kirstin howell & ann doyle
Last Spring I attended a production of Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s musical [title of show] produced by TheatreSpeak, a new company dedicated to producing musical theatre shows featuring Halifax-based theatre artists. The production was chosen as one of two to be presented this week by Off the Leash during the run of Jeremy Webb’s newest play, Fishing, at the Neptune Studio Theatre. I sat down with the two female leads of [title of show], Ann Doyle, who plays Susan, and Kirstin Howell, who plays Heidi, to chat about the remount and musical theatre in Halifax.
Amanda Campbell: The first question I usually ask people is in three parts: Who are you, where are you from and how did you get so talented?
Ann Doyle: My name is Ann Doyle and I’m from Gander, Newfoundland. I love singing. I love acting. I went to Dalhousie University and was in the Acting Program there.
Kirstin Howell: I was born in California, but I’m from here. I was really lucky to grow up having Mary Lou Martin teaching me as a teenager. She directed our shows in High School and then I went to Sheridan College. Actually, Ann and I met at Dal because I was there for one year, in first year, before I moved away. Were we in the same acting class?
AD: No. I think we were both in Roberta Barker’s Theatre 1000, Theatre Studies, class together. That’s where we met and we started hanging out together a group of us. We were all sad to see you go. And then we teamed up again when we were both in Berlin to Broadway at Chester Playhouse.
KH: Which was also directed by Mary Lou Martin, who also, incidentally, is the choreographer of [title of show].
AC: That was a Kurt Weill show, right?
KH: Yes. Sort of a Kurt Weill musical revue. We had a great cast: Rejean Cournoyer, Martha Irving, Cliff LeJeune…
AC: I don’t know why I didn’t see it. I feel like I must have been in Toronto. Sounds amazing. So, you performed together in Chester in Weill, did you work together again before the initial production of [title of show]?
KH & AD: No.
AC: So, you are reunited! How much did you know about [title of show] before you began rehearsals for the show last year?
AD: My introduction to the show was [TheatreSpeak’s Artistic Producer] Kyle [Gillis] telling me about it! I hadn’t heard of it before and then I listened to a few songs after he sort of pitched the project to me and I just immediately loved it because it is so funny. It’s one of those shows that the more you listen to it the more you love it because it becomes funnier the more you hear it. It is basically filled with all these sort of inside jokes for people in the theatre community and each time I listened to it, I discovered even more of them.
AC: The show is written as a sort of “love letter to the Broadway musical,” and definitely appeals to a specific audience of theatregoers, is that a challenge when trying to market the show to people who may not know a lot about musical theatre and may be worried about not being ‘in’ on the joke?
KH: I don’t think it matters if you know about musical theatre because it’s such good storytelling and the stories and characters are the essence of it. Also, the references are often ones that pretty much anyone with even a vague sense of the theatre would get, and the ones that are really obscure, that is part of the joke, the characters are making fun of the fact that they are making reference to these obscure shows very few people have heard of. I didn’t know some of the references before we started work on the show.
AD: I had to look a bunch of stuff up to.
AC: It’s sort of like The Big Bang Theory, in a way. You can watch [title of show] and enjoy how quirky and strange and hilarious the characters are even if you don’t understand the physics behind the jokes. The humour sort of works on both levels, for those who are ‘in the know’ and those who aren’t, but the experience is enjoyable for them both.
KH: Exactly. My dad, whose favourite show is The Big Bang Theory, he is one of those people who gets all the science references and that heightens his enjoyment, I think.
AD: But I watch it and laugh just because it’s so funny. It is like [title of show], the writing is just so good and the physical comedy elements make you laugh regardless.
AC: There’s a great song in the show called “A Way Back to Then” that talks about being a little girl dreaming of being on Broadway. Did you always know that you wanted to perform?
KH: I really relate to that song because I was that little girl in the tutu dancing around the backyard and singing. I was always performing plays and acting things out and that sort of thing but I don’t know if I ever thought, “This is what I want to do for a career.” I know from the time I was about seven I wanted to be on TV. I wanted to be a movie star. That was always my real dream, but I didn’t tell anyone because I was embarrassed about it. It didn’t seem like something that was possible. So, I went into theatre because I thought that would help me get to what I really wanted… and that’s sort of how I ended up here.
AC: It does seem so out of reach, I think, when you grow up in Halifax. Hollywood feels so far away. It’s HARD to become a movie star!
KH: It is hard! But, now I’m doing it! Now I’m in a place where I can do TV and film as well. So, it WAS possible! But at nine it just seemed so farfetched to me, so I didn’t want to tell anyone about it.
AD: When I was six or seven I went to see a play with my mom and at intermission I leaned over to her and whispered, “I want to do that!” But I was never really exclusively focused on it. I think it was always something that was there underneath everything else, but I went through lots of career phases as a kid. I flitted around from one idea to another. I wanted to be firefighter at one point. But, yeah, I think acting was always there in the back of my mind.
KH: I DID want to be a paleontologist for about two years. Until I found out that you needed to be good at math.
AC: It’s funny when you get to that point in your life when you realize that things that had seemed so simple are actually far more complicated. As a kid you don’t see the connection between hunting for dinosaur bones with math. I was the same way with wanting to be a doctor. I thought spending my time giving checkups to cute kids would be a cinch until I was like, “What!? Chemistry!?” … So, you guys sing an awesome power duet in [title of show] that is really hilarious to watch and your characters have a fun and really strong dynamic with one another. Did that develop throughout the rehearsal process or did you already have that established from being at Chester?
AD: I think it was a pretty natural dynamic we had.
KH: Yeah, because Ann is such a great comedic actress-
AD: And Kirstin is such a great comedic actress-
KH: And we really are playing versions of ourselves. Well, we are affected and heightened versions of Ann and Kirstin, so it’s just sort of great fun to play together and to be silly together. Actually, Mary Lou has said before that we are actually quite similar as performers.
AD: Yeah, I think we are.
AC: Which is really interesting because I would say that the original performers, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, are quite different from one another and I think that a lot of the original show was constructed around the conflict that came from their differences colliding. Whereas in this version it may be your similarity that creates that same kind of tension.
AD: Yeah, there is definitely a feeling of competition between Heidi and Susan. There’s that great line in the show, “I’m not used to not being the funniest girl in the room.”
AC: Right. Yes, they’re both sort of afraid that they’ll be written out or replaced by the other one, which actually almost works better with two actors who are of a similar ‘type.’ Is it weird playing characters who are based on real people… especially real people who aren’t historical figures?
KH: No. I haven’t really approached it any differently. I haven’t listened to the recording; I haven’t watched any videos on YouTube. I try to stay as far away from the real Heidi, or anyone else’s version of Heidi as I can get because I feel like if I do watch something, it will influence my choices and I would rather be free to have my own interpretation rather than playing her the way someone else already has. There is something so great about being in a rehearsal hall and just seeing what sort of things will come out of your interactions with the other people in the room. I think I have seen one picture of Heidi once… and she doesn’t look anything like me! Andrew [Chandler], who played Jeff in our production in the Spring cannot do the show because of personal reasons, and so the wonderful Anders Balderston is playing his part in the remount and he is finding all these new things in the script because his interpretation of the character is so different from Andrew’s.
AD: They are both so great!
KH: They are both great, but so different! And it changes the whole show. We are finding new moments now with Anders that are really interesting and there’s new dynamics between the characters and certain lines take on a meaning that they didn’t really have before.
AD: I am definitely laughing at things now in rehearsal that I haven’t laughed at for a long time.
AC: Do you have a favourite song or a favourite moment from the show?
AD: I am constantly saying, “This is my favourite song in the show!” but I say it about a different song, constantly changing my mind, every day.
KH: I think “Die, Vampire, Die” is my favourite, just because it is something that everyone can relate to. Everyone feels insecure from time to time. We all have self doubt.
AD: It’s a song about how we all talk ourselves down, all that negative self talk that keeps you from pursuing your dreams. So many people can relate to that, not just artists, a lot of people know what it’s like to have a dream and then to find yourself going down a more practical path later on. “Die, Vampire, Die” suggests that we can all accomplish so much if we just believe in ourselves.
KH: We talk ourselves out of being brave all the time and I think that the idea of having something tangible to physically embody that fear, the “vampire” from the song, the idea that we can kill the insecurity inside us is so great. Also I love any time that the four of us sing all together. It’s amazing.
AC: Yeah, there’s some great four part harmonies in this show! [title of show] was written (in part) to prove that musical theatre doesn’t have to be big, expensive and flashy to be effective, but I still feel like a lot of people have the connotation that that is all musical theatre can be. Would you like to speak to the advantages of doing a musical with just “four chairs and a keyboard?”
KH: I think musical theatre can be any size or shape and that as long as it is good it will resonate with an audience.
AD: It is all about good storytelling.
KH: Yes. I think some people think that musicals have to be big, with these huge sets and this grand orchestra and all these massive special effects. I’m not saying there is anything bad about those types of shows. But, it’s not necessary. It depends on the type of show that you’re producing. I wouldn’t want to see a production of The Producers without a set, for example, because I think the set is part of the joke of that show. But that is not all that musical theatre can be. I often liken this show to stand up comedy. It is a lot like really well written stand up, and I don’t need to be wearing a ball gown for it to be funny.
AD: Also, the smaller the musical is often the more there is for the actor to do because they can’t hide behind all the glitz and the effects.
AC: And with a more intimate theatre space the audience is closer to you as well.
AC: TheatreSpeak is a relatively new company and I know that producing musical theatre shows with local casts is part of its mandate, which I think is wonderful. What would your ideal musical theatre scene in Halifax look like?
KH: If I could wave a wand I would like to see the artists from ten or more of the really small independent theatre companies in Halifax come together to do a show. I think if people pooled their resources they would have a bigger budget to work with, they would have a larger pool of actors to work with, and then the shows could be really, really, great.
AD: I would like to see more musical theatre. Even if I’m not in it. But I would like to be in it.
KH: I feel like Halifax would need another theatre venue if there was more musical theatre. We are so lucky with [title of show] because The [Neptune Scotiabank] Studio Theatre was generously given to us by Jeremy Webb and normally small companies like TheatreSpeak can’t afford to use it and it really is ideal for our purposes because it is a beautiful theatre that people love going to because it’s in the middle of the city and it’s easy to get to. That is a problem a lot of the independent theatres have and I don’t know what the solution is.
AC: There’s this amazing theatre in Edmonton called the Varscona which is a cooperatively run theatre which houses five different companies: Shadow Theatre, Teatro la Quindicina, Die-Nasty: The Live Improvised Soap Opera, Oh Susanna, and The VIP Kids Show. It’s also a major Fringe venue. The five companies share the space and share the season, so Teatro la Quindicina, for example, is in there from May to October. Die-Nasty plays on Monday nights. Oh Susanna plays once a month on a Saturday. So, there is always something happening there between the five companies, but, like you said, Kirstin, the resources of the five companies are pooled together to keep the building as one of the hubs of the Edmontonian theatre. If I could, I would buy a theatre space in downtown Halifax and I would try to operate it in a similar way here so it was shared among a multitude of different companies who would share a 12 month long season.
KH: That’s amazing. Yeah. How could we do that? That would be amazing.
AC: The thing about Edmonton is that a lot of their theatres are old converted barns. That’s what wrong with Halifax. Not enough barns.
KH: You have to be inventive with venues for sure! But look at Shakespeare By the Sea- they basically use an old abandoned battery. And people come!
AC: I was there this past summer and it was packed. People love Shakespeare By the Sea.
KH: Because it’s so affordable.
AC: Yes. I definitely think that theatres need to think in terms of what would happen if we slashed our prices and doubled or tripled our audience.
AD: It is a balance. Especially if you want to pay your actors.
AC: Absolutely. Paying your actors is important! Is there anything else that you would like to say about [title of show]?
KH: Come see our show! Everyone. Ann and I kiss. … I had forgotten all about it until we started rehearsing and then I was like, “OH YEAH! THERE IS REAL GIRL/GIRL KISSING!”
AD: I hope that everyone who didn’t get to come see the show the first time comes out. We only have two shows, so don’t all wait until the second day!!
KH: Come even if you saw the show the first time. It is completely different with Anders.
AD: And we’re in a different venue!
KH: Everyone should come. EVERYONE.
Come one, Come all. TheatreSpeak’s [title of show] in association with Off The Leash, plays at the Neptune Scotiabank Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) Thursday Feburary 15th and Friday February 16th at 9:00pm. Tickets are being sold through the Neptune Theatre Box Office either by phone (902.429.7070), online or in person at the box office at 1593 Argyle Street). Tickets are $20.00 (adults), $15.00 (Students, Seniors, Arts Workers) and adults purchasing tickets to both [title of show] and Once Upon a Theatre Collective’s According to Plan, will receive a discount of $5.00 off each ticket**(offer not available online – call Neptune Theatre 902.429.7070 or visit in person at the box office)** For more information please visit this website.
Andrew Chandler, who played Jeff in the original TheatreSpeak Production and who is a beloved member of the Halifax theatre community, had to bow out of the remount unexpectedly when his brother, Martin, was in a very serious car accident in California a few weeks ago. Friends of Martin and Andrew set up this PayPal website where people could donate to helping the Chandlers with medical costs as well as travel and accommodation. Thankfully Martin is back home now and seems to be well on the road to recovery. If you would like to make a donation to this very worthy cause, please follow this link.