BWW Interview: Britney Simpson in CYRANO at Two River Theater through 10/13
Two River Theater (TRT), under the leadership of Artistic Director John Dias and Managing Director Michael Hurst has launched its 2019/20 Season with Cyrano by Jason O'Connell and Brenda Withers, adapted from the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, directed by Meredith McDonough in a co-production with Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.
Filled with wit and heart, this exuberant adaptation of the classic play Cyrano de Bergerac is a delightful combination of comedy and romance. Jason O'Connell leads the five-person cast as the larger-than-life Cyrano, the brilliant thinker, wordsmith and swordsman. He's a thorny romantic with an outsized reputation and a barely contained love for his childhood sweetheart, Roxane played by Britney Simpson. Rounding out the company are Luis Quintero, Chris Thorn, and Nance Williamson.
Broadwayworld.com had the pleasure of interviewing Britney Simpson about her career and Cyrano at Two River Theater.
Simpson's credits have included Into the Woods, Cyrano, The Taming of the Shrew, Richard II (Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival); Nina Simone: Four Women (Seattle Repertory Theatre); Beauty and the Beast, The Odyssey, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Wiz, Guys and Dolls, the world-premiere production of Head Over Heels, The Cocoanuts (Oregon Shakespeare Festival); A Christmas Carol (Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park); The Wizard of Oz, Our Town, Fiddler on the Roof (PCPA Theaterfest); 'S Wonderful (Oregon Cabaret Theatre). She has performed with The Britt Festival in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Education: The Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts.
What was your earliest interest in the performing arts?
The first seed I remember being planted in my life was in the 1st grade, when our school put on a production of A Story, A Story by Gail E. Haley. I played the African fairy, Mmoatia, who was supposed to get trapped by a man seeking to collect special creatures for the sky god. Now, I remember not one rehearsal at school or at home...not one. But somehow, in the extraordinary costume made by my GRANDma, I got on stage and said my lines in a way that shocked my own self! The words came out with a musicality I could playback in my head, in a volume I hadn't even practiced, and with a confidence I didn't know I had. In that moment, little 6 year old "Brit Brat" knew that she felt a presence on stage, living in her, that was beyond her understanding and control, and would always be there for her...guiding her destiny.
Was there someone in particular who recognized your talent and encouraged you?
I'm lucky to have support from a close circle of family and friends, which is fundamental to my life as an actor. But if I had to put a name to someone whose vision of what I had to offer compelled him to encourage me to expand my horizons, it would be Harvey Jordan, my acting teacher at San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton, California. I had dropped out of my 4th year of community college and found myself with nodules on my vocal cords at 20 years old. I didn't quite know where to go, but I knew I had to move on soon. Harvey had cast me in shows for the past three years and didn't take "no" for an answer when asking for me to sing in his Christmas show. During that show, singing with nodules and not knowing what was in store, he insisted that I audition for The Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts...and the rest is history. I will be thankful for my time with him forever.
Tell us a little about your time at The Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts.
I'm indebted to Harvey because my time at PCPA not only shaped me as an artist, but also the person- which in my opinion go hand in hand. Life imitates art; Art imitates life. There's something about going through an acting conservatory experience or graduate program that everyone who has done so understands, but has a hard time articulating- when your heart, creative mind, body, movement, voice, shortcomings, talents and creations are forced into exposure, investigation, and edification for years of your life, it's very hard to leave the same way you came out. In PCPA's intense program, you're basically taught 4 years' worth of courses in two years' time- from acting to singing to voice and speech to movement to ballet! Your teachers are the resident artist of the theater company, so you get to be taught by them, watch them work, and potentially work alongside them. My time at this place was honestly life changing.
We'd love to know about "The Britt Festival" that you have been participating in.
The Britt Festival is an art event destination in based in Southern Oregon. They do orchestral concerts and education outreach. In 2016, their phenomenal music director, Teddy Abrams, lead a collaboration with The Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the first time. Four OSF company members, including myself, were selected that year to sing songs that were in some way connected to the musicals we did that year, which were The Wiz and The Yeoman of the Guard. The four of us sang solos, duets, and a choral piece accompanied by the Britt's gorgeous 90-piece orchestra in the open air- I couldn't even imagine it if I wasn't there! It was so beautiful. The following year, BF collaborated with OSF company member Miriam Laube and the group of singing actors she commissioned to perform a Shakespeare inspired playlist of songs accompanied by a handful of the Britt's finest jazz musicians. The third and last time I performed with the Britt, was in February of 2018 for a Valentines day dinner cabaret- which also happened to be the first Valentines Day that I had a true Valentine, so that was lovely! I would collaborate with them again in a heartbeat!
We know that you were in the play, Cyrano before. How does the TRT show differ from the Hudson Valley Shakespeare production that you were in?
Funny enough, I've done as much outdoor theater as indoor in my career so far, but there is something about doing the same show in both spaces that highlighted the differences between the two more than ever. I learned that light design is like a camera lens in a theater piece and the sound is its soundtrack. Outside, it is much more of a challenge to control the focuses of each scene because the lighting is dictated by the sun and the sound is constantly competing with the weather. Meredith, who was new to the space, had to direct us to used heavier physicality to throw focus towards action as there was no way to make a spotlight on the actors fully visible in the first sunny hour of the show. In addition, this summer at Cold Spring was a particularly rainy one, and more often than not, our voices wrestled to be heard over the wind, thunder, and raindrops. These are charming challenges of the HVSF tent. They come at the price of experiencing the magic of the elements. While Cyrano has the speech to uplift starving, weary cadets, he paints the glorious picture of the French sky while speaking out into the actual sky that we got to marvel at in the moment. In the last scene, I have the line "The sun is falling behind the trees"...this happens after the audience has gotten to watch the sun set through the course of the show. There is something really special about that. You can fabricate thunder, but when lightening lights up the sky in the distance during an intense scene, it's almost as if God himself is playing onstage with you. You cant fully fabricate the gravity of that.
All this being said, the contrast of the indoors is that, one, the wardrobe crew is much happier about not having soaking wet costumes to wash mud and sand out of, and two, we're able to control and sound in a way that helps with the creation of really specific pictures and seeing deeper into the story. I find that the nature of an inside space, and definitely the Two River theater, is that there is a higher level of intimacy we're able to achieve because it's easier to be seen and heard- it's nice to make be able more subtle vocal and physical choices.
Can you share a little about the cast and creative team for Cyrano at TRT.
Well, the show is directed by Meredith McDonough and written by Brenda Withers and our very own Jason O'Connell. There are 5 of us and a total of 16 characters- so the power of the ensemble is in full effect! We're all a bunch of clowns as our director has described us with great love. Jason is our passionate leader- brilliant mind, natural comedian, who adapted the whole show. The story itself is very true the original, but is all the text is completely rewritten and newly imagined by he and Brenda. He was really excellent at balancing being an actor and playwright in the room. Because of the trust between him and Meredith, there was an openness to play and trim or add and feel out what works and what doesn't, which is totally needed when in the process of refining a new work. Next we have Nance Williamson, who wears many hats in the show, quite literally. She has been a part of the HVSF company for the most years out of all of us and is a harborer of insight and expertise, but also comes into each day with fresh and ready to learn, experiment invest and charm everyone's socks off. Then there is Luis Quintero who is plays some other characters in addition to Christian. He's a master of puns and is actually, a wiz with words, which is on the contrary to lover he portrays. He's talented with stage combat, and also a big ole clown. Lastly, we have a new addition to this production, the awesome CHRISTOPHER THORN, who took over for the lovely George Merrick. Chris just jumped right on into this Two River production like a true professional, full of skill and a heart ready to tell the story with truth, humor, and clarity. I feel blessed to be a part of this show with such a generous, fun, and really smart cast, creative team, and crew. BLESSED.
What would you like audiences to know about the show?
I would like audiences to know that, people who come to the show expecting the classic Cyrano...you are not going to get that. Again, it is not the exact classic language or costumes or sound design, but it stays 100% true to the essence, the heart, of the classic piece. It's like Jason and Brenda painted a classic picture using modern instruments. Be open to laugh and to cry...be open to understanding the vulnerability it takes to express LOVE, feel JOY, and stare TRUTH in her face.
What are some of your future plans?
For this holiday season I will be returning to Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park to reprise the role of "Ghost of Christmas Past" in their 29th annual production of A Christmas Carol. Last year's production was there 28th year keeping the same set, light, sound, and costume design, which was its own special tradition to step into learning. This year, I believe artistic director of CPP and director of the 2019 production, Blake Robison, will be redesigning and redirecting the show it's going to be new season for us all. I'm excited and thankful to be a part of it! Post Carol, I will be back in Brooklyn, on the grind and hoping to get an agent and work more in the city! I moved to NY at the top of last year, so next year will be my third year with NY as my base and I would love to plug in deeper.
Anything else, absolutely anything that you'd like BWW NJ readers to know.
I want YOU to know your insecurities, whether they lie in your physical appearance, or your mind and the way it works or doesn't work, or your failures- None of them make you unworthy of giving or receiving love.
You can follow Brittney Simpson on Instagram @Britnaaay_Simpson
Cyrano will be performed in Two River's Rechnitz Theater through October 13. Tickets for the show and all of the productions in Two River Theater's 2019/2020 Season are available online at https://tworivertheater.org/ or by calling 732.345.1400. The Theater is located at 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Britney Simpson