BWW Interview: Michael Rader of LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL at ZACH Theatre
BroadwayWorld recently asked ZACH Theatre's guest director Michael Rader, in town to direct the Austin Premiere of LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL, to give our readers a little background on him and the production, which runs April 5-30 on the Topher Stage.
BWW: Can you give our readers a little background on you?
Michael Rader: I am primarily a stage director based in NYC and the current Artistic Director of the historic Cape Playhouse in Cape Cod, MA. My diverse career in the arts has afforded me positions such as Artistic Director for Cirque du Soleil, Broadway Liaison and Arts Education Consultant to the New York City Department of Education and Director of Entertainment of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.
Growing up in the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio one might be surprised to hear that I was raised in an arts mecca. Hundreds of miles from New York City, Dayton managed to cultivate an environment rich in theatre, dance and music. Influenced by the rich tapestry the arts that I was immersed, I went on to study theatre in college earning a BFA in Musical Theatre and later a MFA in Directing. Since then my career has taken me all over world and I have worked for commercial theatre giants such as Cirque du Soleil but have also managed non-profit theatres.
Highlights as a director or associate include: A Christmas Story (National Tour), Stalking The Bogeyman (NYTimes Critics Pick, Outer Critics Circle Nomination), Varekai (Cirque du Soleil), The Testament of Mary, Deep Love (NYMF 2015), Scrooge: The Musical (National Tour), Mandela! with Norm Lewis, You are Not Alone with Betty Buckley and Lea DeLaria, productions with Sacramento Music Circus, The York Theatre Company, The Actors Studio Repertory Theatre, The Jerry Lewis Telethon, The Human Race Theatre, The Dramatist Guild, The Huron Playhouse, The Forestburgh Playhouse, Joe's Pub and the critically acclaimed Off-Broadway benefit production of William Finn's Elegies: A Song Cycle. I am a graduate of The Actors Studio Drama School MFA Directing Program and a proud alumnus of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab.
I am also passionate about and committed to finding ways of utilizing the arts as a tool to empower the lives of those less fortunate, especially children in need. It was during my initial time working with chronically ill children that I fully realized my passion for humanitarian work, especially when it involved working within the arts.
In addition to work as an actor and director, I regularly teach acting and audition technique classes in NYC and have served on the faculty of SongFest at the Colburn School in Los Angeles and The Summit School near Washington, DC.
BWW: What have been some of your favorite directing experiences and what makes them your favorites?
Michael Rader: Two productions continue to stand out as favorite directing experiences. The first was a production of The Laramie Project I reconceived for my Master's thesis at The Actors Studio. We initially produced a workshop of the show where I was able to oversee all design elements of the production - which I absolutely loved. I threw myself into the design of the show, specifically the projection and sound designs. What resulted was a production that was undeniably stamped with my esthetic and heart. When we moved onto rehearsals for the full production, it was truly remarkable to then work with a design team and a cast in such an exceptionally collaborative environment. I told everyone on the first day of rehearsals that the "best idea in the room would always win" and I encouraged collaboration from all members of the team. Everyone involved became personally invested in the storytelling and the production therefore ended up having a powerful social impact.
The second directing experience that I hold close to my heart was serving as the Associate Director for the National Tour of A Christmas Story. I grew up loving with the movie and yearly screenings were always part of my family's holiday tradition. I absolutely love the stage adaptation and think that the creators actually improved on the story in the musical version. I also got to work with some of my best and dearest friends on the show. So, each winter I look forward to coming together with my pals and putting together a very touching and humorous show. That production always makes me feel like a lucky guy.
BWW: Can you give our audience some idea of what the show is about and what to expect?
Michael Rader: Our version of LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL is intended to be a celebration and tribute into the life of Billie Holiday - one of the greatest Jazz singers of all time. Holiday certainly didn't lead an easy life. She endured violent relationships, severe poverty, rape, prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse and the persecution of being a successful and powerful black woman in an era not ready to embrace such virtues. However, instead of focusing on the negative aspects of her life, with our production we aim to highlight her legacy.
BWW: What attracted you to this work?
Michael Rader: LADY DAY is really the story of a woman who endured tremendous persecution and yet managed to rise above by expressing herself artistically. While I cannot possibility begin to imagine what it must have been like to endure a life like Billie's, I do know what it feels like to be an outsider and to channel loneliness and pain into my art. I've been attracted to Holiday's music for many years and love the story in this production. I find that it can be sometimes easy to take for granted our freedom of expression, especially in this country. We often throw around words like profound, cathartic or spiritual when it comes to describing theatre, but I challenge anyone to find a theatrical experience that is more empowering or transformative than those pieces of theatre that actively build community while giving voice to those who have no voice. That is what I strive to bring to my directing and that is what I aim to bring to this production.
BWW: What makes this show different from your standard musical?
Michael Rader: Well, for one thing, this production is really a one-woman show. The actress who plays Holiday is joined by a pianist, drummer and bass player but most of the dialogue in the show is hers. The show is a marathon of a performance. We have also designed the production to feel immersive with the set and lighting design reaching out into the audience and with additional seating onstage. The theatre now feels more like a nightclub than a traditional theatre.
BWW: I see that you've placed some audience seating on the stage to create a more immersive experience. Has this changed anything for you and the cast in terms of approaching the work?
Michael Rader: Yes, traditionally actors are accustomed to facing straight out to the audience and delivering lines this way but in our production the audience surrounds the performers. Therefore, we have had to stage the production in a manner where the actors are constantly turning to face people sitting behind them and on the sides. Initially in the rehearsal process, we focused primarily on the text and discovering the arch of the story. Once we became comfortable with how we wanted to tell the story I introduced the idea of delivering the story in an immersive and inclusive manner. I've found that when working with theatre in the round, this type of approach works best and doesn't overwhelm the actors as much.
BWW: How long has the rehearsal period been for this?
Michael Rader: We have had about three weeks of rehearsals and two weeks of previews.
BWW: Is this your first time directing in Austin?
Michael Rader: I've been to Austin before on tour with a show but this is my first directing experience here and I absolutely love Austin. Dave has built such an exceptional theatre and I am honored to have been given the opportunity to work here.