For Part 2 of our interviews with members of the “line,” Jeff Walker spoke with local performers Parker Drown and Carl Randolph.
Jeffrey Walker: When did you start performing?
Parker Drown: I was in middle school, at a school camp. When I was 13, I was in my first show at Toby’s Columbia. I didn’t really do specific dance classes back then; I picked up dance through the choreography for shows I did. Through high school, I toured around with the Young Columbians, a youth performing group that is part the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts.
My first real class teacher for dance was Bobby Smith when I took tap as a senior in high school.
And you continued your studies in college?
At Syracuse, I was an acting major, but I weaseled my way into the musical theatre and dance classes. They saw I was interested and was willing to learn, so the head of dance basically gave me a free pass to take classes. Even with those classes, most of my background in dance has been to constantly do shows. And I like to watch and talk to other dancers. Even in A Chorus Line, it’s great: we have dance instructors, Pilates instructors, and everyone is interested in what others are doing. Sometimes we might have Pilates class as a warm-up, or someone will choreograph a dance as a warm-up.
As you have taken classes and observed others, what developed as your strong points as a performer?
I really started out as a gymnast and my strong point was floor work and tumbling, so I always knew my body really well. Also, I could usually watch what other people did and pick things up. With all of that, plus the classes I could take in college, I was able to build up the basics and my own techniques. By doing that, and continually polishing my skills, I have been able to go and do auditions for shows like A Chorus Line.
And what brought you to A Chorus Line?
This is now my fifth show at Olney, so I have gotten really used to seeing the faces around here. Last season, when I was in Spring Awakening, we were invited to audition for A Chorus Line. I went to the dance call and then got invited to the callbacks and got asked to be in it after it was all over.
Tell me about your character, Bobby.
I figured out to audition for Bobby, I had to see the humor and really how strange he is. I just needed to have fun with it. Our director, Stephen Nachamie, noticed something in me, something a little strange like Bobby. He said, “I think you are, too.”
In rehearsal, Stephen gave me freedom, and I decided to be unapologetic for Bobby’s bizarreness. He really just wants people to notice him and most of what he says or says he does is part of that need.
The part was based on Thommie Walsh – not only his story but he had a stand-up routine as well. The cool thing is his monologue and the part comes from an honest place. And it’s really a blast getting to do it every night.
The speech you do as Bobby is really part of “And…,” a unique musical number that moves between Bobby’s monologue and sung lines by the other dancers. That seems like it would be a fun challenge for a performer.
The orchestra, thank God, helps it all flow. As the monologue goes on, I have the freedom to respond and go in different directions, as long as the orchestra can hear cues. When the song comes in, I go into this pantomime where I continue the monologue. For those sections, Stephen allowed me to contribute my own take on those sections, which grew out of the one-on-one time I had with him. At this point, one thing flows right into another, it all times out so beautifully.
The photos from the original cast in the 1970s includes the images of Thommie Walsh as Bobby in that sweater and scarf. The look and feel of this production appears to hearken back to the original.
When Stephen talked to all of us, he was very firm that we would be performing the script as it was written in 1975, a Pulitzer Prize-winning script. It was important to be true to the time period since that is where a lot of the heart is in the show. Our costumes are not exact replicas, but are close to the style and look of the original. They certainly have a cohesive look and look good onstage.
Did you identify with Bobby or any of the other characters?
When I first went in to audition, I was called back for both Bobby and Paul and there were elements of both that I identified with. Then there is Mark, who talks about looking at medical textbooks and my mom had those in our house.
The big surprise was the more I worked on Bobby, he seemed more like me. I go back to the fact that Stephen was able to see something quirky and lighthearted about me, about Bobby, and something honest, too. I was really able to mesh my personality with Bobby.
And the audience can find characters to identify with, correct?
We really look at what these performers were going through 40 years ago. And what they are still going through. There is one person on that line each person in the audience can identify with. People also love to watch the inner workings of other people’s lives, that is a never ending cycle.
What was it like getting primed to rehearse the show and now for each performance?
When I knew I was going into the rehearsal process, I took classes for about two months before and all during the month of June, I was conditioning to build up stamina and flexibility.
Now that we have the show to do, we all get a two hour work out every night up just doing the show. But everyone has spent a good hour or more warming-up and preparing. For me, I run up staircases to warm up and start to stretch. It’s obviously a dance-heavy show, but what was less obvious is that one of the hardest things on our bodies is standing on that line, especially when we take one position and stand in one place. That’s tough on the legs.
Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
Right before the finale, we have a really quick change, it’s about 30 seconds. I have found myself thinking in that moment, ’Yeah, I’m doing this.’ During the “One” finale, there is one part where everyone on the line steps back and there are 800 lights behind us. It generates such heat. Since we are onstage, we cannot see it. But I know it feels like it looks awesome.
Jeffrey Walker: Many of your friends here didn’t know about your background as a dancer.
Carl Randolph: I have had friends say, “I had no idea you were a dancer.” Honestly, when I moved to town, I took my dance credits off of my resumé, due to people compartmentalizing. The feeling was if you were a dancer, you can’t be an actor, for example. There is less of that attitude today, I think.
All these years later, what’s it like being back in A Chorus Line?
Once you do A Chorus Line, it never lets you go. In 1982, I did Bobby in the national tour. Over the years I grew through the roles, and as someone of my age (ahem), I am now playing Zach. It’s like this show bookends my career, since that was my first professional show as a dancer.
Back in 1982, did you audition for Michael Bennett or his original team?
I auditioned for a dance captain, since by then dance captains were overseeing the direction and choreography. Michael Bennett came and observed at one point, but by then, he had already started to get sick. [Director and choreographer Michael Bennett died of AIDS-related lymphoma in July, 1987.]
In 1982, was the audition process like it is depicted in the show?
Yes, that audition process was very much like you see in the show, as were other auditions at that time. The people who ran the auditions were very demanding and expected everyone to learn quickly, do well and follow through. Plus, time is money.
What brought you to Olney’s production?
I had worked with Stephen Nachamie on 1776 and we discovered we were both A Chorus Line people. Over the last few years, we talked about doing it at some point and here we are.
Aside from being a performer, now you are also a director, playing a director-choreographer. Any similarities or differences with Zach?
Oh, Zach is very different from me. I am more embracing and less forceful. As written in A Chorus Line, Zach is so intense, his only thought is the show. I experienced directors like that back then but you can’t get away with treating actors or dancers like that now. It was thanks to those abrasive and sometimes abusive people there are now rules in place from the union, Actors Equity. There is a lot more protection in place now, the rules for how long you can rehearse, and so forth.
As the director who is seen briefly but is mostly heard throughout the show, Zach has a unique perspective compared to the dancers on the line.
As you know, the story is really about the dancers. Zach serves as the catalyst for their journey. We see him interact with some dancers he does not know and some he has a prior relationship with, like Cassie. But we also see he doesn’t have the emotional tools to deal with Cassie.
Zach is really about acting over a great distance, almost like a voice-over job. It is projected the opposite direction but I have to make it strong enough to make it seem like I’m on stage.
Playing Bobby back in 1982 and now Zach – did that parallel your own place at the time of each production?
I definitely identified with Bobby at that stage in my life; growing up, I had gotten slammed in a locker or two. And now, playing Zach, it’s funny since I originally had the goal of being a choreographer and not a dancer or actor. I kept getting pulled onstage so I went along for that ride for a long time. Like many people, the roles I fell in to were appropriate for my stage in life at that time.
And every time you had to audition, did it get easier?
Every audition is scary because you want the job, so there is a lot at stake. The most intimidating one was A Chorus Line in 1982.
New York auditions have always been more hustle and bustle and are very different from regional theatre auditions. Up in New York, there were a lot of cattle calls. When I moved down here in 1999, I see that audition appointments are more relaxed and they can take a bit more time.
A Chorus Line really reflects the second type of auditions, I think. The goal is for Zach to find out who these people are as individuals.
Your character asks the performers to consider what they would do if they couldn’t dance anymore. Have you had to think about such a question in your career or seen how it affected others?
A number of years ago, I was in a production where a platform collapsed during a performance. One of the performer’s back was broken. It was obviously traumatic and it made us realize how fragile we are as dancers.
You asked about Zach’s question to the dancers; during rehearsals, Stephen and I talked about the question. I thought about how years ago, during auditions, I looked around the room and realized I was two years older than everyone else. Dancers have to look at how to adapt their careers to who they are at the time.
You have been directing and doing some film work more recently. How did you prepare to get back onstage as Zach?
I had not danced in a show since being in Fiddler on the Roof at Olney in 2007. I had literally hung up my dance shoes and I couldn’t find them.
When they offered me the role in this show, I started to work out, at first just to build up my stamina to be able to do it. During rehearsals, I kept thinking this was easier 30 years ago (laughing).
A Chorus Line
Closes Sept 8, 2013
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours, 10 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $31 – $63
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Frankly, it’s mesmerizing. I have the honor to watch the performance every night; I almost forget I am in the show. Every performance is new and refreshing and each one of the performers has their own unique moment. Part of that comes from Stephen’s direction and how he worked with each actor individually on their character.
And after being in the show in 1982 and again today, what is the appeal of A Chorus Line?
Its power is that it is almost like a reality show, giving an honest glimpse of the life of actors and dancers. It brings to light the intensity of the work of all the artists – performers and designers.
In the course of the show, each one of the characters is asked to be individuals, be true to who they are, be honest. Then, ultimately, there are eight slots and each one has to blend in. Even the director disappears and the work is all that is left. I think it’s really representative of every facet of our industry.
And the audiences at Olney?
The audiences have been amazing; they have been so responsive. I get to stand among them for a lot of the show, so I have such a vantage point. One night, there was an elderly guy who asked me for directions to the men’s room. But really, they are riveted and return such energy back at the stage.
Any last thoughts about A Chorus Line at Olney?
I am so proud of Olney for doing a dance show. It is fantastic. Olney made a wonderful decision choosing this show. I think it shows we can do dance shows in Washington and I hope this is the start of seeing them more often.