BWW Interviews: Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company Creatives Talk MYTHS AND HYMNS
Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company is running in full gear, preparing for the opening of their annual summertime production. Notorious for excelling at demanding and lesser known pieces, Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company provides Houston audiences unique musical experiences and challenges them to redefine their stereotypical notions of "musical theater." This summer Bit of a Stretch is presenting audiences with another piece of work from composer and lyricist Adam Guettel, MYTHS & HYMNS. I recently sat down with Emma Martinsen, Wiley DeWeese, and Erin Cressy to discuss their upcoming production.
BWW: Bit Of A Stretch Theatre Company always seems to excel at challenging pieces, and continuously challenges Houston audiences to redefine the concept of musical theatre. What was the selection process like for MYTHS & HYMNS, and what made you choose it for your next production?
Wiley DeWeese: Basically, we did FLLOYD COLLINS a couple of years back, and that's by Adam [Guettel]. After we did that show, we were just really interested in all of his work.
Erin Cressy: And there's not very much of it.
Wiley DeWeese: There's not very much of it, so it's very easy to find his other work. I don't know; we just always knew that at some point we wanted to do this show, and this year seemed like the right year to do it.
Erin Cressy: Yeah. I think that it kind of just fit. We had a few people in mind that we knew could handle the music, and it was just a matter of finding more people in the Houston area. We've actually found a lot of really great new cast members, who we've never worked with before, that are just really fantastic.
Wiley DeWeese: Yeah, and it just felt like the right time.
Emma Martinsen: Yeah, and it had the right amount of what we were capable of doing for the summer.
Erin Cressy: It's a good size, with just a six person ensemble. It's very music-centric, which is what we've always been and tend to be.
Wiley DeWeese: It's also just a very interesting piece because Adam has such a big musical vocabulary, and he does so much. In a lot of musicals, and this is overgeneralizing, it is very easy to do things along one level, where the music kind of goes along with what is happening. Adam is very good because of his background as a classical composer, his upbringing. He is able to use music to not just support what is happening but to actually comment on it. So the music is a part of the character as much as the person acting it. That is something that we are all about.
BWW: We are really excited about the cast of MYTHS & HYMNS. The music to the show is so vocally challenging, what was the casting process like?
Emma Martinsen: Well, we already knew Abby Seible. She's been in all of our productions. We love her, we love her voice, she's free in the summer, she loves working with us, and she's just a great person. So we were like, "Please, please do the show," and she said, "Of course." Then, it was helpful to have her because she knows a lot of vocalists within the Houston area, which is how we got Eduardo [Tercero].
Wiley DeWeese: Then, Brad [Zimmerman] was in FIRST LADY SUITE...
Emma Martinsen: Yes. We knew him, and he was willing to do it. He's got a beautiful voice, and he is a really great actor. And then Erin, the lovely Miss Erin Cressy.
Erin Cressy: You don't have to pay me. (Laughs).
Wiley DeWeese: And the magic of TheatrePort.
Emma Martinsen: That's how we got the other two cast members.
Erin Cressy: We have Tamara [Siler] and Hunter [Frederick]. We had no real connection to either of them. They just sort of appeared.
Emma Martinsen: But, Tamara and Brad ended up knowing each other a little bit.
Erin Cressy: Yeah, they all kind of knew each other somehow. It was really funny.
Wiley DeWesse: They all bring a really, really, different energy. There are no two people who are the same type, so it gives us, even though we are only a six person cast, a huge amount of flexibility in terms of how to have who sing what and how to configure it all.
Emma Martinsen: And because all of the pieces can be interpreted in so many different ways, and as director I have to figure it out and be specific, I had this big meeting before I started rehearsals with the cast. They all started saying all of these different things from their own perspectives and points of view. I was like, "Oh my God, these guys are amazing." It is so great to have all of their input. They're all very creative and fantastic.
BWW: MYTHS & HYMNS will be playing at HSPVA's Black Box Theater. Being HSPVA alumni, how does it feel to be given the opportunity to put on a production where you essentially got your start producing theatre?
Emma Martinsen: It's so nice to be back, even though we were trying to stay away. (Laughs)
Erin Cressy: We were trying to stay away from HSPVA for a few years because we didn't want to use them as a crutch. We started doing shows at HSPVA, so we wanted to make sure that everyone knew that we were not still dependent on them. But, you know, it's nice to be at a place where we can go back and kind of benefit from our connections to them.
Emma Martinsen: And our amazing technical director who's been with us since we started doing it, Marc Duncan. He knows that space, and is a part of that school.
Erin Cressy: It's because of him that we are able to use the space at all.
Wiley DeWeese: And the lovely principal, Scott Allen.
Erin Cressy: It also turns out that several of the cast members, we didn't even realize, are also HSPVA alumni. Eduardo [Tercero], Abby [Seible] - well, we knew Abby - and Tamara [Siler].
Emma Martinsen: So it's a big homecoming.
Wiley DeWeese: And it's so much fun. I have only been back a handful of times since I've graduated, but you walk in and you go "Whoa! You remember that time at that water fountain?" (Laughs)
Emma Martinsen: But they redid the whole Black Box, so it is so much better than when we were there.
Erin Cressy: Really, we are truly blessed to have that space.
Wiley DeWeese: We just consider ourselves very lucky. We realize that the Black Box is a phenomenal space, and it's only because of our very, very, benevolent friends at HSPVA that we are allowed to use that space.
Emma Martinsen: And Marc being there for every single rehearsal.
BWW: With MYTHS & HYMNS, Adam Guettel provides a beautifully varied score ranging across several styles of music, and it is structured more like a musical revue. Without limitations of a through-plot, how has preparing this piece been different from preparing previous pieces?
Emma Martinsen: It's been really challenging. I'm not going to lie. It was very daunting because it's like I have to lead everybody. And Wiley [DeWeese], in this production, we have to be on the same page. There are so many different interpretations, it's like...
Erin Cressy: (Finishing Her Thought)...at a certain point, you have to choose one. (Laughs)
Wiley DeWeese: With a show with a plot, there is a prescribed path that you take.
Emma Martinsen: Yeah, for example, this person is feeling this way and talking to this person, so most likely they're going to be doing this. Whereas, with this piece, in some songs they don't even use real words, and you're like, "Well, what's happening here?"
Wiley DeWeese: Yeah. For example, there is a song called "Every Poodle," which is a lot of fun. It is literally an entire song of deep de bop, de doo de deedly dee. It's awesome. You listen to it, and you go, "My God, this is so much fun..."
Emma Martinsen: (Finishing His Thought)...but, then you go, "What am I going to do here?" Then it turns out, like what we discussed in our big meeting with the cast, everyone would kind of end up on a common theme about a person or self-journey, cycles through your life, and self-discovery.
What I always tell people, when they ask me about the show, is that there is this one song called "Saturn Returns" that I think really helps kind of bring it all together. It's in the very beginning, and the second to last song is a reprise of it. The Saturn return is this phenomenon in your late twenties, and Saturn is in the exact same spot it was when you were born. It is supposed to symbolize this really big change in your life.
Erin Cressy: And renewal.
Emma Martinsen: So we all kind of decided that the whole show can be one person's journey through different times in their life. You just see six different faces of it all.
Wiley DeWeese: All of the songs have this core. Okay, this sounds really snooty, but they all have the core of the human experience. They're all songs. Even when you are watching Icarus...
Emma Martinsen: (Cutting In) There are ones with Greek Mythology. They're very specific.
Wiley DeWeese: All of the characters in these little vignette songs are done in a way that you don't feel like you're watching mythical characters.
Emma Martinsen: You're just watching two characters having a conversation. They just happen to be Pegasus and Bellerophon, and they got into a fight.
Erin Cressy: Coincidentally, most of the songs in the show happen to be written around a time when Guettel was that age, so you can see him very much in what he writes. The songs are very raw, they're very personal, and it is very easy to relate to them as an actor because the emotions are so genuine. You can tell that everything that he is writing is very important to him.
BWW: Bit Of A Stretch Theatre Company always goes the extra step to put a unique spin on their productions, like the original underscoring created for NO EXIT. Regarding MYTHS & HYMNS, do you have a distinctively novel twist or direction that you plan to take with the production?
Erin Cressy: MYTHS AND HYMNS doesn't really get staged very much so...
Wiley DeWeese: The original production wasn't really staged. They just stood there and sang. It was a concert.
Emma Martinsen: That's true. This is a bit different. There is choreography/staging happening, and we are making pictures. What I think is really nice about this is that we have gotten to know a really talented group of performers using their instruments.
Wiley DeWeese: It's hard - because the show is so amorphous - to pin it down to our spin because there really isn't something to spin off to begin with. (Laughs)
Emma Martinsen: I think the fact that we are doing it is our stretch. (Laughs)
Wiley DeWeese: (Laughs) Oh wait, they're doing a show we've never heard of...
Erin Cressy: But what is unique is that a lot of theatre people have heard this music but have never seen it staged because it never gets staged. So we have had some feedback from people, saying, "I am so glad that you're staging this. I have always wanted to see a staging of this." So I am excited to be involved in giving that to people and visually representing it.
Wiley DeWeese: Yeah. (Laughs)
Emma Martinsen: That was good. Yeah, what she said. (Laughs)
BWW: What have been the most challenging aspects about preparing for this show?
Emma Martinsen: I'll just say something. The music is so hard. I played an instrument for almost eight years, and these guys are really good at music. Erin [Cressy] and I, whenever there has been a musical, we've co-directed. And so she has always been there, knowing about the music and helping me with choreography and stuff. This is my first time doing it by myself, and it's all music. There's no plot. It's a great challenge. It's a great stretch. That would probably be the hardest part for me, feeling confident enough to be like, "Okay, this is how it should be." But what is so great about MYTHS AND HYMNS, and most of Adam Guettel's work, is that this really great possibility for collaboration between director and the actors, which makes it easier. We have a six person cast, and they're all really talented; so, it is an easy conversation. I ask, "Well, did that work for you, while you were singing this really hard music." They can say yes or no, and I am like, "Well, okay, let's try something different in rehearsal."
Erin Cressy: They are all very capable. They all know what they are doing. You don't always get that. We haven't always gotten that in the past. If we had to do this show with anyone, we're lucky to have the cast we have.
Emma Martinsen: Yeah, and I feel really supported by these two [Wiley DeWeese and Erin Cressy]. Even though Erin is in the cast, and I don't want to try to put any extra pressure on her, she has been really helpful. And Wiley has been really helpful and always supportive of me. He'll say, "It's okay, I'll play music for you anytime you want." (Laughs) I'll call Erin and say, "I don't know what to do with this. There's like five measures of random music happening." She will be like, "It's okay." (Both Girls Laugh)
Wiley DeWeese: The challenge is, I think, just crossing the gulf between that there is really, really difficult music and that people actually have to perform it, and not just stand there and tap their foot, but like move and do things.
Erin Cressy: As hard as it is, it really is fun to perform. You know, once you get it, and people are beginning to get it. We are at the point now where it's starting to feel like it's gelling. We're having a great time doing it. So we are past that big hump of being totally lost. (Laughs)
Emma Martinsen: Wiley is really good about working with the music, and he is working with them separately on the music every day.
Wiley DeWeese: Making it happen.
BWW: What are you doing to prepare for this show vocally?
Wiley DeWeese: This is a very concentrated rehearsal process. We just started rehearsing a week ago today, and we did that with four really, really intensive music rehearsals. Because this music is very hard is to sing - I mean, it's demanding - we are lucky that we have a cast that can handle it. They are all very accomplished, they all have degrees, and most of them have degrees in music or theatre, but everyone is very capable of handling the score from a technical perspective. After our music intensives, we've been doing individual coaching with everyone just because you need it with this kind of stuff.
Erin Cressy: As an actor, I'm lucky, I haven't really gotten a chance to sing something this challenging in my entire life. (All Laugh) I feel like even the older people in the cast would probably say the same. It goes so far from genre, to genre, to genre, so you don't sing the same way for all of those songs and have to strategize how you're going to do this. Luckily, as we have said again and again, everyone in the cast is capable enough to make that happen, and not everyone would be.
Wiley DeWeese: Yeah. For example, Abby [Seible], who sings all the really high soprano stuff, in one number, she will have to be like a back-up R&B singer. That's a lower register, and then, all of a sudden, she she's up hitting notes in the stratosphere. She gets maybe a song break. Sometimes she doesn't, so that is a big hurdle. I think that is a big challenge to the piece. Normally, with shows, you get into this niche. You know that for the rest of the show, if you're playing Eliza [Doolittle], you're going to be hitting high notes, going up there. In this show, it is kind of like you're Carol Channing and then all of a sudden you have to be Renée Fleming. (Laughs) Those were two weird names to pull, and there's the show. That's MYTHS AND HYMNS.
BWW: What have been the most rewarding aspects about preparing for this show?
Erin Cressy: For me, it's realizing that it is actually going to be good, and that is so rewarding. I was terrified when I found out that we were going to do the show and I was going to be in it. Directing it is one thing because I can be like, "Do this. Have fun," but it is a really intimidating piece, which is why I love it. It's like we took this terrifying piece, and made it really approachable and beautiful. I am really proud of what I am doing and what everyone else is doing. We are at a point that I didn't know we would get to.
Wiley DeWeese: We are confident that people will like it now. There is that question when you are doing something that is this out there: "Will it be something that people can tap into?" You know, if Joe Blow walks in off the street, will he go "Oh, that was really nice?" (Laughs) We think it is totally something that anyone will get something out of. Really, anyone.
Emma Martinsen: I think that is the best part. Anybody can connect with this show, and I am excited to see the reactions.
Wiley DeWeese: And that's rewarding.
Erin Cressy: It is rewarding because it is so hard to put up, but it's so worth putting up.
Emma Martinsen: Yeah, I don't think I really started loving the show until our first Thursday of rehearsal. (Laughs) You could see everybody putting everything together, you know? After that rehearsal, I came back feeling really good and feeling more confident that this was going to be a good show.
Wiley DeWeese: It is going to be kickin'. (Laughs)
BWW: Without giving away too much, what can Houston audiences expect from MYTHS & HYMNS?
Emma Martinsen: Well, everyone is going to take off their clothes at one point in time and there is going to be a really crazy light show. (Laughs)
Wiley DeWeese: Yeah, we're incorporating parts of HAIR into it. That's our spin. (laughs) Yep, HAIR and MYTHS & HYMNS. (Laughs) Okay, in all seriousness, the show is really a concept concert, and I think that describes it really well.
Erin Cressy: Yeah, if you had to put a tagline on it, it is a concept concert.
Wiley DeWeese: What that basically entails is that all of the songs are based around this theme of people moving from one place in their life to another and struggling with that transition....
Emma Martinsen: (Jumping In) Struggling through that transition and failing.
Wiley DeWeese: With that through-line, you get the journey of people who are just totally lost. By the end, you are going to feel really uplifted and you're going to feel great. You will have gone through that journey, through this huge, ridiculous amount of different styles of awesome music.
Erin Cressy: If you can't find something that you like in there, then you don't like music. There really are so many different types of music. (Laughs)
Emma Martinsen: I think it is just going to be really nice because you can just be really there and connected with all of the actors.
Wiley DeWeese: It is an evening where it is impossible to not get some kind of theatrical itch scratched. That's probably a weird way to put it. (Laughs)
Emma Martinsen: I think there will be a lot of jaw drops with some of the crazy music.
Erin Cressy: Yeah, I think a lot of people will hear some of the crazy music and will say, "Well that was done really well." We would like people to take a leap of faith and come see the show even if you may have never heard of it before.
Wiley DeWeese: You will love it, we promise.
Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company's production of Adam Guettel's MYTHS & HYMNS runs August 8-13,2013 at the HSPVA Black Box Theater, 4001 Stanford Street, Houston, 77006. For more information and tickets, please visit http://bitofastretch.org.
Photos courtesy of Bit of a Stretch Theatre Company.
Emma Martinsen, Wiley DeWeese & Erin Cressy.
Wiley DeWeese, Erin Cressy & Emma Martinsen.
Emma Martinsen, Wiley DeWeese & Erin Cressy.