BWW Interviews: Colleen Zandbergen - The Divine...
I first met Colleen Zandbergen after a performance of A Man of No Importance produced by Studio Connections theatre company in Tucson. Her world class voice and presence knocked my socks off. The next time I saw her in performance, it was at the Great American Playhouse as a monosyllabic cavewoman in Quest of the Cavemen. She sang the 70's disco hit, I love the Nightlife, which blew me away again, this time with voice and versatility. I caught up with Colleen on Facebook and talked her into letting me interview her via email.
JS: How did you get involved in theatre? What's your background?
CZ: My mom said I stuck out like a sore thumb from the time I first started singing and acting. I have always been loud and obnoxious. I did plays/musical all through school. Once Upon a Mattress (Lady Larken) and Hello Dolly (Dolly). My dad's family were all very musical. My aunt had an all girl band in LV in the 60s. She played trumpet. My mother didn't want me involved in music because she said it had a bad influence on my aunt. I wanted to go to music school out of high school but my mom insisted on me doing something I "could fall back on" so..... I became a respiratory therapist. Sad that I listened to her but there it was. I ended up taking a break from theater. I got married to my high school sweetheart (even though he was from Holland). He was a foreign exchange student in my last year of HS. Anyway, we were engaged but a year after high school his student visa was going to run out so we moved up our plans and got married. Then I had three kids from when I was 22-26 years old. I sort of lost myself for a while. When I was 30, our church did a musical, Little Mary Sunshine. I got bit with the acting bug hard. I drove my husband crazy and tried out for our town community theater. I got cast in Carousel and after that I was doing shows all the time. But it wasn't enough. I decided that 20 years of straight night shift at the hospital and doing shows as often as I could wouldn't be enough.
I decided I wanted to go back to school and major in vocal performance. My husband thought I was crazy and wanted to get me a psychiatrist but we worked it out and I went back to school. I had a rude awakening by realizing that, at 39, I was ultimately too old to start doing vocal performance with opera. So I made the decision to switch to music education and minor in theater. I worked full time nights and went to school full time days and summers, taking anywhere from 18 to 28 credits a semester so I could get done in 3 years with the combined major/minors. I was lucky enough to get to take some classes with my daughter when she started college during the time I was in school. It was awesome. I did the musical direction and played a part in one of our university productions with her. During this time, I also auditioned for a semi professional dinner theater in our area. They did a medieval feast where we would serve the patrons in character and also do the show for them. I made some great money. I did this for 12 years along other dinner theater shows and with out regular community theater productions at the Erie Playhouse in Erie Pa. It is a 450 seat playhouse and it is rated as one of the top 10 community theaters in the US. Some of my favorite shows were: Stand By Your Man: The Tammy Wynette Story (Tammy), Little Women (Marmee), Pajama Game (ensemble), Nunsense (Amnesia), Nuncrackers (Amnesia) and My Way: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra (Woman 1). I played Anna in The King and I in another community theater. Other productions I was in include The Desk Set (Bunny), Sylvia (Kate) and Hot Flashes. After graduating, I got a job teaching middle school music. I taught both middle and high school music for 8 years before my husband and I decided that we couldn't stand the cold winter and over 4 feet of snow every year in our area of PA. So I got a job here in Tucson at Ventana Vista teaching elementary music. While there, I started a show choir, who have performed at University of Arizona baseball and basketball games. Every spring our students do Broadway musical songs which I choreograph and teach. They have costumes and they love being up on that stage performing. I feel like I am reaching the kids through musical theater. This year I choreographed 18 songs for our kids concerts in May. Exhausting but so worth it. When I first moved to Tucson, I started auditioning for anything that sounded great. My first Tucson show was called Hats. I played Marianne at 49.99 year old teacher who didn't want to turn fifty. Basically, my life! Her friends and family tried to help her see that it wasn't bad through introducing her to the Red Hat Society. It was fun and I got to work with some fun ladies. I did a book trailer for a local artist/author. I also did an audio book for an LA producer called Dial L for Latch-Key. Those were amazing projects. I auditioned and was cast in Musical Mayhem Cabaret. I did shows with them for about a year and a half, then was cast in A Man Of No Importance. That show was one of my favorites. I met so many new friends who encouraged me to audition for The Great American Playhouse. I have found a new home. I love the place and the people. I finally feel that I have regained some of the things I left behind with I moved down here.
What's your process?
I usually have to think and put myself in the place of the character. Sometimes it is really hard. Some shows touch you more than others. I really connected with Tammy Wynette, although I was never a country music fan. I felt like I understood her with all her faults. It was an emotional rollercoaster. I had to pull from down deep into all my past hurts to play her. I understood Marmee as I had kids and could empathize with her even though it was different eras. I really could get Marianne from Hats, because I was her. Hiding from that big 50 day. A Man of No Importance felt like my family with my brother, set in Ireland.
Can you unpack that a bit? Once you've identified your personal parallels with the character, how do you connect those to the role?
When I did Tammy Wynette, I had to die and then come back to speak to my dead mother. I needed to cry for the scene. It was the revelation that Tammy meant something to her public and family. I used feelings I had about people needing me (kids) and the loss of family members to help me get that emotion out. It was ridiculous. I cried every performance. The woman who played my mother, Brenda Evans, had to carry a tissue to wipe my eyes. It was right before I sang Stand By Your Man at the end of the show. I tapped into similar things as Marmee in Little Women when I had to sing about missing my husband who was off to war.When you say you had to pull from deep down" in your past hurts, what does that mean?
I had a tough childhood in many ways. We were from a very poor town. My parents struggled to make ends meet. My mom always called it robbing Peter to pay Paul. She was from Pittsburgh. My dad was not a nice man. He did many things that are unforgivable. Without elaborating, I left the house as soon as I could after high school. He was killed in a car accident when I was 22 and pregnant with my first child. It was sad for my family but not so much for me. It really was the best thing he did for my mom. I know that sounds harsh but he left her with enough to be able to survive and provide for my brothers. Abuse is a vicious circle in many families. My mother is a very negative person. She has lived through many things and is very strong but negative. She had polio as a very young child and has a twisted left leg. As she got older she developed diabetes and then had hip problems. She started to show signs of dementia about 6-7 years ago. It came to a head about 3 years ago. My brothers and I eventually had to move her closer to us so I moved her to Tucson in February of 2012 after my husband and I had just found a house here. She was living in independent care but needed to have open heart surgery in May of that year. Then she fell and broke her hip and ended up needing more care. She is now in a memory care facility and they take great care of her. I try to see her and get her out once or twice a week. Then in October of 2012 my daughter, who has Marfan's Syndrome, needed more help than she could get where she was living and so we moved her to Tucson also. She made some really bad decisions and put us through the wringer for a while but has since really tried to get her life together. She has borderline personality disorder in addition to her Marfan's. She is disabled and is in pretty constant pain from a failed back surgery and subsequent Archnoiditis syndrome. She was told she could never get pregnant but she did and had a very difficult pregnancy with presclampsia at the end. She made it to 37 weeks and had a beautiful little miracle boy named Leonidas in November. She and he live with us for now. It has been very stressful and without theater I would have gone crazy.
In A Man of No Importance, I played the sister to closeted gay man. I relate to that with my brother. It took a lot for him to come out to us at a fairly young age and I know he feared for our reaction. Surprisingly, that is the one time my mom totally stood up for him and didn't let that affect our family. I knew I could tap into those memories. Wanting one thing for him and finding out it would never be that way but accepting that it was okay. Doing Tammy Wynette, I knew how she must have felt with her abusive relationships with her husbands. I can place myself into that situation and use that emotion. The same can be said for the happier emotions of having wonderful children, love and respect.The comedies are the more challenging. I love them because I have to create something completely not me. I don't normally consider myself funny. I try but I don't really think I'm that funny. I have to become that way. I tend to use a lot of physical humor and voices. I don't care about making a fool of myself because it works for the character. It is a process to come up with things I feel work for me and the character. I talk to people and flesh out ideas and input from others and then put them into what I do. It is a constant adjustment too. I play around till I hear the responses that seem right. Feedback is a great help. Sometimes I pull from other actors that may have done something similar and use what I can from it. Amnesia was a total airhead with a little girl speaking voice but huge singing voice. It was so fun. I love doing accents for characters; English, Irish, Spanish, Russian, Southern. Putting them in weird out of place situations is awesome. Interactive dinner theater in PA really helped hone my comedy chops. I love having to think on my feet when the audience responds. Anything can happen. I hear you. Straight acting can be incredibly challenging, but comedy is an exact science. Are you in the next show at GAP?
I wish I was. I actually had to take this one off. I have to have a hysterectomy and I have been putting it off for about a year and half. It isn't life threatening or anything, more a painful annoyance but it needs to be done and the summer is the only time I can do it. Sometimes life gets in the way. I will be in the next show, though, Beetlejuiced. I am super excited about that. It is a great premise and I love the whole thing.
What are your dream roles? You have an extraordinary voice. I think someone should write an August Osage County opera for you (along the lines of Next to Normal).It' so funny that you should mention it but I would die to do Next to Normal. I would love to do Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Margaret in The Light in the Piazza, Edith Bovier Beale in Grey Gardens, Mama Rose in Gypsy, Madame Morrible in Wicked (love evil ones), maybe Evita, and on a lighter note, Donna from Mamma Mia. I know it is not a great show but it is FUN. An August Osage County opera would be amazing. I want do something that I can sink my teeth into and have fun. I once got to play Prince Orlofsky in a version of The Fledermaus. It was so much fun to be a different gender too. I love singing anything Jazz also. I used to have a little jazz trio back in PA and I love singing the American Standards and Jazz. Not a typical path probably but it is my life. I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life. I just wish I could do it full time.
I bet that day will come, Colleen! Thank you for talking with me. Your life and talent are an inspiration to me, and now to the myriad people who enjoy Broadway World.