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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Sherri Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Sherri Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson
Sherri Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson

Today's subjects, Sherri Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson, are currently living their theatre lives in tech for Jesus Christ Superstar at Signature Theatre in the Max space. Thomas is playing the high priest Caiaphas and Sheri, in a brilliant turn of non-traditional casting, will be playing King Herod. The production runs from May 9th to July 2nd.

Over the years, if you are a regular theatergoer in DC, you have probably seen this couple perform together and separately in many area productions. They have portrayed a wide variety of characters in musicals and plays, covering a large cross-section of the American theatrical landscape. A small sampling of shows in the DC metropolitan area include The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; Midwestern Gothic; Gypsy; 1776; Copenhagen; Mary T. and Lizzie K.; Walter Cronkite is Dead; Carousel; Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Sweeney Todd; Freaky Friday - and the list keeps going from there.

Of note, Sherri is the recipient of two Helen Hayes Awards and, as a cast member of the world premiere production at Signature Theatre, can be heard on the world premiere recording of Freaky Friday.

Their theatrical credits extend beyond the limits of DC and its inner suburbs.

Working closer to their home in Virginia, Sherri recently directed Steel Magnolias at Riverside Dinner Theatre. Thomas also worked there recently in My Fair Lady.

Sherri also appeared in Arden Theatre Company's production of Caroline, or Change and worked at Philadelphia Theatre Company in The Light in the Piazza and Elegies: A Song Cycle. Other regional credits include Outside Mullingar at Fusion Theatre Company, and The Music Man and Annie Get Your Gun at Stages St. Louis. On tour, she performed in Me and My Girl, Nunsense, and Big.

Thomas' regional credits include Candide at the Goodman Theatre; Shenandoah and Man of La Mancha at Wayside Theatre; A Murder, A Mystery, and A Marriage at Delaware Theatre Company; and Outside Mullingar at Fusion Theatre Company. You might have also seen him on television in House of Cards or in an episode of America's Most Wanted.

On a non-theatrical note, the couple's most important credit will occur this September when they celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary.

Sherri and Thomas are two of the hardest working performers in the area and with Jesus Christ Superstar, here is your chance to see this happy (they really are) couple back together on the Signature stage. The show itself promises to be one of the biggest theatrical events of the summer and Sherri and Thomas are two big factors in making it just that.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Sherri Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson
Left- Sherri Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson in Signature Theatre's production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Right- The couple in Signature Theatre's production of Les Misérables. Photo by Scott Suchman.

How did each of you get interested in performing?

Sherri: I started in high school. After much back and forth, I decided to major in theatre at Middle Tennessee State University and now have a BFA.

Thomas- It is something I have always done. Memorizing recitations for Christmas pageants at my church are among my earliest memories. My older brother and sister took part in their senior class plays in high school and it just seemed like the thing to do. Once I started, I never really stopped. I was never interested in sports and performing was something I liked participating in, and that people seemed to appreciate. It took a little bit of time for it to transform from avocation to vocation, but it has always been there.

How did the two of you meet? Was it in a production?

Sherri- In 2003, I did a reading of Highest Yellow at Signature's old space, lovingly called "the garage." It was led by dear friend Marcia Gardiner. Tom came in at the last minute to read the stage directions. I had seen him in shows around DC, but had never met him, so I introduced myself saying, "I know everyone you know, why don't I know you?" or some such. Two months later, we were in A Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre and we entered from the same side of the stage at the top of Act Two. We talked a lot in the wings and got to know each other, but I wasn't sure I liked him romantically. I did know, however, that I really wanted to be his friend. I wonder if Marcia Gardiner had a hand in our meeting...hmm.

Thomas- In the fall of 2003 Sherri and I participated in a reading of The Highest Yellow by Michael John LaChiusa at Signature Theatre, She had a role and I read the stage directions. Although we knew of each other and had many mutual friends and colleagues, it was the first time we actually met. Not long after that, we worked on A Christmas Carol, at Ford's Theatre, and that was where we really became friends. We started dating in 2004.

Sherri- You are playing King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. Is this the first time the role has been played by a female? If yes, was that what made the role so appealing for you to accept?

I am not certain if I am the first female Herod, but I have always liked Jesus Christ Superstar and told Joe [Calarco, the director] I would shave my head and strap down my boobs to be an apostle! I never in a million years thought I'd be in this show.

Thomas- Can you please talk about the approach Director Joe Calarco is taking with Signature Theatre's production of Jesus Christ Superstar?

Joe is looking to see Superstar with fresh eyes. Less of a full-fledged musical than a collection of songs based on a theme, Superstar is a challenge to bring to life. In this production, Joe is stripping away many of the trappings, design-wise, as well as assumed relationships and points of view that are commonly relied upon, many of which are based upon the iconic and broadly directed film. His aim, I believe, is for the audience to have a new experience with a story they feel they may already know.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Sherri Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson
L-R Sherri Edelen, Michael Russotto, and Tim Getman in Theater J's production of Copenhagen. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Sherri- While you perform primarily in musicals you recently appeared in Copenhagen at Theater J. What do you enjoy the most about taking a break from musicals every so often?

I like working, musical or not. Copenhagen was another show I'd never thought I'd do. I received audition coaching from Mitch Hébert, another wonderful actor/teacher in town. I just wanted to audition well, not thinking I'd get cast. I got the job a few hours after I'd auditioned. Thanks, Mitch! I have done other "straight" shows in town, Design for Living (Shakespeare Theatre Company), The Diary of Anne Frank (Round House Theatre), The Swan and Kimberly Akimbo (Rep Stage), Romeo and Juliet (Folger Theatre) and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Arena Stage). The easy part of a play is there is no singing, so it's just one less thing.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Sherri Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson
L-R Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, Naomi Jacobson, Thomas Adrian Simpson, and Joy Jones in Arena Stage's production of Mary T. and Lizzie K. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Thomas- You sometimes work at Arena Stage and have done both plays and musicals in the Fichandler space where the audience is on all four sides. What is the most challenging thing about performing a show in the round?

This is an interesting question considering that this production of Superstar is being staged in the round. That is somewhat of a departure for Signature, which often times utilizes a proscenium or 3/4 thrust.

That being said, there are some notable differences between playing the round in these two theatres. At Arena Stage, one of the greatest challenges involves the timing of entrances. There are about 13 steps (strides) that you have to travel from the backstage walk-around, at Arena, before you are actually onstage at the Fichandler. Learning when you have to leave backstage in order to arrive at the proper moment onstage takes a lot of rehearsal and the fact that you become visible to most of the audience when you are about halfway down the vom means you have to be active with your character's story long before you hit the stage. The configuration at Signature, at least as I understand it at this point, will not present this issue. However, all will be revealed in our tech rehearsals and we will adjust accordingly.

Once you get to the stage things get easier. At that point your only concern is that you and your acting partners remain as visible as possible to as much of the audience as possible. This usually can be achieved by not "squaring off" with your partners, but by relating to each other in somewhat of an askew fashion, or "shoulder to shoulder." All in all, I have always found working in the round to be very natural, much more like real life, and very satisfying. It is great being surrounded by your audience and there is no place to hide.

You both have performed in many productions at Signature Theatre. How many shows have you done together and what are a few of your favorite Signature Theatre productions? Please explain your choices.

Sherri - We played opposite each other in the The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Company. We've both been in Les Miz, The Boy Detective, The Hollow, and my favorite from the "garage" days, Urinetown. Outside of Signature, we've done My Fair Lady at Arena Stage and another favorite, Outside Mullingar at Fusion in Albuquerque, New Mexico!!

Thomas - I may be off by one or two but, I think this marks our sixth full production together at Signature Theatre. It is always a joy working together, being on the same schedule and sharing our commute! Favorites for me would probably be Urinetown and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but for very different reasons. Urinetown was just such a fun production to be a part of, period, and being able to share that wacky ride was a great joy. By contrast, in Whorehouse we played opposite each other, as the Sheriff and the Madame, and had many scenes shared onstage. I love having my wife as an acting partner! An incredibly gifted performer, Sherri keeps me honest and there is no one I trust more onstage. I know she always has my back!

Special Thanks to Signature Theatre's Deputy Director of Creative Content and Publicity James Gardiner for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

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