We know Elliott Bales from his leadership at Theater Alliance and from his stage roles. The name Elliott Bales on a casting list usually signifies a drama – the retired Army Colonel mentioned in our interview his satisfaction in playing the bad guy – and in a remarkable turn as a romantic lead in Romeo and Juliet: Love Knows No Age last summer at Unexpected Stage. So it may surprise you to know he can now been seen in the lead role of Sir in the 1960’s musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd at Compass Rose Theater in Annapolis. We talked about the why and how of this new turn in his career.
Greasepaint is know to have a terrific score, but a troubled book. There has been some updating in this production. What does the musical have to say to today’s audiences?
In its original state, the play is about class and haves-vs-have nots. It is also very UK-centric in its humor and imagery. We swapped a few of the 60s political references for more contemporary ones and audiences have responded to them, recognizing that the issues of this 50 year old allegory are very contemporary. There is nothing new under the sun.
Whenever we go through our four year experiment in representative democracy, as we are this year, I find it fascinating to hear people roiling with the rhetoric and proclaiming that this election is one in which they alternatively fear for the existence of the nation and believe their candidate is the second coming of the political messiah. In a very simple and, being truthful, dated musical, I believe audiences find an insight into the balance that the forces of old and young, conservative and progressive, male and female, have and have not all bring to bear on contemporary thought. The old ways are not the best ways, but neither should the lessons that formed them be discarded. Young voices may be advocating dangerous change, but they tend to come from an observation of injustice or exclusion that needs to be addressed. A little less diatribe and a little more dialogue, which involves us all listening carefully to each other, might actually pave the way towards the kind of “Sweet Beginning” that marks the end of Greasepaint.
Tell us about the character of Sir. Have you modeled him after anyone in particular?
There is not a particular person. I know several well intentioned people who do not understand either the privilege of their beginnings or the way in which they come across to those they encounter. They genuinely believe that their viewpoints are self-evident and are shocked when they are misunderstood or thought of as inconsiderate or unsympathetic. Since Roar of the Greasepaint is an allegory, Sir represents conservatism in its importance for maintaining balance and stability, as well as its intransigence in responding to the need for change.
But actors can’t play ideas, so Sir is a man who’s best friend is Cocky, a down-on-his-luck ne’er-do-well who is optimistic but unrealistic. They are two sides of the same coin, neither able to survive if separated. Sir has large appetites and a great sense of humor, but his jokes fail to account for the real pain they cause others. Eventually, he must come face to face with the need to change with the times, to make the world more inclusive, and to recognize that peoples hopes and dreams are not to be discarded because they don’t fit his mold – a mold that needs breaking.
In DC, you’re best known as a dramatic actor. What about Sir convinced you to try out for the role?
I played Cocky back before the flood, back when Greasepaint and dirt were both relatively new inventions. I hadn’t done a musical in a long time, much less auditioned for one. Knowing that Sir was described as a large man, and fitting that description, I decided to give it a whirl. See if I could still hang with the musical crowd and actually pull it off. While the jury is still out on how successful I am at achieving that minor miracle, I am certainly grateful to Lucinda Merry-Brown and Compass Rose Theater for giving me the opportunity.
Having gotten the part, how did you turn yourself from a dramatic actor into a song and dance man? Classes? Or are you just a natural?
I hardly think there is anything natural in it. And I have a great deal of respect of those in musical theater who toil endlessly to hone their unique portions of the craft. I grew up a preacher’s kid in a religious tradition called the Church of Christ. This group only practices acapella music in their assemblies so I grew up with music and harmony as a birthright. Most people are amazed when they walk into one of these congregations and hear this phenomenal music sans piano or organ. Unfortunately, the group also takes a stand against dancing. So that was a little more tricky. So a little help with ballroom lessons over the last few years from my friends Ann and Victor at All2Dance in Georgetown put a little twinkle in my toes, and the patient guidance of choreographer Liz Spilsbury got me to a passable level of footwork.
What is your favorite moment in the show?
I actually have two. The first is the song “Where Would You Be Without Me?”. As written the words of the song seem deprecating and mean spirited. But Piers (Portfolio, who plays Cocky) and I found in it a genuine appreciation of the characters for the value of each other, and built it into more of a reminiscent banter between two friends who laugh and dance together as they did when their stations in life were perhaps not so far apart. The second is after the song “Feeling Good,” the number most recognized by younger audience members because of recordings by Nina Simone and, more recently, Michael Buble.
I’ve played a lot of bad guys in my career and there is great power in presenting the worst of ourselves in a way that shocks and stirs people. [Sir’s] speech, which we agonized over a bit, is racist and biting, but uses all of the phrases we associate with bigotry and hatred that seem to be just as rampant as they have always been but now more starkly public. The response the audience has given in each performance to those lines is visceral and real, and hopefully their shock at sitting in a physical theater with a real human speaking such harmful words raises in us an awareness that we should not accept such drivel. Especially in public discourse from those who want to lead us.
The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd
closes June 5, 2016
Details and tickets
I noticed you speaking some lyric lines, à la Cyril Richard who originated the role of Sir, or Rex Harrison. Are you now tempted to play Captain Hook or Henry Higgins?
To borrow a phrase from Ghostbusters, “no job is too big; no fee is too big.” I don’t have any bucket list roles so I can’t say those are any more or less appealing. Given the chance I would leap at them. But I am most excited by the new work being produced by Washington DC’s playwrights. They are giving voice to ideas and issues that raise both our consciousness and hope. If I were to choose, I would rather speak their words and explore with our community ideas that bring us together, unify us, and make us stronger and more resilient, collectively and individually. And if I have to be the bad guy to accomplish such a goal, I am ok with that.
At Theater Alliance, you recently moved from Managing Director to Chairman of the Board. What is your vision of our theatre community and TA’s place in it.
The vibrant ecosystem that is the Washington DC metro area and its environs is staggering and brilliant in its verdant artistic lushness and the diversity of creative life that populates it. From school and university theater to Fringe to community theaters to our professional theaters of all shapes, sizes and types, we are a supportive group of artists who routinely aid each other in producing a wide range of work. While spunky and combative in our internal discourse about what is the best way to create opportunities, we continue to appreciate and help each other deliver one of the most vibrant theater scenes in the country.
I believe that Theater Alliance, especially with the powerful artistic vision and compassionate soul of Colin Hovde at the helm, has staked out a powerful claim as one of the leading theaters in our community both artistically and in terms of feeding true diversity.
People frequently ask us what we are proud of. Our mothers are proud of the fact that we were nominated for 32 Helen Hayes Awards in the last two years, producing a level of artistic excellence recognized by our peers in this community and employing some of the most brilliant artists and technicians in the District. Our accountant is proud of the fact that we have been exceptional stewards of the resources entrusted to us by our donors and funders, ending each year fiscally in balance and that we carefully follow, with great oversight and support from our Board of Directors, generally accepted accounting practices.
But we are most proud of our engagement with our neighborhood in Anacostia, creating opportunities through our Radical Neighboring program to bring in those in our community most underserved by the arts. Pleased that our audiences are among the most diverse racially, economically, and age-wise in DC theater. We are helping to demystify and destigmatize this important area to the Districts past and its future, working in dialogue to balance the pressures of gentrification with the need to preserve the homes and history of our neighborhood’s residents. We are excited to continue to present socially conscious work that engages our community in active dialogue, and being a part of the conversation that spurs us to decisive, positive and compassionate action.
You mentioned you’ve only had a very brief time in the past 2 years, when you weren’t working on a role. Tell us what you’re working on now.
What an honor and blessing to have had the chance to work with so many of our great theaters over the last few years. Theatrically, I will head to Milwaukee in a couple of weeks to join Helen Hayes nominees Michael Kevin Darnall and Vicki Davis working with Rebecca Holderness (director of The Wedding Dress and Last of the Whyos at Spooky Action Theater) on the continued development of play by Fly Steffens called Bell and Bliss, about the aftermath of the assassination of President Garfield in 1881. Then we are pulling together the original ensemble of this year’s Helen Hayes nominated Outstanding Play Occupied Territories and presenting it on Martha’s Vineyard in August. On video, I had the opportunity to play General Thomas Gage in “Legends & Lies: Patriots” which premiers on Fox News Channel on June 5.