Hello, Ms. Elliott!

By Joanna Galons

If  you didn’t seen this year’s production of Hello Dolly, you  missed out sorely. Hello Dolly was a sparkling, fun, and comedic musical enjoyable for all types of theatre lovers, encompassing the hard work and extreme talent of our entire fine arts department! In wake of the musical’s debut, we have decided to honor one special worker on set; the fabulous director herself. In this interview, she reveals some of her thoughts surrounding the musical and theatre in general.

 

What were the biggest setbacks in the bringing the play to life?

Time. Oh my. This is a big show with lots of people and we could only rehearse 3 times a week — Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30 till 6 and Wednesdays from 2:15 – 5 pm. And because of conflicts — and Ms. Boosamra having major surgery on her ankle — the schedule was pretty tight. I wanted to rehearse enough that each actor involved felt totally grounded whenever they were on stage. It is also a BIG show. Stage Crew built an incredible stage, and our costume group was just phenomenal.

 

Did you select the Hello Dolly musical yourself, or was it pre-selected? If yes to the first option, why did you choose this particular work? Were there any others considered?

I have been a huge fan of musical theatre since I was tiny, and I love so many of them. I did not choose the musical, but I helped to narrow it down. Ms. Boosamra, the choir director, has final say. We talked about a lot of choice, and I was pushing for The Sound of Music for awhile (we have so many good female singers right now). But Ms. Boosamra wanted a musical with more of a traditional chorus, and I remembered Hello, Dolly! It was based on a play by Thornton Wilder so has a good script, the music is lovely, and the chorus has some really fun numbers.

Can you recall a funny or amusing story on set? You can recall more than one.

My favorite part was teaching them all to waltz and polka — too fun! And very funny. But it’s important in the rehearsal process to cut loose occasionally and just laugh and be silly. It frees the imagination.

 

Is there someone special you’d like to acknowledge or thank for their help and contribution?

Yes! Claire Knipe and Grace Kim! Grace spent weeks working on paperwork (not fun but important) and designed our poster fast and still fabulously. Also, she’s just a rock for me. And Claire! She volunteered to measure 3 people and ended up being the on-site costume mistress. She made sure every single cast member had a great costume, and everything they needed during the course of the show. She decorated hats and added trim, and I never once saw her lose it or get really angry. She is just awesome.
I’d also give a shout out to our Choreographers, Kayla King & Mia Rogers. Ms. Braun & Rochelle Olstad choreographed “The Waiter’s Gallop” – which was that long sequence of dancing waiters done by the Primaveras (amazing!). But Kayla and Mia did ALL the rest of the choreography for the chorus and the waltzing and the polka contest and the “Hello, Dolly!” number. It was a lot of work and I think they did a superb job, both in creating the choreography and in teaching it to non-dancers with good humor!

 

What is your history in theatre and how did it help you bring such an incredible show together?

I have been in love with the theatre as long as I can remember. My first production to see was Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado in San Francisco when I was five. I did plays and musicals in high school, and I majored in theatre at UC Davis. While I was there, I was a student representative to the faculty and my boyfriend and I lobbied for and got them to add a class in the history of the American Musical. It is truly an American art form – at least, the musical that we think of today – where the songs and dances further the story. I worked in theatre professionally for almost 10 years— moved to New York City, the whole nine yards. Then I segued into my other great love: writing. I worked professionally in publishing in New York and later freelance, but kept directing in theatre in an amateur capacity. When my daughter, Meghan, started at UHS, I got involved in the choir as a volunteer and when they did Beauty and The Beast, I help to Tech Direct it — which means I made sure that things happened when they were supposed to and facilitated communication between choir, drama, stage crew, etc. This year, Ms. Green was up to her ears in work and didn’t have time to direct the musical, so she graciously allowed me to step up. I loved every minute.
As a sideline, I am also a history geek. My family refers to those brown plaques you see everywhere as “Hysterical Markers” because I get a little nuts when I see them and then I HAVE to read them. All of them. So doing a play set in my favorite city (New York) during the end of the 19th century was pure icing on the cake.
How would you describe your directing style?

I trained in collaborative theatre in New York, so I really like to bring together lots of creative people and then set them loose to imagine a production. For rehearsals, I tried really hard to start and stop on time (given the work load of the students, they needed to know how to plan their schedules), and I like to work one scene at a time, breaking it down into “beats” — a section of a scene wherein an action occurs or something is revealed or something changes. I like to work, stop, work again, stop, go back, work again–until the scene is clear to the actors in every moment they are on stage. They need to know where they came from, what they want in that moment, that scene, what changes, how they feel, who they are in character at all times. I approach a musical the same way I would approach Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams: These are real people and if you, as an actor, make them real the audience will care about them. They will invest in the characters and in the play. Even playing someone as broad as Horace, Sean Finn and I talked a lot about who Horace was, why he was so ornery, and Sean did a great job of taking what could easily have been a caricature and making him big and funny but still real.
I also think it’s important to enjoy the process, to build a supportive team of actors, to listen to their ideas, to help them try things that scare them. To create a safe place where they can invent. Reveal.
What builds the perfect cast in your opinion? What do you value most in your leading actors?

The perfect cast loves each other. They care as much about their fellow actors succeeding as they do about themselves. They always have each other’s backs and they can fall flat on their faces and know the rest of the cast will help pick them up and get them going again. I love leading actors who don’t care that they are “leads” but care about the whole production and invest both physical and emotional energy into making the show amazing. They need to listen actively and they need to be willing to make fools of themselves to try and find the truth in a play. They are intelligent and intuitive, curious about why people behave the way they do, and they need to have a thirst for getting to the heart of both their character and the overall arc of the play.
Who was your favorite character?

Wow – that’s a hard one. I love each of the characters so much. But if I had to choose one, I think it would be Cornelius. He is such a sweet, open soul and he truly finds himself during the course of the show. I love his childlike embrace of the world, how he hasn’t learned to play stupid macho games but when he meets a pretty woman he just tells her how pretty she is. When he loves, he loves totally, joyously. He is genuine.
Definitely, UHS genuinely loved Hello Dolly. Giant thanks to Ms. Elliott and the entire Fine Arts department for putting on such a fantastic show!

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