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BWW Interview: Joanna Gleason: FROM CAMPFIRE TO CABARET at The Performing Arts Center, Purchase College

Photo by Stephen Mosher

Campfire to Cabaret - February 1, March 30, April 27, 8pm
In front of a live audience, Tony-Award winning actress Joanna Gleason will lead a select group of students from Purchase College's Conservatories in an evening of storytelling, drawing out personal narratives via a mix of intimate discussion, interactive demonstration, and hands-on exercises. For the students, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience; for the audience, a rare opportunity to observe the creative process first-hand.

I am fascinated about your Campfire to Cabaret Masterclass series at Purchase College. What made you decide to try this format?

Actually, Barry Pearson contacted me and said- they were very generous- they actually granted me the Rockefeller Award some years back for service in the theater, and he then reached out and he said, " I hear you've been teaching" and I have been teaching for about thirty years now- at professional schools all around the country and in high schools and colleges.

They are an extraordinary Performing Arts College, part of the SUNY system. They have a drama department, theater department, dance department, music department, which encompasses opera and jazz, and he said "Would you like to come and do a master class here?" And I said, "You know what I'd really like to do is get students from all of the disciplines who don't really know each other, because everybody kind of stays in their own department. I mean, opera kids don't really mingle a lot with the drama kids.

I know what you mean. I received my MFA there for opera. It would have been great if we could have collaborated more with those disciplines back then.

I think that being my feeling about the kind of unity that this particular campus offers, also, as artists, that we start to get more involved now, in this time of life, or at least this is the thrust of my teaching in what stories do we tell? And how can we tell other people's stories because what I've seen in the last few decades, actually, is the emphasis on how do I tell my story? And only mine.


And you do need drive, and you do need a healthy ego, and you do need a lot of "Okay, I fell down I'm going to get up again" after auditions and things like this. I mean, believe me, I've had auditions that would just crumble you, until I learned that you're really only allowed twenty minutes to grieve. I mean, I actually, if you set a clock, and say, "All right. I have to force myself to feel as bad as I can feel for twenty minutes, the end of the world." You really won't make twenty minutes.


You just have to kind of let go. But I thought, "Let's see what I can do about bringing all this together." So I did one which was kind of the experimental- I call it the "first pancake" when the griddle isn't really hot enough, you know?


That first pancake just doesn't brown. So, I had a couple dancers, and I had a young man who is a jazz singer and I had an actor, and I think I had an opera singer that time.

What did you have them do?

I asked them to bring in a ballad from the musical theater or an aria or James Taylor, but something that's not a fast, perky, peppy song because those are silly songs. And so, they did and I went to work doing the class that I always do, which is, I change the context of what they're singing. I change the subtext of what they're singing. I involve them in each other's' exercises and we create literal scenarios where the song that they are singing becomes their dialogue, in a way. And by giving them a greater context, and by putting other people on stage with them, they're not nervous, their voices- they don't even think about it and they come out and it's quite beautiful, most of the time. Their thinking engages, it engages their imagination, their role-playing, and they also connect to one another. It went so well that Barry Pearson said to me, "I'd like to set up four evenings where the public is invited to come see these. And watch, "What part of this creative process can they actually watch?" and see how we make art.

Yes, and would they feel like they get something out of it? Would a dancer feel like they learned from an opera singer?

Exactly. In fact, at the end of the last one we did, there were like hugs and tears because we had ended calling back to a situation I did with the first performer. Re-establishing that scenario, and plugging in now the actor's going to sing her song, while using these people that we saw an hour ago in a different context, in the same context-

And it became this kind of scene, where everybody was playing a part- and there's no script, of course, it's just what's happening. What are you thinking while this person is singing? And you could see story after story being told. And you could see the energy flying around the stage. And it was a complete little one-act, done in a song, with one person singing. And they felt so much that they had been part of something.

The dancers felt they had been part of something theatrical. The singers felt that they had been part of something more dramatic. The actress felt that she could use all her gifts, acting and singing at the same time.

They must completely have to leave their egos at the door!

And I never meet these students before the night. And, they don't rehearse before the night. And I have a wizard music director named Mark Fifer. Mark and I have a kind of wavelength where we've done this now so often, that he'll kind of know where I'm going and what he does in supporting these singers is phenomenal.

So, what do you get out of doing these classes compared to performing yourself?

I think this uses more of everything I know but have very few chances to actually do as myself. I'll sing- I did a Cabaret show at 54 Below, where I literally wrote a book, and put in the songs of my life and there was patter but it had a story. It had an arc- and it was my story- it was very satisfying.

Well, that's when I get to guide the narrative. As an actor, you rarely get to guide the narrative. When somebody hires you and says, "Would you please be the judge?" Or, "Would you please sing this one song 'cause we're going to throw this character a song?" or, "You're part of nine other songs." And I think, "You know, I've done all that."

So true!

I've done all that. I love opening up a young performer's imagination. I love showing them that they so much more to work with using their intelligence and their history and other people's histories.

And there's one more thing, I also think we get to sing for the guy who can't sing. We get to tell the story for the person who can't articulate what's going on in their life. And if we can start to break down, and say, "You know, we get you. Maybe it goes something like this" and then we do our work. Then maybe, without nailing it on the head, they go home thinking, "Yeah, I don't feel so invisible anymore."

That makes sense.

And I think we're at that place right now, in culture and in life where- For my purposes, teaching gives me a purpose that I don't feel as an actor.

Yes! By the way, what do you think of seeing all of this now, musical theater coming to the forefront again like in movies and Broadway is booming again, I mean do you feel excited by it all?

Yes, I think it's thrilling. And I think that Hamilton is thrilling. And I thought that The Light in the Piazza was thrilling. And, Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet is thrilling. These are smart and they have real characters in them and the music is interesting and developed. And then there are the smaller ones, there's Fun Home and Dear Evan Hansen the ones that also tell a story in a smaller way but the stories are as big.

Less can be more.

And so I think all of that is tremendously exciting because look at the variety of performers that are called upon to do these shows. Smaller chamber shows.

You know I say to all my classes- I make them take an oath. The minute you come into class, I say, "Raise your right hand, repeat after me." And they just sort of blindly follow. And I say, "I do not guarantee my voice" and they say, "I do not guarantee my voice." And then I say, "Comma" and they all say, "Comma" and then I say, "Why would I? I guarantee to tell the story until the story is told." And they say this oath, and in a way, you can see them relax, thinking, "I'm not going to be judged on if I hit that note. I'm here to tell that story. I can polish up the notes later." Now the opera singer is, as you know this, you have an obligation to hit those notes.

True. It can be all we think about!

Or they're going to throw cabbages at you at La Scala.

Ha, yes!

And so, there's a way to let that be the easiest part of your night.


It becomes the easiest part of your night when you free yourself. You know the note is there. And sometimes I have people sing at a complete step higher. And once we've done it a complete step higher, when we go back to the original key, it's a piece of cake. So then we can think about the thinking. And we can think about, "What is the subtext?", "Where is the motion of my thinking here?", "Past, present future?" And you get so busy with the actual literary and dramatic pursuit- the map of "Where do my thoughts go in the room?" That the voice just follows.

Now do these students, do they get intimidated knowing who you are?

For about a minute. Just for about a minute. And then, not.

So they're able to let go?

Yes. They let go because it's not a performance class, it's not an audition class. And, the other thing I do, which I've always done, is I say to them up front, "You're going to start singing and because I don't know you and I have no plans and you should have no plans either, I'm going to stop you about eight bars in, and I'll think about what I want to do and we'll do it." So they're know they're going to be stopped. Which means, they just go. And I do stop them, eight bars in, sixteen bars in. And I think, "Okay, okay, okay, this is what I want to do." And we go to work.

So you can tell from their first entrance where this is going, like what you're going to need to work on.

Exactly, I can. And it's all very revealing. You know, you guys reveal yourselves to me in about thirty seconds because I've been at this for so long. "Ah yes, okay. First born, I get it." You know? "Never had a pet, okay." Like, it's all right there. And it's so tender and you want to be revealed. We are these spinning coins and one side of the coin it says, "Please know me for the all the amazing, fantastical things of me, that I- when I sing to myself in the mirror in the shower and I feel I can do this-" And the other side of the coin is "Oh my god. If you ever knew me, or got too close, you'd see I'm a fraud, I don't really do this, I'm faking it, everybody else is better" And we are always both of those things. We are always that spinning coin of "Know me" comma "Don't me" too well.


And I try to let them see that it's not about you, it's about the character you're playing, or singing or dancing and the story they're telling, and you can relate to it because you can bring it "this close" to you, and make it look like it's you and of course, we will get to know who you are. We can't help but reveal who we are. But the mission is to reveal something- to turn the lights on, and let the audience see a little bit about themselves.

Do you have the audience interact?

Yes. We have them sitting on stage. So we're right there. We've taken away the fourth wall entirely. It's interactive in that they can ask questions. You know there was a guy who jumped up to be a part of our exercise, in the last one, because I needed some bodies, you know "You be the preacher, you be the father" and they just jumped up, and they were so willing that the wall completely disappeared and nobody felt that they had to perform.

So, it's almost therapeutic.

It's in many ways therapeutic.

Do you decide that "I want to have to two dancers, two singers, two actors, etc.?"

  1. I asked for was, "Can I have one of each? And maybe two actors, give me a dancer, get me an opera singer, and get me a jazz singer." I will never have met them, I don't know these kids because I haven't been watching them in class. I sent out a list of two-hundred acceptable songs. They come through the forties through 2016, all from Broadway and Off-Broadway, or, the Great American Songbook - Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Harold Arlen. Maybe Billy Joel and James Taylor and Paul Simon songs, and Stevie Wonder songs that work. I've got a whole list, pick from that, and then, I'll meet them at seven, or six-thirty. We meet for an hour and half - 8-9:30 pm.

Oh, it seems so innovative. Do they tie your appearance to the upcoming Fiasco production of Into the Woods at PAC because of your presence? Or was that just a coincidence?

I think it was a total coincidence but I'm going to go and meet everyone and be available for kind of like a "Q&A" in the lobby before the show-

Oh that will be a thrill for all your fans!

And then I'll have the pleasure of seeing the show, I heard it was wonderful- this incarnation. I hadn't seen it when it was in town, so I'm going to get to see it.

I hear it's a quite scaled-down, I guess, from when you were in it.

Yes. Yes. We had trees.

One of my friends wanted to know if you still have the cape.

I don't have the cape but this is what I have- I have the witch's stick, which is fantastic, I have the brooch that I wore.

Theater Geeks everywhere are wigging out!

What else do I have? I had the witch's stick, and my brooch, yeah, Oh! I wanted Milky White, but I couldn't get Milky White.

Oh that is too bad.

Yes, no, they drew the line at cattle. No livestock.

What did you think of the movie?

I thought the movie was terrifically done. I'm so, you know attached to my peeps from the original that this was, to me, and in a sweet way, it looked like my grandchildren found our costumes in the trunk in the attic and put them on and decided to do the play that their ancestors did. In that way, it's a kind of homage every time somebody does it, and I do feel a bit possessive about all of us as a group. The other thing about film, it's just a very different feeling. You feel safer watching a movie than you do watching a play. Because in a play, there they are right in front of you and there's no going back and there's no editing, and there's no cutting away from, so I like the fact that the peril- we all seemed more innocent, I think.

And then Disney took it over.

They know their market, and they knew what they had to do to make it the thing that everybody loved- the most easily translatable version of what they knew that their audience would love- and I thought everybody in it was fantastic. But I like the kind of bumpy- sometimes the sets would collide, the trees would get stuck in each other, and the stagehand, wearing like an elf hat, would have to come out and you know-

Yes, like theater.

Yes, like theater. And I liked the fact that we got to do it in the moment, of turning from people who were naïve in a way, to people who were now disenchanted. See what the world could be. And you could do it in a night, in a period of time, in a location where you couldn't escape. You're sitting there watching them go through it, which is why I just prefer stories on stage to stories on film.

Yes. Yes. Wow, I just feel like had my own master class. This is great.

What did you sing? Are you mezzo, or are you soprano? Or what are you?

I'm what they call a "Zwischenfach," like I can go both ways. I mean I trained as a lyric Soprano, but I find that whenever I get gigs I sing second Soprano or Alto, or things like that. A gig is a gig in my opinion.

A gig is a gig, completely. I, for fun, sing opera because I love it. And what I realized, that I never developed or never had any use for, or actually, here was the big thing- I have a very big voice which I've never used-

Well, I know, I will say, I did sing along with you on the "Into the Woods" recording a lot. You were my Carpool Karaoke. I am so grateful and humbled to talk to you!

This is a pleasure, thank you.

And I look forward to seeing you in action!

Yes, we have one class February 1st and then there's one in March and one in April.

I think people will really appreciate and learn from the process!

I think they will too.

Campfire to Cabaret

February 1, March 30, April 27. In front of a live audience, Tony Award-winning actress Joanna Gleason will guide a select group of Purchase College students in an evening of song that is part master class, part improvised musical theatre. Watch as the students become part of each other's stories and new narratives develop before our eyes. For the students, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience; for the audience, a rare opportunity to observe the creative process first-hand.

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