BWW Interview: Riley Costello makes his directing debut with THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at Hillbarn Theatre
Riley Costello already has three Broadway understudy credits (13, Bye Bye Birdie, and Everyday Rapture) on his résumé. He played Brad in Hairspray Live on NBC, Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Metropolitan Opera, and leads in regional productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Peter Pan. He's also worked on the premieres of new works by Duncan Sheik and Andrew Lippa. Now, at the tender age of 23, he's added to those credits by making his directing debut with The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, California.
RS: Why this show? Why not give yourself a little bit of a cushion on your first directing gig with Bye Bye Birdie or Hairspray or something you know well?
RC: Too easy. I'm actually so happy this is the first show I am directing because I saw it at Paper Mill Playhouse. A good friend was [working on] the production, and I went to see it to support him. I'm a huge, huge Disney fan, and after I saw it I really sort of became obsessed with it. I had so many ideas of just stuff I wanted to do it, and I thought, "Boy, I'd love to direct that one day." Of course, the next thought is, "Well, that's never gonna happen. No one's gonna give me that opportunity."
I tend to gravitate towards shows and art that is a little darker and a little more meaningful. Things that maybe have layers and are more than just a good night at the theatre. More than song and dance.
RS: So, do I sense directing some Sondheim in your future?
RC: Oh God, that would be... Hunchback was... that might be even harder. Maybe. At this point, I feel that a whole new door has been opened that I hope I could direct and act side by side. Yeah. God. Sondheim. I mean that would be... I have to decide which one I'd wanna tackle first.
RS: Tell me about finding this door that you've just opened.
RC: I have always sort of been a director. I think that was a big part of it. My poor family couldn't park the car in the garage for probably about six years because I had turned it into a theater. I hung all these industrial lights and would use those like gel holder things that you put in your school binder as light gels. My dad and I would go to Home Depot [for supplies], and we would build actual sets, and I would put on my full-scale, one-man productions of whatever show I was currently in love with. I used to play with the video camera and make movies of my friends. I realized in recent years that what I was really doing was directing.
I've been acting since I was six years old, and professionally now for almost ten years, so in that time you develop tastes, and you connect really strongly with some directors. I would see things and ask questions about what I was seeing on stage and why decisions were made. I was kind of thinking like a director. Finding that door? I don't know what it was, but something clicked, and I thought, you hafta just start. You can't wait for it to start. You hafta start.
So, I called Dan Demers, the artistic director at Hillbarn. I originally had pitched him for another show. We were all set to go on it, and I couldn't believe I was getting this opportunity. I asked for what I wanted, and it happened. Then he lost the rights to that show, and it was devastating. I thought, "Now what? That was my shot, and I lost it. Now what?"
I had a meeting with him in early December of 2016. He was really sorry about losing the rights. I was really upset. Then he said, "I think, I think I've got the rights to Hunchback for the season." I said, "Look no further. I'm your director. I got it. Trust me." I couldn't believe it.
RS: What is it about this particular show that speaks to you?
RC: I think there are a lot of things. I think it's one of those classic stories where, you know, it has really big classic things about life, you know, like right versus wrong and judgment and tolerance. Somebody in the position of power using fear and manipulation. There's a lot of "us vs. them" mentality expressed in the show. The thing that really, really interests me is that these characters are so beloved and so fascinating. There's a reason the story was written in the 1800s, and there's a reason that it's still being told today. It's a classic story with classic themes. There's a reason that we keep wanting to hear them, and, sadly, it's because we fail to learn these lessons as a planet, as a nation, as a society, we fail to learn these lessons over and over. I think audiences will be surprised how much this show connects to what we're seeing in the news and what we're seeing today.
RS: What surprised you in directing it? What did you discover that you didn't know was there before?
RC: The biggest discovery to me was, you know, that it's so easy to think of a classic story like this as just think of it as a dinosaur, you know, 200 years old, 300 years old. Yet there are lines in the book and therefore lines in the show that just completely shake you to your core because they are things we hear right now in 2017.
RS: So, for Riley, the actor, and Riley the human being, Phoebus, Frollo, or Quasimodo? Which one draws you the most?
RS: Good answer!
Thank you. I'll tell you why. She is by far the most interesting character in the show. I heard a heard a rumor that when Disney was developing it, they were thinking of calling it Esmeralda. She is unequivocally my favorite character in the show and in the story. She is the only person who is completely innocent, but she's not just a one-dimensional character. She is the only person that approaches every situation, no matter how gruesome, no matter how wonderful, with a completely open heart, free of judgment. She's the only person that sees Quasimodo and sees the humanity in him. She is also the catalyst for all the action in the play. Everything happens because three men fall in love with her. There is no story without her.
RS: What sort of show is just poking you in the ribs saying, "Do me next!"
RC: There are a few. I would love to do The Secret Garden. It is one of my favorite shows. I actually did it at Hillbarn when I was 10, I think. I would love to do Aida. I love that show. There are all sorts of tragic shows. I don't know why I am drawn to this stuff, but I am. They all have to do with loss. They all have to do with like tragic love stories. I don't know what that is. Also, having had such an intimate relationship with Hunchback, I would love to do that somewhere else so I can just be with it longer. There are things in the show that I would love to revisit. It's that special. So hopefully, hopefully, there will be another production of Hunchback. I'd actually also like to be in the show.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs through September 10 at Hillbarn Theatre.
*Member, Actors' Equity Association. | Images: Mark & Tracy Photography