Shelly Work, Amanda Rife on playing Daisy and Violet Hilton, and David Gregory on directing Side Show at Teatro 101
Whenever I hear that Side Show is being produced in our area, I find a way to see it. I was so impressed by Teatro 101’s production of Violet, (which I recently named as one of the Best Musicals of 2009-2010), that I knew they would do a wonderful job with one of my favorite musicals. I, my partner Alex, and our friends Renee, Marge and Paul were mesmerized by the talented cast, designers, and musicians lead by Musical Director Julie Parrish, and by David Gregory’s inventive and eye-popping direction.
From the moment I sat in my front row seat in this tiny theatre and watched the actual conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters as they flickered on a make-shift screen appearing in Todd Browning’s cult classic “Freaks”, to the dark and dazzling opening number “Come Look at the Freaks”, to the heart-breaking “I Will Never Leave You”- we were put through an emotional roller coaster. It was breathtaking. When Shelly Work and Amanda Rife began singing “Like Everyone Else” I was instantly blown away by their gorgeous harmonies, voices, and heartfelt performances – so I had to find out more about them.
Shelly Work (Daisy Hilton) and Amanda Rife (Violet Hilton):
Joel: Introduce us to Daisy and Violet, and tell me why you wanted to play these roles.
Shelly: Daisy – who I play – gets what she wants, but realizes that things aren’t always what they seem. Even with her success, Daisy sees that people still perceive her and her sister as “freaks” and she will always be different. This realization allows her to accept herself as she is and grow as a person. Like Daisy, I had to learn not to wear my heart on my sleeve. I find it difficult to hide emotions that I feel, which I think is evident in my performance as Daisy. However, I don’t think I’m quite as brave and outgoing as Daisy – I wouldn’t call myself shy, but I’m much more reserved with strangers or new friends.
I wanted to play the role of Daisy because I love a challenge! I knew that this role would be very demanding in every aspect – vocally, physically and emotionally. I find that the more difficult the role, the more stimulating and satisfying it is to take on.
Amanda: Daisy and Violet are just your ordinary girls presented in a rather unorthodox set of extraordinary circumstances. At first, I was very interested in playing the role of Violet because the music is incredible. Also, how often do you get the chance to play a Siamese twin? I am one of three daughters and people are always telling us how similar we are, despite the fact that we view ourselves as very different personalities. This enabled me to relate to that aspect of Daisy and Violet’s relationship very well.
Joel: What did you sing at your audition and where were you when you received the call that the role was yours?
Shelly: Knowing the role required a wide range and a strong belt, I sang “With Every Breath I Take” from the musical City of Angels. When David called to tell me I got the role, I was at work – specifically, on the playground with 15 three-year-olds!
Amanda: I sang “The Raven” from the musical Brooklyn for my audition song. I was in the car when I first found out that I was cast as Violet. I was so excited I had to pull over for fear I might crash.
Joel: How did you prepare for your roles? What’s it like working with each other?
Shelly: Amanda and I spent most of our rehearsal time attached at the hip. I found her very easy to work with and felt a “sisterly” connection from the beginning. Although I had never met her, I was really excited to hear that she’d be my twin after witnessing her audition. I hope I have the privilege of working with her again in the future!
Amanda: For the role of Violet Hilton, I started preparing by researching the original Hilton sisters as well as various other instances of conjoined twins. I did not have the pleasure of see the original production, but in my research of the show, I was able to find quite a few clips of performances from Side Show Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner gave on TV shows and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. They are two amazingly talented women and despite watching these clips hundreds of times, they never fail to give me goosebumps. The next thing that Shelly and I had to tackle was the task of learning to move together. Working with Shelly has been such an interesting and rewarding process. This was our first time working together and we immediately clicked. It would be an honor to work with Shelly again.
Joel: What is the most challenging scene and song for you to perform in the show, and your favorite scene and song and why?
Shelly: I’d say the last scene, in which I sing “Marry Me, Terry,” qualifies as both the most challenging and my favorite. Both the scene and the song within required a lot of work on my part – uncovering Daisy’s complicated emotions throughout, and trying to portray them in a believable and natural way. Although the song itself is not necessarily the most pleasant to listen to, its emotional charge and difficult range make it more of a challenge than it may seem – and as I said before, I love a challenge!
Amanda: The most challenging scene and song is “I Want To Be Like Everyone Else.” It’s the first instance in the show that the girls reveal who they are rather than simply what they are. My favorite scene is “Tunnel of Love.” Visually, I find the scene very stimulating and it’s a major turning point in the show.
Joel: What advice did Director David Gregory give you on playing your roles?
Shelly: David really wanted us to feel that sisterly connection, and try to experience what it must have been like to live as one. He encouraged us to constantly stay attached, even during breaks or down time, to really get the feeling of what daily life was like for the Hilton twins. I absolutely loved having David at rehearsals – his directing style is clean, efficient and…well, direct! I felt that David always knew exactly what he wanted without being rigid about what he creates – if something didn’t work, he wasn’t afraid to admit it and try something else. But he always did it efficiently, without wasting our time. It was nice to work with a director who was decisive and stayed on track during rehearsals.
Amanda: David had a very specific artistic vision for each scene, playing a lot with tableau. After providing the actors with a shell of the scene, he allowed the actors to add layers to the skeleton until the scene became a living, breathing thing.
Joel: You both have these amazing voices. Tell us about your training, and other roles you have performed.
Shelly: I began voice lessons around the age of 16. I have been performing since high school and received my BFA in Music Theater from Shenandoah Conservatory at Shenandoah University.
Amanda: I did my undergrad at Towson University, where I received a B.A. in Theatre Studies. I have always had a passion for music and the vocal training I have received comes from a lot of singing in the choir at school and in the community. Most recently, I had the privilege of being part of the cast of Teatro 101’s production of Violet, which was directed by Ryan Michael Haase also at the Mobtown Theatre. I was also in Carroll County Community College’s production of Tommy as the Acid Queen, and I played the role of Frastrada in Pippin and was in the ensemble of Urinetown at Towson University.
Joel: Costume Designer Shannon Maddox has created some eye-popping, colorful costumes for you. Which one is your favorite, which one gives you the most trouble, and which one would you love to take home with you after the run ends?
Shelly: I love the green dress at the end of the show – I would totally steal that if I could! I think my favorites are the dresses from “We Share Everything” – they are simple, yet flattering, and actually look very fancy up close!
Amanda: My favorite outfit is definitely the dress I wear in the New Year’s Eve scene. Between the gown and the fur coat, it has a glamorous, old-Hollywood feel that I love. The one that gives me the most trouble is the outfit for “We Share Everything,” solely due to the fact that it is such a quick change. I really like Katie Solomon’s opening costume. She has these great oversized striped pants and belt with a vest that has a great vintage feel.
Joel: How did musical director Julie Parrish help you with your performances?
Shelly: Julie was infinitely patient with us as we learned this difficult score. Some of the music from the show seemed to make little sense, but Julie found ways to help us remember the phrases or find our notes in the music. She is an incredibly talented and patient musical director!
Amanda: Working with Julie has been a great experience. I agree with Shelly that some of the songs were quite complex (for example, “The Interview” in Act 1) and Julie was able to pull us all together and get us to our full musical potential.
Joel: Amanda, you and David Gregory were the choreographers of the show. How would you describe your choreography?
Amanda: The choreography is a compilation of classic and contemporary dance styles with nods to the original Broadway choreography- but with a modernized twist. The most challenging scene would definitely have to be “We Share Everything.” Because of how intimate the Mobtown Theatre is, it was difficult to put together something that filled the space without making it crowded.
Joel: Tell us about your co-stars Larry Munsey and Chris Rudy who play Terry and Buddy.
Shelly: I had the pleasure of working with Larry once before and have always admired his talent. Playing opposite Larry is knowing that you are safe onstage. He is always prepared, he always works hard, and if lines are lost, he can cover with ease!
Amanda: Both Larry and Chris bring such great energy to the show. Chris has such a light-hearted and jovial demeanor, that it’s impossible not to be affected by it.
Joel: Are there any roles you haven’t played yet that you yearn to play?
Shelly: Sweeney Todd is my favorite musical of all time – I used to pretend to be Mrs. Lovett in my bedroom when I was in high school! Although I’m still a little young for the role, I’m determined to play it some day!
Amanda: There isn’t really any one role that I have a burning desire to play.
Joel: What’s next for you after Side Show?
Shelly: I’m currently in rehearsal for Hansel and Gretel with The Pumpkin Theatre, which opens September 25th. After that, I think I’ll need a little break!
Amanda: No definite plans as of yet. I have a few auditions coming up as well as working on some original material with a few of my colleagues but nothing more concrete than that.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them after they see Side Show?
Shelly: I really hope after people leave the theatre, they think about how they treat others whom they consider “different.” After all, what makes someone a “freak”? Is it the way they look and how they act? And couldn’t any one of us be considered a “freak” by someone who doesn’t know us or understand how we live?
Amanda: Hopefully, the audiences will leave with a greater appreciation for local theatre – and that our production will inspire them to check out more shows going on in the Baltimore area.
I’ve enjoyed David Gregory’s performances at Toby’s Dinner Theatre and I have seen him perform in and choreograph productions in Baltimore, and he was named a scene stealer in this column. I always believed that this young actor/choreographer/director (who possesses such a glorious tenor voice) would do a fantastic job at the helm of Teatro 101’s production of Side Show. David shares his vision of the production, the challenges of working in a small theatre, and how he worked with his cast and designers to pull it off.
David Gregory (Director):
Joel: Why did you want to mount a new production of Side Show?
David: I’ve always loved Side Show and it seems to be one of those cult shows with a strong following, despite its short-lived run on Broadway. The music is fantastic and the possibilities to creatively let-loose are infinite. Theatres rarely produce the show. I think the sheer size of the show, in terms of cast, costumes, orchestra, and spectacle scare companies away from putting it on the stage. I’ve always thought the show would be more effective and personal in a smaller setting because it would bring the story right into your lap. It had also been awhile since anyone has performed it in Baltimore. The last and I believe the only time it was done in Maryland was at the Maryland Arts Festival. I think Baltimore was ready to see it again – this time in a different light. [Note: Kensington Arts Theatre produced Side Show in 2002.]
Joel: What were the challenges of putting this show on in the small space at Mobtown Theatre?
David: Staging 16 people on a small stage can be extremely daunting, especially with the vast amounts of choreography required in the show. We were able to somehow convey both intimate settings and large, lush vaudeville numbers on that tiny stage. If that weren’t enough, we were also working in a space that is very difficult to light – because of technical limitations of the lights and also the inability to isolate characters and scenes in a small area. To say it was a challenge is an understatement, but it is one that I welcomed.
In fact, most people thought I was crazy, but there was something about the impact of a large show in that small space that pulled me into the challenge. I am not sure I would have been as tempted to mount the show on a large, proscenium stage. The reason I think our show works well is because of its very intimate setting. There are only 68 seats in the house, so the audience can only go about 8 – 10 rows back before running into the light booth. It allowed us to bring the audience right into the circus tents and make them one of us. It is an incredible experience to have a large cast of phenomenal singers and a 6-piece orchestra sending that sound out into the small space, without the use of microphones.
Joel: How much of that original vision did I see on the stage?
David: For the most part, it’s all there. I usually try not to set too many constraints or be too specific right out of the gate, as the particular space requires you to be very flexible when it comes to staging. We start off big in terms of concept and then we can always pull it in a bit. I know my designers were always ready to kill me. They had so many sketches to revise and things to modify as we went along in the process. I did know that I wanted to create an intimate, darker tone for the show – a world where the freaks live both inside and outside of the circus. The film bookends, the canvas tents, freaks taking on the roles of the other characters…those are all part of the original concept. I think we always do a great job of bringing our visions onto the stage.
Joel: Introduce us to the designing team of Side Show.
David: I once read somewhere “There is no ‘I’ in THEATRE” and there could not be truer words. None of this would have been possible with the talents of the design team. Ryan Haase’s set design created the gritty surface for both the spectacles and the intimate moments. Danielle Robinette’s contributions to hair and makeup are unparalleled. Kurt Foster Smith and I took our first lighting design adventure together, serving as co-lighting designers for an extremely challenging show and space. Amanda Rife’s unique choreography of “We Share Everything” was brilliant. Many kudos to the brilliant contribution of Kurt Thesing, for his design of our 2-dimensional props – our picture boards. They were perfect in solidly helping tie in the concept of the film to the rest of the show. Julia M. Smith was fantastic with the circus video and animation. And none of this would have been possible without Erin Confair, my dedicated Stage Manager…she is the true example of a professional.
I also wanted to set aside some comments for Shannon Maddox, our costume designer. Of all our designers, she was the one to deal with an enormous amount of challenges: a very small budget to costume 16 people in different settings, small turnaround time, and actor input. I am an actor as well, so I know what it’s like to have to adjust to an unexpected costume or something that may not visually be what I was thinking. A very seasoned and professional actor once wrote, “Costume design is the fabrication of apparel for the overall appearance of a character or performer. This usually involves researching, designing, and building the actual items from conception.” Unbeknownst to audiences and even cast members, Shannon spent weeks completing sketches for each character. On that stage today, each cast member is an exact replica of their original sketch – little to no change from the original concept. What is more impressive is the fact that she had to costume this large cast with a budget of under $500 and turnaround alterations during tech week. There was not the luxury of a costume shop, a staff (she worked alone), or infinite amounts of resources. Just like our other design aspects, smaller budgets force you to get very creative and Shannon has done a fantastic job with our costumes. From comments I’ve seen on Facebook from cast members, I know that the cast is just as thankful and thrilled for the hard work that Shannon has put into the show.
Joel: How many actors auditioned for the show, and how many actresses auditioned for Daisy and Violet? How long did auditions, casting, and rehearsals take?
David: Unbelievably, not many people auditioned for the show. Baltimore is a very strange town, especially for actors. A few theatres have hundreds of people show up to auditions, as they have built up a reputation for putting on great shows. We have the disadvantage of people not knowing a lot about us, so it’s difficult for actors to trust coming out for something they cannot predict in terms of final product. Fortunately and thankfully, there were a handful of people that blew the roof off at auditions – and you see most of them here today. They made my job a lot easier and they would have been my choice had there been 6,000 people at auditions.
In terms of rehearsals, it was an interesting process because actors were made aware of the crazy schedules ahead of them. With end of school sessions, other actor conflicts, and summer season smack in the middle of our rehearsal, it was a nightmare to work in schedules, so our rehearsal was very sporadic. At times, we didn’t meet up as a cast for weeks. We started in April/May with a few rehearsals here and there for leads. Then most of the cast came in for the summer, although we did not have a full cast until almost tech week. But since we knew the situation from the beginning, we were able to plan ahead and actors were aware of how much they needed to work on their own materials outside of rehearsal.
And let me just say, our cast is fantastic. From every freak in the ensemble to our fantastic sets of leads…Amanda, Shelly, Larry, Chris, Kevin, Jay…they are all amazing.
Joel: Talk about choosing Amanda and Shelley.
David: Despite low turnout for general auditions, there were at least 3 girls up for each of the Twin roles…including Amanda and Shelly. It was very difficult and very arduous for them. I needed to be sure they could A) hit the money notes B) convey the needed emotion C) be similar enough where it was believable. They met all three and had an incredible amount of stamina during callbacks. It was unbelievable. I thought they may have sensed it, but oddly enough, when I called they both seemed a bit shocked by it – excited but shocked. That excitement has carried through rehearsals and into the performances.
Joel: Which scene was the most difficult to direct and stage? Which is the most emotional song in the show for you to watch, and which scene is your favorite?
David: Probably the most difficult scene to stage/direct was the introduction “Come Look At The Freaks”. Conceptually it was difficult to convey to the cast, as they were not able to see what I was thinking in my head. It’s a difficult transition because it goes from spectator, to spectators miming attractions, to side show, to freaks – all in the course of one song. And at the time, we did not yet have the videos of Todd Browning’s film “Freaks”, which I used in the show, so it was extra difficult to get across without being able to show them during rehearsals. I would have to say “Well imagine this…”
The most emotional song for me to watch is “Cannibal King Reprise”. It’s a great song, sung by a great actor, and it has some special meaning for me personally. My favorite scene is “Tunnel of Love”. It’s what I feel to be one of my proudest moments as a director. I still sit there and laugh when I think about how I must have looked at home all alone, struggling with a dozen umbrellas, trying to figure out how to arrange the cast on the stage.
Joel: What surprised you the most about working on this production?
David: The most surprising aspect of working on this production was the sheer enormity of it all. For a small theatre company right out of the gate, this is not the show I would recommend for staging. Looking back on it, it may not have been the wisest choice – but I still think it was a great choice. Aside from the artistic elements of the production that I discussed already, there was a great deal required from company members to pull this off. Again, it is usually the stuff that no one sees from the stage: production, prop shopping, marketing, technical troubleshooting, last minute cast changes, projector issues, contracts and licensing, press handling, front of house, ticketing, stage management. All these things had to be done and it had to be done by a small handful of people. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by friends and colleagues that have gone above and beyond expectations to help make this happen. Thank you box office peeps – Angelo, Crystal, Kelli, Joey…We’re back to that “There is no ‘I’ in THEATRE.”
Joel: Did you see the original Broadway production of Side Show and/or other productions of this show, and how is this production different?
David: I saw the Broadway production, the Maryland Arts Festival Production at Towson a few years back, as well as the version at Signature Theatre about a decade ago. I was completely blown away by all productions, as I think they all had fantastic productions. As I mentioned before, I think that our production of Side Show may be the most intimate that I have encountered. It’s one of the reasons I feel the Broadway show may not have lasted as long. It’s difficult to feel connected (forgive the pun) personally to the story about circus freaks or Siamese twins when you are sitting 40 rows back. The intimacy and personal nature of the story often gets lost on large stages. There is something to be said about hearing “I Will Never Leave You” a few feet away. It makes it very close and personal. Plus, I think that our production takes the concept and runs in through the entire show. It’s not just about belting songs! There’s a story there to be told.
Joel: You are appearing now in Buddy–The Buddy Holly Story at Toby’s Baltimore through September 12th. How are you juggling that with this production and graduate school?
David: I currently play Ritchie Valens in Buddy… and am rehearsing for Rent (also at Toby’s) while starting my PhD program at College Park. Was it the smartest thing to do? Absolutely not! I don’t recommend it to anyone. But as is the case with most professional theatres out there, once the director has finished his job, the show becomes the stage manager’s. Erin Confair not only stage manages, but runs the booth and serves as my set of eyes while I am not there. And with Teatro101 company members in the show, it’s safe to assume that I’ve got built in support in Side Show.
A special congrats to cast members Larry Munsey (Terry Conner), Chris Rudy (Buddy Foster), Kevin S. McAllister (Jake), Rich Buchanan (Boss), and the 10 Freaks of the circus – Jay Michael Gilman, Tammy Crisp, Ryan Michael Haase, Beth Higbee, Amy Luchey, Kelsey Luchey, Robert W. Oppel, Danielle Robinette, Katie Solomon, and Kristen Zwobot, for singing the heck out of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell’s gorgeous score. And special kudos to the glorious musicians who comprised the hard-working orchestra: Musical Director Julie Parrish (piano), Steven Bainbridge (Cello), Lisa Baker (Percussion), Andrew Houde (French Horn), Jason Wilson (Bass) and Helen Schlaik (Reeds). I was watching Helen switching and playing her instruments in the corner of my right eye all through the show and I lost count on how many instruments she played. It was a sight to behold!
Side Show closes this Saturday, September 4th at Teatro 101 at Mobtown Theatre, in Baltimore, MD. You can find more information, purchase tickets, and find directions here. Don’t miss it!