to be overlooked or outdone, PYGmalion Theatre Company has been
pushing hard on their own season this year. While the first half of
the season was taken up with the mighty successful The Passion Of
Sister Dottie S. Dixon, it gave other productions a chance to do
their thing behind the scenes and prepare for the second half. Which
we'll be discussing the first of those today.
Any fan of jazz knows the works of Billie Holiday, earning the nickname The Queen Of Song from her skills behind the mic and penning her own works. Captivating audiences while recording works on nearly every major label at the time, and setting a new bar before passing at just the age of 44. The play Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill takes a brief look at her life with key songs serving as the soundtrack. I got a chance to chat with the director behind the play, Teresa Sanderson, as well as the duo performing on stage, Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin and Trevor J. Wicher, about the play as well as their thoughts on local theatre.
Teresa Sanderson, Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin and Trevor Jerome
Gavin: Hey guys, first off, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Teresa: I am really known around town as an actress been working in SLC for twenty years and I love it! I direct some and produce a lot of stuff around town. I am the Board Chair for the Davis Arts Council. We program the Ed Kenley Amphitheater in Layton Commons Park. I also Coordinate the Arts in the Park program for Layton City, We have 800 kids in area parks and give them a little taste of recreation, visual arts and theatre arts. the program is in its fifth year and just keeps growing. I am a happily married person, 25 years in October, Barry and I have two kids: a boy at 23 and a girl at 21. Our son Rob is a musician (and a Baker) and McKalle is in the third year of the musical theatre program at Weber State Honestly I feel so lucky to have this great family and get to do what I love.
Trevor: I seem to be known amongst my peers as the hardest working man in theatre! I'm a 25 year old Actor/Director/Music Director/Conductor/Lighting Designer who just loves to be a part of anything theatre. I grew up in Layton, UT (Father was in the Air Force and retired here), and moved to Salt Lake City about four years go to work after attending Utah State University in Logan. I'm always working on two or three shows at a time... call me crazy. I recently Musically Directed Reefer Madness that opened two weeks ago with Dark Horse Company Theatre, and Kiss Me Kate that opened last month with Rodgers Memorial Theatre. It's my passion, what can I say!?
Gavin: What inspired all you to take an interest in theater?
Trevor: It really all started with my elementary school choir when I was in the third grade. I loved being up front and performing for an audience. Additionally, my teacher was the accompanist for the choir and I wanted to play the piano like her, so I begged my parents to sign me up for piano lessons. Studying the piano changed my life in ways I didn't even understand at that age. It became the foundation for all that I would do in regards to singing, acting, performing, etc. From that point forward I started doing the annual church Christmas play and getting involved in choir and theatre classes in Jr. High. By the time I was in High School I was director of the Church Choir and Drama Ministry, and President of the Productions Company at school. I knew that aside from acting in theatre, that I was also beginning a nice long career as a leader and director as well!
Dee-Dee: I love where theater takes you. You can be so many different people and the applause is pretty validating.
Teresa: I think I have always been interested in theatre I don't remember ever deciding I was going to do theatre I just always did. I can't imagine my life without it. I am one of those saps that believe the arts can change the world at the most, and make it a better place to live at the least. I think art enriches our lives in so many ways I don't want to live in a world without it. That's probably why I give so much of my time making sure kids are exposed to art.
Gavin: Teresa, how did you come to be a director for Pygmalion Theatre this season?
Teresa: I found Lady Day a long time ago (about 15 years) I knew I wanted to direct it. I have been a Billie fan since junior high. I was working for Theatre Works West at the time we talked about producing it then but we weren't sure we could cast it. Fast forward 14 or 15 years and Pygmalion (who are a lot of the same folks from Theatre Works West days) came to me this summer and ask me if I still wanted to direct Lady Day. I said yes right away and we started talking about auditions. I knew whoever was going to play Billie had a lot of work ahead of them so I wanted to cast right away and I started then looking for piano players too.
Gavin: What made you decide to do Lady Day as your production?
Teresa: I love Billie always have. I think people only see the drug addicted Billie they forget the journey that got her there. It is amazing she survived as long as she did. She was brave and strong and she wasn't afraid to be herself She was the first female (never mind black female) to tour with the big bands that was the 30's and segregation was in full swing. Lots of places made her sit in the bus until she sang. She couldn't use the front entrance, or eat in the club she was singing in. And when she was with Artie Shaw the band really stood up for her they all ate in the kitchen with Billie and the colored help. Used the same door Billie had to. They were her Pals. That was only 50 years ago. I want people to think about that too. After she got in trouble with the authorities they would follow her around checking up on her. They never liked that she sang “Strange Fruit” they told her they would stop following her if she would stop singing that damn song. She refused and had it written into her contract that she could sing it anytime she wanted. She was so much more than what people remember about her. I wanted to show the whole woman.
Gavin: Considering the body of work and the music involved, were you looking more for a singer or an actress going into auditions?
Teresa: I was looking for the whole package because I thought there was someone out there who could deliver in both areas. But I was looking for someone who was connected to music in a real way. I was hoping for a jazz singer. Its funny that Dee didn't really care for Billie's sound. Dee has a great big powerful voice, not like Billie's at all but I knew she could find Billie. And when she read Billies stories it was oh so right. She understood the dialect right away heck she grew up in Baltimore she just got it.
Gavin: Dee-Dee and Trevor, what was it about this play that caught your eye to audition for it?
Dee-Dee: I just wanted to sing and to be able to sing music not written specifically for musical theater was very appealing.
Trevor: I do a lot of shows, and the main thing I love to look for is variety, or shows that I have not had the opportunity of working on previously; Lady Day was just that. I had never heard of the show before and with it being about Billie Holiday I knew it had to be an interesting project. Besides, I had an opening in my "theatrical schedule" and I am always looking to keep those openings to a minimum!
Gavin: What was the audition process like for you and what was it like getting the part?
Trevor: Well, I got a voice message from Teresa one day saying our mutual friend David Evanoff had referred me to her and she asked if I would be interested in Musically Directing and playing the piano for the show. I called her back that same day and got all the details and by the end of the phone conversation I had been confirmed to join the production team as Musical Director. It just so happened to be that the Musical Director/Piano Player would also have a few lines and be an actual character in the nightly performance so my "audition" process was a little more simple and easy going this time around.
Dee-Dee: It was a pretty smooth audition. I knew that she was auditioning another person even past the original audition date and so I was anxious.
Gavin: Dee-Dee, was there any research on your part about Holiday prior to rehearsing, or did you want to make the role more your own?
Dee-Dee: I had to research the music, and you can't separate the Lady from her music. I read everything and saw films and internet videos. Teresa also has a vast collection of Billie Holiday information.
Gavin: How was it for you learning these songs and matching her tone and performance to each song?
Dee-Dee: It was a bit intimidating. Billie has never been duplicated but she was one of the most influential jazz musicians of all times. I know that I don't match her tone perfectly. What I hope I do well is interpret the feeling she poured into each and every song she sang. I hope that resonates with people.
Gavin: Trevor, what was it like for you coming into these works and taking on the musical director role for this production?
Trevor: It's always a weird feeling starting a project that you are not very familiar with. Jazz is not a particular genre that I studied while growing up. I was classically trained and knew going into this production that it would be a nice challenge for me. Upon getting hired for the show I immediately started listening to as much jazz and Billie Holiday that I could in order to start developing a feel for the style. I started studying the actual music from the show and practicing back in December to be better prepared for when rehearsals would start in the middle of February.
Gavin: Have you tried putting your own spin on the material, or are you mainly sticking to the material at hand?
Trevor: Jazz in general leaves much room for interpretation or improvising so as far as the accompaniment is concerned I have been able to really play with that and put my own touch to it. With the vocals we tried to stay more true to the material and to what Holiday would have done when she performed it. We really took advantage of the rehearsals to explore and create a balance of the written notes and styles provided by the publishing company and what myself as the musical director and Dee-Dee as the actor felt most comfortable and natural with. While in the theatre world we usually work on consistency, we also know that Holiday rarely performed any of her songs the same way twice and very much played off of the mood she was feeling during each of her concerts. Dee-Dee has done a great job incorporating a little bit of that into her performance at each rehearsal.
Gavin: How is it for the two of you performing and interacting on stage, not just as a duo but essentially as a musical act.
Dee-Dee: It is wonderful. We fell into a natural rhythm and we feed off each others energy.
Trevor: It's been great! I love working with Dee-Dee. She is so easy and funny and we can goof off and have such a great time. I think naturally, our chemistry has worked so well on stage. I find myself being a task-master anyway, and my role as Jimmy Powers is almost similar in the sense that he keeps Lady Day on track and makes sure she sings the numbers she is suppose to in case she gets on her tangents. Jimmy Powers cares for her and takes care of her and we really have captured that chemistry very well I think.
Gavin: Going into opening night, what are your overall thoughts on the production?
Teresa: There are so many thoughts going into opening night I don't know where to begin, there are millions of detail things and each one is important to the show. There are still a couple light cues we are playing with. Still fussing with the last moment to get it perfect. Bringing in seats and bars and coasters and ties and tea thats the right color for booze and and and. But mostly I am looking forward to showcasing these amazing talents .Trevor Jerome as Jimmy Powers and Dee-Dee Darby Duffin as Miss Billie Holiday. It has been a total treat to put this show together. I am excited to let everyone get to know Billie. She was a gas!
Trevor: We have a fantastic production that is super prepared and just ready to have an audience. I'm so excited to be able to feed off of the energy of having that response and even silence at times, as we anticipate some pieces will have the audience so engaged there will be nothing but silence following the number.
Dee-Dee: I hope I remember all my lines! No, I want people to come with the idea that they will be traveling back to a bygone era. People dressed up to go hear good music. Music that touched them and meant something.
Gavin: A bit state-wide, what are your thoughts on local theater, both good and bad?
Trevor: I've always felt Utah has such a wonderful theater community. There aren't many places like Utah that have so many opportunities to perform and do what you love. I myself am discovering more and more companies and opportunities every time I blink. I was not familiar with Pygmalion Theatre Company until I was asked to do this show. The bad part is we have so many talented performers, directors, designers and musicians and most places are hardly able to pay them what they deserve if even anything at all.
Dee-Dee: I am seeing some wonderful productions coming out of Utah theater.
Teresa: I gotta say I am proud to be part of the theatre community in SLC. It is vibrant and special. When we needed tall bar stools, we called SLAC and they were happy to help. We needed a bar one phone, a call to the Egyptian Theatre and we had a bar. We promote one-another's projects in our programs. Offer discount tickets to each others shows and this project is part of the Edward Lewis Black Theatre Festival. That kind of energy is good for every company in town. And there are a million little companies, which means great opportunities for work!
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to improve it?
Dee-Dee: I of course always think we can do more by mentoring more diverse writers and bringing there stories to life.
Teresa: Money would be good, we can always use that.
Trevor: Being very optimistic here, but perhaps getting out of this recession and seeing people spending money on things like the arts again, I believe theatres will find themselves in stronger financial positions to start offering more compensation in order to get the quality of talent they need and deserve. It's all about time. I've seen theatres come so far from paying $15.00 a show minimum to now $30.00 a show minimum. It's a step... maybe a baby step, but it's a step.
Gavin: What's your take on the recent push to bring “Broadway to Utah”?
Trevor: I think it's a beautiful thing. People are becoming more and more educated on theatre and the arts, and this is a great way to give them an opportunity to see amazing theatre without the costs of leaving their city to fly to New York, Chicago or LA to see professional shows. It's so important for us to have the proper facilities in order to bring these shows in. What most people don't realize is we end up getting 2nd or 3rd run tours that have been scaled down in order to fit their elaborate sets into our space. Think of how long it took for us to finally get Lion King here! I would love to see a new facility in town where the stage is large enough to host a Broadway tour on it's initial run! But again it's about educating people and I think we are finally seeing that push to do so.
Teresa: Hmmm. Broadway in SLC Okay, I am all for getting people to the theatre, so I guess whatever works. I am a musical theatre girl. Love it! But the older I get I care less about sets and costumes and more about a story. And I wonder if they really know what it would take monetarily to run a Broadway Theatre in SLC There is so much great local theatre going on I would rather see people support that.
Dee-Dee: I think Broadway is great, but I also think that local and regional productions are the backbone of theater.
Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of the year?
Teresa: Next for me is Sordid Lives, in fact I start rehearsals for that before Lady Day is closed. I played this role for PYGmalion last year and had such a good time I was excited to revisit Lavonda Jean Dupree. and I get to share the stage with some of my dearest friends. Its more fun that a grown up should be allowed.
Dee-Dee: A break, this was exhausting! I hope to be doing more singing this summer.
Trevor: Well, I am lucky to have a few other performance opportunities already in the works. After this production I'll be playing Keyboard for Bingo: The Musical in May at the Grand Theatre, playing keyboard and making an appearance in Hair up at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City in June/July, and musically directing/conducting Guys & Dolls for Sandy Arts in August. I'm sure I'll work it out to perform on stage in at least one other production this year... somewhere!
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Dee-Dee: My husbands bands, Slick Rock Gypsies and StuK. He plays bass. We are a very musical family.
Teresa: Please see Lady Day and don't miss Sordid Lives, and come on up to Davis County and check out our “Summer Nights With The Stars” series. More info at DavisArts.org.