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Interview: Joanna Gleason of OUT OF THE ECLIPSE at 54 Below May 30 & 31

"I think it's the storytellers that keep us going."

Interview: Joanna Gleason of OUT OF THE ECLIPSE at 54 Below May 30 & 31

Joanna Gleason is a storyteller. The singing actress has been using her innate skills and her professional training to tell stories for some time, and with great success. One of the most beloved actresses in the business, Gleason has spent her life looking for new stories to tell and new ways to tell them, and recently the Tony Award recipient found a brand of storytelling that really resonates with her: writing and directing films. With two films in the can, Joanna Gleason had the happy opportunity to accept an invitation to appear at 54 Below in her greatly-praised show OUT OF THE ECLIPSE, her most personal club act to date.

Out of The Eclipse had a series of performances at Feinstein's pre-pandemic and then went out on the road before the lockdown, garnering for Gleason a strong reaction from a dedicated fanbase that continues to praise the musical cabaret. Now, a new batch of fans can be created, when Joanna returns to Feinstein's/54 Below with two performances on May 30 and 31, including a live stream event on the last day of May.

As Joanna makes her final preparations and rehearsals for her opening night on Memorial Day, she was kind enough to spend a few minutes on the phone with Broadway World Cabaret talking about this intimate show, the importance of storytelling, and the feeling she gets when the art form includes family.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

(Editor's note: the black and white photo of Joanna Gleason at 54 Below used in this article is not from Out Of The Eclipse.)

Hello, Joanna Gleason! How are you today?

I'm really well. We just went for a three-mile walk, and I thought, "I can't do this"... and then, of course, I can. And that's always a good thing to know.

It's nice to know that you can actually do what you thought you couldn't,

Yeah, which I seem to be putting myself through, routinely, these days. (Laughing)

How's your family?

They're wonderful, thank you. My son, Aaron, is doing a show for 54 Below - he is writing it now. They asked him to, and I'm gonna direct it and he's over the moon. And Chris is beautiful and all the other nine grandchildren are fine and the kids are good. I can't complain about anything else when I do that checklist.

You know, people say to me in the morning, when they walk into the gym where I work, they say, "How are you?" I say it's a great day, and when they want to know why, I say "I woke up."

Exactly. Let's start there.

So, we are here today for Broadway World, talking about your upcoming show at 54 Below, Out Of The Eclipse.

Yes.

Which you have done in this club previously, but not in a very long time.

You know, we did it at 54 Below... we did two two-nighters over the course of a few months, and then I took it to a big theater here in Connecticut at Fairfield University, a gorgeous theater, and then we went to Los Angeles and played the Renberg, which is part of an LGBTQ gay community center, there. That was in February of 2020, and we flew home, and about 10 minutes later, everything shut down. So, that's the last time we did it; the last time I've been with my band and my singers and all of us together has been exactly when the pandemic started.

Oh my gosh. Is this your first live performance back with anything? Or have you done some work?

I did a reading. I did a Symphony Space Short Story. I did a reading of a new play for an audience, and I got to be the narrator for the Anyone Can Whistle Sondheim night at Carnegie Hall - that was pretty thrilling.

I remember. I'm ashamed to say that I wasn't able to go.

Well, don't be ashamed. It was wonderful fun, I felt safe the whole time because the protocols were all in place, and that's a big thing with me now: if the protocols are in place, I'll show up.

I missed it because I had to work, because "girl's gotta eat."

Girl's gotta eat.

So, two years later, is the show still in your bones? I mean, you did write it.

I did write it - the show's in my bones, but I'll tell you something: Stephen, it feels different now because of everything we've all been through. And so I wondered, is it time? They asked for it - 54 Below asked, specifically, for it. There have been tiny modifications, a line here, a line there, taking out a this or a that, but there's a slight nod to, without evoking the pandemic, just about how we feel like we were part of another time, the last time we did this, and it seems like a lifetime ago. It is about memory and it is about loss and, as you know, it's very funny and there are funny stories in it and a lot of music, but it feels different to put it back together again. We're so grateful that we get to. Yes, it is still in my bones and I feel much more relaxed about it now since we've toured with it and we know it so well. I just feel ready to tell people a story, to just take them someplace for a night.

Interview: Joanna Gleason of OUT OF THE ECLIPSE at 54 Below May 30 & 31
Joanna Gleason in Out Of The Eclipse

I think I've seen every nightclub act you've done, and when you create a new show, it's very personal, unique, and individual, but this was especially personal. Was the process different writing about this journey with Monty and Marilyn than it was with your previous shows?

Yes, it was because I felt an obligation for the first show, since I had never done a cabaret show, never done anything that was a solo show, I felt an obligation to be autobiographical and reference the shows I've done, and sing songs from the shows I've been in, and bring people up on stage who've worked with me because I felt obliged to. I enjoyed that first show. It was personal and it was revealing in some small ways, but this one was a process. This was me processing what had happened, and this was remembering; I had enough distance between the event of losing them and doing the show, so that I thought, "You know what, now I can tell this story and remember all these things about them," because they tie together with my own place in life, my own age, and what's next, and how do we remember people, and how do we keep those people alive? I keep my mother and father alive in this show by inhabiting them in these funny stories or in some of the other stories too. So, for me, enough time had passed that I could talk about them.

You have been a storyteller your whole life.

It's rue.

And always in an evolutionary path, trying new things, stage, film, television, cabaret. When did you first sit down and begin writing?

I think I started writing about 20 years ago. It was before we moved back to the East Coast; Chris and I met during Nick & Nora and when that just tanked (like a major tankage of a show) we moved back to LA, and in all the time there we were productive - both of us. We had a nice house and we had friends and my family was there and something inside me was just withering and I started writing then. I started writing a screenplay and I wrote a novel and I wrote another, and then everything went into a drawer. Then we moved back East, which was the best thing we've ever done, and we started working so much that I eventually opened this drawer and took out some things and thought, you know what, I'm happier writing and directing than I am, lately, acting. You act because that's your livelihood and because there have been some great jobs to do. Then there have been some that I just thought, "Ugh, why did I feel I had to do that?" Well, because I had to do that, but wouldn't I be happier behind the camera or writing? And I really took a dive into it, and the good news is that last September and October (with all our protocols in place) I shot a feature film that I wrote. It's in post-production now. And I made a short film a year before that. These are two of the greatest experiences I've had professionally. Now, look: is the greatest, greatest? You have to say -being in a Sondheim show, being in Into The Woods and winning a Tony, and being in Stephen Karam's play (Sons of the Prophet) and all the stuff I've gotten to do that has been shiny and wonderful - I wouldn't trade it for anything. But something about directing these movies was using everything I know.

What's the next step for the films? Will we get to see them?

Yes, you will. The short is, right now, being submitted to festivals. The feature, which is also gonna be submitted, is right now finishing score and sound design, and just the things that are done in the lab that make it look unified and whole, and the colors perfect. So that's where it is now: at the end of the process of putting it together.

Do you think that the process of writing and directing films is more satisfying because it all originates with you, you are the writer, you are the director, you are driving the train. Do you think that's one of the reasons why it's more satisfying?

Yeah, it's very satisfying. I've worked with some of the greatest people as an actor. I've worked with some of the greatest writers and directors of our time, alive and those who have passed on, but this is where I get to guide the narrative. This is where I get to say "This is the story I wanna tell, and this is how I want to tell it." And I love actors. There's something about directing actors which is very satisfying because I know what they're feeling. (Laughing) I know what they're thinking. I know what I've always wanted, from having been directed by some of the best. I know how I was treated by them and that I wanna pass that on. Plus, you have 50 people who are brilliant at what they do: costumes, lighting, art direction. My DP, Gabe Mayhan, he did the short and the feature with me.. you have everybody coming to you going, "How about this? How about this? How about this? How about this?" And everybody is doing their best and you just get to stay fabulous. This is even more than I could conceive of. I like collaboration.

Is that a lot of pressure, having everybody come to you that way?

Nawww, I LOVE it. You answer a hundred questions a day. I love it. And if you're wrong, you go, "You know what? I was wrong. Let's do this."

Is there a chance that Out Of The Eclipse might transition into something on film?

I would like very much - my dream would be... there is an audio recording, a beautifully mastered audio recording of the night that we did in Los Angeles. It's not out on any platform yet, we have to decide what to do with it, but my dream would be to have a black box theater with audience on three sides, and a few cameras, and have some director I love (I've got five of them in my mind) come in and we record it with a live audience.

You have had the chance to perform with almost all of your family, you and Aaron perform together. You and Chris have worked together. What is that like, getting to make this kind of art with a loved one?

Well, you have a wavelength, you have all that familiarity, also - there's the Yiddish word kvell. I kvell with pride when Aaron's up there and we're singing in harmony together, and how happy it makes him, or when he and Stacy and I got up and did a number one Mother's Day. That's just a source of pride for me. And Chris and I have a couple of moments in Out Of The Eclipse, and he will be able to do this with me again. It's almost private. It becomes almost private because it's something that comes from our private life. It's interesting because it's not really for show, but there it is, in the show - it comes out of just him and me and our 31-year history and things that have stuck with us as what makes a good story, but we're gonna show you what that is.

As a storyteller, but also as a private person, who's got this private moment happening in front of an audience, what is your wish for the audience to take away from this private moment that they've been privileged enough to witness?

I think the goal with the evening is at some point they get lost in the story and start to remember the similar stories from their own lives. Everybody's had parents of one kind or another for good, or for unhappy relationships. They've lost - many people who've come up to me afterward have said, "I went through the loss of my parents," so that there's something universal in this. On purpose, I actually don't talk about my dad by name, Monty Hall, because he is quite well known and I don't want them to be really picturing... (I mean, many people will know anyway) but I designed it so that they're not really picturing him and having it be a story where suddenly there's another character on stage. But a father is a father and a mother is a mother, and they can all relate to the idiosyncrasies of those parents. So in being specific in these stories, I feel that there's a kind of general understanding.

What do you think Monty and Marilyn would say if they got to see you work in this medium?

Oh, I wanted them to! I really wanted them to - they didn't make it. They knew about the first show. In fact, they wanted to see the first show - I think it was 2013, I think was the first one. They didn't get to see that, I don't think they were able to travel. I got so much from them, Stephen, and when I hear my voice sound like my mother's, or when I imitate my father on stage, they're right there with me. I just feel that they're there - as you know, my mother shows up in the lights, I would not be surprised if the lights start blinking. (Laughing) You know, they did, all during the movie shoot; when my sister and I were together in LA, one light in the hedge, not hooked up to anything, a solo light full of water, it's been there for 20 years and it never worked. When my sister and I were together, that light went on, swear to god. And I have pictures. We have video of it and everything.

I think that it's wonderful that you're getting to bring this back to town -will you go back on the road with it?

I don't wanna go on the road right now. I need the world to settle down a bit more. I would feel safer about showing up - a lot of people are traveling and they're working and they're all over the place. I got a movie done, it's not like I'm sitting at home, but it's a large show, there's nine of us. So to ask somebody to bring us somewhere... you know, Feinstein at the Nikkos, in San Francisco, sent out a feeler, "Would Joanna come, we just want her and a piano." Someday I will do, maybe, an iteration of this show that is just me and a piano, and some more standards that I like to sing, but I haven't really scaled it down yet.

You have created art centered around all of your family and now you have a grandchild from Aaron and Stacey...

I sure do.

Will you start writing about your grandbaby?

(Laughing) Well, he's mentioned in passing, in fact, he's a punchline in a wonderful way in this show, but I think now it's time for me to tell other stories. I've had such amazing - the blessing of the richness of the stories I can tell about my life and about my family life. And now I think because it's what I did with the feature - although it is, in some ways, autobiographical but you can't really connect those dots. It's time to tell stories about other people, other women, other situations,

How proud are you to be a storyteller?

I do wear it with some pride. I think it's the storytellers that keep us going, and whether or not people can verbalize this in their lives, everybody stops and loves to be taken out of their life by a good story.

Joanna Gleason OUT OF THE ECLIPSE will play Feinstein's/54 Below on May 30th and 31st at 7 pm. For ticket reservations visit the 54 Below website HERE.

The May 31st performance of OUT OF THE ECLIPSE will be live-streamed. That ticket link is THIS one.


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