BWW Interview: Carmen Cusack shares A TWIST OF LIMELIGHT for Bay Area Musicals this weekend
Tony-nominee Carmen Cusack (Bright Star, Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera) is returning to San Francisco to perform at the annual A Twist of Limelight gala for Bay Area Musicals on May 19. It marks her third recent visit following a concert for Bay Area Cabaret at Fairmont Hotel and the tour of Bright Star at the Curran. Cusack follows last year's guest star Alice Ripley in support of this community theatre company focused of producing diverse seasons of high-quality musical productions in a community that includes 42nd Street Moon and Ray of Light Theatre. Bay Area Musicals closes their current season with The Hunchback of Notre Dame which opens July 7, 2018.
RS: What influences did community theatre experience have on your development as a performer?
CC: My family didn't have a lot of time or money, so I didn't really see much theatre as a kid. The only community theatre experience that I had was my first couple of years of getting into the business when I did some work in Ft. Worth at Casa Mañana.
RS: What kind of role do you see community theatre fulfilling in the greater theatrical food chain in our country?
CC: Unfortunately, so much of the arts have been taken out of schools, so we're really gonna depend more and more on our communities putting on shows and bringing students and young people into the theatre. It's more important than ever, I believe, to have community theatre.
RS: What do you see as the importance of formal education in pursuing a performing career?
CC: Well, the funny thing is, I'll be honest with you, I only got my degree very recently from University of North Texas, and it was an honorary bachelor's degree. I never finished school. I ended up going straight into work and then the work took me to Great Britain and I stayed and performed in the West End for fourteen years. I came back and started working here and word got back to University of North Texas that I was doing really well. They got back in touch with me and then they asked if I would want to come and sing for a gala last year. So literally just a couple months ago I went and sang for them and they gave me an honorary bachelor's degree, which they'd never done before. It's the first time they've done that. Of course, education is incredibly important, but I also feel that if you're given an opportunity at a young age to do something that you're training to do and you're gonna get paid for it, that's also an education in itself. So, take what life gives you and try and learn from all the experiences.
RS: How did you feel visiting Bright Star one more time on the recent tour?
CC: It was like coming to a happy family reunion, to a bunch of people that you love and getting to play again. It's like coming to Thanksgiving and going and having a game out on the lawn. It really did feel like home. Like putting on your favorite pair of old blue jeans.
RS: That's a nice metaphor for a bluegrass musical. Now you will be going all Parisian cross-dressing glamour with Reprise 2.0.
CC: Yes. I'm very excited about that. This company went away for quite some time and they're bringing it back. They wanted to do Victor/Victoria and I've always wanted to play that role. I also enjoy being in LA. I'd rather be in the sunshine doing what I love to do.
RS: What's the appeal of Victoria Grant for you?
CC: Well, I adore Julie Andrews. I love what she did with it, but the appeal to me is to make it my own. I've always wanted to play a male character and to work around those kind of gender issues. I think I'd do a good job with it.
RS: You have two Facebook profiles. What's your take on social media and how it fits in your world?
CC: Oh gosh. Well, it's a pain in my side, if I'm honest, but I know that it seems to be what is required in my industry nowadays. It's part of the gig, I'm learning more and more but I still don't wanna sell out. I don't feel that I need to take pictures of everything I've eaten today and put it on social media. I don't need to tell people where I am from one day to the next. Also, I was never good at taking pictures. I like to take a scope of something and lock it in my memory, because pictures can never put you in that place again. So I'm kind of the same way with social media, but I know it's important to communicate with your audience and with your fans. So, I go on it more than you might think, but I do also have someone that helps me because I don't think about it as often as the rest of the world does so I have to be reminded to post
RS: I've always sensed that you're a pretty private person and so therefore it's kind of contra to your personality.
CC: It's very odd. I don't consider myself a private person, but my mother, my family are very, very private. Maybe it's just something that stuck whether I realize it or not. Deep down, I don't really understand why anybody would care to know what I'm doing from one day to the next. That might sound quite sad, but it doesn't dawn on me that people want to hear from me more. I know that that's me and my own insecurities and vulnerabilities coming out but yeah, deep down, there is a part of me that does like to keep some mystery about me. So I guess in today's day and age you would consider me a private person. Yeah. (Laughs) That's a roundabout way of answering that question. Sorry it took so long.
RS: It all works. Are you the kind of performer who feels that the job ends at the footlights?
CC: No. I feel that it's important to speak to my audience and to sign autographs and to take photos. I prefer to give hugs and handshakes to people than to just post on social media. My husband's far better at it than I am. I like to speak to people on a more personal level, face to face. I want to connect with them that way. That means something to me.
RS: So, what's burning in your brain these days? What's important to Carmen today?
CC: Um, trying to focus. I'm gonna be crazy busy, probably for two or three months now. Right now, though, I've been up to various projects. I love crafts. I love sewing. I love planting and gardening. I love also writing music. Trying to stay focused on one of those things per day is really difficult to do but I'm trying to do that every day until I have to get on a plane and the chaos starts again and everybody else wants my energy. I'm just trying to focus in on finishing projects that I started in the house and try and write one or two songs before everyone else wants me to sing their songs.
RS: For a writer it's sitting down to a - as Sondheim wrote, "a blank page or canvas" - whether it's digital or real. Where does your songwriting process start?
CC: Oh, gosh. It starts anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes it starts when I'm putting dishes in the dishwasher. Sometimes it starts when I'm running around the lake. It can happen while I'm shopping and some song is playing through the speakers and my head gears off into another melodic formula that kind of comes from that and goes somewhere else. Honestly, inspiration can be anywhere and everywhere. The trick is sitting down and finishing it. I have various scribbles of phrases I've come up with and my phone is full of several melodic interludes. Still, it's a matter of sitting down and spending a day piecing it together. That's the discipline that I need more of.
RS: My phone has a notes page called "The Land Where All Good Ideas Go."
CC: Exactly. My phone holds a lot of them.
RS: What don't people know about Carmen Cusack?
CC: Ummm...gosh that's a deep, good question. I'm not sure if I have an answer for it though. I feel like the things that are important people already know about me. I guess I'm a bit of a daydreamer and I probably have a lot of ADD. (Laughs) I'm self-diagnosing that I have ADD.
RS: Well, your earlier comment about finally finishing the things might give that impression.
CC: Yeah. (Laughs) Yeah.
RS: Do you think there's a misconception about you?
CC: Well, sometimes I get told, long after someone's gotten to know me, that they thought my initial vibe was slightly intimidating for some reason. Then when they get to know me, I'm not at all intimidating. I don't know if it's got something to do with the way I look or the way I walk into a room or... it's probably more my insecurity and my shyness, you know, on the first meeting.
RS: When we first met I didn't feel that at all, but at the Bright Star party you did seem, let's call it distracted.
CC: That was opening night of Bright Star? I was sick as a dog that night. I don't know if it was food poisoning or what is was, but I was really, really sick, and my schedule was out through the roof. I knew that I had to make an appearance, so I was really, literally like sipping 7-Up. Sorry!
RS: No! I'm sorry to hear that was the case. When you are feeling 100% do you like the meet-and-greet process? It's different from the stage door line on Broadway.
CC: It depends on the job. If the job requires a lot of singing, for instance if I were doing Wicked and I had to come up with that voice eight times a week, it can be very taxing to then be talking afterward with people and with noise. You just have to be very careful with how you go about these things. I try to be as genuine with people as I possibly can, but sometimes you have to keep those things very short and get the heck out and go to bed. Bright Star was not as taxing on me vocally, so - unless I was not well - I think that these things are great. It's nice to be able to chat with people afterward and hear what they experienced. When I have the energy I find that contact with people very educational.
A Twist of Limelight takes place on Saturday, May 19
at the Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco.
Visit bamsf.org for concert tickets and more information.