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BWW Interview: Paige Silvester is 16 Going On 17 in THE SOUND OF MUSIC

Kerstin Anderson as 'Maria Rainer' and the von Trapp children
From left clockwise: Audrey Bennett (Gretl), Maria Knasel (Louisa), Mackenzie Currie (Marta), Paige Silvester (Liesl), Svea Johnson (Brigitta), Erich Schuett (Friedrich), Quinn Erickson (Kurt)
Photo: Matthew Murphy

I think it's pretty safe to say that this classic family show needs no introduction. THE SOUND OF MUSIC is opening at the Saenger Theatre this week in New Orleans to kick off the 2016-2017 season. Directed by Tony Award winner Jack O'Brien, THE SOUND OF MUSIC tells the story of the Von Trapp family and a wannabe nun who sings her way into the family's hearts. The show features songs such as "Edelweiss," "Do-Re-Mi," and "My Favorite Things" by duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, also known for OKLAHOMA, CAROUSEL, and THE KING AND I.

Playing the oldest Von Trapp daughter, Liesl, is Paige Silvester. The role was made famous by the recently deceased Charmian Carr (may she rest in peace) in the 1965 film by the same name. Silvester hails from Sacramento, California; earned her BFA in Musical Theatre from the University of Michigan; is no stranger to the stage; and writes a really fun blog. She grew up dancing, singing, and acting, and has performed The Muny, Sacramento Music Circus, and was most recently seen in the ensemble of the Broadway 1st National Tour of EVITA.

Continue reading for an interview with Paige Silvester:

You've been involved with the performing arts since you were a kid in one way or another, and you also earned your BFA in Musical Theatre at the University of Michigan. Tell me about your experience growing up with the arts and with Michigan.
Yeah, I had a pretty traditional start to musical theatre. I started from a young age just doing it locally in the community theatre and stuff like that. My 3rd grade teacher told my parents to put me in a show because I was so flamboyant and lively, so she thought that would be a good outlet for me. They put me in some community theatre and I really got hooked. After being in a few shows I decided I wanted to be really serious about it. I was taking it a lot more seriously than some of my friends were, and so I started taking a lot of lessons... dance lessons, voice lessons... and then just kept progressing from there. I graduated to more professional shows in the community. I'm from Sacramento, CA and there's luckily a lot of professional theatre there. I had some really great teachers, great experiences, great theatres to get hooked up with. And then Michigan was kind of always my dream school. I always told myself if I'm gonna do this I want to do it at the highest level and so I only auditioned for a few musical theatre schools, and ended up getting into Michigan and was thrilled. There was just no question. I had to go there, and I loved it. I loved that it was a normal university, but also had a conservatory feel to the program. It was really serious like-minded kids that loved it as much as I did and took it as seriously as I did. It was a great group of people to be surrounded by, very inspiring. It was taken seriously like any other career would be, which I really appreciated. I loved my time there and would recommend it to anyone. I had a great time.

It looks like you also have a pretty extensive list of regional productions under your belt. You've done a lot of shows that I would consider classics... OLIVER, CHICAGO, INTO THE WOODS... things like that. Do you find yourself more drawn to classic shows or would you like to be able to do some newer shows?
Oh gosh, I would love to do it all. I mean regionally there's a lot of... the regional theatre seems kind of infiltrated by the classics because it's harder to get new shows produced outside of New York; but, my real goal is... I love doing all of that, but if I could choose anything it would be to live and work in New York and work on all different types of shows, new and old, and film and TV and all that kind of thing. I definitely grew up with a strong acting background and so I would love to do even more of that if possible. I really do, I like it all. I think I really am in awe of people that are still writing new shows and who come up with new and original ideas because so much has been done. I'm a creative person, but I'm definitely creative in a different way so I really appreciate those kind of people that can write and pull it out of thin air and also master so many different art forms. I think writing is a collaboration of so many different things, it's just really neat.

That's the cool thing about musical theatre... you've got writers, actors, dancers, singers, musicians, costume designers... so many different kinds of creativity coming together all in one.
Definitely, that's a huge part of why I like doing this is because of the people and all of the different types of people. And then everybody is kind of the master of their own field, and we're all working together for one common goal to create something really cool.

Well this also isn't your first tour. You EVITA before THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Can you talk to me about life on the road and what it's like to be a traveling actor?
Yeah, it's been really fun. I've gotten to go to so many different places that I probably wouldn't get to see otherwise. You know... not everybody has a reason to go to Knoxville, TN so it's been fun to check out different parts of the country and see what they're about. Having a week or more in each place and having our days free has been a really great way to be able to explore and figure out what different places are like. I grew up on the west coast, then I went to Michigan, then New York, and hadn't really spent a lot of time in other places. It's been fun to see how the audience responds differently in each different state. That definitely helps keep doing the same show every night fresh when you get a different vibe from the audience. I really have enjoyed traveling. It's hard not to have a home base sometimes and to be living out of a hotel room. That's a lot to adjust to, but the payoff has been really incredible. I like to try to make the most of it. I think the hardest part about being on the road for me is having to figure out how to simulate a schedule and structure and still feel productive with your days, so I really try to be diligent about using travel as something I can feed off of and have that be a productive part of the touring experience... to learn about each place that I'm in, see the important sites. It's been fun to explore and do a lot of learning about other places.

Something that you said was really interesting to me about your schedule and trying to stay on a regular schedule and have some sort of discipline to your day. I think when a lot of people think of artists they think they just do whatever they want, whenever they want, and they have to feel inspired to do anything. It's interesting to hear that you do well with structure because I'm the same way. How do you think keeping structure helps to... I don't know, I always thought that having structure and discipline helps to bring out creativity a little easier. Do you find that?
Yeah I definitely think everyone comes to it a different way. That's another fun part about doing a show with all these different types of artistic people because growing up I didn't really see myself as an artist per say. That didn't even occur to me until I got to college and was around other people that did the same thing and took it as seriously as I did, and to realize that other people saw themselves as more of a right-brained type of person... I mean I grew up dancing a lot so to me it was always more of a culmination of all of these skills that I was honing, and I was so busy trying to keep all the balls in the air trying to develop all these skills so that I could be in shows and do what I love to do. It's been fun to see how other people navigate that and see themselves in this career because there really isn't one right way to go about doing this, which is so neat. And so I really have a fun time interacting with different types of people because nobody comes to it from the same background or same mentality. But for me, definitely, I see it as a... I mean it's fun once you create that. You have to have that foundation of skills and I'm definitely more of a linear thinker. I come to it structurally, and then once I have that in place and feel confident in what I'm doing then that's when I feel the freedom to really create something different or fun and make it my own. But I definitely have to come to it with more of a structure, and definitely in my life, too. I thrive off of a structure and that's when I feel like I do my best work and feel the most stable and good about what I'm doing. Definitely everybody is different, but more often than not that's not the case.

What was your first exposure to or the first time you remember seeing THE SOUND OF MUSIC?
I definitely grew up watching the movie. We had recorded it off of the TV on our VHS player. I think we still have it somewhere, and it has all the commercials from the 90s on it! Like... Ovaltine is right after "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria," and stuff like that. My parents... my dad, he's not anymore, but he was a professional musician. They both just loved the arts and they would take us to go see shows instead of a movie or something like that on our days off just as a fun family activity. My brother and I were lucky enough to grow up with kind of a knowledge of musicals, and of course THE SOUND OF MUSIC was right up there. I'd definitely been exposed to it really early on. I mean, I knew every word probably by the time I was 6 years old or something. And then we had, like I said, a lot of local theatre in Sacramento, and productions would be put on and I would go see those. And then, also, I was in a production locally when I was 17. I played Liesl, so it's been really fun to re-visit it as an adult. I think that's a really beautiful thing about THE SOUND OF MUSIC. It's relevant no matter where you are in your life, and it can speak to you in a different way. There's so many different takeaways and messages from the story. The themes are really universal and cross-generational. It's been really fun to re-visit at all different times in my life because I've garnered something different from the story. I think that's why it's good for families to come and see it because everybody can enjoy it, and it can be a really valuable experience for people of all ages and stations in life.

I remember of course growing up watching the movie, but I didn't realize how odd it was to have an upbringing where I knew about the arts. My parents raised us knowing about music and theatre and dance and all of that as well. I do remember other than just knowing the story from the movie, my mom checked me out of school early to go see a matinee of THE SOUND OF MUSIC in the middle of the week.
Oh neat! Go mom!

Yes for sure! I remember freaking out because we watched The Brady Bunch a lot when I was little and Barry Williams was playing Captain Von Trapp on the tour!
Oh my gosh, yeah! It was a tour, yes. Oh, how fun! We see posters for that whenever we go to these theaters back stage. They, a lot of times, have posters of shows that have come through and for that one it's his photo that was the advertisement for that one. How funny! Yeah, I've been surprised because a lot of people... I mean I kind of went to an artsy fartsy elementary school being from northern California and a lot of people were like-minded, but traveling around the country I've been totally surprised at how many people have never even seen the movie and have no exposure to THE SOUND OF MUSIC. So that's really fun, I mean, when you have people in the audience who are singing along under their breath and then some people are coming to it for the first time. That's been fun to be able to bring it to people.

Did you watch the live television production? What'd you think about it?
I did, I did. I think it was so great! I thought it was incredible that it brought the story to so many people, and I also just think that it's incredible that we're bringing musical theatre into popular culture again. The exposure nationwide is really incredible. I'm so glad that they're doing these live shows now.

I thought it was so funny because I talked to a few people who watched it and that was their first time ever seeing THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and it was fun to hear them being excited about something that I've loved for so long.
Yeah, definitely!

So, did you have a favorite character growing up?
Oh yeah, I was definitely partial to Liesl. I always kind of, you know, idolized the teenage girls when I was growing up so that was really fun. And I used to force my little brother to play Rolf and Liesl with me, and sing "16 Going on 17," and jump around like from couch to couch in our living room and pretend that it was that gazebo and we were doing the dance. So it was really a dream come true to get to play this role again, and fulfill my 6 year old fantasy.

Dan Tracy as 'Rolf Gruber' and Paige Silvester as 'Liesl'
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Are you an oldest child in real life?
I totally am! And I'm sure he would tell you that I'm a bossy older sister.

That's so funny! I always loved Liesl, too. She was my favorite. And of course my younger sister loved Gretl, the little spunky pumpkin. So since this story has been around for so long, and people know these characters, I think I would feel a lot of pressure to do this show knowing that it's such a fan favorite. Do you ever feel any pressure to do the show a certain way or play your character a certain way?
You know, I don't think so. I think the script of the show is so strong that as long as you tell it truthfully and use what's there on the page and just really try to do the story justice it's gonna come off alright. I don't really feel pressure to do the show like the movie no matter how many people are familiar with it because I think the important thing is that the themes and the meaning of the story come to life. I just try to bring that to the audience, and I think that's the way that it's going to be the most satisfying for them and most effective. That's really what I try to do, and that's what our director Jack O'Brien really encouraged us to do... to just leave your pre-conceived notions at the door and do the incredible story justice. That's been my goal. I mean, I definitely want to be true to the history of the piece, but I definitely also want to bring myself to it... because, I think when people are forced to see it in a new light and maybe not in the way they're expecting to see it then it kind of shakes it up and makes them think about it and not just watch it like they're watching their VHS tape at home, not just let it play like a CD in the background, but to really consider it. I think it's an important piece with important themes, highly relevant themes, so I think that's been my maIn Focus is just to get people to sit down and actually listen and think about it again. There's a reason that it stood the test of time. It's because it really is still relevant, and I'm sure that kind of sadly that it always will be.

Your character Liesl is one of the only Von Trapp kids that really dances in the show. Were you a dancer before the show, or is this a new skill you had to learn?
Oh yeah, definitely. This has been a little bit of a normal departure from my normal stuff. In EVITA I danced a lot. It was Rob Ashford choreography... really athletic, flipping upside down, tango kind of stuff. This has been a different kind of show for me because it's been so much less dancing. We're on a little break right now, I went home to New York, and I've been trying to gobble up as many dance classes as I can to try and get back in touch with that because it's been hard to not have to do so much of the dancing in this show. But, I've been teaching a little on the road teaching dance classes at local studios whenever we're in each new city, and that's been really fun and kind of just a good way to force me to keep in touch with it. But, definitely this is a lot less dancing than what I'm used to doing. It's fun to get to do a little bit, and what we do I think we try to make it exciting dance-wise, but also more kind of pedestrian and less... we didn't want it to feel like "and now we go into our dance break." We want it to feel like it was the story and then we're just elevated into dance because of what was going on in the story. I hope we achieve that. I think we... I'm very happy with how it turned out. It's fun when you hear the audience gasp at the end, so it's been fun. I think our choreographer, Danny Mefford, really did a good job of melding kind of the necessary dance elements with the storytelling. He's really a master at that... at the realism and theatrical movement as opposed to just choreography and dance steps.

Getting a little more into the character development of the show, I always thought that Liesl and Maria had a pretty special relationship. They have a bit of a different relationship than what Maria has with the rest of the Von Trapp kids because she is a little bit older. Can you talk to me a little about the relationship between their characters and how you play that out?
I think it's different in our show especially. Kerstin Anderson, who plays Maria, and I are so close in age there's no denying that it's a little different than a traditional stepmother/daughter relationship. We've tried to illuminate how in need of a strong female role model Liel is. She really needs... she hasn't had a woman that she feels like she can trust in her life for a long time after her mother has died because she's kind of had this litany of terrible nannies who haven't really cared about them and who've been harsh with the kids, and that they've tried to get rid of time and time again. So, when this woman comes that she can relate to and feel safe around comes I think at first it's hard for her to accept, but it becomes such a valuable outlet for her and really softens her and helps her in her transition into becoming a woman because she's right on the brink of that. I try to show the transition between being so resistant to Maria and to how incredibly appreciative and how in-need of that relationship she has been. We have fun with that because we are pretty close friends in real life, so the beginning is harder when I have to kind of be a meanie to her, but then it just feels more natural. I think that it makes that transition a lot... well... I'm not totally sure how to answer that.

No, I think you answered it perfectly. She's a teenage girl. I was once a teenage girl, you were once a teenage girl. We know how important it is, whether it's your biological mom or not, to have some sort of adult female figure that you can look up to and that you can talk to and that you don't necessarily see as only an authority figure.
Yeah, there's one moment when Maria chooses to level with her and not just be a disciplinarian, and sees a way into Liesl. I think that that's a cool moment in the show and in the writing where she chooses to befriend her a little more, and sees how much she's really in need of somebody that she can trust and talk to and not feel like she's just going to get in trouble or get yelled at. I think that's a really fun thing about Maria. Our director has described her as "the best babysitter ever." I think she, because it's her first time doing this and because she's so young and it's all new, she's trying to figure it out and she's so smart in the way that she relates to the kids using music and then to Liesl because she herself was just a teenage girl, and she was kind of a quirky girl that acted out and also didn't have... she lost her parents young, too, so she can definitely relate. She finds a way into Liesl, and I think that was a really smart way to write her character and our relationship.

You said when you were younger you played Liesl, and now you're playing her again. What's it like playing a character that is younger than yourself?
I really like it. It doesn't feel so far away that I can't remember how it feels, and I think after doing it a little more than 300 times now over the course of a year it's been fun to have to try to figure out how to click into that each new day because sometimes you don't feel like pretending you're a 16 year old girl and flouncing around in a little pink party dress... so you have to figure out well how am I going to connect to that today. I think the cool thing about it is that she's right on the brink of this big transition in life, and so I think I've been able to connect to that through different things. I mean, usually, it's not hard for me to remember and click into that feeling of butterflies and, you know, when everything is a new, exciting transition and transitioning from a child to a woman and being a teenage girl. But, when that's a little bit harder I just think of it as a transition. We're going through those constantly every day. Something's different, there's different challenges to be navigated each day, especially having to travel around to a new place every week and figure that out. I just try to infuse how I'm feeling that day and use what I'm going through to inform that character, and I think I go from a place of sensory memory and stuff like that. So if I'm not totally clicking into Liesl's going through, I use what I'm going through, and because it's kind of a universal feeling of transition and uncertainty, that's not hard to relate to other things, too. That's been a challenge, but it's been a really fun one.

Your character has a lot of interaction with Rolf, who I always thought was a really interesting character. He's got enough of a role in the movie to where people know who he is, but we don't see his character a whole lot. I think he's interesting because he's really the only character we see two totally different sides of. Every character has that element of growing and changing and evolving, but we see the teenage boy who has a crush on a girl to a young man who has become a Nazi soldier. Do you think his relationship with Liesl influences how he turns out? Because we still do see an ounce of maybe it's guilt, maybe it's uncertainty, even though he now has a very different role.
For sure. I think he, too, is on the brink of something, and is searching for stability and self-assuredness. I think his character doesn't have quite the structure and opportunity that Liesl does because of her family stature. He's trying to figure it out all on his own, and so he's seen this political movement as a way to feel self-assured or to gain respect from other people, and so he goes with that and it's a very quick transition. I think part of Rolf and Liesl's relationship is kind of that tenuous love-hate thing where they're attracted to each other, but because they're of different stature or social standing, there is a little bit of an animosity or feeling of disconnect there. I think they both seek to regulate that, and bridge that gap in a different way so that's how he's done it. But, maybe, not all of him thinks that... maybe on some level he knows that that's wrong and that he's operating out of fear and a desire to do something, and that it's not really what the Nazi party is saying that he's after or what they stand for that he's after, but it's that comfort and feeling of belonging. I think that, like Liesl, he's just trying to figure it out, too, and navigate life and figure out his next move. We don't get to see his character after he let's us go, but maybe that was his next moment of realization that will take him in a new direction.

This whole time period is so interesting because we see such strong family values, but on the opposite side we see the world about to fall apart.
Exactly. It's pretty scary, but it's still relevant.

Yes, it's definitely still relevant. I think people do the best they can, but sometimes get pulled into things that maybe aren't quite the right thing to do that gives you some sense of purpose.
Right, exactly... operating out of fear. You never know, you've just got to try to keep moving forward.

What do you think it is that makes THE SOUND OF MUSIC such a popular story or something that has stuck around for so long?
I think it has to do with what we were just talking about. The themes of trying to do what you think is right, and figuring out what you think is right, and following your conscience and following your heart. Those are such interesting topics that we'll never be done with as people. We'll never have it totally figured out, so I think it's kind of fascinating to sit and consider. The show definitely asks people to consider what is important to them, doing what they think is right, and not just doing the easy thing or the thing with the fastest solution or be given instant gratification. I think everybody deals with that in the story. Themes like that and themes of family and belonging and healing I think are just totally universal. I just feel like it's so rich. It brings up a lot of universal questions and fears and desires and human conditions, and I think it's also the ultimate family drama. It's relatable for so many different types of people and at so many stages in life. No matter how many times you see it, I don't think that you can just... I mean if you want to just sit there and hear the beautiful melodies wash over you that's a completely relevant and ok experience, too... but I think that sitting through this show, it's hard not to be an active participant. I think it's such a worthwhile theatrical experience.

Do you have anything else you would like to add before we wrap up?
I think audiences should be prepared to have an active theater-going experience, and that it's really a great show for all ages. We're having a wonderful time performing it every night. Audience reactions always help us do our best job, too, and we're so appreciative. It's fun to see how different audiences are appreciating it around the country. I hope they'll come and see it and join us!

Tickets are still on sale for THE SOUND OF MUSIC at the Saenger Theater opening tonight and playing through Sunday. Don't miss the chance to re-live this classic or bring a child, friend, cousin, anyone to see it for the first time! There is no experience quite like this!

ARTICLE MAY ALSO BE VIEWED HERE: http://www.nolabackstage.com/single-post/2016/09/20/BWW-Interview-Paige-Silvester-is-16-Going-On-17-in-THE-SOUND-OF-MUSIC


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