Billie Wildrick has been gracing Seattle stages with her irrepressible spirit and her dazzling vocal chops for years. She is also quickly becoming one of Seattle’s most sought-after musical theater directors and makes her 5th Avenue Theatre directorial debut at the helm of this season’s holiday sensation, Annie. We recently caught up with Billie to learn more about her values as a director and her insight into the story.
What is your personal experience with Annie? (Were you ever in it? Did you grow up with the movie? Have you ever directed it before?)
I auditioned for Annie in a mall in Michigan when I was maybe 9 years old? I was never in contention for Annie herself as my voice teacher didn’t believe in belting… I brought her tapes of my idol, Barbara Streisand to emulate, and she literally destroyed them. Haha. But my audition song, “Hurry It’s Lovely Up Here” from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (still a dream role of mine) must have been ok, because I booked it – alongside (fun fact!) the now Broadway famous Celia Kennan Bolger who I think played July…? Also, I dressed up like Bert Healy, made my friends dress up as the Boylan Sisters, and sang You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile for my 4th-grade talent show
What do you think makes Annie such a timeless and beloved story? How do you as a director approach such a well-known property artistically?
I think what Annie really needs and deserves every time is devoted rediscovery. The world is changing so very rapidly these days, our eyes are new from simply waking up and absorbing the world every day. If we can forget our rhythmic memorization of the material and discover the words as they come in the text and songs, I think we feel the timeless themes and lessons ring true in today’s world:
- Annie learning that tomorrow can become today when you’re not looking.
- How we can find love and create family, in people that seem so different from us on the outside, just by taking the time to listen to their souls and to our own hearts.
- Warbucks learning there are things that money can’t buy and that he can still grow and find more to life if he listens and connects.
- FDR listening to a young person’s seemingly simplistic cry of hope and positivity, and synthesizing it into change for the country on a massive scale.
- How to look to the future and live in the present.
We’ve had such thrilling feedback about the announced casting for this show. What excites you about this cast?
This cast is very special. To a soul, they bring incredible emotion, humanity, and generosity to the table. Each heart is a force. Timothy Piggee is a dream Daddy Warbucks in gravity, authority, and shockingly palpable warmth that you can feel from the back row. Cynthia Jones is a force of nature and a comedic genius with the kind of glowing humanity that keeps a villain interesting and even heart-breaking.
Additional casting, including our Annies, will be announced soon, and I couldn’t be more thrilled! I’m one lucky director. When I matched our kiddos up in auditions and heard them sing together as a group for the first time, the chemistry and raw talent gave me both tears and tingles.
In addition, representation was very important to me in casting. So many young people come to Annie – for many of them, it’s their first show. We actively sought diversity in our cast because it’s very important to me that all the kiddos can see bodies as well as souls that are like theirs on the stage. I want them all to leave the theatre thinking all things are possible for them in life regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, socio-economic background etc…
This production is a bit special in that there is an all-female creative team (director, choreographer, music director). Is that exciting to you? Do you think that all-female energy brings anything special to this production?
First and foremost, I’m thrilled to be surrounded by such talented, experienced and collaborative professionals. Kelli Foster-Warder (Choreographer), Nikki Long (Associate Choreographer), Caryl Fantel (Music Director), Julia Thornton (Associate Music Director), Hattie Andres (Associate Director), ML Geiger (Lighting Design), Joanna Staub (Sound Design), Haley Parcher (Assistant Sound Designer), Rose Pederson (Costume Coordinator), Shannin Strom-Henry (Costume and Wardrobe Director), Mary Jones (Hair and Makeup Design) and Joan Toggenburger (Director of Production) are all top-of-their-game pros and I’m lucky they have my back.
In terms of representation and my hope that all the kiddos who come to the theatre can see possibilities for themselves, it’s very important to me that those identifying as female – both caucasian and of color – see themselves in creative leadership roles. There have been many studies in the last few years, conducted by a variety of groups including The League of Professional Theatre Women, that show a depressing disparity between the percentage of women who make up a theatre audience (roughly 68%) and the number of women represented on creative teams, in theatre leadership, as produced playwrights, and even onstage (these numbers generally range between 7%-36%) I’m so excited by the steps The 5th Avenue is taking to balance representation in theatrical story-telling including the hiring of 3 women to direct this season and First Draft: Raise Your Voice, designed to introduce and nurture new musical theatre writers from traditionally marginalized populations.
In terms of this particular show, Annie is a story about an extraordinarily strong and self-possessed little girl who’s not afraid to speak her mind. I’m guessing that our whole creative team has a first-hand understanding of what living that truth is like. Because of this experience, what we will all seek to put on the stage is the truth of Annie’s experience and not just what it might look like from the outside. Nothing cute for cute’s sake. This is so important to our theatre tradition and our story-telling and unfortunately it’s something we can miss in our discourse about representation. Is it possible for an artist to understand and represent someone they don’t share 100% experience with? Yes. If we’re humble and we listen. However, under-represented (and unrepresented communities) have every right to cry out when they’ve been repeatedly misrepresented by people who don’t understand or seek to understand the nuances of their experience. That practice quickly becomes exploitation and to me, it’s absolutely unacceptable and irresponsible.