a lot of the actors playing instruments because that's the way this family communicates.
What a unique way to tell the story. And what made y'all decide to come here for this project, Rachel and Taylor?
RP: I had been very aware of Serenbe and all the cool stuff that was going on with them. So I've known about this company, and I've seen all the buzz about the awesome productions that they've done. So finally Brian and I connected, and he was gracious enough to give me a job.
TH: I have always kept my ear to the ground to roles in television, film, and theatre, and I always said I would [return to the stage] as long as the right role came along. I'm just really thankful that Brian had the belief and faith in me that I could pull it off. This is a role that I connect with, and this is a role that makes sense. And if it makes sense, then you create that home run. I hope that's what we're able to do here with SHENANDOAH.
RP: Taylor and I are both just a four hour drive away in Nashville, so it's been really fun, and honestly the community [of Serenbe] itself is so cool that I would encourage everyone all over the country to come once in their lives because it's so neat. It shows you what a little bit of imagination and being a little inventive can do in the middle of nowhere. [They've created] this community that's thriving and is so beautiful, a peaceful oasis in the midst of the country.
TH: It's so neat as a performer to be involved in such an interactive idea from an artistic perspective. It's really visionary, and it's really fun being a part of a visionary idea.
RP: And I feel like Brian reflects [the community of Serenbe] with his theatre company in that he comes up with these really inventive ideas of how to reimagine theatre and do it with things that are unlikely, creating art in the middle of the woods. He told me when he hired me, "You better be ok with using a porta-potty!" and I said, "I will!"
BC: I told her, "You may not have a dressing room, but you will have a star porta-potty!"
Oh amazing! Well, it sounds like you're having an awesome experience all-around.
TH: Everybody here in the company is top notch, and they are great teachers. They're such professionals. I really love the visceral energy that actors have, especially in this type of story where there's this much drama unfolding. And Brian is a fantastic director.
This is my first true lead in any sort of scripted performance. I toured in GREASE as Teen Angel for 18 months, and I did a couple of scripted bits where interestingly enough I was the Simon Cowell figure on LAW AND ORDER: SVU, believe it or not. But this is my first dive into tackling a big role, and I appreciate Brian for giving me the role.
Sitting down with the music and the script together [at the beginning of rehearsals], I probably looked like a deer in the headlights, like the deer around here in these Georgia woods. I kind of went into a tizzy, but the tizzy has subsided. And now it has slowly massaged into what I feel like is a really good character.
It sounds like a formula for success and a lot of fun too!
TH: I think it's great fun. I can't tell you how talented the supporting cast is and how it's really endearing to see all of these talented people on stage going after it and fighting to create this great storyline. I'm learning from them every day.
I'm so excited to see the show after hearing y'all describe all of this. It sounds like it's going to be a great journey.
RP: Well I think this is going to be worth the road trip! So if anybody feels like they want to come enjoy this beautiful community, come enjoy some theatre that will make you feel and really reflect on our history.
TH: This is a perfect run, a perfect time of year, and I'm just really excited for what it will bring. Hopefully it will bring a lot of audience members a lot of joy.
The outdoor stage will erupt out of a Civil War reenactment of more than 100 soldiers, horses and canons March 13 - April 7 in Serenbe, GA, about 30 miles outside of Atlanta. Ticket prices start at $40. Senior/student and group discounts are available. Rain Insurance is available for all tickets. All may be purchased online at www.serenbeplayhouse.com, or by calling the box office (770-463-1110), Wednesday - Sunday, 12pm - 5pm.
Rachel Potter is a beloved Broadway veteran and vocalist, whose career exploded when she became a finalist on The X Factor. She began her professional career at Walt Disney World, singing as Ariel, Belle and Nemo. She later starred on Broadway in The Addams Family, as Wednesday Addams, originated the role of the Mistress in the Tony Nominated revival of Evita, and toured as Glinda in Wicked. Some of her favorite roles she's had the honor of playing regionally: Wendla in Spring Awakening, Sophie in Mamma Mia!, and Eponine in Les Miserables.
Pursuing another dream of country music and recording arts, she moved to Nashville in 2013. Potter went on to become a Top 12 finalist on season 3 of The X Factor, earning international praise for her country rendition of Queen's "Somebody to Love." Her take on the classic tune, which has now reached over 46 million views on YouTube, is featured on her album, "Not So Black and White."
Taylor Hicks is one of the most beloved and popular American Idol winners of all time. Winning American Idol's blockbuster fifth season was just the beginning. Hailed as "part Stax, part Motown and part honky-tonk" by The New York Times, Hicks' intoxicating blend of soul, blues, country, and rock & roll quickly rendered him a household name as he progressed to the show's record-breaking finale in 2006, a historic television event which drew an audience of more than 200 million viewers.
Hicks immediately followed his Idol victory with a #1 Billboard single and an RIAA certified Platinum debut, and soon went on to make history as both the first male Idol champion featured on a Grammy-winning record (Jimmy Fallon's Blow Your Pants Off), and the first to land a prestigious Las Vegas residency. Hicks also penned a brisk-selling inspirational memoir about finding your voice and your way, Heart Full of Soul. A versatile artist, actor, and advocate, Hicks has since ventured into theatre and television with a successful run on Broadway in New York as Teen Angel in Grease, leading to a lengthy eighteen-month tour. In addition, he also appeared on "Law & Order: SVU" and hosting "State Plate," the award-winning food and travel series on the INSP television network. Hicks' passion for southern cuisine also led him back to his native Alabama, where he opened up Saw's BBQ & Juke Joint, a restaurant recently crowned one of the "25 Best Barbecue Spots in America" by Men's Journal.
After a lengthy hiatus from recording, Hicks returns in 2019 with his highly-anticipated third album, a deeply personal, roots-inspired collection recorded at Zac Brown's Southern Ground studio in Nashville with contributions from Robert Randolph, Keb Mo, and JoJo Hermann. Produced by Hicks along with Grammy-winning guitarist Bryan Sutton (Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley), the album is due out later this year and will bring Hicks back on the road for extensive touring.