BWW Interview: First Date: MSMT & Lewiston's Public Theatre Co-Produce GREASE
"It's like a first date, " says Christopher Schario, Executive/artistic Director of Lewiston's Public Theatre. "It's a total cross population between our institutions and our audiences," he adds.
Maine State Music Director Curt Dale Clark concurs: "This co-production is helping the arts in both our communities. It's upping the ante and providing more opportunities for people to enjoy live theatre,"
The two artistic heads , together with the leads of the production Tanner Callicutt and Katie Brnjac, are chatting with BROADWAY WORLD about the first-ever collaboration between the two theatres, a new staging of the musical GREASE, performed at The Public Theatre June 18-30, 2019.
The two artistic heads recall how the partnership was formed. Schario remembers that MSMT did an intern company show at the Franco Center for two years in a row. "We thought it would be nice if they might consider doing something like that in our theatre, especially since we are usually dark in the month of June."
"The beauty of working with The Public," Clark explains, "is that, like our co-production with Portland Stage, the infrastructure already exists. So we are sharing resources. In this case, The Public hired the designers and had their technical director build the set; we provided the costumes from MSMT Costume Rentals, as well as the actors and stage management. Rehearsals are taking place initially here at MSMT and then will move to The Public. That's one of the major blessings of this collaboration. The Public can build the set and then rehearse on it for a week before tech. This is a major luxury for us [especially touring a show], because then by the time we get to tech there will be no unknowns regarding the space."
And why GREASE? Both artistic heads' eyes light up and smile simultaneously. Schario enthuses: "It is perfect for the age range of the intern company, and it is so popular!"
"It was a slam-dunk choice because of the popularity of the show," Clark says. "We wanted to do something people would feel they couldn't miss. When we did it at MSMT two years ago, we sold out the three-week run, and we could have run it and filled every seat in the Pickard for the entire summer. It just seemed the perfect choice."
Moreover, both men have personal connections to the work. Schario, who is directing this production, had played Kenickie on the Broadway National Tour, and Clark has portrayed Danny Zuko several times, the first at the start of his career at Chicago's Sullivan Little Theatre on the Square in 1989.
For The Public, this will be the first musical they have produced on their stage. The Lewiston space is smaller and more intimate - 307 seats - than the Pickard (603 seats), which, as Clark notes, "is more intimate than most big Broadway houses." He explains, "Just as we benefit from doing the show at the Pickard because of the greater intimacy, when it moves to The Public, everyone will be able to see every facial expression of the actors. The proximity makes the scene work more palpable."
Schario describes the set that is being built at The Public. "We will have a cast of eighteen with four musicians who will be on set, silhouetted against the back cyclorama. There is a platform along the back with two staircases and bays beneath. We don't have much wing space, so we use the bays like a garage to slide pieces in and out. The proscenium is decorated with images that give a sense of the period like a poodle skirt, 45 record, burger and malt shake, foam dice, and cats' eyes glasses."
Schario also praises his co-creatives, Musical Director Evan Cuddy and choreographer Raymond Marc Dumont. "I am in great hands with these guys, so I don't have to worry about anything but the staging." Of the choreography he says," Ray is very imaginative. His choreography is far more complicated and fun than what I did back on tour. There is so much energy, and the audience is going to be having a screaming good time, tapping their feet and cheering these kids."
Clark observes that what passed for choreography "back then wouldn't work now because people expect so much more. I often talk about blowing the roof off the Pickard and part of that [feeling] comes from the intimacy. So at The Public, the energy will be very intense."
Clark recounts their casting process for GREASE. "Chris (and The Public's Co-Artistic Director Janet Mitchko) came to MSMT's local auditions in February. Having three artistic heads in the room elevated the auditions. The kids understand that, and they try even harder." Clark also travelled to the SETC Conference and to New York for more auditions where he saw 1700 young artists for the eight performance intern slots and 4000 other actors for the 86 other contracts.
Two of those lucky enough to make the cut were both from Elon University: Intern Katie Brnjac, who will be a junior next year, auditioned at SETC, and Apprentice Tanner Callicutt, who just graduated, came through the New York call. Brnjac and Callicutt agree that the process was rigorous. Says Brnjac," I knew several other Elon students who worked here, and I knew it was going to be very hard work, but I was thrilled to be chosen."
Asked what they hope to take away from their summer at MSMT, Brnjac replies, "A greater understanding of the business and what goes into working with Equity actors later in the season and making those connections."
Callicutt agrees that the connections are important. "To be working with these two major Equity houses right after graduating is a huge thing for me. I want to learn as much as I can and get experience with the challenge of working on overlapping shows."
In playing Danny and Sandy, both actors are making role debuts. Brnjac says "It is a little daunting because GREASE appeals to so many people, and Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta were so iconic. It will be interesting to see how I can put my own spin on the part while being truthful to what audiences want to see."
"Super daunting," Callicutt agrees. The show is so beloved; everyone knows the music. It will be a fine line to walk giving what is expected, maintaining it, and making it be genuine for you, not an archetype of what Danny Zuko should be." He goes on to posit that "I think at his core, Danny is not that tough; it's a persona. The people around him have chosen him, and he feels he has to fulfill that role. But you need to play him with a level of vulnerability because that's what makes him human, not a caricature. Sandy melts him. He is like a puppy dog on a string when she is around. The audience has to see he is capable of those feelings."
Continuing the thought, Brnjac says, "It's so much fun to play with that when Sandy and Danny are together onstage. When she is alone with him, she is very strong, but when others are around she is different. They both have inner and outer personas." Addressing the change that Sandy makes at the end of the play, she says, "Some people think Sandy is becoming a slut, but from the historical standpoint, moving from the 1950s to 1960s there was a sexual revolution that brought a huge change. I think what Sandy's behavior at the end symbolizes is her coming into herself and being comfortable with her own sexuality and being able to leave behind the repressive ideas put on her by her family. She is confident, comfortable, having fun, and finding who she truly is and where she belongs. Everyone needs to do that."
The fact that these roles are age appropriately cast is helpful, Brnjac and Callicutt also feel. "We're not so far removed from high school; we remember what it was like, all the drama that happens. Being close in age gives the show a youthfulness and a level of energy and joy that is so special to see."
Callicutt feels that the youthfulness of the cast also makes "us want to hang out together and socialize off stage as well, and the bonds we build will help us onstage. The fact that we are close off stage, too, adds to the energy we bring onstage."
Both actors say they are enjoying the rehearsal process enormously. They feel Christopher Schario's personal connection to the show and find his understanding of the period helpful, and they love Dumont's energetic choreography. Callicutt likes working with the two creatives "because by having a separate director and choreographer, then each can focus on his task." Of Schario he says, "You can tell he's an actor's director because he cares about moment to moment reality."
"Something which is hugely appreciated from our Elon perspective because we are rooted in Meisner training," Brnjac adds.
So what do this Danny and Sandy hope the audience will take away from their performances? Both Katie Brnjac and Tanner Callicutt believe the message is, as Brnjac phrases it, "People belong together and do better as a group."
And from the perspectives of the artistic heads, what are their expectations for this fresh new look at GREASE? Christopher Schario replies confidently, " We just want to knock them out!"
"We want the audience to leave the theatre," declares Clark, "and say 'what are you doing next year?'"
Photos courtesy MSMT and The Public Theatre
GREASE is a co-production of MSMT and The Public Theatre, Lewiston and runs from June 18-30 at The Public Theatre, 31 Maple St., Lewiston, ME www.msmt.org 207-725-8769 or www.thepublictheatre.org 207-782-3200