BWW Interview: THE SPITFIRE GRILL's Ashley Argota's Always Killing It With Her Beyoncé-esque Vocals
THE SPITFIRE GRILL begins its previews July 10, 2019 at the Garry Marshall Theatre under the direction of its artistic director Dimitri Toscas. This musical (by James Valcq and Fred Alley) takes place in the rural town of Gilead, Wisconsin during a simpler era, centering on a novel scheme to sell an unsellable restaurant, Hannah's Spitfire Grill.
I had the opportunity to interview a stunning vocalist I have seen on various Los Angeles stages, Ashley Argota, who will be imbuing her powerful vocals to the role of Shelby Thorpe, a pivotal part of the Gilead community.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Ashley!
Before we begin, may I say you and Garrett Clayton and Desi Dennis-Dylan slayed it the other night in IT TAKES THREE at the Catalina Jazz Club!!! Your three-part harmonies were simply heaven! And I loved, loved, loved your solo "Torn" from UMPO CLUELESS.
Thank you! It was one of my favorite songs to sing in both CLUELESS and IT TAKES THREE.
So, what initially got you involved in this production of THE SPITFIRE GRILL?
I was actually sick the first time I was asked to come in. Then they saw people at a later date, and I was told about it the night before! I had to learn Shelby's audition song in less than 12 hours, and I got her audition scene when I got to the theatre. It was a whirlwind, but so much fun to step into Shelby's shoes so quickly and see where my instincts took me. Thank goodness they took me in the right direction so that I can explore her world even further!
I've seen you in many a Los Angeles theatrical production. Have you worked with any of the SPITFIRE cast or creatives before?
Our director, Dimitri Toscas, and I have known each other for a few years now. I didn't know anyone else in the cast, but we've been in rehearsals for a couple weeks at this point, and they've all been incredible. We're having the best time. Everyone is so talented. Dimitri has thought up this really beautiful, re-imagined production of SPITFIRE GRILL. Almost all of the actors play their own instruments in the show and it's incredible.
In the SPITFIRE cast breakdown, your character Shelby Thorpe is described as a "shimmering folk soprano with a strong high belt to D." What would you add to this description, to describe Ashley Argota?
"Can also do Beyoncé's riff in "I Care" from the Homecoming soundtrack - note for note."
If Shelby were logging onto a dating app, how would you describe her to potential matches?
Shy, but friendly. Knows her way around a kitchen. From a small town, but has big dreams. Looking for someone who is full of as much hope and love as she is.
In an alternate universe, what circumstances would bring together characters you're played: SPITFIRE's Shelby, Juliet from ROMEO & JULIET: LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD, VOL. 2, UMPO CLUELESS' Cher, UMPO 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU's Bianca? (Waiting for a fitting room? Having coffee at a diner? Standing in line for concert tickets?)
In some weird alternate universe, I think they're all friends. I like to imagine they have dinner parties hosted by Cher. Shelby is probably cooking the meal, and Juliet and Bianca are talking about the guys that they have crushes on.
You've been on so many L.A. stages now, do you even have to audition? Do directors just call you up and offer you a role in their projects?
I've been very fortunate to be offered some roles, but auditioning is a part of being a performer. I still do it all the time! Some of my favorite days are actually when I have multiple auditions in a day for different kinds of roles. It's a really fun challenge getting to step into the shoes of a bunch of different characters in the span of just a few hours.
You got your first acting gigs at age five. Was it just fun for you then? Or did you know it actually was a job?
When I was younger, it was definitely something that my parents let me do because they knew I was having fun with it. Honestly, I don't think I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do with my life until I was a teenager. My mom told me my audition for True Jackson, VP was going to be my last audition ever because she didn't want me to go through any more of the negativity of show business. I cried for hours. I couldn't imagine my life without acting or singing or performing. I think being faced with the potential "end of my career" made me realize how much I loved it. That's really when I made the conscious decision to continue with performing.
When you started singing, you didn't have the full powerful voice you now have, did you? When did you grow into your current vocal powers?
My journey with my voice has been a pretty interesting one. I was so fearless when I started singing at five years old. Celine Dion was my idol and I listened to her non-stop. I was able to reach all the notes she could. At some point, I started getting self-conscious about my voice. I don't know exactly when or why- I think as I started singing more and more, the pressure to be perfect got to me, and I was afraid to sing. I struggled for a long time with my voice not being as good as I wanted to be. I shied away from doing projects that required me to sing a lot, even though I loved music and my whole journey started in musical theatre. It took years and years, but I finally understand now that telling a story through music is more important than every note being perfect. I'd say my voice in the last four years has been on top of its game, and I'm much more comfortable singing now than I ever have been. It took a lot of training and life lessons for my voice to grow into what it is today.
You were a semi-finalist on the Arsenio Hall-hosted Star Search in 2003 at the age of 10. What do you remember of that experience? (song? dress? nerves?)
I remember so much of that experience. I'm still friends with Brynn Williams, the girl who was the runner-up in the preliminary rounds. Our birthdays are one-day apart, and we still text each other every year at midnight on our birthdays. I remember singing "Orange-Colored Sky" in my sparkly, red dress. I remember changing my semi-finals song at the last minute from "Because You Loved Me" by Celine Dion, to "I Wanna Love You Forever" by Jessica Simpson. I remember after I lost, Naomi Judd asked me to come to her trailer and she told me how talented she thought I was, and that she believed I was going to be successful. I remember my best friend and her family coming to visit me on set. I remember how excited I was to get my hair and makeup done, because I wasn't allowed to wear makeup growing up. I remember my friends and family frantically voting for me during the commercial break! I remember the nerves and excitement of being on the show. I've gotten to film shows on that lot and stage a few times since then, and it always brings back the best memories.
What was next for you - winning five consecutive times at Amateur Night At The Apollo? Or touring nationally as young Nala in THE LION KING?
Star Search was first, then Amateur Night At The Apollo five times, then Showtime At The Apollo, and then THE LION KING. All of them were such incredible, life changing experiences.
What was your first tour like? Chaperoned? Tutored? Any fun time?
Touring was awesome. Yes, it was chaperoned; and yes, I spent a lot of time doing schoolwork. But what I remember most is having the time of my life performing the show and spending time with my cast backstage. I started the tour in San Francisco and travelled for almost a year. The show meant so much to me, and it was an honor to be a part of something so breathtakingly beautiful. I learned so much from the experience and the people I met;, and to this day, they're all still like family. One of my cast members, in particular, is still a close friend and mentor. The coolest times were always when celebrities came to the show. I'm a huge basketball fan and I love the Los Angeles Lakers, so Kobe Bryant watching the show asking for my autograph afterward was really cool and probably one of the most exciting moments of my life thus far.
When did you start taking dance lessons to become the triple-threat that you are today?
I started dancing when I was four years old. I took ballet, tap, jazz, and hip-hop six days a week until I was eleven, and I left to tour with THE LION KING. I continued dance training when I came back from tour, but my focus switched to acting and singing, so I actually stopped dancing for a really long time. It's only been in the past few years that I've gotten more comfortable with it again. The one thing that stuck with me was my ballet training. I still point my feet when I sit down.
As one who's already been in this business of show for twenty years, what would your all-knowing 2019 self advise your five-year-old self on her first audition?
In a few years, so many of your dreams are going to come , and I want you to remember how much fun you're having doing this at five years old. Always remember why you started, and remember the happiness this brings you. Your dreams coming true will consist of having to get up at 4:30 am for many, many years. You're going to be tired. But remembering how much you love your job will keep you motivated. Also, not everyone you meet and work with is meant to be in your life forever. Let them teach you what they're meant to teach you. Let them show you who they are. Believe them when they do. And don't take anything personally. Breathe, girl! You're in for a beautiful journey. It's all worth it. And you're going to be just fine.
Any pre-show rituals you religiously do? Vocal warm-ups? Dance stretches? Rubbing your tummy counterclockwise fifteen times?
Ha! My pre-show ritual has evolved over the last few years. I noticed my voice getting tired after performances, and have been very strict in taking care of myself since then. I warm-up an hour before the show, after using a MyPurmist steamer to make sure my cords aren't dry. If I feel like my cords are struggling, I'll warm up a little extra into a straw in a cup of water. During shows, I drink either hot water and honey loquat syrup or a concoction of hot water, honey, cayenne pepper, and apple cider vinegar. After shows, I warm down, steam some more, and I am notorious for not staying after performances to hang out, unless I have guests. Talking excessively after a show hurts my voice more than anything else, so if friends or family aren't in the audience, I go straight home and rest as much as I can. I get made fun of a lot for not going out for fun nights of drinks or karaoke with my cast members, but I have to take care of myself. I've been told I treat my voice like a professional athlete treats their body.
Do you prefer performing as yourself (IT TAKES THREE)? Or as scripted characters (UMPO shows)?
I honestly love both. Playing a character is so much fun and presents a cool challenge of convincing an audience you are someone else; but doing a cabaret like IT TAKES THREE, and having to be vulnerable enough to show an audience who you are, is also a really interesting challenge as well.
Where will you and Garrett and Desi be taking IT TAKES THREE next?
We just debuted our show in Los Angeles! Last night we performed in San Diego and I am currently typing this in my hotel room in San Francisco after the first of two performances here. We are so grateful audiences have been responding so well to our show.
What else is on the performing plate of Ashley Argota?
We are hopefully going to be taking IT TAKES THREE to more cities (Hello, East Coast!). In the meantime, I'll be in SPITFIRE GRILL rehearsals the second I get back from our mini-tour and getting ready to start performing our amazing show for audiences at the Garry Marshall Theatre starting July 10! Hope to see you there!
Thank you again, Ashley! I look forward to being wowed by your SPITFIRE Shelby, as I have been wowed by all the characters you've sang their asses off on stage.
For ticket availability and show schedule through August 11, 2019: log onto www.garrymarshalltheatre.org