Interviews with director Stephen Nachamie, musical director Christopher Youstra, and performers Todd Alan Johnson (King Arthur), Aaron Ramey (Sir Lancelot), Evan Casey (Mordred), and Bill Largess (Merlyn and Pellinore).
Audiences are royally in love with Olney Theatre Center’s production of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, and it’s due to the royal performances of its leads –Todd Alan Johnson, Aaron Ramey, Evan Casey, and Bill Largess.
I first asked Director Stephen Nachamie about his vision for Camelot, and Musical Director Christopher Youstra about re-working the orchestrations for his small orchestra.
Joel: What was your original vision for this production?
Stephen: My original vision had a lot to do with early discussions with the Artistic Director, Jim Petosa about what is our goal for telling this story at this time. The new president at the end of his first year really resonated with me. I wanted to tell the story of the man, not the myth. A man of and from the people – a man destined to create a new ideal. I wanted to tell the story with the question in mind – “ What would you do if all of a sudden, you were destined to be the greatest leader ever, and had a chance to really make a change?”
Joel: Is the production we see on the stage close to that original vision?
Stephen: This production is close to that vision – all things change and grow when collaboration begins. The Actors bring their own personalities and quirks to the rehearsal room and the roles – this guides me to edit or encourage certain moments and traits.
Joel: What is it about Camelot that made you want to direct it?
Stephen: Camelot is a challenging piece – the script has been through many incarnations since the original production. The challenge of telling this wonderful story to a 2009 audience appealed to me.
Joel: You are wearing two hats – director and choreographer. How would you describe your directing style, and the choreography of the show?
Stephen: I believe that all expression in a musical has to be in the same world – therefore all the texts you are dealing with – verbal, musical, and physical – have to speak the same language. I am not an “ivory tower” director who looks down at the action – I am very much “in the pool” with my cast. I have a lot of fun with my casts – but we also work incredibly hard. There is a stamina required for a piece like Camelot – it is a very verbal and vulnerable evening – the stakes on these characters’ lives and decisions are incredibly high. In our exploration of the work, I try to also “train” through repetition, the strength the actors will need to sustain the journey required in this “marathon”.
I come from an acting/movement background, and it helps me working with them to see what the action and physicality feels like and how it furthers the scene and story. Choreographically, my associate choreographer (Tara Jeanne Vallee) and I worked very hard on creating movement representative of the era and court that would tell a story and create the stage pictures to enhance the psychological journey Arthur is taking. This is not dance for dance’s sake.
Joel: What was the most difficult scene to direct and choreograph?
Stephen: Actually the two most intricate sequences were “THE LUSTY MONTY OF MAY” and “GUENEVERE. THE LUSTY MONTH of MAY” was a challenge because I did not want to present it as a cliché musical choral number. My goal was to show the relationships and frolic of the court – and Guenevere’s journey as instigator of this behavior and festival. We kept molding that piece as it went. The GUENEVERE section was also challenging as I wanted to use all movement economically, but still show the journey in Arthur’s mind. This number was a fun collaboration with my associate, the set designer, and fight choreographer Casey Kaleba. We kept paring it down to what was most effective.
Joel: You worked on another mega-musical here last year – 1776. Why not direct a small musical where you’d have less tsuris (trouble)?
Stephen: I have been very fortunate that my career has given me opportunities to work on such a range of productions: some as intimate as Torch Song Trilogy (with Seth Rudetsky), Driving Miss Daisy, even … Charlie Brown to shows as big as Dreamgirls, Cabaret and Camelot. Each presents its own challenges in storytelling and finding the truth of the world of the piece. I have a range of interests and enjoy new challenges.
Joel: Why do you like directing the larger musicals?
Stephen: I like story telling, whether in an intimate or spectacular manner. There are some stories and moments that can only be expressed through the sheer energy and emotion of a large ensemble. Each member of the company brings a different life and relationship – and I enjoy the challenge of collaborating with a cast to flesh out that element – and watching it grow through the run. There is a wonderful and intense energy that comes from a large ensemble.
Joel: What was the greatest challenge for you directing in the Olney Theatre Center space?
Stephen: The Olney has a very interesting challenge – the orchestra section is very intimate and almost a thrust space, whereas the balcony sees all the bigger pictures as well. It is a great challenge to create a piece that tells the truth and serves both purposes and views. I enjoy making sure every seat has the same journey.
Joel: Introduce your talented cast to our readers.
Stephen: The cast is quite wonderful and diverse. I was looking for actors who could be very centered and vulnerable – while still being able to address and earn the musical elements of the show. I had been in passing with Todd Alan Johnson for some years in the business, and saw some of his work in Boston. He brought a very cerebral “Arthur” to the audition, one who could also approach the world with the wonder of a young boy. I was very interested in working the side of “Arthur” that is still that young squire.
Patricia Hurley as Guenevere brings a wonderful freshness to the role, she was able to be regal while still capturing the young girl wanting adventure. We see her grow up in this play. Aaron Ramey comes to us from Broadway’s Young Frankenstein, and Barrington Stage Company’s Carousel. He brings a wonderful, robust voice – and a great range for Lancelot. Lancelot grows from a young boy full of blind devotion – into a man dealing with his own contradictions.
Joel: What are the contributions of Chris Youstra, your musical director, and your design team?
Stephen: Christopher Youstra is a very generous and amazing collaborator. I had discussed with the team early on in the process that one of my goals was to tie our story telling (as TH White did in “The Once And Future King”) to our current pop culture ideas of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round table. Chris really worked on finding the musical landscape of this world. His orchestrations gave a wonderful life and breath to this production. He makes 6 pieces sound like 30. He is always interested and eager to find the sound of the character, and underscore their emotional journey. His wonderful work was really intrinsic to telling this story for 2009 – and bringing us slightly out of the 1960 musical theatre sound.
Jeremy W. Foil, the set designer, and I spoke for months about creating a set that could change perspectives of where you are in the castle and outside of it, and that would leave a grandeur and a vulnerability. I wanted the court to always be able to keep an eye on the king, and the king to always be accessible to the court. I think we found a wonderful fluid way to show this.
Eric Propp and I had wanted to find a look that called more towards the artwork seen in “The Mists of Avalon”, something that would not read as a day at the renaissance faire. He designed and coordinated a wonderful look for this show that really has a slightly contemporary take on this world.
Joel: Why do you enjoy working at The Olney Theatre Center?
Stephen: Jim Petosa, Clay Hopper, Brad Watkins – and the entire staff at the Olney provide a wonderful and trusting safe space to explore the piece at hand. The creatively as been wonderful on 1776 and Camelot to be able to tell the stories without a certain expectation being dictated. There is a wonderful support system there.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them when leave the Olney Theatre Center after seeing your production of Camelot?
Stephen: Hope. The show reminds us that we should strive to be our ideal selves. The wonderful new code of chivalry that Arthur dreams into a reality – is a very virtuous world full of equality. We all have ideals to live up to, but the show also reminds us that we are human and must forgive and learn We must never lose hope that we will one day once again achieve a “Camelot.”
Joel: You’ve had a very busy year. While you were rehearsing for Camelot, you were working on Adding Machine: A Musical at Studio Theatre, and were musical directing Sweeney Todd at Toby’s – The Dinner Theatre of Columbia. How did you juggle all this at the same time?
Christopher: It’s been a pretty hectic year. I also recently did some work at the Kennedy Center for Teddy Roosevelt and the Ghostly Mistletoe and Chasing George Washington (the tour). I have a very understanding wife and a lot of folks who work with some flexibility. It’s been a very rich time because all of these have been fascinating and rewarding projects.
Joel: You have musical directed other musicals here at Olney. Which was the most demanding?
Christopher: Call of the Wild was pretty demanding in that it had a lot of stylistic differences from what most actors expect, so we had to work outside the familiarity of the cast. They certainly rose to the occasion and did a wonderful job. I was proud of the work they did.
Joel: Have you ever worked on other productions of Camelot?
Christopher: No, this was actually the first time doing this show, so it was lovely to get a chance to do it at Olney.
Joel: How would you describe Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s score?
Christopher: It truly is a quintessential “Golden Age of Broadway” musical. On the one hand, you always leave your mark on a project, but you have to be careful with the institution of these songs. We certainly put our own take on some of the songs, but you don’t want to get in the way of these wonderful melodies that people have loved for so long.
Joel: Did you write new arrangements for this production?
Christopher: For Camelot – I not only had to reduce this immense sounding score to 6 musicians, but I also wanted to freshen a few of the moments in the show. For example, we have a wonderful Mordred in Evan Casey, and we wanted to give him more edge in “7 Deadly Virtues”. We also added some ensemble moments, particularly in The Lusty Month of May as well to – take advantage of our great cast.
Joel: Tell us about your orchestra.
Christopher: Well, in this day and time, it is difficult to reproduce the original sound of these golden musicals since budgets and pit size do not allow for 30 plus musicians. So I had to re-orchestrate the entire show for 6 – piano, harp, trumpet (and flugelhorn), reed (flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, and piccolo), trombone and percussion. It actually works pretty well, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that I have great players in the pit.
Joel: What is your favorite vocal performance in this production?
Christopher: I actually pretty much love all of the singing in the show – Aaron and Todd (Lancelot and Arthur) bring great big voices to the show, and I have been a fan of Patricia Hurley (Gwen) for several years. I also think that “7 Deadly Virtues” has become a hidden gem in the show. My favorite moment though may very well be “Lusty Month of May” because it is great hearing all of these big voices singing their hearts out.
Joel: Tell us about working with director Stephen Nachamie.
Christopher: Stephen is great. We spend half of our time just cracking up and he really works to make every moment in the show matter and contribute to his vision of the production. I think he did a terrific job, and I am sure we will work again soon.
Joel: What’s next for you? When do you start juggling again?
Christopher: I have a lot of exciting projects next year. We send out the Kennedy Center tour of Nobody’s Perfect and then I go to Ford’s to do Little Shop. Once that opens, I return to Olney to do Triumph of Love with Associate Artistic Director Clay Hopper. At the same time, a show for which I wrote the music and lyrics, The Dancing Princesses, is getting produced at Imagination Stage. I am so excited about this! The score is a lot of fun, and Ally Currin wrote a fantastic script for it that will make you laugh and cry. Following that, I am doing Passing Strange at Studio, Rent at Toby’s, and then return to Olney for Annie. It’s a pretty eclectic year.
Joel: When were you asked to come to Olney to be in Camelot, and why did you want to play King Arthur and/or Sir Lancelot?
Alan: Earlier in 2009, I auditioned for another production, where I had to prepare “I Wonder What The King is Doing Tonight.” I didn’t come close to landing the part that time, but really liked the song (my wife has forbidden me to sing it at home, I sang it so much) and decided to add it to my audition book.
When I saw that Olney was presenting the show, I contacted our director, Stephen Nachamie and arranged for an audition. The NYC casting director, Michael Cassara, and I have worked together on some projects recently. And at the audition, I was very happy to see Olney producer Brad Watkins, who had hired me for my first “professional” job over 20 years ago. The audition was a very positive experience for all of us, and I got the part. That was about a month-ish before rehearsals began.
Aaron: I was asked a mere two weeks before rehearsal started. It seems that I was not the first choice for this role, but it’s sure nice to get the call! Lancelot is one of those roles that is so often flat and one dimensional, or worse, looked at as merely a vehicle for “If Ever I Would Leave You.” I was very interested in mining the depths of humanity and inner conflict within him.
Joel: What is Camelot about from the point of view of the King Arthur and Sir Lancelot?
Todd: From the point of view of Arthur, it’s about discovering his purpose and living out this portion of his life. The discovery of hope, the loss of everything, and the promise of hope regained.
Aaron: Initially, it’s about Lance finally finding someone in Arthur that he can put his whole heart, soul and armor into defending. Not only the man, but the ideals he is choosing to stand for. Of course, the story takes a turn when he falls for Guenevere – and at those times – turns into an inner struggle to maintain the balance between his sense of duty and these feelings for a woman that he has never before experienced. Lance needs to find away to allow himself his humanity while still maintaining the nobility he has strived his entire life for. Sometimes, I think he’s more successful than others.
Joel: How do you relate to your characters?
Todd: I’d say I meet them about halfway. They very often make choices or come to realizations I’ve already made or arrived at in my own life. So it’s about exploring and justifying other life-paths, and sometimes forgetting/ignoring what I already know.
Aaron: I relate to his desire for balance that seems out of reach. And I believe that everyone goes thru similar struggles of conscience at one time or another in their lives. There is always an element of ourselves. Because as much as we may understand, “Oh, this character is going thru x, y, z, the defining and unique aspects of our performance will always come from our own perspectives and the ways in which our own experiences shade the circumstances of the characters we play.
Joel: What is the best advice Stephen gave you on playing your roles?
Todd: Stephen said, “None of you (meaning Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot) can let each other go.” That was a truly great observation. I think we three are still trying to connect to/build on that.
Stephen had to be tough on me to make sure Arthur didn’t come across as angry, petty, or exhibit any other off-putting emotion/behavior early on in the piece. I usually play the character you wouldn’t want to come across in a dark alley or run afoul of, so it hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park to find the lighter side of “Young Arthur” and make it come from a warm place. But it’s absolutely necessary, and it’s working pretty well now.
Aaron: “Split the difference.” Actors very often have differences of opinion with directors. Stephen is very wise to recognize that the best truth is often found somewhere in the middle of our two perspectives.
Joel: Describe your costumes, and how long it takes you to transform into King Arthur and Sir Lancelot.
Todd: I’m glad the creative team veered away from the “men-in-tights” direction. Most of the major pieces are rented from other theaters. The look is very specific to the actual period. There are plenty of great pieces that were created in Olney’s shop. When I look at everyone onstage, no one in particular stands out, which is a good thing. I take that back: one character really stands out wardrobe-wise: Mordred, who is an outsider, and his clothing supports that.
Since we nixed Arthur’s wig early in previews, the only thing I do is brush some color into my beard. I modeled the shape of my beard specifically on that of Richard Harris’s in the movie version, hoping for some subconscious transference of perception, I suppose.
Aaron: First, I don’t wear makeup in this show and I use my own hair. I’m the kind of actor who relies mostly on the moments just before I’m under the stage lights to prepare for the scene I’m about to realize. I prefer this to those who may be what we jokingly refer to as, “all ‘method’” in our approach and become Lance from the moment they call half-hour backstage. I don’t find that it adds anything to my performance to carry my character around even when I’m not part of the moment being played for the audience.
Joel: Let’s talk about your “11:00 numbers”.
Todd: “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight”:
I like singing this song in a quick tempo, and am glad Chris doesn’t mind it being played that way. It’s the first song of the show, and frankly, I want it to be exhilarating for the audience, even if they’re familiar with it.
“Camelot”: Well, it’s the title song, so it Must Not Suck. I think between us all (myself, Stephen, Tara, Chris and Patricia) it works pretty well in our production. I’m still shaping it.
“How To Handle a Woman”: This number came together early on in the rehearsal process and is the easiest for me of the three. I have no idea why.
Aaron: “C’est Moi”: This an interesting number because it gives us not only Lance’s admiration for the concept of the Round Table, but his unabashed ego and fully realized sense that he’s the best example of a sword-wielding, Bible-studying warrior one could ever ask for. An interesting aspect of the songwriting is that he does actively set out to find out who the man would be – who could possibly achieve the lofty standards that would be required of a Knight of the Round Table. And then he is equally surprised and elated to realize that HE is that man. For me, as the performer, I try to ratchet up the part of my personality that knows I’m good at my job, then take that concept and simply elevate it to the “n-th degree” while keeping the approach honest and truthful.
“If Ever I Would Leave You”: It’s amazing to me how iconic this song has become when you consider that it’s about someone confessing that he could never leave a woman that he’s having an emotional affair with. But what an amazing opening to Act 2, right? At this point in the story, Lance has been part of the Round Table for a couple years and life has fallen into a pattern. He writes madrigals for Guenevere and the knights have settled into their comfort zone within Arthur’s “idyllic” setting. But ultimately, we learn that while his sense of duty won’t let Lance betray Arthur outwardly, when they are alone, his love for Guenevere is his driving force – a driving force that compels him to stay even though he knows perfectly well – that even the thought of her is sin, and he should run as far as possible from Camelot. This is the universal aspect of this song that I think everyone can relate to. We have all wanted to be either inspired by someone enough to make them stay against their better judgment, or we have wanted to love someone with such a passion – that we would be having that debate with ourselves in the first place
Joel: Have you ever appeared in another production of Camelot?
Aaron: Yes, at Maine State Music Theatre, the summer of ’97. I was an intern that summer. I played “Sir Castor of Cornwall”. Never said a word of dialogue, but I was referred to by name in the knighting at the end of Act 1, so the name went on my resume.
Joel: How was that production different from the Olney production?
Aaron: Couldn’t tell you how it was different beyond this – while we were in rehearsal, our Arthur was bounding around, rehearsing “What The King is Doing Tonight,” I believe. He moved to get offstage and disconnected his Achilles tendon from his heel. He would be out at least 6 weeks and by then, we’d all be back home. So with no time to recast, they moved up our Mordred to play Arthur, and one of the interns was cast as Mordred. That intern happened to be Barrett Foa, who has gone on to much on and off-Broadway success. We’re friends to this day.
Joel: How has Musical Director Chris Youstra assisted you with your performance, and what’s it like to work with him?
Todd: Chris and I have a similar sense of humor… that always helps. In particular, I’m thankful every night that Chris has a very steady hand while conducting, which lends stability to the whole musical foundation of the performance. If the tempos are all over the place, the performers can’t get to the subsequent levels of bringing the piece to life. That’s no concern with Chris. He’s solid. Also, he’s done a great job of condensing the arrangements for our mini-but-mighty orchestra. The show sounds terrific. Of course, that’s a nod to our sound department as well. We are getting lots of compliments on the sound.
Aaron: Chris brings a great sense of humor to work. I really appreciated how much he respected my musicianship and was willing to try things like the key-change that we put into “If Ever…” He’s a hoot and a joy to work with.
Joel: Todd, I saw you perform on Broadway in Aida as Pharaoh, and in the National Tour of Les Miz where you were a great and scary Javert. Which one of these performances is your favorite?
Todd: Thanks! Aida was my Broadway debut, which was an unforgettable milestone, but it’s especially fun to be able to say, legitimately, that I “played the Palace.” In that production I played “Dad” to Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel, Will Chase, Felicia Finley, Matt Bogart and Taylor “Tell It to My Heart” Dayne. I’m only five years older than the youngest one of them and FIVE YEARS YOUNGER than the oldest.
I had a great time playing Javert on the road, and was blessed to star opposite Colm Wilkinson for six months in Toronto. I also received my Equity card with that role. Since I left the show (that was eleven years ago), I’ve grown a lot both personally and professionally. Revisiting the role a couple of summers back was a thrill. I suppose I particularly enjoy playing Javert because I feel I can deliver a truly heartfelt interpretation of the character to the audience. I know that guy really well.
Joel: Aaron, I saw you as Harv Fremont in Curtains, and as Jimmy Smith in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Which one of these Broadway performances is your favorite?
Aaron: I can’t pick a favorite. Broadway is thrilling, and I’ve loved every moment that I got to play a role on the Great White Way – be it Jimmy and Trevor in Millie, Aaron in Curtains, or Dr. Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein. Truly, a blessing!
Joel: Both of you have gorgeous singing voices. When did you begin singing on the stage, and how would you describe your voices?
Todd: Thanks! Glad you think so. [I began in]1984. I have a character singing voice. I will morph my voice and sing in whatever sound/style best suits the production at hand. I have a very full “Broadway Legit” sound I don’t use at all in Camelot. It wouldn’t suit Arthur in the least.
Aaron: My first state musical was The Return of the Star, the Christmas spectacular at Roxbury Elementary School in Solon, Ohio when I was in 4th grade. I played the lead, Monty Mean – a toy store owner who couldn’t see the spirit of Christmas. Yes, I believe this is still on VHS somewhere in my parent’s house. Yikes! That year, my music teacher also suggested that I audition for the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus, which I performed in for one season – before my voice changed too much to sing even the 2nd alto part. We did a nationally televised holiday concert that year with the Cleveland Orchestra and Choirs. Yes, I believe there is VHS evidence of this as well.
Joel: Tell us about your vocal training.
Todd: I had a fantastic voice and speech teacher in college. She taught us how our vocal apparatus actually works, so we wouldn’t damage ourselves using it. I never saw the point of finding a coach for singing. Singing for me is pretty much “speaking on pitch.”
I’ve read some basic music theory, and that kicks in when I need to figure out what the songwriters were going for with the direction and style of the songs.
Aaron: Pre-college I was blessed with fantastic music departments led by Dave Curtiss in Solon, Ohio. Otterbein College is where I started formal voice training with Jennifer Whitehead, who gave me a superb technical basis for my singing. In New York, my go-to guys have been Phil Hall and Aaron Hagan. Both are tremendous vocal technicians who have never lead me astray, and often helped me open up new aspects of my voice.
Joel: What is the most difficult song you have ever had to sing in a show?
Todd: Well, it wasn’t in a show, but I was to perform in a benefit and was asked to prepare “Being Alive” from Company. It wasn’t hard to learn, but it resonated so much with me at that point in my life, I had to hold the music to keep myself from completely breaking down when I sang it.
Aaron: I have to give two. First, “Soliloquy” from Carousel. It’s simply epic. The vocal and emotional range of the song are very demanding and when you couple that with it’s nearly 7-minute length, you realize that that song certainly separates the men from the boys. It’s a thrill to sing. Second, “Later” from A Little Night Music. This song is practically an aria, strictly from a musical standpoint. It’s also the highest I’ve ever sung, professionally as it has 2 high-Bs, one of which is sustained. However, when you couple the vocal complication with the fact that I had to realistically mimic accompanying myself on the cello WHILE singing the song, it certainly becomes one of the hardest songs I’ve ever had to perform. Challenges like that are really wonderful gifts for vocalists, and I wish there were more of them in contemporary musical theatre.
Joel: How are you enjoying your Olney experience?
Todd: Fortune Cookie Quote: “Ancient Curse: May you live in interesting times.”
The folks at the Olney Theatre Center truly strive for excellence. Everyone I’ve met here, from the theater staff to the local actors (who are all fantastic, by the way) is incredibly supportive. One couldn’t ask for a more positive environment. In all honesty, this role has too often been a difficult challenge for me. It’s not the kind of thing an audience would necessarily notice, but the company of Camelot has gone beyond the legal limits of patience and understanding.
It’s always my goal to make each performance meaningfully and measurably better than the last. But whether or not I reach that goal in this production is the most compelling drama in my life right now. Though I suppose, in the greater scheme, that’s a blessing.
Aaron: It’s lovely here!! It sometimes feels kinda like camp since many of us live next door to the theatre and share dining space and a living room. The audiences have also been very sweet to us.
Joel: Why do you think Camelot is still loved by theatre goers 49 years after it opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway – on December 4, 1960?
Todd: It’s a romantic, idealistic story set in the realm of legend. What audience can resist that? The music and lyrics are extremely well crafted and strongly serve the story and tone of the piece. The book doesn’t stray from the plot. Plus, it was created to be performed on a stage, by people who understood what works in the live theatre.
Aaron: Shows only survive the decades when they have a sense of universality and timelessness. Camelot embodies so much romance, redemption, hope and idealism that I think it can appeal to audience members across every demographic. You can’t really go wrong with enchantments, knights, fate, fair maidens, passion, betrayal, forgiveness and higher purpose.
Joel: Tell me what Camelot is about from the point of view of the characters you play – Mordred, Merlyn, and Pellinore.
Evan: Camelot for me begins when I arrive to stake my claim as the heir to the kingdom. The illegitimate son of King Arthur, I have developed an insatiable hatred for him and all that his kingdom stands for. As Arthur says in a scene in Act Two, I mock the chivalric code and various virtues that his kingdom is built upon, and I prey upon the other knights’ provincialism, all in an effort to destroy Arthur and those he loves, and make my inheritance come more quickly.
Bill: For Merlyn, Camelot is about a plan coming together. He’s worked for years to prepare Arthur for the kind of kingship that will make a peaceful world possible, and while he doesn’t get to see its unraveling, he has also set up the kind of success Arthur feels at the end. For Pellinore, it’s about how uncomfortable change can be. He’d rather knights went on doing what they’d always done, but he believes in Arthur as a person so he goes along.
Joel: How do you relate to your characters?
Evan: I relate to each character I play differently. Part of the joy in discovering and playing a new character is “finding the way in,” be it through certain physicality, a personal relationship in the story, or an emotional connection with the way a character thinks or feels. I try to leave myself open to exploring as many of these avenues as possible to really free up where the character can go. In the case of Mordred, I really think it was the joy and the amusement that I connect to most. While his joy and amusement tends to come from all things evil, I certainly share that same sense of fun in other aspects of my own life, so letting that live on-stage is a delight for me.
Bill: Well, I am a teacher – so I suppose I connect with Merlyn’s desire for his student to take what he’s learned and find his own way. As for Pellinore – I do sometimes wish things wouldn’t change!
Joel: How much of yourself is in the way you play your roles?
Evan: A great deal. I would like to think that the various characters I play are revealing new and different shades and colors of myself (albeit under different circumstances). Again, using the Mordred example, while I don’t share the same glee and delight in the dark and wretched, that same glee and delight are certainly a part of my life in other moments. And the hatred and frustration I have on-stage for Arthur and all things good, certainly appears in my life in other forms, for example when I see hurtful ignorance.
Bill: More in Merlyn than Pellinore, I hope. But in both cases – there’s a kindness that I hope connects with the real me.
Joel: What is the best advice Steven gave you on playing your roles?
Evan: Stephen really helped me to explore Mordred, particularly physically, and he really encouraged me to continue to take risks and have fun with where I was taking him. He allowed me a lot of freedom in trying and failing before discovering what we wanted Mordred to be.
Bill: To remember, in each case, what they want. And he was very helpful about how to show off that huge Merlyn costume to its best advantage
Joel: Describe your costumes, and how long it takes you to transform into your character.
Evan: Patricia may have some beautiful gowns in this show, but I have the BEST costume. My purple leather coat that I wear in Act Two is a costuming highlight for my career, and for the show. I only wish I could take it home with me (as do other members of the cast!). I have two costumes as Mordred, both of which are delightful and really display the eccentricities and vanity of the character. They also show him as an agent of change, because my style of dress is so different, and more fashion forward (to use a Project Runway phrase) from the rest of the characters. In fact, when the costume designer was trying these two outfits on me and asked which I liked better for the character, I said, “Ummm…can we please use both?” Because I knew it would be a shame to let either go unseen.
Bill: Merlyn is dressed like Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty – a huge gown of crushed velvet and gold trim with enormous sleeves, plus a wig, beard and eyebrows. I apply some age lines, whiten my own mustache, put on the hairpieces with tape. It takes about a half an hour. Pellinore appears in armor then changes to an “at home” velvet robe with a lot of studs and buttons. Then he changes to hunting clothes, then back, then back to the armor. I am changing all the time as Pellinore, but no one change takes very long.
Joel: Evan, your 11:00 song is “The Seven Deadly Virtues”. Set it up for us.
Evan: This song comes at the tail end of my first scene with Arthur, near the beginning of Act Two. After I introduce myself to Arthur and explain who I am, Arthur declares his wishes for me as a part of the court of Camelot and leaves me alone on-stage.
This song is really our best insight into who Mordred truly is. After having seen my manipulative and duplicitous nature on display, hiding behind a façade of smiles and laughter, we see the true nature come out, and the frustration, anger, and hatred for all things good. It is here that we truly see Mordred’s intentions, and that the story is going to a darker place. While the basic idea of the song is something I strongly disagree with, for obvious reasons (I don’t advocate evil-doing, and I certainly DO believe in the need to do good!), there is something to be said for being a man of action, which Mordred is. Although he is misguided in his intentions, it is also not enough for knights (or politicians, or clergy) to sit around talking about making important social changes, and never actually doing anything about it. We see this time and again when people criticize a president, or senator, or leader of any sort. It’s not enough to talk about doing the right thing, we want to see you put it into action. If nothing else, Mordred is certainly that, a person who puts things into action. So I certainly relate to the subtextual part of the song that is saying “stop lazing about thinking about what to do, and DO something!”
Joel: Talk about working with Musical Director Chris Youstra.
Evan: I give ALL credit to Chris for turning “Seven Deadly Virtues” from a simple little boom-chick patter song, into a delightfully dissonant, wonderfully crazy number, where we get real insight into this manic, scary part of Mordred’s personality. We really worked together to create what I think is a great new interpretation of the song. I am so grateful to Chris for making this number a joy to sing every night.
Bill: I only sing in a group number, “Guinevere.” But I’ve worked with Chris before and he’s great – very specific and yet very patient in getting the sound he wants.
Joel: Evan, you have performed at Olney in Call of the Wild (Weedon Scott), Fiddler on the Roof Fyedka) , and Lend Me a Tenor (The Bellhop). Which role was your favorite?
Evan: It would be impossible to choose one role as my favorite because they are all so very different, and I like performing each of them in the time I am doing them. That said, it is certainly hard not to enjoy doing a door-slamming farce like Tenor every night. Shows like that can be such tremendous fun, both with cast and with audience.
Joel: Bill: You appeared in 1776 last year. Who did you play, and why do you enjoy working here at The Olney Theatre Center?
Bill: I played Caesar Rodney, the delegate from Delaware who had cancer and rose from his deathbed to come back and vote for independence. There’s a lot to enjoy about working at Olney, but fundamentally I love doing these shows, great musicals, that no one is a) doing or b) asking me to do.
Joel: You also worked with Steven in 1776. How would you describe Steven’s style of directing?
Bill: Stephen wants the story told clearly, and he wants each character’s role in the story to be clear as well. He’s not a fussy director or one who goes in for “effects” from his actors– he wants honesty and yet he’s all for digging everything you can out of what’s there. And he’s not afraid of the comedy but doesn’t just want it played for “jokes.”
Joel: I’ve seen you perform so many times at the Washington Stage Guild, where you are a founding member, and have been the artistic director since 2008. Fill us in on what is happening with your WSG’s new theatre, and this year’s season.
Bill: The Stage Guild’s capital campaign for our new theatre has fallen afoul of the economy, and for now we are focusing on a return to full productions. We produced an evening of Shaw one-acts in October, Strange Bedfellows, and will have a spring season at the historic theatre at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. There’ll be two shows in the early part of 2010, titles TBA pending rights.
Joel: Why do you enjoy working at The Olney Theatre Center?
Evan: Besides the free parking and the easy twenty minute commute? Seriously, this is a theatre that truly is in touch with its community, and the community takes ownership of the theatre as well, and that is a wonderful thing. Despite the fact that Olney Theatre has now been performing year round for many years (as opposed to its earlier role as a solely summer stock house), it is still able to maintain this wonderful feeling of “camp,” where you feel home for the time you are there. This is not just a theatre, but a campus of life and social activity, and you can hop across the street for a drink or food, or go up the street for community shopping, or school, or church. It is truly unique in the DC community in that way.
Bill: See above. I love getting to work on these plays, and I so enjoy the collegiality of cast and crew
Joel: Why is Camelot the perfect holiday family musical?
Evan: The messages of forgiveness, might for right, civility, chivalry, and so much more, are universal, and will never go out-of-date. They are as true now as they were in 1960, when it was first produced, or for that matter, during the time of Malory. Combine that with a multitude of memorable songs and delightful rhymes, knights swinging sword sand clanging steel, and some delightful moments of comedy, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a show to put you in a spirited holiday mood.
Bill: It’s beautiful, melodic, a great story, gives you lots to think about, and our audiences are eating it up.
Camelot plays through January 17th at The Olney Theatre Center – Main Stage, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For information and to purchase tickets, click here: