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BWW Interview: Merritt Janson and YOUR BLUES AIN'T SWEET LIKE MINE for Two River Theater's Benefit Play Readings

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BWW Interview: Merritt Janson and YOUR BLUES AIN'T SWEET LIKE MINE for Two River Theater's Benefit Play Readings

Two River Theater kicks off their exciting series of benefit play readings with Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine on Sunday, July 26 at 7:00pm EDT. The show originally premiered at Two River in 2015. This reading will feature an updated script by Tony-Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

The play reading will feature original cast members Brandon J. Dirden, Andrew Hovelson, Merritt Janson, and Roslyn Ruff with Glynn Turman coming on to play the role of Zebedee. Broadwayworld had the pleasure of interviewing Merritt Janson about her career and the highly anticipated reading of Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine.

Merritt's credits include Off-Broadway: The Public (Richard II w/WNYC, A Midsummer Night's Dream), Theatre for a New Audience (Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure, Tamburlaine the Great, Notes From Underground), Red Bull Theater (Coriolanus), 59E59, Transport Group, Abingdon Theater. Regional: American Repertory Theater, Yale Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, Shakespeare Theater DC, Two River Theater, Denver Center, Westport Playhouse, Shakespeare & Company, Wilma Theater, Theatre de la Jeune Lune. TV includes "Billions," "Elementary," "Madam Secretary," "Quantico." Training: MFA, American Repertory Theater at Harvard University.

When did you first become interested in the performing arts?

According to family lore I was six years old when I declared I was going to be an actor. My parents had taken me to see a local theater production that a neighbor was in and after it was over I stood up, pointed at the stage, and said very seriously 'That's what I want to do.' But it wasn't until after college when I was living in London and working at Arcola Theatre with an incredible company of Turkish and British artists as they built a theater out of the empty space of an old button factory in Dalston, that I knew I was going to spend my life in the theater. Sounds a little dramatic, but it really hit home during that time that my curiosity and respect for live performance and my belief in its importance within a community, was never going to fade, and with that came the decision and desire to return to school for an MFA.

We'd love to know a little bit about your experience studying for your MFA at Harvard University.

The program is with American Repertory Theater and the Moscow Art Theatre School, and I was really fortunate to study there at a time when a mentor of mine and visionary Robert Woodruff was the artistic director of ART. The work was challenging and unique, the program was relentless, and I loved every bit of it. Russian literature by that point in my life had become an obsession and so to spend a semester studying in Moscow was nothing short of thrilling. There are too many standout performances and people to name but I remember watching Krystian Lupa's four hour Three Sisters at the Loeb Drama Center when an audience member broke one of the many long, deafening silences by yelling at the stage "Say something!" I thought that was great. The work was not about coddling an audience. It was about serving the story and the truth of the characters, to hilarious or wildly uncomfortable effect.

As someone who works in theatre, on screen and as a musician, how do you balance your many artistic interests?

I'm always looking for ways to bring live music onto stage and the times when I've been able to combine my musicianship with acting have always felt really special. When Ruben had me play piano in Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine, it was just a moment, a little riff, but it captured a whole other side of the character Judith, and the way in which Zeke sees her. Sometimes I go into a project knowing I will be playing music, but other times it comes out of the rehearsal process. In an Off-broadway production of Measure for Measure, at TFANA, the idea of my character having a band popped up while inventing the character's backstory, an exercise the director Simon Godwin had us do in the first week of rehearsal. I play fingerstyle guitar and I sing, and it really felt justified within the text that my character would be a musician. In the production, the band and I played a set that started at the tail end of the intermission and continued into the top of the second act. It was so much fun and it gave the audience a whole other way to understand and gain access to the character.

During these times, people have had to adjust to a new normal. What have you been doing to remain connected to the arts community?

Well first of all, I have kids, a six year old and a three year old and so the level of creativity and energy and imagination continues to run high in our household no matter what. In theater we talk a lot about seeing the world with kid eyes, about cultivating, or returning to, that level of play, and my kids definitely help me to keep seeing the enchantment, the majesty, and the artistry in everyday life even during quarantine times. I've also been really fortunate to continue to work artistically during this time with The Public and WNYC's Free Shakespeare on the Radio production of Richard II and with Ruben's Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine with TRT. Both productions had incredible thinkers, performers and messages to convey that are in direct conversation with our current moment in history.

We are excited about the Online Reading Series at TRT. Tell us a little about your involvement with the program.

I was really fortunate to work on the original production of Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine at TRT in 2015. It was obviously an artistic wonderland with the quality of the collaborators, the beauty and brilliance of Ruben's words and direction, the incorporation of music, the unwavering support of TRT. And the conversations that were had after each and every performance during talkbacks with the cast and the audience were astounding. It's such a necessary story about people and race and how we connect and hurt and lose and find each other. To be able to return to it now in the current context of the Black Lives Matter movement, and at a time of great isolation because of the pandemic, is so powerful and undeniably the play's resonance has become that much deeper because of all that is happening right now in the world and in this country.

Supporting the arts has never been so important. Why do you think the Online Reading Series at TRT is such a successful plan?

Like everything in this moment our sense of normal is changing. And despite that I think we all still crave the connection, the emotion and the vitality of performance arts, and the question is how to do that in a meaningful way in this environment. I have always been impressed by John Dias' leadership at TRT and his and the creative team's willingness to step outside the box and do new works, take new approaches, find new ways to connect. TRT in my opinion was willing to invest and take the risk of building a better virtual performance, from the collaborative approach to the technical aspect of how it was recorded and produced. I think the product speaks for itself and I'm incredibly proud to be a part of it and to be counted amongst this stellar cast.

What would you like to tell audiences about the performances that are being prepared in the Online Reading Series.

This is real art. No compromises. These are some of the best writers, directors, actors, and producers in the game today and we are telling vital, rich stories. I wish I could be face to face and be with the audience in the room but we are going to bring that level of storytelling into your home if you'll have us.

Anything else, absolutely anything you want BWW NJ readers to know.

I just want to thank you and BWW NJ, the entire TRT team especially John Dias, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and the incredible cast and creative team on this production of Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine. It's truly an honor to do what we do and only more so in times of great challenge like we are living through in this moment. Please stay safe and enjoy the show!

Broadwayworld.com readers can purchase their tickets now. Online benefit event tickets are $25 or $100 for the series of five readings and include access to live post-reading Q&As with the artists involved, hosted on Zoom. Sponsorships start at $1,000, and include additional benefits such as an invitation to a private virtual event with reading artists.

Benefiting organizations are identified by the playwrights and directors involved in each reading. They include The Actors Fund, The Audre Lorde Project, and The New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. All artists will be paid for their involvement in the series.

For Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine, Two River Theater will also stream the reading on YouTube from Mon, July 27 at 10AM EDT - Thurs, July 30 at 7PM EDT. Streaming is free and donations of any amount from viewers will be greatly appreciated.

To learn more about Merritt Janson, please visit her web site http://www.merrittjanson.com/.

For more information on the Two River Rising series and upcoming events, visit https://tworivertheater.org/. Tickets are now available for Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine by visiting https://tworivertheater.org/whats-on/your-blues-aint-sweet-like-mine-reading-series/.

Photo Credit: Michal Daniel


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