Actor and musician Daven Ralston glows when she talks about connecting with people through music. An accomplished pianist and violinist, Ralston is performing in Folger Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
Folger is advertising their take on the enchaining comedy as “The Forest of Arden … with a New Orleans flair,” featuring original Cajun music and full-company songs and dance. DCTS caught up with Ralston during an early rehearsal to talk about the musical concept, her craft as an actor/musician, her favorite experience playing music on stage and her future dream roles.
DCTS: What roles are you playing in As You Like It?
Ralston: I’m playing Le Beau, one of the usurping Duke’s right hand women; Hymen, the god of marriage who appears at the end; a couple of ensemble roles and the musician who bounces around the forest. A lot of costume changes.
Tell me about the music.
Most of the music takes place in the forest. The concept is that all these people have been cast out and are refugees, trying to make a living and survive through a harsh winter. Music is one of those things that binds them together and brings them joy. A lot of the music is taking a folksy blues tone. A lot of blues songs came from a place of hardship and struggle, so it’s a way for us to express the struggles we’re feeling living in the forest.
So the music has been contemporized?
Yes, it’s really bluesy. The show was at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and they did some different instrumentation, more blues-pop, but I think the musicians we have here play a lot of strings. We have 5 or 6 people playing music on stage. There’s guitar, ukulele and violin and we have a number of other instruments. It’s taking more of a folk sound.
What will you be playing?
I’m definitely playing the violin. I may also be playing the piano, but it depends on the staging at the end. Since I’m playing Hymen, there’s a question about whether the god of marriage plays the piano or not. (She laughs). I told them I’m fine with it. But the violin is great, it’s such a portable instrument that you can just carry it around and whip it out. (More laughter).
When did you start playing music on stage in theater?
I began as a musician playing the piano and violin but when I moved to DC to do theater I didn’t try to use music and acting together. I was shy as a musician and whenever I would play on stage I would mess up so I stopped playing music.
It wasn’t until I performed in The Madwoman of Chaillot at Avant Bard and the director wanted to add all this music. It’s an older French play and he wanted to add all this jazz music to it. I told him I play the violin and I could accompany some of the music and some of it could be live. I just threw it out there. A good friend of mine was in the show with me and he played piano. So I played during the show and then he and I made a set list of 4-5 songs to play during intermission. We sat out in the lobby and played French songs.
Since then I’ve played the violin in Snow Day, a kids’ show written and directed by Rex Daugherty. I also played kazoo, bells and xylophone. Rex and I got along really well musically, so he cast me in another show at Solas Nua, called Wild Sky. We did live music in that show. People came in to perform Irish fiddle music, and he played the bodhrán, which is like an Irish drum. Someone else played banjo and I played the violin. He took a play which wasn’t necessarily musical and added music to it. I love that idea. Since then, every show I’ve done has music in it, which is really great. And if I get cast in something without music, I try to find ways to slip it in.
I recently learned to play the guitar for The Magi, a production at the Hub Theatre. That’s a funny story. I saw that the audition notice was asking for someone who plays guitar. Rex told me to learn a song and audition anyway. I borrowed my sister’s guitar and practiced a song for two weeks and was cast. I thought this is amazing, now I have to learn how to play guitar! I spent several weeks learning but having a base in stringed instruments and piano made it easier for me.
Want to go?
As You Like It
January 24 – March 5, 2017
Details and tickets
I also play the mandolin and piano but I’ve never got to play [those instruments] in a show. That’s why I’m gunning for them to let me play piano during the wedding scene in As You Like It.
What was your best experience playing music on stage in theater?
The Magi was the most musically rewarding show, because the story was about the music. It was a musical so the story was forwarded by the music and when the characters couldn’t express what they wanted to by speaking they played music or sang. It was really cool and such an intimate space. The show itself was set up to be like a concert. We were very involved with the audience and making direct eye contact and actually speaking to them so it felt very vulnerable. I was so bummed when it was over. We should run it again in a bar! But I also love playing for kids’ shows. You can really tell if the kids are into it or not.
What shows would you love to perform in as a musician?
My big one is Once. It’s top 5, maybe the top of top 5. I remember watching the movie with my mom when I was young and I thought this is such a great movie. I bought the music and taught myself how to play it on the piano. It’s very similar to The Magi, about these two people who come together and write music. I also would love to play the daughter in Next to Normal, but I don’t know if I have the voice for it. You get to rock out on the piano.
So you sing also?
I do. I never took myself for a musical theater person though, because I think my style of singing is different. It goes well with folk, blues, gospel or country. There’s just not a ton of those musicals happening.
It’s actually becoming more of a trend now.
Yeah that’s right, it’s becoming more popular. The Magi was like that. Maybe, who knows?
What’s next for you?
After this, I’m doing two kids’ shows. I’ll be back at Arts on the Horizon in March in Nutt and Bolt, in a show about two robots. The idea is that these robots make music together with found objects. After that I will be at Imagination Stage playing violin in an Alice in Wonderland rock musical. I’m so excited about that because playing rock music on the violin is so fun.