Mama Mia! An Interview with Director Bill Berry

By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic Associate

I sat down with Bill Berry, Producing Artistic Director of The 5th Avenue Theatre, to discuss his process of directing a new version of Mamma Mia! Here’s what he said.

ALBERT EVANS: What’s new about this show?

BILL BERRY: Well, it’s not a new version of Mamma Mia! It’s a new production—new sets, new costumes. The physical world is going to look different, but it’s still the same script and music.

As an artist, and the leader of a team of artists, I’m not comfortable recreating other people’s work. I don’t think that’s appropriate.

Theater is a living art form. A painting or a sculpture is a product of a moment in time and is frozen. The works of Michelangelo will always be the same as when he created them. They may need to be cleaned or repaired from time to time but his vision never changes—although ours might. Theater must be responsive to the current world and the audience that is coming through the door. The audience that went to Mamma Mia! twenty years ago no longer exists. It may include some of the same people, but as a society we’ve moved on, in response to changes in our world and our outlook. Theater speaks to the world as it currently is.

AE: Thornton Wilder once said that theater is a public art form and to survive it must attract a large audience, the bigger the better. A single person can read a book or look at a painting. But an audience of one can’t support a stage production.

BB: Right. At The 5th, when we do a classic or an established title we always consider how it might play in today’s world. We’re not trying to be politically motivated—we’re just aware that theater is a conversation between the story on stage and the audience watching the show.

At the heart of Mamma Mia! is a story about lost love, about growing older, accepting who we are and making choices for the future.

Donna, a middle-aged woman, is still a sexually vital character. But she has isolated herself. She needs to rediscover her past in order to re-engage and live fully in the present. Her daughter, Sophie, has a different problem. She needs to know who she is, who her father is. This adds a compelling mystery thread to the plot and the audience is just as eager to know the solution as she is.

AE: The name Sophie comes from “sophia,” the Greek word for wisdom. That can’t have been a random choice.

BB: And Donna is Italian for “lady.” Sophie needs facts—Donna needs to embrace her power as a mid-life woman.

AE: Tell us more about the design process. How is The 5th ‘s production different?

BB: We started by asking how best to speak to a present-day Seattle audience. This is not in any way a judgment on the original production—it was beautiful, quite striking. But when you license a show for production, the original designs aren’t included in the package. They belong to the designers.

So instead of trying to do something “the same but different,” we start from scratch and collaborate with contemporary artists to bring a new, never-before-seen vision to our stage.

The set defines the physical world on stage, and can be an important part of the storytelling, along with the words and music. Design determines and enables the movement and rhythm of a piece, which helps us understand the story we’re watching.

AE: Tell us about the set designer.

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Rendering by Jason Sherwood

BB: We’re so lucky to have Jason Sherwood. Jason is a young designer who is quickly establishing himself as the guy to watch among the rising generation. Our audiences saw his very striking sets for Paint Your Wagon in the 2015/16 season.

In one of our first meetings we discussed how Mamma Mia! is structurally similar to a Shakespearian comedy. The characters find themselves outside the everyday world, in a never-never-land where they can experiment with identity in a playful way. In a Shakespeare play, that might be Illyria or the Forest of Arden. Mamma Mia! is set on a fictional Greek island where rules and norms are relaxed and a certain amount of anarchy prevails.

AE: Can you expand on that?

BB: Well, comedy—classical comedy—usually begins with stasis, an unchanging daily routine, then throws in destabilizing elements (like the three potential fathers in Mamma Mia!). And a classical comedy almost always ends in a wedding—which is not simply a “happy ever after” for the protagonists but a signal that the chaos and calamities of the world have been put right and community order is once again restored.

Mamma Mia! leads up to a community celebration, Sophie’s wedding, then adds a couple of modern twists. But the result is the same: healing, renewal and closure.

With that classical model in mind, Jason and I asked ourselves: If we were designing a Shakespeare comedy, would we be literal or conceptual? Conceptual, of course. There was no call to put an elaborately realized Greek island on stage. What’s important is that the island is remote, cut off from the mainland, away from civilization and its confining rules.

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Rendering by Jason Sherwood

I believe that what theater does best is allow audiences to fill in the blanks. We should engage their imaginations and leave room for their own experiences. Everyone will want to escape for a while to this magical place full of possibilities, but it’s not going to look like last year’s vacation photo.

AE: Mamma Mia! was created a quarter of a century ago, when most of the audience had experienced the ABBA era. How does it speak to younger folks who came of age later, who may not even know about ABBA?

BB: If Mamma Mia! depended exclusively on nostalgia for ABBA, it wouldn’t have been the enduring success that it has been. The songs are great and the creators found clever, often very cheeky ways to weave them into the story. And yes, those who remember the ABBA classics as pop hits are delighted to hear them in a dramatic context. But we have no control over that, really. Our job is to tell the story as engagingly as possible. And as we discussed, the bones of the plot go back to Shakespeare—even further, to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

As a director, I’m aware that I’m dealing with an iconic musical. A lot of people will have seen the show before, perhaps multiple times. Others may have seen the movie. People know what Mamma Mia! is. My obligation—the job of The 5th Avenue Theatre when presenting any well-known title—is twofold: to deliver the iconic moments people expect and also surprise and delight them with new ways of experiencing the piece.

It’s also a collaboration with the cast. If you hire strong actors, they’re going to bring their own point of view into the room and demand, as they should, to be part of the process. With their help, and that of the choreographer, the music director, all the designers and the entire theater team, I think we’ve created a spectacular Mamma Mia! for our Seattle audience, here and now.

AE: Any last thoughts?

BB: Yes. Can someone tell me how to get these songs out of my head so I can sleep again?

Inside Look: Scenic Design for Mamma Mia!

We are pleased and lucky to have Scenic Designer Jason Sherwood back with us for Mamma Mia! Jason previously designed Paint Your Wagon and Jasper in Deadland at The 5th. In this video, he talks about his vision for the set, as well as conversations he and Director Bill Berry had about creating a new design that was fresh and also honored the things people already loved about Mamma Mia!

Kelsey Thorgalsen is Directing ‘Anything Goes’ at the University of Washington

By Bridget Morgan, Senior PR & Communications Manager

Most members of Seattle’s musically inclined theater community know Kelsey Thorgalsen. Slight in stature with curly brown hair, her gaze is direct and her demeanor is honest and non-judgmental. This last point is a critical as far as most people are concerned as typically they encounter her in an audition on the other side of the casting table. Kelsey is the Casting Director at The 5th Avenue Theatre with an astonishing mental Rolodex® of musical theater talent, whether they be 5th Avenue Theatre regulars or up-and-coming stars performing in the black boxes and smaller houses around the Puget Sound.

Kelsey Thorgalsen credit Julia Kinnunen Photography
5th Avenue Theatre Casting Director Kelsey Thorgalsen. Photo by Julia Kinnunen Photography

But this month and next, she is stepping back for a spell, away from auditions and into rehearsals. Kelsey is the director of Anything Goes at the University of Washington. “In particular,” she said in a recent chat, “the production is for the undergrads in the musical theater department, but the auditions were open to the whole school, and we have got a lot of really talented people in the cast.”

While Kelsey is not directing this production in any official 5th Avenue Theatre capacity, the Theatre has enjoyed a long-standing symbiotic relationship with UW’s theater program, particularly under the leadership of the late Sarah Nash Gates (a former 5th Avenue Theatre board member and sometimes costume designer on our stage). Producing Artistic Director Bill Berry, Music Associate Albert Evans and Resident Music Supervisor Ian Eisendrath have all taught courses there over the years, and many graduates over the years have, in turn, trod the boards at The 5th.

Kelsey made new connections with the musical theater program (a sadly short-lived specialization offered by the theater department that will end in 2020) over the last few years. She worked closely with then-Program Chair Wilson Mendieta to arrange semi-professional opportunities for the students in the program, including the ability to participate in readings of new musicals—an opportunity that allowed them to work alongside professional actors and supporting the development of new musical theater. “After we launched that,” she said, “I came in two years ago to teach a one-day-only final audition class where I worked directly with their program seniors.” Mendieta has since moved to Los Angeles to chair the dance program at Chapman University, but prior to his departure suggested Kelsey to the faculty as a candidate to direct.

“Bill Berry has been very supportive,” she says of The 5th’s Producing Artistic Director. “We both recognize that it’s an opportunity for The 5th and the UW to deepen their relationship, and it’s an opportunity for me to get to know these students really well who are going to graduate and hopefully then become a part of our community of actors. I think there are about 25 musical theater students, and they are a very talented group of kids.”

“The show was easy to cast,” she adds. “They have a great group in the musical theater program. We also have non-musical theater majors, and even some non-theater majors, some engineering majors!” she says with pride. “Alia Thomaier, who was our Rosemary in Rising Star Project: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 2016 will be playing our Hope. She’s not a theater major, but she’s definitely one of our 5th Avenue Theatre kids.”

anything_goesShe’s excited to work on the show. “If you look at the world of Anything Goes, you know, it’s the middle of the Great Depression. These people are getting on this ship to escape for a little bit; they are escaping all of the financial woes, all of the political woes. I feel like right now in this time, everyone could use a bit of escape. And in the words of Albert Evans, this show is a ‘frolic.’ It’s a chance for people to go to the theater and have a good time and escape from everything going on in your world, just like the people in the show are doing.”

“Something else is that is exciting about this production,” she volunteers, “is that I get to work with M.F.A. grad students as the design teams. So I’ve spent a lot of time with them since July—mostly set and costume so far—and this is their thesis project. A lot of them have never worked on a musical before so it’s been a learning process for us both. It’s a huge show!”

Kelsey has had a few opportunities to sharpen her directing skills during her tenure at The 5th Avenue Theatre. “I assistant directed the Beautiful Poison reading with Chris Ashley for our New Works Program. I directed The Long Game reading as a part of NextFest last year—that’s an Andrew Russell/Rich Gray collaboration. I also assistant-directed A Chorus Line under David Bennett.”

Bennett, it turns out, is one of her mentors, as is Bill Berry. “I like that they seem to approach shows from opposite perspectives, but turn out similar end results where the humanity of a moment is valued over ‘performance.’ That’s the lesson that I am trying to take with me into Anything Goes—be simple, be honest, be human.”

If you’re interested in purchasing tickets for Anything Goes at UW, click here.

Meet the Cast of Mamma Mia: Donna, Tanya and Rosie

There is only one way to describe our brand new staging of Mamma Mia!: FUN! Rehearsals are underway and we cannot stop laughing—not to mention dancing to the unforgettable ABBA hits that make this show so irrepressible.

Donna Sheridan is a fiercely independent single mom watching her only daughter get married with her best friends, Tanya and Rosie at her side. Continue reading “Meet the Cast of Mamma Mia: Donna, Tanya and Rosie”

Just Believe and Receive It; Love will Perform It Today

On a Thursday afternoon, over 100 teens gathered in the theater of Kentridge High School. Sitting in clusters throughout the audience seats, they chatted amongst themselves, occasionally rowdy, occasionally subdued. A well-loved baby grand piano sat onstage with a few adults checking in with each other, reviewing documents, watching the time on watches and phones and keeping their eyes on the door as stragglers continued to enter.

KRHS and KMHS 02
Kentridge High School Drama Teacher Jennifer Grajewski with students from Kentridge and Kent Meridian High School. Photo credit Tracy Martin

The gathering of young people represented the full spectrum of the student body with emissaries from A.S.B. (Associated Student Body), G.S.A. (Gender and Sexuality Alliance), L.E.A.P. (Latino/a Educational Achievement Project), M.S.A. (Muslim Student Association), Men on the Move (for young men of color), Y.E.L.L. (Young Educated Ladies Leading for young women of color), and more in attendance. Adding to the excitement to the buzz in the room were students from Kent Meridian High School making their way in. This was a gathering of students participating in a rally in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in January—one of the first meetings where the kids were getting on their feet, leaving the brainstorming stages behind them. Continue reading “Just Believe and Receive It; Love will Perform It Today”

A Christmas Gift from Taryn Darr: Grandma Frances’ Wassail Recipe

Wassail
‘wäsəl,’ ‘wä-sāl’
verb

  1. To drink plentiful amounts of alcohol and enjoy oneself with others in a noisy, lively way.
  2. To go from house to house at Christmas singing carols. (“Here we go a-wassailing…”)

noun

  1. Spiced cider or ale or mulled wine and spices drunk during celebrations for Twelfth Night and Christmas Eve.

I grew up in Oregon and every Christmas, the family would gather from near and far to celebrate the holidays at my Grandma Frances’ home in Astoria where a big batch of her wassail recipe would be simmering away on the stove. It wasn’t Christmas until you walked into her house and that unbelievable smell of fruit and spices hit you.

Wassail Photo
This is a recipe that my great grandma made for Grandma Frances when she was a girl. Grandma Frances is a little older now and has passed the torch. Now my mom and my aunt make it for all of us. My mom even has the original recipe card—soft, tattered and well-loved! When I grew up and moved out and got my own place in Seattle, I remember calling her at Christmas and saying, “I need the wassail recipe” and now I have my own beat-up recipe card that I keep close all season long. Continue reading “A Christmas Gift from Taryn Darr: Grandma Frances’ Wassail Recipe”

Eric Ankrim on Holiday Inn

What was the first show you were in at The 5th?

The Rocky Horror Show, in the fall of 2003. I had just graduated from UPS that summer, and I went right into the ensemble of that insane production alongside Cheyenne Jackson, Louis Hobson, Laura Griffith, Billie Wildrick, Nick Garrison, Steven Taylor, Brandon O’Neil, Daniel Cruz, and SO many others who became local and national stars, and made friendships that have lasted to this day. What an introduction to the 5th! Continue reading “Eric Ankrim on Holiday Inn”

Buyer Beware: It’s Scalper Season

How to guarantee you are getting the best prices when you buy tickets for a family outing this holiday season

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: twinkly lights are on the trees, your favorite peppermint and eggnog beverages are on sale at all the coffee shops, family and friends are coming to visit and there is a multitude of festive events to choose from to put you all in the spirit. It’s always exciting to plan a trip to downtown Seattle with the family—an afternoon of shopping, a ride on the Westlake carousel, a fancy dinner at one of the stellar area restaurants, and tickets to a spectacular show like Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn at The 5th Avenue Theatre.

This is also an exciting time for ticket re-sellers to prey on families trying to plan special occasions just like this. These brokers (also called scalpers) buy tickets to entertainment events all around the city and then sell them to unsuspecting consumers at more than 100% markup. This practice is legal in the state of Washington, but can be very hard on the wallet!

Here are some tips to make sure you are getting the best deal on tickets to shows like Holiday Inn this winter! Continue reading “Buyer Beware: It’s Scalper Season”

A Letter from David Armstrong

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

It is with very mixed emotions that I announce that I have decided to step down from my position as the Executive Producer and Artistic Director of The 5th Avenue Theatre at the end of the 2017/2018 season.  After nearly 18 amazing years leading this organization, I have decided it is time to let go of the day-to-day burdens and responsibilities of running a large theater company so that I can focus more effectively on my creative work as a director and a writer. I will be transitioning to the new position of Artistic Director Emeritus and for at least the next three seasons I will continue to be employed by The 5th as a consultant, advisor, and frequent director.

The time that I have devoted to this theater company has truly been the highlight of my nearly 40 years of working in the American theater, and no other job has been nearly as meaningful or rewarding.  I could not be more proud of what I have accomplished during my time at The 5th, first as Producing Artistic Director, working in partnership with Marilyn Sheldonn; and then in my current role in collaboration with Bernie Griffin and Bill Berry. Continue reading “A Letter from David Armstrong”

The Golden Door

By Albert Evans, Artistic Associate

In 1949, Irving Berlin added a new song to his soon-to-open Broadway musical, Miss Liberty, a fictional account of the sculpting of the Statue of Liberty.

Instead of writing his own lyric, Berlin borrowed lines from “The New Colossus,” a sonnet by Emma Lazarus engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted on the statue’s pedestal.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These words held a special meaning for Berlin. In 1893, when he was five years old, his family fled Tsarist Russia—along with the many thousands of other “homeless, tempest-tost” refugees driven from their homes by brutal anti-Jewish pogroms.

Berlin’s last memory of Russia was watching his house burn down while his mother held him and wept. His first memory of America was seeing the Statue of Liberty, her torch lifted to welcome him and his family as their crowded boat arrived in New York Harbor. Continue reading “The Golden Door”