If you were not a fan of Jill Paice when you walked into Signature Theatre’s production of Chess, you surely became one after watching her powerful performance as Florence. Jill burns up The Max every time she steps on the stage, and when she sings Florence’s songs – it’s sheer ecstasy!
In a phone interview, I had a chance to ask Jill about playing Florence, working with director Eric Schaeffer and her co-stars Euan Morton and Jeremy Kushnier. We also chatted about her career and its successes and disappointments. I am praying that someone records this production for all those ‘Chess-nuts’ – like me – so we will be able to listen to her glorious singing and performance over and over again.
Joel: What is Signature Theatre’s new production of Chess about?
Jill: It’s really centered on the character of Florence. She is the American chess player’s (Freddie Trumper) ‘second’. They have a torrid love affair and have been together for 7 years. When they arrive at the World Chess Championship, she finds herself falling in love with the Russian (Anatoly Sergievsky), who is opposing the American.
Joel: How would you describe director Eric Schaeffer’s vision for the show?
Jill: In my opinion, Eric’s vision is dead-on! Eric has given us a clear story and great motivation as to where we are going with the story. The set – which I am sure he advised on – is very clean. There’s not a lot of distraction, and we have our beautiful lights – it’s fantastic to look at! We have narrowed down all the elements of storytelling. From the moment the show begins – it takes off. It’s like being on a train and you just go. I can tell from the four weeks we have been onstage that the audience comes right along with us. I have never been in a show where the audience sits so completely still – and of course they do applaud. They are really listening and that’s exciting too.
Joel: Why did you want to play Florence in this production?
Jill: Eric and I had a meeting in New York in March and we didn’t start rehearsals until July, and I didn’t know how my calendar was going to fill out, but the universe conspired and kept this time open. I really didn’t know what to expect when we started rehearsals. I have known the music since I was 12 years old and I used to play it on the piano, and I used to listen to the cast CDs. But, I couldn’t ever figure out what the story was about.
Joel: Neither could most of us who have liked this show for so long.
Jill: No matter if I listened to the London recording, or the Broadway recording, or the one done in Sweden, I just couldn’t quite piece the story together. So, again I didn’t actually know what to expect when we started rehearsals. I had a script in-hand, and I could see how slimmed-down the story was. It was really focused in on the three main characters, and there was the need for an ensemble to create the environment that we all play in. It was so nice being in the rehearsal room watching all of that coming together.
Joel: Tell us about your character Florence .
Jill: As I said, Florence is Freddie’s ‘chess second’. I imagine she went to university and had dreams and aspirations of her own. She met Freddie and I suppose she fell in love with him and fell in love with the game of chess, and realized she was very good at chess, and so she became his ‘chess second’. Now, their relationship is a hard one, and they thrive on teasing one another, which easily turns into fighting with one another. After seven years – I’m sure it’s pretty exhausting! She’s at a point in her life where she’s tired of not being listened to. At the top of the show she even says, “I feel I need a change of cast”. She’s ready for a change and here comes Anatoly Sergievsky into her life, and he treats her completely different than Freddie. There is a kind of tenderness and a quick love between them, so much that Anatoly is willing to defect to America. She is a strong lady to play, which is wonderful, because you don’t always find strong women in musical theatre. Usually it’s the women who are fooling the men around hoping to get some attention. It’s nice being the one who’s putting her foot down, and explaining what she means, and pursuing what she wants.
Joel: How much of Jill Paice is in Florence?
Jill: I think there’s a lot of myself in her actually. I’m an only child and I didn’t have an upbringing like her. Poor Florence! She was born in Hungary around 1950, and in 1956 the Russians invade and they are trying to overthrow the Hungarian government and replace it with communism, and she is taken away from her father, who is then presumed to be dead. She is then taken to America where she is raised. I have not that upbringing at all thankfully. I am an only child and have had to be strong to pursue a career in theatre, so I think there is a lot of my own drive in her to get what she wants.
Joel: What advice did Eric gave you on playing Florence?
Jill: He told me he didn’t want Florence to be so vulnerable that she becomes a pathetic character. There’s a scene where she and Freddie are fighting maybe for the last time and the relationship is really going downhill. Eric said to me “Stand your ground! Stand up to this man, even though he is seducing you with his words – in a way that Freddie can spin stories – you must stand your ground so you play it vulnerable, and even if she is falling apart on the inside – don’t show it”. That was the best advice because from then on, Florence and I ‘clicked’ to the point where we are now in the show.
Joel: She is a tough cookie.
Jill: Yes she is! In the beginning of the second act when she and Anatoly are together – as they are wandering the streets of Hungary and walking by the Danube – we see the side of her that is soft and desperate for that romance that she has never had. As a little girl that trust had been taken away. She’s just not easy going. She’s really had to toughen up to survive.
Joel: What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far playing this role?
Jill: The biggest challenge has been negotiating some of the book scenes that I wish were more fully written. Richard Nelson, the book writer of the American version of Chess, has been down to see the show – and I know that if the show progresses to somewhere else – either this production or another production – he has ideas to where he wants to go. There were just some scenes where people did not express what they wanted or needed to say.
(Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen the show, skip to the next question!)
Joel: Can you tell us a scene where this happens?
Jill: When there is a possibility that Florence’s father is located and is alive, the importance of that – I never feel like it quite gets there – and when Anatoly finds out about it – it happens offstage. Then he comes onstage and speaks to Florence and says, “You didn’t tell me that there was a possibility…” I wish that scene were onstage because it’s such a great event that it should be onstage, instead of hearing about it after the fact.
Joel: It would be nice to see your reaction to it.
Jill: Maybe someday we’ll see that happen.
Joel: Let’s talk about your co-stars Euan Morton, Jeremy Kushnier, Eleasha Gamble, and Chris Bloch.
Jill: Oh my goodness – I love them! Euan and Jeremy playing Anatoly and Freddie – to me, they are the show.
Joel: I don’t agree with you. You are so fantastic in this production.
Jill: Their energy is so fantastic and so different that I am never bored. Jeremy has this sort of ‘off the cuff’ rock sound – he can be mean, he can be sweet, and he’s so manipulative, and Florence is so drawn into that. He is so fantastic at playing into that. Then you watch Euan who plays the Russian – he is so tapped into that sensibility. He is very skilled and he’s so easy on the stage so Florence gets so seduced by that, and I am seduced by that! Their energies completely fuel my performance. And they are both phenomenal singers, and even better actors – which I adore in them both.
And then to have Chris Bloch playing Molokov, who is the Russian’s ‘second’ – and he also has that manipulative seductive quality – “Is he good or his he bad? What’s going on?”- especially in the final moments of the show, because he is present in those moments. I rely heavily on him to trigger that emotional reaction.
And that puts me here with Eleasha Gamble – who is making a cameo – she is fantastic! I want to turn around and look at her in “I Know Him So Well”! She’s just one of these presences on stage –it’s that ‘it’ factor – isn’t it? Your eyes are drawn to her, and her voice is phenomenal, and she’s not even doing 1/3 of what she can do vocally because this song isn’t written for all the fantastic vocal coloring she can do. She is absolutely incredible!
I am just surrounded by an amazing group of people and we could sit here all day and talk about each of them individually. Even with the ensemble, I have moments where I connect with them individually. I am so grateful that they are so open and easy-going and helpful and flexible, and ready to play, which makes for happy company – a happy band of players I suppose.
Joel: Let’s talk about that wonderful orchestra.
Jill: They are fantastic! David Holcenberg – our Musical Supervisor and Orchestrator – has done an amazing job because there are only 10 pieces in the orchestra, and you would think there was 20. The way they fill out the sound is amazing, and supports all of us onstage emotionally.
When we did our first sung-through with the orchestra – I remember looking over at Euan and saying, “I think this is the best thing I have ever done!” Just the sound of that orchestra and music, as does everyone comes to Chess who is familiar with the music – it’s so exciting to hear these songs live, and to get to sing them, instead of singing along with them in my car.
They are a great group of musicians lead by Jenny Cartney. There is something about her – she just brings the best out of everyone.
Joel: How have David and Jenny helped you with your performance?
Jill: The orchestra has a great ability to fill the emotional life of a character – where words don’t say it or emotion can’t show it. You see that when the orchestra swells while Euan is singing “Anthem”. So what David orchestrated and what Jenny is conducting every night only helps me experience more as an actor, and helps the audience to experience the show.
Joel: Which song is your favorite in the show, which you perform?
Jill: When I arrived at rehearsals the song I least looked forward to singing was “Heaven Help My Heart”, which opens the Second Act, and now I have to say it’s my favorite.
Joel: Why were you afraid of it?
Jill: It wasn’t one of my exciting numbers, not one of my dramatic numbers, but it gives Florence the chance to reflect on falling in love or being in love, how much she loves Anatoly, and it’s this quiet moment and it’s beautifully designed – where it takes place in a church. Vocally it’s one of my easiest songs, but it gives me a chance to connect to what I am singing about. I started out not knowing what this song was about, and now that I’ve learned it and I’m performing it every night, and it’s become the one I look forward to and the best I feel about. I am the most confident performing this one.
Joel: It gives you a chance to relax.
Jill: Exactly. Because everything else is so heightened – I look forward to singing “Heaven Help My Heart”.
Joel: Which song do you love listening to every performance?
Jill: Now it’s going to be a tie between “Anthem” and “Pity the Child”. The great thing about “Anthem” is that I’m onstage standing behind Euan, and I get to be an audience member, and I get to watch him sing. There are nights he brings me to tears. I’ve noticed he does that to some members of the ensemble. He is so easy to listen to, and it’s a beautiful song that is so beautifully written. And that amazing orchestra swelling behind Euan as he is singing – it can make me cry.
But then “Pity the Child” – all through rehearsals watching Jeremy ‘rock out’. He makes it sound so easy! It’s not fair! But he sounds amazing on it.
Joel: I really loved the quartet: “A Model of Decorum and Tranquility”. It was so beautiful! Chris Bloch told me it’s the hardest song in the show to sing.
Jill: Oh thank you. He’s right! That’s the hardest song I do in the show! If you lose your place in that – or you start looking at what’s happening around you – you can – Oh my gracious – go down very quickly!
Joel: You performed in Ace here at Signature Theatre, where you played Elizabeth Lucas, which garnered you a Helen Hayes nomination. I am so happy you are back here in Chess. Why do you enjoy performing at Signature, and being directed by Eric Schaeffer?
Jill: I love Signature! The first time I came here two years ago to do Ace – I had just finished up playing Scarlett in (the musical version) of Gone With the Wind in London. I was a little worn out and a little disillusioned. I arrived in America, and a call came in asking me, “Do you want to go to Arlington to do Ace?” I said, “OK. I don’t even know much about the show, but I’m going to go do it”.
There’s something about the environment here and its relation to DC. The whole experience with Ace really gave me time to heal and renew my interest in the theatre. Gone With the Wind was hard. It was so disappointing to be given such an amazing opportunity and have it end so quickly. I know it wasn’t necessarily my fault when it didn’t go as well as it could have, but you can’t help take some of that responsibility on your own shoulders. It’s hard being an actor and hard presenting yourself every night. All you can do is do your best with whatever you are given, but people will always criticize you or ignore you. You have to just move on.
So coming here gave me a chance to move on away from New York City and away from London. Yes it’s a smaller scale, but I really think it was a necessary thing for me to just take it back to just doing your work rather than, “Where is it going, are we making enough money, and what’s happening?” Eric and the whole cast of Ace provided that environment for me. So when you get a call 1 ½ years later, “What do you think about coming back down here?, and I immediately said, “Absolutely! Yes! I would love to come back here and do another show”.
My dog loves it here. They have the biggest ‘dog run’ here. She’s a 9 lb Yorkshire Terrier. We go swimming in the creek, and I have my bike and I put her in a nice little basket and we go for rides. We’re away from the City and it’s like a little holiday for us.
Joel: You played Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White in London, which had a successful run, and then when it transferred it had a short run. I liked the NYC production very much and your performance. I asked Walter Charles who co-starred with you in the NYC production about it and he said, The Woman in White, was not a success, and I thought that should have had a run. It was a beautiful score, an engaging story, and was innovative technically, in terms of set, lighting, etc. That was a disappointment”. Why do you think it had such a short run?
Jill: Walter was right. We had a lot of trials and tribulations with this show. I did a run of it in London for a year, and it continued to run after I left it to come to New York. It was very successful there. It’s not unusual. I’ve seen it happen with other shows, and vice versa. Thoroughly Modern Millie ran in NYC for so many years and when it went to London it didn’t last very long at all.
It was my Broadway debut. I had toured with Les Miserables on the road, had done Mamma Mia! in Vegas which is still running. I had done The Woman in White in London and it was still running and then I come to Broadway and in three months the show closes. It was my first awareness that things didn’t stay open forever!! Even though you think, “I’m in a Broadway show and this is fantastic!”, unfortunately you can get two weeks notice the next night. Also, Maria Friedman’s health was up and down, and Michael Ball’s health as well was shaky. Looking back at it, I know it came and went and I was disappointed.
Joel: I just wanted you to know that I loved your performance as Laura.
Jill: Thank you! I felt really good about that show. I couldn’t believe when I got a chance to go do it in London. It was such a dream!
Joel: Now to something much happier – playing Nikki Harris opposite David Hyde Pierce in Curtains. You were so adorable, I will always fondly remember you and David performing “A Tough Act to Follow”
Jill: Oh my God! Our chance to be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! Curtains was a unique experience with a group of people – a lot of them Broadway vets that have been in the business a while: Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, Jason Danieley, Michael McCormick, and of course led by David Hyde Pierce. We just became a family. And you don’t always get that in every show. Some casts come and go and you keep in touch with one or two people, but there was something about the company of Curtains that I will always treasure and hold close to my heart.
Joel: When did you first get the ‘theatre bug’?
Jill: We moved around a lot when I was younger, because my Dad was in the Air Force. To meet people – my mother would always put me in the church choir, and they did high school productions of musicals when I was in elementary school.
I was born in North Dakota, but didn’t stay there for very long. I didn’t really get the ‘bug’ until my sophomore and junior year in High School, but I do remember the first performance I did was being a townsperson in Oklahoma. I remember it because I loved dressing up every night I was in it.
There is a program in Dayton Ohio called ‘The Muse Machine’. Lots of Broadway vets have come out of now. It’s run by Broadway vets Nat Horne and David Dusing. They would come to Dayton, Ohio and would assemble groups of kids from high schools and would bring in the set and costumes from the show we were doing. I felt like a professional, and it sparked my interest to continue studying to become a professional in the theatre.
When I was 15 years old, I started thinking about going to school to study theatre, which my parents were opposed to. I could understand why it’s so hard for parents to send their child into theatre. Thank God they were at least willing to let me try.
I studied at Baldwin-Wallace, which is a conservatory in Cleveland, Ohio. I owe a lot of my successes and what I have learned to both The Muse Machine and to Baldwin-Wallace College. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I did not have those two programs.
Joel: What makes this production of Chess so unique that DC theatre goers should come see it?
Jill: This is your opportunity to see Chess because the rights have been behind iron bars for so long, and it’s been a lot of years since it was done in New York and in London. So come see it and you will see a really fine production at Signature Theatre, and hear one of the most glorious scores ever written for the stage.
Chess plays through October 3rd at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.