by Steve Peterson
How did you first become interested or involved in theatre?
It was in kindergarten, and I played the Gingerbread Boy and got lots of laughs. The laughs got me hooked. Then, in elementary school in Roanoke, Virginia, my teachers encouraged me to write and direct plays, which the school actually produced! I am sure they were terrible.
The real big break came in high school with a program called S.T.A.G.E. Inc. in Fairfax County where eligible kids from 21 high schools in the area auditioned for and performed in summer musicals. The creative staff was made up of all adults and they were quite gifted. My first show with them was Brigadoon, and our choreographer had been in the original Broadway production. It was all very exciting!
What was you first professional job?
In 1974, an opera at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia… I was performing a role in the challenging opera War and Peace directed and conducted by Sarah Caldwell, who was particularly notable in that she was head of the Boston Opera, and was conducting at a time when there weren’t many female conductors working professionally. Caldwell was also the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera House.
What was your most memorable performance as an actor?
The Beadle in Sweeney Todd; I was in the National Tour with Angela Lansbury which was filmed for PBS here in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. I reprised the role in the second National Tour. It was a dream to work with Sondheim and director Harold Prince.
Did you have mentors along the way?
Oh yes, my acting teachers Mark Hammer and Richard Bauer , who I performed with in Wolf Trap’s production of Kismet. They were teaching in the educational program at Arena Stage and I started studying acting with them.
My most recent mentor was actress June Havoc who played Mrs. Lovett in the second National Tour of Sweeney Todd in which I reprised the role of The Beadle. Most people know June Havoc as an actress and as the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee. However, she was a great director, playwright and coach. She taught me how to bring individuality and character to my work.
When did you start directing, what project drew your attention?
I studied directing at The College of William and Mary, and during that time I directed my friend Glenn Close in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Menotti’s The Medium. We’ve remained friends over the years.
I was hired for my first big professional directing job by Steven A. Glaudini who was then the executive director/producer of Performance Riverside to direct a production of Sweeney Todd. I had already directed the 1999 Reprise! production which starred Kelsey Grammar and Christine Baranski.
You're also a vocal coach. Is there one point you work at getting across with each of your students.
I was fortunate to have studied voice with Fredrick Wilkerson and he turned my whole vocal life around. He was one of the top vocal coaches of his time. "Your body is 89 percent water, something like that," he once told an interviewer, "and so are your bones, so you must think of your whole body as a sounding box. You must feel every syllable you say all the way down to your feet, all the way to your toes.” Wilkie taught the absolute necessity of developing a rock solid technique. He taught a combination of the French “masque” method of placement as well as elements of bel canto.
How did directing this production of Bach at Leipzig come about?
Larry Eisenberg, one of The Group Rep’s co-artistic directors saw my well-received production of Shuffle Along which I directed for the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival. We’ve kept in touch about plays I might choose to direct in the future and Bach at Leipzig this brilliant, madcap farce with sparkling dialogue written by Itamar Moses was on my list.
The play takes place in the 18th century, which I have a huge affinity for, having performed 18th century plays under the direction and guidance of Howard Scammon, the head of my college theatre program, who was a notable scholar on the subject. So, Bach at Leipzig was right up my alley. I had seen a production of it at the Odyssey Theatre in 2009 and knew I wanted to direct it someday.
Tell us a bit about the play?
The play takes place in 1722, at the Thomaskirche, the most renowned church in Leipzig, Germany. To fulfill a vacancy in their music department, the church elders held a music competition, a sort of “Organist Idol” if you will, to which came all the greatest organists in Germany. That’s true historically, and is the take- off point of the play. From there, Itamar Moses invents a combination farce and treatise on form that is hysterical and informative at the same time! A real feat!
Is there something you want the audience to experience having seen the production?
You will learn something and laugh a lot.
Is there anything about you or the production that you want us to know or wish we had asked?
Without giving it away, pay special attention to the opening of Act 2.
Bach at Leipzig written by Itamar Moses, directed by veteran director Calvin Remsberg, produced by Suzy London for The Group Rep runs March 18 through May 1, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. Q & A Talk-back Sundays are April 3 and April 17. General Admission: $25. Students/Seniors with ID: $20. Groups of 10+: $15. Buy tickets/information: www.thegrouprep.com or (818) 763-5990. Lonny Chapman Theatre is located at 10900 Burbank Blvd, North Hollywood.